Originally published in Hankyoreh.
On February 24, the first anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to commemorate the occasion with a speech.
There wasn’t much for Putin to celebrate. The invasion had failed to dislodge the government of Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv or incorporate all of Ukrainian territory into greater Russia.
Over the last year, the Russian military has suffered 60-70,000 fatalities plus nearly 200,000 injuries. It has lost half of its fleet of tanks, and monthly it continues to lose approximate 150 tanks while only managing to replace 20 of them from the country’s only tank factory.
The call-up of new recruits for the army in the fall generated significant pushback throughout the country. The new soldiers, many of them well into middle age, are poorly trained and equipped. Russians speak of the Ukrainian front as a “meat grinder” because the Russian army has been throwing wave after wave of these unprepared recruits into the line of fire.
The much-anticipated Russian winter offensive to retake territory in the Donbas region has either not materialized or failed to make any mark beyond some negligible gains around the battered city of Bakhmut. Western intelligence estimates that nearly all of Russia’s forces are now deployed to Ukraine, and all of these soldiers still haven’t been able to turn the tide in Russia’s favor.
The Russian economy hasn’t collapsed under the weight of international sanctions, but it isn’t doing well. Russian GDP shrank by around 2 percent last year. Hundreds of foreign companies have pulled out or suspended operations. The Putin government has kept the economy afloat—and its war effort funded—by increasing exports of raw materials, especially fossil fuels. But this is not a sustainable strategy.
Somewhere between 500,000 and a million of Russians have left the country, either in protest of Putin’s policies or to avoid serving in the military. Although this exodus has reduced the ranks of Putin’s opposition, it has also robbed the country of its most creative professionals. Combined with the failure to diversify the economy away from raw materials, this “brain drain” means that Russia is mortgaging its future in order to wage war in Ukraine.
On the foreign policy front, Putin’s determination to expand the “Russian world” has served only to expand the coalition of forces equally determined to halt his advance. Sweden and Finland, despite decades of ambivalence, have signed up to join NATO. In Finland, public support for NATO membership, which stood at 17 percent in 2018, rose to 78 percent in fall 2022. Justifiably angry at NATO’s eastward creep, Putin has nonetheless provided the Western alliance with the motivation to add to its ranks, increase its military spending, and accelerate its coordination with non-members like Ukraine.
Meanwhile, after the invasion, Putin lost nearly all of his support within European far-right parties. Even his non-European allies are wavering. Only seven countries voted against the UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although China and India, among other countries, continue to buy Russian energy, often at a significant discount, they are not happy with the war and have pushed for a peace settlement.
Despite all of these failures, Putin remains committed to the war. At the very least, he wants to control all of the Donbas—the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk—as well as the land in southern Ukraine that connects the Russian mainland to the Crimean Peninsula, which the Kremlin seized in 2014. The Russian president believes that he can win a war of attrition, given that Russia has a demographic edge over Ukraine. Even though Russia has lost upwards of a million people to emigration post-invasion, far more have left Ukraine: around 8 million, around 20 percent of the population.
Putin also thinks that support in the West for Ukraine will decline and the military assistance will dry up. Polls in the United States and in Europe indeed confirm that support for unabated military assistance has ebbed. This hasn’t yet affected deliveries of weapons. But it could.
Ukraine is certainly concerned that a drawn-out conflict will not be to its advantage. That’s why Zelensky has been trying to get as many arms—the more sophisticated the better—as soon as possible. Much hinges on a second Ukrainian counter-offensive, slated for some time in the spring after the mud has dried up. If Ukrainian forces can drive a wedge between the Donbas and Crimea, it can isolate the latter and create an aura of inevitability around its efforts to expel Russian occupiers.
Call this the Croatian scenario, after the successful 1995 campaign by the Croatian army to push Serbian forces out of positions they occupied inside Croatia. Ultimately, Operation Storm led to a peace agreement that ended the Yugoslav wars and contributed to undermining Serbian support for strong-arm leader Slobodan Milosevic, who lost elections five years later.
The other scenario is the Korean one. As in the Korean War, the first year of the Ukrainian conflict has featured dramatic reversals of territorial control. What comes next might resemble the last two years of the Korean War, in which the two sides battled to a virtual stalemate around the original line of demarcation. If Ukraine and Russia battle to a similar stand-off, they might also agree to a reluctant armistice.
It’s hard to know which of these scenarios will transpire. If there is one salient take-away from the first year of the war in Ukraine it’s the unpredictability of the course of events.
Russia surprised nearly everyone by actually invading Ukraine. Kyiv then surprised almost everyone by successfully repelling the attack, followed by a surprise counter-offensive that pushed even more Russian troops from Ukrainian territory. Meanwhile, despite many predictions of collapse, Russia hasn’t backed down.
Perhaps this second year will see the biggest surprise of all: an end to the war that is just, with the aggressor punished and the victim vindicated. That kind of peace is certainly worth fighting for.