Nearly ten months after Russia’s invasion, as we reach the end of 2022, it’s clear that Ukraine has weathered the first phase of the war more successfully than both its supporters and detractors thought possible. Russia has failed to achieve its military ambitions and the tide has even begun to turn in Ukraine’s favour over the past few months.
Ukrainian counter-offensives are liberating thousands of kilometres of territory that Russian forces spent months trying to gain control of, most recently in Kherson. Meanwhile Russia’s retreat to defend positions east of the Dnipro River shows how momentum has swung in Ukraine’s favour. Russia is increasingly under pressure both at home and abroad.
While this momentum on the battlefield is promising for Ukraine, it does not translate directly into a decrease in the threat Russia poses. Indeed, as the conflict enters a new stage, Russia has already begun to diversify its military tactics. The November missile strikes against Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities as well as orchestrated gas and oil leaks on European pipelines have been deeply painful for Ukraine, as have the intensified assaults on the country’s critical cyber infrastructure. Over the past few months, millions of Ukrainian homes have routinely been without power, a dangerous situation as Europe moves deeper into the winter months.
So far, support for Ukraine – mostly military and economic – has translated into tangible successes. It is critical that this support continues in the coming months. However, if Ukraine and its allies want to do more than maintain this hard-fought advantage, the approach to the war needs to change, and quickly. During Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to Washington, President Joe Biden announced that the US would support Ukraine for “as long as it takes”. This continued support should include adequate military equipment, humanitarian support and a plan for the reconstruction of the country once the war is over.
What was supposed to be a three-day “special operation” by Russian forces turned into a ten-month war, with no sign of an imminent conclusion in sight. It is clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin not only overestimated his own army’s capacity, but also underestimated the strength of Ukraine’s resistance and the willingness of its allies to come to its aid. Having lost an estimated 100,000 troops since the start of the conflict, the pressure is on at home as well as abroad for Putin.
Ukraine certainly has momentum on its side, but it is facing an enemy who is unlikely to go down without an increasingly costly fight. Ukraine’s allies need to act now to blunt the worst of Putin’s retaliatory measures in the coming months.
Russia has now lost its foothold in Western Ukraine, making any future attempts to move towards strategically crucial cities like Mykolaiv and Odesa increasingly complicated. Months on from an operation designed to take control of the whole country, Russia finds itself in a defensive situation in which it is attempting to freeze the conflict for the winter in order to consolidate gains. As the war continues with no clear end point, intense fighting will likely resume in early spring. Putin has already deployed a range of escalatory options in an effort to break Ukrainian resilience and optimism.
Ukraine’s counter-offensives have put Russia on the back foot since the summer, forcing Putin to respond off the battlefield. In September, staged referendums in Ukraine resulted in Putin announcing the annexation of four Ukrainian oblasts: Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. Around the same time, he declared partial mobilisation of military reservists in Russia in an attempt to boost armed-forces personnel by around 300,000 soldiers. Many of these recruits have already been deployed to the battlefield: over 80,000 soldiers were sent across the Dnipro to Kherson despite it being clear that this was not a front that would hold.
Russia has also resumed missile strikes against Ukrainian cities, with residential and civilian infrastructure targeted. But rockets have not only been used to target residential buildings: the past few weeks have seen Russia target Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, causing severe damage and resulting in temporary blackouts for millions across the country as well as in neighbouring Moldova. Ukraine’s energy sector is likely to be a key pressure point that Putin will seek to exploit. As temperatures drop during the winter, irregular access to energy will test Ukrainian resolve – and its allies’ willingness to provide support amid high energy prices globally.
As Russia continues to fire rockets at Ukraine’s cities and infrastructure, Ukraine’s allies have responded to calls for better air-defence systems to protect civilian population and the country’s critical infrastructure. The most recent example is President Biden’s announcement during President Zelensky’s visit that the United States will provide Ukraine with a Patriot Air Defence System. These quick responses are good news, but they’re no match for advance preparation. As the Russian military is forced into more last-ditch responses – especially ones where civilian deaths and attacks on critical infrastructure become increasingly common – Ukraine's allies need to help it stay one step ahead, pre-emptively identifying and addressing weaknesses in Ukraine’s defensive capabilities.
Despite the remarkable success of Ukraine’s recent counter-offensives, there’s little hope for an immediate end to the conflict. This means that in the short term, the most important task of Ukraine’s allies is to equip the country for protracted conventional warfare. Part of this, of course, is continuing to supply military weapons and equipment, working closely with the Ukrainian army to plug gaps in their capabilities. One example, as previously mentioned, is shoring up Ukraine’s air-defence systems to limit the impact of missile strikes. Another is the provision of HIMARS rocket-launching systems. These were originally off the table but have supported Ukraine’s military success since the summer by providing the country with longer range capacity.
Yet simply building offensive capabilities will not be enough to help Ukraine through the coming months. As we set out during the summer, Ukraine’s allies also need to recognise that this is as much a question of capacity as of supply – training and co-ordination mechanisms provided by Ukraine’s allies will be key to shaping the progress of this next phase of the conflict. We have already seen Slovakia announce its intention to manufacture ammunition for Ukraine, but this must be a concerted, international effort. In other words, avoiding complacency is key.
There’s an understandable rush to support the best-case scenario, supplying more weapons and more financing to hasten the progress of Ukraine’s counter-offensives, all in the hope of pushing Russia out of the country by military force alone. But our support needs to go beyond the battlefield. Natia Seskuria, a security scholar and Russia expert, argues that in light of Russia’s military tactics, the prolonged war will certainly inflict enormous humanitarian and economic damage on Ukraine. With a $38 billion budget deficit for 2023, Ukraine’s economy is already under unsustainable strain. As the conflict looks set to drag on, strong performance on the battlefield could easily be undermined by increasingly difficult economic circumstances.
Ukraine’s allies must have a vision both to secure Ukraine for the short term and a post-war reconstruction strategy. With effective investment, Ukraine’s recovery could facilitate its integration with the EU. The Ukrainian Recovery Plan, released in July 2022, describes the goal of facilitating “GDP growth and equitable distribution of wealth” alongside integration into EU value chains.
As 2022 comes to a close the war in Ukraine is precariously balanced.
Russia now cannot win the war on the terms it originally set out to achieve: gaining full control of Ukraine. On the other hand, Putin is so personally invested in the war that he cannot afford to lose.
Ukraine, meanwhile, is well enough equipped now not to lose the war, but not as yet well enough equipped to definitively win the war.
How Ukraine fares this winter and how the offensives in the spring pan out will be decisive in the trajectory of the war in 2023.
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