Ukraine: one year on

By Joseph Piekarz – Contributor

As the world marks one year since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, its bloody cost is seen by all. Most especially in the Donbas and Bakhmut, which to those who have followed the siege, has demonstrated a depth of inhumanity we thought was banished from the 21st century. 

The battle of Bakhmut is currently at the epicentre of the Russian spring offensive. Numbers perhaps indicate the scale and strangeness of the battle. It is a small administrative city within the Donbas region, with a pre-war population of 70 thousand (For comparison, York is double its size, at 156 thousand). Military analysis concludes that its capture yields no strategic value. Especially now, with only 5000 citizens left, primarily those too old or sick to leave, its capture would yield no more than rubble. Yet the Russian military has remained fixed on this target. The siege has lasted seven months, and Russia has so far lost an estimated thirty thousand men trying to take it. 

It is hard to express the scale of such a number. The University of York has 20,000 students enrolled. We can all imagine the size of our university, how many lives, and how big it is. Now imagine thirty thousand people, dead. Most of the dead are our age, the youngest soldiers will have been born between 2000-2005. Many of them should have been at university. In another, more peaceful world they may have studied abroad here. They may have become our friends. They may have sat in Courtyard, drinking and chatting with us. Instead, they feed the worms of Bakmut. This is but one battle of one side. We can only accurately assess the Russian casualties, for whom the total number is likely over 150k, with the Ukrainians being somewhat less. 

Drawing back from the human scale of the conflict, the picture remains complicated. Ukraine continues to defend Bakhmut, at an also huge but far smaller number of dead (estimated to be a fifth of the Russian casualties). Russia has made some territorial gains around the city, meaning an eventual retreat is likely to avoid the encirclement of Ukrainian forces. But they will have no doubt won this battle, as they have sold Bakhmut to the Russians at an utterly unsustainable cost. Russia continues to mount offensives elsewhere on the eastern front, with fewer resources dedicated to them than Bakhmut, it has made minimal gains in some areas with high casualties. Reports of awful Russian military tactics abound in areas such as Vuldehar, as the conflict increasingly switches to trench warfare. Success is increasingly sought by the use of human wave attacks, as soldiers are sent to storm enemy positions without tanks, planes or even artillery fire. This is primarily due to the heavy attrition suffered by the Russian army over the last year, which is running low on missiles, tanks, planes and professional soldiers. 

Ukraine looks to be in a good position as the winter thaws. It has managed to persuade the west to send tanks, many of which will be decisive in the battles to come. It still retains strong EU/US backing, with recent elections in the Czech Republic and Estonia electing even more pro-NATO governments. The question remains as to whether it can still pull off an offensive this year or remain in a relative stalemate. However, as the Kharkiv offensive last autumn demonstrated, they definitely have creativity in their command and we can certainly expect surprises. They also will hope to capitalize on the growing discontent between the mainline Russian army and its main militias, the Wagner Group and the Kadyvorites. The Wagner Groups leader, Prigozohvin, has been especially critical of the Russian army, claiming that his militias underfunding has cost them lives at Bakhmut. Some speculate whether Wagner are being set up to take the fall over any Russian failures this year. We have also seen the suspected poisoning of the leader of the Kadyrovites, Ramzan Kadyrov. The leader of the Chechnya militia has fallen seriously ill, which raises questions as to the palace politics within the Kremlin. 

However, all reporting in Ukraine is clouded by a deep fog of propaganda and uncertainty. It will still be hard to predict the future of the conflict, though the likelihood of major shifts towards victory is still unlikely this year. Putin is reported to believe that time is on his side. If this war continues up to a potential change of power in Washington, he might be correct. The Russian military has so far demonstrated no qualms about wasting lives and resources, nor at forgoing war crimes. However, Ukraine has demonstrated a deep capacity to punish Russia’s strategic blunders, in the battles of Kyiv, Kherson and Kharkiv. There is no reason to believe they cannot do it again. 

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