Comment: War in Ukraine is at stalemate; so is diplomacy

With little to show for Ukraine’s offensives, and no prospects for negotiations, it will be a long winter.

By Daniel DePetris / Chicago Tribune

Last August, more than two months after Ukraine began its counteroffensive against Russian positions in the east, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan was asked about whether the war was degenerating into a stalemate. Sullivan’s answer: no.

“We do not assess that the conflict is a stalemate,” he said at the time. “We are seeing (Ukraine) continue to take territory on a methodical, systematic basis.”

Fast-forward to today, and the cautious optimism cited by U.S. officials has largely turned into worry: worry that Ukraine’s counteroffensive has stalled; worry that Russian President Vladimir Putin will be able to squeak out victory from the jaws of defeat; and worry that Kyiv’s backers in the West, principally the United States, will not be able to sustain Ukraine’s war effort for much longer.

The lingering doubt about Ukraine’s future prospects is beginning to creep into the Ukrainian population as well. While much has been made about so-called war fatigue in Western capitals, a similar feeling is percolating in Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv, Dnipro and the small towns throughout the Donbas. There is a growing sense that the war will only get worse before it gets better, assuming it can get better.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy still has sky-high approval ratings compared with his counterparts in the U.S. and Europe, yet even his popularity is slowly dipping. According to the Kyiv International institute of Sociology, the Ukrainian public’s trust in their government has declined by 35 percentage points since May. The Ukrainian people haven’t given up, but they’ve become a lot more realistic about what may be in store over the coming winter.

So has Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, the man ultimately responsible for commanding the Ukrainian war effort. Even the top commander isn’t exactly beaming with braggadocio these days. Indeed, he even used the s-word — stalemate — to describe the current state of the war. “Just like in the First World War we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate,” he opined to the Economist last week. “There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough.”

Those remarks aren’t exactly a shock to those monitoring the war. Take a look at a battlefield map from early June, before Ukraine’s counteroffensive commenced, and the disposition of forces is almost identical to what the map looks like today. Zaluzhny is right: There is no big breakthrough in the works. The Russian army may have long since exposed itself as an incompetent mess, but Russian forces have managed to partially replace lack of quality with mass and whole tons of ordinance.

The Russians have turned the 600-mile-long front line into a European-style version of the Korean Peninsula’s Demilitarized Zone, with miles upon miles of land mines, tank traps, machine gun nests and trenches. To the extent the Ukrainians have made territorial gains, they’ve been at the margins and have come at a very high cost in men and equipment. In some areas of the front line, the Ukrainians are back on defense; in Avdiivka and near Kupiansk, Russian forces are keeping Ukrainian troops busy with a near constant volley of artillery fire (Moscow has yet to capture either city).

We should be brutally honest: More than five months in, Ukraine’s counteroffensive has failed. While many would undoubtedly take serious issue with this assessment, the evidence available is quite clear. The Ukrainians hoped to accomplish three major objectives: reach the Sea of Azov, cut Russian-occupied territory in two and squeeze the Crimea Peninsula to the point where Putin concluded that maintaining control of the strategic peninsula was too costly. Not a single one of these objectives has been accomplished. Ukrainian policymakers and military officers will now have to make a choice about whether doubling down on their current strategy will increase the chances of success or whether an alternative plan, perhaps the consolidation of land the Ukrainian army already possesses, is a wiser course.

Whichever decision the Ukrainian government takes will determine the scope and direction of the war over the coming months. Regardless, Zelenskyy and his top advisers are clear about one thing: Even broaching the subject of peace talks with the Russian occupiers is unacceptable. “We don’t want to make any dialogue with terrorists,” Zelenskyy declared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” over the weekend. “And the president of the United States and Congress, bipartisan support, all these people, they know that I am not ready to speak with the terrorists because their word is nothing.”

The question then arises: If Zelenskyy isn’t ready to talk to the Russians now, when will he be ready? During the war’s first month, Ukrainian and Russian officials actually did sit down in an attempt to find a way out before the going got tough. Of course, those sessions didn’t amount to anything. Outside of a few prisoner exchanges, contact between Kyiv and Moscow has since been kept to an absolute minimum. Zelenskyy’s position has hardened as the war has trudged on, and Putin, eyeing what will be a tumultuous election season in the United States, will likely hold all of his options in reserve until he knows who the next president of the United States is going to be.

Wars end one of two ways: One side vanquishes the other on the battlefield or the combatants agree that an acceptable compromise is more advantageous to them than more fighting. The inability of the Russians and Ukrainians to make major advances in the field makes the first scenario highly unlikely. Yet, leaders on both sides have still not reached the point in which end-of-war diplomacy is a realistic possibility. Ukrainians should therefore brace for an even harsher winter.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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