The Russian-Ukrainian war is entering the winter season, ending the muddy autumn season when roads become impassible and terrain difficult to navigate due to heavy rain or melting snow.
The two sides will now seek to make advances, although Western analysts predict the pace of fighting will slow down. Russia still remains behind the lines in Donbas, unable to assert full control over that region as it continues to fight in the vicinity of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia and shore up its control over the eastern bank of the Dnipro River in the Kherson oblast and secure its rear lines to the north of Crimea.
It appears that Russian forces are also trying to advance towards strategic locations in the Donbas, in the Donetsk oblast, and northwards towards Kharkiv, in order to regain control over railways and main roads. At present, much of the fighting is concentrated around the towns of Avdiivka to the north of Donetsk city and Bakhmut some 40 km further north.
Ukrainian forces, meanwhile, have benefited from the shrinking area of the Russian deployment since the summer. The latter, overstretched, withdrew from several locations to consolidate their defence, and the Ukrainian forces still have the capacity to defend locations recaptured in the counteroffensive in the Donbas, much of the success of which has been due to the supply of sophisticated weaponry from the West, such as the HIMARS missile system.
However, the ability of the Ukrainian forces to make a major breakthrough is still limited. In general, the battlefront remains relatively stable, subject less to balances of power on the ground than to the balances of weakness. The result is battle lines grinding against each other. If Russia has adopted more of a defensive footing in order to fend off attacks on its forces, the condition of the Ukrainian forces at the front is not much different.
This war of mutual demoralisation continues in tandem with the battle on the ground in the Donbas. Russia continues its heavy aerial barrages against Ukrainian energy infrastructure and has succeeded in putting a large portion of it out of commission.
As winter sets in and the ground freezes over the movement of troops and material will become easier for both sides, but many Ukrainian cities are now plunged into darkness and more in need of humanitarian relief than weapons. An unusual television report recently showed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rebuking an official in Kyiv for not supplying the capital’s inhabitants with essential needs fast enough as winter approaches.
According to Western press reports, the Russian population has begun to grumble about the duration of the war, the cost in lives, and the economic attrition. The reports also mention angry reactions against the partial mobilisation Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered in September. In late October, the Russian Defence Ministry announced that the mobilisation of 300,000 reservists was complete, but whatever deployments have taken place have not borne fruit on the battlefield thus far.
Moscow claims that the reports about growing opposition to the war in Russian public opinion are unfounded. But Putin’s meeting with a number of Russian women whose children are fighting in Ukraine seems to belie the official stance that the hostilities in Ukraine are a special military operation as opposed to what has become an apparently endless full-scale war.
On the other hand, despite the hopes of Western strategists that the longer the war continues the more it will sap Russian military capacities and missile stores, Russia has so far demonstrated that this is not the case. It continues to unleash salvoes of missiles against targets across Ukraine. Russia’s Lancet drones have also appeared in these operations, replacing the Iranian Shahed-136 drones it had used earlier.
Such evidence challenges Western claims that Russia has depleted its arsenals of missiles and drones and has had to turn to outside sources, including North Korea, to supply them. Russian fighter planes are still able to invade Ukrainian airspace and strike Ukrainian arms depots and other military facilities and infrastructure.
On the other hand, the Western powers have begun to worry that their military support for Ukraine is depleting their own weapons stockpiles, as Ukrainian forces “burn through” the huge quantities of equipment and ammunition they receive. According to a recent report in the New York Times, roughly a third of Western-made artillery donated to Ukraine is out of action and in repair facilities in Poland at any given time.
Voices in Washington, mostly from the Republican Party, have also begun to complain of the costs of the continued military aid to Ukraine. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy expressed this sentiment in October, saying that the Republicans would not keep writing a “blank cheque” for Ukraine if they came to power.
Similar grievances regarding weapons supplies and financial aid to Ukraine are being heard in Brussels and various European capitals. Nevertheless, the Western pledges to support Kyiv “for as long as it takes,” plus intensive programmes in Western capitals to train thousands of raw Ukrainian recruits, are among the signs that the Western powers have no intention of handing Russia a victory, regardless of the difficulties.
Although some recent developments have given the impression that the Western powers, including Washington, have begun to search for a path to a negotiated end to the conflict, while the Kremlin has indicated that it would respond favourably to genuine overtures, so far both sides have placed impossible conditions on the table.
The likelihood, therefore, is that the conflict will continue to drag on without significant change, at least until a third possibility arises. According to some observers, that will happen when all sides reach such a degree of war fatigue that they will be forced to go to the negotiating table and make major concessions.
Russia still appears set on gaining control of the Donbas as well as the eastern portions of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts. The latter is crucial to securing the Donbas and also to maintaining control over the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Kherson is crucial to protecting Crimea.
Russian forces are thus likely to keep to the east of the Dnipro River while carrying out airstrikes deep into western Ukraine. NATO, for its part, continues to amass forces to the west of Ukraine, primarily in Poland. The US is building dozens of military facilities in the area, while European powers such as Germany are developing their own military forces to counter Russian forces.
As the war continues, Ukraine will gradually develop into the main frontline between Russia and NATO, which sees Ukraine as its forward line of defence.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.