Two Years On From Russia's Invasion, Is Ukraine Now Losing The War?

It's not just about what is happening on the frontline.
Zelensky, Navalny and Putin
Zelensky, Navalny and Putin
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

It is now two years since Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops into Ukraine. Is there a chance Moscow might be on the path to victory?

This is not an easy question to answer, and the outcome of the war is far from certain.

There are several different factors which need to be considered before making any predictions: the events unfolding on the frontline; how much international support Ukraine still has; how much internal support Putin has; and the toll the war is taking on those far from the battlefield.

What’s happening on the frontline?

Ukraine’s success at pushing back the invading Russian forces at the start of the war led many supporters to believe there was a real chance of victory.

Putin had hoped to overpower the whole country in a matter of days, but the ferocity of the Ukrainian resistance, coupled with western support for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, meant they have never made it as far as the capital Kyiv.

Between February and August 2022, Ukraine recaptured a significant portion of land in the north of the country, prompting Russia to gradually adjust its war goals.

Moscow now claims it just wants to consolidate the parts of Ukraine it occupies (around 17.5%, including Crimea, which was annexed in 2014), apparently giving up on its previous goal of seizing the whole country.

But hopes that Ukraine could reclaim the remaining territory has since faded – especially after its forces failed to pierce Russia’s frontlines in its disappointing counter-offensive last year.

And, in more demoralising news for Kyiv, Russia said earlier this month it had taken full control of the eastern city of Avdiivka after Ukrainian troops withdrew.

That turned out to be Russia’s greatest gain since it secured the city of Bakhmut last May in what Putin described as an “important victory”.

Civilians walk on a road as a tank drives by in a village nearby Avdiivka frontline.
Civilians walk on a road as a tank drives by in a village nearby Avdiivka frontline.
Anadolu via Getty Images

But senior consulting fellow of Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia programme, Keir Giles, pointed out the battle came at substantial cost to Moscow.

He said: “If you treat Avdiivka as a major Russian victory in itself, you need to measure that against the vast quantity of men and material that were poured into achieving it.”

Russia is also spending an “unprecedented” amount on the war, according to journalist Boris Grozovoski in a piece for the Wilson Centre.

However, it’s not all been bad news for Ukraine – a Russian offensive on the south front in Zaporizhzhia was repelled recently, and Ukraine has had some success in clearing the Black Sea of Russian warships.

Russia has also been spooked by drone attacks launched in occupied parts of Ukraine and Moscow, near the Kremlin.

Yet, it’s widely believed Putin is preparing for a long war – as we can see from his crackdown on dissent and the way he publicly frames the ongoing conflict – so smaller Ukrainian victories may not being fazing him too much.

Crucially, Ukraine’s ongoing struggle to cut through Russia’s frontlines can be traced back to one particularly pressing issue; a shortage of munitions and supplies from the West.

What’s going on with Western aide for Ukraine?

James Nixey, director of Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia programme, described 2024 as “the most difficult year” Ukraine has faced so far in the war.

He pointed to the “massive uncertainty” over the level of Western aid sent to Ukraine as allies have become increasingly fatigued over the costs involved in supporting Kyiv.

Even as the US presidential election looms, with Joe Biden and Donald Trump looking set for a rematch, the eventual outcome may not actually make a difference to the aid being sent to Ukraine, according to the expert.

Nixey said: “For Ukraine, there’s really quite minimal difference between a president who who can’t deliver lethal aid [Biden], and a president who wants to limit lethal aid in for the Ukrainians [Trump].”

Trump has indicated that he is sympathetic to Putin, sparking concerns he could obstruct future aid packages to Ukraine.

But, as Nixey said, Putin “believes he can win whatever the outcome of the US election in November,” because the Russian leader “senses weakness” in the States right now.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-US President Donald Trump in 2019 – the two have been clear about their warm relationship, which is why some fear a second Trump presidency could slow down US aid to Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-US President Donald Trump in 2019 – the two have been clear about their warm relationship, which is why some fear a second Trump presidency could slow down US aid to Ukraine.

Nixey noted that Russia already knows what it has at its fingertips in terms of resources, unlike Ukraine, because it’s not so reliant on external factors.

Similarly, Giles said: “We knew that [Western] obstructionism would lead directly to more Ukrainians dying.”

He said Western leaders need to emphasise the “looming threat to their own country” Putin poses, as the Russian president will not hesitate to move onto his next target if he succeeds in Ukraine.

Giles even warned that military engagement from Ukraine’s allies is “not likely, it’s inevitable” unless Kyiv gets the help it needs now, because “sooner or later, Russia has to be stopped”.

Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine forum at Chatham House, said it was “counterproductive” to talk about supporting Ukraine for as long as it takes, because actually it needs to be sooner rather than later.

She said: “Ukraine is falling victim of its own image of being such a resilient country. Resilience is not endless. It needs to be urgently replenished.”

Similarly, Wayne Jordash, from the international human rights law firm, Global Rights Compliance, told HuffPost UK Putin needed to be stopped.

He said: “If Russia succeeds in Ukraine, we should all prepare for a dangerous new world order - where ‘might is right’ and freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are only for those with military power.

“Compassion fatigue is really a failure to understand how existential Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is to our global future.

“To counter it, we must communicate how crucial it is to give Ukrainians what they need to fight on in exchange for a safer and more prosperous tomorrow for all. How to communicate this essential fact is, of course, the enduring challenge.”

Putin himself told US commentator Tucker Carlson that he had no intention of expanding the war further west – however, the Kremlin made a similar claim days before invading Ukraine in 2022.

What’s happening behind the frontline in war-torn Ukraine?

Most of the war has been fought on Ukrainian soil – meaning much of the east and the south of the country has been decimated.

And while Russia is still far from dominating the whole of the country, the devastating impact the war is having on even unoccupied land is astonishing.

Not only are Ukrainian civilians facing a barrage of attacks, but Russia’s missile aassaults are seriously affecting their access to essential services, according to Humanity & Inclusion.

The charity estimates 25% of the country has been exposed to intense fighting, and some communities near the frontline have been cut off from the rest of the world.

“A majority are older people, including a high proportion of people with disabilities, have remained despite the relentless airstrikes either because they were reluctant to leave or because they were unable to do so,” Humanity & Inclusion said.

The charity noted that even areas which Ukraine has managed to reclaim from Russian forces, like some villages in Kharkiv, were still left 90% destroyed – and it may take decades to clear the contamination.

Firefighters extinguish a fire at an oil depot following a Russian kamikaze drones strike on February 10, 2024 in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
Firefighters extinguish a fire at an oil depot following a Russian kamikaze drones strike on February 10, 2024 in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

Some residents have no access to electricity, gas, water and need generators for any internet access, while food and non-food items are in limited supply.

Ukraine’s fertility rate is now the lowest in the world, and a quarter of its population is over 60 years old, according to Age International.

The mental burden of the barrage from Russia is worth considering, too.

Vira, a 79-year-old Ukrainian, told Age International: “As you age, your health deteriorates – that was to be expected. However mental challenges are equally hard. I dream of war every night. Last night, I dreamt I was trying to find shelter from bullets.”

An estimated 3.6 million people were still internally displaced in Ukraine as of September 2023, according to the UNHCR – with an extra 6.2 million displaced abroad.

Then there are the ongoing concerns about the abduction of Ukrainian children.

Official statistics say around 20,000 children have been abducted by Russian forces since the war began, but real numbers are expected to be much higher, according to Global Rights Compliance.

“"Families living in occupied Ukraine live in fear that their children could be next to be stolen."”

- Wayne Jordash KC

As Jordash pointed out to HuffPost UK, forcibly transferring children of one group to another is a form of genocide under the Genocide Convention.

The lawyer explained that there are three main ways this appears to be happening: indoctrination by raising the children in Russian families and keeping them there, returning them to Ukraine once they’ve been “indoctrinated”, or sending them to Russian orphanages.

“The idea is that it then becomes easier in the future for Russia to assert control as you have indoctrinated sympathisers,” Jordash said.

Relatives end up having to do “detective work” to get their children back, he said, adding: “Families living in occupied Ukraine live in fear that their children could be next to be stolen.”

Ukrainians with their children in Lyiv, to the west of the country.
Ukrainians with their children in Lyiv, to the west of the country.
Anadolu via Getty Images

“There could be a cases where an eight-year-old has been abducted and doesn’t get reunited with his/her family for years – by that point, they will have spend nearly half their life with a different family,” he said. “How do you deal with that trauma?”

Jordash told HuffPost UK: “Children more than anyone need to be protected from war and war crimes – the international community owes them this and much more.”

“The scale of the intentional displacement of Ukrainian children and associated crimes and harm is a stain on humanity and unprecedented in Europe since World War II,” he added.

The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin over this mass abduction of children in March last year.

But Jordash said more action is needed – especially as Putin is unlikely to be arrested any time soon since that can only happen if he leaves Russia and visits any nations party to the Rome Statute.

Are negotiations on the table?

This is highly unlikely, considering Ukraine and Russia have such different ideas of what peace might look like.

While Putin has been publicly saying he would be open to negotiations, he is refusing to give up the Ukrainian land he has already annexed – and that’s a red line for Kyiv.

Zelenskyy’s 10-point plan for peace includes a complete withdrawal of Russian troops and a restoration of Ukraine’s 1991 state border.

According to Chatham House’s associate fellow, Ben Noble, “both sides have a theory of victory” and “both are plausible”.

However, Jordash, who lives in Kyiv, told HuffPost UK that Ukrainians feels the definition of victory has changed after the failure of the counteroffensive.

Instead of complete victory, they are now hoping to limit their losses and stop Russia from committing further war crimes.

That’s where Jordash speculated the international arrest warrant against Putin might come in – it could be used as a lever in peace negotiations to grant the Russian president freedom of movement again.

While Ukrainians on the ground appear to be scaling back their ideas of victory, Putin’s rhetoric has been become increasingly confident – particularly after his most prominent critic and anti-war campaigner Alexei Navalny died mysteriously last week.

Polling from the independent Levada Centre showed support for anti-war Navalny dropped from 20% in September 2020 to 9% in January 2023, too.

And while Navalny’s death appears to have briefly united Putin’s opponents, Noble claimed “the opposition in Russia is very fractured”, which could work to Putin’s advantage.

What’s more, statistics from the International Monetary Fund, shared by Sky News, show the Russian economy is due to grow faster than any G7 nation this year, and Russia is not facing any major shortages, despite extensive Western sanctions.

That’s because Moscow is still accessing materials via third countries like Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.

Chatham House’s Nixey said: “Ukraine can sustain itself, if it’s given EU financial and lethal aid.”

“But without it, then that does not seem to be possible,” he warned.


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