Why Vladimir Putin can’t give up on a losing war

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The Russian military has historically prospered when fighting in winter, and Putin shows no sign of giving up on his core military aim of occupying the Donbas region that his proxies have contested and partially controlled since 2014.

But the Ukrainian military, with its troops kitted out in warm gear from their Western allies, will be hoping that the harsh conditions will drain the morale of Russia’s less well-equipped coterie of conscripts and mercenaries.

Despite Ukraine’s recent military success, there is no sense that either side is ready to parley. Kyiv needs Moscow to understand that it is losing, or will lose, this war. Moscow is still looking for ways to win, or at least salvage something that does not look like defeat.

The war will grind on through a long, grim winter that may test both the resolve of the West and the survival skills of the beleaguered Ukrainian people.

Darkest hours

On the ground in Kyiv this week, even the relatively bureaucratic vocabulary of the World Health Organisation’s Europe director Hans Kluge still painted a vividly bleak picture of what lies ahead.

Ukrainian State Emergency Service firefighters work to extinguish a fire after Russian rocket attack in Kyiv, Ukraine. AP

“The devastating energy crisis, the deepening mental health emergency, constraints on humanitarian access and the risk of viral infections will make this winter a formidable test for the Ukrainian health system and the Ukrainian people,” he said.

As always, Zelensky found a more emotional register, as he addressed the UN Security Council on Russia’s “energy terror”.

“When we have the temperature below zero, and scores of millions of people without energy supplies, without heating, without water, this is an obvious crime against humanity,” he declared.

The Ukrainians are battening down the hatches. Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko’s team are preparing about 1000 community centres, where people without heat, light or even water can get warm and fed.

In the western city of Lviv, mayor Andriy Sadovyi is planning for 6000 emergency shelters, to be powered by wood stoves or diesel generators. A Politico correspondent reports that even Sadovyi’s own office now has its century-old antique wood-burning stoves back up and running.

Zelensky has urged people to be frugal with electricity. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk has advised those most at risk to evacuate to less afflicted areas.

The authorities are working furiously to patch up what they can. Energy Minister German Galushchenko said the three nuclear power plants that had to shut down this week would be restored to service by the weekend, which would “significantly reduce the deficit” in energy supplies.

“The state superbly fought back,” Zelensky told the FT. “Energy workers, the state emergencies’ ministry, deminers, everyone worked to fix and restore power and provide at least a bit of water.”

It was quite the barrage. Some 70 cruise missiles and at least five attack drones had come Ukraine’s way on Wednesday. Of these, the Ukrainians said they’d shot down the drones and all but 19 of the missiles. Still, about 80 per cent of the country was temporarily without power or water, and at least 10 people were killed in the strikes.

Some Western assessments had suggested that Russia was likely by now to be running low on missile supplies for such strikes. But either it has more than previously thought, or has unexpected capacity to build more, or is getting new supplies from somewhere. Or else it is using its limited supplies now, in the hope of creating some shock-and-awe as winter bites.

Eventually, it will have to shift to older, less accurate Soviet-era missiles – with potentially grim consequences for civilian populations.

Grinding ground war

There is far less sense of Russian superiority in the land war. The Ukrainians are holding out against the Russian assault on the town of Bakhmut, in Donetsk province. The wild card is that Russia has reportedly just redeployed its previously Kherson-based elite paratrooper regiment there.

In other places, the Russians are digging in defensively. The Ukrainians may struggle to break through in the Donbas region of Luhansk, although Zelensky has sounded bullish. And south of Kherson city, a tough fight looms along the Dnipro River, which forms the new and increasingly artillery-battered Russia-Ukraine dividing line.

Residents gathering at an aid distribution point receive supplies in Kherson. AP Photo/Bernat Armangue

It is hard to see anything other than destruction and violence in the months ahead. As Kings College professor Lawrence Freedman argued this week, neither side is in any position to sue for peace.

For Putin, any plausible ceasefire or peace deal would only expose the folly of his enterprise and the weakness of his position. He may be losing, but he cannot afford to stop fighting.

“The gap between his desired ends and available means has grown ever wider over the past nine months. The war was lost long ago. The challenge remains one of getting Putin and his circle to accept this view,” Freedman wrote.

Putin’s only solace: if nothing else, he can go on with his Chechnya-style project of trying to reduce the Ukrainian economy to total penury and dependency.

But whatever the economic cost, Ukraine has no alternative either. Zelensky, his troops and his people have to push Russia to the point where its position is so weak that Putin accepts his retreat must be permanent, rather than just a prelude to regrouping and reinvading.

That is still a very tall order, and will require substantial and ongoing Western support.

If Ukraine can’t rout Russia on all fronts, it could perhaps try to land a decisive blow – one powerful enough to convince Putin the game is up. Freedman reckons that can only be through a successful assault on Crimea.

But the West fears that Crimea might be some kind of tipping point – the one thing that might push Putin into a reckless, possibly even nuclear, escalation. There is an implicit view, in many a Western corridor of power, that retaking Crimea might be a step too far.

Western wherewithal

The common element in Ukraine’s set of strategic options is the necessity for Western support, and the uncertainty about how strong and durable it is.

“Each new Ukrainian victory has been followed by hand-wringing among international observers as to how much further it should attempt to go,” Katie Stallard wrote for the New Statesman this week.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to the media in Kherson, southern Ukraine, on Monday. AP

The heavily fortified Russian defensive lines, Putin’s infrastructure bombardment and the constant threat of a catastrophic accident at a nuclear power plant are causing Western toes to curl.

Still, Britain, Germany, the US and even the new right-wing Italian government are sticking with Zelensky.

Opinion polling, though, reveals a drip-drip erosion of the previously unquestioned, unconditional public enthusiasm for the West’s ever more costly support – particularly among US Republicans.

The European Union is preparing another round of sanctions, and the G7 is readying both a price cap for Russian oil exports and a fresh package of support to help Ukraine keep its cities lit and heated. US President Joe Biden will keep pushing for more, even when the US House of Representatives switches into Republican hands in January.

But it looks more than likely that what lies ahead, literally and figuratively, are dark days indeed.

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