The quest for military superiority in Ukraine

Russia’s war will likely remain deadlocked until one side gains a decisive air advantage.

A picture of a person on a fence
A poster of a Ukrainian soldier on a pedestrian bridge is seen after fresh snowfall on November 22, 2023, in Kyiv. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Russia’s early missteps may have doomed Moscow to a defensive war
  • After rapid advances, the underpowered Ukrainians lost the momentum
  • Neither side looks capable of gaining a decisive edge over the other soon

Not only is the weather frozen now in Ukraine – but so is the fighting at the war front. The two sides have fallen into an operational deadlock. The Ukrainian summer-autumn counteroffensive has failed to regain much ground, while the Russians also lack the ability to launch a large-scale offensive. Local battles of a tactical nature are being fought along the entire front, with little chance of a breakthrough.

The Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi unequivocally indicated in his unprecedented interview with The Economist and in his synthetic essay that the war has entered a phase of trench warfare similar to World War I. The West is alarmed that breaking out of this stalemate by the Ukrainian army would require a radical increase in its ability to win air supremacy, fight enemy artillery, overcome the system of fortifications and engineering barriers, effectively conduct electronic warfare and accelerate the preparation of reserves.

Hence, the questions are: how did this happen, why and what could be the future scenarios of war in such conditions?

Maneuver war phase

Let us start with a brief look at the course of the war so far. Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his aggression in a way that was strategically irresponsible and extremely unprofessional from the art-of-war view. In this way, he exposed the actual catastrophic state of the Russian army: low morale and training of soldiers, technical efficiency of combat equipment weakened by corruption in logistics and an alarmingly low grade of command at all levels of organization.

Instead of a regular offensive operation, which is necessary in such a situation, Russia tried to intervene as if Ukraine was a failed state. It is no coincidence that President Putin called the war a “special operation,” a term he has stuck with to this day despite the obvious facts. The most important rules of the art of war were broken, such as surprise (underestimating the enemy, misjudging their forces, keeping the Russian troops on the Ukrainian border for months) or forces economy (a frontal attack along the entire border instead of concentrating on the main directions).

As a result, Russia lost the initial period of the war and did not achieve its political and strategic goals. It had operational successes only in the south (mainly because of treachery on the Ukrainian side). At the same time, it suffered a strategic defeat in the center of gravity of the initial period of the war – that is, in the struggle to seize the capital city of Kyiv and overthrow or expel the Ukrainian government from it.

Russian troops trying to “march” on Kyiv have been decimated in skillful delaying and raiding actions by the Ukrainians and forced to retreat spectacularly from Ukraine altogether.

After the defeat in Kyiv, President Putin changed his strategy and, in accordance with his concept of escalation as a way of escaping a difficult situation, he went from one extreme to the other: he started an all-out war.

Its expression was the concentration of armed attacks not so much on the enemy’s military targets at the front but on civilian objects in the hinterland: cities, infrastructure, civilians. Apparently, the Russian leader was trying to break the will of the Ukrainian people to resist since it was not possible to defeat the Ukrainian army in the initial period of the war.

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Putin prosecutes a criminal war

Since the Ukrainians did not allow themselves to be broken, Mr. Putin’s version of total war turned into its worst variant – a criminal war. The degenerated Russian army began to commit various barbaric acts against civilians in the occupied territories: individual and group murders, rapes, deportations – including the deportation of children – and common looting.

Such an escalation of criminal violence did not guarantee success. On the contrary, it has debased the Russian military, which has lost its ability to conduct controlled operations. The Ukrainians then began to seize the initiative. The Kharkiv operation in September 2022 was an explicit confirmation of this. The Ukrainians themselves were surprised by the success of the initially local operation. As a result of the panicked withdrawal of the Russian army, the operation ended with a spectacular victory: the destruction of the northern flank of the Russian front in Ukraine (for example, Russian losses amounted to over 1,000 pieces of heavy combat equipment – tanks, combat vehicles, infantry vehicles, armored personnel carriers, artillery) and the liberation of large areas of Kharkiv Oblast (around 8,000 square kilometers).

The success was possible due to the surprise and non-standard tactics used by the Ukrainians: penetrating through the breaches and the discovered gaps in the Russians’ extended defense, sending raid groups to the rear of the enemy troops, disorganizing the hastily organized defense in the depths (the Russians were not prepared to defend themselves in advance) and forcing the Russian artillery to pull away and preventing it from firing effectively.

The second strategically important moment of the war, which is probably the most important so far, was the autumn battle on the lower Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast. Operationally, the Dnipro, especially in its lower reaches, is one of the most challenging water obstacles in Europe. Therefore, the capture of a large bridgehead on its western bank by the Russian army in the initial period of the war was of strategic importance.

As long as the Russians were on the west bank of the Dnipro, they could think about the maximum goal of this war: the complete defeat of Ukraine. The ability to go from the lower Dnipro to Odesa and Transnistria and completely cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea was one of the basic conditions for achieving such a goal.

The Ukrainians, however, won this battle and forced President Putin to give up the maximum goal of the war. From then on, Russia began to think not about conquering the entirety of Ukraine but about defending what it had overpowered so far. The battle on the Dnipro consisted of two parts: the Ukrainian effective isolation of the Russian group operating west of the river, and the Russian organized withdrawal of this group from across the Dnipro River. Two factors were decisive for the Ukrainian success.

First, the Ukrainian army’s earlier spectacular success in Kharkiv alarmed the Russians that Ukraine has built up such strong offensive capabilities that it may go on the offensive in other directions, especially in the south, in order to cut the land corridor to Crimea. That would be a dramatic defeat for Russia. Therefore, it was necessary to quickly reestablish reserves to counteract such threats and to organize a strong defense in the southern direction.

Second, the Ukrainians have begun to effectively use long-range and precision-guided weapons received from the West, especially HIMARS: the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. Using such advanced weapons, they overpowered the operational facilities of the Russian Kherson grouping: command posts, airfields, artillery, ammunition depots, logistics bases, supply transports and the like. That led to the almost complete isolation of the Russians on the west bank of the Dnipro. The chances of developing further operations from here have been reduced to a minimum. The Russian grouping has become an operationally inconvenient and logistically costly part of the Russian army.

All in all, the previous military failures, current difficulties and fear for the future as a result of underestimating Ukraine’s offensive capabilities, plus the threat of a Ukrainian offensive in the south toward Crimea, likely forced President Putin to quietly reduce the war’s political goals. General Sergei Surovikin, who commanded Russian troops in Ukraine at the time, convinced Mr. Putin to adopt a new military plan for the 2023 campaign.

The plan envisaged the withdrawal of a group of tens of thousands of military personnel from the Dnipro bridgehead and the transition to organizing strategic defense in the center of gravity of the war, which was the land bridge to Crimea, using the protection of the Dnipro River on the left flank, after the flooding of the Dnipro valley because of the blowing up of the dam in Nova Kakhovka.

A person in camouflage walking in the snow
A Ukrainian soldier is seen with the remains of an artillery shell in his fighting position as the Russia-Ukraine war continues near Kharkiv, Ukraine, on November 20, 2023. © Getty Images

Positional stalemate

By implementing this plan in 2023, the Russians regained control over the war’s course. This was even more so because Ukraine, contrary to Russian fears, did not have sufficient capabilities to quickly mount another offensive. Kyiv waited for months for the promised resources from the West. And these arrived in homeopathic quantities and with various restrictions on their use.

The training of personnel and the formation of new military units also became a serious problem. The Russians used this time to organize a strong, extensive, fortified and deeply projected strategic defense in the south.

Ukraine had two operational options for its 2023 campaign: either to launch the main strike directly at the center of gravity of the Russian army in the south with the hope of shattering it and resolving the war quickly – or to strike at the weaker point of the Russian front in the northeast and try to score another partial success in the still inconclusive conflict. Ukraine opted for the first option. Experience has shown that this was a mistake.

From a political point of view, it made sense to seek a quick resolution to the war in the south. A possible approach to Crimea and the threat of its recapture would clearly improve Ukraine’s bargaining position on ending the war. But from the point of view of the art of war, it was not an optimal decision.

Suppose one does not have an advantage over an opponent on a strategic level. In that case, choosing a frontal battle between the two main forces is extremely risky – especially when the opponent is on the defensive. With two equal sides, it is a matter of luck, a lottery, if not outright Russian roulette. But bringing one’s center of gravity into collision with the opponent’s stronger center is more than a risk; it is recklessly tempting defeat.

Meanwhile, let us note that Russia still has a general strategic advantage over Ukraine. Russia has gained an operational advantage in the south. It has also built a stronger defensive center of gravity (the size of the forces, their deployment at critical points on the main lines of operations, the development of engineering, the long-range support of the Black Sea fleet and air forces, the disruption of reserves with activity on the remaining sections of the front) than Ukraine could have managed on its side. This, in my opinion, was the most general, strategic reason why the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south has not been not very successful. It has become stuck in trench fights.

But, of course, there are broader reasons for the current impasse on the entire front of the Russia-Ukraine war. I have already mentioned the first one. It is the political cause – namely, the delays and limitations in the Western military support for Ukraine and its failure to contain Russia effectively. If Ukraine had received the necessary armaments from the West quickly and without limitations, it could have launched a counteroffensive sooner.

General Surovikin would have had less time to organize a permanent defense, and it could have been more readily interrupted, somewhat like the situation in the Kharkiv operation. The Ukrainian troops could already be on the coast of the Sea of Azov.

The second reason for the stalemate and today’s positional war on the Russian-Ukrainian front is more systemic than just political or operational. It has to do with a radical increase in the effectiveness of destruction on the modern battlefield, the predominance of fire over movement in general and over its combat form, that is, maneuver.

During World War I, artillery and machine guns drove troops into trenches and kept them there until the appearance of armored vehicles resistant to their fire, especially machine guns, but also partly artillery. Today, precision weapons play a similar role, particularly drones and long-range missiles.

Precision weapons emerged with the increase in the capabilities and role of the third fundamental factor of armed struggle, which is information. That is a revolutionary change in the entire history of wars. Since the dawn of war, the accuracy of a hit depended on the distance of the throw or shot: the greater the distance, the lower the probability of impacting the target.

Precision weapons break this age-old relationship: over the entire range of the weapon, the probability of, for example, self-homing to the target is the same and extremely high. Precision rockets, artillery systems and massively used cheap drones (which are somewhat equivalent to the role played by machine guns during World War I) “kill” the maneuver, especially of large military groups, in particular heavy strike groups (armored and mechanized). They force such units to disperse and hide.



Against this backdrop, what are the possible scenarios for the continued nature of military operations in Ukraine? Can the current stalemate be broken?

In the short term, a few months, there is little chance that either side will achieve a breakthrough. The model of battles with the dominance of trench warfare from the final period of World War I is the most likely. And all the more so because the winter and early spring months are not conducive to large-scale offensive moves. Russia is bleeding in the current fighting. Without a general mobilization, it has no chance of creating a new, large strike group that could ensure a high pace of operations to gain a decisive advantage. At most, Russia can try a local operational offensive in the north.

The same is true of Ukraine. The fact that its southern counteroffensive is bogged down in a strongly developed Russian defense and that it has used up a large part of its military resources does not allow it to think about another attempt of this type anytime soon. At this stage, both sides have long-range precision weapons at their disposal and have recently significantly expanded their drone capabilities, allowing them to pin down and incapacitate possible large enemy armored and mechanized groups going on the attack.

Therefore, if the winter-spring campaign is generally defensive trench warfare, it will mean time for both sides to prepare a strong defense on the entire front, which will be hard to break through in the future, as is now the case with the Russian arrangements in the south.

This will further reduce the likelihood of the second scenario, that is, the transition to maneuvering operations. Let us add that such an eventuality can only be discussed in a much more distant perspective – not earlier than in the summer/autumn of 2024. And this can also be said to be only a case of maneuvering local operations on a smaller, tactical scale, carried out by small, dispersed raid groups rather than larger, breakthrough groups.

The possibility of maneuvering on a larger, operational scale depends mainly on whether either side will be able to gain a decisive advantage in the air domain, especially in missile and drone defense measures and in precision counterattack against the enemy’s precision weapons. Only this could provide the necessary cover and conditions for the use of large strike groups, giving a chance for the transformation of World War I-style trench warfare into World War II-style maneuver warfare.

Achieving such a decisive missile and drone advantage depends primarily on the scale and pace of supplying the fighting troops with precision missiles and drones by the defense industries of both sides and their support by foreign allies.

However, a radical increase in such capabilities does not appear possible in the short or medium term by either side. Nor does destruction or incapacitation of the advanced weaponry by the enemy seem likely. Therefore, the scenario of trench warfare, including a frozen front, seems the most probable for today.

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