researcher Olivier Kempf answered your questions about the war in Ukraine

Six months after the start of the war in Ukraine, the resolution of the conflict still seems a long way off. The rapid progress of Russian troops in the first weeks has given way to a stalemate, and the expected Ukrainian counter-offensive is slow to materialize.

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Where are the clashes on the ground? How can the conflict evolve in the coming months? What are the possible ways out of the crisis? franceinfo readers questioned Olivier Kempf, director of the strategic firm La Vigie and associate researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research. Here are his answers.

On the situation at the front

@cyclo_ecolo: Currently, what percentage of the area of ​​Donbass is controlled by separatists and the Russian army? Is this front at a standstill or is one side gaining ground?

Oliver Kempf: The Russians control 100% of Luhansk Oblast and hold 66-68% of Donetsk Oblast. This front has been almost at a standstill for three weeks. There has been very little development since the fall of Severodonetsk and Lyssychansk. The territorial gains are very weak and they are concentrated either around Bakhmout, or at the level of the suburbs of Donetsk. There were some very weak Russian advances, at most a few villages.

@Maximouton: What do you think of the notion of “corrosion strategy” used by some experts to describe Ukraine’s action, particularly in the Kherson region? Is this a relevant concept for you? Does it have any chance of success?

Oliver Kempf: The “corrosion strategy” is finally the war of attrition Ukrainian version: it consists in pressing fires on the first line of contact, but especially in trying to break all the supply line of the Russians: the depots (fuel, ammunition , equipment), command posts and logistical axes, in particular bridges. This is particularly relevant in the Kherson region: the right bank of the Dnieper is connected to the left bank only by two bridges that Ukraine is bombarding. This is hampering Russian efforts in this area.

This maneuver started five or six weeks ago. There has been a lot of talk about a possible Ukrainian counter-offensive towards Kherson, but so far it has been more about strikes aimed at weakening the Russian logistical device, and perhaps preparing the launch of this offensive maneuver of a few weeks here.

@Marie: Is the threat around the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant real? Is it really reasonable to think that Mr. Putin or another belligerent would go this far after suffering the direct consequences of Chernobyl? Are we not in a process of disinformation and nuclear blackmail like during the Cold War?

Oliver Kempf: In the case of the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, it is civilian nuclear power, not a military nuclear bomb. There is therefore a risk of an incident or even a civilian radioactive accident, like what happened at Chernobyl. If the heart of the nuclear reactor seems very protected, all the objects and accessories operating the plant are less so: this can cause malfunctions which can have consequences.

There is an obvious risk because the plant is on a front line, at the junction between the Ukrainian territories controlled by the Russians and those controlled by kyiv. It seems that the Russians were stationed within the central ammunition and material depots, thinking that these depots would not be hit by the Ukraine given their location. There would have been shells falling on the plant, which the Russians and the Ukrainians accuse each other. The affair has since become political, passing into the field of international diplomacy. The Russians have more or less entered into this negotiation. In conclusion, there is a radioactive risk, which despite everything seems to be under control.

The challenge is also that of Ukraine’s electricity supply. The Zaporijjia power station provided a quarter of the country’s electricity before the war. I don’t know if it was cut off, but it is potentially a major source of electricity for Ukraine which is now under Russian control. This is one of the underlying issues on this plant.

On the current state of the armies

@Jean says “Bolo”: Do the Russians still have a lot of weapons in stock and for how long, at the rate at which they use them? Do they have the means to manufacture them at the level of their needs?

Oliver Kempf: The Russians destocked a lot of old armaments, old guns and old tanks from the Soviet Union, which gives some depth of resources. Of course, these are old and imprecise weapons, but they allow the Russians to animate the front, to have an offensive artillery action. There were also ammunition stocks, and their manufacturing plants are mostly still in Russia. Regarding mass munitions, which are not technologically advanced, the Russians probably have the capacity to produce them over time.

The question, then, is that of their routing towards the front. Ukraine hits Russian ammunition depots with Western means, and succeeded in reducing Russian fire pressure. But Moscow has the means to persevere and to maintain sufficient pressure on the whole front. So we had a rebalancing of the two forces.

@Karine: Do we have an idea of ​​the number of Russian deaths in this conflict? How do the Russians perceive it?

Oliver Kempf: The data from the Russian Ministry of Defense is quite weak: they will officially say that there are less than 10,000 dead. Western estimates announce 15,000, even 20,000 dead, among the Russian soldiers. There are probably at least tens of thousands of deaths, but we must be careful because this is an estimate that is not based on objective data.

How is this received by Russian society? We have few clues, but we do not yet have many echoes of the movements of mothers of Russian soldiers, as there may have been during other conflicts. Russia controls information enormously: no dissenting voices will appear in the mass media.

@Tintin: Do you know how much total military aid has been provided by the United States to Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict?

Oliver Kempf: Giving a precise figure is very difficult, especially since there is a difference between announcements and actual transfers. All the European and North American countries first provided equipment, of different types and of different quality, and then gave money. They also welcomed Ukrainian refugees. There has also been much less visible but important aid, such as the training and training of Ukrainian fighters to handle the material transmitted or in a more general way. Finally, there is support in terms of intelligence, battlefield observation, as well as cyber and satellite support.

On the evolution of the conflict in the coming months

@M: As winter approaches, will Russia be in a strong position?

Oliver Kempf: From this autumn, the bad weather will hamper the maneuvers, knowing that there have already not been many movements during the summer, and that they will freeze even more with the winter. It will probably be necessary to wait for the end of the thaw before reviewing movements. The two parties will take advantage of this to reconstitute their forces: both human resources, which have been tested in quantity and quality, and military, with armaments and ammunition. They will probably think about new tactics, new staff and command organizations. The Russians will rely on themselves and the Ukrainians will rely on Western help.

So we are heading towards a frozen conflict, but a frozen conflict is not a non-conflict: there will continue to be firefights, artillery strikes. There will still be dead and injured, but probably fewer in number than what we have seen in the past six months. This refers to a situation comparable to what we experienced between 2015 and 2022 in the Donbass.

@CBO78: What can be “acceptable” exit doors for Vladimir Putin to end the offensive? The conquest of Donbass? Total control of the Ukrainian seafront? The fall of power in kyiv? The objectives become quite blurry (as long as they could have been clear…)

Oliver Kempf: Vladimir Putin originally wanted to decapitate power in kyiv. He did not succeed. He wanted to take control of a large part of Ukraine, but he only took control of a part. The goal of controlling Luhansk oblast has been achieved, but this is not yet the case in Donetsk oblast. It also lacks some parts of Kherson Oblast. Vladimir Putin would probably even want to go as far as Odessa, but he doesn’t seem to have the means. It’s a goal he probably won’t announce, because it seems out of reach.

That said, Moscow must present a positive balance sheet to its operation, and for the moment this is not really the case compared to the initial objectives. But the Kremlin has nevertheless gone too far to turn back. It is unthinkable that Moscow agrees to return what was taken at the level of Kherson and Zaporizhya, and it will continue to push to nibble more. So the situation is quite blocked.

@Philippe: Are the Ukrainian people ready to do anything to defend their country, as their president announced in a speech? Are there any signs of fatigue?

Oliver Kempf: For Ukraine, this is a total, existential war. President Volodymyr Zelensky is in a very uncomfortable position, because he has three objectives at the same time: first, the success of military operations; then, to maintain the sacred fire of the population, and at the same time, to maintain the flame of the Western interest, because it is its support which allows Ukraine to hold on. He must do these three things at the same time, which also explains his speech saying: “We fight until victory”. Which, on the ground, seems difficult.

As for the Ukrainian population, it has six to seven million internally displaced persons, as well as six to seven million refugees. In other words, between a third and 40% of the Ukrainian population is no longer at home. This is a society deeply affected by war. So far, she has stuck together, and there is no sign of weariness. Nevertheless, winter is coming. This support is holding for now, but it may be fragile.

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