Western analysts have greeted the spectacular success of the ongoing Ukrainian offensive in the south and east, especially the rout of Russian forces in the Kharkiv region, with a mixture of disbelief and jubilation. Some have begun to call it a first step in a Ukrainian push to all-out victory; others have revised their views of the overall capabilities of the Russian army, with some becoming downright dismissive of those capabilities. It is undeniable that the combination of Western equipment and training with the patriotism, high morale, and courage of the Ukrainian armed forces have shredded much conventional wisdom about Russia, Ukraine, and the entire eastern flank of NATO.
But it would be premature to declare victory.
In fact, the success of this offensive should spur the West to redouble its assistance to Ukraine, for much hard work remains ahead. The Kharkiv victory, or rather series of victories, is a major win for Ukraine, both in terms of its own national pride and the positive message it sends to the U.S. and other Western supporters. Historians will likely write about how Kyiv’s skillful messaging about an imminent Ukrainian counteroffensive to the south induced the Russian command to move large numbers of its forces there—a classic case of getting your enemy to do operationally what you want it to do, while weakening their position. Still, this is not the end of the conflict but another phase in it. Much depends on how Ukraine capitalizes on these wins and—equally importantly—how Vladimir Putin responds. Here I see several possibilities.
Moscow may decide to respond to the setbacks with further escalation, including even more attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant shutdown has raised international concerns about the safety of that facility in Russian-occupied territory. Russia has held the plant since March, though Ukrainian staff continue to operate it. By keeping Russian military personnel there, Putin signals that he has his finger on what could become an environmental catastrophe. Moscow may opt for increased attacks on high-value targets, including in Kyiv, Odesa, or Lviv to make clear its intent not to yield, and to insist—as its propaganda has maintained—that all Russian troop movements thus far have been premeditated and planned. Moscow will also likely increase its messaging that it is prepared to widen the conflict and that nothing, including limited nuclear strikes, is off the table.
These responses, though significant, would not likely be enough to change the course of the war. What could have truly unpredictable consequences would be a decision by Putin to abandon the pretense that the war is a “special military operation” and declare general mobilization. Should the Russian government move in this direction, the potential battlefield impact would be hard to measure. It is by no means certain that Russia has adequate reserves of trained military personnel that it could bring quickly into the fight; nor is it certain that it has equipment stocks of sufficient quality to ready new units for combat in time to reverse the current dynamic.
One of the greatest deterrents to declaring a general mobilization is the impact it is likely to have on Russian domestic politics. The current Russia recruitment scheme relies on contract soldiers—largely prisoners and men from remote areas of the Russian Federation. A general mobilization would affect the entire population, pulling in the sons of families from larger cities. It would likely generate considerable dissatisfaction and could destabilize Russia.
As things stand, Putin seems to be out of good options. In the unlikely event that he seeks a negotiated settlement, Kyiv would probably not entertain peace talks, especially now, considering its recent successes. Any attempt to “freeze the conflict” in place would be tantamount to a Russian victory and would leave Moscow in control of conquered Ukrainian territory. It is also clear that Moscow would treat any negotiated deal at this stage as merely a temporary respite, or peredyshka—a period of time for the Russian army to regroup, refit, and prepare for another round.
The greatest long-term unknown, however, is Beijing’s role in this war. Amid growing reports that Moscow is seeking equipment, missiles, and millions of artillery rounds from North Korea, the vaunted Russian military reserves of post-Soviet stocks may not be as vast as received wisdom and Russian propaganda have suggested. A decision by the Chinese to offer their industrial base to supply Russia with weapons and ammunition would mark a major escalatory stage in this conflict and would likely widen the conflict in political terms—and possibly military terms as well.
The Ukrainian military needs to expand and train further its maneuver forces if it is to push the Russians out of the occupied territory. This means the U.S. and the West must keep supplying Kyiv with economic aid, military assistance, and especially training so that the Ukrainians can transition fully to the use of Western weapons. The war is not over by a long shot, and Kyiv will need more U.S. and Western support to prevail.
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