In the Thick of ItA blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Has Russia Reached Its ‘Culminating Point’ in Ukraine?
This week’s reports that Russia’s invasion seems to be “entering a more aggressive phase” throw into stark relief one recurring theme in analysis of the Ukraine war: the prediction that Russian forces will soon exhaust their capabilities, reaching what the famous Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz described as a Kulminationspunkt, or “culminating point,” of attack. In his book “On War,” Clausewitz defined this as a “point at which the forces remaining are just sufficient to maintain a defensive, and to wait for Peace.”
Below is a compilation of such predictions, beginning in March 2022. Some were made that month, and may have rested on a looser definition of culminating point than Clausewitz’s original, predicting that Russian forces would not be able to sustain their offensive on the many fronts of their initial invasion; indeed, by late March, Russia started moving troops away from Kyiv, marking Moscow’s new strategic focus on eastern Ukraine.
However, the predictions continued even as Russian forces made advances in the east, most recently capturing nearly all of the Luhansk region that remained in Ukrainian hands.1 If nothing else, this timeline reaffirms the truism that making predictions can be an ungrateful business, particularly amid the fog of war.
- March 14: Former commander of U.S. Army Europe retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges: “The Russians, I think, are about 10 days away from what is called the culminating point, when they just no longer have the ammunition nor the manpower to keep up their assault. I think we keep pouring it on, and the Russians culminate.”
- March 15: Institute of Statecraft senior fellow Julian Lindley-French and Lt. Gen. Hodges: “The race to the culminating point of Ukraine’s tragedy is on! Possible Chinese support notwithstanding the next 10 days or so will prove critical. The Russian war of conquest in Ukraine is now entering a critical phase, a race to reach the culminating point of Russia’s offensive capacity and Ukraine’s defensive capacity.”
- March 17: CEPA's Steven Horrell: “There's a lot of thinking—you know, this is a question of 10 days to two weeks more now that Ukraine's held out so far that the Russian logistics, that they're reaching their culminating point, and they're going to no longer be able to maintain their offensive.”
- March 21: Retired Australian Army Maj. Gen. Mick Ryan: “Military doctrine defines culmination as ‘the point at which continuing the attack is no longer possible and the force must consider reverting to a defensive posture or attempting an operational pause.’ This is what appears to have happened in Ukraine.”
- March 21: Retired U.S. Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, former U.S. Army commanding general, Europe: “[A]ll indicators are that Russia has not kept up with their operations. If they don't keep up logistically, the operation stalls. That's where we've come to. It's called, in the military terms, a culminating point of the offense.”
- March 22: American Enterprise Institute scholar Frederick Kagan: “Our assessment that the Russian campaign has culminated and that conditions of stalemate are emerging rests on our assessments, laid out carefully in many fully documented reports published on our website (not just maps) and increasingly validated by reports from various Western intelligence communities, that the Russians do not have the capability to bring a lot of fresh effective combat power to the fight in a short period of time.”
- March 22: British Col. Richard Kemp: “The Russian campaign in Ukraine may have reached its culminating point. In short, Russian forces may no longer be able to achieve their strategic objective by offensive operations. If so, it would mark a turning point.”
- March 23: Robert Johnson, director of the Changing Character of War Program at Oxford University: “In terms of cost-benefit analyses, Putin’s war is no longer worth the military success that might be achieved. It could prove to be a classic example of operational achievements failing to turn into strategic victory. Putin has failed to grasp that for Ukrainians this is now … an existential war and they will resist. Russia cannot now achieve its strategic ends and risks a culminating point of stalemate.”
- March 30: Former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO Policy Michael Ryan: “Most military observers and very senior American army generals believe that the Russian army [has] reached a culminating point. A significant aspect of that is the losses that they've sustained.”
- Late March: Hudson Institute’s Japan Chair Fellow Masashi Murano: “At first, Russia seemed to think it could bring down Kyiv in a short time through blitzkrieg-like operations or, to use [a] more familiar phrase in Asia, a ‘short, sharp war,’ but it seems to have failed to do so. And the Russian military campaign seems to have reached a stalemate or culminating point.”
- April 19: British Col. Richard Kemp: “Putin’s goal is to achieve a major victory in the Donbas before Russia’s Victory Day parade on May 9th. Yet even this latest, last-ditch effort may ultimately come to a stalemate, with Russian forces reaching their culminating point of attack before achieving their objectives, as occurred around Kyiv.”
- May 10: Retired U.S. Army Maj. John Spencer: “You have to look for the ‘culmination points’ when a military force takes so many losses that they will not be able to meet their goals. This is what we saw in Kyiv. … This conflict, in a larger sense, won't end for years. Russia will always contest the borders of Ukraine as a sovereign nation. But this war, the battle for Ukraine, will end within weeks or months. That is my opinion. We will see the Russian military in Ukraine reach its culmination point soon.”
- May 28: Frederick Kagan, Kateryna Stepanenko and George Barros wrote for The Institute for the Study of War: “When the Battle of Severodonetsk ends, regardless of which side holds the city, the Russian offensive at the operational and strategic levels will likely have culminated, giving Ukraine the chance to restart its operational-level counteroffensives to push Russian forces back.”
- June 7: U.S. Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, former commanding general of the Coalition Military Assistance Training Team in Iraq: “Indeed, there's a term, culminating point, whenever you attack. The Russians have apparently, if they have not run out of smart weapons, they don't have a whole lot left. So, what they're using is artillery stores that date back to the Cold War. And the U.S. sanctions are definitely having an impact as far as modernization of anything that they have. So, they will culminate. They don't have the logistics to support indefinitely, and they're going up against a very determined enemy.”
- June 9: ISW’s George Barros: “[T]he Russians have made very few gains in the Donetsk Oblast, they've almost exclusively focused on the Luhansk front line, which has led to what's likely going to be a culminating point for the Russians in Severodonetsk.”
- June 18: Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard Newton in reference to the capture of American volunteers fighting for Ukraine by Russian forces: “It really does complicate our position there at a time when the conflict is at a really culminating point… Russia is really starting to hold its ground in the east and Ukraine is trying to figure out how it can take the Donbas area. So it’s just really bad timing.”
- While Russia said in early July that it had taken control of the Luhansk region, Serhiy Haidai, its Ukrainian governor, said July 17 that two villages are still under Ukrainian control.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the experts quoted. Photo by Ukraine's Ministry of Internal Affairs shared under a Creative Commons license.