Ukraine’s War of Narratives


It’s now almost two years into Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine, and if you’re a Ukraine supporter, the past few months have not been encouraging. This summer and fall were meant to be a time of great returns for Ukraine. Amidst much fanfare, Ukraine launched its vaunted summer offensive in June. The campaign, bolstered by a major stockpile of Western-supplied armoured vehicles and ammunition, was meant to deliver a war-changing blow to Russian forces and liberate significant territory. The broad aim was to reach the Azov Sea coast somewhere west of Mariupol, cleaving Russia’s occupation forces in southern Ukraine in two by severing their only land connection. Failing that, Ukrainian generals expected to at least retake the cities of Melitopol and Tokmak.

None of this has happened. For a variety of reasons, discussed at length elsewhere, Ukraine’s counteroffensive fell well short of its goals, capturing only a handful of villages and grinding to a halt without any major territorial gains. The disappointing results were compounded by a spate of negative headlines. These included the return of political infighting to Ukraine, with Kyiv’s mayor Vitaly Klitschko lashing out at President Volodymyr Zelensky and a reported rift emerging between Zelensky and Ukrainian military chief Valery Zaluzhny. Now, Western aid is dwindling. The past three months saw the lowest foreign aid pledges to Ukraine since the war’s start, marked by the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass a much-needed new aid package before the year’s end. There are whispers that Western nations are pressuring Kyiv to launch renewed negotiations with Moscow as the stalemate on the front deepens. Russia, meanwhile, has not only weathered the storm but is back on the attack, its forces launching a series of costly offensives on the fortress town of Avdiivka in the southeastern Donbas.



Put together, the above seems to paint a dire picture for Ukraine and its prospects going forward. But one of the key lessons from watching this war, and the way that it’s covered in the media, is that perceptions can be fickle. Throughout 22 months of conflict, the ironclad conventional wisdom regarding the war’s present state and near future has repeatedly been shattered. By my count, there have been no less than seven major narrative periods of this war, each of which has ended with the script flipping almost entirely. Both Ukraine and Russia have regularly been seen as the conflict’s inevitable victor — only to fall back down to earth when the expectations created failed to live up to reality.

The length of each cycle seems to have expanded as the war itself has gone on and dramatic swings of battlefield fortune have become less common. But the characteristics of each new paradigm have fundamentally remained much the same, and there is every reason to expect more to come. 

Sequential Swings

The first major narrative cycle preceded the war itself. In the run-up to the Russian invasion, Russian forces were widely expected to crush Ukraine’s conventional troops in the field. While the potential scope of this initial victory was much debated, there was a broad sense that Russia’s reformed and far better-equipped military would triumph in open battle with Ukrainian forces before proceeding to a costly occupation period. Russia was expected to use its huge advantage in long-range missile capabilities in a “shock and awe” campaign that would decimate much of Ukraine’s military. Alexander Vindman, a former U.S. army officer and analyst on Ukraine, told RFERL in December 2021 that “the advantage is still heavily in Russia’s favor.” If Russia invaded, he thought, its forces would succeed as they had in 2014–15: “the outcome doesn’t really change.” Top U.S. military officials reportedly assessed that Russia could take Kyiv within 72 hours of an assault, while plans for Zelensky to evacuate the capital to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv were also discussed. Even many Ukrainian commanders felt this way. Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, was quoted by the New York Times in mid-December 2021 as stating that Ukraine did not have “sufficient military resources for repelling a full-scale attack by Russian forces” if it did not receive major Western support beforehand. “Believe me, without delivery of [Western] reserves, there’s not an army in the world that can hold out [against Russia],” Budanov stated.

In the event, Ukraine did, of course, hold out. Russia’s poorly planned and executed initial invasion floundered, stalling well short of most of its objectives within days and failing to even surround, let alone take, Kyiv. By early April, Russian forces had withdrawn entirely from northern Ukraine. Images of Russian military incompetence were everywhere, most famously in videos of Russian tanks and other heavy ordnance abandoned and towed off by Ukrainian farmers. Some observers used this to draw sweeping conclusions. The idea that Russia was a state whose military had credibly threatened Europe and NATO countries when it couldn’t even seize Kharkiv, a city 15 kilometers from its borders, now felt ludicrous. If the Russian army couldn’t even properly fuel its tanks, how could it hope to advance even elsewhere in Ukraine?

As the euphoria of the unexpected victories in the war’s opening stages faded, another phase of the war and its perception set in. Having withdrawn its brigades from northern Ukraine in fairly good order, Moscow now refocused its efforts entirely on Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Here, Russia would be able to deploy its massive advantage in artillery fires to grind down the Ukrainian army, as demonstrated by its ability to annihilate the town of Popasna before seizing it on May 7. Having spent nearly all of May 2022 in Donbas myself, reporting on the ground and talking to Ukrainian soldiers, the shift in mood was palpable: Soldiers talked about being outgunned and outmanned by as much as “ten to one” and discussed feeling abandoned by the leadership in Kyiv. As Russia’s enormous Soviet-era military stockpile fueled its grinding, relentless, artillery-heavy assaults for months, another perception of the war gained popularity. Russia was simply too large and too resilient to lose this war, its material advantages making any talk of Ukrainian victory “implausible.” Russia’s progress could be only slowed, not stopped, and Western arms for Ukraine would only prolong the inevitable and increase suffering. As Moscow’s troops captured the twin cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, seizing the entirety of Ukraine’s Luhansk oblast as advanced Western military systems continued to be delayed, the mood by late summer 2022 was a dark one.

The next shift was perhaps just as drastic. On Sept. 6, 2022, Ukrainian forces launched a surprise offensive on Russian positions east of the city of Kharkiv. Finding them undermanned and ill-coordinated, Ukrainian troops quickly punched through Russian lines into rear areas, leading to a total rout that saw Ukrainian forces liberate nearly the entirety of Russian-held Kharkiv oblast within days. The revelations of Russia’s manpower issues, with some units operating at less than 30 percent of their intended strength, were followed by a chaotic partial mobilization ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin just weeks later. Scenes of drunken Russian conscripts brawling at their deployment zones, protests against the mobilization, and another mass exodus of Russians fleeing their country created a sense that Russia was on the verge of collapse, either on the battlefield or internally. The liberation of the city of Kherson — the only Ukrainian provincial capital captured by Russia following their February invasion, and a long-stated Ukrainian goal — only added to the sense of inevitability that the war was now Ukraine’s to lose. Some analysts began to talk of the war being over by Christmas, and others talked of at least reaching the Crimean peninsula within a few months. The convergence of these factors was intoxicating on social media and felt like it would not be reversed.

This, too, did not last. Now, it was Ukraine’s turn to fall short of supplies, with ammunition in particular running down. Hopes of a Ukrainian winter offensive to seize the key Donbas junction town of Kreminna did not materialize, as Ukrainian forces ran low on artillery shells. Mobilized Russian conscripts began to reach the battlefield in large numbers, stymying the Ukrainian advance and plugging the holes in Russian lines. It was at this time that the single longest and deadliest battle of the entire war played out: the siege of Bakhmut. Russian forces, led by Wagner Group mercenaries, began the systematic destruction of the city, punching through with endless waves of convicts as Ukrainian forces struggled to hold out. The slow but steady advance through the city, from winter 2022 until its full capture in May 2023, renewed the atmosphere of pessimism that characterized Russia’s 2022 summer Donbas offensive. Alongside this came yet another spate of pieces arguing that Ukraine must make peace with Russia while it still could, and that a negotiated settlement to end the fighting was necessary. Western weapons had not won the war yet for Ukraine, people claimed, and it was thus high time to realize that a Russian defeat was impossible.

During the desperate defense of Bakhmut, Ukraine and its Western partners were not idle. They had instead spent the interim training and equipping a number of new brigades that were to use Western-supplied main battle tanks and armored vehicles in a sweeping counteroffensive that would liberate large swathes of territory. Ukrainian officials did not shy away from buoying expectations to lofty heights: Mykhailo Podolyak, one of Zelensky’s top advisors, stated in April that Ukraine would “return [liberate] Crimea within five to seven months.” Some social media commentators posited that Ukraine could simply use bulldozers to plow over Russian trenches, as U.S. forces had done in Kuwait and Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. Others announced that the coming counteroffensive would “rewrite military history.” Even as the offensive ground on for months, with its gains measured in tree lines, many analysts continued to insist that the campaign was succeeding. Ukraine would not come close to achieving its minimum goals in the offensive — the city of Tokmak, as stated by Ukrainian general Oleksandr Tarnavsky — but this was often hard to discern from the infallible optimism seen across much of social media.

Now, as the counteroffensive’s failings are broadly discussed, the pendulum has swung back toward pessimism once again. The paucity of territorial gains, amplified in many ways by the lofty expectations heading into the campaign, led to yet another cycle of articles and headlines suggesting the dour inevitability of a Russian victory in the conflict. With Russian lines having failed to collapse, the popular talk is now about fading Western support, Ukrainian political disunity and behind-the-scenes pushes for Zelensky to accept the reality on the ground. Another round of articles about the necessity of negotiations have emerged, while pundits on the pro-Russian side have again claimed that Ukraine and the West are headed for certain defeat.


By this stage, one can almost imagine how the next paragraph of this article would read six months from now: Russia’s newest reverse, whiplash in the Western media, optimism about Putin’s imminent fall. Perceptions of this conflict have largely been defined by overcorrections, as mercurial audiences and headline writers seek the latest eye-catching takes. But the reality of the Russian-Ukrainian war — as with most major interstate conflicts — has been a much more nuanced affair. While significant events like the capture of a city or the defection of a mercenary group can be startling and encourage expectations of more of the same, observers of this war are better served by resisting the temptation to extrapolate too broadly about what comes next. Topics like artillery shell production and military recruitment numbers might be less captivating, but the underlying factors in any conflict of this scale are usually more impactful than the headline news. The pace of developments may slowing after its bombastic first year, as the battlefield approaches something resembling stalemate. Nonetheless, the course of the conflict to date suggests that another next major shift in narrative is all too likely — even if it takes a bit longer to materialize.

One of the key takeaways from reviewing these narrative cycles is that not all observers are equally reliable. While coverage in the media, and especially social media, has often made the outcome of this conflict appear inevitable, the analyst community has largely worked to avoid this. Both military and political analysts commentating on the war have consistently couched their insights with many layers of caveats, emphasizing that anything with as many inputs and moving parts as the 21st century’s largest interstate conflict are exceedingly difficult to predict. This has led to a much more robust record on their part, albeit one that’s inherently less attractive in our contemporary global media environment than more bombastic predictions. Social media in particular is not well-suited to such nuance: Long threads of analysis with many provisions and stipulations guiding their takeaways rarely, if ever, outperform similar posts promising grand victories or crushing defeats for one side. Given the nature of social media, this is unlikely to change anytime soon, but readers will hopefully grow more savvy. 

In reviewing these many reversals, I certainly don’t intend to claim that I had more foresight than other observers. Many of the above assumptions did feel overwhelmingly convincing. I, for one, thought the seemingly perfect storm of Russian battlefield reverses and internal chaos in fall 2022 would be nearly impossible for Putin to overcome. Yet if there is one lesson this war should have taught us, it is that no present reality or narrative is nearly as solid as it seems. The nature of the conflict means that at any time, a coherent and well-argued piece can be written explaining why defeat is imminent for either of the sides. And yet this has yet to happen. Both at the present, with Ukraine on the back foot, and when Ukraine is ascendant again in the near future, we would all do well to moderate our predictions of what’s next.



Neil Hauer is a Canadian journalist covering Russia, Ukraine, and the Caucasus from his base in Yerevan, Armenia. He has reported from the ground on Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine since the war’s first day.

Image: Ukrainian Ministry of Defense