Zelenskiy and Putin express a willingness to end the war’s deadlock in the New year-Russia


Russia’s war on Ukraine enters its second calendar year at a delicate point. It is six weeks after Kherson’s liberation, and there has been little movement in the frontlines either way. There is not yet any sign of a full, renewed counteroffensive by the Ukrainians, not helped by the weather which has been above freezing, leaving muddy ground not conducive to military manoeuvre.

“The situation is just stuck,” Ukraine’s head of military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, told the BBC last week, which, if an accurate assessment, is not helpful to Kyiv, badly needing to retain momentum in the run-up to spring. But the political leadership of both countries signalled a desire to try to break the deadlock with new goals for the new year.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s new year’s address emphasized, predictably enough, a long-term goal of victory in the war. Twice, notably, he referenced liberating Melitopol, the most obvious target city, whose capture would cut off the land bridge without which Crimea cannot easily be resupplied. Zelenskiy said Ukrainian grandchildren would one day be able to “eat watermelons’ in the recently liberated Kherson “and the cherry in Melitopol”.

All this may be too obvious, of course, and Ukraine has repeatedly shown it is willing to be tactically flexible, to probe Russia’s lines for weakness and seek a breakthrough. But the other areas where Ukraine has been pressing, near Kreminna and towards Svatove in northern Luhansk, are simply not as strategically significant; while in the Donbas region, around Bakhmut, Ukraine remains on the defensive, soaking up Russian bombardment as its forces make incremental gains in and around the frontline.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin said the goal of Russia’s war, or special military operation, as he insists on calling it, was to protect “our people in our historical territories in the new regions of the Russian Federation” – a reference to the four oblasts that Moscow unilaterally annexed in September – implying that it remained necessary to try to capture them all, which would explain why the attacks on Bakhmut have continued throughout autumn and winter.

Whatever Putin might say, the slow to minimal progress in Bakhmut is one of several indications that Russia lacks offensive combat power. In a Ukrainian TV interview highlighted by the Institute for the Study of War, Budanov said Russia had gone from firing 60,000 shells a day (the top of the range suggested by Ukraine’s most senior military commander in August) to “19,000 to 20,000”, explaining why Russia has been so keen to seek arms from Iran and North Korea.

Much of Moscow’s military effort has gone into a cruel and relentless bombardment of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, leading to longer and longer blackouts across key cities. But there are very tentative signs here too that Russia is faltering: it fired about 20 cruise missiles at Ukraine on New Year’s Eve – serious of course, but nothing like the 80 to 100 it unleashed on days in October and November, although only a few days earlier in December, 69 missiles were fired at Ukrainian targets.

Ukraine’s air defences, a focus of western supply efforts, appear to be improving, particularly against slower-flying Shahid drones. On Sunday, the air force claimed it had shot down all 32 of the drones launched since midnight, and in Kyiv, only a car was damaged overnight.

The situation remains difficult to predict, but Moscow’s assault on Ukraine’s energy grid has not weakened the Ukrainians’ resolve.


Russia, as Putin’s speech made clear, is preparing for a long war. Roughly half of the 300,000 people mobilized last year have yet to be deployed on the frontline, and Ukraine is warning that a fresh mobilization could come within days. Even if Russian munition stocks are dipping, Ukraine may find it harder to gain ground in future counterattacks, if its adversary deploys its forces effectively.

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