Three things stand out in the slowing down of fighting in Ukraine for the winter. The first is the most obvious: a small, highly motivated country, equipped with advanced weapons and intelligence, is slowly but inexorably defeating what used to be called the world’s second-most powerful military. This is a stunning feat that we need to remember.
Second, the failure of Western political leaders to explain to citizens why this war is important. It is obvious that taxpayers have become tired of having to pay for the inexorable flow of ammunition and equipment. Therefore, they must be persuaded that continued support is necessary. for their own countries’ interests. Popular support is already beginning to crackle, and the fractures will get worse if Western leaders continue to ignore the stakes.
The third key point is NATO members’ increasing willingness to supply Ukraine with the heavy equipment it needs to win. It is understandable that the West is cautious as Putin could always strike NATO territory or use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Those fears are why they won’t supply Ukraine with longer-range missiles and why they demand assurances Ukraine won’t use NATO weapons to strike Russian territory (which does Not Count annexed Ukrainian territory. NATO members are more willing to supply tanks and infantry fighting vehicles as well as artillery and lethal drones to Ukraine, and to allow Ukraine to strike military targets on Russian soil with weapons Kyiv made at home.
Why has NATO changed its attitude? They see how difficult Ukraine is fighting and how successful. Ukraine is in effect testing how Western armies will combat on new, more information-rich battlefields. The feedback from Ukraine will assist NATO members in preparing for future combat operations. It is also clear that Russia has done much more than just try to overthrow the post-Cold War order through force. The Kremlin pursues a strategy that is built on war crimes: kidnapping and raping civilians, as well as killing them. It repeatedly hits civilian targets, with no regard to innocent life, and is trying to cut off heat or electricity in Ukraine and across Europe. NATO members are slowly realizing that a stable, negotiated settlement is unlikely to be possible. The Ukraine would not accept it. Putin would instead use the time to regroup before resuming his assault.
What’s happening on the battlefield itself? Due to early winter weather, the fight has slowed down over the last two months. Now, as the ground freezes solid, Ukraine’s tanks and artillery are beginning to move again. The soft ground didn’t affect Russia, which relies on human-wave attacks by expendable soldiers and air attacks by Iranian-made drones. The dwindling supply precision weapons and conscripts has slowened them down. Putin can’t do much about the weapons, but he can do something about the manpower. Despite political dangers, he secretly began another round. It’s one thing for him to round up men from outlying areas. It’s quite another to drag them off the streets in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the political heart of the country. Putin would only do it if he thought losing the war was even more dangerous. This is precisely the scenario Putin faces if Ukraine gains more this spring and summer and especially if it threatens retaking Crimea.
Right now, Russia is continuing its unsuccessful — and extremely costly — effort to take the cities of Bakhmut and nearby Soledar, as part of their failing attempt to consolidate control of the Donbas. In the meantime, Ukraine is gradually advancing on two other cities to its north: Kreminna (left) and Svatove (right). Those cities and the highway connecting them represent the next steps eastward after Ukraine’s capture of Lyman in October.
The battles for Bakhmut, Soledar, Kreminna, and Svatove are characteristic of the two sides’ strategies. Russia uses brute force and artillery, as well as drones, to destroy all Ukrainian cities, people, and vital infrastructure. To eliminate key Russian command centers and logistical hubs, the Ukrainian military is using precision weapons and special forces. While they have tried to avoid slugfests that play to Russian strengths but are willing to fight in Donbas to stop Russia expanding its territorial control, they have done so with wisdom.
What’s next for Ukraine? They will take over the Kreminna–Svatove line in the north to endanger Russian supply routes to Donbas. Then, they will pursue logistical nodes. They can either head east to Starobilsk (or south to Lysychansk). The end goal in both cases is the same: to gradually displace Russia, by cutting off its supply channels.
More important is the battle that will take place further south, starting in Zaporizhzhia Oblast. The main logistical hub of Melitopol as well as Berdyansk are the targets. The Russians know their importance and are ready to defend them. Capturing Melitopol will be as difficult as capturing Kherson — and as important. It would be critical for Ukraine to succeed there, since it would cut in half the Russian army and leave the south (below Melitopol), without access to Russia’s land bridge. This would allow Russia to supply supplies and reinforcements. Now that the Kerch Straits rail bridge is under attack, severing that link would make it almost impossible to defend Crimea. (The parallel bridge that allows trucks to cross the Kerch Straits has also been damaged. But, work on the rail bridge is more time-consuming and difficult. As Ukraine prepares for the fight for Crimea, it is certain to attack them once again in spring.
The coming fight for Crimea will be crucial to the war’s outcome. The Russians regard it as part of their national identity, and an essential part of their naval power status. Putin would be thrown out politically, and almost certainly personally, if he lost it. He won’t be retiring peacefully to a palace on the Black Sea, or setting up a lobbying firm in Moscow. He’ll be fitted for a coffin, and he knows it.
This is where the greatest threat to the West and Ukraine lies. Putin, facing military defeat and personal disaster, would be tempted by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to slap his foreign enemies. Figuring out how deter him (or his successors) while simultaneously rolling back Russia’s military expansion and its attack on the peaceful European order is the West’s most urgent task.