March 22, 2022

What stalemate means in Ukraine and why it matters

The initial Russian campaign to invade and conquer Ukraine is culminating without achieving its objectives—it is being defeated, in other words. The war is settling into a stalemate condition in much of the theater. But the war isn’t over and isn’t likely to end soon. Nor is the outcome of the war yet clear. The Russians might still win; the Ukrainians might win; the war might expand to involve other countries; or it might turn into a larger scale version of the stalemate in Ukraine’s east that had persisted from 2014 to the start of Russia’s invasion in February 2022. The failure of Russia’s initial military campaign nevertheless marks an important inflection that has implications for the development and execution of Western military, economic, and political strategies. The West must continue supplying Ukraine with the weapons it needs to fight, but it must now also expand its aid dramatically to help keep Ukraine alive as a country even in conditions of stalemate.

The technical terms “stalemate,” “campaign,” and “culmination” can confuse the lay reader unfamiliar with military terminology. This note offers an explanation of those terms with reference to historical examples in World War I and World War II, recognizing that historical analogies are always limited.

A campaign is a major military undertaking launched as part of a war effort to achieve one or more objectives that are necessary but not necessarily sufficient to achieving the overall war aims. The Russian invasion of Ukraine that began nearly a month ago was such an undertaking—its aims of seizing Kyiv and Ukraine’s other major cities were part of a larger effort to replace the government of Ukraine, destroy the Ukrainian military, and allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to set political, economic, and security conditions in Ukrainian territory to his liking.

It is useful to compare Putin’s initial campaign with the German invasion of the Soviet Union (USSR) that began in June 1941. The German objectives were to seize Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg), Moscow, and Ukraine to knock the USSR out of the war quickly. The Germans destroyed huge portions of the Soviet military, besieged Leningrad, reached the outskirts of Moscow, and then the campaign culminated in winter 1941. Like the Russians in Ukraine today, the Germans in 1941 continued to try to get more combat power to the front and launch increasingly hopeless attacks against Moscow well past the point of diminishing returns—which is one sign that a campaign has culminated. The Germans failed to take any of their objectives.

The German campaign culminated with Leningrad besieged, though, and it remained besieged for nearly 900 days. But the 1941 campaign was unquestionably defeated, the Germans went over to the defense, the Soviets launched a counter-offensive, and then the Germans launched a new campaign in 1942 that culminated at Stalingrad. Leningrad remained besieged the entire time. So a campaign can end with a major city (much larger than Mariupol, for example) besieged, the war not over, both sides fighting, and yet the campaign can have failed. That’s the situation the Russians now likely face in Ukraine. But the Germans still had a chance in 1942 (although historians argue about how much of a chance they had). The war wasn’t over until 1945, and millions died in the ensuing years.

Stalemate describes a condition in war in which neither side can change the front lines dramatically no matter how hard it tries. WWII never reached stalemate in Europe. The opponents alternated offensive and defensive campaigns but were almost always moving. World War I epitomized stalemate. Stalemate in that conflict, as in others, saw lots of very hard and nasty fighting with many casualties on both sides. The front lines became generally (but not completely) static, with very little movement. There was always some movement of the lines even in World War I, but never enough to change the situation materially.

But stalemate often involves large and bloody battles. The Battles of the Somme, Verdun, and Passchendaele took place in conditions of stalemate. Hundreds of thousands were killed in those battles that moved the front lines a little, but not much. And stalemates can ultimately be broken, as the one in World War I eventually was. One side or the other can lose its will. One side or the other can gain a new ally (like the US in World War I). One side or the other can gain a technological advantage, although that’s less common (and was less important in World War I than the entry of the US). One side or the other can just be ground down and collapse (like Russia in 1917). Many things can happen in the context of a huge amount of fighting and dying, all in conditions of stalemate. That is the most likely course of action we see in Ukraine right now.

Our assessment that the Russian campaign has culminated and that conditions of stalemate are emerging rests on our assessments, laid out carefully in many fully documented reports published on our website (not just maps) and increasingly validated by reports from various Western intelligence communities, that the Russians do not have the capability to bring a lot of fresh effective combat power to the fight in a short period of time. The kinds of mobilizations the Russians are engaging in will generate renewed fighting power in months at the earliest. Unless something remarkable happens to break the stalemate now settling in, the stalemate is likely to last for months. Hence our assessment and our forecast.

And of course we may be wrong. What could happen for that to be the case:

  1. The Ukrainians could collapse. They could run out of essential materials or will. That appears unlikely based on everything CTP and ISW are seeing.
  2. The Russians could find a way to cobble together a large enough effective mechanized force to encircle Kyiv, to isolate Zaporizhiya and Dnipro, or to break through the Ukrainian defense lines and take Kyiv by storm. Our assessment is that the Russians do not have the capability to do that based on our study of their performance and of their military’s reserve system. That assessment is the basis for our call that this campaign has culminated. But we could be wrong, the Russians could find a way to build up such a new, effective mechanized force at scale and quickly, and then completely alter the approach they have been taking and launch a sudden and decisive mechanized campaign.
  3. The Russians could amass enough artillery, missile, and airpower to destroy the Ukrainian forces defending Kyiv and other major cities, allowing the weakened and damaged Russian forces the opportunity to regain the initiative and achieve their objectives. This is the likeliest way our assessment could be falsified, but it is still unlikely. The Russians are showing many limitations in their ability to mass air, artillery, missile, and rocket fires and effects, including suffering from obvious and severe logistical and production problems that they are unlikely to be able to fix rapidly. It is very difficult, in addition, to achieve such decisive effects by fires as to offset the weakness of the Russian mechanized forces against an opponent as determined as the Ukrainians.

The aforementioned options would mean that our judgement that this Russian campaign has culminated was wrong. We are constantly watching for indicators that any of those options will likely come to pass, and we will report on them—and change our assessment—if we observe them.

We published our assessment that this Russian campaign has culminated because it has important, urgent implications for Western policy. If our assessment is correct, then the West must increase efforts to supply Ukraine with all the materials it will need to survive as a country and continue fighting during conditions of stalemate and siege, which will be brutal. The West will have to help Ukraine stabilize a functioning economy in its unoccupied territory that can survive even under constant Russian attack. It will have to move beyond the appropriately rushed effort to get specific high-end defensive systems to Ukrainian soldiers and think about the bigger problem of keeping Ukraine and Ukrainians alive during a long war.