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The War in Ukraine Is Not a Stalemate

Last Year’s Counteroffensive Failed—but the West Can Prevent a Russian Victory This Year By Jack Watling Since the failure of offensives in 2023 by both Ukraine and Russia, a narrative is coalescing that the war in Ukraine has reached a stalemate. The perception of an indefinite but static conflict is causing a sense of fatigue in the capitals of Ukraine’s partners: if neither side is likely to make substantial progress, the status quo appears stable, demanding little urgent policy attention. This perception of stalemate, however, is deeply flawed. Both Moscow and Kyiv are in a race to rebuild offensive combat power. In a conflict of this scale, that process will take time. While the first half of 2024 may bring few changes in control of Ukrainian territory, the materiel, personnel training, and casualties that each side accrues in the next few months will determine the long-term trajectory of the conflict. The West in fact faces a crucial choice right now: support Ukraine so that its leaders can defend their territory and prepare for a 2025 offensive or cede an irrecoverable advantage to Russia. Uncertainty about the long-term provision of aid to Ukraine risks not only giving Russia advantages on the battlefield but also emboldening Moscow further. It has already undermined the goal to push Russia to the negotiating table because the Kremlin now believes it can outlast the West’s will. Unless clear commitments are made in early 2024, the Kremlin’s resolve will only harden. What the United States and Europe do over the next six months will determine one of two futures. In one, Ukraine can build up its forces to renew offensive operations and degrade Russian military strength to the degree that Kyiv can enter negotiations with the leverage to impose a lasting peace. In the other, a shortage of supplies and trained personnel will mire Ukraine in an attritional struggle that will leave it exhausted and facing eventual subjugation. Ukraine’s international partners must remember that the first outcome is desirable not only to Ukrainians. It is necessary to protect the international norm that states do not change their borders by force. A mobilized and emboldened Russia would pose a sustained threat to NATO, requiring the United States to indefinitely underwrite deterrence in Europe. That would constrain the United States’ capacity to project force in the Indo-Pacific and substantially increase the danger of conflict over Taiwan. The West can choose which direction history takes. But first it must acknowledge the gravity of the decision it currently faces. TIME DEFICIT If the Ukrainian military’s 2023 offensive had gone according to plan, its forces would have punched through Russia’s so-called Surovikin Line in Zaporizhzhia Province and liberated Melitopol, severing the roads connecting Russia to Crimea. Combined with Ukrainian naval operations, that would have put Crimea under siege. This objective was ambitious but achievable. The foremost reason it failed was that the Ukrainian units assigned to lead the offensive had insufficient time to train and prepare. In July 2022, the United Kingdom, alongside other Ukrainian partners, established Operation Interflex to train Ukrainian troops. At the time, Ukraine desperately needed more units to hold defensive positions, so Interflex set the training program at five weeks, prioritizing skills vital to defensive operations. That five-week regimen still exists, but the mission has fundamentally changed. During World War II, the British military considered 22 weeks the minimum time necessary to prepare a soldier for infantry combat. After this initial period, soldiers would be assigned to units and take part in collective training in battalions. Even before May 2023, it was evident that Ukraine’s troops were undertrained for offensive operations and had barely had time to learn how to operate newly donated equipment. But as Russian forces strengthened their defensive positions, the offensive could not be delayed. The foremost reason Ukraine’s counteroffensive failed was that its forces had too little time to train. Ukrainian personnel also had too little opportunity to train collectively. The number of troops deployed is not the only thing that matters in war: the potency of an army’s manpower is a function of how well small units coordinate, even while dispersed across a broad area. Ukraine’s geography demands especially skilled coordination because tree lines prevent units from being able to see one another. The threat of artillery further drives dispersion, so that companies are often spread over nearly two miles of front. The terrain in Zaporizhzhia particularly encourages commanders to fight with isolated companies. In this geographic context, a capacity to synchronize activity beyond each unit’s line of sight is needed so units can support one another and exploit each other’s gains. Collective training in the Ukrainian military has rarely taken place above the company level, however, and the need to staff new units has also left most short of experienced officers. Over the course of the war, the number of active Ukrainian troops has quintupled with no significant rise in the number of trained staff officers. In a theater that requires Ukrainian officers to synchronize widely dispersed maneuvers with artillery fire, drone orbits, and the effects of electronic warfare, a shortage of field-grade officers means an inability to stitch together large-scale operations. During the 2023 offensive, Ukrainian operations were largely fought by pairs of companies under the close management of an understaffed brigade command post. The result was that while Ukrainian soldiers often succeeded in taking enemy positions, they were rarely able to exploit the breaches they made or to quickly reinforce their gains. Instead, they had to stop and plan, giving Russian forces time to reset. If the Ukrainian military cannot expand the scale at which it operates, this experience risks being repeated. Delivering the proper training, however, will need time. WHEN THE BEST DEFENSE IS A GOOD OFFENSE Reforms in Ukrainian troops’ training are necessary for more effective offensive operations. But better training would not diminish Kyiv’s need for materiel. The Ukrainian military is likely to face significant equipment shortages over the coming year: at the height of its 2023 offensive, Ukraine was firing up to 7,000 artillery rounds per day, accounting for up to 80 percent of Russia’s combat losses. By the end of 2023, however, Ukrainian forces were firing closer to 2,000 rounds per day. Russia’s artillery capacity, meanwhile, has turned a corner, with Russian forces now firing up around 10,000 rounds per day. Unless Ukraine can again create localized conditions of artillery superiority, any new offensive operations will result in unsustainable losses of Ukrainian troops. Indeed, without achieving such areas of localized artillery superiority, Ukraine will struggle to blunt Russian attacks. Russia currently fields about 340,000 troops in southern Ukraine. For much of the war, those troops’ offensive potential was limited by logistical constraints. But Russia was also hobbled by the high level of casualties inflicted by Ukraine—up to 1,000 dead and wounded per day during the heaviest periods of fighting. Incurring so many casualties forced Russia to send undertrained personnel to the frontline. While that did not stop Moscow from attempting offensive maneuvers, it limited their effectiveness. The challenge for Ukraine is that even while it maintains a defensive posture, it must continue to mount localized offensives. If Russia sustains fewer losses, the capabilities of its forces in the field will improve. Diminishing pressure on the frontlines would offer Russia other advantages, too. Moscow would be able to divert experienced troops to train recruits, potentially allowing it to open new offensive axes in the second half of 2024. Russian forces could also concentrate on sectors where they can establish a more favorable battlefield geometry and inflict heavier losses on Ukraine. If Ukraine leaves large sections of the front quiet, Russian forces may also be able to significantly expand their fortifications, making any future Ukrainian offensive operations harder to carry out. Even while it holds a defensive posture, the Ukrainian military must seek to maximize Russia’s rate of attrition. WHICH COMES FIRST? It is essential that Kyiv and its partners establish a realistic shared understanding of what materiel and training can be provided, and when. Over the past two years, Kyiv’s Western allies wasted the time advantages they did have, squandering much of 2022 and 2023 basking in the euphoria of Russia’s early setbacks and imagining that they could avoid a protracted conflict. Rather than seeking to expand industrial capacity in NATO member states, Kyiv’s friends mainly sourced munitions from national stockpiles and the international market and channeled them to Ukraine. Now these stockpiles of munitions are running low. To continue to achieve localized artillery superiority, Ukraine will need about 2.4 million rounds of ammunition per year. But Ukraine’s international partners, including the United States, will struggle to provide half that in 2024. Ukraine’s shortage of artillery shells gets the most attention. But its resource limitations are by no means confined to ammunition. To regenerate offensive capacity and defend itself against Russian attacks, Ukraine will need approximately 1,800 replacement artillery barrels per year. The handful of barrel machines in Europe cannot meet this demand. The numerous fleets of vehicles gifted to Kyiv over the past two years also need a reliable supply of spare parts. Air defense interceptors will be a persistent requirement, too: Russia is now producing over 100 cruise and ballistic missiles and 300 attack drones per month. To contain the damage from these weapons, Ukraine will need resupplies of Western air-defense systems. If Western countries do not increase their capacity to produce these systems, Russia will gain the upper hand. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, fearing that U.S. support will end with the upcoming American presidential election, has declared that all Ukrainian territory occupied by Russia must be liberated by October 2024. This is not achievable, given the materiel available to Ukraine or the time that its military needs to properly train its troops. But it is not reasonable for Kyiv’s Western allies to demand that Ukraine’s generals create a detailed longer-term plan before they commit to offering new support. Without being sure of what equipment they can rely on receiving, Ukraine’s military leaders cannot determine what kind of operations they can mount, and when. In short, preparing for the next phase of the war has become a chicken-and-egg problem between Kyiv and Washington. VALUE FOR MONEY A realistic plan would involve resourcing Kyiv to maintain a defensive posture throughout most of 2024 while units are trained and equipped to mount offensive operations in 2025. Beyond the certainty this plan would offer Ukraine’s generals, it would also signal to the Kremlin that it cannot count on winning a years-long war of attrition against an increasingly thinly resourced Ukraine. A U.S. commitment to supporting Ukraine through 2024 would also shift European allies’ incentives toward investing more deeply in increasing the capacity of their weapons industries, reducing the burden on the United States through 2025. Western leaders must emphasize that longer-term investment in manufacturing capacity is both affordable and ultimately benefits Ukraine’s allies. The total defense budgets of the 54 countries supporting Ukraine well exceed $100 billion per month. By contrast, current support for Ukraine costs those states less than $6 billion monthly. The biggest barriers to ensuring that Ukraine does not lose the war are political. Funding Ukraine has often been framed as merely giving money to Kyiv. This is, however, deeply misleading. Much of the aid that Ukraine will need constitutes an investment by its partners in their own domestic defense manufacturing and will be spent at home. A significant proportion of aid to Ukraine will eventually be recovered by the recipient in taxes while boosting manufacturing jobs across NATO’s member countries. At a time of economic strain, such investment should be widely welcomed by publics in countries supporting Kyiv. It has also often been suggested that U.S. support for Ukraine comes at the expense of the American military’s readiness to deter China. But if China sees that the United States is unable to sustain a military effort, whether in Europe or Asia, deterrence is eroded, so expanding manufacturing to meet Ukraine’s needs is vital. The United States has a treaty obligation to come to the defense of its European allies. Europe’s defense production does not match Russia’s, especially as Russia has moved to a war footing. In time, U.S. leaders must push Europe to reduce its dependence on the United States so that the U.S. military can prioritize deterrence in the Indo-Pacific. But this must be a managed transition. If that transition comes at the cost of Ukraine’s defeat, the United States risks having to support a Europe unable to defend its eastern flank while China simultaneously escalates tensions in the Taiwan Strait. DECISION POINT Some leaders in Western capitals now argue that it is time to negotiate an end to the war in Ukraine. This line of thinking, however, misses both the extent of Russia’s goals and what the Kremlin would realistically offer. Moscow is not interested in simply seizing some Ukrainian territory: Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly stated that he wants to change the logic of the international system. If the United States asks its partners to make concessions to Russia to obtain a token cease-fire, two things will likely happen. First, Russia will persistently breach the cease-fire, as it did with all iterations of the 2015 Minsk agreements, while rebuilding its military to finish the task of occupying Kyiv. Second, Russia will argue to its allies that the United States can be beaten through perseverance. This will likely lead many U.S. security partners to seek an insurance policy, reducing the United States’ influence around the world. Russia does not want a direct conflict with NATO, but the Kremlin is increasingly looking to expand the scope of its indirect confrontations with the West. Since Yevgeny Prigozhin halted his June 2023 mutiny, Russia has only doubled down on its ambition to compete with the West globally. In fact, Prigozhin’s failed rebellion may have advanced these ambitions: the remnants of his force have now been reorganized into an “expeditionary corps” under the direct control of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. Since the summer of 2023, Russia has been engaging extensively with governments in western and central Africa, promising them military support in exchange for the expulsion of Western forces and economic interests. The United States and its European allies face a choice. They can either make an immediate plan to bolster the training they provide to the Ukrainian military, clarify to their publics and to Ukraine that the October 2024 deadline to liberate territory must be extended, and underwrite Ukraine’s materiel needs through 2025, or they can continue to falsely believe the war is in a stalemate, dithering and ceding the advantage to Russia. This would be a terrible mistake: in addition to expanding its partnerships in Africa, Russia is strengthening its collaboration with China, Iran, and North Korea. And if a loss in Ukraine ends up demonstrating that the West cannot meet a single challenge to the world’s security architecture, its adversaries will hardly believe it can deal with multiple crises at once. JACK WATLING is Senior Research Fellow for Land Warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank. ©2024 Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.