Is Ukraine Winning the War and What Might Russia's Calculation Be?

2023 / 05 / 03

Author: Mamuka Zhvania, analyst.


The idea that Russia is losing and Ukraine is winning is often the subject of political speculation, and a lot of misinformation is being spread on this topic so as to mislead the population. This issue is regularly brought up in Georgia, and we think it would be interesting to take a lot at what gives rise to such discussion, as well as to share some objective information on the topic.

Of course, it is not yet clear which side will win in the end, but it is a fact that since the start of the war, Russia has had to retreat and change its tactics many times because it could not achieve its goals and Ukraine has given appropriate responses each time. Below, we present objective information which allows us to think that Ukraine has a great advantage to win.


The First Phase of the War

The military attack of February 24, 2022, was a huge threat to the statehood of Ukraine. In the first days, Kyiv was put at risk of falling, and the rapid occupation of Ukraine as a whole seemed inevitable; however, by March 3, aside from one important city and administrative center, Kherson, the Russians has been proved unable to capture any other major city.

The unprecedented unity of the Ukrainians and their demonstrated ability to resist Russian advances convinced the civilized world of the advisability of assisting them. In the end, an unimaginable result was achieved.

In late March, Russian’s advance slowed due to unexpectedly heavy losses. The aggressor was forced to soften the rhetoric and start the negotiation process at the behest of Turkey. On March 29, Russia announced the withdrawal of troops from the northern part of Ukraine, ostensibly to build confidence for negotiations. It became clear to many that Russia could not achieve its goal and was failing.

On April 13, the Russian warship Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, was sunk. After that, it became practically impossible to conduct naval landings in the city of Odesa, and the occupation troops fortified in the Kherson district were even more restricted in their ability to advance.

The withdrawal of the aggressor's army from the outskirts of Kyiv, the loss of their flagship on the Black Sea, and their failure to seize the cities of Odesa and Kharkiv proved that Russia’s initial goals had been unsuccessful.

In April, amid heavy losses inflicted by the defenders of the Azovstal plant in Mariupol, Russia was forced to change its war tactics and adjust its objectives accordingly, which shifted the hostilities to a new phase.

The Second Phase of the War

On April 19, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia noted that they had started a new phase. Unlike the initial plan, which sought the demilitarization-denazification of Ukraine as a whole, the goal of the second phase was to gain control over Donbas and southern Ukraine and, as such, connect directly to Moldova’s occupied territory of Transnistria.

In line with these goals, on May 25, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an order to simplify the procedure of obtaining Russian citizenship for residents of two Ukrainian regions, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. At the end of June, the puppet governments of the occupied territories, with the goal of joining Russia, scheduled a “referendum” for the fall of 2022.

The tactics of warfare also changed. Instead of deep penetration through tactical groups of battalions and companies, they switched to a method of attack using the hard cover of the front line and superiority of artillery, which in real terms meant the virtual destruction of cities and inflicting damage tantamount to genocide and ethnic cleansing. Creating such an image for itself was not in Russia's interests, as this would result in the “special military operation” (as they call this war) being considerably prolonged and, in addition, would cause even greater multilateral risks and uncertainties, including intensified European and US involvement, which has in fact come to pass.

Although Russian’s ambition was reduced in the second phase of the war, even this goal was left unachieved, and they managed only to fully occupy Mariupol and open a land route to the Crimean peninsula. Having freed up forces around Azovstal, the Russian military intensified their onslaught onward into Donbas and Luhansk, where they suffered heavy losses.

The capture of two nearby cities, Sievierodonetsk  and Lysychansk, was particularly costly for Russia.

The streets of the city of Severodonetsk changed hands several times, and only on June 24 did Ukraine announce its withdrawal from the city. The Ukrainians then retreated from Lysychansk on July 3. In the battle for these two cities, Ukraine's objective was to hit the enemy forces as hard as possible, which they did. At the same time, Kyiv liberated Zmiinyi Island.

In late July and through into August, the advance of the Russian forces slowed. There was an expectation of a counterattack from the Ukrainian side due to the stability of the front line and daily reports of the destruction of important logistical facilities, weapon depots and bases in the depths of the occupied territories. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the Minister of Defense of Ukraine, attributed this event to the timely arrival of HIMARS.

Every day of resistance from the Ukrainians has become a headache for Russia. It has become clear that Ukraine has become stronger than it was prior to the war, and Russia has faced so many unexpected problems that it now looks weaker than ever.

In early September, as a result of a counteroffensive operation, the Ukrainian military liberated the cities of Balakliia, Izium, Kupiansk and Lyman. Control over the Kharkiv region was almost completely restored. This was another big operational failure for Russia.

On September 21, ahead of the “referendums” scheduled for September 23-27, Putin announced a partial mobilization in Russia.

On November 9, an order to withdraw the occupation troops from the city of Kherson and the right bank of the Don River saw the collapse of Russia's plans for the second phase of the war. During this period (from April 18 to November 9), Russia lost more territories (including in those annexed through the referendum) than it gained.

For Russia, this war has remained a headache, and that is why it had to switch to fundamentally different tactics and set new goals, thus the war was moved into its third phase.


The Third Phase of the War and Russia's New Calculations

On November 9, 2022, the withdrawal of the Russian army from Kherson and its moving to the left bank of the Dnieper River, taking into account other existing conditions, was a strategic decision of greater importance than a tactical one, which moved the war into its new, third phase.

Leaving the right bank bridgehead of such an important natural dividing line as the Dnieper River, made it even more difficult for the aggressor to seize Kyiv.

Previously, Russia planned to end the war quickly so that Europe could not respond properly. Now its strategy, on the contrary, looks to be aimed at prolonging the war as much as possible.

The dynamics of the war show that Russia’s ideal would be to at least take the Luhansk and Donetsk regions and organize a strong defense on this strip to prevent the Ukrainian army from launching a counteroffensive. This would be enough for Russia to maintain internal political stability.

With such a tactic, the occupant hopes that, over time, the population of Europe will become more concerned about its own social problems, internal security issues, and will tire of the aid being given to Ukraine, and as a result of these and other reasons, new governments, ones more loyal to Russia, will enter into force in European countries through the next elections. In addition to refusing a direct confrontation with Russia, Ukraine will also lose the support it currently has and this will open the way for Russia to achieve its goals.

Russia's moves in many respects show the fulfillment of relevant tasks and a systematic approach, namely:

Visits by high-ranking officials to industrial complexes of various military and civil purpose have become more frequent. These visits are aimed at restarting the soviet enterprises and factories which were shut down years ago. Tasks have also been given to increase the pace of production of military equipment, especially heavy military equipment and aviation.

Active diplomatic work is underway to bind economic partners and a political coalition, aimed at creating new economic markets under the sanctions imposed by the world's leading organizations and countries. At the same time, efforts to create a new military-political coalition, which will oppose the Western coalition in the war on the territory of Ukraine, are ongoing.

Iran, Belarus, North Korea, Central Asian and distant African states are among the potential partners. To avoid the international sanctions, Russia is constantly working on special cooperation schemes not only with countries such as India and China, but also with any it can reach, studying the experience of Iran's development under sanctions, compared to which Russia has greater potential to succeed.

At this stage of the war, a Russian success would be its capturing of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, maintaining a stable frontline defense, as well as appropriate parity between production and losses of military equipment, so that in the future, war-weary Ukraine would agree to hold negotiations with the occupation power.

Yet, everything is currently happening to the contrary. Russia has failed to achieve its goals, which have been halved on its own initiative; it has too many daily losses on the ground; and its capabilities are not increasing. Meanwhile, Ukraine has become ever stronger through the growing military-economic and political support of NATO and the European Union: a significant part of the sky over Ukraine is closed, the tank coalition was created through the collaboration of various countries, the UN has demanded Russia immediately withdraw its troops, and 80% of the population of Ukraine is ready to fight and refuses peace at the cost of ceding territories.

The situation was stabilized in the most difficult section of the front line, in the city of Bakhmut and its surroundings, where Russia was unable to encircle the Ukrainian forces. Recently, a certain decrease in intensity has been observed, which indicates the aggressor’s great losses and exhaustion.

During the third phase, the pace of Russia's advance cannot ensure their victory; the aggressor cannot create the necessary conditions for the establishment of security on the occupied territory, and at the same time take care of its own defense in anticipation of a large counterattack from the Ukrainians.

Thus, Ukraine getting stronger and Russia getting weaker, at the expense of Western support, is a trend that persists. It still gives us reason to say that Russia is losing and Ukraine is winning, a fact which is inevitable, unless new external factors emerge.

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