Assessing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, two years later

On February 24th, 2022, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. While Russia expected to have control over Ukraine within 10 days and many observers expected Ukraine to inevitably and quickly capitulate, the war continues to this day, more than two years on. Ukraine continues to resist, having prepared for a Russian invasion since the Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. At present, Russia controls around 20% of Ukraine’s territory. This has resulted in an estimated 3.7 million people being displaced in Ukraine, and more than 6.3 million have fled abroad, triggering the largest refugee crisis since World War II.

Ukraine’s counter-offensive in 2023 has generally been seen as a disappointment, with Russia being able to hold most of the occupied territory to date. Ukraine recently lost the city of Avdiivka after a five-month fight, marking Russia’s first battlefield victory since May 2023. While it has been described as a Pyrrhic victory, with thousands of casualties and lost equipment, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence recently estimated that despite suffering massive losses, Russia is able to replenish its army.

Over the past months, the fighting has mostly settled into attrition warfare of mutual shelling and massive use of drones over a highly fortified frontline. This is accompanied by Russia’s indiscriminate air campaigns and Ukraine’s more tailored retaliation of sinking warships from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, downing Russian aircrafts, including highly valuable Beriev A-50 early warning radar planes, and targeting its energy exports and industrial capabilities, even deep within Russia.

The beginnings of the war

As a prelude to the invasion, Russia had issued security demands to the United States and NATO in December 2021, demanding that NATO withdraw troops and weapons from eastern Europe and to guarantee that Ukraine will never join the alliance. The US responded by repeating a commitment to NATO’s open-door policy while offering a ‘pragmatic evaluation’ of Russia’s concerns. Within two days, Russia claimed its demands had not been addressed, triggering weeks of diplomatic activity, with Western diplomats, ministers and heads of state visiting Russia. All the while Russia continued to deny any aggressive intentions and ridiculed Western experts and politicians.

In a televised address on February 21st, 2022, Russian President Vladmir Putin claimed Ukraine to be an integral part of Russian history that is ruled by a puppet regime managed by foreign powers. He ordered Russian ‘peacekeeping forces’ into the two breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, after recognising their independence. A day later the Russian-backed separatist leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk asked Russia for help against ‘Ukrainian aggression,’ opening the path for Putin to authorise his ‘special military operation’ against Ukraine on February 24th, 2022.

The actions leading up to the invasion bear similarities with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, when unmarked Russian military, or so-called ‘green men,’ took over local government buildings and the Crimean parliament at the end of February. The Crimean parliament then voted to hold a referendum on ‘greater autonomy’ at an emergency session – later changed to referendum on whether Crimea should join Russia – while the ‘green men’ were occupying the parliament building and the building’s communications had been cut. Igor Girkin, a former GRU officer and one of the then-leaders of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic government, admitted in 2015 that the members of the parliament were held at gunpoint and were forced to support the annexation.

While these events were unfolding in Crimea, Vladimir Putin denied plans to annex Crimea at a press conference in early March 2014. He added that Russia had no plans to invade Ukraine, but that the country might intervene if Russians were threatened in Ukraine. On March 21st, 2014, the short-lived Republic of Crimea, that had seceded from Ukraine, became part of Russia.

Situation on the battlefield

Ukraine currently has a deficit of artillery ammunition due to the country being largely dependent on Western support. However, this reliance has been strained due to domestic politics and the ability to increase arms production and domestic politics. Ukraine’s allies were not prepared for a prolonged large-scale conventional war in Europe, considering it unthinkable, with the war having drained the allies’ arsenal, leaving Ukraine with fewer and delayed supplies.

For example, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky recently claimed that Ukraine has only received a third of the shells promised by the European Union in 2023 and that the country is still waiting for news on a $60 billion aid package that has been blocked by Republicans in the US Congress. This has resulted in notable disparity on the battlefield as Russia has boosted its own production and has been buying munition, drones and missiles from North Korea and Iran. As a result, Russia is firing multiple times the quantity of munitions that Ukraine’s forces can fire back. Under such circumstances, Ukraine is preparing for a new Russian offensive, expected in spring or early summer, to mark the anniversary of the invasion. However, Zelensky noted that he felt positive about the recent shift in attitudes in Europe and called 2024 a potential ‘turning point in the war.’

On the other hand, Russia’s military that initially was unprepared for the determined Ukrainian resistance, has been adapting and has achieved incremental successes. Nevertheless, its casualties and equipment losses are estimated to be far larger than Ukraine’s. In addition, Russia’s ‘wonder-weapons’ that Putin has repeatedly boasted about have proven to be vulnerable to arms delivered by Western countries. For example, the US Patriot air defence system has downed Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, which Putin had claimed were invulnerable. Due to the massive losses, Russia has been pulling Soviet legacy equipment from its warehouses, with tanks designed in the 1940s having been spotted in combat in Ukraine. Estimates suggest that Russian forces in Ukraine do not significantly outnumber the Ukrainian troops, even with Russia now having more troops in Ukraine, than at the beginning of invasion.

The prolonged war effort and lack of immediate victory has led to a frustration on the Russian side that provoked a brief episode of Wagner mercenaries marching on Moscow in the summer of 2023, in an unprecedented challenge to Putin’s authority. Even though the march was quickly stopped, through an apparent agreement reached with Wagner Group’s then-leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, the mercenaries reached as far as the town of Kashira in southern Moscow Oblast, 95 kilometres south of the capital – something that no one in Russia could have imagined even a few months earlier. Incidents like the Wagner Group march highlight that even individuals and groups that the Russian government might consider allies, can quickly turn and became enemies.


International responses to the invasion have turned Russia into the most heavily sanctioned country in the world. However, Russia’s economy has been unexpectedly resilient, largely by evading sanctions by diverting its energy exports – the main income for Russia’s budget – to countries such as China and India. Russia is reportedly relying on a ‘shadow fleet’ of tankers hauling sanctioned cargoes that has been estimated to consist of up to 1400 vessels.

Nevertheless, experts agree that sanctions need time to have an effect and are claiming that the effects are beginning to show. The redirection of businesses to the East, particularly to China, has not come without cost. As a result, Russia has become far more dependent on China for goods, finance, and international support. Furthermore, hundreds of thousands of Russians, mostly young and well-educated, have fled abroad to avoid conscription, which will have a negative long-term effect on Russia’s economy.

What can be expected from 2024?

As the war has entered its third year, there does not appear to be a conceivable end in sight. The prospect of negotiations to end the war in 2024 are negligible, nor is it likely that either side could achieve a decisive victory. The current stalemate looks set to continue. Russia has recently been making incremental territorial gains at the cost of enormous casualties and equipment losses. Ukraine, having failed to achieve the objectives of the 2023 counteroffensive, is on the defensive, also suffering significant casualties. It is likely that both countries will need to recruit or mobilise more troops but for Ukraine, with a population of less than a third of Russia’s, it will be more difficult to mobilise the forces it needs.


Throughout 2024, it is likely that Ukraine will focus on defence, to minimise further territorial losses. In addition to preserving an army in fighting condition, Ukraine will also seek to rebuild it for future offensives, focussing on training in NATO countries, reconsidering tactics, and securing continuing military support. Ukraine is unlikely to be able to turn the tide without additional military aid, but this will not be easy to achieve unless the country can demonstrate to sceptics, particularly in the US, that it can win on the battlefield. Ukraine’s domestic political scene faces the risk of fracturing. The unity of the first year of invasion, supported by the successful summer counteroffensive of 2022, has been evaporating, with political opponents of Zelensky becoming increasingly vocal.

Ordinarily, Ukraine would have had a presidential election this spring, but there is a broad consensus that this is impossible while the country is at war. The war fatigue is reportedly visible both in Ukrainian society and among the country’s leaders. The dismissal of army commander-in-chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi in early February 2024, which according to observers might have had an impact on Ukraine’s international credibility, was widely seen as being at least partially motivated by Zaluzhnyi’s popularity.


Russia appears much more confident at the beginning of 2024 than the year before. The country has shifted to a wartime economy that prioritises military spending, with defense spending due to exceed social spending. To date, Russia has massively increased its military spending, with the federal budget deficit in 2023 the third-highest level ever. It will likely continue to increase its military production and continue to buy drones, missiles and munition from Iran and North Korea.

Russia has not backed down from any of its demands set out before the full-scale invasion. As is evident from Putin’s televised addresses before the invasion and from his statements since, Russia still aims to demonstrate to the rest of the world that Ukraine is not a sovereign nation. The demilitarisation of Ukraine remains the stated goal of Russia, alongside what it calls the ‘de-Nazification’, Russia’s euphemism for regime change. Putin also portrays Russia as the victim of a NATO conspiracy involving Ukrainian ‘Nazis.’ There are no signs of this narrative changing in the foreseeable future.

At the same time, observing the domestic issues surfacing before the elections in the US and Europe, Russia appears to see an opportunity for victory in 2024, expecting that it has the strategic patience to outlast the Western support of Ukraine. Russia’s leadership is likely awaiting the result of the upcoming US presidential election, in the hope that the next president will withdraw the support for Ukraine. Russia has made it clear that the country has no intent to negotiate unless Ukraine surrenders to its claims, including permanently losing the territories annexed by Russia in 2014 and 2022.

In his annual address to the Russian Federal Assembly on February 29th, 2024, Putin warned of the potential for a nuclear confrontation over the war in Ukraine. Prior to that, Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council and former president of Russia, had threatened to use nuclear weapons against the West if Russia loses occupied Ukrainian territories. Russia has repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons; however, experts consider such statements a bluff, intended to scare the West into making concessions. So far Russia has used its nuclear rhetoric mainly to discourage allies of Ukraine, with mixed results. Even while the theoretical risk of a nuclear escalation remains, US and NATO deterrence has worked to constrain Russia to the conventional realm.

The United States and NATO

There are growing concerns about internal politics in the US stalling or stopping the aid for Ukraine, with the fears of the country becoming increasingly isolationist as it prepares for its presidential election in November 2024. It is difficult to exaggerate the election’s possible impact on the war. Commentators appear to agree that, while Donald Trump does not support Russia, he is pushing a narrative that the US does not have an interest in the war. Nevertheless, with the US being the most important supplier of military aid so far, the withdrawal of their support could lead to Ukraine having to seek a ceasefire under unfavourable conditions. As a result, Ukraine’s survival as an independent, sovereign state might be in question, together with the subsequent effects on the security of Europe and the rest of the world.

NATO has mostly maintained its unity and as a direct consequence of Russia’s aggression, the alliance has grown to include Finland and Sweden, something that Russia’s elite almost certainly did not forecast. Nonetheless, as the war continues, fatigue is setting in, with Russia’s ability to conduct disinformation campaigns to disseminate anti-war narratives likely contributing. Western democracies have no fresh memory of a long, large-scale war. In comparison, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, while lasting over a decade, were of low intensity and had low casualties.

Closing thoughts

At the start of the conflict, Russia expected to have control over Ukraine within 10 days. Many observers expected Ukraine quickly capitulate, yet the war continues to this day. Russia appears much more confident at the beginning of 2024 than the year before and has not backed down from any of its demands set out before the full-scale invasion. At the same time, observing the domestic issues surfacing before elections in the US and Europe, Russia appears to see an opportunity for victory in 2024, expecting that it has the strategic patience to outlast the Western support of Ukraine.

There are growing concerns about internal politics in the West stalling or stopping the aid for Ukraine. NATO has mostly maintained its unity; however, as the war continues, fatigue is setting in. The disengagement of Ukraine’s allies from the war would be a major blow to Ukraine. A suspension of Western aid to Ukraine would be seen as a significant victory in Russia and likely also in China, with potential implications for China-Taiwan tensions.

To learn more about this and other top stories, trending events and conflicts that could impact your security, book a demo with Silobreaker today.