Ukraine’s Offensive Is Effective—and Risks Escalation

IIn Ukraine, things have changed. In the province that surrounds Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, an attack reportedly meant to probe for weakness in Russian lines became a major counter-offensive when thousands of Russian soldiers simply turned and fled.

The Ukraine has gained more territory in the last week than Russia, which has led to a dramatic uptake of the political and military moods. The mood is not affected by Russian artillery fires that temporarily knocked off water and power in certain parts of Ukraine. Earlier this week, Ukraine’s President Volodmyr Zelensky used social media site Telegram to ask Russians some pointed questions: “Do you still think that we [Russians and Ukrainians] are ‘one people’? Still think you have the power to scare and break us? … We will be without gas, light, water and food … and WITHOUT you!”

Just as Ukraine demonstrated in the war’s early weeks that Russian victory plans were pure delusion, their latest gains again make clear that Vladimir Putin’s war refuses to go to plan. Importantly, they show Ukraine’s backers in America and Europe that its war effort remains an investment that offers returns. Ukrainian fighters have used Western weapons—and training in how to use, protect, and maintain them—to push Russian forces onto the back foot in different parts of the country. The timing of this is critical: Europe is facing a tough winter due to an unsustainable energy crisis and the subsequent support from Kyiv. Ukraine’s gains can make that support easier for European leaders to sell at home.

Russia’s mood remains bleak. Criticism of battlefield failures remains safely directed at Russia’s defense department, not at the president who pushed the generals into a war they were ill-prepared to wage. Russian nationalists continue to voice their disapproval. Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, a valuable contributor of troops to Putin’s army, has publicly warned the Russian brass that further failure will lead him to have a word with Russia’s president.

Yet, Ukraine’s latest success is unlikely to shorten the war. The new confidence shown in Kyiv, as well as the public handwringing between Russians and their allies, has not affected Russian forces’ grip over large parts of Donbas, including land taken along the Black Sea Coast and the territories that link them. More worrisome, Ukraine’s advance may also make the war more dangerous. Putin is now in an awkward spot and this should concern those concerned about the expansion of war. Russia’s president has shown no sign during his political life that he will admit a mistake— certainly not one as big as this war—and reverse course. And though he insists Russia is at war with the West and its military alliance, a claim made more credible by Western military and financial backing for Ukraine’s army, he has avoided changing the rules of engagement to widen the conflict beyond Ukraine’s borders.

His government continues to threaten any Russian who describes the war as a “war” with 15 years in prison, and he has refused the demands of Russian online hawks to order a draft that forces hundreds of thousands of Russian civilians to grab a rifle. Perhaps he fears conscription would dramatically shift Russian public opinion against his “special military operation.” Or perhaps he knows that, given the need to train and equip all these new soldiers, a large-scale draft is too little too late to force an end to the stalemate in Ukraine anytime soon.

The West is now concerned that Putin will use the weapons of mass destruction which he had so far reserved to his advantage, much like the famous child rat who was forced to fight when he was a baby and chose to escape.

Ukraine’s gains of the past week have shifted the military stalemate. The end of war is still far away.

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