As winter arrives, Ukraine can look back on a series of military successes: In February and March, its dogged forces stopped Russia’s drive to capture Kyiv and install a puppet government. In September, the country went on the offensive and humiliated Russian forces in the Kharkiv district, seizing sizable amounts of territory and equipment. Then, in November, Russia was forced to evacuate its vulnerable positions west of the Dnipro River in the Kherson region. Ugly fighting continues, notably at Bakhmut in Donetsk region.
As a result of its failures in the field, since October Russia has launched a series of missile and drone attacks targeting Ukrainian infrastructure, particularly electric power plants. While Ukraine’s forces have been successful in destroying a substantial portion of the incoming Russian munitions, the air campaign has led to major power outages in the country. The object of the attacks is, presumably, to place strains on national capacity and undermine Ukrainian civilian support for the war effort. There is no evidence that Russia is achieving the latter goal; by all counts, morale in Ukraine remains high. But its ongoing campaign could mean a cold, even dangerous winter for millions of Ukrainians.
Ukraine, in turn, has brought the war to Russia. Its drones have struck military airfields deep in Russian territory. While failing to substantially curtail Moscow’s war efforts, the attacks have sent a clear message of resolve from Kyiv: Russia itself is now a potential target.
The advent of winter reduces the likelihood of major offensive operations. Russia appears to be strengthening its defensive positions and deploying recently drafted conscripts. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly conceded that the Russo-Ukrainian war will be a long one. Ukraine will also use a winter pause to reorganize and replenish supplies for future counteroffensives against Russia. But it will be loath to surrender the momentum it gained in the fall; it will undoubtedly be looking for opportunities to strike Russian forces.
Meanwhile, the international coalition supporting Ukraine in its struggle against Russia appears strong. A shortage of natural gas for electric power generation may well damage a number of European economies that are already struggling, but there are few signs of wavering. Indeed, the Group of Seven (G-7) countries are moving forward with an oil price cap aimed at reducing Russian petroleum revenues. The United States remains firmly committed to aiding Ukraine; Republican control of the U.S. House of Representatives may cause the Joe Biden administration occasional heartburn on the issue of Ukraine, but is unlikely to lead to substantial change in U.S. policy.
Peace remains far away. Talk of diplomacy remains, for the moment at least, just that: talk. Ukraine — the victim of Russia’s unprovoked and brutal invasion — is in no mood to offer any territorial concessions to Moscow, particularly as the war has swung in Kyiv’s favor in recent months. There is little evidence that Ukraine’s supporters (notably the United States) are willing to force Ukraine into negotiations at this time.
Russia, for its part, still harbors hopes of turning the military tide. Putin has made a vast political investment with the invasion of Ukraine, and to accept a settlement in which Kyiv emerges as the clear victor would not just humiliate the Russian strongman, but perhaps even imperil his position in power. Achieving a ceasefire — much less a peace agreement — will be difficult; Ukraine will be rightly suspicious of any arrangement that permits the reeling Russian military to fortify its positions.
There is one piece of unalloyed good news: Putin has backed off his earlier not-so-veiled threat to use tactical nuclear weapons. The use of such weapons remains remote, but they could come into play should Kyiv sweep Russia from all the Ukrainian territories it has seized since 2014, especially Crimea.
In short, the war in Ukraine continues its deadly, brutish course. Winter is unlikely to stop the killing.
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