Marking the one-year anniversary since Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February last year, the ebb and flow of the conflict seen in the early stages has slowed to a near-static frontline reminiscent of wars thought consigned to history.
Casualty figures are difficult to determine, although western officials put combined military figures of those killed in action and injured across the two sides at up to 300,000, with peak rates of around 1,000 a day at present, as Russia’s new year offensive around Bakhmut grinds into motion. Broken down, it is thought that Russia has sustained around 175-200,000 casualties, while Ukraine is considered to be at least 100,000.
However, the difference in ratios of military personnel injured to those killed in action shows a stark contrast between the combatants, with Ukraine sustaining somewhere in the region of 10-20:1, meaning one military fatality for every 10-20 injured, whereas Russia’s losses are likely more of a 3:1 ratio. Taking these figures, military fatalities in the year-long war are possibly between 60,000 at the lower end, to around 100,000 at the top.
Reasons for this disparity are varied, but it is due in part to the facilities available to Ukraine with combat medics on hand to deliver first aid, much of it donated by NATO countries, while its medical infrastructure is that much closer to those in need. Meanwhile, Russia’s logistics lines are stretched thin, with Moscow’s apparent disregard for the care of its own personnel also a contributing factor.
Civilian casualties are harder to determine, although the indiscriminate direct-fire attacks by Russia on civilian buildings and infrastructure throughout the war will have resulted in significant loss of life. More gruesome acts from Russian forces came to light as Ukrainian forces liberated towns such as Bucha, uncovering signs of mass war crimes.
From the initial Russian efforts to seize Kyiv in lightning airborne and armoured assaults, which failed in the towns and villages outside of the Ukrainian capital, to Moscow’s push through the southern axis past Mariupol and towards Odessa, the ambition of Russian President Vladimir Putin has been the conquest of Ukraine with a view to the formation of a puppet government or client state to act as a buffer to what he considers NATO expansionism.
With Ukraine, led by President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration, moving politically towards NATO, the likelihood that Russia would accept a status quo with its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and the ongoing Moscow-backed uprising seen in the country’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, was, at best, slim. Russia decided its only course of action was war, and European and world markets have been sent asunder since, as its effects are felt far and wide.
NATO moves to support
Faced with the prospect of Russian overthrowing the elected government of a neighbour, NATO moved to act, although this was by no means uniform in its approach as members such as Germany juggled with national interests heavily tied to Russia’s energy sector. Initial support, led by the UK, saw infantry and anti-tank weapons such as the famed NLAW provided, playing no small part in enabling Ukrainian personnel to meet Russian columns and units with a least a technological parity, and in some cases, an advantage.
Over the coming months, NATO countries have pledged huge sums of financial and equipment support to Ukraine, from artillery systems, guided rocket launchers, armoured personnel and infantry carriers, small arms, munitions, infantry training and other crucial battlefield capabilities.
On 21 December last year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, on a rare trip outside of Ukraine, met with US officials in Washington, DC, where it was announced that the US would provide the Patriot air defence missile system to Kyiv to aid in the fight against Russia. Included with what was then the latest round of equipment, the US provided or promised to provide more than 11,000 military platforms for the land, sea, and air domains (crewed and uncrewed) and more than 105 million small arms, mortar, and artillery munitions, among an undisclosed number of other high-end missiles.
Platforms provided included Mi-17 helicopters and T-72 tanks, and western equipment such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, 155mm, 122mm, and 105mm artillery, and armoured mobility vehicles such as the M113, M1117, and Mine Resistant Protected Vehicles, also known as MRAPs.
The increased use of NATO-standard equipment, and the provision of required training by NATO forces in countries such as Germany and the UK, will see Ukraine’s military take on a more European-US bias moving forward. However, Russian-origin designs are likely to remain a prevalent part of Ukraine’s military structure for the foreseeable future, with the defence industrial base already producing air and land equipment from adapted Russian designs.
We will have to tell our NATO allies that unless they defend themselves, we will have to move our forces to the Pacific.US Republican Party Senator Josh Hawley
Much of this was provided to replace equipment losses from Ukrainian forces, which in the first 10 months of war combat operations resulting in a level of equipment destruction not seen in Europe since the Second World War, with open-source data indicating a combined loss from the two combatants of more than 11,000 military platforms to the end of 2022.
In terms of equipment lost, the Ukraine-Russia war outstrips losses incurred during the intense urban fighting of Russia’s Chechen wars in the 1990s and 2000s. According to data analysis conducted by GlobalData using open-source intelligence from Oryx, the combined equipment losses of participants in the Chechen wars was 1,059 pieces of equipment, including 412 infantry fighting vehicles.
In addition, more than 200 tanks were destroyed in the fighting, along with a small number of artillery pieces. Airborne assets were also lost by the combatants, including 75 rotary-wing platforms. In contrast, analysis shows that in the Russo-Ukrainian war between 24 February and 21 December this year, a combined total of 11,128 pieces of military equipment from the two combatants have been destroyed in the fighting. This includes 2,021 tanks and 2,287 platforms that can be described as infantry fighting vehicles.
Artillery, widely regarding as having a decisive effect on the battlefield, has also been subjected to combat attrition, with 390 units lost from both sides, likely through actions such as counter-battery, airstrike, and losses from battlefield retreats and the corresponding advances.
Combat in the air was hard-fought in the early weeks of the war, although aerial action has dropped off as platforms and pilots have been lost, and anti-access, area denial zones established. A similar number of rotary-wing aircraft have been destroyed in the Ukraine war (100) as seen in the Chechen wars, although losses of fixed-wing aircraft are significantly higher in the skies over Ukraine (122) compared with Russia’s Chechnya combat operations (12).
The latest analysis shows that in the ongoing war in Ukraine, total Russian equipment losses reach 8,515 as of 21 December. In contrast, Ukraine’s military has lost 2,613 pieces of equipment in combat. Human casualties on both sides run into the tens of thousands.
The armoured culmination
As NATO continues to prepare a heavy armour package for Ukraine following Germany’s recent decision to provide its Leopard 2A6 main battle tanks (MBTs) and permit the export of the platform by other operators to Kyiv, questions remain as to what such an escalation means for the combatants in the Ukraine-Russia war and the remaining options open to the Alliance should the tanks not tip the strategic balance on the battlefield.
Berlin caved into pressure from NATO after it had stopped short of promising Leopard 2 tank to Ukraine at the Ukraine Contact Group meeting at Ramstein air base in Germany on 20 January, a move that was met with widespread disappointment from Ukraine and some NATO members. However, in a U-turn on 24 January, Berlin confirmed that it would be sending 14 Leopard 2A6 tanks to Ukraine, a move that also enables other European operators to provide their own packages with potentially up to half a dozen countries thought likely to do so. This could see anywhere from 50-100 Leopard 2 tanks, comprised of the latest A6 model as well as older variants of the Leopard 1 model, sent to Ukraine.
It is understood that Ukraine has claimed that 300 modern MBTs have been pledged by NATO and allied countries, although this claim is difficult to accurately gauge.
“The pressure on Germany to step up lethal aid or at least streamline allied exports has undoubtedly risen due to the mounting urgency of providing critical support before the spring offensives. It was imperative that the Ukrainians could be supplied and trained before the outbreak of fighting, which would complicate planning and logistics,” said Tristan Sauer, land domain analyst at GlobalData, speaking at the time of the German announcement.
On 16 January 2023 the UK was the first western NATO member to commit to sending tanks to Ukraine, although Slovakia had earlier sent 28 M55S tanks over to Kyiv. The move to send modern MBTs to Ukraine is possibly the final major land platform provision that could be made to Kyiv, following NATO members earlier commitments of hundreds of artillery pieces, infantry fighting vehicles, armoured personnel carriers, logistical capabilities, along with hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition and advanced munitions, among other military assistance.
For its part, the US has confirmed that 31 A1 Abrams tank would be given to Ukraine, along with a training package for Ukrainian personnel. However, in a cautionary note, senior Pentagon officials confirmed that the tanks would not be provided to Ukraine in the near-term, with the plan to procure new-build vehicles for Kyiv to operate. Given this, it will likely 2024 before US MBTs are actually provided to Ukraine for use in the field.
Dissenting voices in the West
Support for Ukraine is by no means unanimous across western countries, although most European countries still show significant majorities in favour of continuing aid to Kyiv. In the run up to the one-year anniversary, senior officials from NATO and leaders from member states issued statements declaring their support to Ukraine.
However, a cautionary note should be issued following the slight shift in power in Washington, DC, following the US midterm elections, which saw some gains for the Republican party as it gained control of the House of Representatives.
Speaking before a gathered audience at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, DC, on 16 February, US Republican Party Senator Josh Hawley stated that the US should end what was termed a “blank cheque” approach to supporting Ukraine and called on European NATO allies to shoulder the burden of preventing the overthrow of President Volodomyr Zelensky in Kyiv, to enable the US to focus on China.
“Our actions in Ukraine are affecting our ability to counter China in the Pacific,” said Hawley, adding that while he had initially voted in favour of giving assistance to Ukraine, the situation had since changed to become “an endless proxy war”.
Continuing, Hawley said it was the US and “not the Europeans” that had sent weapons in large quantities to Ukraine, in quantities “more than all of Europe combined”.
Instead of such actions, Hawley called for a new “nationalist foreign policy” that put US interests first, with Taiwan as top priority. Repeated references in Hawley’s remarks mentioned NATO as an entity separate from the US, although it should be noted that the US is NATO’s single largest military and has de-facto military command of Alliance operations in Europe.
“It is time to tell NATO that it must take first response in defence of Ukraine. This should be the basis for our partnership; Europe take the lead in Europe, and we take the lead against China,” Hawley said. “We will have to tell our NATO allies that unless they defend themselves, we will have to move our forces to the Pacific.”
A decisive year ahead
Ever keen to utilise the symbolic power of anniversaries and notable dates, Russia has pressed ahead with its early offensive around Bakhmut even as winter conditions persist along the front. Conditions, it is understood, are difficult, with Russia’s Wagner Group throwing thousands of newly recruited personnel, often from Russian prisons, into action in Bakhmut in human-wave attacks.
Western officials have said that Russia has thus far been unable to gain significant momentum in its 2023 push, expending large amounts of human capital for minimal gains. However, it should be noted that gains are being made, and the potential remains for Bakhmut to fall to Russia in the days ahead should Kyiv opt to make a tactical withdrawal from the town in a similar manner as it has done so from other urban areas earlier in the war.
Both sides are facing shortages of munitions, with some evidence that Russia is rationing its use of long-range cruise missiles to a small number every fortnight. For Ukraine, the need to maintain stocks is that much more critical as it defends its territory, as much of its industrial base lies inside Russian-occupied territory in the Donbas region.
This makes NATO’s contribution even more crucial, although its member states too are facing difficulties in maintaining the supply of munitions across the ever-more-complex equipment fleets it has donated to Ukraine. Supply chains are facing severe challenges, as countries such as the UK wake up to the emergence of a war economy, which requires far quicker and more regular delivery timetables than had previously been accepted.
Elsewhere, and in recent days China too looks to be pinning its colours more closely to those of Russia’s following the visit of China’s senior diplomat Wang Yi to Moscow. China is likely supplying Russia with non-lethal aid and key items to ensure Moscow can sustain itself in the war, while the risk remains that it will, if it is not already, also supply munitions.
Russia has also called in aid from Iran, a long-time ally, which provided a significant number of loitering munitions to Moscow for use in the conflict, likely with technical expertise or assistance from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
All signs therefore point towards a sustained period of war in Ukraine, barring any strategic breakthrough by either side in the coming spring pushes. The result of this, outside of the geopolitical domain, will be further loss of life and destruction of civilian infrastructure in a country only sustaining itself due to Western support.
Would this support weaken, an emboldened Russia would perhaps be able to prosecute the war more on its own terms, leaving a NATO very much reduced in terms of influence and opening up a global power vacuum likely to be filled by Russia itself, and, in turn, China.