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  • The San Juan Daily Star

As Ukraine readies for a second year at war, prospect of stalemate looms

Ukrainians use a makeshift center dubbed a “Point of Invincibility,” which offers a refuge from power outages, in Kyiv, Ukraine on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022.

By Julian E. Barnes, Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt

As the war in Ukraine soon enters its second year, Ukrainian troops will find it much more challenging to reclaim territory from Russian forces who are focused on defending their remaining land gains rather than making a deeper push into the country, American officials say.

Over the course of the first 10 months of the war, the Ukrainian military has — with significant U.S. support — outmaneuvered an incompetent Russian military, fought it to a standstill and then retaken hundreds of square miles and the only regional capital that Russia had captured.

Despite relentless Russian attacks on civilian power supplies, Ukraine has still kept up the momentum on the front lines since September. But the tide of the war is likely to change in the coming months, as Russia improves its defenses and pushes more soldiers to the front lines, making it more difficult for Ukraine to retake the huge swaths of territory it lost this year.

All of these factors make the most likely scenario going into the second year of the war a stalemate in which neither army can take much land despite intense fighting, according to U.S. government assessments.

“I do think that it is far easier for Ukraine to defend territory than to go on the offensive to recapture territory,” said Evelyn Farkas, a former senior Pentagon official who is now executive director of the McCain Institute. “We need to be providing Ukrainians the necessary equipment and training to do that.”

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine was expected to ask for just that when he met President Joe Biden and addressed Congress on Wednesday evening, his first visit outside the country since the start of the war.

Ukrainian officials have said they plan to continue to press their counteroffensive against the Russians. The focus will be in the south, where the Ukrainian military and political leadership believe they need to make gains against Russian forces to restore critical Ukrainian territory.

American officials say Ukraine will likely avoid sending its army directly into Crimea and will instead rely on more covert operations — similar to the attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge that knocked out a key Russian supply line — and airstrikes to attack Russia’s military positions in Crimea.

Ukrainian officials have told their American counterparts that it is critical to pin down Russian forces in Crimea. If they let up pressure there, the Ukrainians worry it would allow the Russians room to move more forces or defensive equipment out to other areas, according to U.S. officials who were speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

Ukraine has also been reliant on U.S. intelligence reports that pinpoint where the Russian army is at its weakest. The Ukrainian military’s counteroffensive outside Kharkiv in September was successful in part because the Ukrainians were facing a hollowed-out, unprepared Russian force. American officials do not believe that even the Russian military command knew how weak those forces were or how badly prepared they were for a Ukrainian strike.

American officials are continuing to search for weak points in the Russian lines, hunting for units on the brink of collapse, which might melt away in the face of a sustained push by Ukraine. Finding those fragile units could allow for smaller victories by Ukrainian troops, American officials said.

“What this war has shown us is that it is better not to underestimate Ukraine,” Colin H. Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, said in an interview.

Nevertheless, Ukraine’s ability to mount effective strikes against Russian bases and supply lines will not be enough to dislodge Moscow’s troops from the parts of the country where they have concentrated their forces.

Any smaller breakthroughs by Ukrainian forces in the next few months are unlikely to lead to a broad collapse of the Russian army, these American officials say, but Russia also is unlikely to achieve anything resembling a broad military victory in Ukraine.

“This war favors the competent over the incompetent, as all wars do,” said Frederick W. Kagan, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who writes regularly about Russian operations in Ukraine. “The Russians have been unsuccessful because they are showing their customary incompetence.”

But U.S. officials say there is evidence that the Kremlin is finally beginning to learn from its mistakes. It has put a single general in charge of the war — Gen. Sergei Surovikin — who American officials say is executing complicated military operations more efficiently.

In recent weeks, Ukrainian military officials have said Moscow has conducted stepped-up airstrikes on the army’s defensive lines, increasing Ukrainian casualties.

As botched as the initial Russian partial mobilization of 300,000 reservists was, the sheer numbers are now making a difference along the defensive lines. And unless those troops suffer a bad winter, which is possible with poor logistics and bad leadership, they will only shore up more by the spring, American officials said.

Russian forces are also digging into defensive positions and building trenches, and they have given up areas that require larger numbers of troops to hold, moving instead to easier-to-secure positions.

Surovikin, who has led Russian forces since October, is using a strategy that emphasizes strategic defense, these U.S. officials say. He has, so far, been able to improve defenses and inject discipline into Russian troops deployed in Ukraine’s south and east. Their current push in Bakhmut in the eastern Donbas region is limited, designed to secure better positions from which to defend against a Ukrainian counterattack.

“He’s consolidating positions, and he’s trying to build a network of trenches and a more sensible set of positions and checkpoints,” Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corp., said in a telephone interview.

Massicot said that Surovikin is also experimenting with new tactics for the Russian air force, including the manner with which it launches missiles at Ukraine to try to confuse its air defenses. These new Russian tactics will likely result in a stalemate, leaving both sides jostling for the upper hand if any real negotiations were to begin.

In some ways, the war is becoming one that hinges on ammunition and supplies — two basic needs that can make or break either side.

“It increasingly is a contest between the Western industrial base and Russian industrial base, with some aid from the Iranians, North Koreans and a few other countries,” said Seth G. Jones, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

With Zelenskyy’s arrival in Washington, the Biden administration was set to offer a new $1.8 billion arms package that would send one Patriot air defense battery to Ukraine, along with precision guided munitions for fighter jets and other weaponry, senior administration officials said. Since the start of the war in February, the United States has sent more than $20 billion in military aid to Ukraine.

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