In Focus

Two years of Russia-Ukraine war: No end of conflict in sight, say experts

As the war enters its third year, analysts speaking to Al Arabiya English say 2024 will be another year of devastation as negotiations reach a stalemate, with Russian President Vladimir Putin doubling down for a long conflict, and Ukraine battling on for weapons and aid.

Published: Updated:
Read Mode
100% Font Size
22 min read

As the Russia-Ukraine war enters its third year, experts analyzing the conflict agree on one thing – that there is no resolution on the horizon as negotiations reach a stalemate, with Russian President Vladimir Putin doubling down for a long conflict, and Ukraine battling on for Western aid and weapons.

After two years of fighting that have seen thousands killed and millions displaced, the war reaches another grim milestone this week – with February 24 marking two years since the 2022 invasion, with no end to the bloodshed in sight.

For all the latest headlines follow our Google News channel online or via the app.

A Ukrainian serviceman inspects a former Russian position outside the village of Robotyne, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near a front line in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine November 4, 2023. (Reuters)
A Ukrainian serviceman inspects a former Russian position outside the village of Robotyne, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near a front line in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine November 4, 2023. (Reuters)

Analysts speaking to Al Arabiya English said 2024 will be a critical year for the conflict and mark another year of devastation for innocent victims on both sides, as Ukraine is determined to keep on fighting to recapture territory, while Putin looks resolute on forcing Kyiv into a full surrender. With the fighting still raging, humanitarian organizations warn some 14.6 million people – about 40 percent of the Ukrainian population living in Ukraine – will need humanitarian assistance this year.

With recent developments – including Ukraine’s withdrawal from the battered industrial hub of Avdiivka, the death of Putin’s critic Alexei Navalny, and Ukraine’s army having to ration its artillery as ammunition promised by its allies falls short amid uncertain military aid – analysts have weighed in on the past 12 months of the war and what the next year holds for the two countries and the wider world as many say the war will spill over until at least 2025.

Experts said Ukrainian resistance surprised the world and pushed back Russian forces, though mounting a defense for so long has come at tremendous human and economic costs. Meanwhile, Russia remains committed to its war aims and believes it can outlast Ukraine. As frontlines harden, and negotiations remain stalled, analysts fear 2024 will bring only continued devastation without a diplomatic breakthrough.

2024 ‘toughest year yet in war’

Smoke rises from the area in the direction of Avdiivka in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict, as seen from Donetsk, Russian-controlled Ukraine, October 11, 2023. (Reuters)
Smoke rises from the area in the direction of Avdiivka in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict, as seen from Donetsk, Russian-controlled Ukraine, October 11, 2023. (Reuters)

Director of Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House James Nixey said 2024 will be the toughest year yet for Ukraine. “While it’s a cliche to say that this year is the most important, obviously, it’s the crux here,” he stated.

Nixey pointed toward multiple factors that will make 2024 particularly challenging, including stalling Western military support. “It’s certainly true this year will be the most difficult that Ukraine has been through so far in this war.”

The stalled US aid package, debated in Congress for months, has already impacted Ukraine’s ability to resupply frontline troops.

Underscoring Ukraine’s dependence on the West, Nixey believes only maintaining Western support can prevent further setbacks. However, elections in the US - with the possibility of Donald Trump returning to the White House -introduce political volatility that could shake commitments, he says.

Senior Research Leader, Defence & Security RAND Europe Bryden Spurling told Al Arabiya English that two years on, the Russia-Ukraine war has had profound impacts on the world, and those are still playing out. “In many ways, it has completely backfired on Russia,” he says. “Moscow is now strategically weaker. It has lost huge numbers of per-sonnel and materiel, with remarkably little to show for all that blood and treasure.”

He said while the Russian economy is showing some surprising resilience to economic sanctions and isolation, it is increasingly on a war footing, “and that isn’t a productive use of economic potential, so expect to see long-term ramifications for the Russian economy.” He further said: “They used to gain a lot of international leverage through the supply of arms, but due to their own needs now and the poor performance of their equipment, I ex-pect that to diminish. They’ve lost a lot of young talent, either on the battlefield or from those who have escaped Russia to avoid military service.”

According to Spurling, if Putin was concerned about NATO expansion, he has played himself, as NATO now includes Finland and is expected to shortly include Sweden, two countries that will significantly strengthen the Alliance and who seemed to have little in-terest in joining it prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

A Russian military vehicle drives past residential buildings damaged in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in the town of Avdiivka in the Donetsk Region, Russian-controlled Ukraine, in this image taken from video released February 20, 2024. (Reuters)
A Russian military vehicle drives past residential buildings damaged in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in the town of Avdiivka in the Donetsk Region, Russian-controlled Ukraine, in this image taken from video released February 20, 2024. (Reuters)

Experts predict ‘meat grinder’ battle

Analyzing recent developments on the battlefield, Dr. Swasti Rao from Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses told Al Arabiya English that Ukraine now faces challenges. “The military aid package to Ukraine is stuck. The stalled military aid package exacerbates the situation, impacting ammunition supply,” she explained.

Signs of strain emerged last week when Ukrainian troops withdrew from the devastated town of Avdiivka, allowing Russia’s biggest advance since May 2023. “You see that it’s become a sort of a meat grinder of a battle where so many Russians are losing their lives, but the victory there is strategic in terms of morale and in terms of who has the upper hand,” Rao said.

She believes Russia now holds a slight advantage as international support for Ukraine wanes. “This advantage is coming from the fact that the (dwindling) support from the West and especially the US, which was the most important provider to Ukraine in the last two years,” Rao told Al Arabiya English.

However, she noted Ukraine retains an edge in the Black Sea, thanks to its resilient navy. Through strategic attacks, Ukraine has countered Russia’s desire for maritime dominance and pressured its grip on annexed Crimea. Still, without steadier Western backing, Ukraine’s position looks increasingly tenuous.

A Ukrainian serviceman uploads shells in a tank, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Luhansk region, Ukraine February 18, 2024.
A Ukrainian serviceman uploads shells in a tank, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Luhansk region, Ukraine February 18, 2024.

Spurling says the world has seen a lot of variation and the typical action-reaction of warfare.

“Russia was far too confident when it started the invasion. It attacked on too many fronts and seemed to have little respect for Ukrainian will to fight,” he told Al Arabiya English. “Reportedly, many Russian units thought it was an exercise or that they would be effectively stabilizing the situation for a welcoming populace, and so were completely unpre-pared for the level of resistance they faced.”

“Russian armored columns did not have enough supporting infantry, and so were easy prey for Ukrainian weapons teams armed with anti-armor missiles. Moreover, Ukraine’s use of drones for surveillance early on allowed them to target Russian columns very effectively with artillery. All of these factors contributed to heavy Russian losses and made their ambitions at the opening stages of the war unsustainable.”

After the loss of so many personnel and equipment in its attempts to seize the country quickly, Russia switched to a more traditional Soviet-style doctrine focused on heavy use of artillery and mass infantry assaults, filling gaps in its personnel with one round of mass mobilization from the civilian population, with units comprising prisoners who were “essentially cannon fodder”, Spurling said.

“It also built strong lines of defenses and fortifications, especially in the south of the country from where it was widely expected the future Ukrainian counter-offensive would come. And when it did, even with new Western-supplied armor and artillery, the Ukrainians really struggled to gain any meaningful ground. As a result, the war has now settled into more fixed lines that some are describing as a ‘stalemate’. But I think that belies what might be happening behind the scenes.”

Ukrainian servicemen sit in a military vehicle as they transport wood for heating, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Luhansk region, Ukraine February 19, 2024. (Reuters)
Ukrainian servicemen sit in a military vehicle as they transport wood for heating, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Luhansk region, Ukraine February 19, 2024. (Reuters)

Analyzing the war’s progression, distinct phases emerge, says Rao.

Initially focused on seizing key areas, the conflict has defied expectations, leading to a prolonged and adaptive struggle, she says. Ukraine’s successful acquisition of advanced weaponry has played a crucial role. However, trench warfare and drone technology have transformed the dynamics.

Assessing potential scenarios, the war’s trajectory may extend beyond 2025, said Rao, adding that factors such as the US aid package, defense industrial cooperation, and geo-political changes contribute to the uncertainty.

Experts warn of lack of aid ‘choking’ Ukraine

Other analysts also feel the war has reached a painful stalemate. Senior consulting fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House Keir Giles said both sides un-derestimated each other initially. He underplayed the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from Avdiivka, but said the withdrawal of Western aid had had its part to play.

“If you treat Avdiivka as a major Russian victory in itself, you need to measure that against the vast quantity of men and materiel that were poured into achieving it. But it’s what follows on from that that will tell us how significant this Ukrainian withdrawal is, and the suspension of aid from overseas, which was sustaining Ukraine’s fighting forces, of course, was just one of the factors that undermine Ukraine’s ability to hold ground, but there seems little doubt that it has had a crippling impact.”

Recruits hold their weapons during military training at a firing range in the Krasnodar region in southern Russia, Friday, Oct. 21, 2022. A campaign to replenish Russian troops in Ukraine with more soldiers appears to be underway again, with makeshift recruitment centers popping up in cities and towns, and state institutions posting ads promising cash bonuses and benefits to entice men to sign contracts enabling them to be sent into the battlefield. (AP Photo, File)
Recruits hold their weapons during military training at a firing range in the Krasnodar region in southern Russia, Friday, Oct. 21, 2022. A campaign to replenish Russian troops in Ukraine with more soldiers appears to be underway again, with makeshift recruitment centers popping up in cities and towns, and state institutions posting ads promising cash bonuses and benefits to entice men to sign contracts enabling them to be sent into the battlefield. (AP Photo, File)

Spurling says, with some exceptions, Europe’s attitude towards Russia has hardened significantly, and those are unlikely to soften while Putin remains in power.

“The initial Western response in sanctions for Russia and assistance for Ukraine was much stronger than many anticipated, probably including the Kremlin. But it has also ex-posed some weaknesses in Western industrial capacity, such as the production of muni-tions. We see some friction between countries in the EU and NATO, which shows the difficulty in keeping a large coalition of democracies focused on the same purpose,” Spurling added.

“Furthermore, it has shaped the international order in ways that make Russia smaller, but also challenge Western interests. That much of the Global South has refrained from chal-lenging Russia’s actions shows that what the West cares about and what the Global South cares about are more different than we’d have liked to think,” Spurling said.

Spurling also drew one’s attention to what he termed as an “opportunity cost.”

“This event has not only soaked up international resources and bandwidth, but it has also sharpened divisions between various global groupings of countries, making it harder for other international efforts to progress such as those related to public health or climate change.”

“The inability of either side to break through the other’s integrated air defenses has forced them to increase the agility of their fielded forces and rely more heavily on standoff weap-ons, including long-range artillery, missiles, and drones,” explained adviser with the Council on Foreign Relations Colonel Kristen D, who is from the US Air Force.

With neither achieving a breakthrough and negotiations stalled, think tanks foresee pro-tracted attritional warfare. Deputy Director, Russia and Eurasia Programme and Head of the Ukraine Forum, Chatham House, Orysia Lutsevych, believes Ukraine is falling victim to its own image of being such a resilient country. “Resilience is not endless. It needs to be urgently replenished,” Lutsevych said.

Drones reshape aerial dominance

A Russian Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopter flies over the settlement of Panteleimonivka in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in the Donetsk region, Russian-controlled Ukraine, February 17, 2024. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko
A Russian Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopter flies over the settlement of Panteleimonivka in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in the Donetsk region, Russian-controlled Ukraine, February 17, 2024. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

Amidst the military quagmire, new technologies, most notably drones, have transformed tactics. Initially, Ukraine relied on strategic platforms such as Turkish Bayraktar TB2s for air strikes. “The TB2’s ability to carry multiple air-to-ground munitions and loiter for long periods allowed Ukrainian forces to penetrate Russian air defenses and strike heavy tar-gets,” noted Colonel Thompson.

However, as the conflict evolved, both sides turned to smaller unmanned aerial systems for precise effects. “At just $1,000 per unit, the small drones can be rapidly amassed and repurposed by operators for a specific effect,” said Colonel Thompson. Their ability to swarm has challenged integrated air defenses and, like artillery, become a mainstay of combat.

Russia, too, has embraced drones through ties with Iran. It recently completed the con-struction of a factory in Tatarstan to mass produce Iranian Shahed-136 suicide drones. With a range of more than 1,000 miles, they have intensified attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure.

Recent developments also point to a shift in Ukrainian strategy, evident in drone attacks targeting Russian airfields, St Petersburg, and even criminal elements.

“I think drones have completely changed the way the war is being fought,” said Rao. “And that is a key takeaway... for India and for everyone else in the world, that you definitely need to up the game if you want to be prepared for war in the 21st century.”

Spurling also says, technologically, the mass use of drones has probably been the biggest headline of the war. “In the opening stages, it was surveillance drones like the Turk-ish Bayraktar TB2 that proved extremely useful in spotting and striking Russian columns. However, these have since been marginalized due to their vulnerability to electronic war-fare and air defenses. Now, the main drone story is the FPV and other commercial models that are cheap to buy and produce, can be fitted with simple ordnance and then used to harass enemy infantry and vehicles in large numbers.”

A Ukrainian serviceman reacts as he inspects night vision monoculars and first person view (FPV) drones provided by the Come Back Alive foundation to the one of Ukrainian Airborne Brigades, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine February 14, 2024. (Reuters)
A Ukrainian serviceman reacts as he inspects night vision monoculars and first person view (FPV) drones provided by the Come Back Alive foundation to the one of Ukrainian Airborne Brigades, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine February 14, 2024. (Reuters)

Combined with Ukraine’s use of precision long-range missiles, these drones have been able to drive the Russian Navy further and further from its shores, even having to limit its presence in Crimea, said Spurling. This was an unexpected development for Russia who had expected to be able to control the Black Sea and deny Ukraine’s use of it for military action or trade.

Deepening humanitarian crisis

While drones dominate headlines, the true cost of war remains the human suffering inflicted on civilians. Project HOPE has been working in Ukraine since the Russian invasion in late February of 2022.

Speaking to Al Arabiya English, Project HOPE’s Director for Eastern Europe Giorgio Trombatore said in embattled Ukraine, the prolonged war has brought widespread devas-tation and loss, particularly in frontline communities where essential services have been routinely disrupted, resulting in significant casualties.

Orphaned Ukrainian children sit in a basement shelter after an air raid warning went off, at a facility for people with special needs, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Odesa, Ukraine, June 6, 2022. (File photo: Reuters)
Orphaned Ukrainian children sit in a basement shelter after an air raid warning went off, at a facility for people with special needs, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Odesa, Ukraine, June 6, 2022. (File photo: Reuters)

“Russian attacks on energy infrastructure have left millions without power, healthcare, and clean water, while ongoing missile and drone strikes continue to claim civilian lives,” he told Al Arabiya English.

The economic toll further impoverishes Ukrainians. Project HOPE equips health clinics, trains medical staff, reconstructs hospitals, and provides mental health services, water, and sanitation, but their work faces growing challenges as millions remain displaced.

“More than 14.6 million people – about 40 percent of the Ukrainian population living in Ukraine – will need humanitarian assistance in 2024,” projected Trombatore.

Meanwhile, more than 6.4 million Ukrainians have fled the country, straining host coun-tries. Project HOPE also aids refugees settling in Moldova, Poland, and Romania with integration support. However, vulnerabilities persist without a resolution to their displacement.

The conflict triggered the worst displacement crisis in Europe in decades, according to Jed Meline from Project HOPE. “As a humanitarian organization, the disruption in the production and flow of grain from ‘Europe’s breadbasket’ to the world is deeply concerning,” said Meline.

“Russia and Ukraine supply almost one-quarter of the global grains trade, and Russia’s invasion and ongoing tactics are inhibiting grain flow from Ukraine, thereby driving millions more into clinical hunger.”

Prospects for peace remain bleak

With suffering on all sides unrelenting, could diplomacy end the bloodshed? Experts see few openings. Associate fellow at Chatham House Ben Noble said Ukraine will never accept concessions after fighting so hard, while Putin demands total surrender. “I don’t see many prospects on the diplomatic scene. If action comes too late to avoid disaster, it will have been because of criminal complacency at the highest political level,” Noble explained.

Chatham House’s Natalie Sabanadze doubted if other nations could broker a deal, saying Russia attacking NATO alone could intervene militarily. Prospects may hinge on major political shifts internally, like if Putin falls from power in Moscow.

According to Spurling: “This is a dangerous period for Ukraine. It is working to improve its own defense industrial production, but it isn’t there yet and we know the West is still struggling to get its own industrial capacity up to speed to provide enough equipment. So, Ukraine is short on supplies, which gives Russia some advantages for now.”

Spurling pointed out that while Ukrainian grit and will to fight played a massive role in their success in fending off Russia, Western support was also pivotal. “I think Russia was surprised by the strength of Western reaction. The sanctions the West levied were very strong, even unheard of prior to that point. However, we can still argue that caution and delay in delivering progressively more powerful capabilities allowed Russia to adapt to each in turn and regain some initiative.”

‘A particularly pivotal point in time’

A Ukrainian serviceman inspects a former Russian position outside the village of Robotyne, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near a front line in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine November 4, 2023. (Reuters)
A Ukrainian serviceman inspects a former Russian position outside the village of Robotyne, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near a front line in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine November 4, 2023. (Reuters)

Spurling feels this is a critical year that will determine what future course he war takes. Explaining the point further, he said: “Every year in a war is a critical one, but this one feels particularly pivotal. The war has settled into one of attrition, and that gives Russia some advantages – not least because it cares less about ethics and lives than Ukraine does. With key Western countries heading into elections and support for Ukraine now becoming a partisan political issue, much depends on whether Western support for Ukraine can be maintained.”

He added: “If Western support diminishes, things will look more grim for Ukraine. In a war of attrition, it will struggle to match the bodies and metal that Russia can throw, no matter how carelessly, into the conflict.”

Spurling said it might only take a significant battlefield setback or collapse of Russian morale at the front, or civil unrest at home, for Putin’s power to unravel.

“Of course, the question as to who replaces Putin and whether they’re any better is cru-cial. However, there is a range of scenarios that could occur if this were to happen, from a less antagonistic leadership in Moscow to Russian withdrawal from Ukraine. Or political instability that dramatically reduces the support the Russian Armed Forces need to maintain their invasion. Or even Russian civil war, as occurred in the wake of their participation in World War One.”

 woman walks past apartment blocks that were destroyed in a Russian missile strike, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Selydove near Avdiivka, Ukraine, February 19, 2024. (Reuters)
woman walks past apartment blocks that were destroyed in a Russian missile strike, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Selydove near Avdiivka, Ukraine, February 19, 2024. (Reuters)

Spurling’s words found an echo in Lutsevych, who too feels 2024 will be a telling year. The first year, it was about Russia ‘showing up’ and attacking Ukraine, which had no “serious armaments” or supplies. “And this is something to keep in mind. Intelligence knew that Russia was going to invade, but no preliminary supplies were made to Ukraine. Ukraine didn’t have air superiority; the deliveries were late and patchy, so that didn’t deliver much land success. At this point, Ukraine finds itself, again, pretty much alone with Russia in terms of what it has in stock. So, at this stage, they (Russia) have an advantage on the battlefield.”

However, she says, Russia’s tactics can be called into question. “They are losing a lot of men for the small territory that they have taken. They have lost 400 soldiers per square kilometer of land that they take in Ukraine. This is not a winning strategy.”

The only way forward is ensuring funding for Ukraine, she says. “I hope clarity of thinking will prevail,” she said, adding that countries in Europe and the West have funding, fiscal policies, and the supplies to help the embattled country immediately.”

She concluded: “The war will not be resolved in 2024, but if we can aim to do the right things in 2024 we will have a much better 2025 and 2026.”

Humanitarian solutions thus take precedence, though winter strains capabilities. Trombatore said Project HOPE aims to “deliver emergency assistance to frontline communities and prepare to extend our outreach to newly liberated territories.” But without a durable ceasefire, more will certainly fall victim to the conflict.

Looking ahead, most analysts interviewed believed fighting would continue at least through 2025 if there were no unexpected developments. Elections in the US and shifts in Western policy loom large. “One decisive moment will definitely be what happens in the US elections in November of this year,” Rao said.

While the world keeps a hawk eye on the emerging trajectory of the war in Ukraine, this new epoch of combat continues to extract a mounting civilian toll, with deepening human suffering and no end in sight after two bloody years of devastation in Ukraine.

Read more:

Ukraine PM calls for new sanctions on Russia after Alexei Navalny’s death

Ukraine says air force shoots down 23 Russian drones overnight

Zelenskyy warns of Russia’s exploitation of aid delays amid frontline challenges

Top Content Trending