Frozen war: Russia’s slow, bloody slog in eastern Ukraine ushers in new phase of fighting

Russia’s hot war in Ukraine could be about to turn cold.

With Friday marking the 100th day of the invasion, it has become clear Russian President Vladimir Putin has scaled back his once-lofty ambitions of immediately decapitating the Ukrainian government and bringing most, if not all, of the country under Moscow’s thumb. Instead, Mr. Putin and his military leadership have revamped their mission, mounting a fierce offensive on eastern Ukraine’s disputed Donbas region and seeking to drive enemy forces out of the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces.

In the process, the Kremlin has redefined its definition of victory and all but assured a long, drawn-out slog that will likely kill thousands more and exacerbate growing food and refugee crises in Europe. 

NATO, which Mr. Putin had hoped to intimidate with his military campaign, shows a newfound sense of purpose and is even poised to boost defense spending and expand with new members as a direct result of the Russian offensive.

Russia, at least in the short term, may be content to chip away at Ukrainian defenses and bring more of the country’s eastern flank into its orbit. Such a strategy is on clear display this week as Russian troops mercilessly pound the city of Sievierodonetsk, which is now largely under Russian occupation, much like the strategically vital port city of Mariupol.

But with the war now confined to a much smaller theater in eastern and southern Ukraine, foreign policy specialists say Moscow and Kyiv are engaged not in a continent-altering clash but in an era of “frozen,” highly localized conflict. That new reality could result in few notable gains on the battlefield even as the fighting fuels continued death and destruction across Ukraine, and economic turmoil worldwide.

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Some analysts contend that Mr. Putin’s overall long-term goal — driving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy from power and installing a compliant regime in his place — hasn’t changed. But he now appears forced to pursue that strategy in a much more measured, gradual way, aiming to drain Ukrainians’ will to fight and erode the West’s tolerance for economic pain with slow, bloody, prolonged ground attacks and continuous shelling of cities.

“I do believe Mr. Putin and his military have seen they now have to change their overall expectations,” said retired Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, former NATO allied supreme commander in Europe. 

Where just months ago, Russian forces were on the outskirts of Kyiv, Kharkiv and other major Ukrainian cities, they are not struggling to make marginal gains along Ukraine’s far eastern and southern regions.

“I don’t see them proceeding further southwest along the coast toward Odesa,” Gen. Breedlove said Wednesday at a virtual event hosted by the American Security Project. “They’re already starting to fortify some positions, meaning they don’t intend to move forward.”

“I think what we see on the battlefield is a Russia that is trying to solidify the few gains that it’s made — few, but important gains it’s made in the Donbas, so that Mr. Putin can declare a victory and try to freeze the conflict now with more Ukrainian land in his possession,” he said.

For Ukraine, a frozen conflict likely means more instability and limited chances for clear victory, absent a major Western military intervention. Even before the full-scale war began on Feb. 24, pro-Russian separatists forces backed by Mr. Putin’s armies had been battling Ukrainian troops in the Donbas. Kyiv was unable to liberate that territory, nor was it able to prevent Moscow from seizing the Crimean peninsula in a largely bloodless annexation in 2014.

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But it’s far too early to draw conclusions about how, or when, the war may end. Pentagon officials say the brutal, close-quarters fighting in the Donbas means there could be wild swings in momentum over the coming weeks and months.

“It is in many ways a very close and intimate fight. I think I’ve described it as a knife fight and that’s not an inaccurate way of putting it,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said last week. “There are places, towns, villages, hamlets, that the Russians and Ukrainians are in very close contact. And it’s very dynamic. … There are towns and villages which fall to the Russians on a given day, and then the Ukrainians will recover [them] days later. There’s still a lot of back-and-forth.”

“And I don’t think being predictive about how long it’s going to take or who’s going to win is a useful exercise right now,” he said. “What we are focused on is making sure that the Ukrainians can succeed on the battlefield. And again, that’s the nature of the conversations that we’re having.”

Alternate realities

In a campaign that has already defied the expectations of U.S. government and private analysts, observers say there are several paths the conflict could take. Russia could continue making slow, incremental gains in the Donbas, breathing new life into the Russian war machine, boosting morale among its troops, and giving Mr. Putin newfound leverage to push for a cease-fire on his terms.

If the West continues its direct support for Ukraine, such a scenario could quickly spiral out of control, researchers with the Atlantic Council think tank wrote recently in a detailed analysis that explored several possible futures.

“Further into 2023, NATO allies continue to send more lethal military aid as Ukraine — which refused Putin’s proposed cease-fire — tries to retake occupied territory. The quality and quantity of this aid tempts Moscow to continue disrupting supply flows into Ukraine, increasing the risk of attacks close to (or even on) NATO territory while widening the conflict between the alliance and Russia,” Atlantic Council scholars Mathew Burrows and Robert A. Manning wrote, mapping out a scenario in which Russia captures more territory in the Donbas and slowly strangles the Ukrainian resistance.

“By late 2023, Western consensus is fraying,” they wrote of that theoretical future. “Concerned by economic costs, Ukrainian suffering, refugee burdens, and fears of escalation (including the risk of a nuclear attack by Russia), Germany and France lead a multinational effort to press Kyiv to [explore] a peace arrangement with Moscow.”

But there are other possible outcomes as well. Energized and better-armed Ukrainian forces could drive back Russian invaders, as they did in late February and early March during the battle for Kyiv. 

Ukrainian troops also pushed Russian forces away from Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, effectively ending Russia’s military push north of the Donbas.

If the conflict remains truly frozen, with neither side making any significant gains over a period of months or even years, Mr. Putin could face growing pressure at home to abandon the war and strike a deal with Mr. Zelenskyy, Mr. Burrows and Mr. Manning wrote. 

How the U.S. and its European allies might handle a lengthy, frozen conflict is a key question moving forward. For now, NATO remains mostly aligned in its commitment to massive economic sanctions on Moscow. Europe also is seeking to move away rapidly from its dependence on Russian oil and gas.

The White House on Wednesday announced a massive $700 million military assistance package to Ukraine, underscoring that for now at least, President Biden is still committed to providing direct aid to Ukrainian fighters over the loud objections of the Kremlin. 

But months or years of conflict could make such an approach more difficult to maintain, as Washington and other Western capitals face pressures of their own.

Soaring gas prices at home already have complicated the equation, and a war between two of the world’s great grain producers has sent food prices soaring and unnerved governments across the Middle East and Asia. Mr. Biden and his European counterparts could face new pressure to push harder for a ceasefire agreement if fuel and food costs keep rising.

Mr. Zelenskyy, who has shot to global stardom as the face of his country’s surprisingly effective resistance, also faces hard questions over what to settle for in a cease-fire. Ukrainian officials insist they will never relinquish sovereignty claims, including to Crimea, but a return to the status quo before Feb. 24 would leave significant swaths of the Donbas effectively in Russia’s control.

While Russian losses in men and materiel so far have been massive, Mr. Zelenskyy revealed in an interview this week with the U.S. network Newsmax that his country is averaging 100 death and some 500 more wounded every day in the fighting. “The situation is very difficult,” he acknowledged.

U.S. and NATO officials have said they would accept any agreement to end the fighting that was acceptable to the government in Kyiv.

Some observers say it’s vital that the West remain firm, no matter how long the fighting lasts.

“Now we have to determine how we resolve this conflict,” Gen. Breedlove said. “Will we once again reward bad behavior by giving Mr. Putin the land he has grabbed in this war?”

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