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Ukraine war: What lies ahead in year two? Here is what the experts think

In the year since Russia launched a full-scale attack on its neighbour, Ukrainian troops have retaken huge swathes of territory and look to be preparing for a fresh counterattack.

Armed with NATO battle tanks (and perhaps eventually F-16 fighter jets), will Ukraine’s armed forces be able to once again punch through Russian lines in the east or liberate all of occupied Zaporizhzhia? What about taking back Crimea?

Sky News spoke to military experts about the year ahead – and there was some disagreement about who would be in control of several Ukrainian cities by the end of February.

Will Ukraine start the year with a loss?

Russian forces continue to send unrelenting attacks against Ukrainian positions in Bakhmut on the eastern frontline.

The city was razed to the ground during eight months of brutal fighting, drawing comparisons with the desolation of the First World War.

Image:
Ukrainian soldiers artillery near Bakhmut in the Donetsk region as they face relentless attacks

It appears that the tide there may be beginning to turn against Ukraine, but doubt has been cast on whether Bakhmut has much tactical or strategic importance.

More on Ukraine

Whatever happens, Ukraine’s defence of the city has inflicted horrific numbers of casualties on Russia

Now as the muddy ground hardens, attention is turning to possible spring offensives – when tanks and vehicles will be able to move off-road once more.

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2:23

Injured soldiers return to frontline

Could Putin claim success and call for a ceasefire?

Military analyst Sean Bell says Vladimir Putin could keep his focus on the Donbas region – most of which it occupies – and call for a ceasefire.

“If Putin could take the whole of the Donbas there is the potential for him to declare success in this war and say “I’m going to sue for peace now” which buys him time, adds Mr Bell.

“Would Zelenskyy want that? Absolutely not.”

But the West could apply pressure to President Zelenskyy to call an end to a war and tell him “you can’t win this”.

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0:32

‘We are working very hard with Britain’

At the same time, explains Mr Bell, the West would promise the Ukrainian leader that they would help rebuild his country and provide security guarantees.

He adds: “Russia has tried to stop the expansion of NATO. It has failed.

“Russia wants to be great again. It has failed.

“Russia wants its economy to grow. It has been damaged.

“So Russia has lost this even if it ends up taking some gains.”

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0:35

‘UK will support others to send jets’

Ukraine to push Russians out of almost all territory?

So does that mean Ukraine does not have a chance of liberating the Donbas? Military analyst Phil Ingram believes that Kyiv’s forces could accomplish that feat, however daunting it may look.

He tells Sky News that the “best” Ukraine can hope for is pushing Russian forces out of all of the mainland, including parts of the east that have been occupied since 2014.

“They could do that in two or three big operations,” he says.

But he adds: “I don’t think they will have the wherewithal to be able to attack and recapture Crimea at this stage.

“I think that is a 2024 initiative, but is firmly on the cards for them to do.”

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1:16

Putin: ‘There is a fight on our historic borders’

Will there be an ‘off-ramp’ for Putin to end the war?

There’s often talk that in order for Vladimir Putin to agree to stop his war in Ukraine, he needs to be given an option that will allow him to save face. An “off-ramp” from the road to more destruction, some have called it.

But is this at all likely?

“One of the key problems with the search for ‘off-ramps’ is the way that both sides’ red lines clash with one another,” says Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody, a lecturer in politics and international studies at the Open University.

Image:
Putin attends a wreath laying ceremony in Moscow

Giving the examples of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the bogus referenda in the Donbas last year, she said Russia tries to create legal cover for its actions.

She told Sky News: “When you look at how these episodes transpired, Putin’s actions give no indication that he’s interested in an off-ramp. He seems constantly to be doubling down.

“But I think it’s important not to interpret this as a need to make concessions – after all, this invasion went ahead precisely because the more conciliatory approach to previous Russian provocations essentially showed that strategic gains can be made at little lasting cost. That not – and shouldn’t be – the case here.”

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0:52

Putin says Russia is to strengthen its nuclear potential.

Is China going to send arms to Moscow?

The last few weeks have not been the best for China-US relations, to put it mildly.

There was the spy balloon(s) which resulted in American fighter jets shooting down at least one suspected Chinese surveillance balloon in US airspace. And then there were warnings about Ukraine.

In a dramatic move, the US Secretary of State told China there will be “consequences” if Beijing provides material support to Russia in its invasion of Ukraine.

“There are various kinds of lethal assistance that they are at least contemplating providing, to include weapons,” Antony Blinken told NBC last week, adding that Washington would soon release more details.

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Western intelligence indicates that the kind of supplies China is considering giving Russia would be aimed at backfilling stocks of weapons that Russia was using up on the battlefield in Ukraine, a European official told the Associated Press.

Speaking at a security conference in Munich, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi called for dialogue and suggested European countries “think calmly” about how to end the war.

He added that there were “some forces that seemingly don’t want negotiations to succeed, or for the war to end soon”, without specifying who those forces were.

Western sanctions on Russia as a result of the war have hampered its economy and its ability to replace the resources it is losing in Ukraine.

The Kremlin has turned to countries like Iran and North Korea for help so far, but if China were to step up its support to include weapons for use in Ukraine it could change the course of the war – and likely provoke a response from NATO.

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0:40

Former US National Security Adviser John Bolton on China and Russia relations

Unity of the West will affect battles to come

Professor Michael Clarke says the resolve of Western nations who have been supporting Ukraine will be important in the year ahead.

Countries are being tested by shortages and high energy prices, he says.

He tells Sky News: “If the West can remain cohesive, if it can remain united in its opposition and its determination to make sure that the Ukrainians prevail in this conflict, then things will get a lot better.

“Because the balance of advantages turns against the Russians from the spring… if the Ukrainians can hold the big (Russian) offensive.”

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6:01

Ukraine war a ‘battle of logistics’

As we saw with the Kharkiv offensive in September 2022, one push at the right time can see thousands of square miles of territory liberated – or captured.

With Ukraine soon to be armed with NATO tanks, authorities in Kyiv will be hoping their armed forces can build on their victories over the last year and recapture still more of their country.

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