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As Russia systematically destroys Ukraine’s power grid, weaponizing winter and trying to break Ukrainian resolve, many are wondering how long Ukraine can withstand this assault. The Russian regime hopes — and some in the West may fear — that this new strategy would eventually deliver Russian victory. They think Ukraine might be forced to negotiate capitulation or concessions to avert total destruction, or that the commitment by NATO allies to support Ukraine’s existential fight might wane as costs mount and refugee flows grow.
The Kremlin clearly is not serious about negotiations, as evidenced by its recent non-starter proposal that Ukraine and the West recognize the formal annexation of four of Ukraine’s regions, significant parts of which Russia doesn’t control. Putin believes he will outlast both Ukraine and its allies and that time is on his side in the war. But this position and resulting expectations of Russia’s eventual victory are based on erroneous assumptions, while facts point toward a Ukrainian victory. Russia is unlikely to recover from the string of military defeats it suffered to turn the course of the war, and the winter only exacerbates its position on the battlefield. Western support for Ukraine is unlikely to crumble. A protracted assault marked by continued war crimes stands to inflict further long-term damage on Russia’s post-war economic trajectory and international standing. In sum, amid reports that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy may come to the United States today to address Congress in person, Russia’s maximalist goals in Ukraine are becoming less attainable by the day.
The first erroneous assumption is that Russia’s chances of military victory increase in the long-term because it has more manpower and resources – a bigger army and a resilient economy, which sanctions haven’t hurt sufficiently. But raw numbers don’t translate automatically into military success, as some realists have now admitted, after drawing wrong conclusions from them in the runup to the war. In late summer, Ukraine reversed the military course of the war. The Kharkiv counteroffensive gave Ukraine strategic initiative, further boosted by the recent liberation of Kherson. Despite Russia’s fall mobilization campaign producing an increase in manpower, the new recruits are poorly equipped and hastily trained.
Going forward, Ukrainians stand to benefit from high morale and continued western military aid and training, while Russian army morale and military capabilities can only go down further. None of the initial problems that plagued the Russian army from the start (corruption, substandard equipment, lacking supplies, negligent and abusive commanders) have been mitigated. Most professional units have suffered major losses, and the newly mobilized soldiers are, by definition, less motivated because they didn’t volunteer to fight. Cold weather stands to hurt rather than help Russia’s war effort, as keeping the army supplied and supported during the winter months would be a major challenge given the woefully inadequate state of its already mobilized soldiers, mounting losses already sustained, and the country’s military-industrial complex struggling without critical western parts. As more people are mobilized and die in the war, Russian society may be developing war fatigue. A Kremlin-commissioned poll leaked by insiders to Meduza, an independent, exiled Russian media outlet, revealed support for continuing the war plunging from 57 percent in July to 25 percent in November. Even if these numbers are not entirely reliable due to the difficulties of polling in an authoritarian setting, they point to a downward trajectory, and an acceleration of this trend could threaten regime stability.
The second erroneous assumption is that time is on Russia’s side because European and American commitment would wane in the coming months, as their publics are hurt by rising energy prices and the cost of living, and decide to stop supporting their governments’ continued aid to Ukraine. However, opinion polls in western countries show stable majority support for Ukraine, even though partisan differences often exist. Without a pivot in public opinion, governments have continued and even increased aid for Ukraine. Even in countries where recent elections brought new governing coalitions, including unpredictable or radical parties, support for Ukraine has held stable (Italy) or increased (Sweden and Bulgaria), contrary to expectations. U.S. support is also unlikely to decrease, as the midterm congressional elections did not become a decisive setback for Biden and the Democrats, and only a minority of the Republican party opposes maintaining high levels of military aid to Ukraine. Even this week, members of the U.S. Congress announced a bipartisan deal, as part of a larger bill moving through the chambers, to provide another tranche of emergency assistance to Ukraine of more than $44 billion. To be sure, the additional funding is a hedge in the event that Republican skeptics gain more ground in the new Congress beginning in January, but this funding would bring the U.S. demonstration of its commitment to Ukraine’s fight to more than $100 billion.
Moreover, this winter may be the last window of opportunity for Russia’s energy blackmail to work in advancing geopolitical goals. Despite ads in Russian state-controlled media about freezing Europeans begging Russia to resume energy supplies, Europe has prepared for the heating season. Freezing Europeans are likely to exist only in Russian propaganda. After Europe survives the winter, it will have more confidence and determination to wean itself decisively from Russian energy, a process that is already underway and that will advance the longer the war goes. Energy experts have argued that Putin committed “gas suicide” and Europe is unlikely to revive the energy relationship. For Russia, economic prospects are more bleak than bright, with continued sanctions, reduced revenues from energy exports, and reduction of the workforce due to mobilization and flight abroad to avoid conscription. A report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts Russia’s “fossil fuel exports will never return to the levels seen in 2021.” Even if the most pessimistic scenarios of “economic oblivion” do not materialize for Russia, the longer the war goes on, the deeper will be the scars the Russian economy will bear.
Finally, the longer Russia commits war crimes, engages in the destruction of Ukrainian cities and infrastructure, and demonstrates its disregard for international law, the more untouchable it would be as a partner after the war. The longer Russia pillages Ukraine, the larger the size of potential reparations and the greater the likelihood of a global consensus on the need to prosecute the culprits. Western countries are pursuing a proposal to create a tribunal to try senior Russian officials for crimes of aggression in Ukraine. A recent U.N. General Assembly resolution called on Russia to make reparations to Ukraine, the European Union announced a plan to use Russian-owned assets frozen under EU sanctions to finance reconstruction of Ukraine, and Canada started the same process. Loss of foreign assets and reparations requirements will threaten Russian economic development, possibly for decades to come.
The combination of Russian military setbacks, its reduced economic power, and war crimes charges against top leadership will undermine the credibility of Russia’s posturing as a leader of a “multipolar world” able to deliver a more appealing economic and political alternative to western-centered globalization. Countries in the Global South that have tried to ignore the war so far may end up joining Ukraine’s efforts to bring Russia’s rogue regime to justice.
The key to ending this war is Russia’s realization that it cannot win it, not Ukraine’s willingness to negotiate. A negotiated settlement will come only with assertive diplomatic efforts focused on impressing hard facts on Russia.