The conflict between states of greatest geopolitical importance since the end of World War II, the Russian invasion of Ukraine completes 500 days this Saturday (8). And counting, as the uncertainties launched by its new phase suggest.
As in the previous stages, it can be delimited more or less precisely: in this case, June 4, when Volodymir Zelenskiy’s forces finally began the initial salvos of their long-awaited counter-offensive. More than a month later, Ukrainians and Western allies are looking for explanations for the slowness in the expected results.
Not that Zelensky’s Russian antipode, Vladimir Putin, is comfortable. In addition to the great friction generated by the fighting, the president managed the most serious internal crisis of his almost 24 years in power, the mutiny of the Wagner Group mercenaries.
The effect of this combination of factors makes the outcome of the conflict even more unpredictable. A more fluid evolution on the field can either lead to a new entrenchment and the prolongation of the war or to a sudden change that obliges one of the sides to negotiate. The world’s money, at the moment, is on the first hypothesis.
So much so that the central theme of the NATO summit (Western military alliance) next week in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, will be the supply of more weapons to Zelensky — this Thursday (6th), he was already complaining that the slow pace of counteroffensive was due to the lack of promised weapons.
Only in the first year of the war that started on February 24, 2022, according to the Institute for International Economy in Kiel (Germany), NATO and allies gave the equivalent of BRL 837 billion to Kiev, equivalent to 85% of its GDP in the previous year . The US is ahead, with R$383 billion, R$231 billion in military aid alone – almost 60 times Kiev’s defense budget in 2021.
The cost in lives is immeasurable, not least because there is no reliable data, but it exceeds hundreds of thousands on both sides. On the civilian side, the UN speaks of 18,000 dead or injured civilians, a number that the organization itself says is underestimated. Refugees now number 6.3 million, out of nearly 6 million internally displaced people, out of a pre-war population of 44 million.
The impacts are widespread, whether in the fragile rearrangement of energy supplies to Europe, in the remilitarization of the continent, in the rise of China and India as markets for Russian hydrocarbons, in food inflation, in Moscow’s withdrawal from the international system, in pressure on non-aligned like Brazil and the return of the ghost of a Third World War.
The following is a brief summary of the 500 days of the Ukrainian War, in its phases.
PHASE 1 – Shock, awe and failure
After four months of open-air preparation and ultimatums, Putin attempted something Russia had never done before: a “shock and awe”-style invasion used by the Americans in their Persian Gulf wars. Rain of precision missiles and attacks on three simultaneous fronts, using airborne forces and armored columns. The Pentagon thought Kiev would fall in three days.
Indeed, on the second day there were already fighting in the suburbs of the capital, but it was illusory. Logistical problems, arrogance and tactical failures, added to the quick reaction of the Ukrainians, led to the failure in the conquest of the capital. This emboldened the West to turn the conflict into a proxy war, in effect.
The first phase proved to be over when the Russians announced they would focus fighting on Donbass, the Russian-speaking east whose eight-year civil war between Ukrainians and pro-Kremlin separatists. Despite the debacle, the Russians made many important achievements at this stage, advancing further east and conquering much of southern Ukraine.
PHASE 2 – Donbass and Mariupol
The Battle of Donbass started on April 18, 2022, with coordinated missile strikes. It is such a complex terrain that, even with the almost complete capture of the province of Lugansk, that of Donetsk remains contested to this day. In reality, it is a phase that did not end, overlapping with others in the war. It was a moment of regrouping for Kiev, which still achieved symbolic victories, such as the sinking of the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva.
On the other hand, Moscow managed to conquer the port of Mariupol, largely reduced to ruins, in a bloody battle that guaranteed it the consolidation of the land bridge between Russia, Donbass and the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Putin in 2014.
PHASE 3 – Kiev’s reaction
With the start of sending longer-range and more accurate missiles from the US, Ukraine began to take initiatives aimed at regaining territory. He launched his first counter-offensive on 29 August against Kherson in the south, but his greatest success came in a surprise attack against unmanned Russian front positions in Kharkiv, a province which was largely retaken.
At this point, Putin set in motion an attempt to redraw the Ukrainian map and held highly questionable referendums aimed, as he had in Crimea, at annexing Kherson and Zaporizhia in the south and Donetsk and Lugansk in the east. He did so with fanfare in the Kremlin on September 30, and increased his nuclear threats. In practice, he had no control over everything he annexed, but he signaled the borders that might satisfy him in a negotiation, excising 20% of Ukraine.
At the same time, aware of the weight that the lack of soldiers had at the beginning of the war, Putin launched a campaign to mobilize reservists that proved controversial, but apparently added 320,000 soldiers to his forces, taking official data into account. Equally or more importantly, battles since then have shown an improvement in the Russians’ tactical performance, adapting their rigid doctrines to the technology-saturated environment.
PHASE 4 – Pressure game
On October 8, the Ukrainians achieved yet another symbolic feat, exploding a truck bomb and damaging the Crimean bridge, the star of Putin’s annexation project, which links the peninsula to mainland Russia. Two days later, Moscow began a campaign to degrade Ukraine’s power grid in the coldest months of the year, with near-weekly attacks that lasted into the beginning of this year.
Meanwhile, the Wagner Group mercenaries tightened the siege on the strategic Bakhmut, in Donetsk, opening the cruelest chapter of the war, the “meat grinder” that killed thousands —16 thousand admitted by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s forces, at odds with the Ministry of the Russian Defense.
The pressure also came from the Ukrainian side. Drone attacks began to hit more cities in Russia, which also saw some actions by infiltrated saboteurs. This would culminate in damage to nuclear-powered bombers and, in March, actions against Moscow.
More importantly, on November 9, the Russians left the eponymous provincial capital of Kherson, rendered indefensible, and established the Dnipro River as their new defensive line, initiating an entrenchment process that would last months.
Attrition in Bakhmut advanced until May, with the victory of Wagner. But a new reality of the war was already taking shape, also marked by two turning points in the Western spirit of support: the sending of heavy tanks, mostly German Leopard-2s, more missiles and anti-aircraft batteries. In addition, the discussion about the supply of fighter jets, something previously taboo for giving rise to a more direct conflict with the Russians.
PHASE 5 – The counter-offensive and the mutiny
We have reached the current point, with the counter-offensive launched last June by Zelensky, which, until now, has only gone beyond the probationary stage of defense and attrition to impose losses on the Russians —and, therein lies the problem for Kiev, also receiving losses without the same staff replenishment capacity. Western defense officials argue that this is the case, and that the bulk of the attacks have not yet taken place, but the Ukrainian president maintains a pressure speech.
In theory, the objective of the action is to break the land bridge and cut off Crimea, but this has proved difficult. The arrival of British Storm Shadow cruise missiles, however, facilitated attacks on the peninsula’s infrastructure, maintaining local pressure.
To add opacity to the picture, in the first of the counteroffensive an explosion destroyed the Nova Kakhovka dam, whose reservoir on the Dnipro River served irrigation canals, the cooling of the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant and a hydroelectric plant. The ensuing environmental disaster was massive, with land scorched on both sides of the river all the way to its mouth in the Black Sea.
Standard in the conflict, both sides blame each other for the episode, which is now repeated with the speeches of Kiev and Moscow about a possible explosion of the Zaporizia power plant. Militarily, both assessed advantages and disadvantages, with a score more favorable to the Russians.
Meanwhile, the nuclear card is back on the table with the announcement of the installation of tactical warheads, of more restricted use, by Putin in Belarus. In response, Poland has already asked NATO to place US bombs on its territory.
More unpredictable, however, was the Prigojin mutiny on the 23rd and 24th of June, a still unfinished story that demonstrated an internal instability in Russia that was not known, but that could serve some purposes of consolidating the power of the president in the end.
In any case, the mercenary revolt was quelled with a few phone calls mediated by the Belarusian dictator, Aleksandr Lukachenko, and a dozen Russian pilots shot down. It is the haziest battle of this war so far, and it will not be the last.