Six months on, no clear path to victory for Russia in Ukraine

Six months ago this week, Russia launched its “special military operation” as its troops started moving into eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

Six months ago this week, Russia launched its “special military operation” as its troops started moving into eastern Ukraine.

President Vladimir Putin, claiming he would ‘denazify’ the Ukrainian leadership, called on Ukraine’s military to turn against the Kyiv government. So much so, that Russian troops moving in from Belarus, its ally to the north of Ukraine, carried with them their best uniforms, believing they would soon be participating in a victory parade down Kyiv’s main avenue.

But the fierce Ukrainian resistance led by the (surprisingly) strong showing of Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy and fuelled by weapons, armour and ammunition promptly supplied from the West, put a quick stop to Putin’s and the Russian military’s hopes.

Among the initial movements, airborne troops were dispatched to seize airports and airfields around Kyiv, but they suffered heavy losses and most of the targets were not secured. Less than a month later, Moscow pulled its troops back from areas near the cpaital, Kharkiv, Chernihiv and other large cities.

And six months on, the Russian air force failed to secure the skies above Ukraine, suffering heavy losses, despite repeated attacks on Ukrainian air bases and air defence systems.

Having failed in the north, Russia shifted its attention to the Donbas, the industrial area in the east. Here, Moscow-backed separatists had already been fighting government troops since 2014 after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula.

The Russian forces made good use of their huge superiority in artillery pieces and started moving inland after engaging the Ukrainian military in numerous pitched battles.

In Mariupol, an important port city on the Sea of Azov, the Ukrainian resistance held out for three months, suffering huge losses, before surrendering the city in May.

More than 2,400 Mariupol defenders holed up at the giant Azovstal steel mill later surrendered and were taken prisoner. At least 53 of them died in July in an explosion at a prison in eastern Ukraine that Moscow and Kyiv blamed on each other.

Thus far, Russia has taken control of the entire Luhansk region – one of two provinces that make up the Donbas – and also seized just over half of the second, Donetsk. Over all, Russia currently occupies about 20% of Ukraine’s territory.

The Donbas offensive has since slowed as Moscow was forced to relocate some of its troops to Russia-occupied areas in the south to fend off a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Russian troops seized the Kherson region, north of Crimea, and part of the neighbouring Zaporizhzhia region early in the conflict. It has installed pro-Moscow administrations there, introduced its currency, handed out Russian passports and launched preparations for referendums to pave the way for their annexation.

But Ukrainian forces recently reclaimed some ground, striking bridges and targeting munitions depots. Meanwhile, both sides have traded accusations of shelling the Russia-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, raising fears of an atomic disaster.

Ukraine seems to have forced Russia to conduct a massive redeployment of forces and spread them all along the front line, from Kharkiv to Kherson. And, although Kyiv doesn’t have enough weapons to launch a big counteroffensive, experts seem to agree that time plays in Ukraine’s favour. And the longer the pause lasts, the more weapons Ukraine will receive from its Western allies.

These weapons, including HIMARS multiple rocket launchers supplied by the US and UK, have boosted Ukraine’s military’s capability, allowing it to target Russian munitions depots, bridges and other key facilities with precision and impunity.

In a major symbolic victory in April, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva missile cruiser, exploded and sank while on patrol after reportedly being hit by a Ukrainian missile.

Russian troops then pulled back from strategic Snake Island, located on shipping lanes near Odesa, following relentless Ukrainian attacks, reducing the threat of a seaborne Russian attack on Odesa. This helped pave the way for a deal to resume Ukrainian grain exports.

Russia suffered a new blow in August when a series of explosions at an airbase and munitions depot in Crimea indicated the krainian resistance was no longer content with simply holding ground but was actually able and willing to take the offensive in some areas.

The explosions, which were followed by drone attacks, underlined the vulnerability of Crimea, which holds symbolic value for Russia and is key to sustaining its operations in the south.

Ukrainian officials have warned that the 19-kilometre Crimean bridge, the longest in Europe, could be the next target.


Deaths and casualties

Both Russia and Ukraine mostly focus on the casualties they inflict on each other, avoiding mention of their own losses.

But Ukraine’s military chief, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, said this week that nearly 9,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in action.

The Russian Defense Ministry last reported its casualties on 25 March, just one month into the war, when it said 1,351 soldiers had been killed and 3,825 wounded.

Western estimates of Russian dead have ranged from more than 15,000 to over 20,000 — more than the Soviet Union lost during its 10-year war in Afghanistan.

And the Pentagon said last week that between 70,000 to 80,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded in action — losses that have eroded Moscow’s capability to conduct big offensives.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has recorded over 5,500 civilian deaths in the war, but noted the actual numbers could be significantly higher.

And the the UN refugee agency says a third of Ukrainians have fled their homes, with more than 6.6 million displaced within the country and over 6.6 million more across the continent.