COMMENT: After one year of war, Russia faces new challenges in Ukraine

COMMENT: After one year of war, Russia faces new challenges in Ukraine
President Volodomyr Zelinskiy and his wife lay flowers to remember the war dead. / bne IntelliNews
By Neil Hauer in the Donbas March 1, 2023

February 24 marked one year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. An entire year of full-scale, one-on-one warfare between Europe’s two largest countries has brought conflict back to the continent on a scale not seen since the Second World War. Hundreds of thousands have been killed or injured and entire cities devastated as Moscow’s brutal offensive has sought to destroy the Ukrainian people and state.

But unlike many around the world feared, the Ukrainian defenders did not buckle. Over the course of 12 months, Ukrainian troops have not only held off the Russian assault but launched successful counter-offensives to seize back lost territory.

The list of Russian failures has been at least as long as Ukraine’s successes, whilst within the ranks of the various foreign fighters participating on Ukraine’s side, other movements are being born that may challenge the power of Russia’s allies in their own realms soon.

Addressing the nation early in the morning of the anniversary, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy summed up what many in his embattled nation have felt this past year. Describing February 24, 2022, as “the longest day of our lives…[a]nd the hardest day of our modern history,” he saluted his nation’s willingness to resist and “not to raise the white flag”. “It was a year of resilience…a year of endurance…and we will do everything to gain victory this year!” Zelenskiy intoned.

Beyond the symbolism and the speeches, though, February 24 may have been most remarkable for how calmly it passed. Most Ukrainians had expected Russia to unload a salvo of drones and missiles at the capital and elsewhere – Russian President Vladimir Putin is nothing if not an admirer of symbolism. And yet the day passed without so much as an air siren in Kyiv, let alone the regular explosions that have defined much of life in the capital over the past four months.

In many ways, the lack of strikes felt like an omen of the year that is to come: one in which a much-reduced Russian military, while still posing a threat, must contend with a severe loss of capabilities and other consequences from Moscow’s failing war.

The falling rate of Russian long-range strikes marks one of the most notable shifts in the conflict in recent weeks, albeit one that has flown largely under the radar. Just a few months ago, Moscow’s army, under the direction of the then-newly appointed commander Sergei Surovikin, refocused its attention from the battlefield to Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. Utilising thousands of both cruise and ballistic missiles and Iranian kamikaze drones, Russian forces began to bombard Ukraine’s cities and power stations in an attempt to cripple heating and electricity in early October.

The effects were felt quickly: By late October, more than 50% of Ukraine’s energy facilities had been damaged, and the possibility of evacuating entire cities was raised by senior officials. With lengthy power and heating cuts becoming a regular event in the dead of winter, it seemed as if Russia’s strategy, if not enough to force Ukraine into concessions, might at least inflict serious suffering on its civilians.

And yet the coercion campaign was to end with a whimper, not a bang. As January progressed, the level of Russian strikes began to fall off precipitously, while Ukrainian downing of Russian missiles and drones (helped by newly delivered Western anti-air systems) became ever more successful. By mid-February, there were few signs of any electricity issues all across Ukraine –  Ukrenergo reports that Russia has used as much as 80% of certain types of advanced precision munitions, Putin’s army begins the second year of the war with its capabilities drastically reduced.

Grinding battles

Another effect of the massive losses Russia has suffered has been to force the restructuring of entire units within its armed forces. At the start of the invasion, the main Russian combined arms formation was the battalion tactical group (BTG), a grouping of around 800 men with a full panoply of indigenous capabilities, from rocket artillery to targeting support. Over 120 BTGs were employed in the initial invasion of Ukraine, albeit in a haphazard and unco-ordinated manner that limited their effectiveness. After being mauled in the chaotic first month of fighting as well as the grinding battles in Donbas that followed, the structured approach of the BTGs began to fall apart.

Now, newly captured documents as many as 2,300 tanks alone lost to date) as well as its reliance on large amounts of undertrained infantry, the kind that the mercenary group PMC Wagner has used to make slow but steady gains near Bakhmut, at a massive cost in lives. The war Russia is preparing to fight on the ground in 2023 will necessarily reflect these limitations.

But there are other consequences of Moscow’s failed campaign in Ukraine: specifically, the armed resistance groups forming, training and gaining experience with the aim of toppling some of Putin’s key allies in the future.

One of these groups hails from Russia’s key ally to the north: Belarus. When Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko found his rule challenged by mass anti-regime demonstrations after the rigged 2020 national election, Russian support helped him maintain his throne. In the process, many thousands of Belarusians fled, including to next-door Ukraine.

When the war erupted, with Russian forces attacking from Belarusian territory as Lukashenko’s government became an accessory to the invasion, some Belarusian exiles took their chance to organise. They have since formed several volunteer units, such as the Kastus Kalinouski Regiment, to fight alongside the Ukrainian armed forces in repelling the invasion. Within these units, Belarusian fighters have participated in battles across Ukraine, ranging from the initial defence of the capital in March to fighting in the Donbas in early 2023, gaining valuable experience in the process.

Alongside this, activities by Belarusian partisans inside Belarus itself have ramped up: while resistance fighters have repeatedly disrupted railway tracks (a crucial logistics link) in the country, February 27 saw their most significant activity to date, with the reported destruction of a Russian spy plane on an airfield in south Belarus.

Given that these fighters have already expressed their desire to topple Lukashenko, their growing numbers and prominence could bring the fight to Putin’s closest foreign ally sooner than once thought.

Another group, potentially even more destabilising for Moscow, threatens upheaval within the Russian Federation itself. While the first decade of Putin’s rule saw Russia reconquer then-de facto independent Chechnya and crush the separatist movement there, the remnants of that movement fled abroad, either to Europe or to continue the fight in Syria.

Many of these organisers and fighters have now moved to Ukraine, where they have come together in a reborn Ichkerian (the name of the breakaway Chechen state) movement. Joining pro-Ukrainian Chechen units active since the initial Donbas fighting in 2014, these motivated fighters have proved one of the most motivated and experienced foreign forces on the Ukrainian side, boasting veterans of the 2000s insurgency in Chechnya with years of prowess in fighting Russian troops.

The renewed separatist movement aims to overthrow Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s appointed leader of Chechnya, whose forces are fighting alongside Russian regulars in Ukraine, and they are already receiving support from the Ukrainian government to eventually do so. An unravelling in Chechnya would pose a truly grave risk to Putin.

One year into Russia’s invasion, Moscow still possesses enough forces to hold swathes of Ukrainian territory and slowly push the front lines forward to take more. But Russia’s military capabilities are degrading steadily, and Putin may soon find new challenges in his backyard. The war still has a long way to go for the decisive victory Ukraine is searching for – but the momentum appears to be solidly on Kyiv’s side as the spring approaches.