The Russia-Ukraine war is far from over. As winter draws on, countries supporting Ukraine must continue to maintain unity for months or years ahead. That will be tough.
This post is an update on Russia’s war on Ukraine and how we should respond.
How we got here
At the beginning of Russia’s new invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, I wrote a Russia-Ukraine war explainer. It explained the history to the war and how Russian President Putin’s goal was to protect his personal position. Like any autocrat, Putin fears democracy. If he cannot walk away with a “win” from the war he launched, his future looks dim.
In June 2022 I was concerned that as the war ground on for months, it was disappearing from the headlines. In an update, Russia’s War on Ukraine: what’s happening, I wrote: Putin continues to slaughter vast numbers of his own troops, and Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, in the hope of a military breakthrough. That could yet happen. The top task for countries supporting Ukraine must be to maintain unity for weeks, months or years to come. This will be a challenge.
Russia-Ukraine War: developments since June
In fact, far from any Russian breakthrough, it is Ukraine that has scored a series of military successes. They include:
- a September offensive pushing back Russian forces from the whole of Kharkiv Oblast in the north, regaining thousands of square kilometres of territory from Russian occupation;
- a parallel offensive towards the Russian-occupied city of Kherson in southern Ukraine. At the time of writing, Russia appears to have withdrawn Kherson and the west bank of the Dnipro river. If true, this looks like a further major Ukrainian victory;
- strikes on Russian military bases in Crimea, including airfields;
- an attack that seriously damaged the Kerch Bridge, built by Russia after its occupation of Crimea in 2014 and the main connection between Russia and the peninsula;
- attacks by marine drones on Russian military ships around the port of Sevastopol in Crimea.
Since September Russia, frustrated by the military momentum moving against it, has begun systematically to bombard Ukrainian civilian infrastructure – notably electricity and water supplies – using long-range missiles and drones, some of the latter from Iran. On 20 October Amnesty International said that “Russian attacks on critical energy infrastructure amount to war crimes.”
On 21 September, Putin announced a “partial mobilisation” of 300,000 Russians “with military experience”. Putin had previously resisted pressure for mobilisation as this would be unpopular in Russia and would imply that the war was not going well. The mobilisation was, indeed, unpopular. Between 260,000 and 700,000 young Russian men fled the country; others protested. Others complained that the mobilisation was chaotic and indiscriminate; and that no serious training was provided to those called up. The authorities “suspended” the mobilisation on 1 November.
Russia-Ukraine war: the balance of territory
According to a 30 September CNN analysis based on figures from the Institute for the Study of War:
- before the February 2022 invasion, Russia occupied around 7% of Ukraine. This consisted of Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts in the east of the country seized mostly in 2014;
- by 27 March 2022, Russia had occupied a total of 27% of Ukraine, ie an additional 20% of the country;
- by the end of April 2022, Ukraine had pushed Russia back from Kyiv and in the north of the country. Russia’s area of occupation shrank to around 20% of Ukraine;
- Ukraine’s September offensive recovered around 9,000 square kilometres of territory. This reduced Russian occupied areas to around 19% of the area of Ukraine;
- Ukraine’s reoccupation of Kherson Oblast west of the Dnipro river, including the city of Kherson, returned to Ukrainian control thousands more square kilometres of land.
There is debate about these figures, and whether you can “occupy” land, rather than roads or settlements. But the war has clearly been moving in Ukraine’s favour over this period. According to the UK Ministry of Defence, Russian forces have lost 54% of the maximum area they occupied after the 24 February invasion, and now control 18% of the total area of Ukraine, including Crimea.
Ukrainian civilian losses
Both sides have suffered immense military losses since June. Ukraine, in addition, has suffered huge civilian losses – particularly as Russia steps up its targeting of civilian infrastructure. Even before the latest attacks, whole Ukrainian cities such as Mariupol had been destroyed by Russian bombardment. Many other cities have been severely damaged. As I wrote in June:
- Against this background, the idea that Russia is somehow “protecting” Russian speakers in the east of Ukraine is grotesque. I visited the Donbas region often from 2008-2012, before Putin’s 2014 invasion. It was prosperous and stable. Now, eight years later, it is a smoking ruin.
What will happen next? Three things to watch for
Many observers expect a grinding war of attrition. They think Russia will try to seize more land and resist further Ukrainian advances, while Ukraine tries to push forward. I shall watch three things with particular interest:
(i) the situation on the ground. Ukrainian forces have had the upper hand in recent months. But the fighting is fierce; and Ukraine is reliant on western weapons. Russia is building defensive positions as winter approaches. The war is far from “won” for either side.
(ii) the situation in Russia. Every decision Putin has made since 2014 has been wrong. He has turned Ukraine, a friendly neighbour, into a bitter foe. He has launched a catastrophic and unnecessary war to no gain. His actions have caused Finland and Sweden to join NATO; and turned previously friendly countries such as Germany against him. He has destroyed the Russian economy – and so on. I wrote in June: “Putin has spent twenty three years building a system where he is difficult to overthrow. He has crushed the opposition and controlled the media. This lack of checks, balances or debate is one reason why he keeps making such bad decisions. The longer the war goes on, the greater the likelihood that Russian families suffering personal tragedies from the loss of loved ones will demand a change, as they did during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan 1979-89.”
(iii) the policies of Ukraine’s supporters. Putin hopes that a long, grinding war will sap the collective will of those countries. Russian cuts to gas supplies to Europe are designed to achieve that. So far, the opposite has happened. Each time evidence of Russian atrocities emerges, eg mass graves or attacks on civilians, the resolve of Ukraine’s allies grows. A mild autumn has helped boost European gas stocks, and prices have fallen. But maintaining political cohesion amongst those allies to support Ukraine financially and militarily over long months ahead will be a challenge. They will have their own economic and political problems to deal with.
Russia-Ukraine war: what about a ceasefire?
I disagree with those who argue that providing weapons to Ukraine simply prolongs the war, or that a ceasefire is the answer. My updated post, “Russia-Ukraine ceasefire: why not?” sets out the arguments.
So how do we end this war?
At the moment, the prospects for any kind of negotiated outcome look bleak. Early in the war, Ukraine suggested a ceasefire and talks based on the pre-February 2022 boundaries. The immense suffering caused by Russia’s invasion since then makes any such outcome now look unlikely. Ukraine insists that Russia must withdraw from the whole of Ukraine, including areas such as Crimea occupied in 2014, before peace talks. They argue that a ceasefire on any other basis would reward Russian aggression and allow Russian military forces to regroup.
What about the Russian side? Putin cannot agree to anything that leaves his troops occupying less of Ukraine than they did in February 2022. How could he justify to the Russian people the chaos and destruction he has wrought – including tens of thousands of Russian soldiers dead and wounded – for no gain? That would surely be the end of his rule – the very outcome he launched his war against Ukraine to prevent. For Putin personally, the war is existential.
What I wrote in June, therefore, remains true. “The top priority in responding to Russia’s war on Ukraine must be to maintain unity amongst countries opposing the war. Only that will make it possible to keep providing Ukraine with the weapons and material it needs to defend itself against the biggest war launched on European soil since 1945, and slowly to weaken Russia. It is a grim prospect. But the alternatives are grimmer still.”
Other resources on this site:
Russia-Ukraine war explainer: why the war is happening.
Reverse conspiracy theories: why we should recognise that Russia’s war on Ukraine is overwhelmingly the responsibility of Vladimir Putin.
Three things to bear in mind about Russian official statements: Kim Philby, maskirovka and MH17.
My books, including “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy”, coming 2023, which will look at these issues in more detail.