TAs Russia began a massive invasion of Ukraine, the West was horrified. At least 100.000 deaths have been caused by bloody fighting, attacks on civilians, 12 million Ukrainians displaced in the country and over $100 billion worth of infrastructure destruction since the conflict began. And nearly five months in, there’s no end in sight to the brutal conflict.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces continue to pursue his war aims, Ukraine’s armed resistance has impressed the West by facing down a much larger opponent. Following Ukrainian successes early on in the war, Russia has turned its attention towards Ukraine’s easternmost Donbas border region—and the more recent phase of the war has been going more in Moscow’s favor. TIME is told by analysts that there could still be long roads ahead. Negotiations have been abandoned completely and fighting continues.
This article explains the situation in Ukraine and what the West can do to improve it.
What is the status of war?
Russia initially took a “shock and awe approach,” says Mark Cancian, a senior security adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. This was done to defeat Ukrainian forces, and to prompt the change of government in favor to Moscow. This involved widespread airstrikes in key cities to “soften up targets,” Cancian says, followed by large-scale infantry attacks along four main axes—towards the capital Kyiv in the north, the second-largest city Kharkiv in the northeast, the Donbas region in the east, and the areas above Crimea, which Russian annexed in 2014, in the south.
This strategy was unsuccessful because of the Ukrainian success. President Vlodomyrzelensky refused to flee Kiev. Russian troops retreated in early April from Kyiv and have now turned their attention to eastern and southern regions—particularly the Donbas, home to two breakaway states that have been under pro-Russian separatist control since 2014. With Russia having expended most of its long-range missiles, the conflict has become “a slow grinding war of attrition” on the frontlines, with either side advancing or retreating “inch by inch,” explains Angela Stent, a non-resident senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution.
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Although airstrikes away from the frontlines are now “limited,” Cancian says, Russia still fires missiles every couple of weeks at cities. Last month, two residential buildings in Kyiv were hit as the G7 summit got underway in Germany, in what the city’s mayor Vitali Klitschko called a “symbolic” attack.
From the beginning, Ukraine was unable to compete with the Russian heavy weapons. Cancian said that while foreign governments increasingly send Ukraine advanced weapons, training Ukrainian troops who rely on Soviet-era ammunition takes some time. The U.S. pledged to send additional HIMARS mid-range rocket-launching system earlier this month. Recent reports suggest HIMARS may be turning the war back in Ukraine’s favor.
Ukrainian troops fire with a French self propelled 155mm/52 calibre gun Caesar toward Russian positions on the front line of Donbas in eastern Ukraine, June 15, 2022.
Aris Messinis—AFP via Getty Images
Fighting is brutal on the frontlines—last month, Zelensky said that Ukraine was losing up to 200 troops a day. Russia will be losing the same number of troops, if not more, Brookings’ Stent says. Analysts predict the war will continue for many years, despite such large losses. “Both sides are now gearing [up] for a long war—recruiting, training, finding replacements—and moving from what you might call the sprint phase to a marathon phase,” Cancian says.
Even if peace talks are successful at this stage, it seems highly unlikely. “We haven’t started anything yet,” Putin said in a speech to lawmakers July 7. “Today we hear that they want to defeat us on the battlefield. What can you say, let them try,” he said. Although Putin didn’t rule out peace talks, he said it would get “harder” to negotiate the longer the war goes on. “One thing we do know is that Putin is very patient, and he can’t withdraw until he says that he’s had a victory,” Stent says.
For Ukraine’s part, Zelensky has made it clear that Ukraine will fight to regain control of the fallen regions. “Ukrainians are not ready to give away their land, to accept that these territories belong to Russia. This is our land,” Zelensky said in an interview with CNN on July 7.
Russia gained territory
Fighting is concentrated on frontlines in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions, particularly in the Donbas. On July 3, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin that their forces had established “full control” of Lysychansk, the last Ukrainian-controlled city in the eastern Luhansk region. Moscow has now taken control of all of Luhansk and the Donetsk region to the south. Together, they make up 75% of Donbas. Ukraine also conceded Severodonetsk just north of Lysychansk on June 25 after weeks of some of the war’s bloodiest fighting.
“Russian forces are entrenched in the area of Lysychansk and the city is on fire,” said Serhiy Haidai, the governor of the Luhansk region. Many cities captured by Russia have been burned to the ground.
According to the Institute for the Study of War, Ukrainian forces in the western Donetsk are still resisting Russian attempts to attack Sloviansk via Izyum. Russian forces are fighting for positions in the north of Kharkiv, beyond Donbas.
After a two-month long bloody battle, Russia took control of Mariupol, the southern port. This helped to establish a corridor of land between Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea. Strong resistance from Ukrainian forces significantly slowed Russia’s advance, however, leaving Russian troops “pretty exhausted,” says Cancian.
There have been many reports about war crimes committed by Russian troops in Ukraine and civilian casualties. Iryna Vediktova, the Ukrainian general prosecutor, stated that approximately 21,000 cases of alleged war crime are under investigation. Between 200 and 300 reports arrive every day. Unconfirmed reports of sexual violence targeting civilians in Ukraine were reported by a top U.N. official in June.
Following a missile attack near Kharkiv in July 2022, an unidentified Ukrainian military officer inspects the Lyceum Building’s ruins.
Sergey Bobok—AFP via Getty Images
European leaders met with judicial officials in The Hague, July 14, to coordinate Russian atrocities investigations. This included the sharing of evidence, prosecution strategies and international war crime expertise for investigators on ground.
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NATO’s response to the war
NATO members have sent billions of dollars of military aid to Ukraine, including crucial weaponry, without which the country would’ve been defeated “in two or three weeks,” says Cancian.
Stent explains that one of the “unintended consequences” of Russia’s invasion is NATO’s renewed unity. At the 2022 NATO summit in Madrid last month, leaders of the 30 NATO members agreed to increase the allied military presence in eastern Europe, and on the final day Turkey withdrew its objection to Sweden and Finland’s application to join the defensive alliance. With a rapidly expanding defense budget strengthening its already advanced military capabilities, Finland’s addition to the alliance in particular will bolster NATO’s military capabilities, but open a new 830-mile border between it and Russia.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine has more broadly pushed European countries to expand their military spending—on June 3 Germany approved a €100 billion ($100.5 billion) investment package to modernize its chronically underfunded armed forces. “NATO has faced a real test and come out stronger,” Cancian says.
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Russia’s invasion has also pushed NATO to abandon the “tripwire” strategy of deterrence deployed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which involves smaller forces stationed in high-risk areas that can be reinforced in case of attack. NATO now focuses on strengthening defensive positions. In late June, NATO said it will increase its forces on high-alert by more than seven-fold, and the U.S. announced it will construct its first permanent base on the alliance’s eastern flank, in Poland. Amid the news, President Joe Biden said the U.S. would “defend every inch of allied territory.”
Polish soldiers pose on tanks following a NATO multinational battle force eFPon training demonstration at Orzysz’s training ground, July 3, 2022. Orzysz is in Poland.
Omar Marques—Getty Images
This is key, Cancian says, to “signal to Putin that he cannot come further west.”
How about energy, grain and other supplies?
Turkey, which has the 2nd largest NATO member standing army, reached a settlement with Russia, Ukraine and the U.N. on July 14, to allow Ukraine to resume grain exports after Moscow blocked them. The disruption in global grain supplies precipitated by the war—Russia and Ukraine account for nearly one-third of the world’s wheat supplies—has exacerbated food security, particularly in African and Middle Eastern countries, due to both higher prices and supply issues.
Despite the success of these negotiations over grains, the Brookings’ Stent worries that the squeeze on energy supply chains—either as a result of the war or sanctions on Russia—will make it “increasingly difficult to sustain Western unity” in the long term. Russia already reduced gas supplies to Europe, and Shell’s chief warned that Europe might have to reduce energy consumption this winter.
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The fallout of the conflict is becoming more visible around the globe, and there may be greater pressure for Ukraine to accept concessions in order to end the conflict. Though, as “neither side has indicated any willingness to do that,” says Cancian, the conflict looks set to be what Stent calls a “slow, grinding war.”
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