The invasion on the ground

On 24 February 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. Missile strikes bombarded Ukrainian cities, while up to 190,000 Russian troops advanced from its eastern borders. By March, they attacked Kyiv, along with major cities in the east including Kharkiv, Kherson and the port of Mariupol. 

Moscow expected victory to be swift. It could not have been more wrong. Ukrainian forces resisted ferociously, with thousands of civilians taking up arms to fight alongside seasoned soldiers. While the Ukrainian military alone looked much like David facing Goliath, Western nations were quick to provide military aid.

Ukraine’s fighting spirit and access to advanced weapons were a powerful combination. By October 2022, Ukrainian armies had successfully repelled Russians from Kyiv, regained Kharkiv, and launched counterattacks around Kherson. Russian military casualties are now approaching 200,000 – twice that of Ukraine’s. 

Despite the outstanding performance of the Ukrainian military, the humanitarian cost has been staggering. 7,155 civilians have been killed, 11,662 injured, and nearly 12.8 million – almost a fifth of the population – displaced. Evidence also surfaced of war crimes and atrocities perpetrated by Russian soldiers against civilians. These horrors are already taking a lasting psychological toll – psychologists are struggling to treat PTSD-stricken locals, while UN experts are calling for urgent help for millions of traumatised Ukrainian refugees.

As the invasion continues into its second year, against all odds Ukrainians remain staunchly resilient. The world had watched in admiration as Ukrainian civilians threw themselves into the resistance in a way that can only be described as heroic. Now, graphic footage of a captive Ukrainian soldier being executed by Russian forces has only evoked outrage and renewed defiance from locals. 

The conflict continues to unfold, in what experts say is a potentially decisive year. Russia has renewed deadly missile barrages against civilians. Putin has announced a withdrawal from the New START Treaty, which has reignited concerns about a Russian nuclear threat. And all hopes now hover around the battle for Bakhmut – which, according to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, is “where the future of all Ukrainians is being fought for”. Bakhmut is a key point for transport and logistics in the eastern region; if it is seized, it will be an “open road” for Russian troops to “go further”.

A global battle for endurance

The invasion has become the most significant event in global geopolitics of recent years, provoking a flurry of responses from the international community. On 2 March 2022, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution with an overwhelming majority, condemning the invasion and calling for the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces. This was quickly followed by an ICJ ruling ordering Russia to suspend military operations in Ukraine and just this month the ICC decided to open war crimes cases linked to the invasion.

Even so, Moscow is not listening. Putin made as much clear in his recent state of the nation speech, claiming that Russia would continue its efforts to liberate Ukrainians who had become ‘hostages of the Kyiv regime’. But with both sides effectively in a stalemate, the question now seems to be who can hold on the longest.

With the help of the global community, Ukraine is holding its own. Western nations have provided a stream of military, financial and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, which now stands at about $143.6 billion in value. The US has contributed the most, especially through lethal and non-lethal military aid encompassing modern weapons, technology, and arms training. However, some are concerned about Western capabilities to continue arming Ukraine for a war of unknown duration – and with US elections approaching, the issue could become a highly divisive one.

The US, EU and UK also levied economic sanctions against Russia immediately after the invasion on February 24. On the recent anniversary of the invasion, all three announced new sanctions packages and met with other G7 leaders to close loopholes in sanctions regimes. Notably, sanctions have excluded Russian banks from SWIFT, the international payments system; hit the influential Russian elite with freezing orders and travel bans; and drastically reduced Western imports of Russian commodities. 

The overarching goal has been to drain Russia of its financial and political ability to continue with the invasion. However, Russia has lasted far longer than hoped. One critical weakness of the sanctions is Europe’s inability to ban Russian oil and gas, having historically been dependent on Russia for roughly 40% of its imported gas. So when Russia retaliated to the sanctions by cutting off gas exports to the EU by 80%, the bloc was thrust into a full-blown energy crisis. 

As European policymakers struggled to find alternative supplies and reduce demand, Russia benefited from skyrocketing energy prices. This, combined with the quick rerouting of energy exports to friendly countries, enabled Russia’s economy to quickly rebound from its initial GDP contraction of 4.5% in 2022. Now, although price caps have been set, they have come too late and, according to experts, are excessively high. The bottom line is that the European shipping industry still contributes EUR 310 million per day to Russia’s export revenues – and thus, indirectly, the invasion. 

Sanctions must be pushed further and coordinated better if Moscow’s coffers are to be dented. But in the current climate, Western nations have the unenviable task of making trade-offs between keeping energy available and affordable for their populations, and enforcing sanctions that will actually stop Russia. As it stands, the balance favours the former; existing sanctions will have an effect, but they cannot stop the invasion anytime soon

Russia’s friends have been more varied in their response. Notable states which opposed or abstained from the General Assembly vote included China, India, Iran and Belarus, which have historically shared a close economic and political alliance with Russia. To this day, they have refrained from condemning Moscow’s actions. 

China has taken up the difficult task of playing both sides. The country’s motivations have been consistently questioned – it signed a “no limits” partnership deal with Russia in February 2022, right before the invasion began. However, there has been no evidence of China supplying lethal aid to Russia. And although it ramped up trade with Russia to help counter Western sanctions, analysts say that this had everything to do with economic interests, rather than political support for the invasion. 

A much-scrutinised meeting took place last month between Putin and top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi, where the latter significantly stopped short of using the term “no limits” to describe their partnership. Although headlines from the meeting quoted promises to “deepen political mutual trust” and “strengthen strategic co-ordination”, Chinese commentators speculate that China equally wants to repair relationships with its Western trade partners. And following the meeting, China is even attempting to position itself as a peacemaker. It has released a 12-point plan, which, though criticised by sceptical Western states, does call for a “political settlement” to the invasion and warns against the use of nuclear weapons. Considering Putin’s withdrawal from the New START nuclear arms treaty, this is an important position. All these are signs that Beijing’s impatience with Russia’s fruitless war is mounting.

On the other hand, Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko stands alone as Putin’s last true ally. After declaring Belarus’ support for the invasion, Lukashenko placed Minsk airbases and resources at Russian disposal, despite losing an estimated $16-18 billion to Western sanctions. However, the effects of Belarus’ allyship are limited. Analysts suspect that the value of Belarusian exports to Russia has only grown due to price hikes, and Belarus will not have enough resources to make up what it has lost while continuing to aid Russia. To top things off, Lukashenko faces strong opposition from Belarusians, with anti-war partisans claiming to have executed a drone attack against a Russian warplane near Minsk.

What happens next?

As Russia’s political backing and export revenues come under threat, the two sides seem at least evenly matched. Over and over experts are giving the same answer: we might need to buckle down for much longer

It is unclear, however, if the world can afford to. The invasion has already rendered global energy prices highly volatile. Continued threats to essential infrastructure, such as the underwater bombings of the Nord Stream pipelines last September, are estimated to put up to 33 billion cubic metres of Russian natural gas exports at risk. 

The danger doesn’t stop at energy. Ukraine and Russia together contribute almost 30% of the world’s wheat exports and approximately a third of the world’s ammonia and potassium – the main components of fertiliser. Recognising the imminent threat to world food security if these exports were excessively disrupted, the UN brokered the Black Sea Grain Initiative to facilitate the continued export of vital food and fertilisers from Ukraine and Russia amidst the war. However, this initiative is now under threat as Kyiv and Moscow disagree over its renewal. At the same time, potential losses of crop production are up to 43 million tons

The international community is bracing for a global wheat crisis, with the UN warning that up to 323 million people could go hungry if the war continues. Governments and policymakers are just beginning to respond.

These are live issues, but we must not forget that the most pressing concerns are for those on the ground in Ukraine, for whom life and death still hang in the balance. 

Despite their situation, Ukrainian forces through sheer grit continue to face Russia down as equals. They know well the stakes they fight for – the future, identity and independence of all Ukrainians. In turn, we know that Russia cannot sustain the war indefinitely – its morale is low, its economy isolated, its friends circumspect. The Ukrainian people will endure; and soon they will come home.