February 24, 2024

Institute for the Study of War:  Two years after Russia’s invasion, situation in Ukraine is ‘grave but not hopeless’                  

Institute for the Study of War

Ukraine continues to defend against Russian aggression and the Kremlin’s attempt to destroy Ukrainian statehood and identity despite growing difficulties two years after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion. Two years ago Russia launched a full-scale war of conquest to overthrow the Ukrainian government and forcibly install a pro-Russian regime firmly under Moscow’s control. Russian forces drove on Kyiv from several directions and struck at Kharkiv, Kherson, Mariupol, and other Ukrainian cities. Russian President Vladimir Putin expected Ukrainians to welcome his forces or flee. Instead, Ukrainians fought for their freedom. They stopped the Russian drives on Kyiv and Kharkiv cities, stopped the Russian advance on Mykolayiv and Odesa cities, and fought Putin’s troops to a standstill along the rest of the line. Then, armed with experience, courage, determination, and growing Western aid, Ukraine struck back. Ukrainian forces drove the Russians from Kyiv and away from Kharkiv and liberated large swathes of territory in northeastern Ukraine. They liberated Kherson City and forced Russian forces off the west (right) bank of the Dnipro River. They ended the threat to Ukraine’s existence for the time.

But the Russians did not abandon their war aims or slacken their military operations. They remained in control of areas strategically and economically vital to Ukraine’s survival and of millions of Ukrainians whom they are subjecting to brutal Russification campaigns and deportation schemes. The Russians launched a missile and drone campaign against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and cities that continues to this day. The Russians then ground through the eastern city of Bakhmut, taking losses so devastating that they prompted an armed rebellion against Moscow. The Russians also prepared themselves for the expected Ukrainian 2023 counteroffensive. The excessive hopes for that counteroffensive were not met. The war assumed a positional character, and the expected US assistance has been held up.

The situation today is grave, but it is far from hopeless. Russian forces have regained the initiative across the theater and are attacking and making gains. Those gains thus far are very limited and extremely costly. More Russian soldiers have likely died to seize Avdiivka than died in the entire Soviet-Afghan war. Ukrainians are weary and worried that American military assistance will cease, but they continue to fight with determination, ingenuity, and skill. Ukraine’s air defenders are dropping Russian planes from the sky while Ukrainian drone- and missile operators sink Russian ships. And Ukrainian soldiers are fighting for their positions against Russian “meat assaults” using drones in novel ways as well as the artillery, tanks, and traditional weapons of war available to them. The Ukrainian Air Force will receive its first F-16s in the coming months, and Ukraine’s European allies are racing to make good deficiencies in other war materiel. American military assistance remains essential—only the United States has the resources to give Ukraine right now what Ukraine most needs. If the United States, in the end, withholds that aid, then the situation can become very grave indeed.

But the war is far from over. Ukraine has not lost and there is no reason for Ukraine to lose. Russians are adapting for a long war effort in Ukraine, but they are not the Red Army hordes wrapped in the triumphant banners of World War II victories that Putin and his propagandists pretend them to be. The Russian military suffers from many flaws that Ukraine has learned to exploit. And the combined economic power of Ukraine’s allies is many times that of Russia.

Putin remains a deadly threat to NATO as well as to Ukraine, however. The Kremlin has been setting conditions to conduct hybrid warfare operations in the Baltic States and Finland for months and is currently engaged in such operations against Moldova. Putin’s aims remain the destruction of NATO as an effective alliance, the breaking of the tie between the United States and Europe, and the construction of a new global order in which Russia’s voice and power are dominant. The interests of America, Europe, and America’s allies in Asia and around the world are inextricably tied with helping Ukraine defeat Russia.

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukraine continues to defend against Russian aggression and the Kremlin’s attempt to destroy Ukrainian statehood and identity despite growing difficulties two years after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
  • Ukraine’s European and Canadian partners commemorated the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion by committing additional aid to Ukraine and discussing Ukraine’s integration into the European Union (EU).
  • Russian opposition media estimated that upwards of 75,000 Russian personnel have died in Ukraine since the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) continues to highlight Russian Central Grouping of Forces Commander Colonel General Andrei Mordvichev and Russia’s seizure of Avdiivka.
  • Mordvichev highlighted Russian technological and tactical adaptations in the Russian seizure of Avdiivka in a likely effort to address persistent criticisms of Russian forces in Ukraine.
  • Senior Russian military officials likely are attempting to deflect responsibility for high-profile apparent Russian war crimes away from themselves and onto mid- and low-level Russian commanders.
  • A recent Russian opinion poll indicates that Russian sentiments about the war in Ukraine have largely remained unchanged in recent months, but notably suggests that another mobilization wave would be widely unpopular.
  • Ukrainian special services conducted a drone strike on one of Russia’s largest metallurgical plants on the night of February 23-24.
  • Ukrainian reporting indicated that the A-50 long-range radar detection aircraft shot down on February 23 temporarily halted Russian aviation operations elsewhere in the theater.
  • Russian information space actors continued responding to the February 23 A-50 shootdown and largely denied that Ukraine is responsible for the downing of any recent Russian aircraft.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Bakhmut and Avdiivka and in western Zaporizhia Oblast amid continued positional engagements along the entire line of contact on February 24.

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