Michael O’Hanlon is the Philip H. Knight chair in defense and strategy and director of the Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology at the Brookings Institution. Constanze Stelzenmüller is the director of the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings. David Wessel is the director of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at Brookings. The authors comment individually on the data that they and their Brookings Institution colleagues have gathered below.
As a rather mild winter in Eastern Europe turns to spring and mud turns gradually to firm soil, the Russia-Ukraine war is entering a new phase. The question is whether this will lead to a change in warfare — from the high-intensity attrition kind that has been going on for the past six months to so-called maneuver warfare, in which positions and territorial holdings can shift significantly.
Each side promotes its own theory of victory — and believes it has the upper hand.
Stalemate on the ground
Michael O’Hanlon: Since last fall, territory holdings have mostly come to a stalemate. Russia controls about 17 percent of the land area — up from 7 percent before Feb. 24, 2022, but down from at least 22 percent a year ago. Any movement in recent months has been localized and limited.
Rates of artillery fire illustrate the trends in fighting. Last spring and summer, the Russians used perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 rounds of ammunition a day. Since last fall, that has dropped to about 10,000 rounds. In the early going, Ukrainian soldiers fired as many as 6,000 rounds a day, and these increasingly included precision rounds, like the vaunted HIMARS system. Since fall, this number has fallen to roughly 3,000 rounds (though by some accounts the numbers have picked up of late – and all of these estimates could be off by perhaps 25 to 50 percent.) A key question for Ukraine’s spring offensive is just how much it might increase the numbers, given constraints on availability and production. Russia’s winter/spring offensive seems to have petered out, but not before tens of thousands of additional Russians (and smaller but significant numbers of Ukrainians) were killed or wounded.
Support for Ukraine remains strong
O’Hanlon: For Ukraine’s Western friends, the strategy is to supply the country with more high-technology weaponry — tanks, air- and missile-defense systems, and (one hopes) ample artillery rounds — to prepare for a spring offensive while also helping Ukraine protect its main cities against aerial attack and withstand Russia’s efforts to take more territory. The goal is for Ukraine to move from attrition warfare (where Russia has advantages of scale) to maneuver warfare (where Ukraine’s army might outperform the invaders with superior mobility and precision). So far, Western support has held steady.
Heavy artillery fighting has led to high casualties on both sides. Russia may have had as many as 50,000 to 60,000 soldiers killed, American officials estimate, with three times that many wounded. Ukraine is reported to have lost just over half Russia’s total. But it has also had as many as 50,000 civilian fatalities (or more), according to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley and others.
Ukraine’s budget deficit has widened
David Wessel: Ukraine’s spending, much of it on the military, continues to far outstrip its revenue, forcing the government to turn to money-printing and aid from abroad, including grants from the U.S. that have prompted a handful of U.S. politicians to question giving Ukraine a “blank check.” Meanwhile, international financial institutions have been stepping up aid. In late March, the International Monetary Fund, at the urging of the United States, changed its rules to allow it to lend money with less assurance of repayment, and then said it would loan Ukraine $15.6 billion over four years.
In turn, Ukraine pledged to better collect taxes, borrow on domestic bond markets and curtail money-printing. The European Investment Bank, for its part, created an “E.U. for Ukraine” initiative to increase funding for repairs and reconstruction in the war-torn country.
Over one-third of Ukrainians have been displaced
O’Hanlon: Ukraine’s European neighbors are generously hosting more than 5 million refugees, and any fair reckoning of transatlantic and global burden-sharing must account for this. The cost of taking in a refugee and providing support for a year is about 10,000 euros (about $11,000), and often a good deal more, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates. This implies that, since last summer, Europe has spent more than 40 billion euros and perhaps 50 billion or more on Ukrainian refugees — far more than the modest amounts spent by the United States and Canada.
Constanze Stelzenmüller: The war has transformed Ukrainians’ lives. Russia’s tactics of terror and destruction have displaced more than one-third of the population, with almost 5.3 million registered as refugees across Europe (excluding Belarus and Russia) and an additional nearly 5.4 million internally displaced.
Russia has also been accused of forcibly abducting people, leading the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant for President Vladimir Putin for the unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children. And large numbers continue to flee Ukraine.
Governments and civil society in host countries have created special programs for temporary protection of refugees, granting legal status and access to public services. As pressure on the host countries increases, the continued fighting makes a safe return for refugees increasingly uncertain. As time passes, their roots in the host communities will only grow deeper, and new opportunities for education and employment — especially for young people — may mitigate the desire to return home.
Divergence among Group of 20 states
Stelzenmüller: Russia’s war of aggression has revitalized the role of the United Nations General Assembly as a forum for support of Ukraine’s self-defense. Most member states have condemned Russia’s invasion, declared support for Ukrainian sovereignty, and called for a just and lasting peace. On six emergency resolutions in support of Ukraine to date, however, several countries have taken a “neutral” position or even aligned with Russia — including members of the Group of 20 who have abstained from votes defending Ukrainian independence and denouncing the Russian aggressor, most notably India, Brazil and South Africa. This reflects the sentiment among many non-Western countries that the war is a regional issue that does not directly affect them, and that supporting Ukraine is not in their immediate interest.
Zelensky is winning the digital battle
Zelensky’s speeches that targeted foreign audiences
Data as of April 6
Source: Official website of President of Ukraine, compiled by Brookings Institution
Stelzenmüller: The war in Ukraine may be the first truly modern war, in which digital capabilities have transformed the dynamics on the ground as well as the international response. Ordinary citizens have documented actions in real time with mobile phones. Satellite imagery has helped collect evidence of war crimes. Public web services have provided platforms for information-sharing on the frontlines. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has conducted an unprecedented digital campaign of global outreach. Beyond his daily video messages to Ukrainians, Zelensky has since Feb. 24, 2022, addressed audiences around the world more than 200 times.