One year ago today we woke up to the news of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Despite the Kremlin's moves, the unusual accumulation of forces, ammunition, equipment and supplies of all kinds, there were not few analysts who denied the possibility of armed aggression; rather, a large majority did not give credibility to this option, I would like to think that they were driven by that "wishful thinking" that sometimes makes us all confuse our desires with reality.
The problem arises when some of those who denied Russia's intentions, after seeing how its troops entered Ukraine, went on to justify the aggression by blaming the attacked country for provoking the situation and leaving Putin no other way out. We can use the simile: "It's her fault for wearing her skirt too short". But that is another story. The reality is that twelve months later we are immersed in a war with no end in sight.
To describe the situation one year after the outbreak of hostilities, we must refer to one of our previous articles, whose title was "An impossible victory". Because today, more than ever, that statement is more true than ever. And it is based on the fact that neither of the two countries in the conflict can achieve what they themselves have declared to be their strategic objectives. This in itself, proclaiming to the four winds the final objectives and their "red lines", can be considered a mistake, as it is a way of forcing oneself to achieve goals that may be impossible. But this conclusion, which we also reached some time ago, leads us inexorably to the question: where is this war leading us?
The answer is not easy, for if we have learned anything over the past year, it is that everything can change much more quickly than we imagine. But we can try to sketch out some possible scenarios that will not be too far from reality.
The conflict has been evolving in such a way that the most optimistic estimates already speak of its prolongation until the summer of 2023 or even the beginning of 2024. What was initially envisaged by Russia as a quick and short "Special Military Operation" has turned into a war that will last almost two years at the very least.
Evidently, this first miscalculation on Moscow's part will entail costs in all senses that few can imagine today. The failure of these initial plans is attributable not only to poor planning and execution of operations, but also to overconfidence. And it is certainly attributable to the courage and daring of the Ukrainians who, during the first weeks of the war, with only their own means and very little outside help, managed to halt the advance of Russian troops on several fronts, especially towards Kiev, with all the symbolism that this entailed.
It should be noted that, in the early stages of the invasion, Western aid to Kiev was timid and scanty, with honourable exceptions. In that first phase of the war, uncertainty and caution prevailed, fearing a possible Russian reaction. The aggressiveness of its dialectic and the continuous references to red lines held back Western support, especially when Moscow made express mention of the nuclear threat.
Today it seems distant and almost forgotten, but for a while the nuclear card was on the table, and almost no analyst dared to rule out Moscow's use of it. There were even moves within Russia itself that seemed to indicate that they were preparing to do so.
But as has been the case throughout this year, that threat faded along with the supposed red lines set by the Kremlin. Both that and the taboo of attacks on Crimea or even on Russian soil have been overcome, as has the fear of being cut off from Russian gas, something that was assumed and taken for granted back in September.
It can be considered that both the moment of acceptance that Europe would not have Russian gas for the winter and the disappearance of the nuclear threat are the milestones that have marked the West's position and actions. It was precisely this moment, when it was realised that the nuclear threat had been taken out of the equation (something in which China played a major role), that has determined the nature of Western assistance. After initial tepid moments, the shift towards sending purely defensive material, the declarations that despite its requests "Ukraine will be provided at all times with the assistance it deems necessary", the arrival of the HIMARS... the lack of credibility of Russian threats and its obstinacy have brought us to the point where for the first time a plan has been put in place to provide Ukraine with eminently offensive material that can help it to recover, at least in part, the territory it has lost.
The evolving situation has put Russia, or more specifically its political leadership, in a difficult position where it cannot afford a withdrawal. Even if it were to do so with some territorial gain, anything less than occupying and de facto controlling the four "oblasts" annexed by means of referendums of dubious or no legitimacy would be considered an absolute failure and would provoke an internal earthquake that would be difficult to manage, as all the effort and the material and mainly human cost would be seen as disproportionate to what has been achieved. But, on the other hand, the West has also been bleeding and suffering the consequences of its aid to Ukraine, both economically and in terms of energy. And today, given Russia's immobility in its intentions and postulates, which could clearly be extended to other territories outside Ukraine such as Moldova or South Ossetia, the only solution lies in an unmitigated military defeat of Russia. A defeat that ensures that nothing similar can happen again for decades. The paradox is that while this was initially one of Russia's intentions, to degrade Ukraine so that it ceased to be a threat, the tables have now turned and this is the way in which European nations and the US are dealing with this confrontation.
In a sense the conflict has become internationalised, at least in terms of interests, and it is a given that this will lead to a protracted conflict.
This, however, may also be part of Russia's strategy, for the longer the conflict drags on, the more likely it is that internal social movements in Western countries that are pro-Russian (and there are some) or unwilling to assume any costs or sacrifices to help Ukraine will grow in number and power and could provoke anything from social unrest to changes of government. This is almost certainly one of Russia's main remaining tools.
Although it may appear otherwise to the general public, the consequences for Russia after a year of war are extremely serious. Casualties, taking into account the dead and wounded, can be estimated at more than 80,000. The loss of military equipment amounts to more than half of the total number of modern tanks that were operational at the beginning of the war, armoured vehicles number in the thousands, and elite units such as the VDV have been decimated. Such is the situation that the Kremlin was forced to order a forced mobilisation of 300,000 men, and the notorious "Wagner" PMC has had to resort to prison recruitment to replace casualties. To this must be added the loss of reputation of the Russian military industry due to the poor performance of the equipment it manufactured, something that is already affecting material exports, already affected by the difficulties in accessing certain essential components due to the sanctions. The effect of these sanctions in the military field is exemplified by the need to turn to Iran to acquire systems that Russia can no longer manufacture.
On the economic front, it is a fact that the sanctions were poorly designed and have not had the desired effect, or at least not with the immediacy expected and required. But they are gradually undermining Russia's economic capacity, with Putin acknowledging in his speech two days ago a certain economic decline. For the moment, oil and gas sales to countries such as China and India have alleviated the situation, but this solution is not infinite in time and, on the contrary, what is a reality is that Russia has lost the European market, and not only for gas, probably for decades.
International isolation, although some deny it because of the support it still receives from the BRICS and some other countries, is another fact. And this support is little more than symbolic, as it can provide little effective support. There is an interesting attempt at rapprochement with India, something to bear in mind given India's growing rivalry with China, which until now has tried to sell itself as Russia's great supporter, perhaps because the Kremlin is beginning to understand that Chinese support is not such and that the Asian giant is playing its own game, a game in which a sufficiently weakened, if not evicted, Russia is the best option for its interests.
The loss of control in its traditional areas of influence is another indisputable fact, and in the Caucasus and Central Asia there are movements that corroborate this. Indeed, the CSTO is arguably a de facto dead organisation. Even Serbia is turning its back on Russia, focused on its goal of EU membership.
As we can see, the Ukrainian adventure, however much certain media or elements try to sell the opposite, is so far proving to be a complete failure for Russia. Its narrative and arguments do not hold water, and it has only managed, on the one hand, to increase the kilometres of border with NATO countries and a unity in the West that until a year ago was little more than a pipe dream.
But let us make no mistake; the bear's skin has not yet been sold. Russia still has cards to play. One of them, probably the most dangerous and at the same time the most likely, is to prolong the conflict to the point of exhaustion. In the very long term this would work in its favour and have very negative effects in Europe, which would result in a decrease in support for Ukraine, either due to a lack of domestic support within societies or a lack of capacity. This option, however, is not without risk, for although such a prolongation of the conflict is not considered feasible for the time being, it could also lead to an irreparable disconnect between the Kremlin and the Russian people, leading to a possible regime change.
At the same time, Russia continues to have the capacity to generate movements, not only within Europe but also in areas such as the Sahel (through the action of its Wagner assets) that could destabilise the continent and force it to address fronts that are currently inactive. On the other hand, the Arctic remains an asset for Russia. Not only because it can take unilateral actions that, without aggression against any of the Arctic nations, could put them in a bind, but also because China's position and attitude will most likely have a lot to do with the use of the northern route and the control or shared use of some of the Russian ports on that coast.
When analysing Russia's capabilities we should not focus only on the Ukrainian theatre of operations. Moscow, like the West, knows that much more is at stake and that its best chances of success lie outside it. In addition, and finally, another key factor should be mentioned: the day-after factor.
Reconstruction and repairing all the damage and ills caused by the war will be hard and costly, especially for Ukraine, as it is its territory that is being devastated. But there is one essential element, and that is that Ukraine will be supported by all those who have now helped it militarily. The question is: who will help Russia get back on its feet?
In short, an intervention designed for a few days or weeks has led the world into a much longer war, whose end is still uncertain and whose evolution has placed us once again in a confrontation of blocs, of different ways of understanding democracy, society and even life. For the moment, without it being direct and of high intensity, we must nevertheless be vigilant because the situation may change without us having time to realise it.