Invasion anniversary: Does Putin still have a pathway to victory in Ukraine?

When Vladimir Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, he was expecting a brief and triumphant campaign that would extinguish Ukrainian independence and secure his place in Russian history among the country’s greatest rulers. One year on, it is now clear that his decision to invade was one of the biggest geopolitical blunders of the modern era.

Putin’s disastrous miscalculations reflect a leader increasingly detached from reality and surrounded by a shrinking circle of sycophants intent on telling him what he wants to hear. The delusional Russian dictator appears to have been convinced that Ukrainian military resistance would crumble in a matter of days and genuinely expected invading Russian troops to be welcomed as liberators. Instead, his own army has suffered catastrophic losses amid a series of battlefield defeats that have shattered Russia’s reputation as a military superpower.

The strength and tenacity of Ukraine’s national resistance has stunned Putin and made a mockery of his claims to be “returning historic Russian lands.” Nevertheless, as the war enters its second year, he shows no signs of abandoning his imperial ambitions. In recent months, Putin has moved to replenish the ranks of his depleted army by launching Russia’s first mobilization since World War II. Meanwhile, earlier attempts to shield the Russian public from the horrors of the invasion have been replaced by grim warnings to expect a long and bitter war.

While Putin continues to publicly insist he will achieve his objectives in Ukraine, many commentators are now questioning whether the Russian military retains the capability to mount large-scale offensive operations. Russia’s recent mobilization has generated an additional 300,000 troops, but much of this intake is poorly trained and appears prone to rapid demoralization. Moscow’s hopes of a collapse in international support for Ukraine also look unrealistic. Ukraine’s partners have begun 2023 by significantly expanding the range of weapons they are prepared to supply, while US President Joe Biden’s recent Kyiv visit was designed to send a strong signal of unwavering Western resolve.

Despite the setbacks of the past twelve months, Russia continues to enjoy considerable advantages over Ukraine in terms of both destructive power and sheer numbers. Could this eventually be enough to turn the tide in Moscow’s favor? As the invasion of Ukraine enters its second year, the Atlantic Council asked a range of experts whether Putin still has a pathway to victory in Ukraine.

Alyona Getmanchuk, Director, New Europe Center: Putin can still win if the West allows him to win. This could happen intentionally if Western leaders actively seek to avoid humiliating Putin, or less directly if Ukraine does receive the weapons it needs in time. We should be very clear that every single postponed political decision or delayed delivery of weapons brings Putin closer to victory. As Russia’s invasion passes the one-year mark, it is time to lift any remaining psychological barriers over the categories of weapons that can be sent to Ukraine. Putin is now completely committed to winning the war at all costs, but Ukraine’s international partners are still struggling to send just 10% of the available Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine despite a long and painful debate over the issue. This needs to change.

There should no longer be any illusions over the possibility of peace in Europe if Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is even partially successful. A fragile ceasefire or a compromise agreement imposed on Ukraine would reward Putin for his invasion and set the stage for the next war. The only way to secure a sustainable peace is via a decisive Ukrainian victory. It will then be up to the Kremlin propaganda machine to explain this defeat to the Russian public.

It is profoundly depressing to note that we are now entering the second year of a genocide in the heart of Europe with Russian victory still a possibility. The mere fact that this is even being discussed illustrates the utter inadequacy of the international reaction to Russian aggression. Clearly, a far tougher response is necessary if Putin is finally to be stopped.

Diane Francis, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council: Putin has no path to victory because Ukrainians will never surrender until Russia is expelled from their country. Last year’s invasion took Ukraine and the international community by surprise, but over the past 12 months the world’s strongest military coalition has taken shape to support Ukraine and enlarge NATO to prevent future incursions by Moscow. Russia’s armed forces have not won a major battle since last June. More than half of Putin’s initial invasion force of 190,000 men have been killed or wounded. Russian losses in tanks, armor, and aviation have been equally catastrophic.

Russia is now struggling to advance at Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, where Putin’s generals sacrifice “human waves” of untrained conscripts and mercenaries and are still unable to break through Ukrainian defenses. Each side prepares new offensives, but Russia’s armed forces have been seriously degraded and impaired from doing so, according to the Institute for the Study of War.

Ukraine has already liberated around half of the land captured by Russia during the initial months of the invasion. Meanwhile, the Western world is currently more united behind Ukraine than ever and has recently agreed to provide new categories of weapons including tanks and long range missiles. Key factors such as support, time, money, motivation, and leadership all appear to be on Kyiv’s side. Perhaps most important of all, Ukrainians refuse to accept anything short of victory. As President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has stated, “Ukrainians are not ready to give away their land, to accept that these territories belong to Russia. This is our land.”

Stay updated

As the world watches the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfold, UkraineAlert delivers the best Atlantic Council expert insight and analysis on Ukraine twice a week directly to your inbox.

Miriam Kosmehl, Senior Expert Eastern Europe, Bertelsmann Stiftung, Germany: As the war enters its second year, Putin still has a number of potential pathways to victory in Ukraine. A great deal will depend on whether Ukraine is provided with the military aid it needs to defeat Russia on the battlefield.

Putin is clearly preparing for a long war. The genocidal rhetoric on Russian TV and from senior Kremlin officials has not changed. He has also painted himself into a corner by declaring the “annexation” of four partially occupied Ukrainian regions, thereby creating major constitutional obstacles to any future peace process. Perhaps most importantly, it is now obvious that Putin is completely unconcerned by the scale of Russian losses in Ukraine and does not fear a domestic backlash.

While Russia’s military options in Ukraine currently appear limited, the Kremlin continues to communicate effectively to both Russian and international audiences. Tailored messages about food security resonate in Africa, while Russian charm offensives and anti-Western posturing have proved persuasive in Latin America and Asia.

If the alliance of liberal democracies that has formed around Ukraine over the past year limits its support to preventing a Ukrainian defeat, then the war will drag on. This will feed “Ukraine fatigue” and play into Putin’s hands. President Zelenskyy appears to understand this, which is why he has recently sought to increase the pressure on Ukraine’s allies by calling for greater urgency.

Western leaders need to understand that the idea of a compromise peace is an illusion. Putin only hints at a readiness for negotiations in order to weaken the West’s resolve and drive a wedge between Ukraine and its partners. In reality, Russia remains committed to Ukraine’s destruction as an independent state and as a separate nation.

Alexander Motyl, Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University-Newark: Everything depends on how Putin himself defines victory. Could Putin defeat Ukraine on the battlefield without massive casualties? Almost certainly not, as the Russian army is degraded, the Ukrainian army is performing well, and Ukraine’s Western-supplied weapons outclass Russia’s.

Could Putin win the war if he accepts enormous losses of up to a million men killed and wounded? This also seems unlikely, as Ukrainian battlefield skills and Western weapons should enable Ukraine to hold its own. In this second scenario, the main problem for Putin would probably be the Russian reaction. Would domestic audiences tolerate such catastrophic losses? Would the Russian elite not object? The probability of protests or a palace coup rises with every dead Russian soldier.

Alternatively, Putin could simply choose to define victory in terms other than Ukraine’s battlefield defeat. Victory could mean holding onto at least some of the Ukrainian territory occupied by Russia since February 24, 2022. This could be sold to the Russian public as a major advance for the Russian World. However, some Russians might question whether gaining control over relatively limited areas of devastated Ukrainian territory really warranted such huge sacrifices.

Putin’s best option may be to rebrand the war entirely and insist that Russia is actually fighting against Western (or more precisely American) imperialism rather than “Ukrainian Nazis”. This narrative is already being actively promoted and has in recent months begun to increasingly dominate Russian propaganda. It enables Putin to magically transform his “Special Military Operation” into a defensive action intended to forestall an imminent Western invasion of Russia via Ukraine. And since Russia still exists despite all Western efforts to destroy it, Putin can claim success and declare victory.

Suriya Evans-Pritchard Jayanti, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council: Courtesy of Ukraine’s stunning defense, Putin has lost all paths to victory except through attrition, but this still poses a major threat. With superior numbers (however reluctant those troops are) and far greater resources, Putin can still realistically hope to outlast Ukraine if, as many fear, Western military support for Ukraine continues at its present pace or actually declines. Neither side currently enjoys a meaningful military advantage. This bloody stalemate favors Putin while Russia continues to pulverize Ukraine’s economy and energy sector.

Unless Western governments begin equipping Ukraine to actually win the war rather than simply not lose too badly, time is on Russia’s side. This is the tragic reality of the current situation. Russia’s sheer size may trump Ukraine’s resolve and dedication in the long run. If the watching world fails to step up its military and energy sector support to Ukraine, this inspiring, nascent democracy that is so eager to join with the West may well be ground slowly out of existence by the relentless brutality of Putin’s war machine. If Russia is allowed to erase Ukraine in part or in whole, the consequences for international security will be catastrophic.

Brian Mefford, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council: Like the Byzantine emperors who tried to restore the glory of Constantinople following the Fourth Crusade, Putin’s attempt to restore the Soviet Union is also destined for failure. In the most optimistic scenario for Putin, the overwhelming weight of the Russian military could yet achieve a Pyrrhic victory in which the bulk of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region might be taken, with areas south of the Dnipro also remaining under Russian occupation.

Some commentators argue that Russia always fights badly during the first year of a war but then mobilizes to win. However, this observation neglects the fact that Russia does so only when defending its own territory. Historically, Russia has almost always performed poorly when invading other countries.

Putin’s goal is still to install a puppet regime in Kyiv. However, he wasn’t able to do so a year ago with his best troops. This objective is even less feasible now with Ukraine armed to the teeth and his own military badly depleted. A more realistic scenario would see economic hardships created by the war fueling ethnic rivalries and regional secession within Russia. These factors could eventually accelerate the Balkanization of Russia into a dozen new countries. Putin dreamed of regime change in Ukraine, but he is now more likely to bring regime change to Russia itself.

Kristina Hook, Assistant Professor, Kennesaw State University: Putin’s imperial dreams against Ukraine and the global order have irreversibly shattered. Russian goals have deteriorated from boasts of “Kyiv in three days” to straining for smaller Ukrainian towns at the cost of thousands of soldiers. Putin cannot realistically hope to overcome catastrophic losses in troops, officers, or equipment. Nor can he repair what he really cares about, namely Russia’s global reputation under his leadership.

Now that Putin’s intention to subjugate Ukraine through massive civilian targeting is indisputable, democracies must remain resolved that no pathway back to “business as usual” with Russia exists. Encouragingly, even Western leaders who were slower to accept the permanent schisms caused by Russia’s full-scale invasion are now signaling their commitment to Ukrainian victory. Nevertheless, Putin must be prevented from snatching limited successes from the jaws of defeat. Western political courage to boost defense production and avoid incrementalism must match the historical significance of the moment.

On the information front, Western leaders must champion the strategic importance of Ukraine’s full victory to their constituents. This is vital as Putin excels in propaganda that blames the victims of his revanchism instead of his own strategic incompetence and callous cruelty. Finally, without judicial prosecution of Putin and the return of trafficked Ukrainians including children, a hollow victory would demonstrate to other authoritarians that they can operate without full accountability.

Michael Bociurkiw, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council: Let’s be blunt. Had former US President Barack Obama responded to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 with lethal weaponry for Ukraine instead of sanctions, Russian forces wouldn’t be in Ukraine at the moment. It was a miscalculation of historical proportions, the consequences of which Ukrainians and regional neighbors are forced to live with to this day.

Putin’s hopes of victory hinge on what happens between now and the next major Russian offensive. Russian forces are reportedly beefing up their air strength in Belarus and other areas close to Ukraine. Moscow, taking advantage of the gap before Western main battle tanks arrive, could succumb to the temptation to strike with a mix of waves of men, cruise missiles, modified Iranian-built drones, and cyber attacks.

The biggest challenge now is for the West to expedite shipments of ammunition, tanks, and missiles to the Ukrainian battlefront. It is regrettable that it took Western leaders so much time to send lethal weaponry to Ukraine; deliveries should now include missiles capable of striking legitimate military targets within Russia.

A huge obstacle to a victory for Putin in Ukraine is the irrepressible resilience of the Ukrainian people. Day in and day out over the past year, I’ve witnessed first-hand how the residents of Odesa and elsewhere in Ukraine have turned fear into anger and hopelessness into optimism. It is a response which, more than weaponry and sanctions, will deny Putin the ability to dictate the future arc of history.

Andreas Umland, Analyst, Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies: It is still possible to imagine a number of Russian military offensives with the potential to achieve victory. For instance, Russia could make an attempt to cut Ukraine off from vital supply lines of weapons flowing into the country across the western border with the EU. So far, there is little indication of any preparations for such an ambitious operation, which may indicate that it is simply beyond Russia’s current military capabilities.

Another option available to the Kremlin would be a mass killing event designed to shock Ukraine into surrender, such as the use of nuclear weapons or an orchestrated accident at a dam or nuclear power plant. However, desperate measures of this kind would be unlikely to break Ukrainian resistance and could easily have the opposite effect. This approach would also run the risk of stiffening Western resolve while alienating many of Russia’s remaining partners such as China and India.

With the war now entering its second year, Putin’s chances of achieving a decisive military victory are clearly fading. If the Russian army’s fortunes continue to deteriorate in the coming months, Ukraine and its international partners should brace themselves for massive pressure from Moscow as the Kremlin seeks to secure a ceasefire.

Peter Dickinson is Editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert Service.

Further reading

The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

Follow us on social media
and support our work

Related Experts: Peter Dickinson, Alyona Getmanchuk, Diane Francis, Suriya Evans-Pritchard Jayanti, Brian Mefford, Kristina Hook, and Michael Bociurkiw

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a pro-war concert at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia. February 22, 2023. (Sputnik/Maksim Blinov/Kremlin via REUTERS)