Michael Kofman

Is the Ukraine War headed for stalemate?

February 2, 2023
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Since Germany’s Olaf Scholz made an abrupt u-turn on sending Leopard tanks to Ukraine, the question of Western involvement in the conflict has returned to the headlines. As soon as the German Chancellor announced that he would approve the delivery of tanks, calls rose from Ukrainian officials for air support in the form of fighter jets to bolster these ground weapons. US President Joe Biden has since ruled out sending F-16 jets to Ukraine, but some military analysts consider the gradual increase in armament to be inevitable.

But with further global intervention, Russia is repeatedly warning of the risk of nuclear escalation. Could a stalemate between the two militaries actually prove to be the safest outcome?

Michael Kofman is the Director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses and a Fellow of the Center for a New American Security. He joined UnHerd’s Freddie Sayers to give an update on the situation on the ground in Ukraine and debate the risks and benefits of pursuing an ‘all-out’ victory against Russia.

What difference will the tanks sent by the West actually make in Ukraine?

It’s not necessarily just the qualitative advantage of Western infantry fighting vehicles over Soviet ones. If you’re not using them well or not using them the way they’re meant to be, the technological advantage won’t get you there […] The folks that think this is all going to get there in time for a Ukraine spring offensive are incorrect. Most of the equipment and the training to be able to use it is likely going to show up later in the spring and may make a real impact more towards the summer. 

Will F-16 fighter jets be the next addition to Ukraine’s call for armaments? 

Eventually, Ukraine will probably have to switch to some kind of Western-produced aircraft. It’s just a matter of when and whether it should be right now or not. […] But I would definitely put F16s much lower down the list of priorities. I find that the things that folks are talking about are the big shiny items. But none of these things are going to make that big of a difference in the war relative to the aggregate weight of other things being done.

Are we focusing on the wrong details by zeroing in on tanks and fighter jets?

The media’s expectations are often wildly outside of the way this war has been progressing. This is a long war, it’s going to be a protracted war. The media often drives momentum narratives, and has high expectations over things that just don’t match the reality on the ground. 

Are there Western soldiers in Ukraine, unofficially training Ukrainian soldiers? 

If they are, they’re probably British. I think the likelihood of that is very high.

Will Ukraine push to retake Crimea?

There is one point where this war is not going to end. Its February 23rd lines, where it began. That is quite clear. It’s neither a viable political boundary nor a geographical boundary nor any sort of boundary. Nor can you picture the Ukrainian President basically getting to February 23rd lines, which are minimum interim goals and saying: ‘all right, we should talk about a settlement for the rest of this territory rather than trying to retake it’. 

Is escalation with support from Western powers pushing us closer to a nuclear event?

Russian political leadership believe catastrophic defeat in Ukraine has regime implications for themselves, because they fully committed to this war as of September. Do they see that as a worse outcome than the potential risk of using nuclear weapons and all the costs that come with them? That’s the right conversation to have. 

In a protracted war, who has the advantage?

Ukraine has significant advantages. And most importantly, it’s backed by a coalition of states with basically a massive defence industrial capacity. But that only speaks to potential and spreadsheets don’t fight […] In terms of manpower quality, over time Ukraine may have a real issue; hence, I raise training as something that really needs to be scaled up rather than the conversations about which German tank to send.

Is this war going to become a waiting game for the West?

If at any point Western countries really let their foot off the gas, to use a colloquialism, it could very rapidly result in stalemate.

Thanks to Michael Kofman for his time. 


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