With the front line in Ukraine having barely shifted despite months of fierce fighting, Ukraine’s top commander has acknowledged that his forces are locked in a “stalemate” with Russia and that no significant breakthrough was imminent, the most candid assessment so far by a leading Ukrainian official of the military’s stalled counteroffensive.
“Just like in the First World War we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate,” the commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, told The Economist in an interview published on Wednesday. “There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough.”
It was the first time a top Ukrainian commander said the fighting had reached an impasse, although General Zaluzhny added that the deadlock could be broken if Ukraine improved its technological abilities to gain air superiority and increase the effectiveness of artillery fire. He added that Russian forces, too, are incapable of advancing.
The general said modern technology and precision weapons on both sides were preventing troops from breaching enemy lines, including the expansive use of drones, and the ability to jam drones. He called for advances in electronic warfare as a way to break the deadlock.
“We need to ride the power embedded in new technologies,” he said.
The general also said he underestimated Russia’s willingness to sacrifice troops in order to prevent a breakthrough and prolong the war. “That was my mistake,” he said. “Russia has lost at least 150,000 dead. In any other country such casualties would have stopped the war.” His accounting of Russia’s casualties could not be independently verified.
His remarks come at particular fraught time for Ukraine in its 20-month battle against invading Russian forces. Western-supplied weapons have not enabled Ukraine to push through Russian defenses, and there are few weapons left that can make a difference. The willingness of Western allies to sustain support for Ukraine is ebbing, including in the United States, where some Republicans in the House are balking at providing more aid.
While Ukraine was able to drive Russian forces out of nearly half of the land they seized in their initial invasion in a series of counteroffensives — surprising many military analysts — the general said “the war at the present stage is gradually moving to a positional form” where both sides can pin each other down.
He provided his assessment in a nine-page essay published alongside the interview, noting the need to find “a way out.”
His remarks did not immediately prompt comment from Ukrainian officials, who have long been wary of describing the conflict as deadlocked. But the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said on Thursday that the war was “not in a stalemate” and that Russian troops would continue to press forward on the battlefield.
General Zaluzhny’s comments came amid a wider effort by Ukrainian officials to temper allies’ expectations of rapid battlefield success, while urging them to maintain military support to allow Ukraine to gain the advantage on the battlefield. On Tuesday, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said that the outside world was “accustomed to success” and complained that Ukrainian troops’ achievements were “perceived as a given.”
In his interview and essay, General Zaluzhny pointed out that the standoff was largely the result of technological parity on the battlefield, with both sides using modern sensors to detect troops and equipment, and advanced weapons to destroy them.
He said he understood the new state of the fighting after visiting the front line in Avdiivka, a Ukrainian town in the east that has faced repeated Russian assaults for several weeks. The use of artillery and drones enable each side to wear down the enemy, tie them up and target advancing troops.
“The simple fact is that we see everything the enemy is doing and they see everything we are doing,” he wrote.
Geolocated footage analyzed by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, shows that Russian forces have gained ground on the flanks of Avdiivka, but have so far failed to encircle the town. Ukraine’s top military command said on Thursday that nearly 60 clashes had been recorded over the past day around five eastern towns, including Avdiivka, but that Russian forces had failed to achieve their objectives. The account could not be independently verified.
At the same time, Kyiv’s southern counteroffensive, launched five months ago and carrying the hope that Ukrainian troops could split Russian forces in the south, appears to have all but stalled. Ukrainian forces have been unable to breach formidable layers of Russian defensive positions.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies calculated in a recent analysis that, until late August, Ukrainian troops advanced an average of about 90 meters per day during their southern push.
“It’s a tactical blockage,” said Thibault Fouillet, the deputy director of the French Foundation for Strategic Research, noting that Russian and Ukrainian troops were mutually canceling each other’s air and ground capabilities. “The front line has had time to freeze.”
General Zaluzhny expressed the fear that his forces would be drawn into a bloody trench war similar to World War I, which could last for years and in which Russia, thanks to the sheer mass of its army, could have an advantage.
“Ukraine’s armed forces need key military capabilities and technologies to break out of this kind of war,” he said in his essay. That includes the huge use of drones and more advanced artillery weapons to break through Russia’s air defense systems, as well as jamming devices to prevent Russia from flying its own drones.
Ukraine long lobbied the West to obtain F-16 fighter jets, which are expected to enter the battlefield some time next year. But General Zaluzhny appeared to indicate that they would be less helpful in this new phase of the war than they could have been earlier, as Russia has improved its air defense capabilities.
The essay includes a long list of weapons and military capabilities that he said Ukraine would need to break the stalemate, including mine-breaching technology and decoy systems to evade air defenses.
“A positional war is a prolonged one that carries enormous risks to Ukraine’s armed forces and to its state,” General Zaluzhny said. “If Ukraine is to escape from that trap, we will need all these things.”
Marc Santora and Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting.