The first year of the Russia-Ukraine war has been defined by the resilience of Kyiv’s forces and Moscow’s diminished military power. The course of the second year will depend largely on forces outside of either country.
Ukraine’s success in routing Russian forces will depend largely on how quickly the U.S. and Europe supply decisive arms like long-range missiles, tanks and jets, while Russia’s hope for retaking momentum hinges on Western unity disintegrating.
“The one consistency of last year was that [allies] underestimated the Ukrainians and overestimated the Russians,” a senior U.S. government told The Hill, on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.
The official said Western allies with the Ukrainian Defense Contact Group are “preparing really hard” for another counteroffensive.
“There’s a real recognition among those partner countries who are providing weapons and training that we need to get a lot to Ukraine as soon as we can,” the official added.
While there is a potential for Russia to flip the script in the next phase of the war, it remains unlikely, as the Kremlin has burned through troops and equipment and not shown any indication that it is learning from past mistakes, analysts said.
Ukrainian military’s Grad multiple rocket launcher fires rockets at Russian positions in the frontline near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine. One year on, thousands of civilians are dead, and countless buildings have been destroyed. (AP Photo/LIBKOS, File)
Branislav Slantchev, a University of California, San Diego, political science professor who studies the conduct of war, said the most important lesson from the first year of the conflict is that Russia is “utterly incapable of mounting large offensive operations.”
“Russia is not the Soviet Union. They can’t even fight the Soviet style of war that they’re trying to fight, and they cannot fight any modern style of war,” Slantchev said. “Their only hope is the West will wobble and collapse [and] I don’t think this is going to happen.”
Much depends on the ongoing Russian offensive to seize the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, which could be Russia’s last chance to regain the initiative after being pushed out of western Ukraine last spring and suffering tremendous losses from Ukrainian counteroffensives in Kharkiv and Kherson in the fall.
Moscow has mobilized some 300,000 troops for the fresh ground offensive in eastern Ukraine. United Kingdom Defense Minister Ben Wallace has estimated about 97 percent of available Russia’s forces are now in the country.
By some estimates, Russia may be able to sustain the offensive operation until the summer, at which point its power would decline.
The effort so far is aimed at taking complete control over the cities of Bakhmut and Vuhledar in the Donetsk region as well as the surrounding area for the cities of Kreminna and Svatove in the Luhansk region, among others.
While Russia controls most of Luhansk, Ukrainian troops have contested the Kreminna-Svatove lines. If Russia were to beat them out of Luhansk and make further gains in Donetsk, it could then surround Ukraine in a pincer-like movement in the western part of the Donbas region.
Taking Bakhmut would give Russian forces a foothold in Donetsk and control of a major supply hub, while also serving as a launching pad toward the Ukrainian-held cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk farther west.
For months, Russian forces and the mercenary company Wagner Group have thrown themselves at Ukrainian defenses in and around Bakhmut, losing countless soldiers in the process. Russia seized the salt mining town Soledar through sheer force last month, but has struggled to make additional advances.
Karolina Hird, an Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), said Ukraine would have to commit to a withdrawal for Russia to take Bakhmut — which remains a possibility, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky saying last week he was unwilling to pay “any price” to defend the town.
Even if Moscow were to take the city, they would still face an uphill climb against dug-in Ukrainian positions further west, including long highways reinforced by defenses.
“It doesn’t have operational or strategic significance beyond the fact that it’s become a bit of a rallying cry in the Russian information space,” Hird said of the city of Bakhmut.
Victor Rosenberg, 81, looks out of a broken window in his home destroyed by the Russian rocket attack in the city centre of Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)
Part of the Russian strategy may be to try to assault Ukraine’s lines with enough force to keep the pressure on while they probe for weaknesses for an eventual breakthrough in the Donbas.
Russia is also vigorously pushing to take the coal-mining town of Vuhledar for another foothold in the Donetsk region. But Russian forces have suffered months of losses in the town, and the newly launched offensive in the area has floundered.
For Ukraine, Vuhledar is a tactical point near the southern Zaporizhzhia region — which could be the stage for the next Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Tomasz Blusiewicz, a historian of modern Europe and Russia at the Hoover Institution, said Kyiv’s most promising counteroffensive is to make a push in the Zaporizhzhia region and cut off the land bridge to Crimea, which would be a major blow to Russian supply lines.
Blusiewicz estimated the attack would be somewhere between Crimea and further north in the Zaporizhzihia region near Mariupol, all of which are occupied by Russia. Ukraine would have a good opportunity, he believed, to strike from the liberated region of Kherson.
In contrast to Russia’s pummeling tactics, Ukraine is likely to bide its time and wait for the perfect chance to strike, potentially after crippling Russian supply lines and when Western modern battle tanks and other heavy equipment arrives, he added.
“They’re going to look for precision, surgical strikes,” Blusiewicz said. “They’re trying to weaken the Russia supply system and see where holes open up in the front and try to punch there.”
When Russian forces culminate their offensive operations in the Donbas, Ukraine is likely to exploit vulnerabilities and openings in their lines for a counterattack, agreed Hird, from the ISW.
Ukraine is holed up in a strong defensive position inside Bakhmut, where it is inflicting heavy losses on Russia. Russia is similarly suffering serious casualties in Vuhledar, where Ukraine has destroyed a staggering number of Russian tanks.
While there is potential for Russian President Vladimir Putin to flip the script in the next stage of the war, the scenario appears unlikely. (Greg Nash/Associated Press)
Yuriy Sak, an adviser to the defense minister of Ukraine, said he was confident Ukraine could bring the war to an end this year, but noted it was critical that advanced weaponry is provided at a faster pace than the first year, citing the nation’s request for modern fighter jets.
“Ukrainian people are already there — we believe it is possible in 2023 to end this war,” Sak said. “We all need to stop hesitating and believe that it is possible and the moment it happens … things will begin to develop very fast.”
Among the less likely possibilities this year is a stalemate in eastern Ukraine — if neither side gains significant ground in their offensives. That could mean more of the same type of grinding fighting seen in the past few months.
There is little hope of a stalled war resulting in renewed diplomatic efforts to end the fighting.
Ukraine has vowed to retake all of its territory, but Russia is unlikely to give up the four territories it illegally annexed last year: Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia.
The senior U.S. official told The Hill the Biden administration does not believe a cease-fire would be in Ukraine’s best interests.
“A cessation of hostilities is not good for Ukraine,” the official said. “If the conflict was frozen where it was today, no doubt [Russia] will regroup, refit, and come back in six months or a year.”
Battle of industrial bases
Destroyed Russian armored vehicles sit on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, March 31, 2022. In the year since Russia invaded Ukraine, disinformation and propaganda have emerged as key weapons in the Kremlin’s arsenal. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd, File)
Outside of battlefield strategies, all eyes are on the production levels of munitions and equipment for both Ukraine and Russia this year.
While there are growing concerns about U.S. military readiness amid low stockpiles of some munitions and weapons, including Javelin missile launchers and Stinger missiles, researchers agree the war in Ukraine is the hottest conflict right now and needs the full attention of Washington.
The Defense Department and defense contractors are aware of the inventory issue for some munitions and are stepping up production lines, and there are substitutes for depleting munitions, like 155-millimeter artillery shells.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also said last week that European allies are increasing production.
Russia’s inventories are similarly running low, according to reports. Although it’s unclear exactly how much the nation’s stockpiles have depleted based on public accounts, Moscow has turned to Iran for explosive drones, and the Wagner Group has secured rockets and artillery shells from North Korea.
Russia may not be able to compete with Western production levels in a protracted war unless it secures the assistance of a country like China. The U.S. believes Beijing may have supplied nonlethal aid to Moscow and is considering the option of lethal security assistance.
Seth Jones, the director of the International Security Program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the West has the clear upper hand.
“If I had to gamble and bet on either the Western industrial base or the Russian industrial base, I would bet hand over fist on the West,” Jones said. “If the West is willing to continue to provide the assistance that the Ukrainians need to fight a war of attrition, then I think the Russian industrial base is in serious trouble.”
However, a European Council on Foreign Relations report this month found Russia’s industrial base has proved resilient. Moscow has actually increased production of cruise missiles and can produce tanks at a faster rate than some Western nations.
President Biden checks his watch as he goes over his speech marking the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine after a surprise visit to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday, February 20, 2023 in Kyiv. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
The next phase of the war is also going to be decided by the strength of allies behind Ukraine, particularly in the U.S., which is seen as the de facto leader of the Ukrainian defense coalition.
President Biden traveled to Kyiv on Monday to meet with Zelensky in a strong sign of support for the nation ahead of the Feb. 24 anniversary of the war, but domestic support in the U.S. for continuing to supply Ukraine with security aid is slipping.
The latest Associated Press-NORC poll revealed that just 48 percent of Americans back giving Kyiv more weapons, down from 60 percent last spring.
While there is broad bipartisan support for Ukraine, far-right House lawmakers have harped against the billions of dollars flowing toward Kyiv, and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has said there will be no “blank check” for the country.
The $45 billion in emergency assistance for Ukraine passed at the end of last year is expected to run out sometime this year. The next congressional legislative package for Ukraine is going to be closely watched to see how strong U.S. support remains.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said the overwhelming majority of Republicans support Ukraine, but tensions in the House from the more conservative minority of lawmakers are “worth worrying about.”
“I do have a concern that the small group of 35 or 40 Republican members who want to block the aid — just like they did in the Speaker’s fight — will leverage their minority position to creatively block the ability to do something,” Smith said, referring to a band of the far-right lawmakers who last month extracted concessions from McCarthy in order to support him for the speakership.
Cracks in Western support for Ukraine is exactly what Russia might be hoping for.
If they fail to gain more ground this year, the Kremlin might seek to grind on until the west collapses.
But the Kremlin is also facing domestic problems at home. Punishing sanctions and high inflation are testing Russia, and more battlefield losses this year could further strain the economy and complicate the war effort for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
John Herbst, the senior director of Eurasia Affairs at the Atlantic Council and a former ambassador to Ukraine, said if Western allies keep up the supply of weapons, Ukraine could win this year or in the near future.
“You will see Ukraine take back most of the mainland and at a minimum, cut the land bridge off to Crimea,” Herbst said. That would “force Russian forces to drop back into Crimea and give Putin a huge supply problem.”