I have no expertise or personal experience in military affairs and a shallow knowledge of Eastern Europe, but I have been following the Ukraine war avidly on a daily basis. This summary might have some value for those who are following matters less closely than I–as long as you remember the caveats about my amateurishness.
I illustrate this timeline with maps from the Neue Zuericher Zeitung (the Swiss newspaper), because they work well graphically. The NZZ helpfully explains how and why their maps differ from some other credible ones.
Russia’s armed conflict with Ukraine begins in 2014. By February 24, 2022, Russia and its proxies occupy substantial (but disconnected) portions of Ukraine. The current war begins with strikes against military targets, denoted with the icons of explosions below.
Putin probably thinks that he is sending about 200,000 well-equipped soldiers into Ukraine under officers who have gained combat experience in Syria and elsewhere. He probably assumes that the Ukrainian government is almost a joke: unpopular, corrupt, propped up by the CIA, and led by a comedian. He orders an ambitious attack on multiple fronts and expects the conflict to conclude in days.
That multi-front offensive has culminated by mid-March, with massive Russian casualties and atrocities against civilians, especially on the route south from Belarus. It is becoming clear that the Russian force was hollow, due to corruption and falsified reporting up the line, whereas the Ukrainians are motivated and prepared. Russian occupied territory teaches its maximum extent around March 15.
By April, the Russian columns in the north and northeast have withdrawn in defeat, and the focus is a bloody battle to control a devastated port city of Mariupol in the southeast. The Russian offensive is now very slow, but Russia controls a continuous band of Ukraine that includes much of Ukraine’s industrial east and its seacoast and ports.
Mariupol falls by early May. Ukraine’s second city, Kharkhiv in the northeast, is close to the front and constantly bombarded. The next phase is a slow Russian advance in the the eastern zone, enabled by massive artillery support. Major fighting centers on the cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, which have little military value, according to independent military experts. Still, Russia wants to claim that it retains offensive goals. (On April 14, Ukraine sinks the Russian battleship Moskva, an episode in the ongoing naval campaign.)
The map in late August looks similar, because Russian forward movement has essentially stalled. At this point, Ukraine is sending all kinds of signals that it will counterattack along the southern tier, targeting the city of Kherson on the right (western) bank of the Dnipro River. By this time, it is possible that Russia is already planning an organized retreat from Kherson, which is difficult to defend because of the wide river.
The southern counteroffensive was a feint. Ukraine manages a rapid surprise advance in the north and then down into the north-center, while Russia withdraws from Kherson anyway (with light losses, in one of Russia’s under-recognized successes). Ukraine regains Kherson, Izium, Lyman, and other cities and territory.
As the Ukrainian counteroffensive culminates, attention turns to the small city of Bakhmut, which both sides seem eager to award symbolic significance. For the Ukrainians, the goal may be to entice Russians into a Pyrrhic campaign for a target of little strategic importance. In any case, the map for Jan. 10, 2023 (below) looks very similar to that for late August (above). But these maps do not depict the constant strikes against Ukrainian civilian targets as far west as Lviv–or the Ukrainian attack on the Kerch Bridge, a vital Russian supply route, on Oct. 8.
During this period, it is likely that Russia is focused on mobilizing, training, and equipping a new cohort of 300,000 reservists and redirecting its heavy industry for prolonged war. Putin may have no short-term offensive hopes between August and January, and you’d have to squint to see the differences between these maps.
But acknowledging that the Russian offensive has stalled would embarrass Putin politically and could embolden Ukraine’s allies. Therefore, the Kremlin encourages irregular proxies to continue fighting, especially for Bakhmut. These proxies include the “People’s Militia of the Donetsk People’s Republic,” “the People’s Militia of the Luhansk People’s Republic,” Chechen forces under Ramzan Kadyrov, and especially the “Wagner Private Military Company” under billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin, which recruits/pressgangs Russian prisoners as troops. Political ambitious motivate these groups to continue fighting (and quarreling amongst themselves), even when the costs are extraordinarily high. They serve the Kremlin’s propaganda needs and cause Ukrainians to die, while Russia strives to restore its regular Ministry of Defense forces. By today, Prigozhin has probably outlasted his welcome and is being marginalized. I would not be surprised to see him in jail soon.
The UK Ministry of Defense and Institute for the Study of War both believe that an attempted Russian advance–using its reconstituted, regular forces–began in mid- to late-January, 2023. This offensive was not announced, probably because of anxiety about whether it would succeed. The fog of war is thick, and conditions may change rapidly, but there is no sign of Russian success so far.
One possible outcome is no advance at all, which would be hard for Putin to conceal from domestic audiences. At that point, I think his only option would be to dig in and try to retain currently occupied Ukrainian territory long enough for Western support to wane–a bit like Germany’s decision to hold fortified lines across Belgium and France from 1916-18.
A rainy, wet season is expected that will frustrate advances by either side. Ukraine expects deliveries of Western tanks and other equipment by late spring. Thus the most likely next phase is an attempted Ukrainian counter-offensive focused wherever the Ukrainian General Staff chooses.
If that counteroffensive succeeds, I think Putin’s options will become quite unpleasant for him. Then Russian would be in a similar position to imperial Russia in 1917.
If the Ukrainian advance should falter, then the war may enter a new stalemate phase, during which the main drama will be diplomatic. Would the US and European countries continue to support Ukraine or else start pressing for an armistice, which would give Putin time to rebuild for another invasion later? And where would players like China’s President Xi stand?