Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine stalled in early March, I see some people on old and social media who are latching onto the fact that Russia still occasionally takes a new village in eastern Ukraine. Isn’t winning a war all about advancing?
On the steppes there are vast amounts of more-or-less-interchangeable land for every soldier. In modern military jargon, there is a low ratio of force to space. Its not possible for the invaders to form a continuous line of troops across Ukraine and occupy the villages and roads behind it, so they need to focus on specific targets.
The most traditional targets in steppe warfare are the enemy leaders and army. In the days of khans and kzars, killing or capturing the big men of an enemy nation could be enough to end the war. If Russia had taken Kyiv with the Ukrainian parliament in it, and trapped most of the Ukrainian army against the proxy states on the Don, then they would have been free to go where they wanted in eastern Ukraine and announce the creation of some kind of puppet government (although whether that would have achieved their ultimate goals is not clear). But as Napoleon found in 1812 and Hitler found in 1942, its hard to make an enemy stop and fight on the steppes when they could just move away.
Since its hard to catch the enemy leaders and army, invaders in the steppes often focus on cities. These are valuable in themselves, but also valuable if they force the locals to stay and defend them. Since the 20th century cities often control industry, mines, and fossil fuel deposits which are valuable in the long term. But taking defended cities is hard and bloody. The Mongols and Timurids slaughtered so many people to encourage the next city to surrender without a fight, and Russia is using the same tactic on a smaller scale. But Russia does not have the power to take defended cities one after another, so these acts of terror just encourage the Ukrainians to fight harder to protect their families.
Since the 20th century, transport infrastructure is also important. Mechanized armies need airports, harbours, railways, and bridges to bring up supplies effectively. Cities are often transport hubs: one of the few lasting Russian successes has been taking Kherson in southern Ukraine with its railway to Crimea and bridges over the Dnieptr River. The town of Izyum is a focus of fighting because it is in the center of an area where Russian forces have blocked the highway and railway from Kharkiv to Luhansk.
The land between these places, transport routes, and groups of people is not very valuable. Ukraine is so big that the small armies which are fighting there can usually move around each other or through each other. Armies which try to form continuous fronts find that the further they advance, the longer and weaker their fronts become. The armies of Putin’s War are five or ten times smaller than the armies which fought in the same area in the 20th century, and those armies tended to make great sweeping advances then sudden retreats when the other side could bring up troops and equipment faster than the attackers.
If you want to decide who is doing better in the war in eastern Ukraine, tiny gains in territory are much less important than the rates at which both sides are gaining and losing troops and equipment. And that has never looked good for the Russians. Ukraine can mobilize its whole population (while Russia has so far been unwilling to do). Ukraine prevents ablebodied men from leaving, while educated Russian men are fleeing to Georgia, Turkey, and Kazakhstan. Russian war industry depends on imported parts which are blocked by sanctions, while Ukraine is receiving large amounts of arms from its neighbours and capturing large amounts of Russian equipment. Photos and videos of lost equipment are weighted towards the social-media-friendly Ukrainians, but they show Russian forces losing vehicles much faster than the Ukrainians (and weak evidence is not no evidence). If Russia cannot change this situation, pushing forwards just speeds up the day when their forces collapse like they did in the north.
PS. if you need a refresher on Stellungskrieg, Bret Devereaux has a post about how offensives on the western and Italian fronts in WW I could inflict more damage than they suffered even if they did not result in large gains of land
(scheduled 28 April 2022)