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The Week
The Week
Sorcha Bradley

Who is winning the war in Ukraine?

Kyiv has launched its counter-offensive, but progress remains slow and stalemate looms

It has been more than 17 months since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and there appears to be no end in sight for the conflict. 

Ukraine launched its counter-offensive in early June, but Kyiv has warned that progress is likely to remain slow in the face of Russia’s formidable defences. 

Ukrainian forces reported successes on the frontlines of the Donetsk region, but intense fighting is going on around the eastern city of Bakhmut. The war appears to be entering a near frozen state with few analysts believing either side can take decisive action to bring about its end.

What are the latest developments in the war? 

Last month, Russia faced internal tensions as Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenary group staged a brief rebellion, threatening to march on Moscow. Though the uprising was short-lived, it has almost certainly weakened President Vladimir Putin’s authority. 

The situation surrounding the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has raised concerns in recent weeks, as both Russia and Ukraine accused each other of planning an attack, sparking fears of potential fallout from Europe’s largest nuclear power station.

In June, the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine led to catastrophic flooding in the area, with Kyiv saying Russia did it deliberately, describing the bursting of the dam as an “environmental bomb of mass destruction”.

In another significant development in the war, the port of Odesa, a crucial export hub for Ukrainian grain on the Black Sea, was bombed by Russian cruise missiles earlier this month. The assault happened shortly after Moscow pulled out of the Black Sea grain deal – a UN-backed agreement intended to enable Ukraine to sustain global food supplies.

After reports of recent drone attacks on Moscow, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said: “Gradually, the war is returning to the territory of Russia – to its symbolic centres and military bases, and this is an inevitable, natural and absolutely fair process.” 

What does victory look like for Russia? 

Before Russia launched its invasion of Kyiv in February 2022, Vladimir Putin outlined the objectives of what he called a “special military operation”. His goal, he claimed, was to “denazify” and “demilitarise” Ukraine, and to defend the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, the two eastern Ukrainian territories occupied by Russian proxy forces since 2014.

Another objective, although never explicitly stated, was to topple the Ukrainian government and remove the country’s president, Zelenskyy. “The enemy has designated me as target number one; my family is target number two,” said Zelenskyy shortly after the invasion. Russian troops made two attempts to storm the presidential compound.

Russia shifted its objectives, however, about a month into the invasion, after Russian forces were forced to retreat from Kyiv and Chernihiv. According to the Kremlin, its main goal became the “liberation of the Donbas”, including the regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia – but Russia has made little progress in achieving this aim. 

What does victory look like for Ukraine?

Ukraine’s main objective is the liberation of its occupied territories. That includes not just those held by Russia since the February 2022 invasion, but a return to its internationally recognised borders, which include Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014. 

Can Ukraine win the war?

Putin has failed to achieve his objectives in Ukraine, argued Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, in Foreign Affairs. In calling for the “denazification” of Ukraine, Putin presumably meant regime change – yet Zelenskyy’s position as president of Ukraine is “as strong as ever”. If Putin thought to achieve the demilitarisation of Ukraine, then he has failed on this front too: “Ukraine is on its way to becoming the most militarised country in Europe,” said Freedman.

And Putin’s problems are mounting; Russian-speaking areas in Donbas have suffered terribly due to the war. Russian forces have not gained complete control of the regions claimed by Putin, and Ukraine’s current counter-offensive means that territories it did take are slowly being relinquished.

Ukraine certainly still hopes that its aims – the liberation of all its occupied lands and a return to the borders of 1991 – can be achieved. But if Ukraine’s counter-offensive falters, “Russia lacks for now the combat power to seize the advantage and take more territory”.

We are now more than a month into Ukraine’s counter-offensive, which is “struggling against entrenched Russian forces” and appears to have entered a “near-frozen state” with neither side making significant gains, said CBC News. The seemingly stalled state of the conflict has renewed debate about whether it is time for negotiations to take place to bring about an end. 

Russia’s army is “hardly in great shape”, said CBC. Its spring offensive cost tens of thousands of Russian lives and achieved little beyond a “symbolic” win at Bakhmut. Now Russian forces are “exhausted”, with senior commanders being replaced for insubordination, following an attempted coup by the head of the Wagner mercenary group.

It would be difficult for Russian forces to launch another counter-offensive this year, according to Western intelligence. But extensive entrenchments on the Russian frontline mean that Ukrainian forces have little chance of breaking through.

The Ukrainian army has also lost “significant equipment and personnel”, although the extent of the losses are a closely guarded secret. The war is therefore facing a “stalemate” of the kind seen in the 1950-53 Korean War, which also reached a military impasse. 

While an armistice was struck in 1953, the war in Korea has never officially ended. Russia and Ukraine could negotiate a similar uneasy and open-ended ceasefire, a situation which is “far from peace”. 

Most Western analysts believe it will be extremely difficult for Ukraine to liberate Crimea and the occupied areas of the Donbas, said military analyst Sean Bell for Sky News. That aim is “not impossible” to achieve, “but very, very difficult”.

Russia is also unlikely to achieve its aim of subjugating the whole of Ukraine and neither side appears able to deliver “a decisive blow against the other”, said Bell. “Battlefield victory and defeat, therefore, have limited meaning in this conflict,” he continued. 

But from a “grand-strategic perspective” it is clear Putin has failed in achieving any of his aims from the invasion of Ukraine. Finland and Sweden have joined Nato, foiling Putin’s attempt to stop the expansion of the military alliance. His vision of restoring Russia’s greatness is undermined by a subservient relationship with China’s President Xi Jinping. And the Russian economy’s growth has been stifled by Western sanctions. 

To appease his domestic audience and justify sacrifices made, Putin has strategically portrayed the conflict as a vaguely defined “special military operation”. Eventually, he may negotiate for peace and claim victory, although it will be one the world recognises as a “pyrrhic victory”, said Bell.

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