Imagine these sorts of risk, and the men and women enduring its nerve-wracking toll nightly, when you next hear talk of the progress of Ukraine’s counteroffensive. It is slow, perilous, bloody, and harder than anyone hoped. But make no mistake: this is perhaps the most important moment for European security since the Berlin Wall fell, or even 1945.
Ukraine’s forces are nowhere near where they hoped they would be as fall draws in. The summer months around Robotyne, south of Orikhiv, and to the north of Mariupol, have been preoccupied by a ghastly crawl over acres of minefield, troops battling for weeks for tiny settlements that can be counted in streets, or even buildings.
Once captured, as seen in villages like Staromaiorske, or Urozhaine, there is so little left standing, there are few places for liberating Ukrainian troops to seek cover. To the victor goes the rubble alone.
The impatience and fatigue evident in the West about Ukraine’s progress will doubtless be glossed over in New York this week, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky uses his revamped Ministry of Defense to portray a rejuvenated administration, ready for the long and painful winter that likely lies ahead. But he shouldn’t even feel the need to make a sales pitch.
Ukraine’s fight is for its territory, yes. But it is a startlingly vivid moment for European security – the outcome of the next two months might decide the tenor of the next decade in global terms.
While the Ukrainians’ progress along the southern front picked up earlier this month, it now appears to have partially slowed again. They are still some distance from Tokmak, the halfway point to Melitopol, and achieving the goal of severing Russian-occupied Crimea from the land corridor to mainland Russia.
Kyiv’s forces are slowly moving south towards Mariupol, but the advance is torturous, and the terrain is wide-open expanses of farmland. The newly captured territory shown by the 35th Marines to CNN in August was often just the ruin of a tiny municipal building, between undulating and pockmarked rural lanes. There is little to take, and little to defend.
But the fight is still, all the same, critical. By late November, the weather will become cold, and winter will set in soon. It already risks becoming wetter and muddier than Ukrainian assaulting armour would prefer. But Kyiv’s last major advances were achieved in mid-November last year, after the Russian retreat in Kherson, so it is fair to presume they have another eight weeks left.
Once the snows arrive, Moscow will attempt to consolidate further still its current front line. Daylight hours will be fewer. The cold will leave Ukrainian attacking units greatly more vulnerable as they try to push deeper into Russian lines. It will make an already hideous task yet more bloody.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is presumably counting on winter to strengthen his position. His forces have held on this summer with greater vigour than many anticipated. It is still possible they begin to falter: their human resources are not infinite and the slow drumbeat of Ukrainian strikes on their supply lines risks the same sort of collapse seen in Kharkiv last September at some undefinable point in the future. But Russia may well hold on.
That could spell a winter of dystopia. The West broadcasts its relentless resolve to support Kyiv. But be in no doubt, the billions of dollars of aid seemingly announced weekly by Washington could be at risk as the 2024 election campaign hoves into view.
US President Joe Biden would far prefer to campaign with a Ukrainian solution at hand, than a pledge to invest US taxpayers’ money into the indefinite future into a war few Americans follow daily. Some Republicans are already expressing doubts. Donald Trump, a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, believes he can magically fix the war in 24 hours, which risks severe concessions to the man he seems to fear criticizing – Putin.
European support, too, is not set in concrete. In the face of economic pressures, the bloc’s full-throated unity on the war is an outlier, and could also falter if US support wanes. Another winter of high fuel prices and looming elections might shake this unity too.
A frozen set of front lines on the southern front risks also pushing the war towards escalation. Ukraine is increasingly comfortable hitting Moscow with drones, launching cross-border raids, and pummelling Crimea with longer-range missiles. It is a natural evolution of Kyiv’s military response to an invading neighbour.
But think back a year, and recall how fearful Western officials were at the mere idea of Russia itself being attacked. It was the rationale behind not supplying Ukraine with longer-range missiles that could strike Crimea or Russian territory bordering Ukraine.
Now Crimea is being hit almost daily, and the West has little say in the matter, as the missiles are apparently Ukrainian-made. As winter sets in, and Ukrainian civilians bear the brunt of renewed Russian infrastructure strikes, expect calls for greater damage to the Russian mainland to grow.
Moscow, for its part, appears slightly bolder. Whatever the outcome of Putin’s meeting with North Korean autocrat Kim Jong Un, the mere fact the Kremlin head went cap-in-hand to a pariah neighbour, pleading for ammunition, suggests Putin’s list of things he will not contemplate is very short indeed. We may never learn the outcome of this meeting – and the role China played in its facilitation or tempering – until it is felt on the Ukrainian battlefield.
There is another, graver risk of escalation. Two recent incidents in Romania and Bulgaria, in which fragments from drones have been found in – or detonated inside – the borders of NATO states, again suggest the unthinkable of a year ago is happening now.
Bulgarian officials provided few details as to how the drone got to the Black Sea resort of Tyulenovo and said it was not possible to say conclusively whose drone it was and where it had come from. Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis called the discovery of a second batch of suspected Russian drone fragments in a week an unacceptable breach of its airspace – of NATO airspace.
Western public opinion on the war – something fought far away, by a nation on Europe’s edges – is far removed to that of Russians, where the war has infused daily life. On Russian state TV this is an existential war against all of NATO. On televisions in NATO member states, it’s presented rather as a chance to deal a lasting blow to Russia, thankfully inflicted by someone other than NATO.
But the next two months cannot be permitted by NATO to pass without a greater sense of urgency, the realization that winter setting in without a serious worsening in Russian fortunes places European security at grave risk in the decade ahead.