As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, the stakes are high for both countries, as well as the West. Defeat will be costly for either side.
Russia’s attempts to capture large swathes of Ukraine have now dragged on for 12 months, in a protracted campaign that was supposed to be over in three days. One year on from Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Russia’s neighbour, it is still hard to predict what the final outcome of the war will be.
Having been virtually written off at the start of the war by many Western policymakers and pundits alike, the Ukrainian armed forces have performed far beyond optimistic expectations. They not only blunted the initial assault on the capital Kyiv, but pushed Russia’s armed forces back in a highly successful counteroffensive launched in August and September 2022.
The Ukrainian armed forces have also been aided by excellent intelligence – both from partisans on the ground as well as Western sources – not to mention superior doctrine emphasising mobility and the corrosion of the invading force.
The lamentably poor performance of Russia’s armed forces in tactics, decision-making and logistics has also played a role, revealing what was touted before the war as the world’s second-best army to be third-rate at best.
A Ukrainian victory is simple to identify: the return of lands captured by Russia’s armed forces in 2022, in addition to the territory seized by its proxies from 2013 onwards, including Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk. For Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, nothing less than total victory will suffice. Indeed, given the barbarity experienced by Ukrainians at the hands of the Russian invaders, his leadership would become instantly precarious should he suddenly decide to trade land for peace.
In that sense, the will of Ukrainians to fight is not the problem. What is more tricky is what to do if circumstances make halting the fighting the more sensible choice. Liberating sizeable amounts of its territory will likely prove a significantly bigger challenge for Ukraine in 2023. That is partly because Kyiv is heavily reliant on Western military assistance. This continues to flow, but it has been frequently held up by intra-NATO disagreements over providing offensive weapons, such as tanks, for instance.
For Ukraine to be able to capitalise on its successes it will require not only heavy armour from the West, but huge volumes of artillery ammunition, airpower and longer-range strike weapons – at a time when NATO’s munitions reserves are starting to thin. It will also need to ensure that the damage Putin’s forces have been enthusiastically wreaking on its civilian infrastructure do not result in total economic fracture. That would potentially leave Kyiv without a functioning state, and hence unable to prosecute the war.
While Ukraine is less bothered by the dangers of Russian escalation than the West, NATO governments will weigh carefully the prospects of an embattled Putin turning to weapons of last resort if Russia starts losing badly, and especially if Crimea – the jewel in the crown of Putin’s Ukrainian conquests – is in danger of falling.
This is not to say Ukraine has no agency in the war: given it is doing the fighting while the West looks on from the sidelines providing moral and material support, the terms by which Ukraine seeks to end the war should ultimately be decided in Kyiv. But even if the tide of battle turns decisively in its favour, the Zelenskyy government will still need to bolster European risk-aversion to push for a maximalist victory over Russian forces.
For its part, Russia’s armed forces have sustained enormous losses, and they are struggling to hold on to half the Ukrainian territory they initially seized in February 2022. Forced to rely on semi-private military companies and waves of ill-trained conscripts, it is hard to see the Kremlin succeeding in achieving the war outcomes it initially sought: to capture Kyiv and install a compliant proxy; to dominate Ukraine from the Donbas to the west bank of the Dniepro River; and to control a land bridge to Crimea to shut Ukraine out of the Black Sea.
Russia is also running short of munitions, especially precision-guided rockets, and its recent performances, ahead of a much-anticipated ‘spring offensive’, have been abject failures. This includes the catastrophic massacre of its troops in an attempt to seize the city of Vuhledar in Ukraine’s southeast, as well as its continued inability to capture the city of Bakhmut.
Putin’s advantages lie in a near-inexhaustible supply of cannon fodder, and in the freedom of being able to wreak enormous damage on Ukrainian infrastructure without fearing a similar response. Being able to attack with relative impunity also shields the Russian population from the demoralising sight of war damage; although the human toll as well as the economic pain Russians will experience in 2023 as sanctions begin to bite will also put political pressure on Putin to rapidly turn around the fortunes of his armed forces. If he is unable to do so, Putin will become vulnerable – possibly for the first time since taking office more than two decades ago.
In spite of the personal risks, Russian pundits are increasingly vocalising their disappointment in the way the war has been conducted. And although much of that has been aimed at the armed forces rather than Putin himself, and has advocated harsher Russian prosecution of the war effort instead of pulling out, Putin will be greatly diminished if he exits the war in Ukraine with anything other than a military triumph.
It would be premature, then, to say there is a clear and likely path to victory for Ukraine, or particularly for Russia. This is not to say that neither side is incapable of adjusting its war aims, but there simply is no incentive for Zelenskyy or Putin to countenance it yet: Zelenskyy is fighting for national survival, while Putin will see defeat as potentially risking his own personal skin. As a result, and absent a shock like the complete collapse of Ukraine’s armed forces or the overthrow of Putin, the war will likely continue to play out militarily in 2023.
For nations that have sought to aid Ukraine against Russian aggression, the challenge will be to maintain the momentum and supply Kyiv with every form of material assistance it requires to repel Russia’s forces and liberate its territory. This is because the stakes are high for the West too. Half measures like drip-feeding weapons to Ukraine will only prolong the war, or make a ‘frozen’ conflict that merely pauses hostilities more likely.
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