While on the back foot, the Russian war machine is still strong. If they can consolidate in winter, the war could continue into the next year and perhaps even beyond in an endless ‘frozen conflict’.
THE UKRAINIAN OFFENSIVE
With the success of the Ukrainian offensive, both in the east and in the south, the complexion of the war has changed. It has enabled Ukraine to regain vital territory, which the Russians had taken months to recapture, and pushed it on to the back foot. The Ukrainian offensive was brilliantly executed, with a feint in the south in September, that drew out Russian troops from the east and depleted their positions there. When the Ukrainians launched their own offensive in the northeast, it raced through the “stretched and ragged Russian lines”, recaptured the vital communication centres of Lyman, Izium and Kupyansk, and established bridgeheads on the Oskil River that threaten Russian positions in Luhansk and Donetsk. That spectacular offensive was followed up with a renewed thrust in the south, which cut off over 20-30,000 Russian troops on the west of the Dnieper River, forcing them to withdraw. They recaptured Kherson on 12 November, providing Ukraine with its greatest victory of the war. With the fall of Kherson, Russia lost the only provincial capital that it had occupied and completely unhinged their positions in the south.
Where can the war go from here? The Russians have now consolidated along the eastern bank of the Dnieper River and prepared strong defences there. The Ukrainians will find it difficult to cross the two-kilometer-wide river, more so since the retreating Russians have blown up all the bridges. But with Kherson under their belt, perhaps the Ukrainians can launch an even more ambitious offensive from the north of Kherson—in the area of Zaporizhzhia (which has seen some heavy fighting around the critical nuclear plant). That offensive—apparently favoured by Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself—could strike southeast towards Melitopol and Mariupol, regain the coastal areas and cut off the Russian land bridge to the Crimea. But that ambitious offensive would strike strong defensive positions occupied by some of their best troops and face the danger of being over-extended and cut off. And there is just a small window to attain their offensive aims, before winter sets in, which would then make large scale operations difficult.
The front has now stabilized along the line of the Oskil River in the northeast and the Dnieper River in the south. In the northeast, the Ukrainians can still push ahead from the bridgeheads they have established across the river. But do they have the capabilities to sustain the offensive? After three months, the offensive seems to have reached culmination point. They are low on ammunition and have suffered heavy casualties to men and equipment. It is estimated to have lost around 60-80,000 men (dead, wounded and prisoners) and though Ukraine has a pool of over 2-300,000 willing recruits, they need to be trained and equipped before they can join the front lines around December. Though major offensives would be difficult, they would still make local attacks to improve their overall position and regain vital territory, before winter solidifies the front.
RUSSIA’S WINTER STRATEGY
Marshal Winter has a great bearing on Russian calculations as well, and it seems to be using it to stabilize its lines. Satellite images show the construction of huge concrete obstacles “dragon’s teeth” and zig-zag lines of trenches and fortifications on the areas they hold. Like the Ukrainians, they have had heavy casualties and their troops are exhausted after months of battle. Their depleted units and formations can only be reinforced around December when the hastily trained conscripts arrive. They too are running low on ammunition (as their turning to Iran and North Korea indicates). Perhaps they too are expecting a pause on operations in the winter and will use the period to consolidate.
But it is using winter in another way. On 15 November, when the first snows hit Kyiv, Russia launched a flurry of over a hundred missiles that destroyed over 80% of Kyiv’s energy and water infrastructure. All across Ukraine, its energy resources have been targeted and destroyed, reducing electric supply to less than four hours every day and forcing residents to go to metro stations just to charge their mobiles. Devoid of electrical supply or heating, Ukrainians brace for a very cold winter.
The energy crisis has hit virtually every nation in Europe after Russia shut off the energy tap following the sabotage of the Nord Stream I and II gas pipelines in September. It has reduced industrial production, led to a seven-fold increase in heating and warming costs, and forced governments to release huge amounts as subsidies. Just recovering from Covid, this whammy now threatens to push European economies to the brink of recession.
Putin is banking that the energy squeeze and the hardships imposed upon ordinary citizens will weaken resolve and force the western nations to call for an end to the war. Perhaps he too is looking for a truce now—one that offers him a face-saving exit. The impasse of winter could provide the time to help bring that about.
A TIME FOR PEACE?
With the success of the Ukrainian offensive and the recapture of Kherson, Zelenskyy had boasted that “this is the beginning of the end” and that the war would continue “till the last Russian is pushed out of Ukrainian soil—including Crimea”. But is it really the beginning of the end for Russia? In spite of their military reverses, they hold on to substantial territory and history has shown that when pushed to the wall, they somehow manage to launch spectacular offensives to retrieve the situation, as they did in the battles of Moscow and Stalingrad during the Second World War.
So, while on the back foot, the Russian war machine is still strong. If they can consolidate in winter, the war could continue into the next year and perhaps even beyond in an endless “frozen conflict”. But it is draining Russia to the tune of $1 billion a day, growing loss of prestige and international isolation, and there is growing pressure to put an end to hostilities.
The call for peace is getting louder and the stalemate of winter could be the right time for it. India is quite ideally placed to bring about some kind of agreement. It has remained neutral throughout the war, while still maintaining strong ties with both Russia and Ukraine. Prime Minister Modi has spoken to Putin five times, and to Zelenskyy thrice, since the war began, and kept the communication lines open. Calls for cessation of hostilities have been repeated at the SCO meet, the G-20 summit and also the meetings between Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar and his Russian counterpart. India can use its growing stature to bring the two parties to the table.
Both Ukraine and Russia are under increasing pressure for a “cessation of hostilities”, if nothing else. Zelenskyy has to water down his stance of not negotiating with Putin’s regime. His hands are now strengthened by the battlefield gains and could push his claims for a Russian withdrawal to the pre-February boundaries (which does not include Crimea) in return for guarantees that Ukraine would not allow NATO on its soil. Even if a negotiated settlement does not come about (which, in all probability, won’t) it could lead to a ceasefire or an armistice where the fighting stops, even if the war does not officially end.
As “Marshal Winter” approaches, it may consolidate the line as it exists now, and put a temporary pause in the fighting. There could be a respite till spring, but it will be a cold respite with untold miseries for millions of civilians without electricity or energy. The fighting could also continue in the winter and beyond, perhaps extending for years more, like the “frozen conflict” of the Donbas since 2014. But the brief window brings in a chance for peace, which must be grasped and seized, not only by the two sides, but by the rest of the world.
Ajay Singh is the award-winning author of six books and over 200 articles. This article has been excerpted from his latest book, “Russia-Ukraine War: The Conflict and its Global Impact”. “Marshal Winter” was the name soldiers used to describe an oncoming cold, since it had such a great bearing on plans.