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The growing risk of escalation The war in Ukraine has reached a stalemate. Here’s why it’s unlikely to last.
In the 40 days since the Russian army captured the city of Lysychansk, it hasn’t gained more than seven miles of ground anywhere along the 620-mile front between Kharkiv and Kherson. Neither has Ukraine’s army — despite reports from Kyiv that it would launch a major counteroffensive over the summer. With both sides ostensibly unable to mount an offensive large enough to alter the course of the war, it’s safe to say the fighting has reached a stalemate. But it’s also clear that neither side is happy with the front line where it sits right now, taking even a tentative peace agreement off the table. That leaves two possibilities: a frozen conflict (effectively a loss for both sides) or an escalation.
In this article, our editors attempt to assess the military situation in Ukraine based on the available data. This article was originally published in Russian on August 16, 2022. Meduza opposes the war and demands the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.
How has the war progressed in the last month?
- After Ukrainian forces retreated from Lysychansk in early July, they shifted southwest to the cities of Bakhmut, Soledar, and Siversk. In the weeks since, Russian troops have struggled to break through Ukraine’s hilltop-stationed defense line, though they have reached the outskirts of Bakhmut and Soledar. Russia’s rate of advance here hasn't exceeded a few hundred meters (about a thousand feet) per day.
- Further south, in Svitlodarsk, the Wagner private military company (PMC) captured the Vuhlehirska thermal power plant in late July after a month-long struggle. Since the start of August, however, the mercenaries have only managed to advance about five kilometers (three miles) towards Bakhmut.
- Russian-backed forces from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic captured most of the village of Pisky near the Donetsk airport, likely a consequence of Ukraine redirecting some of the artillery it had stationed there to other areas. In the weeks since the offensive began, however, the invading troops have only gained about two kilometers (1.25 miles) of ground.
- Ukraine still hasn’t launched a counteroffensive on Kherson, and Western correspondents who recently visited Mykolaiv reported seeing no signs that Ukrainian troops were preparing for one. Ukrainian soldiers they spoke to on the ground expressed fears that Russian reinforcements sent to Kherson from Lysychansk would allow Russia to launch an offensive of its own.
- The only thing both sides have excelled at is launching missile strikes on their respective opponents' rearguard. And Ukraine, which has received long-range, high-precision missile systems from the U.S. and Great Britain in recent weeks, has had more success than Russia: Ukrainian forces have incapacitated all three of the major bridges over the Dnipro River near Kherson, forcing Russia to resort to ferries to transport its military equipment.
So the war has reached a deadlock?
Not necessarily; both sides are far from exhausting their mobilization capacities.
All signs indicate that both Russia and Ukraine have been unable to build up the reserves necessary to turn the tide one way or the other. But the reasons are different for each country.
Russia lacks men
- Russia's military continues to suffer from a manpower shortage; the army itself is more of a hodgepodge of men from various outfits than a set of complete units. It includes soldiers from peacetime formations that weren’t fully staffed, mercenaries, soldiers recruited from the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” and hastily-trained “volunteers” from throughout Russia.
- The total number of volunteers who have been sent to the front already or will be sent in the coming weeks is no more than a few thousand. Their ranks are supplemented by an unknown number of mercenary fighters from the Wagner PMC and other “private” formations.
- Judging by the low combat value of the “volunteer battalions,” they’re likely used less as separate elements and more as stockpiles from which to replace lost troops.
Ukraine lacks weapons
- Despite difficulties with the mobilization process, the Ukrainian army has no shortage of manpower.
- However, its newly mobilized soldiers have to be trained, which takes time, and armed, which requires help from allies; Ukraine’s own weapon reserves have run out almost completely.
- But the weapons it receives from the West, however effective they might be in comparison to Russia’s, are clearly not sufficient to arm dozens of new brigades, which is exactly what Ukraine will need to do if it wants to launch a large-scale offensive.
The Russian army will likely keep putting pressure on the Ukrainian army in the Donbas, taking advantage of its superior weapons supply, while the Ukrainian army will stage counterattacks in other areas and launch missile strikes on Russian ammunition depots and communication channels. This could go on for months.
On the other hand, neither army is operating at its full potential. In addition to recruiting volunteers and mercenaries, the Russian Defense Ministry is likely recruiting new contract fighters to join existing units. That will presumably allow Russia’s military command to send complete brigades to the front rather than just bits and pieces.
So far, Ukraine has only sent a few of the brigades formed since the start of the war to the front, each of them consisting of less than 20,000 people. Meanwhile, according to official data, hundreds of thousands of people have been drafted into the army, and many (probably more than half) of the weapons sent from the West have not been deployed to the front yet. All of this suggests that both sides are preparing for the fighting to intensify.
The odds of escalation are increasing with time: the Kremlin may decide to announce an official mobilization, which would theoretically allow it to send as many as a million troops to Ukraine (compared to the current hundred thousand or so). The West would likely respond by increasing its supply of weapons to Ukraine. Or vice versa: a spike in the supply of Western weapons to Ukraine could push Russia to declare a general mobilization.
Does that mean escalation is inevitable?
It’s not inevitable, but it is extremely likely — because a frozen conflict with both sides in their current positions would be seen as a failure by both the Kremlin and Ukraine.
Why doesn't Russia want the war to freeze where it is now?
According to an analysis by military historian Igor Kurtukov:
- Western sanctions against Russia will make it nearly impossible to rearm its troops.
- This war has put the weakness of the Russian army on full display, which means Russia has lost a significant source of negotiating power on the international stage. A frozen conflict would make this obvious to a domestic audience as well.
- The war has resurrected NATO’s sense of purpose and prompted Finland and Sweden to join the alliance — which now considers Russia its main adversary.
- Ukraine is not “demilitarized,” as Putin promised it would be; on the contrary, its army is now armed with modern Western weaponry.
- The line of contact between Russian and Ukraine has grown, and because Russia has recognized and effectively annexed the Donbas “republics,” they no longer serve as a buffer zone. A“frozen” conflict now would thus be even more expensive for the Kremlin than it was before the full-scale war.
In short, a frozen conflict right now would make it patently obvious that the war has been a net loss for Russia.
Why doesn't Ukraine want the war to freeze where it is now?
- Kyiv’s officially stated goal right now is the “complete liberation of Ukraine,” including Crimea.
- It’s not clear whether Ukraine would accept a return to the pre-war contact line with subsequent “diplomatic efforts to return all territories,” though it could frame that outcome as a victory.
What is clear is that neither of those outcomes would be acceptable to the Kremlin (at least while Putin is in power).
That leaves two possible scenarios:
- A long, all-consuming war with no clear way for either side to achieve its political goals unless they both decide that ending the war would be less costly than continuing to try to change its course.
- Escalation: the Kremlin could declare a general mobilization, while the West could ramp up its weapon supplies to Ukraine.
It’s possible that both the Kremlin and NATO will do their best to avoid uncontrollable escalation as long as possible. But if either side determines its goals are out of reach under the current circumstances, escalation is likely.
Where would escalation lead?
There’s no way to predict the outcome for sure, but these are some possible scenarios:
- One side could stop building up resources for political reasons (forcing it to agree to a loss of territory).
- Both sides could decide that escalation is unacceptable, bringing the war to another stalemate.
- The Kremlin’s political priorities could change. For example, Russia could find itself under new leadership.
Military experts have considered a range of extreme possibilities, including a direct confrontation between Russian and NATO troops. According to the RAND Corporation, if the West crosses what Russia considers to be a “red line” (which would likely lie at whatever point the Kremlin started to see defeat as a possibility), Russia might launch tactical missile strikes on munitions depots beyond Ukraine’s borders. Furthermore, if Russian leaders believe a NATO attack on Russian soil is inevitable (for example, if they see troops and missile strike systems in Eastern Europe or hear calls for direct intervention in the Western media), they might resort to the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
In May, the American Center for Strategic and International Studies conducted a series of war games to determine the likeliest outcomes of the war in Ukraine. The researchers found that while all participants frequently said that they wanted to minimize the odds of the conflict intensifying and spreading beyond Ukraine, they also made decisions that increased the risk of escalation. According to the experts, this suggests that the war in Ukraine is “likely the start, not the end, of a new acute phase of great power competition in Eurasia.”
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