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The Coming Winter War

The Coming Winter War

Winter has set in, and Ukrainian forces are fully prepared to take advantage of the season ahead.

Francis Fukuyama

I haven’t posted anything on Ukraine in a while, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been continuously thinking and worrying about it.

Since the liberation of Kherson last month, there has been a lull in fighting in the south, and a continuing bloody engagement around Bakhmut, where Russian forces led by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group have been trying to capture the city for many weeks now. Russia has continued to attack civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, trying to shut down electricity and water as the winter sets in.

Following a pattern that has persisted since the beginning of the war, every pause in the fighting has led to renewed calls for negotiations. The latest have come from my old friend Robert Wright, who argued in the Washington Post for U.S. pressure on Ukraine to negotiate. French President Emmanuel Macron, rather unbelievably suggested that Russia might need security guarantees in a peace deal, while another old friend, John Mearsheimer, doubled down on this point in a bizarre interview with Isaac Chotiner. Jeffrey Sachs has continued to double down on his view that the war is entirely driven by American policy.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Such arguments are all based on two mistaken premises: first, that Russia’s motives in the war were something other than a desire to grab as much Ukrainian territory as possible and undermine its viability as a state, and second, that further Ukrainian advances were unlikely and that a long-term stalemate would ensue. Both of these are wrong.

While Russia is clearly on the back foot right now, there is zero evidence that its long-term objective of subduing Ukraine has changed in the slightest. Indeed, Russian spokesmen have as much as admitted that they needed time to rest and rebuild their forces. A peace negotiation now that left them in control of significant Ukrainian territory would not lead to peace; the war would resume the moment Russia felt it had recovered sufficiently. In the meantime, Ukrainian civilians trapped behind Russian lines will continue to suffer torture and repression as they have in every territory thus far liberated from Russian control.

With regard to military outcomes, there is every reason to think that Ukraine’s forward momentum will continue. Now that winter has set in, the ground is freezing and permitting greater vehicle mobility. The Russians retreated from Kherson and are fortifying positions on the left bank of the Dnipro river, but according to the Institute for the Study of War they have not had time to build comprehensive defense lines and the Ukrainians have already crossed the river at several points. It is extremely important that they liberate this stretch of territory so as to be able to cut Russian lines of communication running from Russian-occupied Donbas and Russia itself through Marilupol and Melitopol.

Once these lines are cut or in artillery range, Ukraine can think about liberating Crimea. A direct assault across the narrow isthmus that connects the peninsula to Kherson Oblast is not likely to work; rather, the peninsula can be cut off from resupply and slowly strangled the way that Ukraine strangled Kherson in the late summer. Reclaiming Nova Kakhovka on the left bank of the Dnipro will allow Ukraine to once again block the canal that supplies Crimea with fresh water. Meanwhile, its ability to strike targets deep within the peninsula has already been demonstrated, and will greatly increase as eastern Kherson is liberated. The Russians may get serious about negotiating if they feel their grasp on Sevastopol slipping.

Needless to say, all of this will require continued high levels of military support from the West, as well as help in protecting and rebuilding civilian infrastructure. Withholding long-range missile systems like ATACMS seems silly when Ukraine is desperate to neutralize the airbases from which rocket attacks are launched.  Russia used fear of nuclear escalation in September to try to intimidate Kyiv’s allies, but it didn’t work and they have given up on that. If Washington is as serious as it claims to be about helping Ukraine win the war, it should lift its blocks on these kinds of systems.

As I’ve said in previous posts, Western pressure on Ukraine to negotiate always increases the moment Ukraine’s forward military momentum slows. Politics is driven by military outcomes, and not the reverse in this case. The Russian army is poorly equipped to fight in winter conditions, with many of its recently mobilized forces lacking winter uniforms and shelter. Ukraine by contrast is fully prepared to take advantage of the season to move ahead. Quite frankly, the biggest threat to Ukraine’s success was the Republican Party. Had a “red wave” materialized on Nov. 8, the MAGA wing of the party would have felt its oats and pushed to cut funding to Kyiv. Now, with the further loss of Herschel Walker to Raphael Warnock, Trumpism has been deflated and is on a downward slope. The United States and its NATO allies have to capitalize on the moment and help Ukraine win.

One final issue. Emine Dzheppar, Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, launched an initiative called Crimean Platform before the start of the war to call attention to human rights abuses in Crimea, especially among her own Crimean Tatar community. I have been happy to help in this and would like to reiterate my support for those citizen journalists who have been unjustly sentenced to prison for reporting on the truth by the Russians occupiers.

Image: Servicemen at the Land Forces Training Center of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. (Flickr: Ukrainian Ministry of Defense)

UkraineRussiaU.S. Foreign PolicyFrankly Fukuyama