The war in Ukraine has taken a dramatic turn. A Ukrainian offensive in the Kharkiv region has delivered a stunning blow to the Russian military. The attack — well-planned, well-executed and energetic — drove Russian forces from substantial territory in a matter of days, amid reports of panic-stricken evacuations and abandonment of critical matériel. Above and beyond its immediate tactical success, this victory sends a clear message: Russia is in deep trouble in Ukraine.
For the Ukrainian people, the offensive’s success will only bolster already-strong popular support for the resolute policies of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The Ukrainians’ defense of their country since Russia’s February invasion has been nothing short of heroic. But those achievements, though remarkable, have been largely defensive. As Ukraine shifts to the offensive, we can expect to see even higher morale and greater determination.
For countries that have supported Ukraine against Russia, the message is also heartening. For Washington, it represents a validation of the Joe Biden administration’s support for Kyiv since the invasion. The United States has not only provided a steady stream of weaponry critical to Ukraine’s defense. It has also supplied intelligence and, according to press reports, extensive military advice. While the victory in the Kharkiv region is primarily attributable to the efforts of the Ukrainian military, U.S. support surely made a difference and perhaps a decisive one.
Ukraine’s victory will also almost certainly bolster resolve among European countries who have stood with Ukraine since Russia’s invasion. A number of these have, like the United States, provided substantial military assistance to Kyiv. But just as importantly, they are key players in the unprecedented economic sanctions imposed on Moscow in the wake of its attack on Ukraine. A number of European countries could face real hardship this winter, as they struggle to manage the economic fallout from reduced Russian natural gas imports. Inflation is still high in the UK and much of the eurozone; the risks of recession are growing. Ukrainian advances will help stiffen the backbones of political leaders who might be tempted to waver in their support for Kyiv.
What does the Ukrainian victory mean for Russia and, particularly, President Vladimir Putin?
In military terms, the setback in the Kharkiv region has highlighted the comprehensive failure of Russia’s armed forces. This failure has been evident since the very beginning of the invasion. The initial Russian plan — a lightning strike against Kyiv to topple the Ukrainian government — proved to be a fiasco. True, Russia did seize substantial territory in the country’s South and East. But it did so at a high cost in terms of personnel and military equipment. A later Russian offensive in the Donbas region turned out to be a grinding affair, marked by limited gains and high costs. Russian forces have suffered from a combination of unrealistic strategy and incompetent tactics. It is a deadly combination when facing a determined enemy.
Russia’s current military position is grim. While it might be able to stabilize the front in the Kharkiv district, Russia is also facing an offensive in the southern region of Kherson. There, Russian forces west of the Dnipro River are extremely vulnerable to being cut off and surrounded. The Russian military must confront these threats with dwindling manpower, inferior equipment, and low morale. The war may not be close to over. But the tide of battle is clearly flowing in Ukraine’s favor.
All of which brings us to Putin. The war, after all, is his brainchild, bred of strategic paranoia and delusions of empire. And he has made a huge political investment in its success. His recklessness has boxed Russia — and him — into a corner. To date, public discontent in Russia about the war has been muted. Some of this is due to the highly repressive Russian security apparatus. But there is no doubt a strong residual support for the war effort. How this holds up in the face of further military reverses is unclear, particularly against a backdrop of a contracting economy. Putin must also worry about growing disillusion within his regime, especially among the security services and the military. The latter must surely be discouraged by the blows dealt to its prestige by Ukrainian forces.
Putin might well double down on the war. He has declared partial mobilization. But even that does not get him, at least in the near term, what he needs most: victory on the ground. Any peace agreement, or even cease-fire, is further away than ever. Ukraine, exhilarated by its battlefield success, is in no mood to compromise. What Putin will do should Ukraine appear to be on the threshold of driving Russia entirely from Ukraine is an open question. He could, in extremis, resort to chemical or even tactical nuclear weapons. These may be remote possibilities at this point. But they should factor in to the contingency planning of Ukraine and its partners, including the United States.