From the start, Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has been a disaster. It’s been a disaster for dictator Vladimir Putin and Russia on every level. The vaunted “second-best army in the world” has been revealed as a creaking hulk whose aging gear is beset with neglect and corruption. Its command structure turns out to be a hollow shell, where commanders have been swapped out on political whims and the only two effective strategies have been advancing through an extraordinary expenditure of artillery or a sickening use of human “meat waves.”
At one point, the Ukrainian military estimated that Russia was going through 60,000 artillery shells a day, with many of those shells over 30 years old. Western officials didn’t put the peak rate quite so high, but still estimated that Russia had burned through 10 million shells in the first year of fighting (an average of around 27,400 per day). More importantly, Ukraine estimates that Russia will soon pass 300,000 soldiers lost, a number that aligns well with recent estimates from British intelligence. At the same time, Russia has confirmed losses that include 2,400 tanks, thousands more armored vehicles, and 16 naval vessels. That last figure includes the guided missile cruiser Moskva and a kilo-class submarine.
But this war has also been a disaster for Ukraine. Not only has Ukraine suffered terrible military losses and seen its economy pummeled, Russia has rained down destruction in the form of missiles and drones, causing damage and killing thousands of civilians all over Ukraine. At this moment, roughly 17% of Ukrainian territory remains occupied by Russian forces. And when, or how, Ukraine gets that territory back remains unclear.
Even when all the military losses are added together, it doesn’t begin to cover the price Russia has paid for Putin’s folly. Russia might have enjoyed decades of solid income from European gas pipelines, built more economic ties, and worked toward solidifying a position at the head of an alternative to Western consortiums. The war took all that away and burned it beyond hope of recovery.
It turned Russia into a pariah state that is forced to sell its oil and gas at a massive discount after being shut out of much of the world market. Russia’s central bank has essentially given up trying to halt the ruble’s plummeting value and has just raised interest rates to 15%. Russian defense spending is up by 70%, inflation is soaring, average income is collapsing, and Russia is unable to produce new military equipment at anywhere near the rate required to replace what’s being lost.
None of this is improving. In Russia’s recent attempts to capture Avdiivka, they have lost an estimated 4.000 men. More tanks than can be produced in a month were reported lost in a single day.
Russian military bloggers have played up the attempt to encircle Avdiivka as the “first step to capturing Kyiv.” That’s not going to happen. Russia has already been on the outskirts of Kyiv once, and they got their asses kicked.
But—and this is a “but” no one is going to like—even if Russia has lost, that doesn’t mean Ukraine is about to win. Ukraine may have already passed up its opportunities for the kind of gains that would definitively eject Russian forces and achieve a thorough victory.
It’s been five months since Ukraine opened its counteroffensive in the south. In that time, Ukrainian forces have made small advances at Lobkove and Pyatykhatky on the west, at Robotyne on the road to Tokmak, and along a 30-kilometer line south of Velyka Novosilka. Despite these gains, Ukraine achieved breakthroughs in none. Altogether, when all the areas of fighting in the south are added up, it amounts to around 200 square kilometers. Viewed from any distance, the change in lines of control between June and October is barely visible.
Don’t take this the wrong way—Ukraine has come out ahead in every one of those directions. It has gained territory, moved through minefields and lines of defense, and lost far fewer vehicles and troops in the process than Russia has spent in a failed effort to hold on to every one of those lost kilometers.
It’s just that Ukraine’s victories, no matter how costly for either side, have been tactical. They have not taken strategic prizes like Tokmak or Melitopol. They are not even close to doing so.
The primary reason for Ukraine’s slow progress in the south isn’t hard to identify: Russia has constructed thousands of kilometers of overlapping trenches, minefields, and fortifications. When this construction project began in fall of 2022, with Russia constructing trenches dozens of kilometers away from what were then the front lines, it seemed completely laughable. But as Russia expanded these efforts into a project that walled off whole sections of Ukraine, it became obvious that any offensive in the south was going to be fighting its way through kilometers of minefields and dozens of defensive lines.
Ukraine knew this. It watched those lines being built. And then it charged right in and attacked Russia in the areas where those minefields were widest and defensive lines most developed.
It’s extremely easy to armchair-general that decision, and that’s exactly what dozens of analysts are doing on social media today. As easy as it is for those with literally no skin in the game to sit back and criticize decisions made with tens of thousands of lives on the line, it’s hard to get away from the idea that Ukraine made some choices that nearly guaranteed five months’ worth of churn was going to net minimal gains.
First, the initial attack to the south, which was made in the area of Robotyne, was quickly withdrawn after several Western vehicles were lost in the first two days of fighting. Then, when Ukraine began fighting south of Kamyansk near the former edge of the Dnipro reservoir, it seemed to make more rapid progress, only to halt that attempt when Russia stiffened its resistance about 4 km from the previous front line.
The area south of Velyka Novosilka seemed to offer a better opportunity to move into an area where Russia’s defensive lines were less well developed, and Ukraine moved to quickly take villages like Storozheve and Makarivka. In weeks of fighting, Ukrainian forces maneuvered to take high ground and solidified their hold on liberated villages against dozens of Russian attempts to push them back. However, after a difficult fight to take Staromaiorske and Urozhaine, Ukraine seemed to stop again. The fighting in this area continues, especially in the fields and treelines east of Urozhaine, but any drive to the south has slowed to a crawl.
Finally, Ukraine settled on an attack at the same place where it started: Robotyne. A huge effort went into fully securing that town, and Russia’s losses attempting to halt Ukraine were high. Pressing east toward the town of Verbove, Ukraine succeeded in advancing not just across secondary defensive lines, but across the full panoply of minefield, dragon’s teeth, vehicle ditch, and personnel trenches. In the past two weeks, Ukraine has secured an expanded section of the Russian defensive lines, pushed Russian forces from the end of those lines, and taken firm control of the area about 1 kilometer west of Verbove. However, Russia remains in control of Verbove and of Novoprokopivka to the south of Robotyne.
Since Oct. 9, some of the slow pace in the south can be attributed to the necessity of relocating resources to deal with Russia’s attempted encirclement of Avdiivka. Unlike Bakhmut, Avdiivka has considerable strategic importance in preserving Ukraine’s defensive positions and keeping the fight close to Russian-occupied Donetsk. Russia’s losses at Avdiivka have been jaw-dropping, and to the extent that forces moved from Zaporizhzhia contributed to the outcome so far, this falls under the category of Totally Worth It.
However, this does not mean that progress before that date was not disappointing. Yes, Russia continues to lose forces at a furious rate. Yes, Ukraine is constantly improving both its homegrown technology and its integration of Western equipment. (American M1 Abrams tanks have been in the country for five weeks, and we’ve yet to see them in action.) Yes, Russia may have so weakened itself at Avdiivka, and so depleted reserves in other locations, that Ukraine may be days away from a genuine breakthrough.
That’s possible. But we shouldn’t count on it.
Fighting in the south will most likely continue to look like what we’ve seen so far—dense and difficult, with minefields and defensive positions increasing the effectiveness of artillery and drones.
Ukraine did have other choices. It could have placed the bulk of its forces in the north and driven toward the transport hub at Starobilsk, picking up Svatove and Kreminna along the way. Russia moved considerable forces to the area over the winter and currently has a reported 120,000 troops north of Bakhmut. However, this area does not have the extensive fortifications seen in the south and Ukraine would be able to match its Western gear more directly and effectively with Russia’s increasingly aging lineup.
This could still happen. However, even though fall in Ukraine has so far been exceptionally warm and relatively dry, mud season is still coming and nowhere gets muddier than Kharkiv and Luhansk. It was essentially that mud that slowed Ukraine’s movements after liberating Lyman one year ago. Russia was able to bring in reinforcements along the paved roads to Starobilsk and other points in the east. Ukraine was struggling through a series of villages connected mostly with dirt roads west of that Svatove to Kreminna line.
Rather than pick up that fight in the spring, Ukraine moved its focus south. That probably seemed like a good idea. Drier, sandier soil in that region seems to offer more flexible use of armor. The strategic targets there, particularly Melitopol and Mariupol, are the most important in this war. Cutting a path to the sea would make the threat to Crimea infinitely more real. And if Ukraine had been able to brush aside Russia’s defensive lines, both the tactical victory and gain in morale would have been tremendous.
Ukraine was likely encouraged by Western training and gear that, on paper at least, was more than capable of dealing with the old-school defenses Russia had prepared. Many (including me) derisively compared them to France’s Maginot Line fortifications, easily brushed aside by the Nazis in World War II. However, making the best use of that gear takes more training, more experience, and more coordinated units than has been possible with Ukraine’s hurriedly patched-together, Western-style battalions.
Back in August, U.S. intelligence fretted that Ukraine wasn’t at a stalemate, but had been unable to achieve a breakthrough. The Pentagon reportedly criticized Ukraine on several points: a failure to concentrate forces in a single area, an unwillingness to give junior officers the flexibility to follow up on opportunities as they develop, and a reluctance to accept the level of losses necessary to sustain a breakthrough.
Multiple analysts have pointed to how Ukraine moved to withdraw from the initial attack at Robotyne, rather than press forward despite losses, as a moment when initiative was lost. This, once again, is the kind of thing analysts say when they are far from the battlefield and not trying to safeguard a limited supply of Western-provided tanks driven by green recruits in a military that had no idea when it might get more of either.
There seems little doubt that Ukraine has been trying to secure what it can while limiting its losses. That reduced-risk strategy may seem even more sensible when Ukraine looks up to see that additional funding and supplies from the United States are very much threatened by Republican leadership in the House.
It’s one thing to charge ahead, heedless of danger, when you’re willing to pave the path to gaining a lone kilometer with enough bodies to line the route a dozen times over. But Volodymyr Zelenskyy is not Putin. As he has demonstrated again and again, Zelenskyy actually cares about the lives that are being lost in this war.
Ukraine may make that breakthrough tomorrow. Russia’s reserves may be depleted. Russia’s air support has certainly been heavily thinned. The massive supply of old equipment and disdained prisoner brigades that have allowed Russia to act with such conspicuous consumption may be largely exhausted. It may not take years of slow grinding to wear Russia’s remaining military to the point where it’s a walkover.
But at this point, the answer may simply be that for Ukraine to win this war in a reasonable time, it’s going to take a bigger bastard at the helm. That doesn’t mean replacing Zelenskyy, who may be the world’s genuinely most indispensable man at this point. But it may take a commander who is willing to accept higher levels of loss in a nation that’s already given so much.