The New Year’s holiday, a far bigger deal in the post-Soviet world than it is in the U.S., has given no respite to either Ukrainians or Russians. The Russian military rained missiles and Iranian drones down on Kyiv on New Year’s Day. On January 2, the Ukrainian military shot a couple HIMARS rockets into a Russian military barracks housing hundreds of recently drafted Russian soldiers who, apparently, were all using their cell phones, which allowed the Ukrainian forces to locate them. By the evening of the 3rd, a day that Russians spent mourning and promising revenge, the Russian Ministry of Defense upped its official casualty count from 63 to 89—though the Ukrainians put the number of Russian dead at 400. (Given the fog of war—and state propaganda—it is hard to verify either number.)
The war has settled into a grinding slog, what military analyst Michael Kofman, who has become a kind of prophet of this conflict, has called its “transitional phase.” There are no more spectacular breakthroughs of the kind we saw in Kharkiv, no more surrenders like the one we witnessed at Kherson in November. The war is now concentrated where it had been since 2014: the Donbas. The Ukrainian army seems to be on the verge of taking Kreminna, a small eastern city in Ukraine that’s been occupied by the Russians. Fifty miles to the south, Russian forces, led mainly by Evgeny Prigozhin’s mercenary Wagner Group, have been trying for months to take Bakhmut—though, according to the well-regarded Institute for the Study of War, they are on the verge of “culminating,” that is, exhausting themselves. (Prigozhin seemed to acknowledge as much in a recent on-camera visit to his troops in Bakhmut, where they complained of a lack of equipment and he exaggerated the fortifications of the city.)
These are the current prizes in the war: small cities in the Donbas that are obliterated in the taking. Meanwhile, Russia continues pounding Kyiv, Kherson, Kharkiv, and other major Ukrainian cities, annihilating their civilian infrastructure and making it nearly impossible for the Ukrainian government to provide heat, electricity, and clean water to their citizens. As Kofman pointed out, this isn’t just about exhausting Ukrainians into submission. The Russians have a very clear military goal in mind, too: making the Ukrainian military choose whether it deploys its limited air defense artillery on protecting its civilians in the cities or its soldiers in the battlefields. Eventually, Moscow hopes that Ukraine’s air defenses are exhausted to the point that Russia will finally have dominance of the skies, a goal that has eluded them since February 24.