Up until a few weeks ago, it appeared as though the battle in Ukraine would continue into the bleak winter with neither side making any discernible headway as reported by CNN.
Recriminations in Moscow
That prognosis has changed with the sudden and successful Ukrainian offensive through most of occupied Kharkiv, which has galvanized Ukraine’s Western backers as much as it has led to recriminations in Moscow.
There are important political dynamics involved too.
The Kremlin faces tough choices: whether to declare a general mobilization to reinvigorate its increasingly ragged units in Ukraine and how to manage a budget deficit — even though it’s sitting on historically high foreign reserves.
Far beyond the theatre of war, Russia must choose how far to weaponize its influence over Europe’s gas supply, as governments prepare to spend big to mitigate the effects of exceptionally tight supply.
Another potential dilemma: the first signs that Chinese support for the Russian invasion, never whole-hearted, may be waning.
A changing battlefield
Ukraine’s stunning counter-offensive across Kharkiv, combined with more attritional advances in the south, have presented the Kremlin and Russia’s much-criticized Defense Ministry with a range of bad options.
As winter approaches, they must choose which front to prioritize, and whether to double down on efforts to fulfil Putin’s stated objective: the seizure of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
The Russians currently hold about 20% of Ukrainian land, including Crimea and parts of the south.
Taking Donetsk is a taller order now for the Russians.
In a matter of days, Russia lost one of three axes of attack in Donetsk; no progress has been made on the other two since the end of June.
The Russian military does not have a wealth of fresh units to inject into the conflict.
Other battalion tactical groups have been reconstituted after suffering heavy losses.
The disorderly retreat in Kharkiv, with vast amounts of military hardware abandoned, is a testament to that — and to chronic command problems that will not be remedied overnight.
Obviously, Ukraine has also lost thousands of soldiers, including many from its best units in Donbas.
Some 40% of Donetsk remains under Ukrainian control.
President Vladimir Putin acknowledged this on Friday — saying that the offensive operation in the Donbas “goes at a slow pace, but it keeps going.”
A Ukrainian victory?
Some observers have begun to ask whether a Ukrainian victory is conceivable.
General David Petraeus, former CIA Director and commander of US military forces in Iraq, said he expected Ukraine to retake territory seized by the Russians since February, and “it’s even conceivable they could retake Crimea and the Donbas,” aided by growing resistance in occupied areas.
But that would take time and involve tough fighting, Petraeus told CNN.
If that were Ukraine’s goal, its supply lines would be stretched and its better units spread thin.
The US is still exceptionally cautious about sending Ukraine weapons that have a range of more than 80 kilometres (nearly 50 miles) and could therefore strike deep inside Russia.
Back in February, on the eve of the invasion, Putin warned that any country standing in Russia’s way would face “consequences such as they have never seen in their history.”
But Olga Olika, director of Europe and Central Asia Program at the International Crisis Group, believes the Kremlin would not countenance such an escalation because “detonating weapons of mass destruction would provoke international retaliation, including, quite possibly, direct military involvement from NATO.”
US President Joe Biden appeared to confirm this in a “60 Minutes” interview — a clip of which aired on CBS Evening News on Friday.
“It would change the face of war unlike anything since World War II,” Biden said.
Russia still has an intimidating arsenal of ballistic and other missiles that could be used not to gain territory but to inflict catastrophic damage on Ukraine’s infrastructure: power, water and communications.
That in itself may stiffen the backbone of European support — and spur the continuing pipeline of military aid — despite an expensive winter of discontent overheating and fuel prices.
The gas gambit
It’s long been evident that part of the Kremlin’s strategy is to knee-cap European resolve in supporting Ukraine by plunging it into an energy crisis, literally turning off the gas taps.
At a forum in Vladivostok earlier this month, Putin said: “We will not supply anything at all if it is contrary to our interests.
No gas, no oil, no coal, no fuel oil, nothing.”
Amid setbacks on the battlefield, Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay write in Foreign Affairs that “Putin’s best hope — perhaps his only hope — is that Western support for Ukraine will crumble as the costs of war, including energy shortages and rising prices, begin to hit home in Europe.”
Natural gas prices in Europe are 10 times higher than a year ago, earning Russia about $1 billion a day in the first three months of the conflict from energy exports.
And the sanctions regime against Russia will only have a significant impact in the longer term because the Russian economy is so self-contained.
But the coming winter will be the acid test of Moscow’s energy squeeze.
Rather than looking for compromise, European governments have concluded that concessions would only embolden the Kremlin.
Even though wholesale gas prices are still numbingly high, they have fallen by about one-third in the last three weeks.
The International Energy Agency forecasts that Russian oil production will be 17% lower by next February compared to pre-war output, once the full force of EU sanctions is felt.
Daalder and Lindsay believe Ukraine’s allies have set their course
No doves of peace
The signals from both sides indicate they are digging in for a long winter, rather than exploring prospects for a settlement.
“Russia will do everything to end the conflict in Ukraine as quickly as possible, but Kyiv refuses to negotiate,” Putin said at a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday.
Some observers believe Beijing is subtly adopting an arm’s length approach to the Russian quagmire in Ukraine.
How that may play into Putin’s calculations is as yet unknown.
Given the current state of the battlefield, there is little incentive for Ukraine to seek a truce, while the Kremlin would be hard-pressed to spin the results of its “special military operation” if one-third of the Donbas is still in Ukrainian hands.
Former CIA Director and retired US Army general David Petraeus believes Russia faces a “disastrous situation” militarily.
He told CNN Russia was “literally running out of soldiers, ammunition, tanks, fighting vehicles and so forth.”
“But he won’t negotiate earlier, as a cold winter is his best weapon.”
The latter is already beginning to take a toll on weapons production, forcing the military to dust off arms that had been in storage.
The Ukrainian conflict has thrown up plenty of surprises — and predictions may be a fool’s errand.
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