It’s been six months since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, an act that shocked the world and one that was almost universally condemned.
Russia was widely perceived to have been preparing to claim a quick victory in Ukraine, but hopes of swiftly overthrowing Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s pro-Western government soon evaporated.
Six months on, many analysts expect the conflict to be a long, grinding “war of attrition” that causes widespread death, destruction and displacement in Ukraine — it has already extolled a high price on the country and its people — and is costly for Russia too.
The invasion of Ukraine did not come as a surprise for close followers of Russia — and the deployment of over 100,000 troops along the border with Ukraine did nothing to dispel Moscow’s insistence that it did not want to invade.
A month into its full-scale invasion that began on Feb. 24, however, and it was already forced to shift its army and objectives, having found that launching offensives on Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv from the north, east, and south all at once was too much for its forces amid stiff Ukrainian resistance.
Instead, in late March, the Kremlin said it would concentrate on “liberating” the Donbas in eastern Ukraine where two pro-Russian separatist regions are located in Luhansk and Donetsk. That coincided with the objective of trying to advance its forces along the southern coast of Ukraine, gaining control of ports Mariupol, Melitopol and Kherson with varying degrees of ease (and control), as well as the strategic Black Sea outpost of Snake Island.
Times have changed, however, and while Russia’s position in the Donbas is relatively secure, its hold on southern Ukraine appears somewhat less stable.
Reversal of fortunes
Russian troops in recent months have pulled out of Snake Island and occupied areas, such as Crimea and Kherson (which Russian commanders have reportedly fled). Russian forces are also witnessing an increasing number of Ukrainian strikes in what could be the start of a much-vaunted counteroffensive by Kyiv’s forces to retake its lost territory in the south.
Meanwhile, the port cities of Mykolaiv and Odesa further up the coast to the west have suffered repeated shelling (and Mykolaiv has seen fierce fighting to the east, toward Kherson) but they remain under Ukrainian control.
The shipping of grain exports from other Ukrainian ports has also been able to resume under a U.N.-Turkey brokered deal between Moscow and Kyiv. The agreement brought an end to a months-long Russian blockade.
Sam Ramani, a geopolitical analyst and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank, said there had been something of a reversal in Russia’s fortunes since the start of the invasion.
“In the first month of the war, the stronghold for Russia was really southern Ukraine. They took over Kherson very quickly and two thirds of Zaporizhzhia. They had Snake Island. The whole of the Black Sea coast was almost under their control. They were blocking exports of grain and other products from Ukraine,” he said.
“Now we’ve seen a total reversal. We’ve seen them occupy Luhansk and there is very slow attritional, but still somewhat consistent, progress in Donetsk, so the Donbas campaign is going a bit better — but now they’re vulnerable in the south.”
In July, Ukraine announced with great fanfare that it would launch a counteroffensive in the south, but many analysts have been left asking where and when that may take place.
“Despite having been speaking of this potential counteroffensive for a month, we haven’t seen major Ukrainian advances on any of the Kherson-Mykolaiv-Dnipropetrovsk fronts,” Max Hess, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a U.S.-based think tank, told CNBC.
He added that the extent to which Ukraine could advance on those lines was uncertain.
“It seems to be that their strategy is to make it is impossible for Russia to hold, and then have a siege rather than a counteroffensive, to try to convince them to give up control of the territory of Kherson and Mykolaiv, north of the Dnipro river.”
With talk of a stalemate setting in between Russia and Ukraine and with neither side advancing or conceding much territory, analysts are questioning what happens over the next six months as the fall sets in (along with the notorious muddy season, or “Rasputitsa” in Ukraine) and then winter arrives.
Hess said the outlook was likely to resemble a quagmire, both physically on the ground and on a geopolitical level, with neither side able to make advances and no impetus for a return to cease-fire negotiations after talks failed earlier this year.
“I think we turn into a quagmire as the winter comes, especially in the frost setting,” Hess said, adding that the West needs to start considering the possibility of territorial lines in Ukraine that are worse than those after 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and threw its weight behind pro-Russian separatist forces battling troops in eastern Ukraine.
Despite the territorial expansion, however, Hess described such advances as a Pyrrhic victory for Russia’s Vladimir Putin, referring to the term used for a success that comes with great losses. That’s because “the difference is the Russian army is now wholly committed to the fight and yet has ended up in the same strategic position as when it was being fought by Moscow’s proxy forces” in eastern Ukraine.
Russia concealing losses
Putin is widely seen to have miscalculated the cost of the invasion of Ukraine, and relations between Moscow and the West are at their lowest point in decades with international sanctions piled on Russia’s economy.
Nonetheless, the Russian public is still seen to be widely supportive of the war. This is perhaps unsurprising given the ubiquitous presence of pro-war propaganda broadcast by the state-run or pro-Kremlin press and fears of reprisals when speaking out against the invasion.
Under Putin, Russia has sought to stamp out critical voices. This crackdown has been reaffirmed during the invasion with Russia introducing legislation that allows it to prosecute anyone it deems to be intentionally spreading “false information” about the Russian army.
How much the Russian public really knows (or at least is willing to talk about in public) about the “special military operation,” as Russia calls the invasion, is uncertain.
“I cannot comment on the scale of the losses because I would immediately be criminally prosecuted,” Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow and chair of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told CNBC.
“The Russian authorities conceal the real scale of the losses,” he said, adding that in any case, “the majority of the population is not interested in them, as they do not have access to the blocked independent media, and they do not want to [know], deliberately blocking out bad information for themselves.”
Russia has sporadically released information relating to the number of its soldiers who have been killed in Ukraine but has recently ceased to do so and it’s likely to want to keep that information quiet; the former Soviet-Afghan war was unpopular because of its cost to Russian soldiers, with around 15,000 believed to have died in the 10-year conflict.
On Thursday, Ukraine claimed that over 44,300 Russian soldiers have died in the current conflict but that could be an exaggeration; the U.S. believes it could be more around the 15,000 mark. The last official death toll Russia’s defense ministry released was in March, with the number totaling 1,351.