In depth

Ukraine's biggest victories and defeats in the war against Russia

Six key battles that have shaped the trajectory of the conflict

A year into Russia's bloody war in Ukraine, it's hard to call anyone a winner. Tens of thousands of civilians and tens of thousands more fighters are dead, entire once-thriving cities are piles of rubble, global energy prices are higher and food supplies lower, Ukraine has lost part of its populace and territory to Russia, and Russia has lost clout, business, leverage, a good bit of its armed forces, and many, many battles. 

But in war, there are victories and defeats. Here are some of the key, war-defining battles Ukraine has won and lost since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, 2022.

WIN: Battle for Kyiv

"Feb. 24, 2022, was supposed to bring the existence of a 40-million European nation to an end," Illia Ponomarenko writes at The Kyiv Independent. Russia's invasion plan centered around a surprise lightning strike on Kyiv, toppling Ukraine's government while taking out its air defenses and military strongholds, Britain's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) assessed after poring through captured Russian documents. Ukraine was supposed to have been pacified within 10 days.

"One year later, Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands," President Biden said during a surprise trip to Kyiv on Feb. 20, 2023.

Russia came dangerously close to succeeding, though. Kyiv — and Ukraine — were saved through a combination of Russian President Vladimir Putin's hubris, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's unexpected pluck and wartime leadership skills — "I need ammunition, not a ride," he told the U.S when offered an evacuation as Kyiv appeared on the brink of capture — and Ukraine's years of planning and forewarning from Western intelligence.  

"One of Putin's initial mistakes was trying to conquer a country the size of France with a force that Western estimates suggest was barely larger than the Allies' D-Day army in World War II," John Leicester writes at The Associated Press. Thanks to this mismatch between ambitions and resources committed, retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling writes in The Washington Post, "it took about six weeks for Phase 1 of Putin's campaign to fail."

Ukrainian forces stopped elite Russian paratroopers from securing a crucial toehold at Hostomel Airport outside Kyiv, then ill-prepared Russian ground forces rushing toward Kyiv were boxed in and ambushed by Ukrainian artillery and mobile squads armed with devastating anti-tank weapons. Russia lost hundreds of tanks and other military vehicles in the push toward Kyiv, and its elite military units — the 31st Guards Air Assault Brigade at Hostomel and 200th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade in Kharkiv — were decimated.

By mid-March, "the writing was on the wall — facing a Ukrainian counter-strike, Russia opted to leave the Kyiv area before it was too late, by the end of the first month of the full-scale war," Ponomarenko writes. "In the first of what it called 'goodwill gestures,' Russia withdrew from north Ukraine by April."

LOSS: Siege of Mariupol

Ukraine derailed Russia's Kyiv blitzkrieg, but Russia had more immediate success in the south. "Ukrainian failures helped Russia quickly seize Kherson, and then Berdyansk and Melitopol without much of a fight," Ponomarenko records. "This paved the way to the tragic destruction of Mariupol."

"The destruction of Mariupol — where the Russians had anticipated fierce resistance and were not expecting a rapid surrender by the local authorities — demonstrates the difference that could have been made elsewhere if Russian forces were properly prepared for heavy fighting," RUSI reports. Russian forces understood their mission — to lay siege to and seize the city, strategically located on the Sea of Azov on the "land bridge" between Crimea and Russia — and used a combination of brutal shelling and storm groups of infantry and armor to achieve it.

Mariupol's defenders, outnumbered and isolated, made some mistakes, like dividing defense of the city between naval, ground, and territorial defense forces, RUSI assesses. But they held on from late February through mid-May, when the final Ukrainian surviving forces surrendered at the sprawling Azovstal steel plant. "The longevity of the defense of Mariupol reflects the extraordinary bravery of its defenders," RUSI adds. "Ukrainian forces not only exceeded the expectations of the Ukrainian General Staff, but also inflicted heavy losses on the Russian attackers."

WIN: Destruction of Russian battalion at Bilohorivka

The surrender of Mariupol bled into the Battle of the Donbas, where Russia redeployed patchwork forces from the north and south to try and capture the rest of Ukraine's industrial east. At this point, Ukraine had home-field advantage, grit and valor, and a mobilized population girded for war, but it needed bigger and better weapons and lots more ammunition. And before it could obtain them, Ukraine needed to convince Western allies they wouldn't be throwing good weapons at a lost cause.

Ukraine's armed forces proved they were up for the fight by destroying what amounted to an entire Russian battalion tactical group at the Siverskyi Donets River near Bilohorivka in Luhansk Oblast. Ukrainian artillery destroyed or disabled more than 80 Russian vehicles and hundreds of troops as they tried to cross the river, in a campaign to encircle and destroy Ukraine's eastern forces.

Russia's "failed Siverskyi Donets crossing wasn't only a battlefield fiasco that cost it dozens of vehicles, many bridge sections and potentially hundreds of troops — probably including personnel skilled in military engineering and the deployment of specialized equipment," The Wall Street Journal reported. "The debacle also might have closed off for Russia an avenue of attack on Ukrainian forces in the area, limiting Moscow's options in a region it very much wants to control."

For Ukraine, the strike helped open the floodgates of Western weapons and deflated the specter of an invincible Russian army. In Russia, the debacle finally broke through "the Kremlin's tightly controlled information bubble," The New York Times reported. "As the news of the losses at the river crossing in Bilohorivka started to spread," Russian military bloggers who had reliably posted "claims of Russian success and Ukrainian cowardice" turned their fire on Russia's military leadership, sowing doubts back home about Russia's prospects in Ukraine.  

LOSS: Capture of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk 

Russia abandoned its efforts to encircle Ukraine's Donbas forces and pivoted to a frontal push for full control of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. And Russia successfully, if temporarily, captured all of Luhansk with its grinding assault on the twin cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk in late June and early July. 

This blow to Ukraine was the start of the "attrition" stage of the Battle of Donbas, Ponomarenko writes in The Kyiv Independent. "Ukraine, which could not match the devastating Russian artillery power, opted to bog Russia down in brutal, slow, and extremely costly fighting for each and every strongpoint." In Sievierodonetsk and then Lysychansk, Russian artillery pounded the cities to rubble, and Ukraine defended them in close combat until they couldn't hold them any longer and fell back to new battle lines.

It was a mixed victory for Moscow, though, Ponomarenko adds. "Russia was so exhausted that it couldn't gather a comprehensive offensive capability for more than half a year."

WIN: Kharkiv blitzkrieg

In Phase 3 of the war, from July through September, "Ukraine's army forced a large-scale withdrawal in the northeast in the Sumy and Kharkiv oblasts, using small-scale counterattacks directed at just the right locations," Hertling writes in the Post. As Ukrainian forces routed Russian forces in Kharkiv, liberating some 3,000 square miles in a matter of days, the humiliated Russians "sustained casualties that far exceeded those suffered during the disastrous Phase 1 and 2."

The scale of Ukraine's victory in Kharkiv Oblast "stunned the entire world, but perhaps nobody was as surprised as the Russians themselves," former Ukrainian defense minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk wrote for the Atlantic Council. "The speed of events and the sheer scale of the collapse" thwarted the Kremlin's efforts to suppress the military disaster and delivered "a huge psychological blow for the Russian public, who learned for the first time that their soldiers in Ukraine were demoralized and beaten."

"The shock effect of this kind of offensive on a brittle, poorly led, and demoralized Russian military in Ukraine should not be understated," Rand Corporation's Gian Gentile and Raphael Cohen write in Foreign Policy. But neither should the boost the Kharkiv lightning counteroffensive gave the Ukrainians. "Battlefield victories, especially quick and unexpected ones, have a way of turning the tides of war," they added, pointing to the American Continental Army's consequential defeat of British forces at Saratoga, New York, in 1777. Ukraine's "stunning operational success" in Kharkiv could be "their own 1777 moment," and it certainly showed "Ukraine, Russia, and the world that an outright Ukrainian victory is possible."

For Ukraine's Western allies, specifically, Zagorodnyuk underscores, the Kharkiv offensive "proved beyond doubt that Ukraine is capable of staging large-scale offensive operations and reclaiming land that Russia has held for extended periods."

WIN: Recapture of Kherson

The last major battle of the first year of Russia's invasion of Ukraine was for Kherson, the only provincial capital Russia managed to capture before Ukraine turned the tides. And this battle ended in another humiliating defeat for Russia, which rewarded Ukraine's steady and surgical destruction of its supply and reinforcement lines by withdrawing across the Dnipro River rather than face another costly rout like Kharkiv. Russia abandoned Kherson weeks after "annexing" its province.

After Russia pulled out of Kherson in November, the battle lines and battlefields effectively froze for the winter. Russia's new offensive isn't going anywhere fast and Ukraine's counteroffensive is still weeks away. "But history is written by war's victors," AP's Leicester notes. "And at this point, the invasion's outcome is far from clear."


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