Ukraine sees ‘year of victory,’ but decisive defeat of Russia won’t be easy

Photo for The Washington Post by Wojciech Grzedzinski
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits the liberated city of Kherson, Ukraine, on Nov. 14. To fully repel Russia’s invasion, Ukraine will need to retake far more territory in 2023.

LONDON – With upgraded weaponry on the way, Western resolve holding firm, and the Ukrainian army continuing to outmaneuver and outwit Russia’s flailing military, Ukraine’s promised “year of victory” is off to a good start.

If 2023 continues as it began, there is a good chance Ukraine will be able to fulfill President Volodymyr Zelensky’s New Year’s pledge to retake all of Ukraine by the end of the year – or at least enough territory to definitively end Russia’s threat, Western officials and analysts say.

But while Zelensky was rallying Ukrainians to expect victory this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin used his New Year speeches to prepare Russians for a drawn-out fight. Russian troops are digging into fortified defensive positions reinforced by at least 100,000 newly mobilized soldiers, and though it seems unlikely that Russia can seize more territory anytime soon, it will also be tougher for Ukraine to make advances in 2023 than it was last year, despite momentum from recent victories, military experts say.

If Kyiv cannot achieve significant breakthroughs against this entrenched, growing Russian force, there is a risk that the war will become a protracted conflict favoring Putin, said Elizabeth Shackelford of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. A $45 billion aid package approved by Congress will tide Ukraine over for the year, she said, but with U.S. presidential elections in 2024, the longer-term outlook is harder to predict.

“2023 is really the year,” Shackelford said. “If it doesn’t wrap in 2023, Putin will have a very big upper hand. As it is, Zelensky still has a shot because he still has very strong support.”

“After that,” she added, “all bets are off.”

Developments in the first week of the year suggest the prospects for Ukraine are bright, said Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army Europe. He ticked off the advantages Ukraine will be able to exploit, from high morale among an army defending its homeland to superior leadership, cohesion and seemingly unwavering Western support.

The widespread rejection by the United States and Europe of Putin’s call for a temporary cease-fire over the Orthodox Christmas holiday delivered a clear, early reminder that Ukraine is not yet under pressure to enter into negotiations that Western officials say would likely be exploited by Moscow as an opportunity to rearm and regroup for further offensives, while tightening its grip on occupied territories.

A New Year’s Day attack deep behind Russian lines on a makeshift Russian barracks in the occupied eastern Ukrainian city of Makiivka killed at least 89 Russian soldiers, according to Moscow – and maybe many more, according to Ukrainian and U.S. officials.

The strike demonstrated not only Ukraine’s superior weaponry, intelligence and surveillance capabilities but also Russia’s persistent tactical missteps. Moscow blamed the attack on newly arrived recruits using cellphones, which gave away their location. U.S. officials, however, said there was some evidence that Russia had also stored ammunition in the barracks, compounding the number of casualties at the site.

The same day, Ukraine said it had shot down all 45 of the Iranian-made drones launched to tarnish its New Year’s festivities, a sign that Ukrainian air defenses are growing more adept at thwarting Russia’s onslaught against the country’s infrastructure.

Announcements by France, the United States and Germany that they would provide Ukraine with combat vehicles for the first time came as a significant boost to Ukraine offensive capabilities.

Even the weather has been kind to Ukraine, with record-breaking warm winter temperatures in Europe crashing energy prices and sparing citizens the pain that many analysts had predicted would erode European support for the Ukraine war effort.

In his announcement of the donation of light tanks, French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been widely criticized in Ukraine for seemingly seeking to appease Putin, pledged to back Ukraine “until victory,” his most unequivocal statement of support so far.

As long as Western support remains strong, Hodges said he is confident that Ukraine can retake all or most Russian-occupied territory this year – including the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia occupied and annexed in 2014.

The peninsula’s supply routes are potentially vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks using U.S.-supplied HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) precision weapons, and Ukraine may be able to force Russia to withdraw from Crimea even before it is able to retake all of the eastern Donbas region where most fighting is now focused, he said.

“I do believe Ukraine has achieved irreversible momentum and basically there is nothing the Russians can do to change that, unless they figure out a way to persuade the West to lose interest,” said Hodges, who is now a senior adviser to the Washington-based Human Rights First group.

“I see a lot of positives and I don’t see any weakening of resolve of the West,” he added.

But the onus is now on Ukraine to remain on the offensive, which is more difficult than defending terrain, said Rob Lee, a former U.S. Marine now with the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Ukraine’s successes in 2022 were facilitated by Russian mistakes that are less likely to be repeated now that Russian troops are digging in for the long haul, he said. “It’s easier to defend than it is to attack, and the Russians have already set up long defensive positions,” Lee said.

In some ways, Lee said, Ukraine has already won, not only by holding off the initial Russian onslaught but taking back almost half the territory that was snatched by Russia in the first weeks of the war.

“After the first two weeks of the war, it was clear that Russia had failed to achieve its goals,” he said. “Russia’s aims were so ambitious that Ukraine has won just by remaining a sovereign country. But the question now is, can Ukraine achieve what it wants, which is to return at least to the Feb. 24 borders, if not to retake more territory than that.”

“Whether it can do that,” Lee added, “is what is not so clear.”

Much may come down to which side runs out of ammunition first. Western officials have been predicting for months that Russia is at risk of running out of ammunition, and although that hasn’t happened yet, there is continuing evidence that Russian supplies are low.

Ukrainian officials said late last year that the rate of Russian artillery fire along the eastern front is now only one-third of what it was during the summer, when Russian troops were on the offensive. And although Russia has ordered ramped-up manufacturing, it is clear Russian production will not be able to match consumption, said a Western official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security matters.

The depletion of Russian ammunition supplies, especially for artillery, makes it unlikely Russia will be able to mount any kind of successful offensive operation for some time, despite predictions by the Ukrainian military that Moscow is preparing a major offensive, according to an assessment by the Institute for the Study of War.

But it is also far from clear that the West will be able to keep up with Ukraine’s ammunition needs, especially as offensive operations require greater quantities of materiel, said Dmitri Alperovitch, chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator, a Washington-based think tank.

Alperovitch predicted that Ukraine will be able to retake some territory this year but not enough to secure a definitive victory. Putin appears only to be doubling down on his determination to subjugate Ukraine, and although Russia currently lacks the capacity to launch successful offensives, the injection of freshly mobilized manpower strengthens its ability to hold back Ukrainian advances.

“I don’t think this will be the year of the end of the war, unfortunately,” Alperovitch said.

If the front lines do not shift significantly in the coming year, the path ahead becomes murkier.

The Russian and the Ukrainian economies both will be hard-pressed to sustain a long war. And it is unclear whether each country can generate enough manpower for a prolonged fight. Ukraine has the advantage for now, with a reserve of millions of military-aged men despite its smaller size, while Russia hauls convicts out of prisons to sustain its presence on the front lines, Hodges said.

No one is predicting that Ukraine will give up or lose outright to Russia, he said. The Ukrainians remain committed to fighting and the troops remain far more motivated than their reluctant Russian adversaries.

But a long war would defer indefinitely Ukraine’s recovery, reconstruction and the return of refugees. The government would have to maintain hundreds of thousands of troops along the estimated 600-mile front line while its economy continues to collapse, going some way toward achieving Putin’s goal of denying Ukraine success as an independent country.

Over time, Ukraine’s offensive capabilities will be drained by the attrition of experienced and well-trained soldiers, potentially eroding the manpower advantage it has enjoyed, Lee said. And Russia would have a chance to rebuild its economy, supply lines and combat capabilities to potentially launch future offensives, as it did after the front lines froze after the separatist war in Donbas in 2014 to 2015.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s fortunes will become ever more dependent on variables outside its control, such as Western resolve, the availability of Western ammunition – and events in Russia.

“What we don’t know is what will be happening in Moscow by the end of the year. There are some serious power struggles,” Hodges said. Although there is no immediate evidence of any challenge to Putin’s grip, the emergence of significant dissent in Moscow or a mutiny among disgruntled Russian troops could prove decisive, Alperovitch said.

Events in the United States could prove just as significant, Shackelford said. Although Europe’s support is politically important, its military contributions are dwarfed by the vast quantities of arms supplied by Washington, whose future commitment could be in question if Republicans win the White House in 2024.

“If Putin can turn this into a multiyear war of attrition, he will probably be able to wait Ukraine out,” Shackelford said. “It might still drag on for a while, but Ukraine’s shot will really be diminished by that point.”