As Ukraine marks the one-year anniversary of its war with Russia, any hopes Russian President Vladimir Putin has entertained of achieving a clear-cut victory now appear more remote than ever.
When the Russian leader launched his so-called “special military operation” against Ukraine in February last year, the Kremlin believed it could achieve its key military objectives in the span of a few weeks.
The Russian military’s belief that it could easily capture the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and overthrow the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky was based, to a large extent, on its previous experience of fighting in Ukraine, where Russian forces had encountered scant resistance from Ukrainians.
Back in 2014, when Russia occupied and annexed the former Ukrainian-controlled territory of Crimea, as well as capturing significant amounts of territory in the Donbas region, Ukraine found itself unable to defend itself against Russia’s superior military might.
Consequently, when it came to Putin’s far greater plan to capture Ukraine in its entirety, the Kremlin launched last year’s assault in the mistaken belief that it would encounter minimal resistance from Ukrainian defenders.
Indeed, thanks in part to erroneous intelligence acquired by Russia’s intelligence services, Putin had even convinced himself that his forces would be welcomed as liberators by the grateful Ukrainian people.
In fact, the opposite turned out to be the case, with Ukrainians proving to be more than a match for the Russian invaders who, far from liberating Kyiv within the space of a few days, suffered a humiliating defeat as the strength and effectiveness of Ukraine’s resistance forced them into retreat.
String of losses
Since then, Moscow has suffered a series of ignominious setbacks, starting with the sinking of the Russian cruiser Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, in April and continuing throughout the summer with the loss of several strategically important cities, such as Kharkiv in the northeast and Kherson in the south.
As a result, Russia approaches the first anniversary of the Ukraine conflict very much on the defensive.
The war has seen Moscow suffer significant casualties, with the latest US estimates claiming the number of Russians killed and wounded at more than 100,000, while they have also suffered serious equipment losses — both in terms of heavy armour and combat aircraft.
This means that Moscow would now struggle to launch an offensive on a similar scale to its initial assault on Kyiv in February last year, which explains why, in recent months, Russian commanders have relied heavily on attacking Ukraine’s critical infrastructure with missiles and drones.
Russian commanders have concluded that, while they cannot beat the Ukrainians on the ground, they can still make life difficult for the civilian population by targeting residential areas and depriving them of vital energy and water supplies.
Just how long the Russians can continue launching daily attacks against Ukrainian infrastructure targets is a moot point, as Western military analysts believe Moscow’s weapons stockpiles are running low.
Moreover, with its economy suffering from the effects of Western sanctions, Russian arms manufacturers are struggling to provide new deliveries of weaponry to the frontline.
Iran sends weapons
The dire shortage of Russian military equipment explains why Putin has been actively seeking to forge closer ties with Iran following his visit to Tehran last July, which resulted in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard supplying hundreds of drones to Moscow to bolster Russian forces in Ukraine.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin speak to each other before a trilateral meeting on Syria with Turkish President in Tehran on July 19, 2022.
There have even been reports that Iran is preparing to provide Russia with long-range surface-to-surface missiles, although US intelligence officials say no deliveries have yet been made.
If Russia has struggled to maintain its offensive in Ukraine during the past year, the same cannot be said of the Ukrainians who have confounded expectations by not only repelling the Russian advance but managing to launch their own offensives.
Much of the success the Ukrainians have enjoyed on the battlefield in recent months is due to the military support they have received from Western powers such as the United States and the United Kingdom.
The provision of sophisticated anti-tank weapons, such as the British-made NLAWs, played a vital role in defeating Russia’s initial advance against Kyiv, while the deployment of long-range US HIMAR missile systems enabled the Ukrainians to hit targets deep inside Russian-held territory, causing severe disruption to Russian supply lines.
In one of Ukraine’s more high-profile HIMAR attacks on New Year’s Eve, hundreds of Russian conscripts were reportedly killed after a missile strike on military barracks located in Russian-held eastern Ukraine, making it Russia’s single biggest loss of life since the start of the conflict.
Despite these recent Ukrainian successes, though, US military officials believe the conflict has now reached a stalemate, with neither side in a position to land a decisive blow.
While Ukrainian forces retain the ability to defend their territory and shoot down the majority of Russian missiles fired at infrastructure targets, they are likely to struggle to mount future offensive operations, especially as Russia gradually improves its own defences and pushes more soldiers to the frontline.
And with neither side showing much interest in engaging in peace talks to end the fighting, all indications point to the conflict becoming a long-drawn out war of attrition.
That is certainly the view of Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who has warned that Western countries must be prepared to provide long-term support to Kyiv if Ukraine is to survive as a sovereign country.
In an interview with the BBC over the New Year, Stoltenberg argued that Russia’s partial mobilisation programme, which Putin ordered in September to bolster his frontline forces, showed that Moscow had little interest in ending the conflict, and appeared determined to maintain its assault against Ukraine.
"We need to provide support to Ukraine now, including military support, because that's the only way to convince Russia that they have to sit down and negotiate in good faith and respect Ukraine as a sovereign independent nation in Europe," Stoltenberg said.