1st phase of Russia’s war may be over. That does not mean bloodshed is.
By Marc Santora
With Russian forces failing to seize major cities in Ukraine, appearing to lose ground around Kyiv and beset by losses that limit their ability to mount new large-scale offensives, there is an emerging consensus in the West that the war has reached a bloody stalemate.
“Russian forces are digging in around the periphery of Kyiv and elsewhere, attempting to consolidate political control over areas they currently occupy, resupplying and attempting to reinforce units in static positions, and generally beginning to set conditions to hold in approximately their current forward positions for an indefinite time,” according to an analysis issued Saturday by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington research body.
Russia has made some gains in the eastern part of the country, where Britain’s defense intelligence agency said forces were working to encircle cities, and it continues to hold territory in the south around Kherson.
But with its ground forces meeting stiff Ukrainian resistance, Russia has increasingly turned to long-range missiles to target Ukrainian military and civilian infrastructure. In a war of attrition, analysts said, Russia hopes it can break down the Ukrainian military while crushing the public’s spirit with relentless assaults.
Russia initially planned to conduct airborne and mechanized operations to quickly seize Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa and other major Ukrainian cities. The hope was that it would be able to force a change of government and install leaders loyal to Moscow.
It is now clear that plan has failed, analysts said.
“Russian generals are running out of time, ammunition and manpower,” Ben Hodges, the former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, wrote last week.
“An essential caveat to my assessment is that we, the West, led by the U.S., must accelerate and expand the support we are providing to Ukraine on the scale and with the sense of urgency of the Berlin Airlift.”
But he said he was confident that the Russian campaign was reaching its culmination. Culmination is a concept in war outlined more than a century ago by Prussian Gen. Carl von Clausewitz, who described it as the moment when “the remaining strength is just enough to maintain a defense and wait for peace.”
President Vladimir Putin of Russia has offered no indication that he wants to “wait for peace,” and the bombardment of cities and towns across Ukraine shows no sign of letting up.
As the authors of the report from the Institute for the Study of War noted, history is filled with conflicts where the combatants are stalemated yet the fighting rages on. Some of the deadliest battles of World War I, including the Somme and Verdun, were fought during stalemates that they failed to break, at a cost of tens of thousands of lives.
Britain’s defense intelligence agency said Sunday that Russia had increased “indiscriminate shelling of urban areas resulting in widespread destruction and large numbers of civilian casualties.”
The Russian invasion has found its greatest success in the south, and the fighting over the strategic port city of Mariupol is some of the most brutal of the war. A Ukrainian defeat would give Russia control over the coast of the Sea of Azov and is critical to create a land bridge between Crimea — which Moscow annexed in 2014 — and Russia. But the cost of taking the now-ruined city might limit the impact of any Russian victory.
“If and when Mariupol ultimately falls the Russian forces now besieging it may not be strong enough to change the course of the campaign dramatically by attacking to the west,” according to the ISW analysis.
Elsewhere, the Russian positions seemed to be relatively static or were being pushed back by the Ukrainians. The Ukrainian military high command said Sunday that there had been no major Russian offensives in the past 24 hours, which suggests that the Russians were taking an operational pause as their forces regroup.
Perhaps the most significant Russian drive in the country is the one pushing north to Kryvyi Rih, a heavily fortified city of more than 600,000 that is also the hometown of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.