A no-nonsense analysis of recent developments and deceptions.
Contents: Military Developments / Energy War and Trade War / The Minsk Agreement / War Crimes and War Propaganda / Media Coverage / Conclusion
Almost one year after the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Russia has not yet achieved any of its stated military or political goals in this conflict.
The initial Russian strategy of opening multiple fronts and dashing towards Kiev failed, as the Ukrainian government, backed by NATO, didn’t collapse or capitulate. Political negotiations in the spring of 2022 either stalled or were blocked by Britain and the US.
Russia’s strategy of a limited “Special Military Operation”, which relied only on peace-time professional military forces without any reserve forces or conscripts, didn’t succeed, either: this was already clear in early summer 2022, when Russian forces couldn’t encircle Ukrainian forces in the Donbas, and it became obvious when Russia had to evacuate the northern Kharkiv area in September and the southern city of Kherson in November, just a few weeks after holding a referendum to incorporate Kherson and three other Ukrainian regions into Russia.
Ukraine has fiercely defended any and all territories and has made full use of its well-fortified positions, the numerical superiority of its troops (700k vs. 200k), advanced Western weapon systems (including powerful anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles and long-range, high-precision artillery and artillery missiles), as well as superior reconnaissance provided by drones, Western satellites, and Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite communication system.
Thus, after almost one year, Russian successes are still limited to establishing the southern land bridge from the Donbas to Crimea, including the conquest of Melitopol (150k pre-war inhabitants) in March 2022 and of Mariupol (400k) in April/May 2022. In recent weeks, after months of fierce fighting, Russian forces, led by Wagner mercenaries, started to crack the first major Ukrainian defense line in the Donbas, consisting of the well-fortified settlements of Soledar (10k) and Bakhmut (70k).
In September, in response to the evacuation of the Kharkiv region, Russia began the mobilization and training of 300,000 reserve forces. In recent weeks, Russia has moved trainload upon trainload of heavy military equipment to Belarus and conducted joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises. Thus, at some point Russia might try to launch another ground and air offensive in Ukraine.
Theoretically, a Russian attack from Belarus could again target the capital city of Kiev (3M) or it could try to block vital supply routes from Poland to Western Ukraine. Alternatively, attacks could occur in the Donbas towards Kramatorsk (150k) and Slavyansk (100k), in the northeast towards Sumy (250k) or Kharkiv (1.5M), and in the south towards Zaporozhye (700k) or Kherson (300k) and Odesa (1M).
However, Russian forces are still not large enough to sustain multiple fronts or to conquer large and well-defended cities, as this would require more than one million troops. Moreover, unlike in early 2022, the northern route from Belarus has been strongly fortified by now. In addition, Ukraine has completed multiple rounds of (forced) mobilization and may well launch a counter-offensive in the Donbas or in southern Ukraine, cutting the Russian land bridge and blocking Crimea.
In the Donbas, it is fair to say that Russia is mostly seen as a “liberator” from nationalist Ukrainian forces, but beyond the Donbas, sympathies for Russia rapidly decrease.
In October, in response to the Ukrainian or British-Ukrainian attack against the Crimea bridge, Russia began launching multiple waves of missile and drone attacks against the Ukrainian energy infrastructure, targeting mostly substations, not power plants. Although Russia tries to avoid civilian casualties, the deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure is to be seen as a war crime, and it hasn’t yet achieved any significant military results (see discussion below).
In recent weeks, the delivery of additional Western weapon systems has been announced or discussed. The reality is that Ukraine already fields some of the most powerful defensive weapon systems, such as modern anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles (which have prevented Russian air superiority) and high-precision long-range artillery (including the HIMARS/GMLRS system).
The American Patriot missile defense system failed against Iraqi Scud missiles and against Yemeni missiles, and it will struggle against Russian missiles, too. German Leopard battle tanks were beaten by ISIS during the Turkish invasion of northern Syria in 2016, and they won’t be of much use against Russian forces, unless Ukrainian forces are capable of highly coordinated maneuver warfare. American F-16 fighter jets require months of training and will be shot down within days or hours. As a matter of fact, Russian tanks and Russian planes haven’t had much of an impact in Ukraine, either.
At the strategic level, it mostly comes down to more powerful missile systems. The HIMARS/GMLRS system with a range of 90 km has already been a game changer for Ukraine. Ukraine will now receive HIMARS/GLSDB “rocket-powered bombs” with a range of 150 km, allowing it to strike northern Crimea, all of Donbas (including Mariupol), and even Russian positions close to the Ukrainian border (see map below). The next step would be HIMARS/ATACMS tactical ballistic missiles with a range of 300 km, reaching most of Crimea, the Crimea bridge, and several Russian cities.
In December, Ukraine already attacked Russia’s Engels-2 air base with repurposed drones over a distance of 700 km. In recent weeks, Russia was seen preemptively mounting air defense systems in Moscow, which is 500 km to 700 km away from Ukrainian borders. Moreover, in recent months a series of mysterious sabotage operations took place in Russia, causing several fires and explosions.
Thus, claims that Ukraine “cannot win this war” or Russia “cannot lose this war” are premature and misguided. Russia lost the Afghanistan war in the 1980s, the US lost pretty much every war since World War II, and the collapse of the Soviet Union didn’t cause a nuclear war.
If the Russian operation in Ukraine fails, the Putin government may come under serious pressure and might even collapse; in contrast, if the Russian operation succeeds, NATO at some point may try to create a “safe zone” in western Ukraine, similar to the current situation in eastern Syria.
Even high-ranking Russian officials and government adivsers, such as Sergey Glazyev (“Russia doesn’t have a strategy in Ukraine”) and Sergey Markov (“the results of the year are catastrophic”), have openly acknowledged that Russia has maneuvered itself into a very difficult position.
While the Ukraine war has turned into a US/NATO proxy war against Russia, the Russian military, too, is trying to use “proxy forces” through the deployment of Donbas militias and the Wagner “private military company” (similar to Blackwater in the US). Wagner, in turn, recruited almost 50,000 Russian prisoners, who, if they survive for six months, are pardoned by the Russian state.
In terms of military casualties, by January 2023 the Russian military suffered about 25,000 deaths (12,000 of whom confirmed by name), including about 1,500 officers and four generals. The Donbas militias lost at least 5,000 men, and Wagner lost several thousand mercenaries. Taken together, the total number of deaths on the Russian side is about 35,000, while the total number of dead and wounded is about 100,000. On the Ukrainian side, there are about 50,000 deaths and about 150,000 dead and wounded in total. Due to the heavy use of artillery, many soldiers lost arms or legs.
Regarding civilian casualties, Russia confirmed the death of about 5,000 civilians in the Donbas republics, including about 3,000 civilians in the city of Mariupol. In total, the UN estimates that by January 2023, about 7,000 civilians were killed and 12,000 were wounded in Ukraine. In addition, there are already about 8 million Ukrainian refugees in Europe, including about 3 million in Russia. The number of civilian casualties is still relatively low for such a high-intensity military conflict.
A prolonged and inconclusive war may well destroy Ukraine, but it will also greatly weaken Russia and, thus, is in the geostrategic interest of the US. The US followed a similar strategy during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, which lasted eight years, killed one million people, and achieved absolutely nothing. During that war, the US provided weapons to both Iraq (including components of chemical weapons) and, covertly, Iran (the Iran-Contra scandal).
However, as a recent RAND report noted, this strategy would fail in case of a “major escalation”, i.e. the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine or a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO. Such a confrontation is unlikely to result in nuclear war between nuclear powers, but it may lead to the destruction of non-nuclear NATO states and US military bases in Europe (i.e. the US “bridgehead” in Europe), to which the US cannot respond without forcing its own nuclear destruction.
Figure: Military situation in Ukraine by February 2023 (SouthFront)
Figure: 150 km range of the HIMARS/GLSDB missile system. (DefMon)
Energy War and Trade War
Concerning energy markets, the Western strategy has been to reduce Russian energy exports as much as possible and as fast as possible, while simultaneously and falsely claiming that Russia was using energy as “weapon”. Overall, Russian energy exports account for about half of all Russian exports and about a third of the Russian federal budget.
Already in May 2022, Poland closed the Jamal gas pipeline and Ukraine closed the Soyuz gas pipeline. In early September, Russia had to close the Nord Stream I pipeline as Western sanctions prevented the repair and return of several gas turbines. Russia offered to supply gas through the new Nord Stream II pipeline, which was maintained by Russia itself, but in late September, both Nord Stream pipelines were destroyed by an underwater explosion – a sabotage operation that was most likely coordinated by the United States or Britain.
In December, Western countries imposed an import ban and a “price cap” on Russian seaborne crude oil, and in February 2023, Western countries imposed additional sanctions on Russian refined oil products (e.g. diesel). Prior to the war, about half of all Russian oil exports went to Europe, which imported about a quarter of its oil from Russia.
Due to a massive energy price spike, Russia actually achieved record energy export revenues in 2022, but both energy prices and Russian export volumes have since declined substantially, which may pose serious financial challenges to the Russian state in 2023 and beyond.
Russia tries to bypass Western sanctions by ramping up oil and gas exports to Asia (i.e. China and India) and by boosting exports through “grey” and “black” channels that do not rely on Western logistics and insurance companies or that hide the Russian origin of oil shipments.
Russia continues to supply gas to Europe (and to Ukraine) through the Brotherhood and TurkStream pipelines and by supplying more gas to Turkey and Azerbaijan, who then re-export it to Europe. Russia also continues to supply oil to Europe through the Druzhba pipeline and via India and China.
Recently it was revealed that Russia even increased oil supplies to Ukraine via a Russian Lukoil refinery in Bulgaria. These “secret” Russian oil exports to Ukraine are so large that they constitute about one percent of the size of the entire Bulgarian economy.
In addition, Russia will likely ramp up liquefied natural gas exports to world markets. Indeed, in December 2022 Russia was already the second-largest LNG supplier of the European Union, ahead of Qatar and second only to the United States, which is both the main architect and the main beneficiary of the sanctions regime against Russian energy exports.
Regarding consumer and industrial products, several Western companies closed or suspended their operations in Russia in 2022. In response, Russia increased imports of Western products via neighboring countries, most notably via Turkey, China, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
Overall it remains uncertain if Western sanctions against Russia will be successful or if they will mostly backfire. Even in 2023, Russia’s economy is predicted to perform better than many Western economies, some of which may in fact face a recession.
Meanwhile, the US has also ramped up the trade war with China by restricting China’s access to Western high-end microchips and microchip manufacturing equipment. The US will also expand its military bases in the Philippines and may deploy medium-range missiles to Japan.
Figure: Russian oil and gas revenues in 2021-2023 (Bloomberg)
Figure: Russian gas pipelines to Europe (for oil pipelines, see here).
The Minsk Agreement
In recent months, the former leaders of Ukraine (Petro Poroshenko), Germany (Angela Merkel) and France (Francois Hollande) all acknowledged that the 2015 Minsk II agreement was basically a ruse to gain time, arm Ukraine, and later recapture the Donbas territories and possibly even Crimea. Former British leader, Boris Johnson, stated that the Normandy format to implement the Minsk agreement had been a “diplomatic imitation”.
Some supporters of Merkel argued that Merkel was simply trying to justify herself after the failure of the Minsk agreement, but to most observers it was always clear that the agreement would never be implemented. Only the Donbas republics may have been interested in the Minsk agreement as they would have gained partial autonomy, even though they preferred annexation by Russia.
From the perspective of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who now claims to have been “deceived”, the Minsk agreement may have been the only way to freeze the Ukrainian conflict and avoid the immediate need of a Russian invasion in response to the 2014 US regime change in Kiev.
The reality is that already back in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, US geostrategic planners announced their intention to incorporate Ukraine into the EU and NATO framework within about 20 years. In 2004/2005 the US initiated the first “color revolution” in Kiev (the “Orange Revolution”), followed by the more forceful “EuroMaidan” in 2013/2014.
In 2016 US Senators Graham and McCain visited Ukraine and promised full US support for the recapture of Donbas and Crimea. In 2020 US strategic bombers took part in joint exercises in Ukraine. In 2021, Ukraine participated in multiple NATO exercises and the US entered a “strategic partnership” with Ukraine that included the “restoration of the territorial integrity of Ukraine”.
At best, one could argue that Germany and France tried to freeze or delay the conflict, while Britain and the US tried to accelerate or leverage it. The British-American strategy concerning Ukraine can really only be compared to Mexico or Cuba entering a military alliance with Russia or China, the outcome of which is not very difficult to imagine. It was a very dangerous strategy.
Figure: NATO expansion, 1990 to 2020.
Figure: American CV-22 Osprey aircraft during an exercise in Kiev (September 2020)
War Crimes and War Propaganda
Throughout the first year of the Ukraine war, the reality has been that the vast majority of war crimes and deliberate attacks against civilians were committed not by invading Russian forces, but by Ukrainian forces – including paramilitary forces – fighting against Russian invaders, (supposed) Ukrainian collaborators, and pro-Russian secessionists.
In contrast, Western politicians and Western media would like people to believe that most atrocities have been committed by Russian forces. To this end, Western media – guided by the three global news agencies, Western intelligence services, and several PR firms – have routinely portrayed Ukrainian actions as Russian actions; ignored or downplayed other Ukrainian actions; and made up, distorted or exaggerated Russian actions.
Previously discussed propaganda examples include the bombing of the Mariupol maternity hospital in March; the bombing of the Mariupol drama theater also in March; the “Bucha massacre” in April; the bombing of the Kramatorsk railway station also in April; the bombing of the Kremenchuk shopping center in June; the bombing of the Russian detention center in Elenovka in July; the shelling of the Zaporozhie nuclear power plant in August; the bombing of a “passenger train” near Dnipro in August; the bombing of a refugee convoy near Zaporozhie in September; the use of schools by Ukrainian forces; multiple incidents involving Ukrainian air defense; supposed “torture” and “mass rape” by Russian forces; and actual torture and executions by Ukrainian forces.
Since October 2022, a few more such propaganda operations have taken place:
In November, a Ukrainian air defense missile hit a Polish field, apparently killing two farmers. Although open-source analysts, based on early photographs, immediately determined that it was a Ukrainian air defense missile, a US intelligence source told US news agency, Associated Press (AP), that it was a Russian missile. AP shared this information globally and the next day, many Western media still reported it was a “Russian missile”.
Also in November, after the Russian evacuation of Kherson, Ukraine may have staged a “cheering crowd” welcoming Ukrainian forces. Later, there were once again unsubstantiated claims of alleged “Russian torture chambers”, while actual evidence of Ukrainian retribution against supposed “collaborators” was largely ignored by Western media.
In mid-December, during a visit of a UN official to Kherson, the empty administration building in the city center was mysteriously shelled. While a senseless Russian strike cannot be excluded, this may as well have been a Ukrainian false flag operation.
On Christmas Eve, there was another mysterious shelling of the Kherson city center. Crater analysis indicated a strike from the Russian side, but there were no remnants of a missile or shell, no CCTV footage was released, Western photographers were immediately on the scene, and photo analysis indicated possible staging. This event may have been an illegal Russian strike, a Ukrainian false-flag, or a Ukrainian psyop to blame Russia (similar to the Sarajevo “market massacres” 30 years ago).
In mid-January, the Ukrainian government and Western media reported that Russia (“Vlad’s butchers”) fired a missile into an apartment building in the city of Dnipro. But video evidence showed that the Russian missile was shot down by Ukrainian air defense, crashed into the building, and may have triggered an additional gas explosion. This was confirmed by a Ukrainian presidential advisor, who subsequently resigned.
The “biggest story not reported” by Western media, however, is the frequent shelling of Donetsk and other Donbas settlements by Ukrainian forces. Using Western artillery (e.g. the French Caesar howitzer and the US HIMARS), Ukrainian forces keep shelling residential areas, supermarkets, restaurants, youth centers, hospitals, churches, and other places. In some cases, Western media even used images of these Ukrainian attacks and blamed them on Russian forces.
Human Rights Watch, a US NGO, recently confirmed the use of illegal “butterfly mines” by Ukrainian forces near Izium, but has not yet commented on the more widespread and better documented use of these anti-personnel mines against the city of Donetsk.
On the other hand, since October Russia has launched multiple waves of missile and drone attacks against Ukrainian energy infrastructure (mostly substations, not power plants). Initially, this was in response to the Ukrainian attack against the Crimea bridge, but the Russian goal now seems to be to “de-energize” Ukraine and increase political pressure. Regardless of the intention, the destruction of civilian infrastructure, absent military necessity, is a war crime. In fact, these attacks appear to be the first systematic, ordered-from-the-top Russian war crime in Ukraine. While Russian attacks do not directly target humans, they can still cause or exacerbate a humanitarian crisis.
There are also claims that Russia “abducted” thousands of Ukrainian children and deported them into “reeducation camps”. What actually happened is that Russia offered to evacuate families and children from destroyed or contested cities like Mariupol and Kherson to Crimea or to Russia itself. Some of them have already returned to Ukraine, while others prefer to stay in Russia. Russia also evacuated several hundred children and orphans from shelters in war zones, a procedure that may be seen as pragmatic (Russian view) or as illegal (Ukrainian view).
In December, the New York Times published a 30-minute “visual investigation” of the events at Bucha in March 2022. The journalists once again claimed that Russian troops went on a “killing spree” and committed a “massacre”, but their own evidence showed otherwise.
Civilians in the streets of Bucha were killed in two ways: by frequent Ukrainian shelling and by Russian fire when inadvertently approaching a Russian military column. Russian forces did illegally execute, without a fair trial, about a dozen plain-clothed territorial defense forces who were armed or spying on Russian troops. After the Russian retreat, a Ukrainian battalion executed citizens whom they suspected of having collaborated with Russian forces (e.g. by wearing a white armband or by distributing Russian food aid). The events at Bucha certainly were a tragedy, but not a massacre.
In October, US analyst Ian Bremmer, a member of the US Council on Foreign Relations, stated the following: “All sorts of atrocities to be condemned. US wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam, Yugoslavia NATO bombings. But nothing stands up to the state terrorism of Putin’s regime.” Yet so far, the exact opposite is the case: the Russian war in Ukraine, although a major tragedy, is still “cleaner” than every major US or British war of the last 120 years.
Figure: Mysterious shelling of Kherson on Christmas Eve 2022 (DW News)
Figure: Kherson shelling: Russian strike or Ukrainian psyop? (see all AFP images)
In terms of media coverage of the Ukraine war, NATO-compliant Western media provide mostly propaganda and disinformation and very little factual reporting. This was already the case during many previous geopolitical conflicts and wars.
Russian English-language media, such as RT, focus mostly on counter-propaganda and highlight supposed Western or Ukrainian failures and disputes as well as supposed Russian successes. In the EU, Russian state media outlets were banned in 2022.
Independent media, some of which are listed in the SPR Media Navigator, provide alternative views and debunk Western propaganda, but may engage in pro-Russian reporting, wishful thinking (“Russia has been winning from day one”), or contrarianism.
The channels and websites of open-source analysts remain the best way to follow the Ukraine war in real-time and to cut through the propaganda pushed by all sides. Several Western journalists working in the Donbas have already been sanctioned by Western governments.
US internet search engines Google, Microsoft Bing, and even DuckDuckGo (which relies on results provided by Microsoft) have all deranked pro-Russian and independent sources. Thus, advanced internet users will increasingly have to resort to other search engines.
In Russia, “knowingly spreading false information about the war” or “disparaging the Russian military” remains forbidden. In December 2022, a Russian municipal politician was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison for having stated that the Russian military committed crimes in Bucha.
Figure: Western propaganda vs. Russian propaganda (Lynn PR)
The Ukraine War is already a major tragedy and it will likely escalate even more in 2023. In case of a Russian defeat, a collapse of the Russian government or even the Russian Federation as a whole is possible, as already anticipated by some US think tanks.
In case of a Russian victory, Russia will likely return to its December 2021 proposal for a new European security architecture, including the removal of NATO forces from Eastern Europe, the removal of US nuclear weapons from Western Europe, neutrality of former Soviet republics, and the reinstatement of the INF nuclear missile treaty.
Regarding the energy war and trade war, the US will likely try to play the “long game” to weaken both Russia and China, but it is not yet clear if this strategy will succeed. In case of a “major escalation”, the rapid nuclear destruction of American “bridgeheads” and “pawns” in Eurasia might follow.
Due to Russian annexations and the US/NATO proxy war strategy, a Ukrainian peace deal seems very difficult to attain at this point, but it might still be possible based on territorial concessions and a neutral foreign policy of an independent Ukraine.
You have been reading: The Ukraine War in 2023.
An analysis by Swiss Policy Research.