It was Ukraine’s “longest day,” said President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. But the nation’s valiant struggle against a larger, murderous enemy, and its considerable successes in repelling Russian aggression, proved that “every tomorrow is worth fighting for.”
On this one year anniversary of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, let us take a look back at how that longest day turned into the longest year, one marked by horror and death but also by incredible resilience and courage.
To frame such a huge topic, we’ll compare Putin’s initial goal of a quick victory to where things have wound up after one year and take measure of the West’s response.
In nearly every respect, despotic Russia has failed and continues to fail, while Ukraine still stands and democracy and hope remain defiantly alive.
The day the tanks rolled in.
For weeks leading up to February 24, 2022, the Russian military had been amassing a huge force across the Ukrainian border comprising around one-third of its armed forces.
Despite this obvious show of force and the immediate threat it posed, Russian foreign spokespersons assured the West that there was no plan for an invasion, some even dismissing the idea sincerely because they, too, could never have believed Putin would actually order it.
Such a move, after all, would hurl Europe into the biggest land war since World War II, isolate and bring condemnation down on Russia, and bog Putin down with a likely long-term resistance from a population hostile to the enemy occupiers.
But the Russian leader had been planning and dreaming of the day for many years, speaking about the glories of the former Russian empire and the Soviet Union. “Reunification” with Ukraine was, to the new czar, a political and cultural imperative.
Indeed, in the minds of many Ukrainians, the war actually began eight years earlier with the annexation of Crimea and the insurgency backed by Russia in the eastern part of the country known as the Donbas.
It was Putin’s illegal seizure of territory back then that led to the first round of Russian sanctions. Whether Putin would expand upon Russian territorial gains was an open question in early 2022 and only now with hindsight seems obvious.
Russia underestimates the initial Ukrainian response.
Putin’s generals and military advisers predicted that Ukraine and its government would collapse in a matter of days, and they didn’t prepare for a long battle let alone a protracted war.
But Putin’s “special military operation,” which had Russian armored divisions invading from multiple prongs along the long border with its neighbor, misjudged the ferocity and resolve of the Ukrainian military.
Unlike Russian troops, which include many less experienced conscripts, Ukrainian forces had been hardened by nine years of war and had received extensive training and supplies from the West.
And importantly, Putin failed at the outset to decapitate the Ukrainian government.
Instead, Zelenskyy and his cabinet went on a war footing, reassuring the people of Ukraine that their leaders were still in the country and working to organize the nation’s armed defense. Zelenskyy, swapping his suit and tie for combat fatigues, famously refused Western offers to escort him to safety. “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride,” Zelensky responded to the offer, per the Ukraine embassy in Britain.
To emphasize the point, Zelenskyy broadcast himself live on the streets and later from undisclosed locations in Kyiv.
“I am here. We are not putting down arms."
"We will be defending our country, because our weapon is truth, and our truth is that this is our land, our country, our children, and we will defend all of this."
Russia also underestimates Western resolve.
Following the invasion, the West moved to impose sweeping sanctions on Russia’s financial, energy and technology sectors via a coalition of the U.S., the E.U. and the majority of world nations. President Biden led NATO’s commitment to supply weapons to Ukraine, while neighboring nations such as Poland opened their borders to millions of Ukrainian refugees.
Putin may have miscalculated Western determination and unity after years of enjoying Donald Trump’s America First policies, but Joe Biden showed he was made of different stuff entirely.
Key moves by the Biden administration included freezing hundreds of billions of Russian state bank assets, locking key Russian financial institutions out of international payment systems, and targeting Putin’s closest oligarch allies for sanctions.
Biden also warned neutral powers such as China and India of big consequences should they attempt to thwart Western sanctions.
Putin also wrongly assumed that Russia’s stranglehold on natural gas supplies to Western and Central Europe would mean quick capitulation, especially by highly dependent nations such as Germany.
But despite skyrocketing fuel prices, followed by dizzying spikes in food and fertilizer costs, the E.U. held firm in its sanctions and scrambled to make up for the energy shortfalls by importing gas from other sources, including the U.S.
Under pressure from consumers and the government, western companies also largely packed up and left Russia, creating widespread job losses especially among the professional classes in major cities.
To help stabilize the ruble, Russia’s state bank hiked interest rates a whopping 20 percent.
Russia’s initial assault stalls then collapses.
One month into the invasion, Russian forces controlled nearly one quarter of Ukrainian territory and were on the doorstep of Kyiv. But this proved to be its military high water mark. By late March, it was clear that Putin and his generals had blundered badly by not adequately supplying their forces for a prolonged assault.
The dreaded long Russian armored column that had been inching toward Kyiv ground to a halt while Ukrainian defenders, nimbly equipped with anti-tank missiles, struck with daring raids that paralyzed the Russian advance.
On March 29, 2022, Russia announced it was withdrawing not just from around Kyiv but across the entire northern front.
It was the first major humiliation for Putin but it wouldn’t be his last.
A trail of horror.
As Ukrainian forces liberated towns and villages across the north, they found gruesome and widespread evidence of atrocities committed by the invading forces.
Kidnapping, torture, rape and murder of local civilians by Russian solders were commonplace in the occupied towns and villages, and the discovery of mass graves led to calls for international investigations and recently to a formal declaration by Vice President Kamala Harris that confirmed Russia had committed war crimes.
While Ukraine scored victories against the occupiers in the north, things were far harder for residents in southern cities such as Mariupol, where constant missile attacks and shelling by Russian forces reduced the city to rubble and killed innocent civilians by the thousands.
For weeks, images of bombed out churches, schools, hospitals and apartment complexes, with bodies lying in the streets and the ruins of buildings, held the world’s attention.
The revelations and constant reminders of the brutality of the Russian occupiers had the effect, however, not only of turning world opinion further against Russia but also of fortifying the resolve of the Ukrainian people around the imperative for total victory.
Leaving any part of Ukraine in the hands of those who would commit such acts now seemed unthinkable to nearly all of the population.
The war shifts to the Donbas.
By last summer, Russian forces had regrouped and focused their attention on the coal-rich steppe of the Donbas, which became the main thrust of the invasion. Putin and his propagandists sought to recast the war as one to save ethnic Russian speakers in the region, even though it was clear most of them did not want to be a part of Putin’s Russia.
Still, with new reservists called up through a partial general mobilization ordered by Putin, through the middle of the year Russian forces appeared to be making slow progress in the region.
But the Ukrainian forces continued to strike back, hitting command headquarters with deadly effect and frequency and killing many top Russian generals. This exposed the fact that the Russian military was severely undersupplied and backward in its technology, so much so that leaders could not even communicate securely with the front lines and had to do so on open channels.
Top military commanders who had been dispatched to the area to quell rebellion and instill discipline and order became prime targets for strikes using more advanced Western targeting weapons.
Meanwhile, Western arms supplies continued to flow and began to include highly accurate HIMARS rocket launchers which could pound Russian lines, armament depots and command centers.
A second turning point.
On September 6, while Russia was preoccupied with its position in the south, Ukraine launched a lightning offensive in the northeast, seeming to catch Russian forces wholly off-guard. Many Russian soldiers simply retreated from their positions, abandoning artillery, tanks and weapons in the face of the onslaught.
With those new territorial losses, Russia lost one-fifth of the land it had seized since March.
By the end of the push, Ukraine had recaptured some 2,300 square miles of territory in a single week. Influential Russian military commentators, known as milbloggers, argued that the offensive showed Russia had already failed and called for the heads of those responsible.
Russian talk show guests began openly wondering how the war could possibly continue with such unqualified defeats and began questioning whether Putin was being misled by poor advisors.
The long winter.
Following the victory by Ukrainian forces in the northeast, the two sides dug in along existing lines through the bitterly cold winter. Russia has now deployed some 300,000 soldiers to the war with another 150,000 in reserve.
Western military experts believe, however, that Russia has already committed a majority of its forces to its offensive effort in the Luhansk oblast, leaving few forces in reserve. That means that no major offensive or breakthrough by Russia is likely to happen this winter.
Many are expecting a renewed Russian offensive in the east come spring. But the Russian military continues to be plagued by low morale, inadequately trained personnel, dwindling stores of ammunition and inadequate supplies.
There are even reports that forces from the Wagner mercenary group, which includes a large number of convicts pulled from Russian prisons to the front lines, are being sent out in human waves without adequate armed support and are dying in droves.
No peace in the offing.
The two adversaries remained locked in a war that has no clear path toward resolution, with Russia insisting on its illegal claims to occupied lands in the east and south and Ukraine insisting that its entire territorial integrity must be restored and that all Russian forces must leave Ukraine.
A recent 12-point ceasefire plan proposed by the Chinese is a non-starter for the Ukrainians because it leaves Russian forces still on Ukrainian soil, and the Ukrainians believe any cessation in hostilities would only give Russia time to resupply and regroup.
Russia has continued to use Iranian-made drones to target infrastructure across Ukraine in an effort to bomb the country into submission by depriving residents of water and electricity, once again demonstrating that it is willing to violate international law on the targeting of civilian buildings in order to seek advantage in the war.
But its stockpile of such drones may be running low.
Concerned that China could begin to provide actual military aid to Russia, the Biden administration has warned of “serious consequences” for any such move.
For its part, while China has rejected American authority to dictate whom it can trade with, China’s UN deputy ambassador to the UN stated yesterday to the body that, one year into the war, “brutal facts offer an ample proof that sending weapons will not bring peace”—which could be read both as an indication that it will not do so and as criticism of stepped up plans by NATO allies to supply Ukraine with leopard tanks, HIMARS rocket launchers, long range weapons, Patriot missile defense systems and even jet fighters.
Meanwhile, President Biden has announced a new set of sanctions while the E.U. seeks to unify around and finalize its tenth set. Because Russia is a large country with a big internal market, huge energy resources and hundreds of billions in foreign reserves, it is unclear how effective sanctions ultimately will be in crippling its economy.
Parties appear to be evading sanctions by trading with Russia’s neighbors, who then move goods and supplies across the border. And without full cooperation on sanctions from China and India, which actually have stepped up their purchases of Russian energy, the financial pressure of sanctions may take far longer to work its way through and trigger any substantial domestic resistance to Putin’s war.
But the sanctions are having a dramatic effect on the ability of Russia to supply its military with high grade weapons and ammunition, and at its current rate of use some experts believe Russia has run low on artillery and has resorted, for example, to using 40-year old shells.
It is also running out of precision guided missiles, tanks and armored vehicles to deploy effectively to the front lines.
The path forward.
There is little doubt that the Ukrainian people possess the fortitude and determination to carry on the fight. The real question is whether Western democracies will grow weary or disillusioned with the war.
The enemies of democracy and hope are not just the warmongers in the Kremlin. They are its apologists and water carriers in the West, found in right wing network newsrooms and even the halls of Congress.
They are working hard to sap support for the war from within.
We should answer those in Congress and on Fox News who wish to end military support for Ukraine outright with the words of President Zelenskyy to NATO allies on this grim first anniversary of the war.
“Ukraine has surprised the world. Ukraine has inspired the world. Ukraine has united the world."
"There are thousands of words to prove it, but a few will be enough: HIMARS, Patriot, Abrams, IRIS-T, Challenger, NASAMS, Leopard.”
And Zelenskyy’s words to his nation, broadcast on Telegram, should remind every American and citizen of the West of the stakes and of the courage of the people of Ukraine.
“On 24 February, millions of us made a choice. Not a white flag, but a blue and yellow flag."
"Not fleeing, but facing. Facing the enemy. Resistance and struggle."
"It was a year of pain, sorrow, faith and unity. And this is a year of our invincibility."
"We know that this will be the year of our victory!”