Ukraine stalemate sets the stage for potential winter escalation

With the war in Ukraine moving into its tenth month, both sides are locked in a stalemate battle of attrition, which could set the stage for another round of escalation.

Many observers see the current stalemate as beneficial to Ukraine, allowing it to receive more cutting-edge weapons from the West. and prepare for new counteroffensives. In Russia, there is a growing sense of despair among hardliners over what they see as President Vladimir Putin’s dithering and lack of a clear strategy.

Military analysts say fighting is likely to escalate again soon as the ground freezes. Many point to the Russian-occupied areas in the south as the most likely location for the next Ukrainian attack.

“The ground needs to freeze properly before you can move vehicles more freely,” Justin Crump, a former British tank commander who runs security consultancy Sibylline, told The Associated Press.

He noted that while it is more difficult to sustain military operations in colder weather, it will reopen opportunities for more maneuvers and “as winter progresses, both sides will have increasing offensive capability.”

Crump argued that the Ukrainian military could attempt to recapture parts of the southern Zaporizhzhia region and advance towards the strategic Azov Sea port of Mariupol. That would allow Ukraine to cut Russia’s land corridor to Crimea, which it annexed in 2014. Mariupol fell to the Russians in May after a nearly three-month siege that left much of it in ruins.

Independent Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov also argued that the Zaporizhzhia region looks like a likely target for the upcoming Ukrainian offensive.

“Ukrainian artillery and rocket systems have concentrated their attacks there,” he said, adding that the army has targeted Russia’s supply lines in the area as it did during a counteroffensive in the neighboring Kherson region that led to a Russian withdrawal from the capital of Russia. the same name.

Russia, which has suffered humiliating military setbacks in recent months, has called up 300,000 reservists to make up for its heavy losses on the battlefield. Putin said last week that half of them were still being trained at firing ranges far from the front lines.

“Russia is trying to build a better strike force instead of just throwing people out there,” Crump said. “They think they can last the term and come back in greater numbers next year and do something much more impressive then.”

While working to bolster its strike force, the Russian military has also pushed doggedly in its effort to break through the multi-layered Ukrainian defenses in the eastern Donetsk region in dogged trench warfare reminiscent of World War I, with progress slow in recent weeks.

Crump noted that Russia’s apparent strategy behind the relentless attacks on the Ukrainian stronghold of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region is to try to force Kyiv to keep a considerable number of troops there and inflict heavy losses.

“It’s about buying time, lasting the course, crushing the Ukrainians,” he said. “They simply want to reduce the capacity of the Ukrainian armed forces by killing Ukrainian soldiers and destroying Ukrainian equipment faster than Ukraine can generate it.”

Ukraine, in turn, has tried to unbalance its opponent with surprise attacks, some of them deep inside Russia.

In a watershed event last week, Moscow acknowledged that Ukraine attacked its strategic air bases located more than 500 kilometers (more than 300 miles) east of the border with modified Soviet-made drones. Ukraine has not openly claimed credit for the attacks, but the country’s top security official said Kyiv views all of Russia as targets for such attacks.

“Whether or not they have a significant impact on Russian military capability, they are certainly shattering Russian morale and causing profound confusion,” Crump said of the Ukrainian attacks.

Since October, Moscow has been particularly focused on bombarding energy facilities and other key infrastructure with missile and drone strikes in the apparent hope of breaking the will of the Ukrainians and forcing Kyiv to negotiate on Russia’s terms. On Friday, Russian forces launched a new barrage of missiles in several cities, Ukrainian officials said, resulting in major power outages.

“Attacks on energy infrastructure are aimed at inciting social tension and increasing pressure to push talks forward,” Zhdanov said, adding that they have not had much impact on the capacity of the Ukrainian military, which has relied mainly on diesel generators. . . He noted that Russia’s attacks have only strengthened Ukraine’s resolve by “causing anger and a desire for revenge.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the bombings have destroyed half of his country’s infrastructure, and urged the United States and other Western allies to quickly provide more air defense weapons to defend against the attacks.

US officials said this week that Washington is ready to approve providing Ukraine with a battery of Patriot air defense missile systems.a powerful weapon capable of shooting down Russian missiles.

The Kremlin argues that by providing Ukraine with such weapons, training its troops and sharing military intelligence, NATO has effectively become a party to the conflict. Warned Washington Patriot systems and any US personnel deployed to train Ukrainian troops in its use will be a legitimate target for Russia.

In comments last week reflecting growing concern over the escalation, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that the fighting could get out of hand. and turn into “one big war” between the alliance and Russia.

Putin has portrayed the attacks that left millions of Ukrainians without electricity, water and heat amid freezing temperatures as a legitimate response to the October truck bombing on a bridge linking the Crimean peninsula to mainland Russia. The Kremlin blamed Kyiv for the attack.

In a rare acknowledgment that his plans for a quick victory have gone awry. Putin said last week that achieving Moscow’s goals in Ukraine could be a “long process.” but he insisted that Russian military efforts were progressing in a “steady” manner.

Russian hardliners scoffed at Putin’s statement.

Igor Strelkov, a former Russian security official who led separatist forces in eastern Ukraine when the conflict began in 2014, scathingly criticized Putin and his generals for what he described as their failure to set clear military goals and mobilize all resources. available.

“In most units, the soldiers and officers don’t understand what they’re fighting for,” he said after a brief trip to the war zone. “It leads to apathy and erodes the fighting spirit.”

Strelkov charged that a prolonged conflict could be “suicidal for the Russian Federation, its government and the elites.”

Retired Colonel Viktor Alksnis, a hardliner known for trying to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, warned that the same fate could befall Russia. He said an imminent military defeat in Ukraine would lead to Russia’s “shameful capitulation and subsequent disintegration”, arguing that the use of low-yield nuclear weapons on the battlefield was “the only way to prevent it”.

Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Putin-chaired Security Council, warned last month that Ukraine’s continued offensive could trigger a nuclear response in line with the country’s deterrence doctrine that calls for such weapons to be used when a conventional attack threatens the existence of Russia. condition.

By backing Ukraine’s ambitions to regain more territory, Medvedev said, “the Western powers are pushing the world into a global war.”

Tatiana Stanovaya, a Carnegie Endowment expert who tracks the attitudes of the Kremlin and Russian elites, pointed to a growing sense of hopelessness and despair among the ruling class.

Members of the ruling class have seen the latest Russian military setbacks as a sign that the country is headed for military defeat, he noted.

“Everything looks like a rapid descent into chaos and even the collapse of the country,” Stanovaya said in a recent analysis.

He pointed to a widening divide between those among the ruling elites who advocate freezing the conflict to allow Russia to recoup its losses and those who favor upping the ante.

“Putin looks like a weak figure for both camps in the elite,” he said.


Danica Kirka in London and Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia contributed.


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