On February 24, russian putin ukraine war Russian forces invaded Ukraine from the north, including from Belarus, from the south out of Crimea, and from the east. The multiple axes of attack suggested that the Russian military aimed to quickly capture the capital of Kyiv, depose the democratically-elected government, and occupy perhaps as much as the eastern two-thirds of Ukraine. The Russians failed. Their forces reached the outskirts of Kyiv but retreated at the end of March. The Russian army’s thrust toward Odesa bogged down around Mykolaiv after three weeks. In May, Russian forces attacking Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city and located just 25 miles from the Russian border, were pushed back, having entered only the city’s outskirts.
The Russian military finally secured control over Mariupol in mid-May, when the last Ukrainian forces surrendered after a valiant resistance. Weeks of indiscriminate Russian shelling and bombing have left Mariupol, a predominately Russian-speaking city where almost half of population was ethnic Russian, absolutely devastated.
Following their retreat from Kyiv and northern Ukraine, Russian forces have concentrated on the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. After six weeks, they have made some progress but at considerable cost against determined Ukrainian defenses.
Military analysts ponder whether the Russian army will soon become a spent force — exhausted by heavy casualties, high equipment losses, poor morale, and weak logistics, and incapable of mounting another major offensive operation. The Kremlin’s decision not to declare a full mobilization makes it difficult for the Russian military to replace combat losses. U.S. officials see Russian President Vladimir Putin stubbornly digging in, discern no negotiating path in the near term, and expect a war of attrition, with the sides slugging it out but neither able to score a convincing victory.
Ukraine appears to have already won in one sense: virtually no one believes the Russian military capable of taking Kyiv and occupying one-half to two-thirds of the country. Ukrainians are returning to the capital, and life there has begun to take on an air of normalcy. However the war concludes, an independent and sovereign Ukrainian state will remain on the map of Europe.
Beyond that, things become more difficult to predict. The Kremlin has now focused on taking full control of the Donbas, a substantially downsized goal from its original invasion aims. Moscow may have to further reduce its Donbas objective to full control of Luhansk oblast but not all of Donetsk oblast. Russian forces in southern Ukraine have begun preparing defensive positions.
Ukrainian forces, bolstered by a growing flow of weapons from the West, have carried out successful counterattacks as well as conducting a stout mobile defense. However, transition from defense to a full-scale counteroffensive aimed at driving the Russians out of the territory they have occupied since February 24 would pose a tough challenge. In that case, some of the advantages that favor the defense would accrue to the Russian military.
A negotiated settlement offers one path to end a war. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appeared ready for compromise on key questions in March, for example, offering to set aside Kyiv’s ambitions of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and accept neutrality. But his Russian counterpart did not take up the possibility to secure a neutral Ukraine and perhaps other gains.
In retrospect, that may turn out to be a missed opportunity for Moscow. Ukrainian attitudes toward negotiation have hardened since March. That reflects growing confidence in the abilities of the Ukrainian military and outrage at Russian war crimes, such as the wanton destruction of Mariupol, and atrocities in places such as Bucha and Borodianka. Public anger almost certainly limits the freedom of maneuver that Zelenskyy might have in considering possible concessions.