Russia-Ukraine State of Play and Outlook: Negotiations Remain Unlikely
February 27, 2024
  • Nikolay Mitrokhin
    Аcademic Researcher,  Research Center for East European Studies at the University of Bremen (Germany)
Political scientist Nikolay Mitrokhin sums up the two years of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine. Neither side, the author concludes, has been able to achieve the goals set out by their political leadership, while the problems of personnel and weapons remain critical for both Moscow and Kyiv.
The original text in Russian was published in Republic. A shortened version is being republished here their permission.
A map of military operations as the war nears its second year.
Source: Wiki Commons
It seems that the situation has long stalemated. In the central part of the front line (the Zaporizhzhia front, part of the Donetsk sector) there have been no fundamental changes since March 2022 (except for the recent loss of Avdiivka by Ukraine); the northern part of the front has generally stabilized (the loss of Bakhmut by Ukraine in May 2023 did not fundamentally affect the situation); and the southern part of the front has also not moved since November 2022 (despite a couple of small bridgeheads on the left bank of the Dnieper created by the Ukrainian army in 2023).

The indisputable successes of the Ukrainian army in the Black Sea have not led to fundamental changes like the liberation of Crimea or even Black Sea islands (besides Snake Island) and peninsulas. Moreover, the rhythms of offensives and counteroffensives have become almost seasonal. In winter, the Russians begin to advance; by the end of February-beginning of March they achieve their first successes; and by June they have significant victories (they captured Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk in 2022, and Bakhmut and the surrounding area in 2023); in July-August it’s the turn of the Ukrainian army, the peak of whose offensive operations comes in September (in 2022 it proved very successful, but in 2023 not so much), while by mid-October it grounds down in the autumn mud.

Still, every six months the situation in the war, and around the war, changes quite dramatically, providing new dynamics, reasons and drivers to keep it going.

Ukraine: The path to success in autumn 2022

Two years ago, Ukraine had a relatively weak and small army and a collapsing defense industry; now, it has a motivated, large army using modern and creative methods of warfare. The army relies on popular support and has consolidated the nation around the political leadership.

Despite the mistakes of 2022 – in particular, the fact that Russian army columns were able to penetrate deep into the country – it successfully ousted the invaders from three of the five theaters of military operations (the northern, northeastern and Black Sea theaters, with the eastern, Donbas, and southern, Zaporizhzhia, still being contested).
Ukraine’s military successes in the autumn of 2022 led to an overestimation of its own capabilities and false hopes, however.
Avdiivka, October 10, 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
The resources available to Kyiv as of June 2023 were enough, at best, for a medium-sized operation. Even better, they could have been used to strengthen the Ukrainian army and confidently defeat new attempts at an offensive by the Russians, like what we saw in the Avdiivka area.

However, from June to October 2023, they were foolishly and steadily wasted on the Zaporizhzhia front. The somewhat more successful Ukrainian advance in the vicinity of Bakhmut in June ran up against a clear lack of resources. Meanwhile, actions by Ukrainian “proxies” on the Russian border near Belgorod did not receive proper support from the Ukrainian army and showed that the proxies’ resources are only sufficient for small attacks.

Ukraine: The materiel situation

Ukraine’s defense industry has remained its Achilles heel. Though the country still retained many enterprises, personnel and ideas from the Soviet military-industrial machine, in the first year of the war Ukroboronprom was preoccupied exclusively with its own administrative reorganization, instead of scaling up production of military equipment and ammunition.

The country’s leadership apparently counted on old Soviet reserves and large-scale Western supplies. However, the former quickly ran out – one reason being that the main strategic warehouse near Balakliia (100 kilometers from the Russian border) fell to the enemy whole. Supplies from the West, meanwhile, were late to arrive and came in insufficient quantities.

As it soon became clear, the West’s own reserves were rather insignificant, while quickly restocking was not a possibility. In fact, a feverish search for needed ammunition is still underway around the world (the latest deliveries were announced from South Africa). In mid-2023, the Ukrainian leadership began to change its military-industrial policy, and by the end of autumn 2023 it had announced a program for the mass production of drones.

At the same time, the Ukrainian political elite got carried away by one weapon after another, placing their hopes alternately on Bayraktar drones, Javelin anti-tank missiles, HIMARS rockets and Leopard tanks, which all were highly effective for a short time before the enemy found a means to combat them.

Note that most of the components for Ukrainian drone production are of Chinese origin. Against the backdrop of the broad deterioration in China’s relations with Western countries, it seems very likely that China will ban the supply of drone components to Ukraine and its allies.

A bright spot has been the effective combination of Ukraine’s own industry, foreign support and offensive tactics by the Ukrainian army and the Security Service of Ukraine in the Black Sea. Throughout 2023 and early 2024, they knocked out Russian ships, degrading the potential of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. The main target of the Ukrainian attacks has been large landing ships, which no longer threaten to put Russian troops on Black Sea beaches, but rather are being used to transport ammunition and military equipment to Crimea from Krasnodar Region.
Overall, in the two years of the war, Ukraine, a country with virtually no navy, has achieved incredible success on the water – forcing Russia to withdraw its warships not only from the western Black Sea, but also from its main naval bases in Crimea.
This has made it possible to restore grain exports from Odesa Region ports, a critical contributor to Ukraine’s budget.

Ukraine: The political situation

Problems have arisen on the home front. The unsuccessful 2023 offensive, against the backdrop of high expectations, triggered a decline in enthusiasm for the country’s political leadership, as well as draft dodging. Moreover, the previous mobilization system was so corrupt that the government had to take action in the middle of last summer, with the president firing every recruiting chief (voenkom) in the country. A new version of the law on mobilization failed to pass the Rada due to its excessive rigidity and dubious legality. Currently, some units at the front are down to a third of their normal strength.

The general impasse on land, combined with the failure of last summer’s offensive – which ended with two trained corps and a mass of equipment being wasted in senseless attacks on minefields and well-equipped Russian positions – naturally set the stage for a shakeup in the command of the Ukrainian ground forces, starting with chief commander Valery Zaluzhny (see Russia.Post on his dismissal). However, this overdue measure was taken by the president at the wrong time. The almost complete change in the ground forces command took place against the backdrop of a major Russian offensive in the Avdiivka area.

Owing to a lack of coordination, Ukrainian army units failed to execute an organized withdrawal from Avdiivka, leading to the capture of at least several dozen men and the loss of a significant amount of equipment and ammunition. The surrender of such an important defensive area, albeit after stubborn and months-long battles, showed that after a string of victories, the war is not going how Ukraine might have hoped. In addition, the international backdrop has changed significantly: Kyiv is gradually losing the support of its main donor of arms and one of its two main financial sponsors.

Amid the current, less favorable conditions, Ukraine has many problems to solve – primarily replenishing the active army and sharply increasing weapons production.
The plan to push the Russians back to the 1991 borders is in jeopardy.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, participating in reraising the Ukrainian flag In the liberated Kherson, 14 November 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
Ukrainian politicians have not said anything about the liberation of Donbas for a long time, while the rhetoric regarding the return of Crimea has also subsided. Currently, however, the main task is to hold the front line (primarily in the Donetsk area) and deal with Russian attempts to wreck the Ukrainian economy through missile and drone strikes.

Russia: The price of territorial ‘gains’

Russia’s initial goal was to capture at least the left bank of the Dnieper, the south of Ukraine and the Kyiv region so as to inflict a strategic defeat on the Ukrainian state. It sought to occupy and seize a large part of its territory and install a ruler loyal to Putin in Kyiv. As things stand, Russia has taken Luhansk Region completely, most of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions, and the eastern half of Kherson Region.

By early 2024, the price of these successes was almost all of Russia’s armored vehicles, at least 150,000 military personnel (killed and wounded), at least a quarter of aircraft capable of flying over Ukraine, 20% of the Black Sea Fleet and the near-complete depletion of ammunition reserves.
The reasons for this were a fundamental underestimation of the enemy and resulting errors in planning, tactics, supplies and operational command at all levels.
The battle for Azovstal. Mariupol, Donetsk Region, April 20, 2022.
Source: Wiki Commons
Nevertheless, the Russian army quickly adapted to changes in the operational situation and stubbornly fought to achieve many of its tactical objectives. It withdrew troops from the north and most of the northeast of Ukraine in early April 2022, as they had essentially fallen into a trap created by the natural conditions.

On the whole, Russia successfully pulled back during the Ukrainian breakthrough in the Izyum area in September 2022, though it left behind a lot of armored vehicles. In November 2022, it managed to withdraw troops from the right bank of the Dnieper. Taking advantage of the weakness of the Ukrainian army in May-June 2022, the Russian army grabbed a lot of territory in Luhansk and Donetsk regions, using, besides the Russian army, numerous groupings of mercenaries from Wagner PMC, which seriously helped break through the fortified positions of the deployed Ukrainian troops and storm several cities.

Russia: Replenishing personnel and rearming

With a great lag compared to Ukraine, Russian troops adopted light reconnaissance and attack drones, though literally in a span of a few months during 2023 they radically stepped up their use and now surpass the Ukrainian army in this. From the very beginning of the war, Russia has widely used air defense/missile defense and electronic warfare (EW) systems to combat new types of Western equipment. Of course, they intercept only part of the Ukrainian reconnaissance and strike arsenal. Still, Ukrainian long-range drones are intercepted at a rate of approximately 75-80%.

Since October 2022, the Russian army has demonstrated its ability to quickly “dig in” and create lines of long-term, layered defense, which have proven insurmountable for the Ukrainian tactic of raids by small mobile groups. These defensive lines were a response to the successful Ukrainian offensive near Izyum in September 2022.

During the second half of 2022 and in 2023, Russia’s political leadership was busy addressing two serious problems: replenishing personnel and restoring and expanding the Russian defense industry.

The first problem was solved by recruiting prisoners (first into the ranks of Wagner PMC, then directly into the army), mobilizing 300,000 men in August-September 2022 and attracting contract soldiers on a large scale. In 2022, when the army suffered defeats or wasted too many lives taking cities, contract soldiers sought to leave the army; however, in 2023 the situation was relatively calm along most of the front, and the mood among contract soldiers improved.
The current size of the Russian army allows it not only to firmly hold down all sectors of the front, but also to successfully carry out operations of medium complexity.
Examples include the capture of Marinka and Avdiivka and the counteroffensive near Bakhmut.

Expansion of the army is limited by how quickly defense production can be ramped up. The Russian defense industry has so far proven up to the task of making military uniforms, EW equipment and unmanned aircraft, but the production of armored vehicles, aircraft and ammunition (including drones and missiles) is clearly lagging the army’s needs, despite the allocation of huge funds in late 2022-early 2023.

Only some of the armored vehicles currently used by Russian troops are new, most of them being refurbished vehicles or obsolete models that were taken out of storage and quickly updated. Many missiles are apparently produced in limited quantities due to Western sanctions. Meanwhile, shortages of many types of ammunition (primarily artillery shells) are being plugged by supplies from Iran and North Korea for now.

Russia: The aftermath of Prigozhin’s mutiny

An important event in 2023 was the strengthening of the army’s unity of command following the mutiny of Wagner PMC in June. Although the Russian political leadership made peace with the Wagner soldiers (and then secretly killed off their leaders), the Russian brass responsible for the tank and airborne troops were accused of conspiring with the rebels.

They were united not only by a mutual dislike for the command of the army (the minister of defense and the chief of the General Staff), but potentially also common financial interests, since Wagner received part of their mercenaries and compensation through them.
At least fifteen generals were subsequently removed from their posts and put in pre-trial detention, demoted to minor positions or forced into retirement, though several had been reinstated by September.
A Shahed 136 drone (Geran-2 in Russian service) that crashed and failed to detonate in Ukraine. Source: Wiki Commons
After this, public criticism of the army leadership, which could be heard in the first half of 2023, died down.

Overall, in 2023 the Russian army managed to build up enough strength for active defense and local offensive operations. Still, it seems unable to deliver major breakthroughs or carry out large-scale operations to crack the Ukrainian defenses – it lacks the needed armored vehicles, aircraft and ammunition. At the same time, in the second half of 2023 and the beginning of 2024 the danger of a second Russian invasion through the poorly guarded borders and dense forests in northeastern Ukraine (primarily in Kharkiv and Sumy regions) rose considerably. In response, Ukraine is actively strengthening its defenses there.

At this point, Russia’s only means of striking deep into Ukraine remain missiles and attack drones. In an average week, Russia uses about 40-50 drones and up to 30 missiles, which are being modernized. The Ukrainian army currently intercepts more than 70% of the missiles and drones, less than in mid-2023.

Whereas the main targets in the winter of 2022-23 were Ukraine’s system of power generation and distribution, in July-November 2023 Russia attacked export facilities at Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. Since December 2023, missiles and drones have primarily been aimed at defense enterprises, as well as the country’s electricity infrastructure (again). Perhaps the deliveries of Western aircraft planned for the summer of 2024 will be able to significantly increase the rate at which Russian missiles (except ballistic ones) and drones are intercepted and protect Ukrainian army positions on the front line from Russian glide bombs.


Neither Ukraine nor Russia currently looks capable of achieving the goals set out and proclaimed by their political leadership. Even if Ukraine manages to carry out another mobilization and replenish its army, it will not be able to win back what it has lost since February 2022, not to mention a complete victory and restoration of the 1991 borders.

Judging by a reported discussion between Zelensky and his top commander, there are no funds to expand the army in 2024. In addition, none of the new weapons planned to be supplied by the West in 2024 (aviation and long-range missiles) guarantee a fundamental shift in the course of the war. At the same time, Western supplies of weapons and ammunition continue, while military production in Ukraine itself is growing. Financially, the EU is currently guaranteeing Ukrainian statehood.
Russia is capable of increasing the size of its army by another half a million or a million people (with or without mobilization); however, it does not have enough weapons for them.
This concerns armored vehicles first of all, but possibly artillery as well. Russia’s allies cannot solve this problem, and though Western sanctions do not work well enough to limit the supply of components, equipment and materials for military production, they still create obstacles to increasing production volumes in Russia – and this effect of sanctions can be strengthened.

Moving forward, we can expect further Ukrainian successes in and around the Black Sea and a very likely advance by the Russian army in the Donbas or Kharkiv Region. Both countries can keep fighting for a long time without a critical loss of territory that would force one side to negotiate. Overall, negotiations remain extremely unlikely until one of the current presidents goes.
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