“One stroke of magic and two options”. The Ukrainian counteroffensive failed. Now?

As all eyes are on Israel and the Russian campaign against the country’s critical infrastructure draws to a close, Kiev admits it has reached a stalemate. Ukraine’s hands appear to be tied, but it still has two options

For five long months, tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers tried everything to break through the Russian defensive line. The Russian military “suffered heavy losses” but mistakes were made, weaknesses were exposed and Ukraine’s top general, Valery Zalushny, admits the war has reached a dangerous stalemate for Ukraine. “The repression factor has stopped working” and a war fueling a technological race to break the deadlock, though there are “two solutions” to replacing Vladimir Putin.

“Despite heavy losses, Russia should not be underestimated. Let’s be honest: Russia is a feudal country, where the cheapest resource is human life. For us, the most precious thing we have is our people,” said Zalushny, Supreme Commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Interview For The Economist.

History proves the Ukrainian public right. For centuries, Russia never lost a war due to lack of soldiers or signed a peace treaty due to high casualties. The 150,000 Russian soldiers Ukraine says died on its borders is a drop in the bucket compared to the record of deaths Russia is accustomed to. But a special combination of factors has kept the conflict in Ukraine at a stalemate, with neither side able to build the force or advantage needed to overcome the enemy’s defenses, no matter how many soldiers are deployed.

According to the military leader, this situation occurs because in the First World War, “a technological level” was reached that did not allow “deep and beautiful progress”. Zaluzhnyi refers to the proliferation of drones, especially surveillance drones. These devices eliminated one of the most important elements of any armed conflict: the element of surprise.

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“For the first time, we have a battlefield with a large number of surveillance assets. Both parties, for the first time, failed to have the surprise factor. Ukrainians and Russians watch everything the other side does. Once the soldiers are assembled, there is immediate bombardment,” explains Major General Agostinho Costa.

This surveillance capability makes the battlefield in Ukraine particularly dangerous. Any attempt to mass soldiers and tanks to attack a point in the front line is quickly detected and attacked by artillery. When the cannon doesn’t work, kamikaze drones appear. “Not even the trenches are safe now”, reinforces Agostinho Costa.

Ukrainian soldiers try to take shelter from Russian bombing in eastern Ukraine (AP Images)

A stroke of magic

Initially, the failure of the main Ukrainian commander to penetrate the Russian defensive lines – which had been built up throughout the winter break – revealed the inability of the Ukrainian commanders. So Zaluzhnyi changed some of the leaders on the ground, but the results remained the same. Now, after a nearly month-long Russian offensive with tragic losses at Avdiivka, the 50-year-old general is convinced that only technological advances will allow him to regain the advantage in the conflict.

“This war cannot be won with last generation’s weapons and outdated methods,” he asserts.

For this reason, for Ukraine, the most important factor in changing this impasse is gaining control of the skies. Without this factor, the Ukrainian Armed Forces cannot break the deadlock. Anti-aircraft defense systems with various limitations, as well as thousands of cheap drones that allow “massive attacks” to “sink” Russian defenses, are the basis for a new phase of the war in Ukraine. General Zalushny advocates the technological development of “predator drones” equipped with nets to hunt other drones, as well as equipment that emits a false electronic signal to attract Russian missiles.

“There will be a technological race where both sides will look for a magic trick that will break this deadlock. There will be an acceleration in arms deliveries. This war will be defined by the military technological base, but Russia has done its homework and has some advantages here”, suggests Major General Agostinho Costa.

Moscow adapted quickly to the realities of high-intensity warfare. Russia has ramped up military industrial production under the leadership of former president and current No. 2 in the Russian National Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev. Major munitions factories work 24 hours a day, with three shifts of workers. In this regard, Zaluzhnyi insists that Russia “should not be underestimated” and that production continues to increase “despite unprecedented obstacles.”

However, the number of ammunition consumed and the number of items destroyed is less than the production capacity. For this reason, the Kremlin began to purchase 155 mm ammunition from North Korea. According to South Korean secret services, ten shipments containing about one million rounds of ammunition have gone from North Korea to Russia since the end of August.

In the United States, production has increased significantly, albeit at a slower pace than Ukraine would have liked. By early 2024, the US military commercial fabric is expected to be able to produce 57 thousand 155mm rounds of ammunition per month. In Europe, the situation where the EU cannot supply millions of ammunition is very worrying. He promised Kiev until the end of the year.

A Ukrainian soldier fires a mortar in the Kubyansk, Kharkiv region (AP Photo/Kostientin Liberov)

Winter campaign

The West could make up for the shortage of heavy artillery ammunition by deploying long-range missiles that have been repeatedly requested by Kiev officials, particularly US ATACMs and German Taurus missiles. These explosives would allow Ukraine to strike high-value targets that Russia has kept away from the frontline, such as ammunition depots, ships, warplanes or the Kerch bridge.

“We are facing a temporary stalemate. Last year’s moratorium benefited Russia. But starting next year, when the F-16 and JAS 39 Gripen fighter jets start to arrive, the Ukrainian Air Force will be more capable than it is now,” said Major General Isidro de Morais Pereira. Guarantees.

In the short term, experts believe we will see a return to strategic bombing of critical civilian infrastructure during the winter months, when weather conditions do not facilitate progress on the ground. Power plants, fuel depots and the railway network are again expected to be targets of Moscow’s ballistic missiles. Natalia Humenyuk, a spokeswoman for the operational command in the country’s south, admits that Russia “might resort to these types of attacks” in the coming months.

On Friday, November 3, Russia did just that. A massive strike involving 40 drones targeted dozens of private homes, commercial buildings and critical infrastructure in several Ukrainian regions. Officials guarantee they are preparing for this possibility, but warn that Ukraine is more vulnerable than last year because it has less excess capacity and few equipment reserves.

“We haven’t seen the Russians use powerful Kalibr missiles in recent months. We’ll see how far the effort to neutralize the country’s critical infrastructure goes from here,” reckons Agostinho Costa.

Explosion in residential apartment (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

Two solutions

Throughout the summer, Ukrainian forces gained the initiative in the fighting and put Russia on the defensive. Now the situation is changing at some points on the front line, Russia is conducting some offensives in different regions. One of these cases is in Avdiivka: on October 10, Moscow launched a surprise attack that resulted in heavy losses and few gains for its army.

“Russia is preparing to launch another winter offensive. This is what happened at Avdiivka, which was unsuccessful. They lost a lot of men and vehicles. This scene reminds me of what happened at Wuhleder,” recalled Isidro de Morais Pereira.

But the loss of human life does not have the same price everywhere and Russia has already demonstrated that it is willing to suffer significant losses to achieve its objectives of capturing the Donbass, Zaporozhye and Kherson regions.

For Isidro de Morais Pereira, the current impasse leaves Ukraine with only two options to get Putin to “change his mind” and end the war. The first hypothesis is that Ukraine successfully reached the Sea of ​​Azov and seriously threatens the security of the Crimean Peninsula. “A visible defeat on the battlefield may lead Putin to consider other options,” he opined.

Other scenarios include a possible Russian economic collapse. According to data from the Russian Ministry of Finance, defense spending will reach 30% of the Russian state budget for 2024, which is 10.8 billion rubles (107 billion euros). More than three times the expenditure on education, health and environment. Also, the devaluation of the ruble means imports are more expensive, driving up inflation and forcing the Russian central bank to keep rates higher. They are currently at 15%, which prohibits investment.

“It is necessary to tighten sanctions. The possibility of an economic collapse may force Putin to reconsider his position”, agrees Isidro de Morais Pereira.

Dmitry Medvedev visits the Uralvakanzavod factory in Nizhny Tagil (Getty Images).

Middle East on the way

Confounding Ukraine’s accounts is the outbreak of violence in the Middle East. The October 7 attack by Hamas on several towns in southern Israel shifted Washington’s attention to the region, which is now trying to strike a difficult balance to keep the two conflicts from spilling over into other countries. American public support for arms to Ukraine is declining, with only 41% of “the people” supporting Congress sending more weapons. Before the counterattack, the figure was 65%, according to one study Reuters. Now, all eyes are on Tel Aviv.

“The conflict in the Middle East has diverted attention, but it’s all temporary. Support for Ukraine will continue, but not in the way we expect,” the major general admitted.

In Interview Volodymyr Zelenskyy told Time magazine that it was “logical” that the situation in the Middle East was bad for Ukraine. “Of course we lost because of the events in the Middle East. People are dying and the world’s help is needed to save lives and save humanity,” said the Ukrainian president, adding that despite the war-weariness of the Allies, their hope for victory remains unshakable.

“No one believes in our success as much as I do. No one.”

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