Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Enters its Second Year
When Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, it shocked the world.
Although, in hindsight, it probably shouldn’t have — after all, Russia had amassed at least 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine in the months leading up to the invasion, insisting all the time that it had no plans to invade.
Moscow had also been rebuffed by the West after it presented NATO with a list of demands asking for the military alliance to essentially roll back its activity in Eastern Europe, and to guarantee that Ukraine would never become a member of NATO.
Needless to say, the Western military alliance refused to accede to Russia’s demands and a few months later, on Feb. 24, 2022, Russian troops invaded Ukraine from the north, east and south of the country. It targeted the capital Kyiv, Kharkiv in the northeast, Donbas in the east, and the southeast of the country, along a swathe of territory reaching across to Crimea — a peninsula Russia had annexed back in 2014.
While Russian forces were able to seize a portion of Ukraine in the east and south, aided by the conduit offered by Russian-occupied Crimea, the overly-ambitious scale and breadth of the invasion quickly came back to haunt Moscow. In April, it was forced to withdraw its forces from the Kyiv area, a retreat seen as a humiliating defeat for Russia.
Ukraine saw further strategic victories last year as it launched successful and surprise counteroffensives around Kherson in the south, and Kharkiv in the north, where it managed to push Russian forces back deeper into the Donbas.
Since then, however, the conflict has become largely a war of attrition in eastern Ukraine, with fierce fighting continuing around the war hotspot of Bakhmut, a city in Donetsk that Western analysts view as being slowly encircled by Russian forces hell-bent on cutting Ukraine’s supply lines in the region.
As the war enters its second year, military analysts believe that capturing the Donbas region, which includes Donetsk and Luhansk (regions where two self-proclaimed, pro-Russian “republics” are located), remains a key aim for Russia as it launches a new large-scale offensive using several hundred-thousand conscripts drafted by Putin last September.
The war has arguably become more global too, with Russian President Vladimir Putin repeatedly blaming the West for the conflict and pitching the war as a battle for Russia’s survival. for their part, the West has vowed to support Ukraine for as long as it takes, pledging billions of dollars in military aid and weaponry.
How that offensive proceeds, and how quickly and effectively Ukraine can counter it, will be decisive, defense experts warn.
Russia’s “main strategic goal remains to destroy Ukraine, all of it,” Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Ukraine’s former defense minister, told CNBC ahead of the one-year anniversary.
“But since they cannot do that, they obviously have some reduced goals and the main one that they’ll be selling internally is the capture of the Donbas, and they’ll sell that a completion of their main objective [if they succeed],” he noted.
“I don’t think they will be successful … but if they are they will be selling this as a big deal. There are a number of scenarios that could happen after that, depending on the state of their forces,” he noted.
“If they’re seriously damaged and worn out, they may say that’s it and then take a pause to gather new forces, they may do some additional mobilization and some additional training. But if they’re not that much damaged during this process, then they may decide to move straightaway somewhere else,” he said.
The worry, experts say, is that heavy Western weaponry promised to Ukraine only weeks ago could take months to arrive, when time is of the essence for Kyiv.
“We need weapons and weapons and weapons, faster and faster and faster,” Oleksandr Musiyenko, a military expert and head of the Centre for Military and Legal Studies in Kyiv, told our reporters.
“We need the weapons to stop the Russian offensive. It could be artillery, it could be longer-range rockets … and we need more armored vehicles,” he noted. His sentiment was echoed by Zagorodnyuk, who said “from commitment [of weapons] to delivery, there shouldn’t be much time because time here is hugely sensitive.”
For Ukraine, the main concern is that procrastination over the granting or delivery of weapons translates into more potential losses on the battlefield. The fighting in eastern Ukraine has already been likened to World War I, the fields reportedly littered with corpses of soldiers and whole towns and villages destroyed.
Russia and Ukraine have only published data sporadically on their own casualty rates in the war — so we have to rely on estimates. Still, the death toll on both sides is believed to be significant.
The U.K.’s Ministry of Defence believes Russian and private military contractor forces have likely suffered 175,000 to 200,000 casualties since the start of the invasion with approximately 40,000 to 60,000 killed. Meanwhile, an estimate from Norway’s army chief on Tuesday indicated that Ukraine had probably counted around 100,000 dead or wounded soldiers so far.
According to latest U.N. human rights office data, at least 8,000 non-combatants have been confirmed killed — with nearly 13,300 injured — since start of the Russian invasion. The U.N. notes the true number is likely to be substantially higher, such is the chaotic nature of recording this data during wartime.
In January, Ukraine’s Western allies agreed to grant battle tanks to Kyiv after months of requests, but Kyiv is expected to have to wait until late spring for that equipment (ranging from Leopard 2s from Europe to U.S. M1 Abrams) to arrive.
Ukraine has already pleaded for fighter jets from its allies, a request that is likely to be an even taller order to fulfil with NATO allies fearing they could be used offensively against Russian territory.
One former NATO official told CNBC that, sooner or later, Ukraine would need to be given combat aircraft.
“If we want the Ukrainians to go on the offensive, and to be able to push back against the Russians, with all of their heavy armor, at some point we have to think about giving them the ability to have tactical air superiority,” Jamie Shea, previously the deputy assistant secretary general for Emerging Security Challenges at NATO and an international defense and security expert at think tank Chatham House, said.
“The law of warfare shows, every time, that air superiority is what counts. Air superiority is the pre-condition for armor to be able to operate effectively. So eventually if we want the tanks and the APCs [armored personnel carriers] to be able to operate fully we’re going to have to give them aircraft,” he said, noting that the West did not necessarily have to offer its latest F-16 fighter jets but could offer Kyiv other models of combat aircraft.
Asked whether he believed Ukraine could prevail and win the war before the end of 2023, Shea said two things need to happen: Western weapons need to arrive quickly and Ukraine must be given aircraft. Western nations have so far ruled out fighter jets for Ukraine, however.
While Western leaders are bullish about Ukraine’s ability to win the war quickly (and, arguably, they’d say nothing to the contrary in public), analysts are less optimistic that there will be any quick victory in or for Ukraine.
“I’m afraid this war is not going to end anytime soon, it might well drag on for years,” Jan Kallmorgen, the chief executive of Berlin Global Advisors, told CNBC Thursday.
“Both sides are determined to win, Putin just made this clear in his speech in Moscow. He sees the war as an existential question for Russia … and he’s ready to throw maybe millions more troops to the front,” he told CNBC’s Annette Weisbach in Berlin.
While the West was strongly supportive of Ukraine, Kallmorgen questioned whether that support could be finite, and what role China might take in the conflict.
“The end game, in my view, can only be if Putin sees that he cannot win this game and that he comes to the negotiation table. [But] there are two key questions — is Western unity going to hold and what are the Chinese going to do — are they taking a role as a responsible stakeholder or will they side with Russia,” he questioned.
China, an ally of Russia, has tried to steer clear of outright support for Moscow and has previously offered to mediate between the two sides. But Russia has been courting China’s support assiduously ahead of an expected visit by President Xi Jinping to Moscow expected some time in the spring.
The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that the U.S. government is considering releasing intelligence that shows China’s considering supplying weapons to Russia. Although China’s Foreign Ministry rebuffed the report, saying it was “just speculation and smearing against China,”.