The story so far: A year after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, there are signs of escalation everywhere. The West has recently announced the supply of more advanced weapons to Ukraine, deepening its involvement in the conflict. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has already reinforced Russian positions along the 1,000-km long frontline in Ukraine with hundreds of thousands of troops, announced the suspension of his country’s participation in the New Start treaty, which could trigger a nuclear arms race. Ukraine, with the free flow of weapons from the West, hopes to arrest the Russian advances and begin its own offensive to regain lost land. As the war is extended, risks of a direct confrontation between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), both nuclear powers, are also on the rise.
What’s the current status of the war?
Russia is expected to launch a new offensive in the coming days. Right now, focused fighting has been going on in some flashpoints along the frontline. For over seven months, PMC Wagner, a private Russian security force with close ties to the Kremlin, has been fighting to take Bakhmut, a city at the cross junction of several key arteries in Donetsk, one of the four Ukrainian regions annexed by Mr. Putin in September. Last month, Wagner took Soledar, a salt mine town in the outskirts of Bakhmut, and several settlements around the city thereafter. As of now, Russians control all major highways into Bakhmut, except one (Chasiv Yar), which Ukrainian troops are using for reinforcement and resupply.
Russians have opened two more fronts, one in Izium, northwest of Bakhmut in Kharkiv Oblast, and the other in Vuhledar, south of Bakhmut in Donetsk. They are also pushing the frontline in Zaporizhzhia and positional fighting is continuing in Kherson. Ukraine is trying to hold on to the territories until more weapons and trained fighters arrive from the West. It would take a few more weeks before the main battle tanks pledged by Western countries, including Leopard 2 (German), M1 Abrams (American) and Challenger 2 (British), arrive at the battlefield.
Is Russia losing the war?
The answer depends on how you look at the conflict. Given the power asymmetry between Russia and Ukraine, Russian troops’ performance in the battlefield was underwhelming. If one looks at Russia’s declared goals and what they have achieved in the 12 months of fighting, it’s not difficult to see that they are still far from meeting those objectives. Some say Mr. Putin wanted to take Kyiv and install a pro-Kremlin regime. Mr. Putin had said that demilitarisation and de-Nazification were his main goals. His commanders had said, on record, that Russia wanted to take the whole of Ukraine’s east and south, which means an arc of territories stretching from Kharkiv in the northeast through the Donbas in the east (which comprises Luhansk and Donetsk) to Odesa, the Black Sea port city in the southwest, turning the country into a land-locked rump. Russia failed to meet any of these objectives.
But at the same time, the war is taking place inside Ukraine, and Russia has taken substantial portions of Ukrainian territories, including Mariupol, the port city that was defended by the Azov Brigade, a neo-Nazi outfit that has been integrated into the regular Ukrainian army. Russia’s territorial gains in Ukraine peaked in March 2022, when it controlled some 22% of pre-2014 Ukraine. Since then, Ukraine recaptured some land in Kharkiv and Kherson. But still, Russia controls some 17% of Ukraine and Mr. Putin also managed to secure a land bridge between mainland Russia to Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014, that runs through the Donbas and Zaporizhzhia. And with a new offensive, Russia plans to mount more pressure on Ukrainian troops, which also explains why the West is now rushing more weapons to the battlefield.
Was the West’s strategy effective?
The West’s approach has been two-fold: punish Russia’s economy through sanctions and thereby weaken its war machine, while arming Ukraine to counter the Russian offensive. The Western support has played a critical part in Ukraine’s resistance and counter-offensive. The U.S. is Ukraine’s biggest aid provider — it has pledged military and financial assistance worth over $70 billion. The EU has pledged $37 billion and among the EU countries, the U.K. and Germany top the list. Last year, after Ukraine suffered a series of setbacks in Mariupol, Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, the U.S. promised the delivery of its mid-range rocket systems such as HIMARS. The new weapons helped Ukraine turn around the momentum, but Ukrainian gains froze in December. Now, when Russia is preparing for another offensive, the West is coming to Ukraine’s rescue once again, with more advanced weapons, including missile defence systems, armoured vehicles, tank killers, battle tanks and precision bombs. While the approach of arming Ukraine has been effective in at least halting the Russian advances, hurting Russia economically has been a double-edged sword.
Sanctions on Russia, one of the top global producers of oil and gas, hit the global economy hard, worsening an inflationary crisis across the West, particularly in Europe. Russia also took a hit, but it found alternative markets for its energy exports in Asia, redrawing the global energy export landscape. Last year, despite sanctions, Russia raised its oil output by 2% and boosted oil export earnings by 20%, to $218 billion. Russia also raked in $138 billion from natural gas, a nearly 80% rise over 2021 — and this was in spite of the European push to cut gas imports from Russia. The Russian economy was estimated to have contracted by 2% in 2022, but, according to the IMF, it is expected to grow 0.3% this year and 2.1% next year. In comparison, Germany, Europe’s largest economy, is expected to grow 0.1% this year, while the U.K., Ukraine’s second biggest backer, is projected to contract by 0.6%.
What’s happening inside Ukraine?
The Russian invasion turned President Volodymyr Zelensky into the face of the Ukrainian resistance. Mr. Zelensky, a former television comedian, was grappling with a host of political challenges when the war began. His approval rating had fallen to 28% and his regime was accused of persecuting the former President, Petro Poroshenko, on treason charges. Corruption was rampant. In Donbas, a civil war between Russian-speaking separatists and the Ukraine army, including the neo-Nazi brigades, had been raging since 2014. But when Ukraine survived the initial Russian thrust and continued to resist the invasion, Mr. Zelensky emerged as a hero for many. He rallied western opinion and aid. He also seized the moment to bolster his grip on power at home.
Eleven opposition parties, including the Platform for Life which had 44 seats in the 450-member Ukrainian Parliament, were banned. Presidential decrees were issued mandating the country’s main TV channels to broadcast identical content cleared by government officials. Even churches with links to the Russian Orthodox Church were not spared. Mr. Zelensky emerged politically stronger at home as the war dragged on and the West stood solidly behind him, irrespective of his crackdown on political rivals. But scandals began surfacing recently that maligned the regime. Mr. Zelensky fired a dozen senior officials, including Deputy Defence Minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov, last month over corruption. He now promises that he will clean up the administration. He should also make sure that the pipeline of aid from the West, which is existential for his regime, is not disrupted as the war goes on.
Is there a possibility for a negotiated settlement?
Immediately after the war began, Russian and Ukrainian officials had started talks. According to former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, both sides had exchanged several drafts about a potential peace plan in March 2022, but the U.S. and the U.K. staunchly opposed Ukraine reaching any agreement with Russia. Talks collapsed in March. In July, Turkey brokered a deal on taking out Russian and Ukrainian food grains through the Black Sea. Warring parties had also reached some prisoner exchange agreements. But barring these, talks between the two sides are non-existent. Russia, despite the slow progress of its “special military operation”, remains adamant. Mr. Zelensky recently stated that he would not reach any agreement with Russia making territorial compromises. There is absolutely no push from the West for talks. As the crisis continues, China has stepped in with its own peace initiative, the details of which are not known to the public yet.
For any peace plan to succeed, two complex issues should be addressed — Ukraine’s territories and Russia’s security concerns. Right now, Russia controls swathes of Ukraine’s land and the NATO keeps arming Kyiv, sharpening the existing contradictions. Ukraine, given its dependence on the West, would require clearance from western capitals for any final settlement, which also means that for a lasting solution, Washington and Moscow should reach some kind of understanding. As the war enters its second year, the possibility for such an understanding is very low. The war is set to grind on.