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There is near euphoria, currently, among supporters of Ukraine at the continued military reverses it is inflicting on Russian forces. But the truth is that Ukraine has a long way to go before it can achieve any kind of acceptable outcome from this war – and the going will get harder the closer it seems to come to victory.
It’s not just the large areas of territory under Russian control, where Ukraine still has to fight to relieve the suffering of its citizens under a savage military occupation. It’s also the political and economic aspects of the war, which have been so often overlooked in the day-to-day tactical detail of Russia’s often self-inflicted military disasters.
The economic impact of the war is now getting more attention, not only the continual pounding of Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure by long-range missiles, but also the global effects of Ukrainian exports being blockaded by Russia – exports that include food supplies vital for other regions. There’s been plenty of talk of who will fund reconstruction of Ukraine after the war. But there is a more urgent question: how can Ukraine’s vital role in feeding the world can be preserved?
And that economic stranglehold by Russia presents an additional political challenge to Ukraine in continuing the war. There is already pressure on Kyiv to make concessions to Moscow, and it will only increase as the broader economic impact hits home. Should Ukraine advance beyond the line of control before the invasion, and liberate occupied Crimea, this will present its backers with further serious questions. But that is no excuse for suggestions that Ukraine should give the aggressor a piece of its territory for the sake of Vladimir Putin’s peace of mind.
Ukraine’s military successes are continuing, bolstered by more and more of its western backers – with the continuing exception of some major EU states – overcoming their reluctance to help. But many of those successes still seem to be as much a function of Russian failures of military competence as of Ukrainian prowess.
This shouldn’t be relied on to continue indefinitely. As the war grinds on – and Putin has already belied predictions that he would seek a means of ending it by Russia’s Victory Day – it shouldn’t be ruled out that Russia may eventually arrive at a more sensible use for what military resources and manpower it has left. The Russian military commentator and retired colonel Mikhail Khodarenok has received widespread attention for his critiques on Russian state television of the conduct of the campaign and the state of the Russian military.
For now, Khodarenok is filling the role of a court jester or holy fool for Russia, occasionally permitted to speak the truth when all about him are still repeating the official lies. The reasons why he has been permitted to do so are as yet unclear, but some seasoned Russia-watchers are wondering if this suggests the prospect of a shaking-out of Russia’s military or even the conduct of the war overall.
And there are other vital needs for Ukraine that will be even harder to achieve than pushing back the Russian army. By Russia’s own count, over 1 million Ukrainians have been removed to remote areas of Russia, in a horrifying echo of the deportation programmes of the 20th century – where “deportation” was a sanitised euphemism for enslavement. The war will not be over for Ukraine until it has recovered its people – many of them highly likely to be held hostage by Russia as leverage once the fighting is notionally over, in the same way that Moscow held tens of thousands of British and American prisoners of war as bargaining chips long after the end of the second world war.
As realisation of the costs of backing Ukraine sets in across Europe, and the war drags on with the looming prospect of another winter with vicious increases in energy prices, support for Ukraine to fight on may dwindle among western EU leaders and their publics. That will be an ongoing challenge not only for Ukraine, but also for those of its backers who see clearly that this is not just Ukraine’s war – and that it is vital that Putin does not come away from this venture thinking that it has been anything other than a catastrophic strategic blunder.
Keir Giles works with the Russia and Eurasia programme of Chatham House. He is the author of Moscow Rules: What Drives Russia to Confront the West