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The trench war continues in the Ukraine

The continuing trench war in Ukraine
For the original maps, go here (April 16, 2023)
and here (July 23, 2023).

My last full update on the Ukraine War, on April 17, 2023, was written about the time that the Russian winter offensive had ended (with generally empty results) and a counter-offensive by the Ukrainians was expected to begin.

At that time I concluded as follows:

The Ukrainians have no hope of getting [sufficient] military aid from the rest of the world. Unless the Russians can bring [vastly larger] 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.

Based on that assessment, I expected the Ukrainian spring/summer offensive to be as ineffective as the Russian winter campaign. This has proven true. The map above, adapted from maps created by the Institute for the Study of War, illustrates the general lack of change in either direction along the entire northern frontline. Though the Ukraine has made some minor gains north and south of Bakmut (as noted in ISW’s July 23, 2023 update), it has not succeeded in recapturing the city. Meanwhile, the Russians have made some minor gains to the north, west of the cities Svatova and Kreminna.

Similarly, though the Ukraine has made some small gains along the southern frontline (compare this April 16th map with this July 23rd map), none of those gains have been of any great significance. The Ukraine’s long pause in offensive operations, from November 2022 until April 2023, allowed the Russians to build a deep and extensive defensive set-up, including many minefields that have slowed Ukrainian advances to barely a crawl.

In addition, it appears that the flooding from the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam in the south has almost entirely benefited the Russians, blocking what appears to have been a major Ukrainian plan to invade across the Dneiper River. Since the dam break, the Ukraine has been pushing at the one major bridge still standing, but with no real success. Since the Ukrainians do not appear to have the ability to make an amphibious assault, the Russians need only defend this one bridge, and have so far been able to.

In its June 14, 2023 update, ISW noted the following about the Russian defensive setup:

ISW continues to assess that Russian forces are defending in western Donetsk Oblast area in accord with Russian tactical defensive doctrine, which calls for a first echelon of defense forces to repel or slow attacking forces while a second echelon of forces counterattacks against any enemy breakthrough. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted sentence illustrates how much this Ukraine War has come to resemble World War I. This Russian doctrine is exactly the same defensive strategy used by the militaries of both the Allies and the Central powers from 1915 to 1918, during their own long stalemate.

Whether there will be a breakthrough by either side will likely require some major change, outside of the war itself. In World War I it was the arrival of one million American troops. Those troops did not have any real time to make any major impact in battle, but the knowledge of their existence essentially destroyed Germany’s will to fight. Its frontline collapsed, and it quickly offered peace terms that the European allies were eager to accept to end the seemingly endless fighting.

In the Ukraine the most likely comparable possibilities involve Russia. The Ukrainian government appears stable with strong unified support from its populace. It has successfully pushed the Russians back and then held it off when it tried a new offensive. It stands for defending its homeland and regaining its own territory. It is likely that these factors will cause it to remain stable and unwilling to back down.

The leadership of Russia however has consistently appeared chaotic and unstable, with Putin repeatedly firing his military leaders combined with an actual military coup attempt by the private Wagner military units. That instability bodes badly for the future of the Russian campaign, especially because the Russians do not have a good moral reason for being in the Ukraine, other than pure aggression. Combined with the damage the war has done to Russia’s economy, Putin I think is finding it increasingly hard to sell this war to the Russian people.

In the long run it faces the same kind of grinding pressure that faced the U.S. during the Vietnam war and the Soviet Union in its 1980s Afghan War, endless warfare with little gain. Under those conditions it will be very difficult for Russia to sustain this effort, no less move towards victory.

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  • Gary H

    Excellent summary..

    It would seem that the high casualties on both sides combined with the lack of progress on the ground would be a major motivation for both sides coming up with a freeze in place to end the war. That makes sense to me except that many are making a lot of money off the war. Putin could claim a victory with things frozen at present boundaries and he could then work on stabilizing his power. It must be Zelenskyy/Biden where the resistance to ending the war rests. Does this mean that that those making money are tied to Zelenskyy and Biden?

  • Steve Richter

    So terribly disappointing that none of the republican candidates have the sense and savvy to 100% oppose the US funding of this war. Left alone, the two countries would work out their differences. Just as they have for 1000 years. For the Ukranian nationalists who do not like Putin, he will only be around for a few more years max. Use that time to prepare your people to break away from what will be a Russia distracted by an internal power struggle.

  • Gary H


    Trump, DeSantis and Ramaswamy want out of Ukraine through negotiations and not further war. Not sure about the others, but Christie and Pence are all in. I believe that Robert F Kennedy jr is also in favor of ending the war quickly. Democrats make RFK, jr to be crazy, but he seems to be one of the more sane people in their party.

    I don’t know how the others plan to accomplish this, but Trump thinks that properly applied charm and threats will do the job. Obviously, Zelenskyy will do what his arms dealer tells him to do. So, the threats will be used with Putin if charm doesn’t work.

  • Andi

    Typo in paragraph after second quote:: “ this Ukraine War”

  • Andi: Gosh, I reread that several times and never saw it. Thank you. Fixed.

  • James Street

    Trump has an innate realization of the value of a human life. From a Trump / CNN “town hall” event in New Hampshire on May 10, 2023:

    PRESIDENT TRUMP: Let me put it a nicer way. If I’m president, I will have that war settled in one day, 24 hours.
    KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN: How would you settle that war in one day?
    TRUMP: I’ll meet with Putin, I’ll meet with Zelenskyy. They both have weaknesses and both have strengths and within 24 hours that war with be set settled.
    COLLINS: Do you want Ukraine to win this war?
    TRUMP: I don’t think in terms of winning and losing. I think getting it settled so stop killing all these people.
    COLLINS: Mr. President, can I follow up on that? That’s an important statement you made. Can you say if you want Ukraine or Russia to win this war?
    TRUMP: I want everybody to stop dying. They’re dying. Russians and Ukrainians. I want them to stop dying. And I’ll have that done in 24 hours I’ll have it done. You need the power of the presidency to do it.

  • Milt

    Mr. Street is right. While former president Trump is apparently appalled by this slaughter, a continued military stalemate and a World War I level of carnage would seem to be quite acceptable — if not actually desirable so as to properly “punish” Mr. Putin — to The Powers That Be in the Biden Administration / Deep State, and ruined cities and mountains of dead people (including those who will suffer from lack of Ukrainian grain) are simply the inevitable collateral damage from their neoconservative policies.

    From the perspective of demographics, however — see — neither Russia nor Ukraine has the long term capacity to suffer such casualties, even if TPTB in Washington are entirely sanguine about other people dying and having their cities destroyed.

    Sadly, nothing is likely to change until after the US elections of 2024, and the needless slaughter and destruction of infrastructure will
    likely continue until there is a new occupant in the White House.

  • KAF

    There is much about this conflict I do not understand, but if the casualty numbers I see are even remotely correct I think the current government in Ukraine will, at some point, have to flee or find themselves hanging from lamp posts.

  • DJ

    I second KAF’s opinion. There have been two peace agreements that I am aware of. The US stopped both of those. NATO is no longer a defense (against Russia) organization. It seems to have war on its mind. Ons side says that Putin wants to remake the USSR. Another says that the AZOV’s and Ukrainians? have been lobbing bombs in this area since 2014. Now Poland is at it and has its diplomats saying perhaps they will go into Ukraine “on their own” to help. And Putin will say “a Nato member goes in on their own?”. I will buy that Brooklyn Bridge first. I truly believe President Trump would have this solved, and give the Main Stream Media fits about it. And he would not solve this in order to prepare for war with China, like the opinion-masters come up with. They say that this needs to end so the US can go to war with China. It should be apparent to all of us that the US is no longer in a position to challenge China. Negotiated peace is the best plan and by the way, it is taking the high road.

  • Steve Richter

    “… Trump, DeSantis and Ramaswamy want out of Ukraine through negotiations and not further war. …”

    What Trump said in the CNN town hall was great. But then recently he said “I will tell Putin if he does not negotiate the US will double down on aid to Ukraine”. He said that in the context of telling Zelinsky he has to negotiate also. Anyway, it presumes the US has some role in how the two countries resolve their differences.
    The breakup of the USSR did not happen because the West supplied bombs. Or threatened to supply them. It came about because of the internal sorting out of long standing cultural, social and political ties and relations between the people and countries of that part of the world.
    Both RU and UKR are far too corrupt. There are oligarch factions in the two countries battling each other for control and spoils. It is a mess that all involved are well incentivized to work out internally.

  • Mike Borgelt

    “Both RU and UKR are far too corrupt. There are oligarch factions in the two countries battling each other for control and spoils. It is a mess that all involved are well incentivized to work out internally.”

    The USA is in no position to call other countries corrupt. Washington D.C (District of Corruption) appears to be a loose collection of criminal gangs, sometimes co-operating, sometimes competing.

  • RDittmar

    used by both the Allies and the Axis militaries from 1915 to 1918

    Not trying to be a smart-***, but the Germans and Austrians were called the Central Powers in WWI. The Axis is a WWII thing.

  • Gary H

    Supposedly, the American people still favor maintaining the current level of arms, or an increase in arms supply to Ukraine. So, there isn’t yet the political pressure to end the war. Hopefully, the Republican debates will help to educate the public as to what is happening in Ukraine, the lack of German/French support and the difficulty of the U.S. replacing spent ammunition. It is important that Russia learn to live peacefully with the E.U. . I believe that Russia knows that is to China’s advantage to invade Russia to capture Russian oil reserves and vast amounts of water. Both resources are located in a sparsely populated area just north of the Chinese border. It is to our advantage to settle this war before the rift between Russia and the west become a long term barrier. Putin has every reason to accept a territorial freeze in Ukraine. China is a near term threat to Russia and currently Russia hasn’t a way, other than nuclear, to stop China.

  • Krepki Kulak

    Existential – 1
    : of, relating to, or affirming existence
    existential propositions, existential threats

    Reserve Price – Common to auctions, a reserve price or a reservation price is the minimum amount that a seller will accept as the winning bid. Note: The point at which the buyer and seller are no longer willing to negotiate is the walk-away point.

    Ukrainian Neutrality is non-negotiable for Russia. I don’t think they could have made this any clearer with this invasion, er, special military operation. Should they trust the Nulands, Blinkens, Sullivans to keep their word if they call a halt to this in exchange for neutrality (no NATO membership), the Donbas and Crimea? I wouldn’t. So this will go on until there is a change in the neocon, uniparty apparatus in the US. In the meantime, the sanction regime will look more feckless and silly as the global trade blocks shift and realign. This will cascade into other areas. Somebody might think they can grab a recalcitrant island when there is a shortage of munitions, missiles and operational platforms. Throw in a global recessiona and a soveriegn debt crises. May you live in interesting times.

  • Contrarian alert!

    I will tell you right now … any negotiation that does not result in a significant loss for Putin, such that he gets the same message Reagan sent to his predecessors: you will not be allowed to prevail … will only pause the war, not end it,

    Name one expansionist tyranny in history that did not stop without such a confrontation. At least Reagan was able to consummate the confrontation without going kinetic. I hope we can do that now.

    And peace will not be sustained as long as Putin – and the West’s social technocrats, and Xi – continue to prioritize their agendas and “good” intentions over the reason governments are instituted among men: to secure the unalienable rights of the individual.

    While the globalists within NATO are scheming for their own gain, its Eastern European members have a different – and with their history, legitimate – motivation to support Ukraine. The latter certainly aren’t inclined to cross the Russian border and wage offensive war on Russian soil, unless in response to Russia doing so against them … the idea that NATO is out to do so is preposterous because of that.

    Both Putin, and the globalists, need to lose. The latter is our fight, even as free people in eastern Europe use what the globalists meant for evil, instead for good in fighting Russian expansionism.

  • Jeff Wright

    Triple Alliance vs Triple Entente

  • Biglar

    Ever since the failure of their opening gambit to win the war in a few days, the Russians have been engaged in a war of attrition. The Ukrainians, in contrast, have been trying to win and keep territory, and to win the battle in the media, and as a result have played into the hands of the Russians during their current offensive with grievous results in terms of casualties and equipment losses.

    There isn’t going to be much more western equipment and ammunition coming to Ukraine, for the simple reason that the west can’t make it fast enough anymore – our industrial capacity has been completely hollowed out. And Ukraine is already scraping the bottom of the barrel for recruits.

    By the end of the year if not sooner the tides of the war will have shifted decisively to the Russians as Ukraine starts running out of men and equipment. Only then will people see how completely stupid and meaningless this war actually was.

    Oh, and ISW is just a bunch of Ukrainian trolls, and I don’t think most people there, “studying war” even have a military background. So don’t take them seriously.

  • Andrew_W

    “Oh, and ISW is just a bunch of Ukrainian trolls, and I don’t think most people there, “studying war” even have a military background. So don’t take them seriously.”

    The qualifications and publication histories of the people at ISW are on the site, so you don’t even need to “think” what their expertise is, you can go read, then you will “know”.

    But since you’re calling them trolls, what are your qualifications in military strategy?

  • Andrew_W: I should always include a quick analysis of ISW in any of my updates of the Ukraine War. ISW is clearly on the side of the Ukraine. While it provides great detail about Russian deployments and defensive and offensive placements, it tells us nothing about the Ukrainians. It also spins all reports to emphasize Ukrainian success while emphasizing Russian failure.

    Having noted these facts, ISW still remains a very reliable source of information. Once you factor in its biases, you can use it to get a very good assessment of the war itself.

  • RDittmar: I finally got around to changing Axis to Central Powers. This is a mistake I’ve made before, even though I know these facts. Thank you.

  • mkent

    The number of so-called “conservatives” who seemingly support — and in some cases cheer on — the genocide in Ukraine is both saddening and frightening. I honestly don’t know how you sleep at night.

    But instead of trying to convince you that conquest and genocide are actually wrong — probably a futile task — I’ll keep my comments to more logistical concerns.

    ”There isn’t going to be much more western equipment and ammunition coming to Ukraine.”

    On the contrary, the Ukrainian army is better equipped now than at any other time in the war, and every month it gets better. Storm Shadow missiles and cluster munitions recently arrived in theater. Additional Strykers, Bradleys, and Patriots are on the way. They will be joined by Abrams, ATACMs, and Falcons next year. Those Falcons will carry integrated HARMs, JDAMs, and SDBs.

    Every month the Ukrainian military gets better. Every month the Russian military attrits away more. The Russians have no additional weapons to bring to the field, only more of the same. More — not new — tanks and artillery pulled out of storage and sent to the front. More men fed into the meat grinder.

    I don’t know how long Russia will continue to throw away men and machines in their fit of rage, but eventually they will run out. A war of attrition favors the West. A crying shame it has to be this way.

  • Fred Mora

    Regarding the comparison with WW1, note that the American forces were not the determining factor. The Austro-Hungarian empire signed an armistice on Nov 3, 1918, allowing occupation by the Allies. This opened the whole of Southern Germany to an Ally invasion, and the German had no time or resources to mount defenses.

    Simultaneously, mutinies among sailors had erupted on Oct. 29 and threatened to become a revolution. So in November 1918, Germany saw the threat of invasion from the South while disrupted by riots. This is what caused the war to end.

    Russia faces no comparable threat today.

  • Fred Mora: In my reading of the histories of WWI, I have been amazed at the endless effort of historians to discount entirely the importance of the arrival of American troops, sometimes to the point of absurdity. You do the same.

    Why did the Austro-Hungarian empire sign an armistice? One fact that cannot ignored (but repeatedly is) it that it could have also seen the arrival of those million American troops as tipping the balance of the war against it, and decided to get out while the getting was good.

    Similarly, the loss of moral among rank and file in the German army and navy was certainly instigated in large part by the new threat they faced (a gigantic army from one of the world’s most prosperous nations) that also tipped the balance of war against them. Soldiers are no fools.

    However, I agree with you that Russia faces no such threat. No army of one million additional soldiers is going to arrive from somewhere else.

  • wayne

    How The Americans Entered World War One
    Great War In Numbers Episode 6

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