A Russia-Ukraine timeline: Key moments, from attack on Kyiv to counteroffensive
The Washington Post June 9, 2023
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which began in February 2022 after years of tensions, enters a new phase with the start of Ukraine’s latest counteroffensive.
Ukraine’s military launched the counterattack Wednesday night, pushing to retake occupied territory after months of stalemate along increasingly entrenched front lines.
The war has exacted an unthinkable cost: Since the start of the invasion last year, as many as 120,000 Ukrainian soldiers and 200,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said in May that an estimated 20,000 Russian soldiers were killed in the first four months of this year. Thousands of civilians have also died, many under flattened buildings, others shot and buried in mass graves. Whole neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble.
In the past year, the war has shifted from a fast-moving, multipronged invasion to a battle of attrition concentrated along hundreds of miles of front lines. Both countries have seen their economies devastated, Ukraine’s most acutely from the toll of war on its soil, but Russia’s too, from the cost of military mobilizations and the weight of Western sanctions.
Here are some of the pivotal moments in the conflict leading up to the counteroffensive.
1. February 2022: Russia invades Ukraine
Early on Feb. 24, Russia begins a full-scale attack on its neighbor, launching missile and rocket strikes on Ukrainian cities and military installations. Russian military vehicles and troop columns roll into the country, crossing from Moscow ally Belarus in the north and making a beeline for Kyiv, the capital; from the northeast in a push to take the city of Kharkiv; from Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, to the south; and from Donbas in the east.
In the early hours of the invasion, Russian forces take Chernobyl, the site of a disastrous 1986 nuclear accident, along with the surrounding “exclusion zone,” risking catastrophe by disrupting ongoing containment efforts there.
In a televised address that morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin questions Ukraine’s right to exist and justifies the attack with the baseless claim that Russian speakers in Ukraine face “genocide.” He says Russia aims to protect the people of Donbas, where conflict is already underway over Russian control of the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and pledges to achieve the “demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.” He refers to the invasion as a “special military operation.”
Russia had massed troops and military equipment for months around Ukraine’s borders, though Russian officials and commentators had denied that Moscow was planning to attack its neighbor. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had also downplayed the threat amid repeated warnings from Western officials — including President Biden — citing a desire to avoid panic.
Western leaders and most NATO members immediately denounce the invasion. Biden calls it an “unprovoked and unjustified attack,” and says “the world will hold Russia accountable.”
2. March and April 2022: Russia takes Kherson, seizes Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, gives up on Kyiv
Russia pushes ahead with its campaign in southern Ukraine, bombarding cities including Mykolaiv, Kherson and the major port of Odessa. But the battle for southern Ukraine is one of the first major signs of Russia faltering: Even in the face of heavy bombardment, Ukraine is able to thwart and beat back Russian advances.
Russian forces in early March capture Kherson — the first major city to fall to the invading forces. They besiege the nearby port city of Mariupol, capturing it weeks later.
Under occupation, the cities are isolated, leaving residents without access to basic medicines, cellphone and internet service, and cash. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians are trapped in Mariupol, with as many as 1,000 civilians hiding underground at the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works plant — in what becomes a symbol for Ukrainian bravery and Russian terror that ends in a deadly Russian siege and Ukrainian surrender. Russia continues shelling Mariupol during March, hitting a maternity hospital as well as a theater used as a shelter, in an attack that killed hundreds.
Moscow also seizes Europe’s largest nuclear plant, Zaporizhzhia, in southeastern Ukraine, raising fears of nuclear disaster as shells repeatedly threaten the facility — a risk that continues through much of the war.
Russia’s attack on Kyiv loses momentum. Analysts and military observers had said the capital might fall swiftly, but Ukrainian resistance rebuffs Russia’s advance. By late March, Russia begins pulling its troops back from Kyiv and deploying them to other parts of the country.
3. April 2022 onward: Moscow shifts focus to the east
After failing to encircle and capture Kyiv, the Kremlin announces the “next phase” of the invasion: a campaign in the east. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Russia seeks “the complete liberation of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics,” two eastern Ukrainian territories collectively known as Donbas, parts of which are already ruled by separatists loyal to Moscow.
But even as Russia aims to reorganize and carve off parts of Ukraine’s east, defense officials and analysts began to speak of a stalemate as Ukraine launches counterattacks and Russia faces struggles relating to terrain, geography and logistics.
In September, Putin signs decrees, decried as illegal under international law, formally annexing four regions of Ukraine: Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
4. April 2022: Bucha atrocities discovered
As Russian forces pull back from Kyiv and its suburbs, they leave behind a gruesome trail of destruction. The town of Bucha — abandoned by Russian forces after a month of occupation — becomes synonymous with Russian carnage.
Investigators and residents find dozens of bodies strewn on the streets, some of which were beheaded, dismembered, intentionally burned or left in mass graves. In all, 458 bodies are found in the small suburb — 419 of which bear markings of shooting, torturing or bludgeoning. Ukrainian and international war crimes investigators arrive to collect evidence.
5. July 2022: Black Sea grain deal
In a rare instance of cooperation amid the conflict, Russia and Ukraine agree to a pact, brokered by Turkey and the United Nations and later extended several times, to allow grain shipments from Ukraine to depart via the Black Sea. The deal is meant to alleviate shortages and hunger as a ripple effect of the war. Russia has since expressed dissatisfaction with and briefly suspended the deal, accusing Ukraine without evidence of using the grain corridor to stage attacks.
6. August 2022: Ukrainian special forces attack Crimean air base
On Aug. 9, several explosions rock a Russian air base and ammunition depots in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia seized in 2014. A Ukrainian government official tells The Washington Post that Ukrainian special forces carried out the attack, showing Kyiv’s apparent ability to strike far beyond the front lines.
Moscow had fought to secure a land corridor in eastern Ukraine from Russia to Crimea — a goal it achieved after the fall of Ukraine’s stronghold in Mariupol.
7. September 2022: Putin announces partial mobilization
In September, Putin announces the controversial “partial mobilization” of hundreds of thousands of Russian reservists, sparking a mass exodus and nationwide protests that lead to more than 1,300 arrests.
The call-up of reservists into active duty is seen by analysts as a reaction to Russian setbacks in the war.
Meanwhile, a crackdown on antiwar protests comes as the Kremlin suppresses critics of the war and dissenters through arrests, investigations and criminal charges. Those charges include a two-year sentence for the father of a 13-year-old girl who drew an antiwar picture in her school’s art class.
8. October 2022: Crimea bridge blast
A major explosion ravages the Crimean Bridge, which connects mainland Russia with the Ukrainian peninsula, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014. The bridge had not only been a critical supply route but also a symbol of Putin’s ambitions to control Ukraine; the Russian president called the 12-mile infrastructure project a “miracle” when he inaugurated it in 2018.
The Kremlin blames the attack on Ukrainian special services and launches a barrage of missiles at Kyiv in what Putin describes as punishment for the bridge blast. The waves of strikes on the capital, which had largely been shielded from bombing since the start of the war, kill more than a dozen people. Ukraine’s government denies orchestrating the blast.
9. November 2022: Russia retreats from Kherson
Ukrainian forces make startling gains in the fall, liberating villages and seeing Russian troops retreat from territory they had seized months earlier. Russian military officials describe the fallback as a conscious decision to “regroup.”
Russia orders the withdrawal of its forces from the west bank of the Dnieper River in the southern Kherson region, surrendering the city of Kherson, which had been the only regional capital it had captured. Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the head of Russia’s armed forces in Ukraine, says the move — which comes after costly Ukrainian advances in Ukraine’s south and Russian retreats in parts of the Kharkiv region — will “save the lives of our military and combat capability.”
Ukrainians rejoice as their troops return to Kherson unopposed.
10. December 2022: Zelenskyy visits Washington, West ramps up aid
Zelenskyy makes his first trip to the United States since the beginning of the war, presenting a united front with Biden. The visit comes alongside new security assistance packages, adding to the more than $36.9 billion in security assistance the United States has given Ukraine since the launch of the invasion.
Ukraine has received humanitarian, military and financial support from the United States, European Union and other nations. That support has included High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS launchers), as well as Abrams, Leopard 2 tanks and air defense systems, among other equipment and extensive training. Later, the White House relents to pressure and agrees to allow allied nations to give Ukraine their F-16 fighter jets.
11. Late 2022: Battle for Bakhmut intensifies
Bakhmut, a city in eastern Ukraine, becomes the site of the war’s longest and bloodiest fight. By the end of year, on the tail of Ukraine’s counterattacks in Kharkiv and Kherson, the city assumes an outsize symbolic value.
The onslaught against Bakhmut is driven by Wagner Group mercenaries, led by Yevgeniy Prigozhin. Thousands of soldiers from both sides die; recent U.S. estimates put the death toll at more than 10,000 among Wagner fighters, mostly freed Russian prisoners, since the end of last year. Before-and-after satellite images reveal city in ruins.
In May, Moscow claims control over Bakhmut, though military analysts warn that holding it could prove difficult with its forces stretched thin. Meanwhile, Prigozhin says that by the end of May, “not a single Wagner fighter will be at the front until we undergo reorganization, reequipment and additional training.”
12. June 2023: Ukrainian counteroffensive
Through the winter and into spring, Ukraine worked on preparing a counteroffensive against Russia — taking in shipments of increasingly complex weapons systems from Western backers.
Some senior Ukrainian officials, though, said they worried that the counterattack might not live up to the hype.
Ukrainian forces launched a counteroffensive on June 8, four people in the country’s armed forces told The Washington Post, on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the battlefield developments. Units trained by NATO joined a push to retake territory, and Russian officials acknowledged heavy fighting in the Zaporizhzhia region, where a counterattack had been widely expected.
Fighting around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant has raised fears of nuclear disaster throughout the war.
The counteroffensive came after mass flooding caused by a breach of the Russian-controlled Kakhovka dam on June 6. Russia and Ukraine have blamed each other for the collapse, but the cause remains uncertain.
The floods, which forced thousands of people to evacuate in the Kherson region, all but guaranteed that Ukraine would launch its counteroffensive elsewhere along the front lines.
The Washington Post’s Samantha Schmidt contributed to this report.