Thursday, January 04, 2024

Why has the war in Ukraine ground to a stalemate?

World events have overtaken the Russia-Ukraine war but, almost two years later, it's still dragging on. But why has it become so bogged down? Shouldn't Russia's supposed armed superiority have clinched it by now? Shouldn't Ukraine's counter-offensive, with some of the best weapons the West can supply, have wrested back control of their poor battered country?

Well, the much-vaunted 2023 Ukrainian counter-offensive seems to have pretty much sputtered out, without making a huge dent in the Russian occupation of its land. Rather, the war seems to have devolved into a stalemate, with tiny hard-fought gains and losses back and forth on the frontline, and the occasional major long-distance strike in either direction. 

Russia continues to batter Ukraine's cities into uninhabitable rubble with its apparently random drone attacks on residential and infrastructure targets. A long war is widely considered to favour Russia, which is surviving Western sanctions quite well because some other countries are not willing to commit themselves or are willfully ignoring calls for sanctions (looking at you, India and China).

But why has the war degenerated into a stalemate? A Deutsche Welle report explains.

Russia's tank-traps, fences and minefields (more than 8 million mines!) along the border of its occupied territories has effectively stalled Ukraine's counter-offensive, fancy Western weaponry notwithstanding, as Russian troops have reinforced their frontline positions while Ukraine waits for more weapons.

Yes, NATO countries are supplying Ukraine with weapons, but - according to Ukraine and to some other Western military experts - it only gets enough to protect the status quo, and not enough for a serious push-back.

Russia still enjoys air superiority, as Ukrainian airforce personnel are still being trained to use the belatedly donated F-16 aircraft. Ukraine is usually able to shoot down most aircraft-delivered Russian missiles and drone attacks using donated state-of-the-art defensive weaponry (although some still get through), but they are not yet able to deploy advanced aircraft for "active" air defence, i.e. actually shooting down Russian jets. And the ones that do get through continue to damage the country and its infrastructure, and depress the population still further.

Russia's military industrial complex is still able to function, and it continues to produce large numbers of drones and missiles, as well as buying more from "friendly" (read opportunistic and unethical) countries like Iran and North Korea using its copious oil revenues. 

The increased use of spy drones and electronic reconnaissance on both sides has led to what is being called a "transparent battlefield", where both sides know what is happening, i.e. stalemate. One example of this is that tank attacks by both sides are being easily countered because the other side can see them coming, and there is no element of surprise.

As some Western benefactors start to balk at continued enabling of apparently lacklustre Ukrainian progress, and particularly with American Republicans doing everything they can to delay or remove American support, Ukraine's prospects do not look good. With the potential wild card of a Trump electoral victory in late 2024 in the offing, in which case all bets are off, you can see why military commentators are much less sanguine than they were a year ago.

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