2023 may be decisive for the outcome of the war in Ukraine


LONDON – With improved weaponry, Western resolve is firm and Ukraine’s military continues to outflank and outflank Russia’s struggling military, Ukraine’s promised “year of victory” well underway.

If 2023 continues as it has started, chances are Ukraine will be able to fulfill President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s New Year’s promise to retake all of Ukraine by the end of the year — or at least enough territory to eliminate the Russian threat for good, Western officials say. and analysts say.

But while Zelensky rallied Ukrainians to expect victory this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin used his New Year’s speeches to prepare Russians for a long battle. Russian troops are digging in fortified defensive positions bolstered by at least 100,000 newly mobilized troops, and while it seems unlikely that Russia will be able to seize more territory anytime soon, it will also be difficult for Ukraine. Progress in 2023 compared to last year, military experts say, despite the speed of recent victories.

Elizabeth Shackelford of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs said that if Kyiv fails to take significant steps against this entrenched and growing Russian force, the war risks turning into a protracted conflict in Putin’s favor. A $45 billion aid package approved by Congress will see Ukraine through the year, but with the 2024 U.S. presidential election, the longer-term outlook is harder to predict.

“2023 is really the year,” Shackleford said. “If it doesn’t end in 2023, Putin will have a huge advantage. As things stand, Zelensky still has a chance because he has very strong support.

“After that,” he added, “all bets are off.”

The US has promised $3 billion in weapons to help Ukraine “take back its territory.”

Ben Hodges, the former commander of the US Army in Europe, says that the events of the first week of the year show that the outlook for Ukraine is bright. He cited the advantages that Ukraine can enjoy, from the high morale of the military defending its homeland to superior leadership, unity and seemingly unwavering Western support.

The widespread rejection by the US and Europe of Putin’s call for a temporary ceasefire during the Orthodox Christmas holidays was a stark and early reminder that Ukraine is still not under pressure from Western officials to open talks, which Moscow will use as an opportunity. to rearm and regroup for further attacks, while strengthening control in the occupied territories.

A New Year’s Day attack on a makeshift Russian barracks in the occupied Ukrainian town of Makiyevka deep inside Russian lines killed at least 89 Russian soldiers, according to Moscow, and possibly more, according to Ukrainian and American officials.

The strike demonstrated not only Ukraine’s superiority in weapons, intelligence and surveillance, but also Russia’s continued tactical missteps. Moscow blamed the attack on the location of newly arrived soldiers using mobile phones. However, US officials said there was evidence that Russia had stockpiled ammunition at the barracks, raising the number of casualties at the scene.

On the same day, Ukraine said it had shot down all 45 Iranian-made drones to tarnish New Year’s celebrations, a sign that Ukraine’s air defense system is becoming more adept at preventing Russian attacks on the country’s infrastructure.

The announcements of France, the United States and Germany that they will supply combat vehicles to Ukraine for the first time have greatly increased Ukraine’s offensive capabilities.

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Even the weather has been kind to Ukraine, with record winter temperatures in Europe lowering energy prices and sparing citizens pain that many analysts say will undermine European support for the war effort in Ukraine.

French President Emmanuel Macron, widely criticized for trying to appease Putin in Ukraine, promised to “support Ukraine until victory” in his statement about the donation of light tanks.

As long as Western support remains strong, Hodges said he is confident Ukraine will be able to retake all or most of the territory Russia seized this year, including the Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized and annexed in 2014.

The peninsula’s supply routes are potentially vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks using the U.S.-supplied Highly Mobile Artillery Missile System (HIMARS) precision weapons, and Ukraine could force Russia to withdraw from Crimea even before it captures the entire eastern region of Donbass. He said where most of the fighting was now concentrated.

“I believe that Ukraine has reached a point of no return, and unless the Russians find a way to convince the West to let it go, there’s nothing they can do to change that,” said Hodges, who is now a senior adviser at the Washington-based Human Group. Rights first.

“I see a lot of positives and I don’t see the West’s resolve weakening,” he added.

Rob Lee, a former US Marine at the Institute for Foreign Policy Research, says Ukraine now depends on staying on the offensive, which is more difficult than defending on land.

According to him, Ukraine’s success in 2022 was helped by Russia’s mistakes, which are unlikely to be repeated now that Russian troops are ready for a long trip. “It’s easier to defend than to attack, and the Russians have already established long defensive positions,” Lee said.

According to Lee, Ukraine won in a sense by not only repelling Russia’s initial attack, but also recapturing almost half of the territory occupied by Russia in the first weeks of the war.

“After the first two weeks of the war, it became clear that Russia could not achieve its goals. “Russia’s goals were so ambitious that Ukraine won by simply remaining a sovereign country. But the question now is whether Ukraine can get what it wants, which is to return to the borders at least on February 24, if not to take back more territory.

“Whether he can do that,” Lee added, “is what’s not so clear.”

Much may depend on which side runs out of ammo first. Western officials have been predicting for months that Russia would run out of ammunition, and while that has yet to happen, there is persistent evidence that Russian supplies are dwindling.

Ukrainian officials said late last year that the rate of Russian artillery fire along the eastern front was only one-third of what it was during the summer of the Russian offensive. A Western official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss security issues, said that while Russia has ordered production increases, it is clear that Russian production will not keep up with consumption.

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According to the Institute’s assessment, the depletion of Russian ammunition reserves, especially for artillery, makes it unlikely that Russia will be able to launch a successful offensive for some time, despite the Ukrainian military’s predictions that Moscow is preparing for a major offensive. The study of war.

Dmitry Alperovych, chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator think tank in Washington, said that it is far from certain that the West will be able to meet Ukraine’s ammunition needs, especially since offensive operations require larger amounts of equipment.

Alperovich predicted that Ukraine could regain some ground this year, but not enough to ensure a decisive victory. Putin appears to be redoubled in his determination to subdue Ukraine, and while Russia currently lacks the capacity to launch successful offensives, the injection of newly mobilized manpower strengthens its ability to thwart Ukrainian advances.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think this will be the year the war ends,” Alperovic said.

Unless the front lines change significantly over the next year, the path forward is murkier.

Russian and Ukrainian economies will struggle to sustain a prolonged war. And it is not clear whether each country can produce enough manpower for a protracted struggle. Hodges said that while Ukraine is still small, it has the advantage of having millions of military-age men in reserve, while Russia is releasing prisoners from prisons to maintain its presence on the front lines.

According to him, no one predicts that Ukraine will surrender to Russia or lose outright. The Ukrainians are determined to fight and the troops remain more motivated than their reluctant Russian opponents.

But a protracted war will indefinitely delay Ukraine’s recovery, reconstruction, and refugee return. As its economy continues to decline, the government is expected to keep hundreds of thousands of troops along an estimated 600-mile front line, helping Putin aim to deny Ukraine success as an independent nation.

Over time, Ukraine’s offensive capabilities will be depleted by the loss of its experienced and well-trained military, potentially losing the manpower advantage it has gained, Lee said. And Russia would have a chance to rebuild its economy, supply lines and combat capabilities to potentially launch future offensives, as it did after the front lines froze after the separatist war in Donbass in 2014.-2015.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s fortunes will increasingly depend on variables beyond its control, such as Western decision-making, the availability of Western military munitions, and events in Russia.

“We don’t know what will happen in Moscow until the end of the year. There are serious power struggles,” Hodges said. Alperovich believes that while there is no immediate evidence of Putin’s hand, serious dissent in Moscow or a mutiny among disgruntled Russian troops could be decisive.

Events in the United States could be just as important, Shackelford said. While Europe’s support is important politically, its military contributions are dwarfed by the vast amount of arms provided by Washington, whose future commitment could be called into question if Republicans win the White House in 2024.

“If Putin can turn this into a years-long war of attrition, he can probably wait for Ukraine,” Shackelford said. “It may take some time, but then the impact of Ukraine will really subside.”

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