Russia Has Lost the War
Ukraine hasn’t won, but after the Kharkiv offensive, Russia’s limits are apparent, and it won’t achieve its goals
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A surprise Ukrainian counteroffensive recaptured the entire Kharkiv region, including major cities and transportation hubs. In some spots, Russian forces fled, leaving behind usable equipment. It’s the fastest gains either side has had since Russia’s initial invasion, with Ukraine taking over 3,000 square miles of territory in the last week, more than Russia had gained in the last five months.
This isn’t the end of the war. Russia has military units active in other parts of Ukraine, and will reestablish defensive lines. They could muster the force to go on offense again, perhaps against Kharkiv. But Ukraine’s military success shows that Russia’s ambitions have failed.
At first Russia aimed for regime change. But the Ukrainian government, military, and people held together through Russia’s initial attack, thwarting the attempt to take Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.
Russia then downgraded its goal to partial conquest, aiming to expand out of Donetsk in the east and Crimea in the south to control the Black Sea coast, including the port city of Odessa. Ukraine countered that too, sinking Russian ships and stopping Russia’s ground advance. Russia was trying to block Ukraine’s grain exports, which would’ve strangled the Ukrainian economy and potentially caused famines that would’ve given Russia leverage to negotiate away international economic sanctions. But Ukraine forced Russia to allow shipments.
Now Ukraine has countered Russia’s biggest strength: land warfare.
The Kharkiv offensive was aided by Ukraine’s actions over 300 miles away in the south, around Kherson. Ukraine is openly attempting a counteroffensive there, and Russia has moved to reinforce. Ukraine hasn’t gained much ground. But taking territory might not be Ukraine’s goal in Kherson, aiming instead to draw Russian troops there, where conditions are more favorable, then isolate and kill them as part of a larger attrition strategy. Whatever Ukraine’s intentions, Russia’s recent focus on the south apparently left a big opening in the northeast.
Russia’s military has taken significant losses throughout the conflict, with over 50,000 casualties, and thousands of armored vehicles destroyed. Ukraine’s breakthrough in Kharkiv shows Russia can’t protect its entire line, and wasn’t able to reinforce the area before Russian soldiers surrendered or ran. The weaknesses in planning, morale, logistics, and tactical execution evident in Russia’s original invasion haven’t been fixed, and probably can’t be on the fly.
On the way out of Kharkiv, Russia fired cruise missiles at power and water stations, knocking some out. It was a gesture of cruelty and weakness. The imposed discomfort will likely be temporary, and carries little military value. If Russia had the firepower to destroy Ukrainian forces rushing in the open across Kharkiv, they would have.
The swing in territorial control is not only a sign of Russian weakness, it will also disrupt Russia’s war effort. Ukraine retook Kharkiv city, and also Kupyansk and Izyum, the center of the rail network for northeast Ukraine (see pink on map), as well as a center of road and river transport. That breaks some of Russia’s supply lines to forces further south.
Russia retains control of a large swath of eastern and southern Ukraine, and it’s unclear if Ukrainian forces can build on their recent success to take more of it back. Maybe Russia will launch a counterattack on Kharkiv before Ukrainian forces can consolidate control. But even if they do, the best case scenario for Russia is spending more people and equipment to retake a region they’d already captured.
And it’s not clear where Russia would get the combat power to execute further offenses. International sanctions have limited Russia’s ability to get the computer chips for more advanced weapon systems. China said some supportive things when the war started, but decided it’s in their interest to remain neutral, and declined Russia’s requests for aid. In a sign of desperation, Russia, previously the world’s second biggest arms exporter, is buying artillery shells from North Korea. The invasion force is degraded, and Russia has struggled to recruit replacements. The Kremlin hasn’t ordered a draft, perhaps fearing the public reaction, but even if they did, standing up new troops would take months.
After the rush for Kyiv failed, Russia’s territorial progress has been a grind, pounding Ukrainian positions with artillery and inching forward. With the help of longer-range, Western-supplied systems, such as HIMARS rocket artillery, Ukraine undermined that slow-but-successful strategy by destroying ammunition stores and other supplies behind Russian lines. Russia has never been able to control the skies, can’t match the range of Ukraine’s artillery, and evidently lacks the ability to destroy HIMARS and other advanced systems from afar.
Even after success in Kharkiv, it’s not clear if Ukraine can wrest more territory back from Russia. But as long as Western supply keeps flowing, Russia doesn’t appear to have an answer for Ukraine’s new strategy. Holding what it’s taken will be hard, taking more territory harder still.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has one last big card to play: energy blackmail. Shut off gas to Europe this winter, hoping that suffering Europeans will tell their leaders to stop sending supplies and push Ukraine to cut a deal. But Europe has exceeded its gas storage benchmark in anticipation, and with Ukraine’s recent military success, Europeans see their aid paying off. Like Russia’s military operations, these energy restrictions can impose some pain, but probably can’t achieve strategic goals.
Arguments that the U.S. and NATO should stop arming Ukraine—whether they come from realists (such as John Mearsheimer), the anti-war left (Noam Chomsky, Jeremy Corbyn), or Russia-sympathizing right (Tucker Carlson etc.)—rely on the presumption of Russian inevitability. If Russia will eventually win, helping Ukraine creates false hope, throws away lives, and wastes resources. But Ukrainians have shown determination to resist, even before receiving so much Western aid, and now they’ve proven that a Russian military victory is far from guaranteed.
After seven months of war, Russia finds itself weakened and strained, with a shrinking economy and an embarrassing military setback. In response, Russians critical of the government feel emboldened to speak out in defiance of the law, and fingerpointing appeared among prominent pro-war Russian voices. As much as the Kremlin controls Russian media, they can’t keep news this big from spreading, nor convincingly spin it as positive. Domestic dissent and disputes among elites will likely increase.
There’s a risk Putin feels his back is against the wall and tries something drastic. But nuclear weapons are checked by other nukes—no matter how bad the domestic political risks of failure, Putin prefers them to a radioactive wasteland—and a meltdown at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant doesn’t aid Russia’s war effort. Russia can make Ukrainian civilians suffer, but it’s done a lot of that already.
Perhaps the Russian military will reform and attack again, trying to regain some lost territory and reputation. Or Russia might seek a settlement to lock in its gains, most notably the land corridor to Crimea. But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has rejected concessions, setting pre-invasion borders as a starting point for discussions, and has sounded especially defiant post-Kharkiv. Ukraine could try to press its military advantage, aiming for better negotiating terms, or trying to make Russia’s operations collapse.
Though the war may go on for a while still, Ukraine’s dramatic success in Kharkiv was a turning point. Russia will have a lot of trouble turning things back.