The War Will Grind On: Reflecting on A Year of War in Ukraine
“So it begins!” This was the message shared among my team at the Royal United Services Institute on Feb. 22, 2022 as Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the recognition of Luhansk and Donetsk and additional Russian forces poured into eastern Ukraine. Since late November, when it became clear that Russia would launch a full-scale invasion, I had been working under a pervasive sense of dread. I couldn’t stop remembering the feeling in 2014 when Islamic State overran Mosul, shooting hundreds of Iraqi civilians in ditches, or the breakup of Saleh’s alliance with the Houthis in Yemen when friends started to be rounded up and disappeared. I knew that what would follow would be just as horrific, but on an altogether greater scale.
Recently returned from Ukraine, Nick Reynolds and I were uncertain about how things would pan out. On the one hand, neither of us felt the Russians had enough forces to seize and control Ukraine’s cities in the face of motivated popular resistance. We were anticipating protracted, bloody battles. At the same time, in the last meeting we had in Kyiv a Ukrainian general had assured us that “Seventy percent [chance] nothing will happen, 30 percent there will be some escalation in the Donbas.” Neither of us were convinced that the Ukrainian government had its forces in position to block the main axes of advance on Kyiv, while we both expected strikes on Ukraine’s munitions dumps and rail infrastructure to weaken its conventional resistance.
As it turned out, events unfolded better than we had dared to hope. Russia chose not to target logistical infrastructure and prioritized air defenses over Ukrainian stocks. Moreover, it failed to brief and prepare its troops. Three vital days of confusion allowed Ukraine to reposition its forces and prevent the isolation of Kyiv. By the time we were back in Ukraine in April, Russian defeat appeared possible. Still, Ukrainian victory remained much harder to assure. It would depend upon a vast expansion of Western support and the continued incompetence of the Russian military.
Today, it still does. Indeed, nine years into Russia’s war against Ukraine, we are no closer to having a clear vision for how the war will end. Russia’s failures have created the opportunity for Ukraine’s Western allies to end it on favorable terms. Now they need a concerted military and diplomatic strategy to do so.
Western support arrived just in time, while the Russian military has failed to realize its potential. Crucially, Moscow failed to begin mobilization in May 2022. Long-range fires pulled apart Russia’s logistics and Ukraine managed two successful offensive operations to reclaim Kherson and Kharkiv before winter set in. Today, the Russian military is at the nadir of its strength: fielding poorly trained and poorly coordinated units with a diminishing stock of munitions. But, as is always the case in war, the enemy’s weakness is only significant if you have the capacity to capitalize upon it.
Russia’s latest offensive was launched in haste, with too few troops to make major breakthroughs. Around seven brigades of assault troops remain in Luhansk and about four in the south. The immediate tactical question that will dictate the course of the conflict over the remainder of the year is whether Russia can force Ukraine to commit its reserves to blunt its attacks. If it does, it may spoil Ukraine’s ability to launch offensive operations.
Russia’s mobilization and newly constructed defenses mean that Ukrainian offensive maneuver must begin with a deliberate breakthrough. Thus, Ukraine needs reserve units to exploit any success it achieves. If Ukraine is unable to get on the offensive then Russia can likely continue to reinforce its defensive positions and the stage will be set for a protracted conflict. If Russian defense industry consolidates production or if China begins to backfill Russian equipment, then the Russians may begin to generate major new combat units over the year.
There is a more favorable trajectory though. If Russia wastes its own reserves in costly attacks as near Vuhledar and Ukraine is not forced to commit its reserves, Kyiv could launch offensive operations and begin building momentum to liberate its occupied territories. With a steady training pipeline of personnel and formations set up in Europe, and the delivery of battalion sets of equipment — especially protected mobility — then Ukraine could continue to generate additional reserves to exploit its successes. Ukraine’s international partners will largely determine which trajectory is most likely.
Between Catastrophism and Euphoria
Throughout the war, expectations among policymakers have veered wildly between catastrophism and euphoria. This has posed a particular problem for analysts tasked with giving them a more realistic view. If in June it was exceedingly difficult to convince policymakers that a Russian victory was not inevitable, by September it was equally difficult to convince them that Ukrainian victory was not equally assured. The same tendency has bedeviled the public narrative on the war. The Kherson offensive, for example, was declared to have failed within days, even though the whole logic of the operation was to inflict unacceptable attrition on the Russians by pinning them against the Dnieper River, rather than to drive them from the city by assault.
These boom and bust expectations are driven by a national security structure that was built to conduct crisis response and is comfortable setting long-term strategy but struggles to deliver over the medium term. Until something is a crisis it remains insufficiently urgent to be forced up the agenda to reach a decision. A good example is munitions. The fact that Ukraine was burning through its partners’ munitions stocks was clear in June and analysts were raising the alarm from the start of the conflict. But the drive to expand munitions production — especially in Europe — only really accelerated in late 2022.
The tendency to make decisions late has driven sub-optimal outcomes. For instance, it was clear as far back as August that winter would provide an opportunity for bolstering Ukrainian forces. But the key decisions among Ukraine’s allies to try and maximize support for the Ukrainian military only took place in Ramstein in January 2023, wasting three months that could have been used to build up additional Ukrainian reserves.
The commitment of Ukraine’s partners to enabling the reclamation of its territory is a relief to Kyiv. President Joe Biden’s visit to the Ukrainian capital similarly signals that Russia’s hopes for outlasting Ukraine’s partners are misplaced. But once again it is vital that policy looks beyond the urgent to the important. This means that at the same time they work to secure Ukraine’s battlefield success, Western partners should also develop a clear negotiating position. Whatever position they adopt, it should be a unified one. Given the deep political divisions that exist, this means the difficult task of privately hashing out a common stance should begin right away.
To Suffocate a State
States are not just geographic entities. They are communities of people who expect prosperity and security from the government. This means that even if Ukraine can reclaim its occupied territories, the war will not necessarily end. Russia would still be able to manufacture loitering munitions and missiles and keep up a steady tempo of strikes. Its submarines could continue to blockade Odessa. The Russian air force could perpetually menace Ukraine’s skies. And the Russian special services could keep up their attempts to destabilize Ukrainian society.
As a result, Ukrainian air space would remain largely closed. Exports via the Black Sea would be blocked. Investment into the Ukrainian economy would remain minimal given the high cost of entry and the continued threat of airstrikes. Ukraine would remain unable to move on and continue to be deeply dependent upon its international partners for its fiscal survival. In short, Russia may decide that if it cannot occupy Ukraine it will nevertheless deny it peace. Sitting behind the threat of nuclear escalation Moscow could avoid threats to its own territory while restructuring its economy to manage the impact of Western sanctions.
This is only one example of how things could progress, but it and many permutations of it bear consideration. In back channels today the Russians are consistent in conveying their determination to continue the war. They offer no terms but Ukraine’s surrender. Conversely Ukraine’s international partners have consolidated around a military strategy but still remain divided over a political one. Charting a successful course forwards is both a marathon and a sprint, meaning that solving these divisions will be crucial to matching Moscow’s determination on the battlefield. Irrespective of how tired everyone is, the war will grind on.
Dr. Jack Watling is senior research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute in London.