When Russia launched its “special military operation”, in Ukraine, on 24 February 2022, it expected that there would be a short conflict resulting in a Russian victory that would reverse the events of 1991 and Ukrainian independence. However, as the year is ending, Russia has not achieved its aims and the Russian military has been confronted with successive withdrawals and battlefield defeats. The perception of Russia’s military being that of a superpower is in ruins.
Initially, there were advances and gains but it very soon became obvious that things were not going according to the script. There were several factors that may have contributed to this: was the initial force large enough, had the proper intelligence and reconnaissance been carried out, were the correct assessments passed to the top to enable the best decision to be made or was an “incorrect assessment” passed resulting in a premature and ill-calculated action? There was a vital misreading of the situation.
The Ukrainian nation and the President were underestimated, Russia possibly thought Zelensky was easy to overthrow and would be a weak wartime leader. This may have been the biggest miscalculation of all. Both displayed an identity and unity that was not expected and the whole nation recognised that the “special military operation” was something more sinister and threatened the very existence of the country.
The patriotism, defiance and resilience showed that Russia had massively underestimated the unity that had been built since the events of 2014. The Ukrainian military had developed into a capable and efficient force, it had undergone vital reforms that resulted in a significantly increased quality and capacity which led to Ukrainian forces fighting back with an unexpected skill and ferocity, leading to devastating Russian losses.
Russia in the space of a month had to withdraw completely from northern Ukraine. Russia then focused on regrouping in eastern Ukraine and completing the occupation of the Donbas region. However, again underestimating the defiance of the Ukrainian military, this had essentially been checked by the summer with the advantage transferring to Ukraine.
After the summer the trend continued with a series of Ukrainian victories. The Russian military were first defeated in the Kharkiv oblast and then forced to retreat from Kherson, the only Ukrainian regional capital to be conquered by Russia. The withdrawal from Kherson was a significant defeat as only a few weeks earlier, along with other oblasts Russia had stated that they were “recognised” as being a part of Russia.
It was obvious by this stage that Russia had not developed many of the military capabilities that many believed were there; use of air superiority, the criticality of logistical supply/re-supply, urban fighting, the proper equipment (many Russian tanks, vehicles were not of the standard required), the need for clarity of leadership and direction and maintenance of morale. Russian military performance seems also to have been weakened by interference by the Russian leader in military actions.
Additionally, the support of the “West” and its’ solidarity was underestimated. Maybe based on the muted Western reaction to the earlier Russian military actions in Georgia and Ukraine, Russia thought there would be no substantive response. Instead, the West imposed sanctions and began arms shipments to Ukraine. Western arms deliveries have given the Ukrainian army necessary military tools to sustain its resistance and enable its successes.
In October a change took place and Russia started to focus on the destruction of Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. Airstrikes using stand-off missiles and kamikaze drones started to target, in particular, energy infrastructure. Whilst this has and is causing major issues regarding water, electricity and gas supply it has not undermined Ukraine’s spirit and has led to an understanding/belief that Ukrainians are fighting for their very existence…. a fight for national survival, this has re-ignited their unity and resolve to endure and to be victorious.
Russia though is not ready to admit defeat. With mobilization Russia believed it would be able to change the picture. This also has not materialised for many reasons, including bad or little proper preparation and training, a lack of basic equipment and, possibly more importantly, a lack of conviction or belief in the “special military operation”. In Russia, polls indicate that most Russians (at least those who take part) continue to support the “special military operation”, while those who don’t have remained silent or have left Russia in protest.
There is currently no end in sight. The Defence Minister announced that the “special operation” Moscow launched will achieve all its objectives. Therefore, with the conflict set to continue into 2023, it is too soon to declare that Russia has failed in his effort to make Ukraine sorry for not wanting to be Russian. At the same time, it’s becoming obvious that there is no “clear victory”. Ukraine is determined to fight as long as is needed in order to avoid being forcibly “integrated” into Russia.
In 2023, nature of the “special operation” and Russia’s methodology means that the support Ukraine receives now must be continued and its military better equipped and enabled. It seems clear that whilst Putin remains in power, the war will continue. At the moment the situation is to the advantage of Ukraine but this may not last. It must be used to the advantage of Ukraine which means no “real” cessation of the conflict (this would give Russia the time it needs to re-group, re-train and be better prepared for future offensives). The retreats/withdrawals may only be temporary to enable Russia to re-generate a strike capability. Ukraine, and the West, must use the time to deny Russia the ability to be able to re-shape the dynamic, that now exists, to its’ advantage.
Ukraine has gained the initiative and this cannot be reversed, per se, if the current tempo continues. Moscow is not, yet, in a position to “re-launch” itself into a major offensive but with time (2-3 months) this may change (training of new recruits, proper preparation, deployment to pre-offensive launch positions, logistics supply organised and a proper command structure). There may well be another attempt to launch an offensive against Kyiv, the south is most probably out, further offensives in Donetsk oblast cannot be discounted. This takes time and if the Ukrainian military (with continued Western supply) can “negate” the opportunity for recuperation, inflict more defeats and continue to demoralise the front-line troops then a rotation of Russian troops rather than a full new offensive may be the only viable option with as much consolidation of taken territory as the immediate future for the Russian military.
Should the Western supply continue and the Ukrainian resilience and will to regain lost territories, plus the use of appropriate tactics and equipment, continue then 2023 could prove to be a very costly year for Russia in terms of personnel and equipment and a successful one for Ukraine in regaining territory (although there will be a cost in terms of lives). What Ukraine does not want, and maybe to a degree Russia does, is an entrenchment of positions and a stagnation into a protracted “trench-warfare” style of conflict.
There remains the threat of possible escalation to nuclear weapons, possibly in 2023, but this is only really an option if Russia feels that it is defeated and that a calculated and single strike to remove the political elite of Ukraine would be, a. realistically successful, b. will substantively alter the course of the conflict and c. would deter the West from provision of even more quantities of reliable and accurate weaponry. Otherwise, such a move would only result in more global revulsion of Russia’s tactics and see their actions as being only leading to failure.
Already some, nations are considering what they supply and how much to Russia, despite some “vocal” support (China – basic support but not technologically advanced items, India – vocal support and some basic but not advanced technology) and with only what may be classed as an “extreme” nation are providing substantive, but limited, support (Iran – drones and maybe not even long-range missiles). Were there be an escalation to use of nuclear weapons then the support would certainly dwindle, if not disappear, from almost all sources.
North Korea is also supplying Russia but again with conventional munitions which indicates that the “Russian industrial war machine” has either not been activated or does not have the capacity to produce enough and/or quickly enough. This could be a factor in 2023 that could also help to keep the balance in favour of Ukraine.
Of course, taking back territory is one thing, keeping it is another and the ominous factor is that Russia has indicated the “special military operation” will continue until its aims are achieved. The question for 2023 is …what are those aims? It is possibly unrealistic that the initial claimed aims are achievable and so does Russia look for an alternative “victory” or does it try to “save face” and consolidate what it has with a potential future escalation in mind? Ukraine now senses “victory” and if Western support continues, at the rate it has thus far, then this is another possible outcome. The time factor, weather, infrastructure and many others conditions are critical to this but it is crystal clear that Ukraine, as a nation, believes that it must continue to fight for its existence or lose its’ independence.
2023 could be a critical year in terms how the conflict will be resolved, winter 2022 late spring 2023 and summer and early autumn are likely the key times. Until the late autumn of 2023 it is difficult to assess what may happen, by then it could be clear.
Certainly, the horror, terror and death (on both sides) is likely to continue until one side achieves what it considers a “victory” that enables the conflict to be ended. Negotiations for Ukraine are now rightly fully pre-conditionalised (Russia withdraws from all of Ukraine). Russia may be “forced” to accept an overall defeat if it has a “victory” that can be sold to the Russian people to justify the loss of life. What is clear is that there will be escalations and de-escalations in the intensity of the conflict throughout 2023.