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Experts reveal what the winter will bring for the Ukraine war – and why Putin will be banking on Trump

Any significant changes now likely to take place off the battlefield, with ‘Putin banking almost everything on a Trump return’, analysts say

Andy Gregory
Thursday 19 October 2023 06:30 BST
Biden insists US can back two wars at the same time in Israel and Ukraine

The Ukraine war may remain a “stalemate” throughout 2024, military experts have told The Independent, as hopes fade for a major breakthrough in this year’s counteroffensive against Russia.

Delays in Western military aid handed Moscow time to build heavily fortified defences which have largely held up against months of intense assaults – and constraints in ammunition and weaponry now mean both armies may struggle to sustain the current pace of the war, some analysts believe.

With the prospect of a Middle East conflict likely to further stretch Washington – Ukraine’s largest backer – ahead of a US presidential election in November 2024, Vladimir Putin’s strategy may now be to preserve the current state of the front line and “wait it out”, Western experts say.

Servicemen load a NSV machine gun during training manoeuvres in Kyiv (EPA/Oleg Petrasyuk)

With just weeks likely left before seasonal weather changes dampen offensive efforts in Ukraine, Dr Patrick Bury of the University of Bath said: “There hasn’t been a breakthrough, there’s been tactical gains, low-level operational gains – but not strategic.”

“What this summer has shown is that [Ukraine] can fight at company level [of around 100 soldiers] but when you go the next level up to the battalion, they just don’t really have the coordinated experience to fight with all the moving parts”, said Dr Bury, a former Nato analyst and British Army captain.

While the US is due to start providing F-16 fighter jets next year, the sophistication of the Russian air force means Ukraine will still struggle to achieve air superiority, “and you need air superiority really to be able to free up the chance of large-scale manoeuvre”, he added.

Therefore “unless there’s significant widespread packages of training, new weapons and equipment”, Dr Bury said, “it’s looking like 2024 is a bit of a stalemate” – with any significant shifts instead likely to take place off the battlefield.

Agreeing that “we’re [already] seeing a stalemate now”, Dr Frank Ledwidge – a former military intelligence officer, now at the University of Portsmouth – questioned “whether any tactics would have worked against defenders who [Ukraine] didn’t outnumber three to one”.

A Ukrainian soldier in his position in Avdiivka, Donetsk (AP Photo/Libkos)

“In the most basic military algorithms, you need an attack ratio of three [troops] to one, and the Ukrainians don’t have anything like that,” he said. “So barring any significant change in that force ratio there’s no reason really now to assume that future operations will be any different.”

Warning that there are “no game changers”, including F-16s, Dr Ledwidge likened the situation to the Western Front in 1917, adding: “Breakthroughs were made eventually in the First World War, but only when the Americans came in with two million soldiers.”

He added: “Unless somebody has the moral courage to say, ‘Ukraine is highly unlikely to retake all its land’, then this will go on.”

James Nixey, director of the Chatham House think tank’s Russia and Eurasia programme, said: “It does seem as though we’re heading towards a battle for Crimea.”

While noting that Russia is “going all-in” by putting its economy and society “on a near at total war footing”, which may help address ammunition shortages, Mr Nixey said he agreed that significant changes to the situation in Ukraine will now likely “happen off-field”.

“Putin is banking almost everything on a Trump return,” he said, adding that the conflict emerging in Gaza and Israel – and threatening to become a wider Middle East conflict drawing in Hezbollah and Iran – means that “attention, resources and funding will be diverted now” from Ukraine.

‘Putin is banking almost everything on a Trump return’ (Getty)

“While it’s true that the US army prepares for two simultaneous separate wars, the reality is that the pie is likely to be smaller – even if Ukraine funding is tagged onto an Israel assistance bid,” said Mr Nixey.

US president Joe Biden, who recently suffered a setback in securing Congress’s approval for Ukraine aid, rejected that prospect this week, telling CBS News: “We’re the United States of America, for God’s sake. The most powerful nation in the history of the world.

“We can take care of both of these and still maintain our overall international defence. We have the capacity to do this and we have an obligation … If we don’t, who does?”

But agreeing that a second conflict has “certainly got the potential for stretching the US”, Dr Bury and Dr Ledwidge both believe a military stalemate in Ukraine is therefore “very satisfactory” to the Russian president.

Israel is preparing to mount a ground offensive in Gaza after Hamas militants broke through the border and massacred hundreds of Israelis (Ariel Schalit/AP)

“Putin’s strategy is just to wait it out,” said Dr Bury. “Putin’s played a masterstroke here – he’s basically used a nuclear threat to slow down and salami-slice the aid to Ukraine. That’s the effect it’s had.”

“Those threats were enough to make the Biden administration and the Germans very wary” of supplying F-16s, tanks and long-range weaponry, he noted, adding: “We got there in the end, but it took time.

“And that, it turned out, gave Russia time to build very good defensive lines and make their problem easier and the Ukrainians’ much harder.”

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