Ukraine-Russia war: As its counteroffensive stalls, Ukraine signals readiness for long war

Ukraine unable to break through dense Russian minefields with no prospect of advancement as weather turns

Ukraine’s counteroffensive has stalled, with progress on the two principal axes on the southern front modest since it began on June 4th. Kyiv’s forces have advanced about 10km south of Velyka Novosilka and 9km south of Orikhiv and there appears no prospect of a breakthrough as the weather turns.

Last week, the reality was acknowledged by Gen Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander-in-chief of Kyiv’s military. “Just like in the first world war, we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate,” he said in an interview with the Economist, while in a related essay he said that the war, after nearly 21 months of fighting, “is gradually moving to a positional form”.

Ukraine has been unable to break through dense Russian minefields, now laid to a depth of 15 to 20km, Mr Zaluzhnyi said. The Zemledeliye remote truck mine laying system can lay down football fields of mines far faster than dismounted Ukrainian sappers can remove them, and the fear is that with more time Russia can develop a system of deep trenches beyond its existing fortified positions.

“We all hoped we would make more progress than we have,” said Yurk Sak, a former adviser to Ukraine’s defence ministry. “By now we were hoping we would be in control of Tokmak,” a strategic town on the road to Melitopol, which still lies 20km south of the furthest Ukrainian advance. Breaking Russia’s land bridge at Melitopol would require an advance another 70km southwest.


Some blame western politicians for taking so long to supply tanks, long-range missiles and F-16 fighters to Ukraine. “We gave Russians so much time to put in their defences,” says Ben Hodges, a former commanding general of the US army in Europe, who warns that hesitancy remains a problem after Boris Pistorius, Germany’s defence minister, said this week that Berlin had no firm plans to supply Ukraine with its Taurus long-range missiles.

Mr Zaluzhnyi’s argument, however, is not intended as a counsel of despair but rather a call for innovation. The answer, he argues, is “new technological solutions and innovative approaches” and he cites a complex list of interlocking weapons systems required to try to achieve an elusive breakthrough on land – and an increase in the wider industrial base to sustain a long war.

These are logical points, but the situation on the frontline is more dynamic than talk of a stalemate implies. Russia continues to mount repeated, unsophisticated, attacks, now centred on Avdiivka, where by concentrating its firepower it is slowly threatening to envelop Ukraine’s forces in the town itself, a battle wearily reminiscent of its gradual victories in Bakhmut and Severodonetsk a year before.

Moscow also retains a substantial advantage in personnel numbers and according to some Ukrainian estimates is still recruiting 20,000 a month for the frontline. However, it is running a high level of casualties, likely to amount to several hundred a day, although reliable figures are hard to find.

Ukrainians grimly expect a repeat of last year’s winter bombing campaign

Despite western sanctions, Russia remains able to produce large numbers of the unsophisticated weapons necessary for war – perhaps 1m 152mm artillery shells a month, again according to Ukrainian estimates, bolstered by a further 1m from North Korea. However, Russian logistics, its depots successfully targeted by long-range Storm Shadow and ATACMS missiles, are uneven.

Ukrainians grimly expect a repeat of last year’s winter bombing campaign, aimed at the country’s energy grid, although that started on October 10th last year and there has been no sign of it beginning at scale yet. That may be a sign that Russia is short of its own long-range missiles, but with temperatures in Kyiv still expected to hit a high of 11 degrees on Friday, the fear is that Moscow is waiting for the mercury to fall well below zero before embarking on a repeat campaign.

At the same time, as Mr Sak emphasises, Ukraine has achieved its own successes. Eye-catchingly, a brigade of Ukrainian marines has established a bridgehead at Krynky, across the Dnipro, east of Kherson. Given the challenges of supplying across a big river, it would be surprising if that led to a breakthrough, but it shows its capacity to attack is not exhausted.

Olga Oiker, a Ukraine expert at Crisis Group, argues that the situation is sufficiently finely balanced that “no one holds the initiative right now”. Gaining the initiative on either side would require forward momentum in either case. Both sides have to continue attacking on some level during winter, otherwise they risk allowing the other to regroup and concentrate firepower at key points.

The battlefield situation in effect amounts to a bloody equilibrium, which in turn will place more emphasis on politics, within Russia and Ukraine and internationally. On Saturday, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, denied media reports that he was coming under pressure to open negotiations. “No one among our partners is pressuring us to sit down with Russia,” he said, and it is not obvious that Ukrainian society is ready to cede territory, after all the sacrifices made.

Mr Oiker argues that Zaluzhnyi is in effect signalling to Ukraine’s people, its allies, and even its enemy that its military is ready for a long war that could last into 2025. “This war will continue unless something radically changes in Moscow. That’s not impossible, but you can’t use that as a planning parameter.” Moscow, too, has every incentive to draw the war out, not least because the Kremlin will hope for the re-election of Donald Trump next year.

Over the weekend, Mr Zelenskiy also worried that the war in Israel and Gaza was “taking away the focus” away from Ukraine, although apart from munitions for air defence systems, the military demands of both countries are quite different. A loss of media attention, however, is not significant to Ukraine if western political support remains – which is why the passage of the White House’s package of $61.4 billion (€57 billion) in military aid for Ukraine and $14.3 billion for Israel will be critical.

Even with such help, the war is likely to remain finely balanced – although not stalemated – with both sides chasing a technological or political breakthrough. Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University, argues that, unfortunately, there is no reason why the Russia-Ukraine war should be short: “The culture wants this to be fast and interesting, and what historians say is something slightly different – which is that wars are unpredictable, and sometimes long.” – Guardian