Ukrainians hoped to defeat Russia in 2023, or at least liberate much more of their land, but instead they see stalemate on the battlefield, Western support under debate and their ranks of dead and wounded growing ever larger.
Last year ended with Kyiv’s military retaking much of Kharkiv region in the east and freeing the southeastern city of Kherson – the only provincial capital Russia had managed to occupy after its full invasion of February 2022 – and momentum seemed to be with Ukraine, even as Russian air strikes on its power grid made it a cold, dark winter for many.
Expectation grew that a spring counteroffensive would allow Ukrainian troops to split Moscow’s forces in the Zaporizhzhia region and drive south to the Azov Sea, cutting the land link between the Russian border and occupied Crimea.
Yet spring wore on without any counterattack and the biggest fighting continued to rage around Bakhmut, a transport hub in the eastern Donetsk region that had been almost levelled by months of artillery fire, and which Russia’s Wagner mercenary group finally captured in May after hurling thousands of released convicts into the “meat grinder”.
With Western help, Ukraine had trained and equipped 12 new brigades comprising about 60,000 soldiers to smash through a Russian occupation force five times larger, with the onus on Kyiv to make best use of its new arms to overcome the disparity in numbers.
... delays and shortfalls in Western arms supplies were a constant frustration, with Ukraine’s lack of modern air power being the most glaring gap in its armoury
The challenge for the inexperienced force was immense: master a panoply of complex weapons systems, including tanks, artillery, air defence and electronic warfare, and combine them in a large-scale operation against a bigger enemy with abundant ammunition, overwhelming air superiority and deep defensive lines built over more than a year.
Other factors were also worrying for Kyiv: it had committed some of its most battle-hardened units to Bakhmut, and when it fell they were depleted and simply exhausted; and delays and shortfalls in Western arms supplies were a constant frustration, with Ukraine’s lack of modern air power being the most glaring gap in its armoury.
When the counteroffensive finally began in Zaporizhzhia region on June 7th, the scale of miscalculation by Kyiv and its allies was immediately clear, as Western armoured vehicles became trapped in Russia’s minefields and succumbed to its attack helicopters and drones.
Losses in personnel, armour and morale were so heavy that Ukraine’s top general, Valery Zaluzhnyi, quickly scrapped plans to drive an armoured wedge through occupied territory and ordered his troops to navigate minefields on foot in small groups. The tactic saved lives and equipment but killed the dream of swift gains held by many Ukrainians and western politicians.
“I think a great strategic mistake has been committed. And it has been committed for political reasons,” says Marina Miron, postdoctoral researcher at the war studies department of King’s College London.
She thinks Kyiv’s allies, particularly the United States, were impatient for results on the battlefield, and wonders how Ukrainian and Western military planners failed to take into account the dense minefields and other defences constructed by Russia in the southeast.
“We saw already last year that Western allies wanted to see their money at work,” Miron says. “I think the Ukrainian military didn’t want this counteroffensive and pushed it [back] far as they could... but it was a big strategic mistake [by the military], regardless of who pushed them, whether it was [Volodymyr] Zelenskiy or international pressure, and most likely it was both,” she adds, referring to Ukraine’s president.
‘I think that for political reasons, Zelenskiy didn’t want to admit for a long time that the counteroffensive had run out of steam’— Marina Miron, postdoctoral researcher at the war studies department of King’s College London
“Whoever made the [military] assessment was very wrong on the capabilities and adaptation of the adversary to the conflict,” Miron says, suggesting that the Russian army’s many failures in Ukraine in 2022 led to it being underestimated this year.
“The expectations [for Ukraine] were very high, and I think Zaluzhnyi was under a lot of pressure to make his people conduct this very complex combined arms operation without air power,” she adds, noting that air superiority is a prerequisite for US ground operations.
“Western politicians who have never been on the battlefield in Ukraine think it’s all very simple... and they were worried because [US president] Joe Biden had to justify the help he had given to Ukraine,” she says. “And I think that for political reasons, Zelenskiy didn’t want to admit for a long time that the counteroffensive had run out of steam.”
Historians may argue over whether Zaluzhnyi should have focused on breaching Russian lines in Zaporizhzhia regardless of the losses, or whether he was wise to preserve his forces and keep enough units spread out along the 1,000km front line to counter enemy attacks around Bakhmut and Avdiivka in Donetsk region and Kupiansk in Kharkiv province.
The upshot is that Ukraine’s counteroffensive only liberated a handful of near-deserted villages, and Zaluzhnyi said last month that the war was now in a “stalemate” of “positional warfare” which would “benefit Russia, allowing it to rebuild its military power, eventually threatening Ukraine’s armed forces and the state itself.”
The front line is static in eastern Ukraine, where fighting is likened to the “first World War with drones” – close-quarters battles for trenches and treelines punctuated by attacks from explosive-laden “first-person view” drones flown by “pilots” who may be 10km away.
Zelenskiy disagreed with Zaluzhnyi’s assessment of a stalemate, but now acknowledges that the war has indeed entered a “new phase”.
“Undoubtedly, the winter and the analysis of our own and the enemy’s resource capabilities require adjustments in tactics,” Mykhailo Podolyak, one of Zelenskiy’s chief advisers, said this week.
“On the front line and in the cities, we are already moving to a different tactic of warfare – effective defence in certain areas, continuation of offensive operations in other areas, special strategic operations on the Crimean peninsula and in the Black Sea waters, and significantly reformatted missile defence of critical infrastructure.”
With the counteroffensive stalled, Ukraine has talked up other successes in recent months: long-range missile and drone attacks on occupied Crimea, including on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and its main base at Sevastopol; the opening of a new Black Sea shipping route in defiance of Russia’s naval blockade; frequent strikes on enemy supply lines and targeted assassinations in occupied territory and Russia itself; and the establishment of a bridgehead for Ukrainian troops on the eastern bank of the Dnipro river in the Kherson region.
But overall, this sobering year has exposed some of Ukraine’s weaknesses: its relative lack of human and industrial resources with which to fight a giant like Russia, and its reliance on economic, diplomatic and military help from Western countries that are struggling to ramp up arms production and are subject to the political winds that always buffet democracies.
At the same time, Russia is playing to its strengths, shifting much of its huge industrial sector to a war footing and fighting without regard for its human losses, as only a vast authoritarian state without free media, political opposition or democratic elections can.
‘We don’t know the real ability of Russia to produce new weapons, or the stability of the regime or the long-term capacity of Russia to wage the war generally. There could be some kind of collapse at any point’— Nickolay Kapitonenko, associate professor at the Institute of International Relations in Kyiv
Zelenskiy says Ukraine must now prioritise building defensive fortifications in key areas of the front line, in advance of Russia’s likely push for fresh gains before it holds presidential elections next March.
“Probably some changes in strategy need to be made and more emphasis put on strategic defence,” says Nickolay Kapitonenko, an associate professor at the Institute of International Relations in Kyiv.
Kapitonenko says Western arms – including F-16 fighter jets that are due for delivery next year – are vital not just for hopes of a more successful future offensive, but also simply to ensure Ukraine’s survival.
“No one knows how the war will go on. We have already seen lots of surprises. We don’t know the real ability of Russia to produce new weapons, or the stability of the regime or the long-term capacity of Russia to wage the war generally. There could be some kind of collapse at any point,” he says.
Ukraine and its allies may also have to redefine “victory”, he argues.
“Winning an asymmetric war for a weaker power may not be about signing a peace agreement stipulating the return of all occupied territories, reparations and so on,” Kapitonenko says. “Victory for a weaker country is also being able to deny the attempts of a bigger power to occupy it or install a controlled government.”