Ukraine at War: The Year Past and the Year Ahead (Part One)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 191

(Source: General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine)

In 2023, Russia redoubled efforts in its two-fold war in Ukraine: against Ukraine itself and against the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Moscow openly declares this dual agenda. Most Western governments, nevertheless, remain unwilling to recognize that Russia is also at war with them in Ukraine. With Ukraine as the central arena, Russia conducts a wider, hybrid war against the West in multiple theaters to revise the international system. Russian operations are predominantly kinetic in Ukraine, largely non-kinetic elsewhere, and sometimes synchronized across theaters.

Characterizing the war in Ukraine as a “regional conflict” became outdated after Russia’s launch of the full-scale invasion. This act accelerated the conflict’s evolution into a war for the revision of the international order writ large. Distant players such as Iran and North Korea entered the war in 2023, indirectly but with considerable impact, supplying arms and ammunition to Russia (see EDM, June 20, August 1, November 3, December 12). The Hamas assault on Israel and Venezuela’s threats of war against Guyana in the latter part of 2023 could, even if not coordinated with Moscow, produce significant escalation by diverting Western attention and resources from Ukraine. Earlier, Russia deployed private military companies—previously tested in Ukraine—to several African countries as horizontal escalation to distract Western Europe.

By year’s end, major Western allies appear to be less committed to Ukraine’s victory than they were earlier in the year. Assisting Ukraine militarily and economically has come at a high cost, but the war’s outcome will be coterminous for Ukraine and its Western partners. It will constitute a shared victory or a shared defeat, both as strategic fact and in the world’s perception. Kyiv’s Western partners stand to win or lose alongside Ukraine.

Inadequate and inconsistent supplies of arms and munitions predetermined the stalling of Ukraine’s counteroffensive. The slow tempo of Western deliveries trailed behind the Ukrainian military’s timetables. Limitations on quantity affected most types of matériel delivered and became more stringent before the counteroffensive could gain momentum. The artillery systems and tanks supplied to Ukraine were not the most advanced versions available in Western stockpiles. Additionally, Ukrainian forces were apparently supposed to achieve a significant breakthrough without air power of their own and in spite of Russia’s air supremacy.

Meanwhile, the Russian side gained precious months (December 2022–May 2023) to build three fortified lines of defense behind vast minefields. The extent of those minefields seems to have been underestimated in the lead-up to the counteroffensive, leaving Ukrainian troops with a severe shortage of de-mining equipment. The counteroffensive neither pushed back the frontlines cutting across Ukraine from Kupyansk to Kherson nor interdicted the Russian overland corridor from Mariupol to Crimea (see EDM, August 8, 15, September 6, 26, October 4).

In early December, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that Ukraine would adopt a defensive strategy. In consonance with the top military command, Ukrainian forces began building fortified defense lines opposite the Russian lines in the east and south, as well as along the Ukrainian-Russian border in the north (Ukrinform, December 3). Hostilities have devolved into a high-intensity positional war of mutual attrition. Daily combat activity reports suggest that Russia holds the initiative at several pinpoint locations along the frontlines.

The stalled counteroffensive became the pivotal event of this year in Ukraine. It has recast the premises for all developments in the country and the calculations of foreign friends and foes alike for 2024.

An emboldened Russia has now reverted to more expansive war aims in Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin recently characterized “southern Ukraine” wholesale as “Russian lands,” Ukraine’s Black Sea coast (Prichernomorie in Russia’s geopolitical lexicon) as home to the “Russian people,” and Odesa as a “Russian city” (TASS, October 5, November 3, December 14). This suggests that Moscow’s 2014 Novorossiya project and its early 2022 intention to open an overland corridor to Odesa are back on the agenda. The Kremlin has also announced that the March 2024 presidential election (Putin’s re-election) would be staged in the territories “returned” from Ukraine. Putin has hinted on television that he could visit those territories as part of his re-election campaign, as if to emphasize the irreversibility of those territories’ “return” (TASS, December 9, 10).

While Kyiv’s counteroffensive on land fell short of expectations, Ukrainian maritime warfare in the Black Sea achieved unanticipated successes. Bereft of its own navy, Ukraine achieved an indigenous technological breakthrough in manufacturing naval drones and their innovative use in these confined waters (see EDM, September 14, 25, November 15). This enabled Ukraine to decimate the Russian Black Sea Fleet, sink or irreparably damage a dozen of its warships, and hit its Sevastopol base repeatedly. Concurrently, several Ukrainian air strikes using British-supplied cruise missiles devastated Russian command posts and air defense batteries on the Crimean Peninsula. These combined efforts cleared the Black Sea’s northwestern quadrant, compelling most of Russia’s remaining warships to relocate to the northeast. This enabled Ukraine to open a narrow, relatively safe maritime corridor for commercial shipping to and from the three ports of Greater Odesa (see EDM, August 15, 18, September 21, 26).

The corridor’s opening marks a historic success for Ukrainian drone warfare but is far from satisfactory as a commercial solution. It only amounts to a narrow bypass around Russia’s naval blockade, which continues to paralyze Mykolaiv, Kherson, and other Ukrainian ports. The shipping corridor serving Greater Odesa accommodates only a fraction of Ukraine’s pre-2022 maritime trade, at higher shipping and insurance costs. Much of Ukraine’s pre-2022 maritime trade volumes must, out of necessity, be diverted to more costly overland routes with finite capacities.

Russia had imposed a total naval blockade of Ukraine from the start of the full-scale invasion. Moscow partially alleviated that blockade under the Black Sea Grain Initiative signed in July 2022. The agreement allowed for agricultural exports from Greater Odesa only, subject to Russian inspection under Russian naval escort, while Moscow maintained a full blockade of the other Ukrainian ports. Russia canceled the grain deal unilaterally in July 2023 and attempted to reinstate the blockade but has been thwarted by Ukraine’s innovative drone tactics (see EDM, July 26, 27, 31).

Ukrainian forces’ increased use of drones became a partial, temporary, and, ultimately, not a long-term substitute for a strong Western naval presence in the Black Sea. Western naval powers, whether in their national name or in a NATO framework, have been absent from the Black Sea since December 2021 (see Part Two). A continuance of that absence may give Russia time to regroup and reinforce its naval assets to push back against Ukraine in the Black Sea early next year.

*Read Part Two.