The alleged stalemate in the Russo-Ukrainian war has again brought calls from some quarters for Ukraine to be “realistic” and agree to a land-for-peace deal with the Kremlin. This would abandon citizens to the horrors of Russian occupation and compel the international community to compromise the principles of the rule of law and state sovereignty. In this scenario, no compromises are asked of the Kremlin.
This latest round of calls followed The Economist’s interview on 1 November with General Valeriy Zaluzhny, the supreme commander of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU). Zaluzhny acknowledged that the AFU’s summer counter-offensive had failed to break through the unexpectedly strong Russian lines that guard Russia’s land corridor to Crimea in the southern Zaporizhzhia region. In addition, he said, “Just like in the First World War, we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate.”
Unsurprisingly, once Zaluzhny used the S-word, he unwittingly sanctioned its rapid transformation into conventional wisdom. In fact, Zaluzhny was making a sober assessment of the advanced technologies the AFU needed in order to attain its operational objectives and win the war. His key phrase was “given current technology.” In other words, he was challenging Ukraine’s government and Western partners to do what is necessary for the proper arming of the AFU so that the stalemate could be broken. Resignation to a military stalemate was the furthest thing from his mind.
Zaluzhny’s use of the S-word was unfortunate because stasis, not stalemate, is the better term for conditions on the battlefield. Stalemate, according to the Collins Dictionary, is “any unresolved situation in which further action is impossible or useless.” Three months of a minimally successful counteroffensive do not make for impossible or useless action, just as the fact that the front line has not moved much does not necessarily mean stalemate. If that were the case, then one would have to conclude that General Petain was correct in believing that the German invasion of France had resulted in a stalemate that made further French resistance impossible or useless. According to this logic, Winston Churchill should have caved as well. In fact, both the Russians and Ukrainians are fully committed to actions that will produce significant changes on the front, perhaps not immediately but within a few months.
Stasis or a “state of equilibrium” better captures the reality, although it too overlooks the fact that the Ukrainians are doing better in some respects and the Russians in others. But at least stasis doesn’t imply that traditional actions are impossible or useless. They may be, but policymakers and analysts who project three months of stasis onto an “endless” stalemate are mistaken. The stasis would have to continue for at least another half year for claims of stalemate to be plausible. For the time being, it is much too early to say that the broader Ukrainian war effort is failing.
A closer look at actual developments on the battlefield shows that they are far more fluid and open-ended than either stalemate or stasis connotes. Over the last winter, the AFU inflicted very large casualties on the Russian forces, especially in the Donbas “meat grinder” of Bakhmut. An entire Russian recruitment cohort was essentially wasted in futile attacks ordered by the Kremlin for political reasons and the desire to produce a “victory.” A new meat grinder is being repeated in the nearby town of Avdiivka and appears set to chew up another recruitment cohort. According to reliable estimates, the Russians have lost thousands of soldiers since October in Avdiivka.
The Ukrainians have established a strong defensive line on high ground on the northern front in the Kharkiv area. They would welcome a Russian offensive that would produce high casualties for the attackers. The same AFU strategy of concentrating on reducing the Russian forces and damaging logistics applies elsewhere, in the south and in Crimea, where the AFU hit high-value targets almost daily. Domestically produced surface drones and cruise missiles, supplemented by British and French air-to-ground missiles and now by American ATACMS ground-to-ground missiles, have opened the western part of the Black Sea to grain shipments and also forced the Russian fleet to abandon its main base at Sevastopol.
Finally, the AFU has established a bridgehead along the entire eastern bank of the southern section of the Dnipro River. If the AFU could force a crossing with heavy equipment—for which they need air cover—they could present a very serious threat to the isthmus and transportation chokepoint in northern Crimea. Significantly, the Russians have not been able to push the AFU back across the Dnipro.
Besides the fact that there is no stalemate that would necessitate negotiations, Ukraine cannot negotiate with Russia’s illegitimate president and indicted war criminal Vladimir Putin for two additional reasons. First, Putin is a bare-faced liar, and there is no reason for anyone to believe he will hold his word. Second, Putin has made it clear that he believes Ukraine should be destroyed. The Russian army has broken many articles of the Geneva Convention on war crimes, among other things, through systematic torture and rape of civilians and the use of thermobaric bombs against Ukrainian soldiers. The Ukrainians clearly understand “that you cannot negotiate with someone who intends to kill you,” a quote often attributed to Israeli prime minister Golda Meir. Negotiations will be possible only after Putin departs, either physically or politically.
In the end, the argument for stalemate and negotiations isn’t about Ukraine. As Zaluzhny implied, Ukraine can win if it receives the requisite equipment at the right time. It is Western policymakers, and not Ukraine, who are stalemated. It is they, and not Kyiv, who aren’t sure whether they want Ukraine to win big, and hence for Russia to lose big, or whether they want Ukraine to eke out a semi-victory that would enable Putin and his brutal regime to survive.
In sum, there is no rationale for Ukraine to make concessions and, in effect, agree to capitulation. Instead, Ukraine’s Western partners should ask themselves whether their role model is Petain or Churchill, and then, presumably having chosen the latter, they should steady the course and help Ukraine end the war through the timely provision of weapons in sufficient quantity.
This is not charity. As President Joe Biden recently stated, it is an investment in the West’s own security and welfare.
About the Authors
Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark.
Dennis Soltys is a retired Canadian professor of comparative politics specializing in the former Soviet region.
All images are Creative Commons.