One year later, Northeastern experts say no end in sight for Russia’s war on Ukraine

A crowd of people hold Ukrainian flags
Photo taken on Feb. 24, 2023, the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, shows a common grave in Bucha, near Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. Kyodo via AP Images

A path to the end of the war in Ukraine is hard to see, Northeastern experts say, and the world is only beginning to reckon with the consequences of this military conflict.

This week as the war in Ukraine reached a 12-month milestone the world was once again assessing the extent of the suffering that Russia brought upon its neighbor and “Slavic brother” in statistical numbers. 

But the anniversary not only marks one year since Russia bombed Ukrainian cities for the first time on Feb. 24, 2022, unleashing the war, but also underscores how the Ukrainian people managed to stand up to what was thought to be the dominant army in Eurasia, says Stephen Flynn, professor of political science and founding director of Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern.

Flynn will join a panel of experts who will evaluate the significance of Russia’s war on Ukraine at 5:15 p.m. Wednesday, March 1, at 909 Renaissance Park on the Boston campus.

Headshot of Steve Flynn (left) and Mai'a Cross (right)
Steve Flynn, professor of political science and founding director of Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University, and Mai’a Cross, dean’s professor of political science, international affairs and diplomacy, and director of Northeastern’s Center for International and World Cultures. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University and Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Other Northeastern speakers will include Mai’a Cross, dean’s professor of political science, international affairs and diplomacy, and director of the Center for International Affairs and World Cultures; and Julie Garey, associate teaching professor of political science, and director of the Security and Resilience Studies program.

The panel discussion will be moderated by Gretchen Heefner, associate professor of history, and associate director of the Center for International Affairs and World Cultures.

According to the United Nations, Russians killed at least 8,000 Ukrainian civilians, including almost 500 children, and injured about 13,300 noncombatants mostly in populated areas with explosive weapons such as artillery shells, cruise and ballistic missiles, and air strikes. About 14 million people fled their homes, with 8 million refugees from Ukraine spreading across Europe and beyond.

Analysts estimate that the war has left about 200,000 Russian troops and 100,000 Ukraine troops killed or wounded. 

In recent weeks, Russia tried to ramp up its ground attacks, but its forces have made only incremental tactical gains that have not changed the front line significantly, according to the Institute for the Study of War.

“It is not clear if there is advantage on either side and when the stalemate will change significantly,” Flynn says.

There are talks that Russia is preparing a big offensive in spring, Cross says, while Ukrainians prepare to defend themselves with the weapons that the West promised to deliver.

Biden addresses world, Putin speaks to domestic audience

On the eve of the anniversary, Russia and Western leaders took turns addressing the world and setting the mood for the months to come.  

President Joe Biden’s surprise visit to Ukraine’s capital Kyiv on Feb. 20 showed appreciation for what Ukrainians have been doing, Cross says. 

“The big purpose of Biden‘s visit was to solidify the message of strong support for Ukraine from the West,” Cross says. “Whatever Putin says, there is right and wrong here and the West is on the right side.”

Biden’s visit was incredibly successful, she says, because it put him in front of millions of people in Ukraine, Europe and the world.

At stake is the nature of the world order that encourages cooperation, rule of law, and the right to self-determination, while discouraging armed infringement on the territory of another state.

Mai’a Cross, director of the Center for International Affairs and World Cultures at Northeastern

Biden also announced in Kyiv additional $500 million in U.S. assistance for Ukraine for shells for howitzers, anti-tank missiles, air surveillance radars and other aid.

Putin’s speech, delivered on Feb. 21 as an address to the Federal Assembly (equivalent of the U.S. Congress), was an effort to tell a story about the war based on delusion, conspiracy theories and eversion of reality, Cross says. The speech was mainly targeted at the domestic audience—the Russian people who want to continue to believe the propaganda, she says.

Putin’s address produced a lot of criticism among military commentators and bloggers in Russia, according to the ISW, as he did not express any goals for future military action or changes in tactics. 

“Putin is all-in on this war and is willing to accept the casualties and even loss of ground without basically changing his calculus,” Flynn says. “He’s more concerned about being perceived as giving in than he is of the cost of the war as it unfolds.”

Putin brings up nukes, again

The most newsworthy part of Putin’s speech covered by the Western media was his announcement that Russia will stop its participation in the New Nuclear Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, signed by the U.S. and Russia in 2010.

Russia has already been breaking the treaty since it suspended bilateral inspections of the nuclear arsenal, Cross says.

“Putin likes to remind everyone that he still has it in his arsenal,” she says. “Nuclear weapons and naval submarines are his sources of power and threat.”

Flynn believes that the announcement coupled with Russia’s previous attacks on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine potentially erodes the established norm that nuclear weapons are never a viable option. 

While the war in Ukraine has energized NATO members and brought together Western countries, more than 50 countries showed their ambivalent position by abstaining from a significant UN vote in April 2022 to exclude Russia from the Human Rights Council.

To much disappointment of the West, the global South has not been as full-throated about the war, Cross says, and continued its relations with Russia.

Russia has been especially trying to woo China

Russia’s attempts to portray increased cooperation with China as an alliance of two great powers defying the West are not to the benefit of China, Cross says. China failed to stay neutral and is leaning toward supporting Russia, she says, but it remains to be seen whether it actually will join Russia in a formal alliance.

Despite the rumors that China is or might supply Russia with weapons, Cross says, it is not in China’s interest to cross that line. China is dealing with its own economic woes and “zero-COVID” policy fallout and would not risk losing access to the Western markets, which would prevent it from recovering its economy after the pandemic.

Economic success and constant growth in the last 30 years kept the Chinese Communist Party in power domestically, Flynn says. If the government does not deliver equal growth and prosperity it could upset a lot of Chinese people, and the party will have to manage that.

China also has a desire to be not only a great economic power but also great military power, Flynn says, and it sees the U.S. trying to constrain that role. It might be using the war in Ukraine as a quagmire that distracts the U.S. in South-East Asia and the Pacific.

On Feb.24, China proposed a 12-point plan to end the Russia-Ukraine war.

“China is the last country that should take on the role of mediator in Europe given its own aggression in Asia,” Cross says.

The content of the proposal indicates that China is still not backing down from its tacit support of Russia, she says. Cross believes freezing Russian troop positions per the Chinese plan would only benefit Russia and would be tantamount to forcing Ukraine and its Western allies to give up in this war.

Russian economy seems to be OK

“It looks at the moment like the sanctions might not have impacted Russia as much as some people hoped they might,” says Marianna Koli, dean for education in business and economics at Northeastern University-London, noting that sanctions are typically not a quick solution. 

Although the International Monetary Fund estimated the real GDP growth in Russia at negative 2.3% in October 2022, it is projecting 0.3% growth in 2023 and 2.1% growth in 2024 which is higher than projections for some European countries and the U.S.

Anecdotally, the economic and financial sanctions did affect Russian citizens who lost access to some goods or were unable to receive and send money transfers abroad.

While Russia is willing to throw in more soldiers despite significant casualties, Ukraine is spending more money than it has, Flynn says. 

Besides losing the economic contribution of Donbas, Ukraine’s role as the world’s bread basket and exports of grains have significantly decreased because of the war. The farming has been significantly affected by the destruction, while Russia continues to obstruct Ukrainian exports by slowing down the inspection of ships on the Black Sea, Flynn says.

Ukraine will also have to figure out how to rebuild many parts of the country so that people who have migrated out of the country might come back.

Is there still a chance for Putin to win?

The best outcome that Putin can expect now is holding on to Donetsk and Luhansk and not losing economic support of the countries that continue to trade with Russia, defying the West, Cross says.

A huge win for Russia would be a change in the U.S leadership with the new administration choosing to focus on the internal interests rather than continuing to support Ukraine. 

But what is at stake for the West in this war is much bigger than the win on the battlefield, Cross says. 

“At stake is the nature of the world order established after World War II that encourages cooperation, rule of law, and the right to self-determination, while discouraging armed infringement on the territory of another state,” Cross says.

Alena Kuzub is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AlenaKuzub.