The Second Year of Russia’s Invasion: Will Ukraine Win the War in 2023?
The first year of the Russo-Ukrainian war has taught us to accept the strength of the Ukrainian army and to be skeptical about the Russian military might. At the same time, Ukraine’s Western allies demonstrated their inability to speed-up its military support provision, even when facing Russia’s rolling offensive. Against the backdrop of the newly unveiled power (im)balance between Russia, Ukraine, and the West, will Ukraine be able to win this war in 2023?
This analysis represents an attempt to sketch a possible scenario of the upcoming military campaign of 2023, including Ukraine’s potential offensive operation towards Melitopol, to discuss the likelihood of Russia’s new offensive operation, and to debate Ukraine’s chances to recapture the Crimean Peninsula. This text also summarises the first years of Russia’s invasion and its implications for the military campaign of 2023.
Russia’s 2022 military campaign: don’t chock on your aspirations
Throughout the year of 2022, Russia’s military camapign was characterized by permanent defeats and constant downscaling of the Kremlin’s objectives. In February 2022, Russia’s goal was to capture Kyiv within 24 to 72 hours and to win the war with the military and political collapse of Ukraine. Although these goals looked highly ambitious, they were not totally impossible. The Russian action plan was based on an overwhelming airborne attack on the Hostomel airbase just a few miles from Kyiv. The Russian air force was hoping to suppress the Ukrainian air defense and to establish an airlift between Russia and Hostomel to transport troops and military equipment. This would allow the Russians to promptly advance towards the Kyiv administrative center, simultaneously expanding the territory under its control around the airbase and, eventually, seizing full territorial and administrative lcontrol over the Ukrainian capital.
This military operation was a large-scale replay of the Crimea occupation, when the Russian Il-76 cargo jets brought airborne troops to the Hvardiiske airbase in Crimea securing an airlift for the full-scale invasion. Although the plan failed, on the climax of the Russian advance, on the 26th of February, Russian troops entered the Kyiv city perimeter and got eliminated near the Beresteiska subway station, just five miles from the Bankova and the Hrushevskoho streets, the office buildings of the Presidential office, the Parliament, and the Cabinet of Ministers building. Had the Russians managed to achieve their goals in Hostomel, the military offensive push towards Kyiv would have gained momentum and could have succeeded, with a detrimental effect on the morale of the Ukrainian army and the readiness of Western allies to provide military support to the country. After that, not only Kherson, but Kharkiv, Chernihiv, or Odesa could have fallen. Most Western nations would have abandoned Ukraine by this moment, with maybe only Boris Johnson trying to fight but being ridiculed as a hasty radical.
From this perspective, the Russian defeat near Kyiv decided the fate of the now year-long war. The failure of Russia’s armed forces to execute a risky, but realistic plan of a swift victory demonstrated thatthe Kremlin had no plans and no scenario to fight the protracted war in Ukraine. Other Russian troops, massed around Ukraine, also failed in their objectives of capturing major Ukrainian cities located up to 60 miles from the Russia-Ukraine state border, such as Odesa, Mykolaiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, and Kharkiv. This series of military defeats forced Russia to permanently reduce its appetite within the next months.
After Russians troops left the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions, they tried to launch at least three additional offensive operations seeking to encircle Ukrainian troops in the East. Each of them was charactarised by a decreasing scale, but had effectively the same fate: a failure to achieve its objectives.
In the summer of 2022, the Russians left most of the Kharkiv and Sumy regions and abandoned the strategically important Snake Island in the Black sea. he Ukrainian army partly compensated for the Russian superiority in firepower by using Western artillery systems HIMARS, PzH2000, and Ceasar, and forced the Russian artillery to relocate ammunition depots farther away from the front line and to ration artillery shells in some cases. Although the Ukrainian offensive was believed to cease its momentum in September-October due to unfavourable weather conditions and increasingly tired troops, the Ukrainians continued to push. In November 2022, the Russian army left Kherson, the only Ukrainian regional capital captured during this war. The Russian attempts to change the power balance by mobilizing reservists in a September mobilisation campaign and by forcibly conscripting prison inmates to the Wagner private military company  did not deliver expected results. Until the end of 2022, there was no military offensive operations successfully executed by the Russian army. Additionally, Russia’s army got stuck in the Donbas region around the city of Bakhmut. Although Bakhmut remains an important regional city, with its pre-war population of 80,000 inhabitants, it does not haveany important industrial facilities and represents a very weak prize for the Russian invasion. The fierce fighting of Russian troops for Bakhmut demonstrates Russia’s desperation to claim at least any territorial gains as success. says much more about the Russian desperation than about the alleged Russian strength.
The 2023 campaign: What is at stake?
Both Ukraine and Russia are seeking to end the war in 2023. For Russia, the continuation of the war brings more risks as more effective weapons are getting delivered to Ukraine by the West. If Ukraine gets dozens or hundreds of modern tanks or even jets, the Russian army will not be able to fight back a Ukrainian counter-offensive. For Ukraine, a swift victory over Russia is important for another reason: a prolonged war impacted the country’s economy massively, with about 20% of the Ukrainian territory under Russian occupation and the Ukrainian population suffering from constant Russian air raids. A protracted conflict with Russia also put at risk western public support of Ukrane. At the moment, Ukraine’s counter-offensive brought more Western residents on the side of Ukraine. In August 2022, 77% of Germans called for peace negotiations with Russia, even over Ukraine’s head. After the liberation of Kherson this number decreased. Now, 41% of Germans believe that Ukraine should accept the loss of at least part of the Russia-occupied territories in exchange for “peace.” But the voices of those who call for an immediate cessation to fighting paid by Ukrainian concessions can rapidly re-emerge if Ukraine did not continue its impressive success on the battlefield. These factors raise significantly the likelihood of offensive operations launched by both Russia and Ukraine.
A Ukrainian offensive on Melitopol?
There is no doubt that Ukraine could have saved its limited personnel, as well as technical and financial resources if the West had provided the Ukraininan army with weapons it requested. The Ukrainian commander-in-chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi stated in December 2022 that he needed 300 battle tanks, 700 infantry fighting vehicles, and 500 howitzers to end this war within the summer 2023 campaign. However, the West is still not ready to provide even 20% of the requested military equipment in the near future. At the same time, this shortage of equipment is unlikely to prevent the Ukrainian army from launching an offensive operaion. A stalemate with Russia would be a worse scenario as it would allow the Russian army to strengthen its position in the occupied territories of Ukraine and further blackmail Ukraine and the West.
Ukraine has already demonstrated its ability to plann and execute at least two offensive operations simultaneously, in the Donbas region and the South of the country. Both directions continue to be vital for Ukraine. The Bakhmut-Lysychansk part of the Donbas front will remain an important focus for the Ukrainian army due to the amount of Russian troops stationed in this area and logistic significance of both cities.
Map: based on DeepStateMap
The most important military objective for a Ukrainian offensive campaign is though Melitopol, – an important logistics center in the Zaporizhzhya region. Melitopol was taken under Russian control in early March 2022 during the only successful Russian offensive operation in Ukraine. This maneuver was largely successful due to a favorable terrain with the flat and woodless landscape of the Ukrainian south and probably treason oflocal Ukrainian security officers. Nowadays, with sufficient firepower and accumulated experience of successful offensive operations, the Ukrainian army may try to counterattack southwards and recapture Melitopol. If successful, Ukraine’s armed forces would split the Russian troops in the South of the country into two parts again. The Ukrainian army will also be able to encircle Russian troops on the southern bank of the Dnipro. In this case , the Russian commanders operating in the area between Nova Kakhovka and Skadovsk will face a tough choice: either to get into a deadly trap set up by Ukrainian troops or to evacuate to Crimea. In both cases, the strategic consequence of such an offensive would be devastating for Russia, as this would make the Russian troops in Crimea dependent on the only Russian supply line through the Kerch bridge.
Map: based on DeepStateMap
Wagner conscripts are not the only Russian personnel sacrifice in Donbas. According to Ukrainian reports, the Russian army lost at least one elite army unit, the 155 Guards Naval Infantry brigade, trying to advance to the city of Vuhledar, some 40 miles to the southwest of Bakhmut. The intensity of fighting and the number of Russian military losses proves that Russia has already started a military offensive operation in Donbas, and it is not successful.
There is still a possibility that Russia launches another offensive attack on Ukraine. The Russian army is likely to attempt to cross the Ukrainian border near Kharkiv or Sumy, major regional centers located only 25-35 miles from the border. The previous attempt to capture both cities failed in the spring of 2022, but this never stopped Vladimir Putin before. According to Ukrainian military intelligence information, Russia has concentrated about 10,000 troops across the border in the direction of the Ukrainian city of Sumy. This is not sufficient to start an effective offensive operation, but Russia could be planning to station new troops in the region in the near future.
Possible bottlenecks for Ukraine and Russia
Both Russia and Ukraine have limited resources. Ukraine is facing shortages of heavy weapon, and ammunition, especially, high-precision shells for western artillery systems. So far, the Ukrainian army exercised caution with replacing firepower with manpower of fellow citizens. If Western supply lines of shells and weapon platforms decrease, the Ukrainian offensive will unlikely to bring positive results.
For Russia, its crucial resource is manpower. In line with the cruel logic of the former USSR Minister of Defense Georgy Zhukov that “the women will give birth to new soldiers,” Russian commanders sent thousands of Russian soldiers and reservists to death hoping to advance in Ukraine. As the confirmation of his approval for this almost a century-old doctrine, Vladimir Putin promoted Russian Lieutenant General Rustam Muradov, responsible for the death of thousands of Russian soldiers in a desperate Vuhledar offensive, to Colonel General in February 2023.. With the population of 145 million people, Russia still seems to suffer from a deficit of young and able males. That is why many of the conscripts are either older, suffer from substance abuse or illnesses, or have a serious criminal record. They can surely be used as cannon fodder, but will never be good soldiers. However, it is not clear at the moment if President Putin assesses a Russian military manpower problem as challenging his rule. Will Crimea be liberated?
Ukraine’s restoration of territorial integrity means liberating Crimea. A military challenge for Russia is the fact that Crimea, hosting currently several dozens of thousands of military personnel, has only one supply route over the Kerch bridge. Russia’s retreat from Crimea is still hard to imagine due to its extreme importance for Vladimir Putin as the symbol of his “victories” and “rebuilding of the Russian empire.” If Russia decides to fight against Ukraine’s attempt to liberate Crimea, ideally Ukraine could ambush the peninsula with an amphibious landing. The peninsula’s terrain favors such a maneuver, as Crimea has multiple suitable beaches, and the distance between the Ukrainian-controlled territory and Crimea is very short. Unfortunately for Ukraine, it lacks amphibious vessels, so its army can only use the way through the Perekop isthmus or opt for an airborne assault, a much riskier option. Once Ukrainian troops are on the Crimean territory, the Russian defense of the Crimea peninsula will likely to collapse due to existing difficulties of defending this territory. is impossible to be defended.
It is important to note that, Ukraine might face opposition from the West when attempting to recapture the Crimean Peninsula. Russia’s nuclear blackmail showed time and again how important Crimea is for president Putin. , Following this logic, Ukraine must accept its annexation for the next years and leave the issue to diplomats, likely Western. Falling into this Western trap would be extremely dangerous for Ukraine. If Russia maintained control over Crimea, it would prolong military and political instability in Ukraine and also provide Russia with perfect military leverage against Ukraine and the Black Sea littoral states.
The 2023 military campaign in Ukraine will depend on the availability of resources: weapons and shells for Ukraine and manpower for Russia. Ukraine beats Russia in military planning and troops quality, and nears a balance in artillery firepower and armoured vehicles. If the current balance of power remains unchanged, Ukraine will have a better chance to organize a counter-offensive operation against Russia and to bring closer the victory in this war against Russia. This is why it is extremely important for the West to increase its support for Ukraine now and to oppose any international support for Russia.