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One Year of the War in Ukraine

Giovanni Sale, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Tue, Feb 28th 2023

NO Man's Land, Battle of Bakhmut. Known to combatants as "the meat grinder"

No man's land, the Battle of Bakhmut. Known to combatants as "the meat grinder" Photo courtesy of

On February 24, 2022, when the so-called “special military operation” to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine began, Putin hoped to conquer the “brother” country in 10 days, even attacking the capital, Kyiv. He thought Ukrainians would welcome Russian soldiers, who came from the most disparate regions of the old Empire, as liberators. This was a prediction that soon proved to be completely unfounded: the Ukrainians put up heroic resistance to the Russian invaders, even in regions where Russian speakers were in the majority.

A year into the war, the situation appears dramatically stalled, with more than 400,000 soldiers deployed and some 100,000 dead and wounded.[1] Part of the  front has moved to the right bank of the Dnipro River, where a decisive battle will probably be fought. Here the two armies daily attack each other, launching missiles, drones and all kinds of artillery to capture small towns – considered strategic – or advance a few kilometers.

The two Ukrainian counter offensives  in Kharkiv and Kherson

As of the summer of 2022, the war situation tilted decisively in Ukraine’s favor, after two counter offensives around Kharkiv in the northeast and Kherson in the south, conducted with a minimum of reverses and a distinct advantage in terms of regaining territories that had been occupied by the Russians in the first phase of the invasion. At the military level, the Ukrainian army and people have put up tenacious resistance to the invader and were able, at various times during the conflict, to repel Russian attacks in much of the country’s territory, thanks in part to weapons sent by the West, particularly the United States. As early as March, it was evident that Putin had failed in his initial war objective of occupying a large part of Ukrainian territory and establishing a Moscow-controlled regime there.

Even the second goal, which scaled down the war front, namely the conquest of the entire Donbass and southern Ukraine  – that is, the territory bordering the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea – did not have the hoped-for outcomes. On the contrary, since then there have been clear advances by Kyiv’s army and a significant Russian retreat. During the summer, the Ukrainians managed to turn the tide on the ground and liberate the entire Kharkiv region, while in November the Russians were forced to retreat to the right bank of the Dnipro River and abandon the Kherson region.[2] This occurred after it had been annexed to the Russian Federation, along with three other regions in September, following a sham referendum.

Despite these failures, Russia has achieved a minimal goal: to create a land link, a so-called “corridor,” between the occupied part of Ukraine and Crimea.[3] The martyred city of Mariupol – at the center of this area – is strategically important to Russia, both for the peninsula’s water supply and because the port cities bordering this strip of land can control some of the Azov Sea’s maritime traffic and threaten Ukrainian trade.[4] Ukrainian strategists have repeatedly planned a military attack to “break” through the corridor and take the city of Melitopol. U.S. Intelligence has apparently blocked such an operation, preferring to shift the front line to the Donbass regions. Moreover, according to some analysts, Moscow, should it fail to break through on other fronts, may, in negotiations, be content to control this part of the country. But the government in Kyiv is not willing to accept such a solution.

To compensate for the military setbacks of recent months, Russian strategists have chosen to attack Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure with drones purchased from Iran.[5] The damage to power plants, the power grid and fuel depots across the country has already left millions of Ukrainians in the dark and cold. With the arrival of “General Winter,” i.e., the great cold, the civilian population, the Russians thought, would be subjected to great hardship and might feel less motivated to carry on the struggle. However, the Ukrainian population has shown itself to be very resilient and able to withstand severe pressure, both material and psychological, in support of the patriotic cause. As recent history teaches, “civilian morale is the second dimension of war, as important as the military developments that usually monopolize media attention.”[6] Therefore, the Ukrainian government is taking these issues very seriously, asking Western powers to help it  repel the invaders.

The war in the Donbass

On  the war front, there has been simultaneous fighting in the north and south of the Donbass in recent weeks, both near the small town of Kreminna and in the town of Bakhmut, 80 kilometers to the south. Should the Ukrainians take the former (still in Russian hands), they could advance deep into the Lugansk region.[7] Regarding the latter, the Russians have been trying to take it at all costs for several months; if they succeeded, they would be the ones to advance into the Donetsk region. It seems that in this small piece of land, where little now remains intact, there was a veritable carnage (the “Bakhmut meat grinder”) took place. The commanders of the Wagner group, engaged in the conflict, sent out into the open several waves of inexperienced soldiers, who were mowed down by the Ukrainians. This was all the result of a simple political calculation: the head of the mercenary force, Evgenji Prigozhin, “wants to prove to Putin that his force is the most effective, and therefore more useful than the regular army,”[8] receiving lucrative concessions of different kinds (such as salt mines in the area) in return. On January 13, after six long months of war, Wagner Group militias managed to enter Soledar, a small town near Bakhmut, now entirely razed to the ground.[9] This event, however, does not greatly change the military balance on the ground.

The Ukrainian military has regained strength especially since June, when the United States, after much pleading, sent HIMARS, a medium-range missile system, which hit several Russian ammunition depots and some command and control centers, thus enabling the rapid advance, first into the northeast then into the south. But Russia has moved many of these targets out of range of HIMARS batteries. Ukrainian generals insist that their army, in order to liberate occupied territory and win the war, needs more powerful ordnance “such as ATACMS, which could hit military targets at least twice as far away,”[10] and thus strike into Russian territory. The U.S. has so far declined to send  such missiles so as not to trigger a dangerous escalation on the war front. Indeed, according to some, striking at Russian territory could cause the Moscow government  to consider the use of nuclear weapons.

In the first phase of the war, Putin’s soldiers captured all the towns in the Lugansk region, driving the Ukrainians back some 40 kilometers. Now Kyiv’s soldiers are advancing on the same roads along which  they had previously retreated.[11] Also on January 3, the Ukrainian command announced the liberation of the islet of Potemkin, at the mouth of the Dnipro and not far from the town of Kherson. Although it is a small 20-square-kilometer territory, its capture is important because it allows the Ukrainians to place HIMARS there to strike at neighboring Russian positions. Raids by Kyiv troops on the Russian-controlled bank, where  trenches have been dug, are frequent, though limited in scope. Analysts believe the stalemate could last for a long time, perhaps for years.[12]

Preparations for a new conflict

The winter period has not stopped the war machines, which, although slow, continue to operate.[13] There is a feeling in Western government circles  that the countdown has started: within a few months, or perhaps sooner, the war will resume. “Rival generals study ground conditions, waiting for ice to replace mud and allow tanks to advance across the plains.” Meanwhile, both are training other troops: the Ukrainians are sending thousands of their men to European countries to be trained by NATO in the use of the new weapons they will soon receive; the Russians are training new recruits. There is talk of a new partial mobilization to reconstitute brigades decimated in the previous months of the war. Observers debate who will attack first: there is speculation that Putin may implement a “trident operation,”[14] using Belarus as a base and concentrating the attack  in the direction of Kharkiv or Kyiv. Some consider it is possible Volodymyr Zelensky, once he receives the promised NATO armaments, might make the first move, targeting Zaporizhzhia or Melitopol in order to disrupt the “corridor.” Analysts believe that in this case no army would achieve ultimate victory and that the next confrontation could involve useless carnage. As a Foreign Affairs editorial has it, Russia could be the loser from this confrontation, not least because the Kremlin would have no more pawns to move and its system of power would be shaken to its foundations.[15] This prediction, given the course of the war, does not seem entirely unfounded.

Meanwhile, on December 21, Zelensky flew to Washington to ask President Biden for new funds and more powerful weaponry to be used in the war against Russia,  requests that were fully met. This means that the U.S., beyond the differences between Democrats and Republicans on domestic policy, intends to support Ukraine’s cause politically, militarily and economically.

In an interview with the British weekly The Economist on December 15, 2022, Ukrainian General Valery Zaluzhny, when asked if it was possible to win the war against Russia, promptly replied, “I know I can defeat this enemy. But I need resources. I need 300 tanks, 600 combat vehicles, 500 howitzers.”[16] This appeal was promptly noted by most Western governments. In early January, the U.S. promised to send 50 Bradley M2A2 vehicles as soon as possible: they are part of a military aid package worth more than $3 billion, the largest so far provided  by the Americans. In addition, Patriot defense systems, which are highly effective in intercepting enemy cruise missiles, will be delivered in a few months.[17] France has pledged a number of combat vehicles, while Germany has promised to send 40 Marder vehicles, but at the time refused to supply the much-requested Leopard 2 tanks: first, so as not to deprive itself of these powerful military tools, and second, to avoid a possible escalation of the conflict.[18] The UK promised to send several new-generation tanks, the Challenger 2; and Poland was willing to deliver tanks and other war materiel as soon as possible.

On the arms front, the situation in the following weeks changed. On January 20, an important meeting on Ukraine’s rearmament was held in Ramstein between the so-called “contact group,” consisting of Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin and 53 ministers and officials from countries supporting Kyiv. On video, President Zelensky made it clear: “We cannot wait, we cannot slow down: time has become a key weapon,”[19] not least because Russia is ‘regrouping’ for a new offensive.” What the president asked Western allies for are tanks (at least 300), especially German tanks, and long-range missiles. Austin said the U.S. will continue to provide ordnance to Ukraine “as long as necessary,” and called on allied countries to do the same. At the time, Germany’s new defense minister, Boris Pistorius, confirmed that he was offering Marder armored vehicles and Patriot missiles, but not Leopard 2s, saying, “One must weigh the pros and cons of such major decisions.”[20] But on January 25, after the White House announced that it was sending its Abrams tanks, the German federal government decided to send its Leopard 2 tanks, also giving the 12 countries that have purchased them in the past – such as Poland and Finland – permission to transfer them to Ukraine. According to several observers, such armaments could change the course of the war, but also widen the conflict, triggering unpredictable consequences.[21]

This intention of Western countries to support Ukraine in the war against Russia is based on the belief that giving in to the Kremlin today, as happened in 2014 when Putin first attacked Ukraine, would only set the stage for the next conflict that could affect other countries as well. However, all Western allies are firmly determined not to involve NATO in the conflict. Thus, “Western weapons will continue to flow to the East and Russian gas will never again flow to the West in large quantities […]. However, as long as Ukraine advances on the battlefield, European resolve will endure.”[22]

Russia has also been rearming in recent months, in addition to training young recruits for the front. According to some Western Intelligence sources, its ammunition is beginning to run low and it has turned to North Korea for weapons supplies. According to others, however, Putin would have enough ammunition to “fight for at least a year if not more.” According to still others, the Russian war industry is busy making new and more effective weapons. There are several hypotheses to explain the different points of view: the most convincing is the one that believes that there is “a difference in the type of ammunition that is counted,”[23] in particular, according to a typically American criterion, whether it is ready for use, reliable and effective. In any case, it should be noted that in missile attacks on Ukrainian territory since the beginning of the war, the Russian military has used a good part of its war potential, thus depleting its stockpiles. Moreover, Putin in recent times has been showing off new and more powerful war equipment that he can use. It should also not be forgotten that Russia is one of the major nuclear powers and has  tactical nuclear weapons available, far exceeding those of NATO.

The Crimean Knot

After the two victorious counter offensives at Kharkiv and Kherson, Ukraine was, militarily speaking, in an advantageous position vis-à-vis Russia. The war front then shifted to the Donbass, where the confrontation, all along the line of contact (about 800 km), is still very intense. It is possible, however, that the situation will change. Both armies are rearming for the much-anticipated “spring battle.”[24] The issue of Crimea remains. It has been pointed out that the roads leading to this very strategically important peninsula are now within the range of the Ukrainian army’s artillery and will be much more so when Kyiv receives the promised armaments from some NATO countries. Many wonder whether or not Kyiv will attack Crimea. The answer is of great importance.

On November 24, Zelensky declared that the Ukrainian army is fighting to liberate “all the national territory,” and thus also the areas occupied by Putin in 2014. This statement reflects the will of the majority of the Ukrainian population, but not the strategy of most Western countries, which do not want an escalation of the ongoing war. Indeed, they fear that an operation to retake Crimea could bring Russia to the threshold of a nuclear war, which, so far, no one says they want.[25]

It should not be forgotten that even recent history teaches that an occupying force is unlikely to hold the peninsula. Moscow strategists, in order to secure control of the corridor connecting mainland Russia with Crimea, have in recent times garrisoned and expanded the region’s defensive lines so as to repel any Ukrainian attack. In addition, military experts say  that the topography of the area would not help the Kyiv army. Taking the peninsula would require  crossing very narrow strips of land and swamps. Some Ukrainian strategists believe that, in addition to a frontal assault, there would be other ways to take the peninsula, such as amphibious landings and air attacks. The Russians’ naval dominance could be countered with unspecified “asymmetrical strikes.”[26] But the real problem might be of a different kind: that is, that a large part of the population of Crimea – a large Russian majority after 2014 – would support Moscow and not Kyiv. It should be remembered that, unlike the conquest of cities such as Kharkiv and Kherson – made possible in part because the Russian-speaking population of the two regions sided with the Ukrainians – in Crimea, the Ukrainian army would probably meet resistance from the pro-Russians. In short, attempting to bring Crimea under Ukrainian rule would involve a costly military effort and would only cause divisions with Western allies who are in fact the ones “paying for Kyiv’s war.” And this Ukraine, for many reasons, cannot allow.[27]

The impossible peace negotiation

In late December 2022, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba hoped that a peace summit could be held at the end of February at the United Nations and mediated by Secretary General António Guterres. “Every war,” he said, “ends as a result of actions taken on the battlefield and at the negotiating table.”[28] In fact, Putin has also said on several occasions that he is open to peace negotiations – to be conducted on his dictated terms, such as recognition of the four Ukrainian regions annexed in a sham referendum – with the NATO powers, particularly the U.S., so as to redraw a new security order in Europe. Meanwhile, Russian troops continued shelling Ukrainian cities, even on Christmas Day. Despite public statements by both sides or supposed openings toward the possibility of negotiations or a cease-fire, the stark reality of the present is ongoing war.[29]

For the time being, the positions of the two sides are simply irreconcilable. Kyiv demands that the invader withdraw from the entire national territory, abandoning even that part annexed in 2014, such as Crimea.[30] Moscow demands, as a basis for starting negotiations, “acceptable solutions,” such as recognition of the annexed and militarily occupied Ukrainian territories. This is a condition that is impossible for both Ukrainians and Westerners to accept.[31] For his part, Putin, in order to save face in front of the country and justify such a disastrous war militarily and economically, must “bring home” at least a semblance of victory; otherwise, he would run the risk of losing the presidential elections to be held in March 2024 or, even worse, of being “defenestrated” by domestic opponents.[32] In that same year, general elections will also be held in Ukraine, the United States and Taiwan. Voting in those countries will be crucial in determining how the war will continue in the coming months. The outcome of those elections , moreover, could define the future of the world order.[33]

In December, two English-language newspapers – the Wall Street Journal and The Spectator – had presented the proposals of two prestigious political observers – Henry Kissinger and Boris Johnson – for possible negotiations.[34] Both agreed Crimea is the real bargaining chip that can open peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, but only on the condition that Putin militarily loses the war and sees his personal power and life threatened. The U.S. and EU say that any peace scenario must first be acceptable to Kyiv, and then it must be the Ukrainian government that proposes the above solution.

In any negotiations one must necessarily arrive at a compromise, that is, at mutual concessions. In the case first envisaged, Ukraine would lose Crimea and probably part of the Donbass, but it had already lost it eight years ago. Russia, for its part, would lose much more, nullifying all the objectives of the invasion launched in February 2022, with the exception of Kyiv’s entry into NATO. Ukraine would remain an independent, democratic country, a candidate for EU membership and militarily assisted and guaranteed by NATO. That is, it would become a Western country in the full sense of the term, ensuring its people prosperity and economic well-being, conditions that seem like chimeras today. This prospect, which in theory seems sensible to us, is unlikely to be realized in the short term and on the conditions  indicated.

Many observers – such as US General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – are of the opinion that the war will not end soon, or believe that a “military solution” to the conflict is impossible.[35]

Unfortunately, neither the Russians nor the Ukrainians are yet willing to lay down their arms. Putin will want to continue fighting, either by organizing massive but futile offensives, or by freezing the conflict, with the goal of preventing Ukraine from joining NATO and becoming a normal Western democracy. President Zelensky, animated by victories on the ground, cannot afford to cede territory, or not assert the country’s territorial integrity, as he promised his citizens.

Even Western supporters, particularly the Europeans, are beginning to have problems in managing the consent of their citizens – after the price rises in recent months due to the lack of Russian oil and gas – to the aid to be offered to Ukrainians.[36] Zelensky, speaking on several occasions to public institutions, explained to the leaders  of Western countries that protecting Ukraine’s sovereignty also means  defending freedom in the West.[37] We must not and cannot forget the truth of these words.

[1].    Cf. C. Zunino, “Ucraina, centomila tra morti e feriti per parte. Radiografia della guerra più sanguinosa”, in la Repubblica, November 11, 2022. Reportedly 18,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed in the conflict. The official toll recorded by a UN agency, however, speaks of about 7,000 dead and 11,000 wounded. Cf. A. Nicastro, “Dnipro, madri, figlie, amiche: tutte le vite stroncate dal missile”, in Corriere della Sera, January 16, 2023.

[2].    Cf. P. Ther, “Cosa aspettarsi dal secondo anno di guerra”, in Internazionale, January 5, 2023, 25.

[3].    Cf. ibid.

[4].    Conversely, if Ukraine were to enter the “corridor,” it would cut the land bridge and retake the northern coast of the Sea of Azov, even putting Crimea within range of its artillery. It would then have a significant advantage in future peace negotiations.

[5].    These cheap, low-quality Iranian drones are very noisy because they fly at low altitudes and are easy to shoot down. If launched in large numbers, as is often the case, they can be effective in destroying civilian structures of different types. For their part, the Ukrainians cannot afford to use their own ammunition, which is in short supply, to counter the attack. Zelensky has asked Western countries for protection systems against the drones, which have been sent.

[6].    P. Ther, “Cosa aspettarsi dal secondo anno di guerra”, op. cit.

[7].    Cf. D. Raineri, “Donbass, il suicidio di massa imposto dalla Wagner per frenare gli ucraini”, in la Repubblica, December 30, 2022.

[8]  .   Ibid.

[9]  .   Cf. A. Nicastro, “L’inferno a Soledar. Mosca: adesso è nostra”, in Corriere della Sera, January 14, 2023.

[10].   “A looming Russian offensive”, in The Economist, December 15, 2022.

[11].   It appears that at this stage of the war the Ukrainians are favored, in part because they have a digitized map of the territory – provided to them by U.S. intelligence – that allows them to see the movements and positions of every Russian unit in real time. This map has also been used to break through into the Kharkiv region, “but for the Donbass it is always a different matter, the Russians have prepared many fortified lines of defense, and the Putin government has ordered in the last three months a mass mobilization precisely in order not to give up more ground” (D. Raineri, “Donbass, il suicidio di massa imposto dalla Wagner per frenare gli ucraini”, op. cit.).

[12].   See Id., “Sulle rive del Dnipro, il ‘Muro di Berlino’ che spezza l’Ucraina”, in la Repubblica, January 4, 2023.

[13].   Putin, at the request of the Patriarch of Moscow, proposed a 36-hour ceasefire for Orthodox Christmas, which was celebrated on January 7. However, the proposal was not accepted by the Ukrainians, in the belief that it was just a move by the Russians to move troops and advance on the ground. In fact, the Russian military carried out several bombardments on Christmas Day.

[14].   Cf. G. Di Feo, “Lo scenario: i timori delle cancellerie sulla tenuta del potere di Putin”, in la Repubblica, January 6, 2023.

[15].   Cf. L. Fix – M. Kimmage, “Putin’s Last Stand. The promise and peril of Russian defeat”, in Foreign Affairs, January/February 2023.

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