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Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: A 1-Year Retrospective
February 23, 2023
Eyes will be on Eastern Europe this Friday as the world questions whether an end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine is in sight as the one-year mark of Russian troops crossing the border approaches. With the conflict preparing to enter a second year on February 24, tensions and fighting remain elevated in what many assumed would be a short conflict between disproportionate powers.
The invasion began officially on February 24, 2022, when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in a 5:00 a.m. (Eastern European Standard Time) public address the beginning of a “special military operation” in Ukraine. In reality, fighting had begun even earlier in the morning in the village of Milove, where Russian forces assaulted the border more than an hour earlier. The official announcement would mark the beginning of formal fighting, and Russian troops quickly entered Ukraine from their own territory and that of a Russian ally, Belarus, under cover of missile strikes on major Ukrainian cities such as Kyiv, Odessa and Kharkiv.
Early Russian gains included a push toward Kyiv in an unsuccessful effort to quickly displace the government and a rapid movement into the east of the country which resulted in the eventual capture of the major cities of Mariupol and Kherson. Smaller operations were attempted, including airborne attacks on airports such as the Hostomel Airport in Kyiv’s suburbs and reported covert attempts to assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Despite early successes by Russian forces, Ukrainian resistance to the invasion remained resilient, with the assault on Kyiv being repelled and delayed until a counter-offensive could begin around March 16, with much of the region being liberated following a Russian retreat later in the month. In the east and south, Russian troops had much more success, but advanced slower than expected, failing to capture the city of Kharkiv and meeting staunch resistance during fighting in Mariupol, both of which likely granted time for Ukraine to prepare for future counterattacks.
In September, Ukraine reported having reached their prior border with Russia in the northeast, which would mark the beginning of a shift in favor of Ukrainian counter offensives, with successes reported in Bilohorivka (Sep. 19), Kupiansk (Sep. 29) and Lyman (Oct. 1). Two days later, Russian forces fled from several settlements in the northeast, resulting in the end of Russian occupation in the area around Kharkiv. Ukrainian successes also continued slowly in the south, culminating in a Russian withdrawal from Kherson on Nov. 9.
With winter setting in, offensives largely halted by both sides in mid-November, with Russian tactics switching to missile and drone strikes on Ukrainian military, civilian and energy infrastructure. In the time since, fighting has continued fiercely on most fronts, but little territory has changed hands outside of small offensives, with the notable exception being the Russian capture of Soledar on January 16.
The results of the invasion on the people of Ukraine have been extensive and brutal. According to the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 6,919 civilians had been confirmed as killed and another 11,075 wounded as of Jan. 2. The High Commissioner’s office noted that actual figures are likely considerably higher due to delayed reporting in areas where hostilities continue.
Reporting on the number of troops affected is more difficult due to the fog of war, but the most recent report, conducted by the Norwegian army, estimates that 180,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded, 100,000 Ukrainian troops killed or wounded and a much higher estimate of 30,000 civilians having been killed.
The United Nations Human Rights Council has called for investigations into atrocities committed by Russian occupation forces, on allegations of widespread sexual violence and the murder of civilians. Following Russia’s retreat from the region around Kyiv, the regional police reported finding the bodies of close to a thousand civilians, with more than 300 found executed in the city of Bucha alone, many in mass graves.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry has also found other mass killings, notably in Makariv (132 civilians), Izium (414 civilians) and Lyman (85 civilians). Some of those found in each incident are reported to have shown signs of torture.
Outside of the loss of life, the invasion has resulted in significant humanitarian impacts. From a pre-war population of around 44 million, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, estimates that more than 7.8 million Ukrainians have left the country as refugees and another 6.5 million are displaced within the country. Even outside of the country, disruption to grain exports has exacerbated hunger and famine crises in some poorer nations which relied on Ukrainian trade.
Recent US Involvement
Prior to the Russian invasion and throughout the conflict itself, the United States has avoided direct involvement in the conflict but has remained strongly committed to supporting Ukraine in its defense. In lieu of involvement on the ground, The U.S. has provided roughly $29.3 billion in security assistance since the invasion began, of which the State Department reports that approximately $18.7 billion is from Department of Defense stockpiles.
These include a recent decision to work with U.S. allies to provide a projected 300 tanks to Ukraine, which will include 31 M1 Abrams tanks. Ukraine has repeatedly requested such support in light of the higher number of armored vehicles in Russia’s arsenal. Prior aid has included Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, artillery systems and ammunition, and armored personnel carriers, among other equipment. These shipments have also included supplies of air defense missiles, which are seen as essential at preventing civilian casualties from Russian strikes on energy and civilian infrastructure.
The Near Future
The near future of the conflict appears to be one of uncertainty, as the harsh winter begins to ease and both sides look to secure territory. Buoyed by the recent support and upcoming supply of tanks, Ukraine is likely to seek to regain the remaining territory still under Russian occupation. While this territory has been significantly damaged and most residents have already fled, those remaining in these territories are seen as under continuing risk until the occupation is ended.
On the opposite side, Russia has since held referendums in multiple occupied regions, an action which the United Nations’ Secretary-General António Guterres says violates the U.N. charter, “would have no legal value” and which “deserves to be condemned.” These announcements grant the territory status as Russian territory under their legal system, which will incentivize the Russian military to continue the war until they are defended, or in the case of some liberated areas such as Kherson, captured once again.
In addition, the Russian military has been buoyed by the decision to begin a partial mobilization on Sept. 21, which increased troop numbers by an estimated 300,000. Ukraine’s military intelligence also believes Russia is preparing for a second round of mobilization, which could increase the number of combatants by as much as 500,000 additional troops.
With both sides dug in and expanding their arsenals and manpower, the war many saw to be quick and certain appears poised for another round of bloody fighting once one of the two sides makes the next move. Which side will eventually succeed in reaching their goal remains unknown.
The one year anniversary of the conflict will be the topic of discussion Feb. 22 at 5 p.m. at Guyon Auditorium in the Morris Library. Associate professors of political science, Stephen Shulman and Steve Bloom, will answer questions about the impact the conflict has had around the world. It will be livestreamed on the university’s YouTube channel.
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