The war enters its second year with a decimated Russian army and Ukraine dependent on the West’s mood

A Russian soldier lies on the outskirts of Kyiv, in one of the first battles of the war, following the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022. (AFP)

The war in Ukraine enters its second year without any clarity about what its end could be. We know that since September the Russians have not made a significant advance and that for now there is no major offensive like the one the Kremlin had promised for this week. The battle around the city Vuhledar, located at the intersection of the eastern front in the region of Donetsk and the southern front in the region of Zaporizhzhyawhich is considered one of the first moves by Moscow in its fledgling spring offensive, continues stagnant and with extraordinary casualties in the Russian ranks. The Ukrainians cannot advance either, they have severe ammunition restrictions while they despair for the arrival of the German Leopard tanks that would allow them firepower and movement speed that they lack. The struggle, in the coming months, will continue to be centered in the rich region of Donbas. And much will depend on the union of the occupied eastern and southern areas. The main Russian supply line passes through there. If the Ukrainians manage to break it, it would set them on course for a victory.

When Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion on February 24, he was convinced that it would be an operation of a few days. “In 72 hours we will take kyiv”, he had promised his generals. His plan was to surround the Ukrainian capital, break its defenses and take a military airport that would serve as a beachhead for the landing of the special forces that would do the rest. With the seizure of kyiv and the overthrow of the government of Vladimir ZelenskyIn the Kremlin’s perspective, the rest of the country would not resist. The Russians collided with their own image. they failed. And the defense that was going to fall in three days has already spent 360 years not only resisting but pushing the invaders towards the Black Sea with the prospect of reconquering even the Crimean peninsula lost in 2014.

In the last weeks, Moscow sent tens of thousands more soldiers, many of them new inexperienced recruits, to the front lines, to try to deliver some good news to Putin after months of setbacks. But according to the Ukrainian command, Western analysts, the account of captured Russian soldiers, the submissions of Russian military bloggers and the video images on the networks continue the panorama of “a faltering Russian campaign that remains plagued with dysfunction.” These soldiers, together with the mercenaries of the wagner groupthe vast majority of them criminals released from Russian jails, have been trying for weeks to conquer the city of bahkmut where the Ukrainians resist badly. Perhaps the entrance to that city of relative strategic importance is the little that Putin can celebrate before next weekend.

Ukrainian soldiers this week during the Battle of Vuhledar, where Russian forces suffered excessive casualties.  REUTERS/Yevhenii Zavhorodnii
Ukrainian soldiers this week during the Battle of Vuhledar, where Russian forces suffered excessive casualties. REUTERS/Yevhenii Zavhorodnii (STRINGER/)

Russia suffered enormous casualties in this first year of war. The Ukrainians claim that more than 135,000 deaths. Estimates from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) there are 200,000, between dead and wounded. And he risks a disastrous situation. It is estimated that the vast majority of the Russian army is currently fighting on Ukrainian soil. The British Defense Secretary, Ben Wallacehe said Wednesday to the BBC that “97% of the Russian army” is in Ukraine. American defense officials estimate that about 80 percent of Russia’s ground forces are dedicated to the war effort. The colonel Oleksii Dmytrashkivskyia spokesman for the Ukrainian military, stated in an interview that in trying to take Vuhledar, which is located near a railway line that Russia uses to supply its forces, “the enemy suffered critical losses.”

Despite all his failures, Putin has reason to believe that Russia’s position could improve this year.. It is based on two dynamics. First of all, Russia is still a country with much more resources than its neighbor and can still pull a lot of rabbits out of the hat. Its enormous nuclear arsenal cannot be forgotten for a moment.. Second, you know that Ukraine depends on the mood of the West to continue to supply him with crucial weapons and equipment.

Until now, West remains united behind Ukraine. The last sign of support was the supply of modern tanks to the United States, Great Britain and Germany. But there are reasons to wonder how long this support will last. Germany seems to have doubts about how firmly they should confront Russiaand the German chancellor, Olaf Schölz, maintains a rather ambiguous position. In the United States, a significant sector of the Republican opposition criticizes military aid and argues that “Ukraine is not America’s problem.”

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A Ukrainian patrol faces sniper fire on a street in the city of Bahkmut. The mercenaries of the Wagner Group, which is at the service of the Kremlin, operate there. (John Moore/Getty Images)

But Without more Western help, Ukraine will not be able to win this war.. The German technology Leopard tanks that will be arriving starting this Sunday could allow it to break the Russian land bridge that links Donbas with Crimea. This will complicate the situation for the Moscow troops, who would once again be left without essential supplies, as they already did on the outskirts of kyiv, when they tried to advance from Belarus towards the Ukrainian capital. One of Ukraine’s goals in this campaign would be to regain control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plantwhich supplies a huge amount of electricity to the entire territory of the country.

To prepare for that next offensive, Ukraine withdrew elite officers and troops from the front lines and sent them to Germany, Britain, and Poland. There they are being trained in new units and learning to use the tanks, artillery tubes and other equipment recently supplied by the West. But the key will be in the fighter planes. President Zelensky is already announcing that if they manage to push the Russians into the Black Sea, they will need state-of-the-art fighter-bombers to reconquer Crimea and end the war. For now there is great resistance to this aid, both in Europe and in Washington. The fear from the first day of the invasion remains that a move of this type is interpreted by Putin as a threat to the security of his country and that he plays his most fearsome card, the nuclear one. NATO has drawn its own red lines and does not want to cross them in any way. Although it must be taken into account that in these months there was also opposition to the delivery of the Himars missile launchers and the Leopard tanks, which ended up taking place.

Meanwhile, all the protagonists involved in this war begin to look for possible solutions. At this point it is clear that the only resolution is war. No one seems to be willing to sit down and negotiate. Ukraine has already made it clear that is not willing to give up even an inch of its territory and Putin is convinced that he will not stop until he stays, at least, with the richest Ukrainian region, that of Donbas., while retaining the Crimean peninsula. And this leads to the basic question in any armed conflict What would be celebrated as a victory by the warring parties?

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as he faced the consequences of the killings and rapes by Russian soldiers in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv.

For Ukraine, everything is clear. “I can assure you that if you leave our territory, the war will stop”, declared President Zelensky, in an interview given at the end of January to Sky News. “That’s all it takes.”

For Russia, things are much more complex. At a ceremony to commemorate the illegal annexation of Ukrainian territories in September last year, Putin said: “The truth supports us. And in the truth is our strength, which means victory. Victory will be ours.”. On December 31, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu declared: “Our victory, like the New Year, is inevitable!” Others go further. “It’s our victory or World War III”: This was the headline of a video posted by the Kremlin propaganda star, Daisy Simonyanin January.

From the Kremlin they have been fighting from the beginning to define the objectives of their war – or what Putin still calls the “special military operation”. On February 24, 2022, the day of the invasion, Putin said that his troops were coming in to achieve “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine, along with the liberation of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics from “genocide”. His two speeches that week – and the tank columns heading for Kiev – suggested that Russia intended to overthrow the Zelensky government and install a puppet government. Less than a week later, the goals had already changed. Shoigu stated that the mission was defend Russia from a NATO invasion. And by late March, as the Russian army bogged down on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital, the mission had been scaled back. The Ministry of Defense announced that the main objective was the liberation of the Donbas regionin the East.

Vladimir Putin with his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu during the Victory Day parade in Moscow on May 9 last year.  (REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov)
Vladimir Putin with his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu during the Victory Day parade in Moscow on May 9 last year. (REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov) (MAXIM SHEMETOV/)

In the course of the year there were also other definitions. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in April that the war was being fought “for put an end to the reckless expansion and reckless course towards the complete dominance of the United States and other Western countries”. More recently, several Kremlin propagandists on state television said that “victory” must include the end of the Zelensky government, the westward rollback of NATO military assets and the end of “western hegemony”. Something that indicates that a victory and control of the Ukrainian territory would not be enough for the Kremlin and that it could have the objective of continuing to advance with its army to the west. “If they win in the Ukraine, they won’t stop until they reach the English Channel,” was the prediction of a British analyst on the BBC.

We know when wars start, never when they end. The variables that can modify the analyzes are infinite. The most optimistic view might be that The West finds an urgency to end this conflict and immediately provide all resources for Ukraine to liberate its territory and force Putin to sign an armistice while he remains in power. In this way, European stability would be maintained and I don’t know, the much-feared Russian disintegration would occur. The most pessimistic is that ends up generating another conflict – it could be the Chinese invasion of Taiwan, for example – that makes us forget what is happening in Ukraine and the war extends in a time without destination.

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