After a year of hostilities in Ukraine, it is still too early to predict an outcome to the conflict in the country. Although Russia holds most of the territory in the east and south, it continues to encounter stiff resistance from Ukrainian forces, and observers continue to speculate about the possible course Russia will take once the second year of the war begins.
At what appears to be a critical moment in the Russian winter offensive, US President Joe Biden also paid a surprise visit to Kyiv this week in a show of support just days before the first anniversary of the beginning of the war. Western leaders meeting in Brussels have pledged additional arms, ammunition, and training for Ukrainian forces.
At the front in the Donbas region, Russia is close to defeating Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut, a strategic communications hub in the Donetsk oblast. Only a few more areas remain before the Russians attain the operational encirclement if not fall of that crucial city, enabling them to consolidate their defences on the Donetsk front.
Some believe Russia will now reignite the northern front in order to reclaim territory it lost in the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region last autumn. Other possibilities include a northward drive from the Zaporizhzhia oblast in the south or a westward offensive towards the cities of Kherson, Dnipro, and Zaporizhzhia, perhaps with an eye to crossing the Dnipro River and re-establishing control over Kherson city and other areas.
When it launched its Special Military Operation in Ukraine a year ago, Moscow listed several main goals, one of which was to protect the ethnic Russians and native Russian speakers in the Russian-majority areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. Annexing those areas was not the originally stated aim, and Russian President Vladimir Putin in his address of 24 February 2022 stressed that Moscow had no plans to occupy territory in Ukraine.
However, in late September 2022, after the Ukraine launched its counter-offensive, Moscow officially annexed the four eastern oblasts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson. It also drew back its forces by some 3,000 km, so as to consolidate its front in the Donbas and secure the northern approaches to the Crimean Peninsula.
It has since slowly but steadily been regaining ground in the east. However, the pledges by the Western powers of more powerful and strategic weaponry could jeopardise the advances Russia has been making in that area.
The Russian forces have also faced logistical problems, such as the flawed partial mobilisation process in Russia itself. The heavy reliance on Wagner forces after the restructuring of the Russian military command in charge of the operation in Ukraine signalled the combat weariness of Russia’s standing army. As NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has pointed out, the war in Ukraine has become a war of mutual attrition.
At the start of the operation and many times since, Putin said that one of the goals was to neutralise Ukraine militarily and prevent it from joining NATO. For decades, Russia has been concerned by NATO’s open-door policy towards countries that were once in the Soviet orbit, and since 2014 in particular it has watched the growing ties between Ukraine and the Western military pact with increasing alarm.
It feared that the intention was aggressive and that the point was to bring NATO forces directly up to Russia’s borders as part of a plan to encircle it.
In this regard, the military operation in Ukraine appears to have had a counter-productive effect. It has unified the divergent outlooks of NATO members behind a drive to strengthen NATO’s defence capacities, especially in Eastern Europe along the line extending from Romania on the Black Sea through Poland and the Baltic states. It has also driven Finland and Sweden to abandon their neutrality and apply for NATO membership.
At this juncture, and according to online maps, Russia has succeeded in asserting control over most of the Donbas. It now remains for it to develop a forward defence area in the west of the country, reinforce its control over the Azov Sea, and secure its Black Sea coastline in southern Ukraine up to Odessa. However, not only has this progress come at considerable cost to Russia, but the powerful weapons that have been pledged to Ukraine may have cast a shadow over the sustainability of Russian gains.
Whereas Ukraine once belonged to the Russian military school during the Soviet era, US and NATO training programmes and military support have been gradually turning its armed forces into a Western-style army that is interoperable with NATO forces. Although there is a partnership agreement with NATO, Kyiv is still pressing for official membership, a demand Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba raised again during the Munich Security Conference last week.
Elsewhere on the East European front, NATO and the US have been building up their forces. A plan has been approved to establish 110 more military bases and posts in Poland. If Russia had hoped that its operation in Ukraine would persuade the West to reverse its military encroachment towards its border, the invasion has had the opposite effect.
Ultimately, the territories that Russia now controls in Ukraine may be the only buffer zone between NATO and Russia. Of course, much is contingent on Russia’s ability to secure its control over the Donbas and develop strong defences, as well as on NATO’s armament systems and deployments.
Politically, both sides have had wins and losses. The Western sanctions have failed to isolate Russia internationally, and the war has brought renewed attention to a cause that Moscow has long advocated, namely the need to restructure the international order and shift it away from the Washington-centric monopolar order and towards a more equitable multipolar order.
China has benefited from this development as it moves closer to becoming a rival superpower. However, mounting tensions between Washington and Beijing could call into question how peacefully China can continue its rise.
Moscow also remains a key player in the Middle East. Military relations between Russia and Tehran have grown closer during the war. Relations with Egypt and the Gulf countries are good, and of course Russia also continues to play a pivotal role in Syria, where it is currently helping to broker a rapprochement between Damascus and Ankara.
In Africa, too, Russia has retained a robust foreign policy, challenging US influence and interests in some countries and moving into France’s former space in Mali. Russia is still important in efforts to resolve the Libya crisis, and it is developing closer military relations with Algeria.
While the Western economic sanctions may have taken a toll on Russia, the economic repercussions of the war, especially in terms of energy, have taken a heavy toll on Europe, which is simultaneously footing a large chunk of the bill for the military support for Kyiv.
Many US reports and commentators have remarked on how Washington’s campaign to politically and economically isolate and incapacitate Russia has been much less effective than they could have imagined. They have also been taken aback by the neutrality of the Gulf countries and their oil policies, which have demonstrated a new and unanticipated independence of resolve.
Although the Western sanctions have led to a reduction in military cooperation and defence contracts between Russia and many Middle Eastern countries, the latter have benefited from attractive arms deals with the US.
Despite the peace initiatives that initially gained some traction in the early phases of the war, none of the parties currently seem genuinely interested in ending it. Ukraine has dug its heels into a maximalist position. Whereas previously it demanded the return of Russian forces to the lines of 23 February 2022, it now insists on the full withdrawal of Russian forces from all Ukrainian territory, including the whole of the Donbas and Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. It also demands that Russian officials be brought before a war crimes tribunal.
Russia, too, has raised the bar in order to distance Ukraine from the West. It now requires the recognition of the current status quo on the ground as a precondition for negotiations, which would be tantamount to surrender.
But perhaps the more difficult challenge is a settlement between Moscow and Kyiv’s main backer, Washington. One particularly crucial concern is the need to renew the New START strategic arms limitation treaty. The challenges facing this are considerable, especially given that the war in Ukraine may change the balances of power and throw the calculations the treaty rests on into disarray.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly