Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Russia-Ukraine Report Card

| Feb. 23, 2023

One year into the Russia-Ukraine War, it remains difficult to get an accurate picture of what is actually happening. In part, this is the fog of war. In part, it is a reminder of Churchill’s observation that truth is the first casualty of war. In part, it reflects the extraordinary success of President Zelenskyy and his team in taking information warfare to the next level—crafting compelling daily narratives and controlling the flow of information: for example, withholding data about Ukrainian casualties. And finally, because most reporting on the war is done by journalists working at a distance rather than on the battlefield, news reports reflect prevailing narratives more than numbers.

On February 24, 2022, Russia began a multi-pronged invasion of Ukraine aimed at seizing Kyiv, capturing or killing Zelenskyy, and seizing eastern Ukraine in time for a May Day victory celebration. Remarkably, Zelenskyy courageously rallied his fellow Ukrainian citizens and soldiers to resist the invaders and remind the world what leadership under fire looks like. After Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine stalled, its forces pivoted to the battleground in the Donbas. In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed four eastern provinces of Ukraine and declared that Russia would use its nuclear arsenal if necessary to defend this territory along with the rest of Mother Russia. Ukraine’s September counteroffensive pushed Russian forces back in the north and retook a regional capital, Kherson, but it has stalled since mid-November. 

As professional analysts trying to make sense of what we are seeing, we begin by reciting what we most confidently know: namely, the fundamental truths about war that have been learned over centuries of experience. In the past year, it has been vital to keep in mind one axiom that has become a cliché: the fog of war is dense and thickened by disinformation and propaganda. To ensure we have our feet on a solid foundation as we try to interpret the latest news from Ukraine, we created a weekly Report Card

The bottom line in our inaugural Report Card is that the war has now bogged down in what we have labeled a “snailmate.” Since early November, neither side has made significant advances. But at the end of the first year of war, Russia controls 18% of Ukraine, and intense fighting for advances of a few miles continues to claim hundreds of lives a day. 

In addition, our report provides graphics that answer four frequently asked questions. 

  1. How long is war? One year on, the Russia-Ukraine War remains much shorter than major historical conflicts, but it is already longer than its predecessor conflict in the Donbas and Crimea in 2014, which entered a lower intensity phase at the beginning of 2015 after Minsk II and the fall of Debaltseve. 
  2. How deadly is war? The death toll in the first year of this war numbers over 100,000–making it far deadlier than other post-Cold War conflicts but still much less lethal than the World Wars. 
  3. How expensive is war? As a percentage of its GDP, Ukraine’s expenditure is about equivalent to the US war effort during World War II, essentially mobilizing all of society, and with unprecedented levels of foreign assistance. 
  4. How has the lethality of Western supply of arms risen? The US and its NATO partners have steadily stepped up the escalation ladder in sending more advanced weapons to Ukraine, expressing concern at each step about the possibility of provoking a Russian response that would widen the war, but nonetheless repeatedly crossing previously-announced red lines.
For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham and Kate Davidson. “Russia-Ukraine Report Card.” Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, February 23, 2023.