Instead, the world was shocked by the amount of resistance and sheer will that the Ukrainian people mustered. While the Russian advances in the east went about as expected, thrusts at Kyiv from the north out of Belarus and from the northwest out of Russia faltered. Thousands of elite Russian troops, including paratroopers and Spetznaz, were casualties in trying to take Hostomel Airport as Ukraine denied Russia a critical landing zone for transport aircraft close to Kyiv. Russian President Vladimir Putin expected victory over Ukraine in 3-10 days; instead, his troops were getting bogged down. The Ukrainians were blowing bridges and roads and setting ambushes to slow and destroy Russian vehicles. Many Ukrainian civilians gave bad directions and tore down signs to foil Russians trying to reach their assigned targets. Others simply gathered en masse, leaving Russian troops unsure what to do as they were shouted at by the civilians whom they were told would welcome them with open arms. It didn't help, of course, that the Russian forces were absolutely not prepared for any kind of resistance, let alone real combat. Vehicles didn't have enough fuel, and logistical lines weren't set up. Some units ran short of ammunition. Primary goals didn't have fallbacks. Soldiers packed parade uniforms instead of parkas and food.
Slowly, the Russian advance ground to a halt, and then Ukrainian forces somehow miraculously started to push them back. First, they got Russian forces to pull back from around Kyiv, granting the government critical breathing room. The lines mostly stabilized for a few months, though Russia kept pushing toward Kharkiv in the north, Myklaiv in the south, and the twin cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk in the east. Russia made progress toward Kharkiv in April and May, pushing into the suburbs, but Ukraine pushed back, taking back some of the suburbs. Despite fierce fighting, the lines mostly stabilized for a time. The world watched as Ukraine tried to hold on to the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. That effort failed, but Russian forces were stopped from going much further into the pocket past Lysychansk.
In early September a series of lightning counterattacks began in southeast of Kharkiv. Open source maps like DeepStateMAP struggled to keep up with Ukrainian advances as vast swaths of territory were taken back every day. Ukraine pushed 60 km in five days to take Kupiansk and dozens of small towns and settlements before it. The next day, the city of Izium was recaptured; hours before, it had been a major Russian operational HQ, but the Ukrainians came in so fast that Russians simply jumped on whatever would move and fled. Ukraine captured dozens, perhaps hundreds of vehicles including tanks, APCs, and IFVs, as well as hundreds of thousands of artillery rounds and millions of rounds of small arms ammunition. Two days later, they took back most of Kharkiv Oblast, pushing the Russians completely back across the border. Over the next few weeks, they took the next Russian HQ at Lyman (though Russian forces were more orderly in that withdrawal) and pushed to take the east bank of the Oskil River, mostly succeeding and stunning Russia and the world.
On October 8, 2022, a bomb exploded on the Kirch bridge linking Crimea to Russia, the only direct land bridge available between Crimea and Russia and a critical military supply route. While it destroyed only one side of the bridge, it damaged the other side and a rail bridge. The road bridge has been reopened, but the rail bridge is still undergoing repairs and will probably not be able to handle heavy traffic until the spring. The impact on the Russian military was significant, but it was also a huge blow to Putin, who considered the Kirch Bridge one of his crowning glories. Because of the lack of supplies and Ukrainian precision artillery strikes taking out bridges across the Dnieper River, Russia ultimately retreated from the city of Kherson back across the river, pulling Mykolaiv out of artillery range. Ukrainian forces quickly moved in and celebrated, though Russia has made Kherson a regular artillery target, resulting in much of the population fleeing.
While the lines again stabilized as cold weather set in, Russian
In the meantime, through the last few months, Russia has intentionally targeted civilian infrastructure. Some of this is within the laws of war--power grids supply electricity to factories making and repairing weapons--but some of this definitely is not. Accuracy issues cannot excuse what is clearly the deliberate targeting of civilian apartment buildings, attacks which have killed hundreds and injured thousands more. This seems to have only hardened Ukrainian resolve, though, and with new weapon systems coming in the spring, including dozens of Leopard 2 tanks, a Patriot SAM system, and new HIMARS rounds with greater range, they hope to start a new counterattack and push Russia further back. Where is still a question, but two most likely vectors have been brought up. The first is in the north along the Kreminna-Svatove line, where fighting has been raging since November. The aim there would be to take the administrative center at Troitske which would also secure the entry point for a key road in the area, and then push to Starobilsk, a Russian headquarters and location of a railyard that is critical to Russian operations as it is the main supply line from the north. The other vector is a southward push from Zaporizhzhia down through Orikhiv (where Russia apparently recently tried a push that ended disastrously) to Melitopol, cutting Russian supplies from the south. If Ukraine can get to the coast of the Azov Sea, they might be able to use some of the newest weapons to target the Kirch Bridge, making it impossible to repair and cutting off supplies to Crimea.
It is, of course, impossible to discuss the war without discussing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a TV comedian who had been elected president after playing a a high school teacher who had been elected president. With Russian forces closing on Kyiv and looking certain to encircle it and lay siege, Western nations offered to evacuate his administration, leading Zelenskyy to offer a reply that will live on for decades: "I don't need a ride, I need more ammunition!" As the situation grew dire, and having been informed by the US that Russian forces were specifically looking for him to capture or, more likely, assassinate him, Zelenskyy addressed EU leaders in a video call saying, "This may be the last time that you see me alive." He has proven adept at contrasting his image as a man of the people against Putin's reclusive elitism; while Putin has remained mostly locked away save for a few public appearances, Zelenskyy has visited several countries and even the front lines. Within a few days of Russia retreating from the city of Kherson, Zelenskyy was there, literally just a few kilometers from the front lines and well within artillery range, meeting the Ukrainian residents and soldiers in Kherson for a few hours before returning to Kyiv. That was just one of many such visits that he has made, demonstrating his courage to be on the lines where the fight actually is instead of remaining hundreds of kilometers away in safety. He's become a hero to hundreds of millions.
Finally, I'll touch on perhaps the biggest blunder of Putin. He wanted to push the EU and NATO back away from Russia's borders. Instead, Finland and Sweden, long content to take an officially neutral stance because of their proximity to Russia, changed their minds and petitioned to join NATO. Now, only Turkiye is holding that up, as every other NATO member has accepted the two. The EU has promised to fast-track Ukraine's membership application, and most NATO countries are signaling that they would allow Ukraine to join after the war is over. Whatever Putin's dream was, he's not getting anything close to it. His best case right now is maybe some autonomy for the Donbas oblasts and holding on to Crimea. He is certainly not getting a puppet state in Kyiv, much less annexation of Ukraine, and NATO surrounds it even more now.
I don't know how this war will end. It will depend a great deal on the weapons that the West is willing to give to Ukraine. Ukrainian pilots are reportedly in the UK training on the Eurofighter Typhoon. The Pentagon has been pushing the White House to allow transfers of F-16s to Ukraine, though Biden hasn't signaled any intent to approve that. Other countries seem more content to send more advanced weapons to Ukraine, seeing that they not only quickly adopt them but are devising ways to use them that hadn't been envisaged (and also apparently pulling some gifts that just don't work at all). It will also depend on what kind of resources Russia can muster, perhaps from China, and on Russians getting tired of their family and friends coming back broken or in coffins.
I hope that by February 24, 2024, we'll be able to call the war over, or at least see the end coming soon. Millions of Ukrainians are displaced internally and externally. The country has suffered probably trillions in damages that will take decades to fully recover. There will be unexploded artillery shells and mines maiming and killing innocents for years. But I think Ukraine ultimately has the chance to come out of this a better, more prosperous country, a proud people who defied the odds and stood up against a superpower to hold on to their freedom and become a beacon for the world.