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4 unanswered questions about the future of the Ukraine war

A year into the conflict, what’s next?

Ukrainian soldiers in a trench on the Vuhledar frontline in Donetsk, Ukraine, on January 5, 2023.
As the Ukraine war enters its second year, both Ukraine and Russia still believe they can achieve their objectives on the battlefield.
Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his “special military operation” in Ukraine one year ago, igniting the largest conflict in Europe in decades.

In that year, tens of thousands of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers have likely died, along with thousands of Ukrainian civilians. Millions fled: more than 8 million Ukrainians to Europe and Russia, and another 6 million displaced within Ukraine. Harder to gauge is the exodus from Russia of people who opposed the war or did not want to fight in it. The conflict has decimated Ukraine’s economy, and Russian bombing campaigns have destroyed or damaged swaths of Ukraine’s critical infrastructure.

This is the state of play as the Ukraine war enters year two. Both Ukraine and Russia still believe they can achieve their objectives on the battlefield, which makes it hard to see any clear pathway to a negotiated end to the conflict. But that could change, depending on how the next weeks, and months, unfold.

And depending on how they do, it may raise new questions — like just how sustainable the West’s “unwavering support” is, or how much longer Russia can pursue its current strategy. Wars are unpredictable, and Ukraine has proven that again and again.

Below are some of the big unknowns as the war reaches, and exceeds, the year mark.

1) Who’s winning right now — and what’s next in the war?

After months of troop buildup along Ukraine’s borders, Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, from multiple fronts, bombarding cities across the country, with Kyiv, the capital, as the main target.

Kyiv did not fall. Not in a matter of days, as predicted, and not a full year into the war. A creative and resilient Ukrainian resistance combined with confounding logistical and tactical missteps from the Russian military transformed the contours of the conflict.

Russia refocused its efforts on the east and the south, and the war became a grinding battle in the Donbas. In the late summer and fall, Ukraine launched successful counteroffensives, retaking some 400 square miles of territory. Ukrainians pushed into the areas near Kharkiv and recaptured the key city of Lyman, in the Donetsk region. In November, Ukraine forced a Russian retreat to the other side of the Dnipro River in Kherson.

The front lines have remained largely the same since, with no decisive advantage for either Russia or Ukraine right now.

Russia used its partial mobilization to bring more people to the front, shoring up defensive lines that made it harder for Ukraine to keep pushing forward. Ukraine has also dug in, preparing for a possible Russian attack. A mild, muddy winter also made any major moves difficult.

Russia has tried to take Bakhmut in Donetsk for months, and while troops are advancing — taking nearby towns, like Soledar — it has been very slow and very costly. It is an attritional battle, with high casualties, especially for Russia, which has been relying on prison recruits associated with the Wagner Group as cannon fodder in combat.

Russia’s continued push around Bakhmut now looks to be part of a larger Russian offensive that started a few weeks ago. Russia is attacking along multiple fronts, rather than launching one big push. It is making some incremental gains, but with limited strategic value so far.

And as this offensive unfolds, hints of the Russian military’s dysfunction continue. The US estimates Russia has committed about 80 percent of its available forces to Ukraine, but Russia is struggling to make significant advances. In Vuhledar, in the southeast, Ukrainian officials estimate that Russia expended dozens of armored fighting vehicles and tanks, and suffered staggering casualties. UK Defense Secretary Benjamin Wallace said “a whole Russian brigade was effectively annihilated” there.

Still, the Ukrainian military has also used lots of ammunition and firepower in fending off these advances. It is burning through thousands of rounds of ammunition daily, at a rate potentially faster than it can be replaced by Western backers. Ukraine is likely gearing up for its own counteroffensive in the spring, but it will need more munitions, along with the Western tanks and infantry fighting and armored vehicles that have been promised. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has described it as a “race against logistics” between Ukraine and Russia, and their respective backers.

All of this makes it hard to see exactly how either Russia or Ukraine could dramatically shift the front lines in the next weeks or months. The attritional nature of the war is straining resources on both sides. Ukraine still has momentum from last fall, but Russia’s retreat allowed it to take up more defensible positions — for example, on the other side of the Dnipro in Kherson. That will make it that much harder for Ukraine to break through this time around. There are also questions about how new, more advanced Western weapons might influence the battlefield — and when promised support, like tanks, will get to the front lines, and what that will mean for Ukraine’s own likely counteroffensive.

2) How much more can the West give to Ukraine — and will it want to?

President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Kyiv this week, almost a year after Russia’s full-scale invasion. He pledged the US’s “unwavering support,” and announced more military support for Ukraine.

The United States has committed billions in assistance to Ukraine; $111 billion appropriated through Congress alone. As of the end of last year, the European Union had committed as much as 52 billion euros to Ukraine. The coalition supporting Ukraine most recently pledged advanced tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, which Ukraine lobbied hard for in recent months and which some see as essential to any Ukrainian counteroffensive. The debate is now shifting to whether the West should start supplying Kyiv with F-16 fighter jets.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been an extraordinarily effective advocate for his country. That, combined with Ukraine’s successes on the battlefields, helped overcome some of the potential hesitation in Western capitals about backing Kyiv.

But there are real questions about the sustainability and longevity of this support, for two reasons: practical limitations and political will.

The practical first: The West does not have unlimited stockpiles of weapons. The longer the war goes on, the harder it will be for governments to meet Ukraine’s artillery, ammunition, and air defense needs without depleting their own stores and compromising their own military readiness. Officials have been warning about this publicly and privately for months, even as Zelenskyy is pushing Ukraine’s backers to deliver more weapons, faster.

Right now, Western officials are trying to find ways to balance both needs. The US and Europe are trying to ramp up production of armaments; the Pentagon is raising its production of artillery shells by 500 percent in two years. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently said that the US and its partners are trying to help train Ukrainian soldiers in different maneuver tactics on the battlefield so they can preserve more ammunition.

This is all linked to the second pillar of Western support: political will. Right now, Western allies remain committed to Ukraine — a theme diplomats and leaders have continued to reiterate as the war’s year mark approaches.

But the rush to ramp up weapons aid and the push to show a united front comes with a bit of subtext: Ukraine needs to show that it can keep making gains on the battlefield in the coming weeks and months. If it’s unable to dramatically change the map in its expected counteroffensive, and Ukraine and Russia stay engaged in this attritional battle, trading towns here and there while exhausting ammo, the reality of a long, drawn-out war may change the calculations in Brussels, Berlin, and Washington.

“This is not an endless source of assistance. Everyone understands that in the West, and that at some point, there has to be a line drawn, where it’s no longer sustainable for us,” said Sergiy Kudelia, an associate professor of political science at Baylor University.

In Washington right now, there is general bipartisan consensus around continued support to Ukraine. Some Republicans have talked about reining in some of the spending for Kyiv, and those voices might get louder with time, especially if the US economy sours or other crises eclipse Ukraine. The number of Americans who say they support keeping up weapons aid and other assistance to Ukraine is also declining, an issue that may take on even more relevance as the 2024 presidential election comes into focus.

In Europe, even as leaders express solidarity with Ukraine, there have been more signals about the need to find a diplomatic solution out of the conflict. Europe has its own divisions, particularly between the more hawkish former Soviet states closer to Ukraine and Russia, and the rest of the continent. Europe’s effort to wean itself off Russian gas — and Russia’s cutoff of fuel — threatened to fracture unity this year, but the energy crisis didn’t materialize as starkly as expected thanks to a mild winter, conservation efforts, and investments in other sources of energy. But the continent is still dealing with high costs of living and is now hosting about 5 million Ukrainian refugees. The European public is largely still supportive of backing Ukraine in the war, but moods differ depending on the country.

Right now, the West seems willing to give Ukraine what it needs, to let Kyiv capitalize on this particular moment. But Ukraine is unlikely to recapture all of the territory within its internationally recognized borders, and this war could start to turn into a stalemate. If that happens, it may give way to a new kind of Western solidarity: one that supports Ukraine but also begins to quietly pressure them to negotiate.

“That kind of pressure will come from reversals on the battlefield, and political pain at home — whether it’s energy or inflation,” said Jim Townsend, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy.

Putin is banking he can outlast the West’s commitment to Ukraine, so there’s an incentive and an imperative for the US and its partners to make any signals quietly. Few are naive about how incredibly difficult this will be, and how untrustworthy a negotiating partner Putin has proven to be. But even if the war ended tomorrow, Ukraine requires massive investments to rebuild, and likely some sort of security guarantees and continued security assistance. Russia and Ukraine will be neighbors forever, no matter what.

3) How long can Russia wage war?

The Russian military has made missteps, big ones, and is suffering heavy losses of both manpower and equipment. The country has reportedly deployed the majority of mobilized troops to Ukraine, and there are real questions about how well equipped, supplied, and trained those soldiers are, especially for counteroffensive operations.

But Russia started the war with a much larger arsenal and population, which will help it sustain its side of the conflict. And as Putin’s speech on the eve of the invasion anniversary again made clear, Russian leaders are preparing the Russian public for a long war.

Putin illegally annexed four Ukraine regions (Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia) in the fall of 2022, though Russia didn’t fully control any of those regions. A 2020 constitutional amendment makes it illegal for a Russian leader to cede any territory once it’s been declared part of Russia, which means it is going to be politically very difficult for Putin to give up the effort to take those areas, either militarily or through some sort of negotiated settlement.

“Doubling down isn’t merely the choice that they made, but it’s also, increasingly, the only choice they’ve left themselves,” said Gavin Wilde, a Russia expert and senior fellow in the technology and international affairs program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It’s hard for me to discern whether that’s self-sabotage or an effort to get the West to understand — or the US in particular — how existential they’ve chosen to make this conflict, and all the escalatory implications that that entails.”

This aerial photograph shows a damaged church, used by Russian troops as a makeshift hospital, in the village of Mala Komyshuvakha, in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine, on February 22, 2023.
Ihor Tkachov/AFP via Getty Images

Militarily, there are still very real questions about whether Moscow has solved any of its manpower and equipment problems. Russia is reportedly suffering a staggering number of casualties, both of its troops and of its prison recruits from the Wagner Group. The human wave attacks, beyond being terrifyingly gruesome, are unlikely a real long-term strategy.

But a grinding war likely still favors Russia. Russia just doesn’t have the same type of time pressure as Ukraine to prove it can keep winning — or, at least right now, there’s no real indication that it does. Putin’s regime looks pretty stable for the moment.

“We’ve seen very successful management of both elite defections — there are no visible cracks in Putin’s ruling elites — and also of societal discontent, even with mobilization. There were minor protests here and there, but by and large, it was contained,” Kudelia said.

As Russia launches this new offensive, and if it continues to struggle on the battlefield — while also incurring major casualties — both elite and public opinion in Russia could splinter. This is by no means predicting some sort of unraveling of Putin’s power, but it may shape how Russia, or Putin, frames or fights this conflict.

Another thing that might affect elite and public opinion: the further isolation of the Russian economy. So far, the Kremlin has also proved pretty darn resilient against Western sanctions, including on its banking sector, technology imports, and oil and gas. These penalties are hurting Russia, but they are not a fatal blow to its economy — which shrank, but not dramatically.

“They are hurting, but they are not hurting to the point that could get Putin to change his calculus,” Emily Harding, deputy director and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said on a recent panel discussion.

There are a bunch of reasons for this. The Russian state intervened in ways that helped soften the sting of sanctions. Sanctions are extensive, but many, like those on energy, are still limited in scope. The US, Europe, and other partners — about 30 total — signed on to some version of sanctions, but the rest of the world did not. Those gaps, including from major economies like China and India, have made sanctions less effective and offered Russia a financial lifeline.

The US and its partners are continuing to impose additional sanctions, but this is largely tightening existing penalties and an effort to close gaps in sanctions that Russia or its friends could exploit.

One area where sanctions do seem to be working is on technology imports, specifically the kind of advanced tech required for modern weapons — everything from helicopters to precision munitions. Russia has tried to get around this through sanctions evasion and repurposing chips from commercial products to replace or repair equipment. But this isn’t sustainable in the long term, and over time, Russia’s military capabilities are likely to be severely weakened. Russia may already be conserving things like precision-guided missiles.

Russia is also facing other constraints. Like Ukraine, it is tearing through its stocks of ammunition and artillery. Russia has mobilized many, many soldiers, but all of those troops need to be equipped, and Russian industry also has limitations. This is why Russia is reportedly getting things like artillery from North Korea and drones from Iran (two countries also under heavy sanctions, for what it’s worth). But if China actually does step in and give military assistance to Russia, as the US has warned, that could give Moscow a boost.

All of this is to say that Russia is facing real challenges militarily and economically, but none of it yet seems like the knockout punch. And, importantly, none so far seem to have shifted Putin’s calculus.

4) What has the Ukraine war taught us about conflict now?

The Ukraine war is already one of the bloodiest and deadliest of this century, if not longer. The US government estimated last year that battlefield casualties for both Russia and Ukraine exceeded some 200,000. It is likely much higher than that now. Add to that the civilian casualties, which the United Nations estimates to be about 7,000 killed and nearly 12,000 injured, much of it “caused by the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects, including shelling from heavy artillery, multiple launch rocket systems, missiles and air strikes.” The UN also believes these figures to be an undercount. The United States has determined that Russia has committed crimes against humanity in Ukraine.

The Ukraine war has “reminded everybody how horrible war is, and how horrible it could get — and that’s without even using nuclear weapons,” said Joseph Nye, a US foreign policy expert and university distinguished service professor emeritus and former dean of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

That war is brutal and horrible is not exactly a new observation, but the war in Ukraine is both a war of the future and a war of the past. Technological advances on the battlefield — tools like drones — are reshaping the war, but they’re also not transforming conflict into something never before seen. Right now, traditional instruments of war — ammunition, artillery, armored vehicles, ground troops, trenches — are anchoring this conflict.

“This is a war of incremental, not dramatic, transformation. I think everyone expected perhaps a transformation, or replacement of conventional warfare with new cyber means and using AI and new technologies. What we’re actually seeing is, all of that is happening alongside conventional warfare,” said Branka Marijan, senior researcher on military and security implications of emerging technologies at Project Ploughshares. “Artillery’s still important; that’s not going to go away. If you want to hold territory, you’re still going to need to deploy troops. You’re still going to use tanks.”

Militaries are learning that even as they invest in new technologies like cyber and artificial intelligence, they can’t forgo stockpiles of artillery, either. “Lesson one is really: you need to buy stockpiles for the long war,” said Cynthia Cook, director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group and a senior fellow in the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But having the tools to fight a war, whether artillery or precision missiles, only goes so far. Before the war, Russia, on paper, had the world’s second strongest military. “Morale to organization, to training to logistics, to doctrine and strategy, those are all human things that you can’t automate your way out of, you can’t necessarily innovate your way out of,” Wilde said.

And on the battlefield and off, the Ukraine war has shown the limitations on how much countries can innovate out of the brutality of war.

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