The first year of the Russia-Ukraine War is now just about behind us. Although few expected the conflict to last more than a few weeks, hopes for rapid, decisive Russian victory faded rapidly as offensives against Kyiv and Odesa sputtered and failed. Ukrainian hopes that the Russian army would rout and collapse as a result of its setbacks were similarly dashed, as a rapid mobilization helped backfill badly mauled Russian units across the front.
Analysts now think that the war may go on for a while, as the last months have offered no indication that either Russia or Ukraine (and Ukraine’s supporters in the West) are inclined to give up. At the same time, the conflict has settled into a decided rhythm.
What can we expect from the war’s second year?
Russia is pushing forward on several linked axes of advance in the Donbas, enjoying more success in some places than in others.
The plodding offensive seems unlikely to create a major, exploitable breakthrough that would threaten Kyiv and drive Ukraine from the war. In many ways, the Russian military is materially deficient compared to a year ago, as much of its most advanced equipment and most experienced troops have been lost on the battlefield.
However, it is undoubtedly inflicting damage on the Ukrainian army, causing serious casualties and forcing the Ukrainians to use precious ammunition.
Prospects for Russia to expand the conflict beyond the front lines look grim. The recovery of Kherson probably eliminated any chance of a Russian offensive along the Black Sea coast. Russia’s missile offensive against Ukraine has inflicted damage but does not seem to have made an appreciable dent in Ukrainian morale.
Finally, the Russians do not appear ready to make operations out of Belarus a credible threat to Ukraine’s western and northern districts.
This first offensive will characterize the Ukrainian response.
Both Russian success and Russian failure can create opportunities for the Ukrainians, the latter in terms of counter-attacking vulnerable positions, and the latter through attriting the overall Russian force of troops, ammunition, and vehicles.
As the Russian offensive culminates, we can expect that the Ukrainian armed forces will be prepared to undertake operations designed to crack Russia’s front lines and retake some of the territory lost in the last year.
In contrast with the Russians, the Ukrainians will move forward with a more capable army than the one they fielded a year ago. Western transfers of weapons have undoubtedly improved the technological and material base of that army, although serious questions remain about training and about the integration of the multitude of Western weapons into a cohesive whole.
Russia’s defenses look more formidable now than even a few months ago, making a combined arms offensive a serious test of Ukrainian capabilities.
Further foreign intervention
Much of the rest of the conflict will depend on foreign intervention, but foreign intervention is contingent upon outcomes on the battlefield.
It is hard to say whether Ukrainian strength or Ukrainian vulnerability would have more of an impact on foreign assistance. If Russia’s offensive shows signs of success, Western capitals may feel compelled to rapidly ship additional weapons to Kyiv. If the Ukrainian counter-offensive recaptures substantial territory, it similarly could give President Volodomyr Zelenskyy grist for making an argument that Ukraine needs support to finish the job. The biggest debates will involve further tank transfers, long-range missile transfers, and of course the transfer of modern Western fighter aircraft.
But the attitude of the West is not the only issue. Now the question of Chinese intervention in the war has emerged, with US Secretary of State Tony Blinken warning China against supplying Russia with arms. Increased Chinese support for Russia would materially improve the prospects of the Russian war effort, although integrating such support into the battle would be complicated.
Similarly, Russia could more aggressively encourage the cooperation of Iran, North Korea, and Belarus, the last offering geographic opportunities and the former material support.
Negotiations to End Ukraine War?
Neither the Russian offensive nor the Ukrainian response are likely to win the war. The Russians are unlikely to capture Kyiv and destroy the Ukrainian government, and the Ukrainians are unlikely to destroy the Russian army or force it from the occupied territories. However, it is important to understand that there is less of a wall between the battlefield and the negotiating table than most believe.
Every seizure of territory and every destruction of a battalion tactical group represents a diplomatic overture. When Ukraine recaptured Snake Island, it meant that Kyiv would not have to win the strategic chunk of territory back at peace negotiations.
But does that mean traditional negotiations will happen this year? Probably not.
While the military situation will evolve over the course of the year, it does not seem likely at this point that either side will gain a decisive advantage that it can leverage at the negotiating table. Kyiv and Moscow may meet in order to demonstrate their “reasonableness” to global observers, but neither side seems prepared to make serious concessions.
Over the next year we will be watching a pair of colossal boxers throw punch and counter-punch at one another. The lumbering but powerful Russia will try to floor (or at least stagger) Ukraine with the first, and the smaller but quicker Ukraine will watch to see if Russia throws itself off balance. The outcomes on the battlefield will in turn help determine the nature and extent of foreign intervention in the war, and may eventually lay the foundations for a negotiated peace.
Author Expertise and Experience
A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020), and most recently Waging War with Gold: National Security and the Finance Domain Across the Ages (Lynne Rienner, 2023). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns, and Money.