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Ukraine Situation Report | 24 February 2023

24 February 2023

One year on from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the conflict has already become the worst in Europe since World War Two. To mark the anniversary, ceremonies have been taking place throughout towns and cities in Ukraine – particularly areas where Russian forces have been accused of war crimes, including Bucha. Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces are preparing to repel an anticipated surge in Russian attacks. Moscow has been expected to coincide the timing of its predicted new Spring offensive with the first anniversary, which comes a day after Russia observed its Defender of the Fatherland Day on 23 February – a holiday celebrating the country’s armed forces.

The initial invasion last year sparked a mass exodus of more than eight million Ukrainians as they fled the conflict amid awakened fears of a new Cold War. The exodus of refugees is the largest Europe has witnessed since the second World War, and the extent of damage and destruction in conflict-torn areas has made entire towns unrecognisable. Much of Ukraine’s infrastructure has been bombarded, including civilian structures and sites typically protected under international humanitarian law, such as hospitals, schools, and residential areas. Tens of thousands of civilian and military casualties have been incurred, with mass graves containing hundreds of bodies discovered in towns such as Bucha, sparking accusations of war atrocities by Russian forces.

Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said in a statement delivered to the Ukrainian armed forces on Friday, that plans to push Russian troops out of the country were in progress: “A year ago, it was difficult for us to get serious weapons. Today, civilized countries see that you are the shield of Europe in the east”, Reznikov told the armed forces, before adding: “There will be a counteroffensive. We are working hard to prepare and secure it”.

The frontline in Donetsk continues to see daily action as Russia continues a renewed push on the town of Bakhmut. Moscow’s forces have been fighting to take control of Bakhmut for several months now, and the embattled city has turned into a key political and symbolic prize and the fight for it is now the longest-running battle of the war so far – surpassing even Mariupol. While capturing Bakhmut would be a major symbolic win for Moscow, the town is actually believed to be of little strategic value. The conflict surrounding Bakhmut has also recently exposed emerging tensions between the Wagner mercenary group and the Russian army, although Moscow has denied reports of a rift. On Friday, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed Russian forces have taken full control of the village of Berkhivka, near Bakhmut. While Prigozhin’s statement has been released on the first anniversary of the war, the Kremlin has not offered any commentary thus far and independent sources have yet to verify the claim. Elsewhere, Moldova has denied a Russian claim that Ukrainian troops were preparing to advance on the Moldovan breakaway region of Transdniestria, after Moscow issued a warning that any perceived attack on Russian peacekeepers there would be seen as a direct attack on Russia. Moldova dismissed the accusation as a false flag operation.

A renewed wave of support for Ukraine in the lead up to the first anniversary of the war has seen Western allies reiterate their backing for Kyiv and double-down on promises to increase military aid. Many countries have also seen shows of support take place, such as in the UK, where a protest group known as ‘Led by Donkeys’ painted an enormous Ukrainian flag on the road outside the Russian embassy in London. A candle-lit vigil has also been staged in front of the Russian embassy in New York, while demonstrators have also taken to the streets in support of Ukraine in Belgrade, Serbia, and in Almaty, Kazakhstan, among other places. Several world leaders have also recently made trips to Kyiv, to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, including US President Joe Biden, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

The UN General Assembly has passed a non-binding resolution calling for Russia to end hostilities and withdraw from Ukraine, including a call for a “just and lasting” peace. China abstained from the vote, with Beijing’s deputy UN ambassador telling the assembly that a year of war in Ukraine has served to prove that sending more weapons to Ukraine will not bring peace. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg separately indicated that the alliance reportedly suspects China may be considering supplying arms to Russia and has warned Beijing against taking any such step.

The Western approach to the war has continued to be one of determined perseverance in the face of adversity, with White House official John Kirby highlighting this recently when he explained that one of Washington’s top priorities is to better position Ukraine at any potential negotiating table. The vast majority of military aid being sent to Ukraine primarily aims to help Kyiv defend its sovereign territory against Russian aggression and retake occupied territory, with the West’s main goal being to help preserve Ukrainian independence without risking wider escalation by actually taking part in the war, whilst simultaneously using sanctions and international pressure on Moscow to encourage Russia to consider serious negotiations. China – widely seen as one of Russia’s few potential allies – has also called for a ceasefire in a 12-point plan released on Friday morning, proposing an end to Western sanctions on Russia and a gradual de-escalation with humanitarian corridors to pave the way for peace talks.

However, Moscow has so far demonstrated an embattled resistance to the mounting global pressure, instead painting the West as antagonising the war, while claiming that the slew of economic sanctions imposed have failed to have the desired effect. The claim is in line with Russia’s track record of refusing to acknowledge setbacks, as the Kremlin continues to spin a perpetual web of propaganda surrounding the war, which it calls a ‘special military operation’ – sparking concern amongst observers that the West’s hopes for a peaceful solution are falling on deaf ears, as Moscow digs in its heels for more war.