A Ukraine Stalemate is Possible, But Russian Defeat Is More Likely. Zugzwang isn’t a Stalemate.

We likely get a decisive outcome in Ukraine in the first half of 2022.  This is probably the biggest economic/political “surprise that shouldn’t be one” in store for 2023.  A lot of people seem to be assuming a “continuing stalemate.”  But there is no stalemate even now.  The Russians have been losing since March 2022.  They have no path to anything you might call a victory.  Ukraine does.

Can Ukraine can break through and decisively end the war?  We don’t know.  They do have a pretty good shot at it in the next 6 months.  As in the past, Ukraine will keep wearing down the Russians supplies and hardware.  They likely mount another offensive in February/March ahead of mud season.  If they get lucky, they end the war.  If not, they consolidate their gains, start grinding Russians logistics again, and prepare for the next offensive.  That has been their (successful) pattern since last summer.

Putin has no good options to respond.  Unless he pulls a real rabbit out of the hat, he is just in denial and/or praying for a miracle.  His first army collapsed over the summer.  The conscript army he rushed in to replace it is dying in droves and utterly incapable of taking the offensive.  His next conscript army will fare no better.  In the meantime, he is running low of tanks, missiles, and artillery shells.  Once those are gone, he will have nothing.  We could see a mad lunge towards Kyiv from Belarus.  That likely fails.  Attacking is hard with well-trained troops much less a rabble.

The West sees this.  They are doubling down on a Ukrainian victory.  In the last few weeks, France, the US and FREAKING GERMANY?!?! have broken the “no armored vehicles” taboo.  The US and FREAKING GERMANY?!?! are sending Patriot missile batteries.  When gutless Germany starts showing some backbone, you know they see a Russian defeat as good as done.  They are playing for a (late, unearned) spot in the victory parade. Also, everyone (especially German chemicals giant BASF) would like the natural gas taps turned back on before next winter…

The end game remains uncertain.  We are waiting for the next Ukrainian move.  Putin has lost the initiative.  His only hope is Ukrainian (and Western) exhaustion.  But the West can keep the pot boiling for at least another 6-12 months.  Russia might not make it another three months.  So the outcomes are…

  1. Ukraine’s luck runs out.  Their next offensive fails.  Past attacks have precipitated Russian collapses – Kyiv, Kharkiv, Izium, Lyman, and Kherson.  But Russia’s lines a shorter and maybe Ukraine doesn’t break through this time.  We end up with a “frozen conflict.”
  2. Putin’s shabby, under-supplied conscript army collapses yet again.  He loses now have lost most/all of the territory taken in February 2022.  He also risks a bigger collapse of morale, will to fight, etc…

Putin’s best hope now is a “frozen conflict.”  Hang on grimly while he rebuilds his weapons stocks and chips away at Western unity.  Unfortunately, Western unity looks pretty un-chipped.

On the ground, Putin is stuck.  He can’t move forward.  He can conscript more men.  But he can’t make more artillery shells, missiles, or tanks.  The vast post Soviet stockpiles are squandered.  Untrained conscripts can (maybe) hold ground.  They are never going to manage any sort of real combined arms offensive.

Putin could also retreat any time.  But he obviously feels that isn’t an option either.

So Russia sits in stasis.  Burning down its dwindling stock of shells because it is in a (great new word from 2022!) Zugzwang.

1. What is Zugzwang in chess?  Zugzwang is a German word which basically means, “It is your turn to move, and all of your moves are bad!” There is no “pass” or “skip a move” in chess, so sometimes having to move can lose the game! 

Ukraine’s challenge is to find a weak spot to break through.  The Russian lines are shorter, so the weak spots are probably less obvious.  But, if they can break in behind the Russians, we will see another headlong Russian retreat.  The other risk is Russia might be getting better at retreating.  They did a pretty good job getting out of Kherson intact.  But every and any retreat always risks a collapse.

The other uncertainty is whether that collapse remains local or becomes general.  So far, Russia has been able to fall back and stabilize.  BUt one of these days the troops will just keep running.  They would certainly stop at the Russian border, but that is a clear loss.

So that’s where we stand.  Not a lot of movement.  But definitely not a stalemate.    And Russia is still losing.

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