In my last update on the Ukraine War on November 16, 2022, I concluded that the stream of territorial gains by the Ukraine in the previous two months suggested that it was on the march and that in the coming months it would slowly and steadily regain territory from the Russians.
That analysis was wrong, at least in the short run. First, I failed to recognize that the Ukraine would need time to consolidate its large gains in September and October. Continuing the push apparently was beyond its capabilities without significant restocking of its troops and their equipment.
Second, by mid-November the Russians managed to halt the panicked retreat of its army, and forced it to re-establish reasonable lines of defense. It soon announced plans for a winter offensive, with the goal of capturing, at a minimum, the remaining territory of both the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts that either had never been taken or had been lost during the Ukraine’s successful fall offensive.
In the subsequent five months, the Russians have pushed hard, and gotten little for their effort. The map above, clipped from detailed maps produced daily by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), compares the frontlines on November 16, 2022 with the present lines on April 16, 2022. Russian-held territory is indicated in pink, Ukrainian territory is either white or blue, blue indicating territory recaptured from Russia. The striped region is territory Russia grabbed in 2014.
Except for some gains in the south, the Russians have moved that frontline almost not at all.
In the south they are on the verge of taking the city of Bakhmut, but that effort has devolved into a street-battle, where the Ukrainians are forcing the Russians to fight for every block and building, at great cost, because the Russians failed in their two pincer advances to the north and south to surround the city and force the Ukrainians to quickly abandon it. Instead, the Ukrainians, secure in the ability to escape when necessary, have been able show strong resistance, even if they cannot in the end hold the city. Meanwhile, the Russians will eventually take it, but all they will get is a destroyed hulk, with no tactically or strategic value for the larger war effort, and will have done so with large losses in men and material.
In the north, the Russians made some tiny territorial gains in a few places, but generally the battle has devolved into a classic World War I trench warfare, where both sides are firmly lodged in defensive positions that are difficult to break, especially because both sides appear to have had a general lack of tanks. The Russians lost most in the earlier offensives that failed, and the Ukrainians don’t have the ability to build them and must rely on any that other countries send them.
At the moment there have been many rumors for weeks of a coming Ukrainian offensive, but it seems difficult to imagine this offensive will be able to break through these defensive trenches, even with the delivery of tanks from Poland and the U.S., the number of which is not really very large.
In the southern parts of the country in Kherson Oblast (not shown on the map), the frontline is determined by the Dnieper River, and will require an amphibious assault, something that the Ukraine also does not really have the capability of mounting.
In World War I, the war became a long stalemate for years, until the entrance of the U.S. in 1918. American forces themselves figured only a little in the main battle, but the introduction to the Allies of an additional million-plus troops with American heavy equipment was enough to break the morale of Germany. Suddenly the lines broke, the British and French advanced quickly, and the Germans sued for peace to avoid an invasion of their country.
The Ukrainians have no hope of getting similar military aid from the rest of the world. Unless the Russians can bring such numbers to this battlefield, something that seems unlikely based on the present political situation in Russia, it now appears that this war is devolving into a World War I-style trench war. Neither side can make any significant gains militarily, and neither side is willing to negotiate a settlement.
What remains then will be a stale-mate for years.
I must add again that though I strongly want the Russians pushed out of the Ukraine, my goal here is merely to report the state of this war, not to advocate aid for the Ukraine. To my mind this remains a regional war. It is not our business to fight it.
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