A very good question, and a long-anticipated one. Ukraine has proven its mettle militarily against a previously vaunted Russian military and has spent the last two months on the offensive. Ukranians have also proven themselves culturally cohesive, extraordinarily resilient, and defied expectations of collapse that accompanied Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
Now the West wonders whether Ukrainians can hold out through a brutal winter in which Putin intends to send them back to the Stone Age. The Washington Post makes the crisis plain indeed:
After just six weeks of intense bombing of energy infrastructure, Russia has battered Ukraine to the brink of a humanitarian disaster this winter as millions of people potentially face life-threatening conditions without electricity, heat or running water.
As the scope of damage to Ukraine’s energy systems has come into focus in recent days, Ukrainian and Western officials have begun sounding the alarm but are also realizing they have limited recourse. Ukraine’s Soviet-era power system cannot be fixed quickly or easily. In some of the worst-hit cities, there is little officials can do other than to urge residents to flee — raising the risk of economic collapse in Ukraine and a spillover refugee crisis in neighboring European countries.
“Put simply, this winter will be about survival,” Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, regional director for the World Health Organization, told reporters on Monday in Kyiv, saying the next months could be “life-threatening for millions of Ukrainians.”
Already, snow has fallen across much of Ukraine and temperatures are dipping below freezing in many parts of the country. Dr. Kluge said that 2 million to 3 million Ukrainians were expected to leave their homes “in search of warmth and safety,” though it was unclear how many would remain inside the country.
This reminds us that momentum in war is no small thing, but it’s not everything either. The Ukrainian military has to rely on both its Western allies and its native population for support — not just in materiel and commodities, but also for political and moral support as well. Power outages in mild weather may be tolerable, but a collapse of the power system in winter could bring widespread death and disease, which would undercut the Ukrainian military and ease pressure on badly trained and unhappy Russian soldiers at the front.
Putin certainly understands this. He needs a victory in Ukraine to stay alive, especially in the cutthroat world Putin has created in Moscow. He’s trapped himself in his Russian-supremacy blather so thoroughly that putative allies like Yevgeny Prigozhin would not hesitate to conduct a coup if Putin faltered at this point. Prigozhin has been raising his profile among hardline nationalists for a while and especially recently, as regular Russian troops have been routed in Kharkiv and pushed out of Kherson.
This is total war for Putin now. He can’t sack Ukraine outright, so instead he intends to crush it by destroying its civilian infrastructure. It’s an outrageous war crime and an explicitly genocidal policy, but in this case it’s just another crime to add to a lengthy list Putin has already chalked up in nine months of invasion.
For now, the West is signaling full-throated support to get Kyiv through to the spring. Even though Putin’s strategy is “the weaponization of refugees,” as a former commander of American forces in Europe told the Post, so far Europe is not retreating. The EU can absorb refugees, while Russia can only keep this up for a finite period of time, one official told the press:
However, a senior European Union official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to brief the press, said the bloc could absorb a new wave of refugees and would support Ukraine “as long as it takes.”
“However Putin to tries to break the will of Ukrainian people, we will provide what they need,” the official said.
But Russia is showing no sign of relenting. Last week, Moscow unleashed brutal barrages involving about 100 missiles and scores of self-destructing drones on two separate days, hitting targets throughout the country and leaving nearly 10 million Ukrainians without power.
How long can they keep up that level of aerial strikes? In the first place, Russia can’t manufacture its own replacements. Right now they’re getting drones from Iran, but Iran has its own problems at home, and those are getting worse by the day. The mullahs are in real trouble in Tehran, perhaps the worst it’s been in their 43-year tyranny, and the partnership to attack Ukraine probably isn’t making them any more popular in the streets. North Korea might be another resource, but they’re also not exactly a powerhouse when it comes to manufacturing.
Putin’s war is becoming almost as unpopular among Russians, too. ISW reports that the Kremlin is attempting to frame Ukraine for a potential false-flag operation in Belgorod to recover support for the war, but that will almost certainly only work among the already-true-believer set. Guess who’s behind that?
These ridiculous speculations about a fantastical Ukrainian invasion of Russia may also be part of the Kremlin’s effort to acknowledge and appease the Russian pro-war nationalist community. Russian milbloggers have repeatedly accused the Kremlin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) of failing to defend Russia, including the newly annexed territories. The Kremlin, however, will unlikely be able to reinvade Kharkiv Oblast as demanded by these nationalist figures.
Prigozhin is also using fearmongering about a fictitious Ukrainian invasion threat and the construction of the Zasechnaya Line to solidify his power in Russian border regions and Russia. Belgorod Oblast officials previously halted the construction of the Wagner Line, and the line’s rebranding alongside other Prigozhin projects in St. Petersburg and Kursk Oblast signifies that he will continue to establish himself in Russia while ostensibly supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war.
ISW also notes that Russian inventories for their missile attacks are getting close to zero. They can keep trying to hit civilian infrastructure, but not for a whole lot longer:
The Russian military has significantly depleted its arsenal of high-precision missiles but will likely still be able to attack Ukrainian critical infrastructure at scale in the near term. Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov released figures on November 22 detailing that the Russian military has only 119 Iskanders missiles, 13 percent of its initial February 2022 arsenal. Reznikov’s figures also show that Russian forces have significantly depleted other key high-precision weapons systems with only 229 Kalibr missiles (45 percent of the initial February 2022 stock), 150 Kh-155 missiles (50 percent of the initial February 2022 stock), and 120 Kh-22/32 missiles (32 percent of the initial February 2022 stock) remaining. Reznikov’s figures show that Russian forces have substantially depleted stocks of 3M-55 “Onyx”, S-300, Kh-101, Kh-35, and Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missiles as well.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s forces continue slow progress toward key railheads in Svatove, Lysychansk, and Kreminna. Russian forces that withdrew from Kherson — Russia’s most battle-ready formations — have reportedly reinforced existing lines in Donestk and Luhansk, aiding in some small offensive operations in the former. However, a Ukrainian capture of those railheads will effectively cut off much of Russia’s ground lines of communication to those fronts.
If and when that happens, the same winter that will burden Ukrainians in the cities will make life even more miserable for Russian forces in the field. The Ukrainians can resupply at will, thanks to the easy ground lines of communication they have to their forces, whether power is on or not. And Russia might at that point wish they had saved their aerial munitions to target military rather than civilian assets.