The Ukraine War in 2023


Swiss Policy Research - TRANSCEND Media Service

Contents: Military Developments / Energy War and Trade War / The Minsk Agreement / War Crimes and War Propaganda / Media Coverage / Conclusion

Ukraine war: Leopard 2 tank, blackout in Ukraine, Admiral Gorshkov frigate, Kherson shelling

A No-Nonsense Analysis of Recent Developments and Deceptions

Military Developments

February 2023 – 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 “bluff” 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 failed 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 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. In the next few weeks, the launch of a large-scale Russian ground and air offensive is to be expected.

A Russian attack from Belarus could again target the capital city of Kiev (3M) or, theoretically, could try to block vital supply routes from Poland to Western Ukraine. Additional attacks could occur in the Donbas towards Kramatorsk (150k) and Slavyansk (100k), in the northeast towards Kharkiv (1.5M), and in the south towards Zaporozhye (700k), 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 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, 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 upcoming Russian offensive fails, the Putin government will come under enormous pressure and may collapse; if the Russian offensive succeeds, NATO at some point may have 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 20,000 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 30,000, 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 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: 150 km range of the HIMARS/GLSDB missile system. (DefMon)

150km range of the HIMARS/GLSDB system. (DefMon)


Figure: Military situation in Ukraine by February 2023 (SouthFront)

Figure: Military situation in Ukraine by February 2023 (SouthFront)

Energy War and Trade War


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