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One Year Later

One Year Later

Francis Fukuyama evaluates the past year of the Russia-Ukraine war and the critical factors shaping the months ahead.

Francis Fukuyama

The first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine finds us in a familiar position. There has been a regular cycle in assessments of the conflict. The starting assumption of most people a year ago was that there was no way that Ukraine could resist the Russian onslaught, much less push Moscow back, so Ukraine’s external friends needed to brace themselves for concessions by Kyiv and a new strategic reality. Russia was too just too big and too well-armed for any other outcome.

The Ukrainians proved this narrative wrong by defeating the initial Russian effort to take Kyiv in February-March and expelling the invaders from the north of the country. In the course of that liberation, the world came to know the reality of Russian occupation in the atrocities committed in towns like Bucha and Irpin. The war then shifted to the East, as Moscow dramatically scaled back its war aims and concentrated on attacking parts of the Donbas like Severodonetsk. This led to a seeming stalemate by the end of the summer, with the Ukrainians running low on 152mm artillery for their Russian-caliber guns. Once again, you saw Western voices repeating the mantra that this would be a long war that Ukraine could not win, and that there needed to be peace negotiations and territorial concessions by Kyiv.

The U.S. decision to up the quality of weapons provided, and especially the transfer of HIMARS rocket artillery, changed this calculus dramatically. Ukraine began systematically targeting Russian ammo dumps and command posts, and in rapid offensive operations liberated Kharkiv in the northeast and brought pressure on Russian positions in the south, including a spectacular attack on the Kerch Strait bridge in early October and raids on Russian airbases on the Crimean Peninsula. The Russians responded by ordering a military mobilization in late September to replace the large number of casualties they had suffered. This phase of the war culminated in the liberation of Kherson in November, following a Russian retreat over the Dnipro River. These military successes then damped down Western calls for negotiations.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Since November we have been in another period of apparent immobility and stalemate. After the huge Ukrainian advances in the early fall, both sides were exhausted and needed to refit and resupply. In Russia’s case, this involved funneling huge numbers of newly mobilized men into frontline positions with minimal training and insufficient equipment. The war began to focus on the town of Bakhmut in the Donbas, which the Wagner Group’s Yevgeny Prigozhin had set as the point where he would demonstrate the effectiveness of his mercenary army. Like the battles for Severodonetsk and Lysychansk last summer, this turned into a massive artillery duel, with the Russian side sending waves of infantry to attack the well-defended town. This has led to huge casualties on both sides, but particularly for the Russians who forced convicts to assault well-defended Ukrainian positions at gunpoint. The penalty for retreat or desertion was a sledgehammer to the head.

Once again, this apparent stalemate has brought back the same fears of a long war and renewed calls for some kind of peace settlement. The Russians have brought their newly mobilized forces to bear along the whole Donbas front, and once again the Ukrainian side is complaining of falling ammunition stocks while staying mum about their own level of casualties. At this point, there are two issues that need to be evaluated: first, the politics of the support that each side is likely to receive, the Ukrainians from external sources and the Russians from both their industrial base and their few allies like Iran and China. Depending on the nature of that support, the central question becomes predicting likely military outcomes over the next six months.

With regard to the first question, the Biden administration and the West more generally have been both remarkable in the level of support they have given Ukraine, but painfully slow in delivering it. President Biden's surprise visit to Kyiv was a welcome confirmation of U.S. support. But the material backing for Ukraine has been less edifying, including the argument about supplying tanks like German Leopards and American Abrams. A decision was finally taken in January at Ramstein and in follow-up NATO meetings. But this was a decision that should have been taken six months ago. It will take time to train Ukrainians to operate the heterogeneous systems now being delivered, and, just as important, to build and operated the logistics systems needed to keep them in the field.

On the American side, Republican support for Ukraine has been slipping gradually. The midterm election last November 8 staunched the slide temporarily as election deniers lost their races and the Republicans gained only the narrowest of majorities in the House of Representatives. Poll data shows growing numbers of Republican voters expressing Ukraine fatigue; outright opposition to Ukraine has become more deeply entrenched in the MAGA wing of the party. There are disturbing hints that Republican candidates for 2024 will coalesce around opposition to further Ukraine aid. The Biden administration has finally stepped up to the rhetorical challenge with the president’s surprise visit to Kyiv on Monday, and his speech in Poland the day after. What’s needed now is expedited material support.

European support for Ukraine has been very impressive in many ways. Helped by a mild winter and precautionary stockpiling of natural gas, there were higher energy prices but no immediate crisis pushing European states to cut a deal with Russia. Indeed, the war has vastly accelerated the decoupling of European energy markets from Russia and provided a stimulus for a more rapid shift to alternative energy sources.

However, the political trendline on both sides of the Atlantic are clear: support for Ukraine will continue to diminish gradually over time. As was the case last fall, the level of support will depend heavily on the perceived battlefield situation. If Ukraine looks like it can continue to make use of the new arms and regain territory, then foreign support will continue. But if the war turns into a prolonged stalemate, then it will crumble and at some point cease. This is the scenario that Putin is counting on. The Ukrainians do not have a year to make this turnaround happen, the timeline is more like six months.

So we need to turn to the second question, which is likely military outcomes given the new levels of Western support. Moscow has shown itself willing to lose ten soldiers for every Ukrainian killed, the argument goes, and they have virtually unlimited supplies of manpower and an intact defense industrial base. Sanctions have not hurt the Russian economy as much as hoped. Scale will eventually overwhelm quality. Over the last couple of weeks, there have been ominous reports of Russia once again massing tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s borders in preparation for a renewed offensive.

Once again, many Western pundits and observers have fallen into unwarranted pessimism, which is only now being corrected in the media.

First of all, Russian resources are not unlimited. The fact that Russia is contemplating yet another mass mobilization suggests the huge numbers of mobiks called up since last September that have already been killed or wounded, a total number that is close to 200,000 since the beginning of the war. The British defence secretary recently remarked that some 97 percent of the entire Russian army is now in Ukraine. There are no vast manpower reserves that can be brought to bear. Perhaps two-thirds of all the tanks in Russia’s huge prewar inventory have been destroyed or put out of commission, meaning that their ability to wage a mobile combined-arms offensive is extremely limited. There are anecdotal reports of factories not being able to meet production targets because of missing workers. Prigozhin has announced an end to the prison recruitment campaign, since evidently prisoners are getting word that their chances for survival are not large.

A second reason why pessimism is overdone is the limited amount of learning that the Russian military has demonstrated. Rather than organizing a large offensive, the Russian command continues to make small attacks along multiple lines of advance. It is perhaps not surprising that newly mobilized and poorly trained conscripts would not be able to pull off a sophisticated combined arms operation, a weakness that was amply demonstrated in the recent Russian attempt to take Vuhledar southwest of Bakhmut. Two elite units, the 155thand 40th Naval Infantry Brigades, were largely annihilated in the attempt, and the Russians lost some 30 tanks and over 1,000 casualties in less than two days. Russian military bloggers are up in arms about the degree of incompetence displayed despite a year of warfare.

Finally, there continues to be good reason to think that the Ukrainians will make good use of the new equipment coming into their inventories. Longer-range strike munitions will force the Russians to pull their logistics back even further, and there are multiple points along the front where Ukraine could choose to strike. The Ukrainian offensives of last fall were made possible by the exhaustion of Russian forces after their small gains in Donbas. It would appear that they are similarly depleted following their unsuccessful efforts around Bakhmut, and any new recruits will not be ready in time to fill the gap.

Assuming that a spring offensive comes and the Ukrainians are able to break through the existing front, what kinds of war aims should Ukraine seek? By far their most important objective should be the liberation of the remaining occupied parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts to retake that part of the Black Sea coast. It is hard to see how Ukraine will be economically viable without regaining access to the Sea of Azov ports. Most critical will be capturing the city of Melitopol, which will allow the Ukrainians to cut the supply line from Russia proper to Crimea. The Russian ability to support their forces in Crimea will then be put at severe risk, and at that point one could imagine Russia being forced to the bargaining table in a more serious way. If this doesn’t happen, Ukraine will be in a position to isolate, strangle, and ultimately retake Crimea. All of this is much more important than retaking the Donbas.

A lot of this scenario has to unfold, however, in the next few months. The Ukrainians will face the same sorts of minefields and trench lines that the Russians face, and they will take heavy losses assaulting these defensive positions. All that is needed, however, is one successful breakthrough for much of the existing Russian line to collapse.

So with reasonable confidence that we can hope for the best in a spring offensive. As it was throughout the first year of the war, politics will follow military outcomes rather than the other way around. It goes without saying that Ukraine deserves the highest level of United States and NATO support, delivered quickly and efficiently, and that we must start looking forward to the country's rebuilding and a security structure that will protect from Russia into the future.

Francis Fukuyama is chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose and Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow and director of the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Image: An abandoned Russian tank in the region of Izyum, eastern Ukraine. (Screenshot from Ukrinform TV)

DemocracyEastern EuropeEuropeRussiaUkraineU.S. Foreign PolicyFrankly Fukuyama