The probability that Russia will fail in its war against Ukraine is as high as ever. Likely, even the tactical use of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear or chemical) can no longer reverse this trend, although it can prolong the fighting. From Russia’s point of view, the most promising way to keep the war going is by deepening the energy crisis in the West this winter.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an act of desperation, is also trying to mobilize hundreds of thousands – and possibly over 1 million – Russians to fight against Ukraine. That will not save Mr. Putin or his war. Throwing hundreds of thousands of citizens to the front will only mean more fighting and increased costs for everyone. But it is unlikely to change the outcome.
The real question now is not so much “who will win?” but when it will happen and what will be the situation once the hostilities stop. It leads to another question: how much and how quickly Ukraine will be able to rebuild after the war? Hence, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the nation he leads are emphasizing the importance of the coming months in determining the course of the war and its eventual outcome.
An entire nation mobilized
The first phase of Russia’s extended war with Ukraine lasted from 2014 to early 2022 and was a heavy burden for Ukraine. The armed conflict was regionally focused, with regular deaths of soldiers, but the intensity of the fighting varied. The situation after the all-out February 24 attack and Russia’s failed siege of Kyiv is dramatically different. Most Ukrainians are involved in the war effort. The entire length of Ukraine’s border with Russia and Belarus, led by hostile autocrats, is about the length of the road from Warsaw to Barcelona. Of course, not the entire border is the front line, but it all needs to be protected.
Second-line self-defense troops support the regular army fighting Russia. In addition to state support, an elaborate social mobilization mechanism is at work. Volunteer centers located around Kyiv (established when the city was under attack) and other regions are now collecting donations from abroad and on the home front. Warehouses are full of meat cured for winter, homemade jams and pickles. The collected gifts are transported to similar points near the front and directly delivered to the army and self-defense forces.
The widespread social mobilization of Ukrainians must have surprised Russian President Vladimir Putin and the West. The scale of resistance in Ukraine is much more than modern professional warfare. It is the defense of an entire nation, which will be studied in textbooks. The war involves almost all Ukrainians in many ways, upending regular life routines. Rocket alerts sound almost daily throughout the country. Russian attacks on civilian targets happen daily, bringing death to some, stress and trauma to the survivors.
Funeral processions of the war dead take place daily in city centers. In Lviv, Mayor Andriy Sadovyi comes out in front of the City Hall, sometimes several times a day, to bid farewell to each fallen fighter.
More Ukrainians have become inured to the situation. They do not go down to the shelters and do not respond to warnings, but no one is genuinely used to war. Fear of death, their own or of loved ones, accompanies the entire population of the war-stricken country.
One big problem in such conditions is maintaining the rudimentary functions of the state. Ukraine runs a monthly deficit of $5 billion – money needed to pay salaries and pensions and cover healthcare and other essential services. The nation’s economy is expected to shrink by a third this year because of Russia’s destruction and the displacement of millions of Ukrainians. Without external support, finances would collapse. If that happens, the morale of Ukrainians – which has been high – may suffer along with it.
One additional test for Ukraine will be the heating season – not so much because of energy shortages but because of devastated municipal infrastructure. Russia has bombed places such as Kharkiv, the nation’s second-largest city with 1.4 million people, almost daily. There will be problems providing heat to homes in several major cities.
No time to lose
Since the Russian withdrawal from Kyiv in spring, President Zelenskiy has become convinced that the Kremlin will ultimately lose this war and that Ukraine will regain all its territories now under Russian occupation. He may be right in this assessment. However, it is slowly dawning on everyone that there is another problem. After the mobilization carried out by President Putin, a war on the scale we have seen so far could last up to several years. Also, even with Ukraine’s eventual victory and the complete withdrawal of Russia’s military, the nation will have suffered losses that cannot be recouped for decades.
President Zelenskiy and his entourage realize that a protracted, large-scale conflict raises countless dangers, not only for the survival of the state and his leadership but also for the future of the nation. Battlefield successes are feted because the public believes each one of them brings the end of the war closer. The most anticipated success at this stage would be the ousting of Russian forces from the southern provincial capital of Kherson, near Kremlin-occupied Crimea.
The administration feels the urgency of the coming winter. The president seeks to accelerate combat success for three reasons: first, to reduce the dangers of Western fatigue with the war; second, to minimize the economic and social damage; and third, to prevent political radicalization that could threaten support for the current elite. A stalemate would be dangerous for Mr. Zelenskiy’s team and even opposition politicians like former President Petro Poroshenko. Hence, great importance is attached to the coming winter.
Threats to international support
Ukraine’s relatively good position in this war is largely due to a multinational coalition mobilized to oppose Vladimir Putin’s attempted conquest. This opposition is led by the United States, so it is dependent to some extent on President Joe Biden, although support for Ukraine is bipartisan in Congress and likely to hold for now. But public support may erode over time, creating political problems for the Democrats, especially if former President Donald Trump or Florida Governor Ron DeSantis gains popularity. The U.S. holds its midterm elections on November 8, 2022, when control of Congress and state governments will be decided.
Other political developments in the West could affect support for Ukraine.
The United Kingdom may be facing another unexpected leadership crisis lately, but it seems determined to keep support for Ukraine strong, having pledged at least $2.6 billion in financial aid for 2023. Another event is the new government in Italy: a switch from Mario Draghi to Giorgia Meloni as Italian prime minister could spell trouble for Ukraine. Mr. Draghi supported Ukraine with arms and a visit to Kyiv. Ms. Meloni is expected to adopt anti-European Union policies, possibly harming the 27-nation bloc’s willingness to help Ukraine’s war effort.
Surviving the winter
A deep energy crisis could also shatter the political consensus. The West’s ability to endure high prices and discomfort and quickly find alternative sources of energy will be tested as never before. If the coming winter is harsh and the energy crisis in the EU worsens, the public mood in several countries could sour. Sentiment to simply “get along” with Russia could rise, strengthening the voices of such pro-Kremlin populists as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban or Italy’s Lega leader Matteo Salvini.
The energy crisis has exposed the EU’s weakness in policy and institutions. Energy blackmail is the Russian leader’s latest gambit for winning the war. And this will come down to a test of political will. Should the energy woes prompt the West to cut arms supplies and financial aid to Ukraine, Mr. Putin wins.
President Putin’s policies have seriously weakened the Russian Federation, with rising discontent domestically. Opposition is highest among non-Russian populations in the North Caucasus as well as Tatarstan, Yakutia and Buryatia. Kremlin-installed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has refused to supply more soldiers, a shift that should give Western observers food for thought.
War could end quickly
The world is now witnessing the implosion of the Russian Federation because of nationalist madness in the Kremlin. In addition, Russia’s influence in postimperial areas is crumbling. Conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh and Central Asia have resurfaced, and leaders of the former Soviet republics publicly speak of President Putin with disdain. Such open dissent will accelerate President Putin’s departure and increase the likelihood that his power could end overnight. In this scenario, those around Mr. Putin may speed up his removal to save the Russian Federation.
President Putin’s successor will have radical positions. But it is equally clear that the next Kremlin leader will enter talks with the West and Ukraine. The scenario for quick negotiations that end the war and stop the damage is increasingly likely.
The West’s aim
However, it is not so likely that Ukraine will regain control of the Crimean Peninsula immediately. More likely is increased autonomy for the Crimean Tatar community, which has shown loyalty to the Ukrainian state. But even assuming all goes well on the battlefield and in peace talks for Ukraine, the damage will be profound if the state is weakened, incapable of reform and delivers a slow postwar reconstruction.
It is clear, therefore, that a winter win for Ukraine – meaning an end to the hostilities and the withdrawal of Russian troops – is the optimal scenario for the West too. Now is the time to accelerate support for Ukraine. More weapons are required soon. Only victory will make a profound postwar transformation of Ukraine a realistic possibility. Ukraine must become a state that will be part of the West in all respects – the organization of the army, security, judicial system, free market, the competitiveness of the economy, and the like. There is no time to waste.