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Year One of the Ukraine War: The Big Lessons and Questions

Plus: With no victories to report, Putin fulminates about Western perfidy, supposed Ukrainian Nazis, and a gender-neutral God
February 22, 2023
Year One of the Ukraine War: The Big Lessons and Questions
A Ukrainian soldier of an artillery unit fires towards Russian positions outside Bakhmut on November 8, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by BULENT KILIC / AFP) (Photo by BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images)

A year after the start of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, it is often difficult to remember what the early days were like. It wasn’t just the Kremlin thug and his propagandists at home and cheerleaders in the West who expected Ukraine to fold in a matter of days. Even among those horrified by the invasion, a common, perhaps dominant mood was encapsulated in the instantly mythologized encounter between a Russian warship and Ukrainian Navy sailors on Snake Island off the Ukrainian coast: the audio in which a dispatcher from the warship told the guards to surrender and one of the guards replied, “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.” The initial story was that all thirteen Ukrainian soldiers at the post were killed by the warship’s guns—a story, in other words, of heroic and tragically doomed resistance.

As it turned out, the Snake Island episode was emblematic of the war’s course in an entirely different way. The Ukrainian soldiers lived, and while they were captured they were freed in a prisoner exchange on March 24, exactly a month after the invasion. What’s more, less than a month after that, one of the two Russian warships that had attacked Snake Island, the guided missile cruiser Moskva, sank after being hit by two Ukrainian missiles. Whether or not it was the same vessel that had transmitted the message to the sailors and received the defiant response, the symbolism was striking. Russia initially tried to deny the sinking and then claimed that damage to the vessel was caused by the detonation of munitions due to a fire of unspecified cause, even as some Russian propagandists simultaneously raged about an “act of war” and called for retaliation. In a postscript that was perhaps equally emblematic, in November a missing sailor who had presumably died in Moskva’s sinking received a draft notice threatening him with prosecution if he did not report for mobilization.

When Ukraine surprised much of the world by successfully fighting back, thanks in part to the remarkable leadership of its president Volodymyr Zelensky—whose “I need ammunition, not a taxi” in response to a U.S. offer of emergency exfiltration became just as much of an instant legend as the Snake Island standoff—the sane majority of Americans responded with elation. Yet doubts about Ukraine’s ability to turn its victories into long-term and durable success lingered—reasonably so, given that the country was ostensibly outmanned and outgunned by the enemy. The concern trolling at places like the American Conservative, where regular warnings that Ukraine isn’t really winning and Russia can’t really lose more or less artfully mask the belief that a defeat for the Kremlin in its conflict with the “neoliberal” West would be a bad thing, coexists with genuine concerns by people sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause that time is working against Ukraine.

Of course complacency would be misguided. But a cautious optimism, at this point, seems like a good bet.

The nervously anticipated Russian winter offensive in Donbas, for instance, is not going all that well. On February 6, a Russian attempt to capture Vuhledar—a town which the Russian Ministry of Defense first claimed to have under control back in November—ended in disaster for the invading forces, with not only major losses of hardware but, apparently, the virtual destruction of an elite Russian naval infantry brigade.

The nightmarish Battle of Bakhmut, practically a World War I reenactment with live ammunition and real corpses, is also not going the way Russia had hoped. The town, which many had expected to fall after the Russian capture of nearby Soledar, still remains in Ukrainian hands, with heavy fighting still continuing; the same goes for nearby Avdiivka. There had been speculation that the Russian military was under heavy pressure to take Bakhmut, Vuhledar, and/or Avdiivka before Putin’s February 21 annual report to the Federal Assembly (the Russian replica of the U.S. State of the Union address), to give Putin something that could be touted as major headway toward “liberating” the formally annexed Donetsk and Luhansk regions. But when Putin made his speech, there was, as Russian writer and opposition activist Kira Yarmysh put it on the Popular Politics YouTube channel, “not a word about victories on the frontlines, because they simply don’t exist.”

The Donbas offensive has also been exposing conflicts within the Russian forces. One of the more surreal aspects of the war in Ukraine has been the newfound visibility in Russia of the Wagner Private Military Company, a mercenary group informally affiliated with Russian state security structures, and of its odious chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, the ex-convict millionaire restaurateur nicknamed “Putin’s chef.”

At one point, Prigozhin, whose recruitment of convicts directly from penal colonies with a promise of pardon gave the Russian side a large unskilled-but-expendable fighting force, looked like a new big-time player in the grotesque political landscape that is Putin’s gangster state. Now, it looks more and more like the Russian military is deliberately setting up the “Wagnerites” for slaughter near Bakhmut and Avdiivka—or at least, so claims Prigozhin himself, who has been vocally complaining that Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, respectively Russia’s defense minister and chief of the general staff, are denying his men ammunition, help with air transport, and even shovels for trench-digging. In a video posted a few days ago, two Wagner men made the same point much more indecorously by using photos of Shoigu and Gerasimov for target practice while blasting the two officials with obscene epithets. Whether all of this means that Wagner—which is no longer recruiting convicts—is done as an important element in the Russian war effort remains to be seen. But it is noteworthy that Putin did not even obliquely mention the group while expressing appreciation to a wide range of military and affiliated personnel in his speech to the federal assembly. Perhaps a shady semi-private army that rebrands murderers as war heroes and celebrates its sledgehammer executions of alleged traitors poses image problems even for Putin’s Russia.

Then again, Putin’s Tuesday address was one big image problem. None of the expected horribles materialized: no announcement of a new round of mobilization, no formal declaration of war—let alone a call to a holy “people’s war” in which the entire population must make major sacrifice for victory—and no belligerent rhetoric with transparent allusions to a nuclear strike, as in Putin’s speech when announcing the “special operation” a year ago. (At the time, he warned that any country that dared to get in Russia’s way would see “such consequences as you have never before experienced in your history.”) Instead, there was tedium and copium: familiar talk about how the West had started the war and Russia was really trying to end it, about the evils of the supposed neo-Nazi regime in Ukraine, about the Kyiv Nazis’ atrocities against Russian-speaking people in Donbas, about the eternal anti-Russian perfidy of the West which had apparently plotted “to deprive Russia of these historical territories that are now called Ukraine” since the nineteenth century and the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. There were also, as expected, references to Western decadence, only this time, instead of “parent number one and parent number two,” it was an alleged attempt to normalize pedophilia and promote the idea of a gender-neutral God.

On another Popular Politics program, expatriate Russian journalist Michael Naki argued that the most notable thing about Putin’s speech, at least its opening portion that dealt with the war, was how “whiny” and full of excuses it was: “He’s standing there like a schoolboy saying, ‘I’m not the bad guy, they’re the bad guys.’” This, Naki pointed out, is not the language of a leader who is winning. The only “wins” Putin was able to report were that the Russian economy had not contracted as much as experts had predicted despite the sanctions, and that the four Ukrainian regions annexed by Russia—the “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk and the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions—had “made their choice” in last fall’s fake referenda and were with Russia to stay. Oh, and also: the Sea of Azov was once again Russia’s internal sea. (Hurray?)

Of course, to listen to Putin, one would never know that the city of Kherson had been retaken by Ukraine a little over a month after its “forever union” with Russia; or that, even as Putin spoke, Russian forces were shelling the city, killing six people and wounding many more—people who, according to Russia, are citizens of the Russian Federation.

There is a certain symbolism, too, in the fact that Putin’s speech was bookended by Joe Biden’s trip to Kyiv (which left the Russian propaganda machine seething in helpless fury) and by Biden’s speech in Warsaw which affirmed “unwavering” U.S. and NATO support for a free Ukraine. It also came right on the heels of England’s King Charles meeting with Ukrainian soldiers who are in the United Kingdom undergoing intensive combat training by the British Army.

The world’s liberal democracies seem to have finally gotten over their reluctance to supply Ukraine with weapons that will enable it to mount a full-scale offensive. Right now, Russia’s ability to push back against such an offensive looks shaky at best, and Ukraine’s ability to accomplish its goal of liberating all of its territory and restoring its pre-2014 borders looks increasingly realistic.

What this will mean for Russia itself—and whether the rebirth of a free, sovereign, peaceful Ukraine can be followed by the birth of a free Russia—is a question for another day. But there should be no question that in this conflict, Ukraine’s cause is a righteous one, and Putin’s tired excuses are as empty as ever. The 2014 “Revolution of Dignity” was not a Western coup. The people of Donbas were not victims of Kyiv but, first and foremost, of the “insurgent” gangster statelets formed by Russian proxies in Eastern Ukraine. Putin’s claim that he is trying to save the Russian-speaking population of Eastern and Southern Ukraine, supposedly denied the right to speak Russian, is easily rebutted by several simple facts: (1) No one was slaughtering or persecuting Russian-speaking communities in those parts of the region that were not under the control of the “insurgents,” such as Mariupol, Odessa, or Kherson. (2) It was Russia and its proxies that repeatedly thwarted attempts by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to monitor the conflict areas. (3) According to the OSCE, the overwhelming majority of ceasefire violations in the Donbas in 2021 were initiated by the Russian proxies. (4) Despite these violations, the death toll from the conflict had dropped dramatically between 2014 and 2021, from thousands to dozens of casualties. It was the Russian invasion that brought back death and destruction on a massive scale.

Putin’s appearance before the federal assembly was accompanied by another mostly overlooked but remarkable bit of symbolism. On the same day, he issued a decree that awarded the honorary title of “Guards,” for “mass heroism and valor, endurance, and courage,” to the anti-aircraft missile brigade that supplied the Buk missile system that shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-17. It is fitting way to mark the first anniversary of a war marked by a succession of war crimes.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.