Ukraine setback has dented Russian image, but West should not forget approaching winter

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Inputs from the almost seven-month-long Russia-Ukraine conflict mention a successful counter-offensive launched by Ukrainian forces in the Kharkiv region. Ukraine claims to have recaptured over 3,000 km from Russia, loss of which has been partially admitted by Russian sources. The UK ministry of defence stated that pushing Russian troops out of the Kharkiv region has ‘significant implications for Russia’s overall operational design.’ Simultaneously, reports indicate that Russia has intensified its missile strikes on eastern Ukraine leading to a complete blackout in Kharkiv.

Ukrainian State Emergency Service firefighters put out the fire after a Russian rocket attack hit an electric power station in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Sept. 11, 2022. AP

There were many who were expecting the conflict to end in stalemate but were surprised by the swift and effective counter-offensive launched by Ukraine, which took the Russians by surprise. The offensive employed eight times the Russian force levels in the region in which it was launched. While Ukraine claims that it will continue its offensive till it even regains its Crimean territory occupied by Russia in 2014-15, many doubt that this is possible.

For Russia, this loss may be a setback and in no way displays defeat. It was the second setback for Russia, the first being its failure to capture Kiev in the early part of the war. It has multiple options, part of which it has displayed by launching devastating strikes on major population centres of Ukraine. However, it would impact Russia’s global standing as well as its internal political scenario. Casualties from the war, true figures being unavailable, have been immense for both sides, estimated in tens of thousands killed or injured.

For the US and the West, it is time to consider the quantum of suffering Europeans could bear with rising gas prices, high inflation and a possible recession of the economy as a fallout of Russia stopping flow of gas through the Nord Stream pipeline. Military support to Ukraine from the US will continue adding to its confidence. China too would need to study the impact of the Ukrainian counter strikes as at some stage it may consider a similar action against Taiwan, though Taiwan is far smaller than Ukraine but possesses sufficient military power. India and many other nations have exploited the war for their economic benefits, procuring cheaper oil, coal and other resources.

Winter is a short time away and would bring all operations to either a stall or slow them down. Hence both sides are working to stabilise their frontlines prior to winter setting in. The coming three months, prior to the onset of winter, would determine the future. Russia may pump in additional forces (reports indicate that Russia is deploying its third army corps in the region) or in the worst-case scenario order a general mobilisation, thereby maintaining a positive combat ratio, though a general mobilisation could signal a possibility of defeat. It could also concentrate on targeting Ukraine’s extending supply lines by missiles, artillery and air strikes, thereby slowing down its offensive or at best stalling it. By holding onto its defences across the Oskil river in the Donbass region, it could make it difficult for Ukraine to progress.

For Ukraine, repairing its infrastructure prior to winters appears to be a daunting task, despite Western support. Its population is likely to face a harsh winter. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has stated that Ukrainians would live without gas, water, food or heat than in Moscow’s orbit. Will his people accept the suffering or demand talks with Moscow? Ukraine will continue receiving arms and ammunition but whether it possesses requisite and trained force level to continue pushing its offensive is questionable.

There were unconfirmed media reports that the Russian arms industry is facing shortfalls compelling Russia to procure drones and artillery ammunition from Iran and North Korea respectively. It has also approached the Indian industry for supply of military spares. Shortfall of equipment could hamper future Russian plans. The Russian economy has begun slowing down with continued sanctions and the cost of war. For how long it can sustain operations is debatable.

Globally, Russia’s military image has been dented. Its failure to subjugate Ukraine and seek peace on its terms, despite its immense firepower, has added to the confidence of European nations. Countries on the periphery of Russia and Ukraine, considering themselves next in line to Russian expansion of its sphere of influence, are now aware of its limitations and can breathe a sigh of relief. Nations under Russian domination could begin flexing their muscles.

Finland and Sweden, which were rushing to join NATO, fearing Russian threats would be at ease. The war has displayed that in a conventional conflict a weaker nation can deny victory to a powerful adversary. There is no doubt that Russia is facing a second Afghanistan, pulling out from which would be difficult without major loss of face. It could threaten a nuclear strike, but this would be globally unacceptable. Internally, though dissent is crushed, voices against Putin would grow. Pressure would increase. Putin desperately needs a victory to hold onto power, will he get one is unknown. He has sacked and rotated his generals, but results have not changed.

For Europe, facing rising gas prices and a move towards recession, there is no end to troubles. Protests have broken out demanding European nations adopt an India type neutral policy. Europe continues being pressured by the US to adhere to anti-Russian measures including cutting down on Russian gas, laying down price ceilings and arming Ukraine. How long would the US be able to sustain this pressure is a mute question. As gas prices rise, the stability of governments would be at stake. Russia is hoping to break European unity, whether it will be able to do so this winter is to be seen.

For China, Russian failure is a major setback. It has been Russia’s staunch ally with a ‘no limits partnership.’ It was hoping that Russia, by its actions in Ukraine would draw in the west, opening doors for it to invade Taiwan. With Ukraine now retaliating, the global emphasis is back to the Indo-Pacific. Multiple US delegations visiting Taiwan indicate that the US is instigating China to act, aware that China could face a similar defeat in a conventional war.

Another impact has been the failure of unmotivated conscript soldiers which largely comprise Russian and Chinese armies. They lack training and the will to fight, aware that they are serving for limited durations, more interested in exploiting their military service for future studies and employment. Many have refused to go to the front. India, which is switching to an almost similar system of Agniveers, this is a lesson it needs to consider.

Further for India, the failure of its major arms supplier Russia, indicates that Russian equipment is no longer of the calibre claimed by it and Russia is no longer the military and diplomatic power it once was. India has adopted a neutral approach thus far with Prime Minister Narendra Modi likely to meet the Russian President Vladimir Putin in Samarkand this week. With shifting sands in the ongoing war should India reconsider its approach.

Ukraine is back to the centre stage while Russia is desperate to change the game. The world watches as the seven-month war continues. How will the next two to three months pan out will determine changes in geopolitical alignments. Winters will be difficult in Europe and Ukraine. Will European support for Ukraine continue in the midst of suffering of its population is another aspect to be observed. At the end there are more questions than answers as the war lingers bringing death, destruction and suffering. Western powers are encouraging conflict, rather than working to terminate it. The biggest sufferers are Ukrainians.

The author is a former Indian Army officer, strategic analyst and columnist. Views expressed are personal.

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Ukraine setback has dented Russian image, but West should not forget approaching winter
Ukraine setback has dented Russian image, but West should not forget approaching winter
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