It seems like years since the start of the Ukraine War, when the Russians spent the first few weeks stepping on their own… toes… and it seemed like anything could happen.
Also, it’s easy in a long-running event to get lost in the day-to-day details and lose sight of the big picture.
So with almost all the Donbas in Russian hands and Kyiv reportedly preparing for an August offensive in the south, let’s take a look at all the winning and losing in the five-month-old Ukraine War.
Initial Objectives: National survival, regime survival, keep Russian territorial gains to a minimum.
Current Objectives: The same, but rather than minimizing Russian territorial gains, Ukraine now seeks to take back Russian-occupied territory (at least in the south).
So how have they done and how are they doing?
Ukraine is smaller but still exists with the same government it started with. That right there is a win or at least a not-loss.
The big tell early in the war that nothing was going to go as expected in the Ukraine War was Russia’s humiliating failure to take Kyiv. Russian forces didn’t just fail; they left a 40-mile-long convoy of some of their best men and equipment sitting there, useless and vulnerable.
A few A-10s and that convoy would have been another Highway of Death.
But another big tell is that Ukraine was unable to capitalize on Russia’s big blunder. A Highway of Death scenario might have been a war-winner — or close enough. The whole world held its breath for a couple of weeks, but Kyiv couldn’t make it happen.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has promised a counter-offensive in the south (when he isn’t posing for Vogue), and the UA has nibbled away a bit at Russian positions. But not even the most charitable Ukraine war assessment would describe such modest gains as a counter-offensive.
In Ukraine’s favor: A fierce national identity — that this war helped birth. And Western war material. Anyone who doubted the difference a few modern howitzers and HIMARS launchers have made should by now realize how slow the Russian advance has been and how dearly it has cost them.
Against Ukraine: They’re suffering between 100-200 casualties (KIA, MIA, wounded) each day, and that’s only sustainable for so long. Also, the West has a short attention span, so who knows how long our largesse might last?
Assessment: What a shame they couldn’t exploit Russia’s early failures; what a miracle they’re still fighting so well.
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Initial Objectives: Quick capture and eventual annexation of the Novorossiya area (the east and south of Ukraine), decapitation of the Ukrainian government, encirclement and destruction of the Ukraine Army, installation of a friendly regime in Rump Ukraine.
Current Objectives: Annexation of captured areas (call it “Lesser Novorossiya”), ease Russia’s demographic crisis with Ukrainian citizens brought into Russia through “filtration camps” then (I assume) Russified, and destroy and depopulate the rest of Ukraine to the greatest extent possible.
It’s a big step down from Russia’s initial objective to its current aims.
That said, the current aims are much more achievable and, if Ukraine has to spend a generation or two rebuilding the country and enticing millions of refugees back, the war will have raised Russia’s power vis-à-vis Ukraine.
Russia, however, has and will be further reduced as a regional power with global pretensions because, regardless of where the final lines are drawn, Russian arms have been proven unworthy of a Great Power.
Russia made significant advances in only two smallish regions. Worse, the obvious pincer movement (north from Crimea, south from Kharkiv) in the war’s opening days completely failed. A success would have encircled the bulk of the Ukraine Army in the east, cutting it off from supplies, and allowing Russia to destroy it in detail. That failure is when a short Ukraine War became a long one.
Ukraine has been pushed back, true, but always in good order and usually after giving as good as they got.
The first area where Russia enjoyed success is the Donbas, which Russia now holds most of. The fighting has been intense in the extreme. If we take the lowball estimate of Russian KIAs — around 15,000, with probably another 30,000-45,000 wounded — the bulk of those were lost conquering an area smaller than New Jersey over the course of five months.
That’s not an impressive performance.
(I’m not buying the high-end estimate of 30,000 Russian KIA.)
Russia’s progress has slowed even further in the weeks since Ukraine received HIMARS rocket launchers, which have taken their toll on Russian ammo depots and complicated Russia’s already strained logistics.
The second area of Russian advance is in the south, where they’ve captured everything from Mariupol to Kherson. Odesa, however, remains stubbornly out of reach.
While Russia took a lot more land in the south, it’s been against token resistance. Kyiv chose to deploy the bulk of its limited forces in the Donbas.
Again, not exactly impressive. But given Russia’s modified, limited goals, all the Russian Army needs to do in the south is hold on to what it already has.
In Russia’s favor: Russia has a lot more men and material, a bloody-minded determination to win, and (in most but not all ways) time on its side as it integrates the occupied territories.
Against Russia: Putin lacks the political will to mobilize. That’s why middle-aged men are joining “volunteer” battalions and being rushed to the front instead of conscripted young men. Russia is also running low on modern weapons systems, deploying aged T-62 tanks (first deployed 61 years ago), and pulling aged 2S7 tracked howitzers out of storage.
Assessment: The good news for Russia is that Moscow doesn’t have to worry about Ukraine joining NATO. In fact, it has caused so much destruction and displaced so many people that it might be a generation or two before Moscow needs to worry about Ukraine at all. The bad news is that even if Ukraine won’t be joining NATO, Sweden and Finland will. The other bad news is that Russian arms — despite a dozen years of expensive modernization — have proven seriously lacking against a smaller, less modern foe with almost zero military tradition. Economically, some reports say Russia is riding out the sanctions acceptably well, while other reports claim the opposite. Whatever the case, a China-Russia-Iran Axis ain’t quite the glory Russia could have enjoyed as a wealthy and free part of the West.