Yevgeny Prigozhin memorial

Russia-Ukraine War Update: Fall 2023

by Matt Collins

It’s safe to say the Russo-Ukrainian War has surprised everyone involved.

From the resilience of Ukraine’s outnumbered defenders to Russia’s success in accomplishing key objectives, it’s actively redefining the way modern warfare is conducted on a day-to-day basis.

Most onlookers, after all, expected that the war might last a few weeks–or at most a few months–before Ukraine’s government eventually declared defeat… but over a year and a half later, both sides are still locked in battle.

Russian invasion of Ukraine infographic

Russia’s back-and-forth invasion of Ukraine.  (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

This leaves us with the question: how long could this war last?

And what’s the possibility that Russia will turn to its vast nuclear arsenal?

To answer these questions, we’ll explore the centuries-long relationship between these two countries, evaluating how this war started, how it’s progressed over the last eighteen months—and how it’s likely to end.

Let’s get started.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    A Long History of Tension and Temporary Cooperation

  • 02

    Ukraine’s Cold War with Russia (2014-2015)

  • 03

    Readying for Battle (2014-2022)

  • 04

    Russia’s New War in Europe (2022-2023)

  • 05

    Prigozhin's Fate

  • 06

    A New Era of Instability (2023-)

  • 07

    The #1 Threat from Russia’s War with Ukraine

  • 08

    War Never Changes

A Long History of Tension and Temporary Cooperation

Russia’s complicated relationship with Ukraine traces back to the medieval age with Kievan Rus, an East Slavic state that existed from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries.

For both Russia and Ukraine, Kievan Rus was their historical predecessor. As the name implies, its capital was located in Kyiv, in modern-day Ukraine. This early state played a crucial role in developing the Eastern Slavic culture and Orthodox Christianity, which have long been prevalent in both countries.

Over the centuries, however, Russia’s imperial ambitions led to Ukraine being partitioned, with a portion of the country under the control of Russia, while the rest of the country was controlled by Poland.

Consequently, it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that the two countries were reunited, with Ukraine joining the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1922.

Less than two decades later, however, the scourge of World War II would put the young Soviet Union to the test. And though the USSR eventually emerged victorious from the conflict, it was only after losing 27 million soldiers and civilians.

Approximately 3.9 million of those wartime deaths, it should be noted, came from what’s called the “Holodomor,” or the Ukrainian genocide.

Holodomor memorial statue

The Holodomor was not recognized as a genocide in Germany until 2022.  (Image courtesy of DW)

Unfortunately, the Holodomor is often glazed over in historical accounts. Indeed, the Soviet state for years denied that the genocide even occurred.

Nevertheless, records show that the Soviet Union’s systemic starvation of the Ukrainian people (through restrictive food rationing and other measures) led to the deaths of millions–etching an indelible mark on the Ukrainian psyche.

Then, following the conclusion of World War II, Ukraine was reconstituted within the Soviet Union, and its borders were altered, including the addition of Crimea from Russia. Very quickly, this region became vital to the Soviet Union, hosting key industries and the Soviet Black Sea Fleet.

But by the late 1980s, Soviet communism was coming apart at the seams. As a result, the Soviet Union underwent political and economic reforms under Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika.

Though these reforms were meant to strengthen pride and faith in the Union of Soviet states, they had almost the opposite effect. Coupled with rising nationalist sentiments in Ukraine, perestroika led to the declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991 following a referendum.

Ukraine’s independence and the dissolution of the Soviet Union marked a critical turning point in the relationship between the two countries.

No longer a servant to the Soviet state, Ukraine was now poised to compete for the same business and economic resources as Russia. This means that what had once been a powerful asset was now a potential liability—even a threat to the future prosperity of Russia’s people.

For most of the next decade, Russia reeled from the collapse of its empire. Rampant inflation and sovereign debt defaults kept the country’s imperial ambitions in check until the turn of the twenty-first century.

Ukraine’s Cold War with Russia (2014-2015)

Recently, under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia has sought to restore some of the once-great empire it controlled in past generations.

That began with skirmishes in Georgia and South Ossetia in 2008 but eventually spread to Ukraine. Putin’s primary cause (or excuse) for initiating conflict in Ukraine lies in the country’s control over the Crimean Peninsula.

Crimea had been part of Russia for centuries until it was transferred to Ukraine in 1954—essentially as a gift to celebrate the two countries’ 300-year alliance. That alliance had long since ended, and Russia wanted Crimea back.

Crimea map

(Image courtesy of World Atlas)

But it wasn’t just a matter of principle, either.

Because recent assessments just so happen to have discovered an estimated two trillion cubic meters of natural gas underneath the Black Sea. Ergo, whoever controls the Crimean Peninsula has a front-row seat for what could become the next major energy hotspot.

Another central point of conflict emerged in Eastern Ukraine, in the now well-known Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Pro-Russian separatist movements began to materialize in these border regions, often supported by Russia and willing to engage in armed conflict with Ukrainian security forces. What began there as a few skirmishes persisted into years of attrition fighting and loss of life.

Finally, there were the tolls.

Many of Putin’s Soviet-era gas pipelines run straight through Ukraine, so they can sell their gas to Western European states like Germany. This was a practical decision at the time. But once Ukraine became independent, they started charging Russia for using these pipelines.

Ultimately, all these issues came to a head in 2014, when then-President Viktor Yanukovych chose not to sign a free trade agreement with the European Union—opting to strengthen the country’s ties with Russia.

Ukrainians objected to this decision, clearly wishing to leave their servitude to Russia in the past, and staged mass protests now known as “The Revolution of Dignity.” Consequently, Yanukovych’s government was removed, and the country’s ties with Russia became even more strained.

Russia responded by taking decisive military action, sending soldiers into the Crimean Peninsula before staging a local referendum (widely doubted by experts) in which the locals apparently elected to rejoin the Russian Federation.

Putin visits Crimea on the anniversary of its annexation.

Putin visits Crimea on the anniversary of its annexation.  (Image courtesy of Reuters)

The results of this conflict weren’t a clear victory for either side.

Ukraine, for its part, lost one of its most important energy assets without even putting up a fight. But Russia had awakened a kind of animosity not felt since the Ukrainian Genocide some seventy years before.

Readying for Battle (2014-2022)

Following the events of 2014, Ukraine rapidly trained and modernized its army.

The sudden threat of further aggression from Russian invaders was enough motivation for the government to prioritize military funding. They also leaned on relationships with NATO-friendly allies to provide armaments, supplies, and knowledge to help Ukraine win the fight.

As far as the United States government is concerned, their role in this fight isn’t much different from their role in Russia’s Afghanistan conflict—famously depicted in Charlie Wilson’s War.

The bottom line is that every $78,000 Javelin missile the US sends to Ukraine costs Russia $3 million in lost tanks or troop carriers. That’s the kind of trade the Pentagon will take any day of the week. It's also the reason why so many governments are flooding Ukraine with weapons and supplies. Most of this gear, after all, was built to fight the Russians anyway.

Javelin missiles attack tanks from the top, where their armor is weakest.

Javelin missiles attack tanks from the top, where their armor is weakest.  (Image courtesy of Quora)

The US government even sent in CIA paramilitary experts to train the new army—showing them how to use their new weapons and preparing them to battle with an invading Russian Army. These operations, notably, were conducted in secret and only revealed after the beginning of the war.

This training is a significant advantage, too. Instead of being a “general purpose” army designed to handle foreign and domestic threats, Ukraine’s Ground Forces is a purpose-built force designed to answer only one threat and one threat alone.

Based on what we’d see in the first year of the War, it’s safe to assume this training centered around answering Russia’s armor advantage with next-gen anti-tank weapons. They were almost certainly trained to expect an attack from the North and the East, with control of Kakhovka Reservoir as a significant objective for the invaders (since it unlocks a vital supply of fresh water for Russians in Crimea).

Russia’s New War in Europe (2022-2023)

Tensions finally boiled over in February of 2022, as Russia sent 300,000 troops across the border and into Ukraine.

To an impartial observer, it might seem like Putin expected the invasion to be a pushover. His previous operations in Georgia and Crimea, after all, had each been a success. Plus, Ukraine’s government was in the hands of a literal comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Likewise, even though he knew of some scattered military support, Putin likely didn’t know about Ukraine’s CIA training or the coming deluge of heavy weapons. As a result, he may have expected his army to roll right through Kyiv while the Beijing Olympic Games distracted the world.

Russia’s expanded draft conscripts more new soldiers for the fight.

Russia’s expanded draft conscripts more new soldiers for the fight.  (Image courtesy of NBC News )

Regardless of his motivations, Putin declared the “Special Military Operation” at 5 AM Kyiv time on February 24, 2022. He claimed pro-Russian Ukrainians in the Donbas had been suffering “humiliation and genocide” at the hands of the government, which he likewise alleged to be under neo-nazi Western control. 

But despite nearly a year of preparation and staging, Russia’s invasion didn’t exactly go to plan.

Reports abounded from military corruption to missing tank armor and failure-prone tires bought from China on the cheap. Despite these internal issues, the Russian army still attacked an entrenched, highly motivated, well-equipped enemy on unknown ground. That’s a difficult task for any fighting force.

Russia was also confronted by a pair of unseasonably warm winters, which saw the icy Ukrainian landscape turn into churned mud far sooner than expected. This forced Russia’s tanks and support vehicles to avoid overland travel and instead march single file up established roadways—making a near-on perfect target for Ukrainian anti-tank missiles.

Additionally, Russian conscripts found themselves facing entirely new threats, like Turkish Bayraktar drones and American Switchblade drones that could attack at any time with zero notice. The United States even helped network Ukraine’s assets by providing up-to-the-minute intel on strategic targets and enemy leadership.

As a result, Russia’s march to the Capital City of Kyiv was essentially stopped dead in its tracks before turning around and heading home. Russia’s invasion along the East, meanwhile, has been slightly more successful. They carved a path of destruction to the Kakhovka Reservoir, which was breached on June 6, 2022, solving their water problem in Crimea.

Satellite footage reveals the destruction of Kakhovka Reservoir.

Satellite footage reveals the destruction of Kakhovka Reservoir.  (Image courtesy of BBC)

But based on all reports, both sides are dishing out just as much punishment as they’re taking. As such, the Ukrainian government has reported 13,000 killed, while BBC reports nearly 45,000 dead for Russian and Pro-Russian Forces.

The cost in terms of Russian military losses, too, is nothing short of tremendous. Its newest weapons, including everything from the T-14 Armata tank to the Kinzhal hypersonic missile, have all essentially fallen flat. The Economist estimated that the invasion is costing Russia $67 billion per year. Meanwhile, entire Ukrainian cities have been wiped off the map by the last year’s fighting.

But even after eighteen months, the invasion continues.

So what’s next for Russia’s War in Ukraine?

Prigozhin's Fate

Prigozhin with Putin in 2013. (Image Courtesy of The Moscow Times)

To answer that question, we must first touch upon the two most widely publicized recent developments in the Russo-Ukrainian war—namely, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin's aborted coup and subsequent death in a plane crash, which occurred two months to the day later.

The unlikely unfolding of events began in early summer, when Prigozhin's already acrimonious relationship with Russia's defense leaders sank to a new low. Prigozhin, for his part, felt that the Kremlin's defense ministers were incompetent, self-serving, and craven—effectively using Russian soldiers as canon fodder, and seizing eastern Ukraine in order to loot its spoils. As such, he frequently took to Telegram to broadcast bombastic rants about Russia's military elite, especially defense ministers Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov.

Following months of clashes along these lines—with accusations flying on both sidesJune 10 saw the rivalry come to a very unpleasant head. The spark, unsurprisingly, emanated from Prigozhin's nemesis Shoigu, who announced a proposalseemingly backed by Putinthat Wagner soldiers would need to contract with the defense ministry. This, in effect, would disband the Wagner Group.

Faced with a dilemma, Prigozhin responded with a characteristically dramatic video, purportedly showing the aftermath of a missile strike on a Wagner camp in Donbas. The narrative spun by Prigozhin suggested that the Russian defense ministry was behind the attack, giving him a pretext for his next boisterous move: a direct challenge to the Kremlin's authority.

US intelligence agencies, having identified signs of potential upheaval, quickly alerted Washington officials about the looming danger Prigozhin posed, especially concerning Russia's nuclear arsenal. (What would happen, they wondered, if these devastating weapons fell into the mercenary's hands?)

Meanwhile, Moscow seemed wholly unprepared for the storm that was brewing. Challenges to Putin's authority, after all, are a rare event in Russia, as the longtime head of state is well known to neither forgive nor forget.

It came as a distinct surprise, then, when Wagner armored vehicles exited Ukraine, advancing unopposed towards Rostov-on-Don. By daybreak, Prigozhin had taken command of Russia’s southern district military facility, with Wagner mercenaries patrolling the streets.

Despite the gravity of the situation, many residents and even some military officials engaged with Prigozhin in a congenial manner—a decidedly unexpected reaction to the most significant challenge to Putin's regime since he assumed office in 2000.

In light of this, the international community watched with bated breath as Wagner forces made their way north. Convoys were seen on highways connecting Rostov to Moscow, with reports of aerial confrontations, including the downing of Russian aircraft by Wagner forces. (At least thirteen Russian military personnel were killed during the twenty-four-hour encounter.)

Amidst the chaos, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko emerged as an unexpected mediator. After intense discussions, Lukashenko announced—to the world's collective shock—that the insurrection was over. A deal was struck, and Wagner forces would retreat to their bases in eastern Ukraine.

Even more surprisingly, this agreement came with assurances that no Wagner personnel would face prosecution. Furthermore, they could either integrate into the Russian army or opt out—meaning that the dreaded Shoigu would essentially get his way. 

For many, this was a curious development, as Prigozhin had seemingly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. 

Regardless, Prigozhin arrived in Belarus three days later, where he received a warm welcome from Lukashenko. There, any Wagner mercenaries who wished to join their leader were offered an abandoned military base.

However, just when it seemed the dust was settling, another shock came. Prigozhin, the man at the center of this whirlwind of events, died in a plane crash alongside nine other people–including the Wagner chief’s right-hand man, Dmitry Utkin–whilst en route to St. Petersburg.

Though investigations are ongoing, some American officials suspect foul play—like the detonation of a bomb on the doomed jet. (Surface-to-air missiles have been notably ruled out as a potential cause of the crash, according to the US Department of Defense.)

With that said, Putin has denied any involvement in the crash—even going so far as to eulogize the Wagner chief, albeit ambivalently so.

"I knew Prigozhin for a very long time, since the early 1990s. He was a man with a complex destiny, and he made serious mistakes in life," Putin stated in his (as ever) carefully worded remarks.

A New Era of Instability (2023-)

Ukraine rightly shocked the world by holding its ground against a much more massive Russian army over the last year and a half.

Indeed, few expected they could defend the capital city of Kyiv in those first few weeks. And even now, their resistance is inspiring. At the same time, Russia has a history of not giving up very quickly.

During World War II, the Soviet Union suffered defeat at the hands of the Nazis for two full years before finally winning the battle of Stalingrad and turning the tide of the War. Granted, Russia is a vastly different country today—but the same fighting spirit is likely still there.

So even though it’s possible that the war could end tomorrow, it’s not implausible to imagine it persisting for years more. Wars, after all, are categorically far easier to start than they are to stop.

Ukrainian forces have had some success with their counteroffensive, reclaiming roughly half of the territory claimed by Russia since the invasion first began. But these battle lines have crept back and forth over some of the same territory for months now.

In a way, it’s almost a reversion to World War I-era tactics. Where tanks could once be relied upon to break enemy lines, Javelin missiles have turned said tanks into so many burned-out hulls. And the War for air superiority is hard to win when navigating via commercial GPS transponders like some Russian pilots have reportedly used.

Russian pilots reportedly resorted to using civilian GPS units for navigation.

Russian pilots reportedly resorted to using civilian GPS units for navigation.  (Image courtesy of Defence Blog)

Recent reports have even shown soldiers digging into trenches to fight it out with advancing enemies.

And it’s unlikely to see a practical peace settlement anytime soon. Russia, after all, will almost certainly want control of Crimea, the Donbas, and even portions of Western Ukraine before they settle for peace. And Ukraine would likewise want Crimea returned to its control. Based on Ukraine’s unique experience in dealing with Russia, from the Holodomor genocide to the 2014 annexation of Crimea, they’re not likely to compromise anytime soon.

But the problem of continuing the War from here is one of stability.

Because as the War continues, there’s an increasing risk that Russia might change its tactics. They might, for example, deploy battlefield nukes or double down on their operations around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant or the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

The recent insurrection, which saw Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of Russia’s massive Wagner military group, marching on Moscow, is an example of what can happen in unstable situations like these. The risk of another violent rebellion or regime change is magnified by the fact that Russia possesses the world’s largest nuclear weapons stockpile.

Theoretically, even if Russia fired off a tactical nuke in Kyiv, NATO wouldn’t respond with force. But what would really happen? And would Putin even entertain the idea if he thought it would win him the War?

As soon as all these “if’s” enter the situation, predicting what might come next becomes practically impossible. This is why we suggest stocking up on protective equipment you can truly count on.

The #1 Threat from Russia’s War with Ukraine

Above all else, the number one threat to the world from Russia’s ongoing invasion is their nuclear arsenal.

Whether they use nuclear weapons on the ground in Ukraine or weapons are deployed as a result of the conflict—things could quickly spiral out of control.

The results would be catastrophic not just for Russia and Europe, but worldwide. That’s why we strongly recommend investing in a full-face respirator/gas mask and a filter that can handle nuclear fallout. The NBC-77 SOF filter comes with both a “P3” and “Reactor” rating, making it ideal for the task.

The NBC-77 SOF filter

Next, we strongly recommend stocking up on Potassium Iodide tablets while you can. These tablets flood your body’s thyroid gland with safe iodine, preventing your body from absorbing any of the Iodine-131 that’s likely to be in the atmosphere. These tablets provide twenty-four hours of protection and prevent the potential thyroid cancer that can result from exposure.

Potassium Iodide tablets

Finally, you’ll want a Geiger-2 personal dosimeter.

the Geiger 2

This is an essential tool for tracking radiation and avoiding potential hotspots that might emerge after a nuclear explosion. It can also track exposure over time, with personalized alarms to help make sure you’re not in danger.

War Never Changes

As long as a steady stream of foreign weapons is flooding into Ukraine, the country will likely be able to hold its ground against Russia’s advances.

Russia may scale up its attacks in the near future, especially during the winter months. But for now, both sides are locked in a stalemate that doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon. And as long as the conflict continues, the risk of instability—and its chaotic result—will persist.

Zelenskyy has proven himself a capable wartime leader.

Zelenskyy has proven himself a capable wartime leader.  (Image courtesy of Al Jazeera)

Regardless of who emerges victorious, the end to Russia’s War in Ukraine will likely be decisive and unexpected. But even then, it won’t be a return to the status quo from before the war. Whatever regime comes out on top will have to reestablish its dominance within the region and its relationship with its adversary.

So even if the war is nearly over (which it probably isn’t), its effect and global impact are still far from done.

Contributions from Effy Lindström.