Russian maintains several advantages over Ukraine, including manpower and material, experts say.
To keep Moscow's forces at bay, Kyiv will need to dig in and strengthen its defenses, they said.
The assessment comes as Ukraine faces ammunition shortages and is being outgunned by Russia.
Nearly two years into its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia again has the initiative, and its advantages over Ukraine are mounting.
Conflict experts are warning that Russia maintains a significant advantage over Ukraine in several key areas right now, and Kyiv will need to seriously dig in if it hopes to fend off Moscow's war machine and have any shot at offensive operations next year.
Michael Kofman and Dara Massicot, experts with Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Rob Lee, an expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, wrote in commentary published on Friday by War on the Rocks that "while the current state of the war has been described as a stalemate, spurring an animated debate over what that means, Russia holds material, industrial, and manpower advantages in 2024, along with the initiative."
But, "with tailored Western support, Ukraine could hold against Russian forces this year and rebuild the necessary advantage to conduct large-scale offensive operations in 2025, recreating another opportunity to deal Russia a battlefield defeat," they said.
They cautioned that "without major adjustments, or if Western support falters, the current path holds a high risk of exhaustion over time and Ukraine being forced to negotiate with Moscow from a position of weakness."
It is a less-than-ideal situation for Kyiv's forces right now. They're struggling as the Russian war machine gains momentum.
Ukrainian forces fighting along the war's sprawling front lines are presently dealing with insufficient ammunition and are being outgunned by Russian troops, a reversal from the situation over the summer, when Kyiv was using artillery to hammer Moscow's positions.
Furthermore, fears are growing over the future of US security assistance to Ukraine as additional funding remains held up by Congress — despite repeated pleas of urgency from the Biden administration. Officials in Washington, Kyiv, and European partner nations have sounded the alarms that the consequences of aid drying up may be catastrophic.
With a dearth of Western-provided artillery ammunition and combat-effective units for effective offensive operations, Ukraine is focusing on force reconstitution and digging in to hold the line against Russia's attacks, the experts wrote in their commentary.
But to resist additional Russian offensives in the near future, and protect troops from Moscow's intense artillery and bombing, Ukraine will need to strengthen its defenses and fortifications. It needs tunnels and underground bunkers, the experts said.
Fortifying defenses, they added, will allow Ukraine to better maintain the front line and enable Kyiv to rotate troops and preserve critical ammunition. This method has already proven effective at preventing enemy advances during the war.
One reason why Ukraine's much-anticipated summer counteroffensive failed to produce significant results was that Russia had built a complex network of defensive fortifications throughout Russian-occupied territory in eastern and southern Ukraine. The toughest defenses, known as the Surovikin Line, consisted of anti-vehicle ditches and obstacles, mines, and sophisticated trench networks.
The failures of the Ukrainian counteroffensive set the stage for renewed Russian offensives in eastern Ukraine, which kicked off in October and focused heavily around the city of Avdiivka. While Moscow has suffered heavy losses during its ongoing assault — both in manpower and in armored vehicles — its forces continue to advance, making small territorial gains. Russia is pushing in various other sectors of the front as well. With fortified defenses though, Ukraine could seriously complicate these efforts.
Western officials have been reluctant to characterize Russian efforts as effective. A top Pentagon official told reporters this week that while Moscow has tried to shatter the lines in eastern Ukraine, it has "not succeeded" in its efforts.
Still, the US continues to raise concerns that Russian President Vladimir Putin remains intent on capturing Ukraine and more security assistance is needed to keep Kyiv in the fight.
"The fact that Russia continues to demonstrate an intent to fight against Ukraine and to occupy Ukraine and to eliminate Ukraine as a country highlights the fact that this is a serious security threat that is not going to go away," Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said at a briefing this week.
"The sooner that we're able to continue to provide the levels of support that we have," he said, "the better, not only for Ukraine, but for the international community."
In their recent commentary for War on the Rocks, Kofman, Lee, and Massicot argued that "if this year is used wisely, core problems are addressed, and the right lessons are applied from the 2023 offensive, Ukraine can take another shot at inflicting a major defeat on Russian forces."
The recommended strategy is one characterized as "hold, build, strike," with defenses creating opportunities to rebuild the force and strikes degrading Russian capabilities. "Ideally," the experts explained, "Ukraine can absorb Russian offensives while minimizing casualties and position itself to retake the advantage over time."
Getting there, however, begins with building a strong, fortified defense-in-depth, but Ukraine also needs continued support to fight off the Russians. As the three experts wrote, "key decisions have to be made this year, the earlier the better, in order to put the war on a more positive trajectory."
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