Ukraine's biggest victories and defeats in its war against Russia

A look at seven key battles that have shaped the trajectory of the conflict

Illustration of scenes from the Russian invasion of Ukraine
Russia's invasion plan centered around a surprise lightning strike on Kyiv
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images / AP Images)

More than a year into Russia's bloody war in Ukraine, it's hard to call anyone a winner. Tens of thousands of civilians and tens of thousands more fighters are dead; entire once-thriving cities are piles of rubble; global energy prices are higher and food supplies lower; Ukraine has lost part of its populace and territory to Russia; and Russia has lost clout, business, leverage, a good bit of its armed forces, and many, many battles.

But in war, there are victories and defeats. Here are some of the key, war-defining battles Ukraine has won and lost since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, 2022.

WIN: Battle for Kyiv

"Feb. 24, 2022, was supposed to bring the existence of a 40-million European nation to an end," Illia Ponomarenko recounted at The Kyiv Independent. Russia's invasion plan centered around a surprise lightning strike on Kyiv, toppling Ukraine's government while taking out its air defenses and military strongholds, Britain's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) assessed per captured Russian documents. Ukraine was supposed to have been pacified within 10 days.

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"One year later, Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands," President Biden said during a surprise trip to Kyiv on Feb. 20, 2023.

Russia came dangerously close to succeeding, though, as noted by Foreign Affairs. Kyiv — and Ukraine — were saved through a combination of Russian President Vladimir Putin's hubris, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's unexpected pluck and wartime leadership skills, and Ukraine's years of planning and forewarning from Western intelligence.

"One of Putin's initial mistakes was trying to conquer a country the size of France with a force that Western estimates suggest was barely larger than the Allies' D-Day army in World War II," John Leicester wrote at The Associated Press. Thanks to this mismatch between ambitions and resources committed, retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling added in The Washington Post, "it took about six weeks for Phase 1 of Putin's campaign to fail."

By mid-March, the "writing was on the wall," Ponomarenko continued. "In the first of what it called 'goodwill gestures,' Russia withdrew from north Ukraine by April."

LOSS: Siege of Mariupol

Ukraine derailed Moscow's Kyiv blitzkrieg, but Russia had more immediate success in the south. "Ukrainian failures helped Russia quickly seize Kherson," then Berdyansk and Melitopol, which "paved the way to the tragic destruction of Mariupol," Ponomarenko said.

Russian forces understood their mission — to lay siege to and seize Mariupol, strategically located on the Sea of Azov on the "land bridge" between Crimea and Russia — and used a combination of brutal shelling and storm groups of infantry and armor to achieve it.

Mariupol's defenders, outnumbered and isolated, made some mistakes, like dividing defense of the city between naval, ground and territorial defense forces, RUSI assessed. But they held on from late February through mid-May, when the final Ukrainian surviving forces surrendered at the sprawling Azovstal steel plant. "The longevity of the defense of Mariupol reflects the extraordinary bravery of its defenders," RUSI added. "Ukrainian forces not only exceeded the expectations of the Ukrainian General Staff, but also inflicted heavy losses on the Russian attackers."

WIN: Destruction of Russian battalion at Bilohorivka

The surrender of Mariupol bled into the Battle of the Donbas, where Russia redeployed patchwork forces from the north and south to try and capture the rest of Ukraine's industrial east. At this point, Ukraine had home-field advantage, grit, valor, and a mobilized population girded for war, but it needed bigger and better weapons and lots more ammunition. And before it could obtain them, it needed to convince Western allies they wouldn't be throwing good weapons at a lost cause.

Ukraine's armed forces proved they were up for the fight by destroying what amounted to an entire Russian battalion tactical group at the Siverskyi Donets River near Bilohorivka in Luhansk Oblast. For Ukraine, the strike helped open the floodgates of Western weapons and deflated the specter of an invincible Russian army.

In Russia, the debacle finally broke through the "Kremlin's tightly controlled information bubble," The New York Times reported, and may have very well closed off an "avenue of attack on Ukrainian forces" in the Bilohorivka area, "limiting Moscow's options in a region it very much wants to control," added The Wall Street Journal.

LOSS: Capture of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk

Russia abandoned its efforts to encircle Ukraine's Donbas forces and pivoted to a frontal push for full control of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. And Russia successfully, if temporarily, captured all of Luhansk with its grinding assault on the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in late June and early July.

This blow to Ukraine was the start of the "attrition" stage of the Battle of Donbas, Ponomarenko said in The Kyiv Independent. In Severodonetsk and then Lysychansk, Russian artillery pounded the cities to rubble, and Ukraine defended them in close combat until they couldn't hold them any longer and fell back to new battle lines.

But it was ultimately a mixed victory for Moscow, Ponomarenko added. After seizing Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, "Russia was so exhausted that it couldn't gather a comprehensive offensive capability for more than half a year."

WIN: Kharkiv blitzkrieg

In Phase 3 of the war, from July through September, "Ukraine's army forced a large-scale withdrawal in the northeast in the Sumy and Kharkiv oblasts, using small-scale counterattacks directed at just the right locations," Hertling recounted in the Post. As Ukrainian forces routed Russian forces in Kharkiv, liberating some 3,000 square miles in a matter of days, the humiliated Russians "sustained casualties that far exceeded those suffered during the disastrous Phase 1 and 2."

The scale of Ukraine's victory in Kharkiv Oblast "stunned the entire world, but perhaps nobody was as surprised as the Russians themselves," former Ukrainian defense minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk wrote for the Atlantic Council. "The speed of events and the sheer scale of the collapse" thwarted the Kremlin's efforts to suppress the military disaster and delivered a "huge psychological blow for the Russian public, who learned for the first time that their soldiers in Ukraine were demoralized and beaten."

WIN: Recapture of Kherson

The last major battle of the first year of Russia's invasion of Ukraine was for Kherson, the only provincial capital Russia managed to capture before Ukraine turned the tide. And this battle ended in another humiliating defeat for Russia, which rewarded Ukraine's steady and surgical destruction of its supply and reinforcement lines by withdrawing across the Dnipro River rather than face another costly rout like Kharkiv. Russia abandoned Kherson weeks after "annexing" its namesake province.

LOSS: Battle for Bakhmut

After Russia pulled out of Kherson in November 2022, the battle lines and battlefields effectively froze for the winter. Russia launched an offensive focused on regaining the initiative and wresting Donetsk Oblast from Ukrainian defenders, but its long and bloody winter slog managed to claim just one eventual victory: Bahkmut.

The battle for Bakhmut, a once-bucolic city of 80,000, was the longest and bloodiest of the war. Russia's year-long drive to seize the city "began as part of a theoretically sensible but overly ambitious operational effort" to encircle Ukraine's eastern forces and capture the strongholds of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, the Institute for the Study of War recorded, but it "ended as a purely symbolic gesture that cost tens of thousands of Russian casualties."

Russia started advancing on Bakhmut in May 2022 as part of a three-pronged attack on Slvovyansk, but the city lost most of its strategic signficicance when Ukraine recaptured the northern fork, Izyum, in its Kharkiv blitz, ISW recounted. At that point, in the fall of 2022, the Kremlin "desperately needed any battlefield victory," and Wagner mercenaries took on the task of capturing Bakhmut. But Ukraine decided to defend the city and used the battle to grind down both hardened Wagner forces and the Russian soldiers and commandos that stepped in when Wagner's offensive lost steam in February and early March 2023.

By the time Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, then the Kremlin, declared victory in May, the Russian army had "suffered such high losses and [was] so worn out around Bakhmut that ... it [could not] go forward anymore," Phillips O'Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews, told the AP. And Ukraine wasn't even done fighting. In the months after Moscow declared victory, Ukraine has pushed Russian forces out of Bakhmut's northern and southern flanks and captured strategic highlands overlooking the destroyed city.

Ultimately, the Battle of Bakhmut "exposed several key flaws in the Russian planning and conduct of operational maneuver," ISW concluded, and the Kremlin's "fixation" with the city "indicates that Russia has not learned lessons from the first phases of the war."

Updated August 30, 2023: This article has been updated throughout.

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