foreign interests

The War in Ukraine Is Shifting, Not Ending

And the horrors keep coming.

Ukrainian soldiers inspect the wreckage of a destroyed Russian armored column on the road in Bucha, a suburb north of Kyiv, on Sunday. Photo: Matthew Hatcher/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Ukrainian soldiers inspect the wreckage of a destroyed Russian armored column on the road in Bucha, a suburb north of Kyiv, on Sunday. Photo: Matthew Hatcher/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

As the war in Ukraine grinds on for a sixth week, Russia appears to be scaling back its ill-conceived war goals, regrouping and redeploying its forces after failing in its effort to quickly capture Kyiv. The successful Ukrainian resistance so far has bolstered the defenders’ morale advantage and raised hopes of an actual victory over what was until recently considered an unbeatable opponent. Unfortunately, these developments do not mean that peace, much less a Ukrainian victory, is imminent. Rather, the war is entering a new phase and may evolve into a bloody, protracted war of attrition; nobody can say how or when it will end.

Over the weekend, Russian forces continued to withdraw from the areas surrounding the Ukrainian capital, and Ukrainian forces quickly regained control of these territories. Russia appears to have abandoned a significant amount of military equipment in this withdrawal, but also reportedly laid landmines to slow the Ukrainians’ efforts and withdrew many of its units in sufficiently good order to redeploy on other fronts. On Saturday, Ukraine claimed to have liberated the whole Kyiv region.

In retaking this territory, the Ukrainians have also discovered grim evidence that Russian forces committed war crimes during their occupation. Footage from the town of Bucha, north of Kyiv, showed bodies of what appeared to be civilians lining the streets, some with gunshot wounds to their heads and some with their hands tied. The mayor of Bucha said more than 270 people had been buried in mass graves in the town, with dozens more still lying where they fell. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba accused Russia of perpetrating a deliberate massacre in Bucha, while U.S. and European officials condemned the atrocities and threatened new sanctions in response.

Workers in Bucha collect the body of a civilian man, one of many found lying along a road in the town after Russian troops withdrew from the area. Photo: Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

Moscow, characteristically, dismissed the allegations as “another staged performance by the Kyiv regime for the Western media.” Yet Bucha is not the only place where evidence has emerged of Russian war crimes. Human Rights Watch has already documented numerous cases of rape, summary execution, and violence against civilians by Russian occupying forces across Ukraine. As Ukrainian forces continue to recover territory, there is good reason to fear that the numbers of documented war crimes and civilian deaths will continue to rise. Speaking on Face the Nation on Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy again described the Russian invasion as an attempted “genocide,” saying his people were “being destroyed and exterminated.”

At the same time, Ukraine’s response to the Russian invasion continues to be remarkably effective. The State Department estimated last week that more than 10,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in the war so far, and tens of thousands more have likely been injured or captured. Russia has also lost a stunning amount of military equipment, including over 400 tanks and nearly 2,000 other vehicles, artillery pieces, aircraft, and naval vessels. And on Friday, Ukraine allegedly carried out a daring air raid inside Russia, targeting an oil depot in the city of Belgorod, 20 miles past the border.

The speed and scale of these losses are unprecedented and have significantly hampered Russia’s ability to wage its war, but it would be a mistake to assume Ukraine is on the path to quickly and completely repelling the invasion. While the initial push toward Kyiv has failed, Russia continues to hold or contest significant amounts of territory in Ukraine’s south and east, where it may make further gains after redeploying its troops on those fronts. The bombardment continues in and around Ukraine’s second most populous city, Kharkiv, in the east. The southern cities of Kherson and Melitopol remain occupied by Russian forces, and the besieged and devastated port city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov may finally fall entirely into Russian hands soon. The city is part of the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region, which Russian President Vladimir Putin likely hopes to wrest away from Ukraine as at least a consolation prize after failing to capture Kyiv and overthrow Zelenskyy; controlling the city and region would give Russia a land bridge to Crimea, which it captured and annexed in 2014.

Russia also claimed it conducted strikes early Sunday on an oil refinery and fuel depots in the Black Sea port of Odessa — a strategically vital city in southwestern Ukraine that the Russians have so far been unable to approach. British military intelligence says Russian naval forces are maintaining a blockade of Ukraine’s coast and retain the capability to launch an amphibious attack, though this would be extremely risky, as the Ukrainians have had ample time to prepare for it.

Heavy fighting also continues in the Donbas region, where Ukrainian forces have had some success repelling Russian assaults but are continuing to lose ground. Russia captured the city of Izyum on Friday, taking a strategically important position to the northwest of Donetsk and Luhansk, and threatening to surround Ukrainian forces in those two provinces. This is the main front where Russia is expected to redeploy the forces it is pulling out of the Kyiv area, as well as potentially other reinforcements and/or new conscripts.

In other words, Russia’s strategic withdrawal from the failed siege of Kyiv is not so much a retreat as a pause to regroup, and while much of northern Ukraine may get some degree of respite, the intensity of fighting is likely to increase on other fronts in the coming weeks. To repel those intensified attacks, Ukraine will need additional support from the West — which is one of the key factors that will shape the next phase of the war.

Zelenskyy made another appeal for more weapons to NATO leaders at an emergency meeting in Brussels last Thursday, including tanks and planes. In response to this request, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it would be “very difficult” to provide these particular items, logistically, although Western countries have otherwise been increasing their commitments to supply arms to Ukraine. Though a conspicuous effort to supply the Ukrainians with Polish MiG warplanes fell apart last month, the U.S. is reportedly working with allies to transfer Soviet-made tanks to Ukraine to shore up its defenses in the Donbas, marking the first time the U.S. has helped get tanks to the country. In addition, the Pentagon on Friday announced another $300 million military-aid package, including drones, armored vehicles, and other weapons.

The U.S. and Europe can also step up their support for Ukraine by amplifying sanctions on Russia. Current sanctions have hit the country hard, temporarily tanking the value of the ruble and shutting Russia out of large segments of the global economy — but much more could still be done on that front. In particular, Russia continues to earn billions from natural gas exports to European countries, which remain heavily dependent on this supply line to meet their energy needs (especially Germany). Cutting Russian gas imports has been generally thought of as a last resort for the Europeans, as doing so would come at considerable cost to their economies and living standards. The new alleged evidence of Russian atrocities may already be having an effect on that calculus: German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht suggested Sunday that the E.U. should discuss banning Russian gas imports in response to the apparent war crimes committed in places like Bucha. The U.S. is also weighing new sanctions on as-yet untouched sectors of the Russian economy such as mining and transportation as well as more Russian financial institutions. Some of these sanctions, especially on energy exports, could ratchet up the economic pain for Russia considerably, but others would likely have limited or symbolic effects.

Another key question is whether and how Putin will adjust his ambitions in Ukraine to the situation on the ground. Russia’s refocusing on the Donbas region does not necessarily mean he will be satisfied with an eventual peace agreement that dislodges those territories from Ukraine and nothing else. On Sunday, Russia’s chief negotiator, Vladimir Medinsky, dismissed the idea of a possible meeting between Putin and Zelenskyy, despite earlier signals from the Ukrainian side that the two countries were close to being ready for direct peace negotiations. Medinsky said Ukraine had agreed to commit to not joining any military bloc (i.e., NATO), not obtaining nuclear weapons, and not hosting military bases, but had not agreed to Russia’s demands regarding Crimea and the Donbas.

Putin will also need to decide how far to go in escalating his commitment to the war, which Moscow continues to publicly minimize and refer to as a “special military operation.” Military analyst Michael Kofman believes Russia is facing a severe manpower crunch with so many of its combat-ready soldiers taken out of commission, and will have trouble reinforcing without a national mobilization. This, however, would require the government to acknowledge that it is actually fighting (and not necessarily winning) a war in Ukraine, which could be politically untenable. Putin’s advisers are also lying to him about the progress of the war, U.K. and U.S. intelligence agencies believe, so he may be making military decisions without knowing how badly things have already gone.

Independent polling suggests that the Russian public supports the war, but not necessarily by massive margins. Of course, public opinion in Russia is difficult to gauge objectively, and most Russians have little or no access to information beyond state propaganda. Public opposition to the war would not influence an autocrat like Putin, anyway, unless it rose to the level of outright rebellion — which is extremely unlikely. The odds of Putin facing any meaningful consequences for his actions remain exceedingly slim. He also deserves to be hauled before the International Criminal Court, but that’s not going to happen either.

Ukraine’s goals may be shifting as well. Zelenskyy faces a competing set of political and national-security motivations in his efforts to defend his country and end the war. The invasion, along with the mass mobilization in response to it, has stoked nationalist sentiments and hatred of Russia that may leave many Ukrainians indisposed to any peace deal that appears to reward Putin’s aggression — for example, by ceding territory in the Donbas or limiting Ukrainian sovereignty. The mounting evidence of civilian casualties and war crimes will only harden these positions.

At the same time, Zelenskyy knows he has a responsibility to protect his people, even if that means swallowing a bitter pill to end the bloodshed. He already appears to recognize that the dim prospect of NATO membership is something he can afford to concede, and he may come to see officially relinquishing the separatist-controlled areas of the Donbas in the same light. Meanwhile, it is hard to see Putin accepting a peace that he can’t spin as a victory himself, so Zelenskyy may ultimately find himself committing political suicide to save his country.

This next phase of the war may not be the final phase, either. Russia shows no signs of ending its offensive anytime soon, and even after suffering so many military and economic losses, it can and will continue to unleash wholesale death and destruction in Ukraine if that’s what Putin decides he wants. In the meantime, all the U.S. and other countries can feasibly do to support Ukraine is continue to bolster its defenses and drive up Russia’s costs. That will help prevent Putin from brutally enforcing an unjust peace and give Zelenskyy as much leverage as possible to keep his country intact. Ultimately, however, the only person who can unilaterally end this disastrous war is the man who chose to wage it. And no matter the outcome or when, it will be Ukrainians who have paid the most horrifying and undeserved price.

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The War in Ukraine Is Shifting, Not Ending