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Ukraine’s Counteroffensive Shows Time Isn’t on Putin’s Side

A battle for initiative is raging in southern and eastern Ukraine, and signs suggest that Ukrainian forces are gaining momentum on both fronts. This is hardly Ukraine’s last gasp. Time isn’t really on Russia’s side in this war, even if Putin — and some Ukrainian officials — appear to believe otherwise.

Putin’s certainty that he will prevail despite the failure of his earlier blitzkrieg plans — on Wednesday, he reiterated this confidence to an audience in the Far East — is based on Ukraine’s obvious relative weakness. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has to lobby the US and its NATO allies for every dozen howitzers — and every time he does that, his success is not assured. Russia, with its stockpiles of military equipment — even if it’s now relying more on older weaponry — can fight more confidently. Besides, the Russian economy, despite all its sanctions-related problems, is not in ruins and can survive even a 12% drop in GDP, the worst scenario predicted by government economists in a confidential report recently made public by Bloomberg News. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian economy is destroyed, with much of the infrastructure in rubble, civilian industries at a standstill and crops damaged by fighting. It is almost entirely dependent on Western aid for medium-term survival. 

Putin and his immediate circle are counting on the Western aid drying up eventually, if not immediately. That calculation appears to stem from a fundamental disbelief in the ability of democratic governments to stick to their guns. Though the Russian government hides behind the fig leaf of technical problems when trying to explain the dwindling supplies of Russian gas to Europe, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has made it clear the supplies will be unstable as long as sanctions against Russia persist. As energy prices jump and inflation spirals, Putin expects European governments to start making concessions in order to mollify voters — or to fall. Posters seen during a recent 70,000-strong rally in Prague provide a glimpse of what the Kremlin would like to see throughout the Western world. “All the best for Ukraine and two sweaters for us” was the flavor of the day — and Putin would like it to be the flavor of the coming winter.

Even in Ukraine itself, some influential politicians appear to worry about such a prospect. In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said that time was on Putin’s side. Yet both he and Putin are likely wrong about that for two reasons: Ukraine’s still-underrated ability to continue defending itself, demonstrated anew by the counteroffensive, and Europe’s equally underestimated pain threshold.

As the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the southern Kherson region began last week, Russian commentators — both gung-ho official ones and more sober nationalist ones — initially pooh-poohed it as theatrics for the sake of Ukraine’s Western allies, meant to prove that their massive economic and military aid was not going to waste. A week later, the tone has changed, with a note of alarm creeping in. According to both unofficial Russian and international sources, Ukrainian troops have made some territorial gains in the Kherson region, where they are trying to cut off a large Russian force on the right bank of the Dnieper; they’ve also advanced in the eastern Kharkiv region, with pro-war Russian channels even suggesting a Russian garrison was surrounded in the town of Balakliya. Ukraine is attacking from a relatively weak position. Just like Russia, it has suffered enormous damage to its professional military. A recent Washington Post report from a military hospital near the southern front line indicates that many of the fighters, including officers, involved in the counteroffensive barely have any combat experience. A similar handicap has stalled the Russian offensive, which barely continues in the Donetsk region, with relatively well-armed and trained Wagner Group mercenaries as the main driving force. The freshly-drafted Ukrainians have to attack fortified Russian positions under ceaseless artillery fire directed by high-flying drones, and they have to face obstacles they don’t fully understand, such as Russia’s formidable electronic warfare capability. This is harder than the defense of Kiev and the cities of northern Ukraine earlier in the year — which, it should be noted, succeeded even before Western military supplies began in earnest.The counteroffensive seems unlikely to liberate much Ukrainian territory in the coming weeks. The Russian military has learned some hard lessons, and it has had time to dig in. To move fast, Ukraine would need an overwhelming advantage in the air, in artillery capability, in infantry numbers. That said, even the Ukrainians’ ability to seize initiative during certain periods of a protracted war of attrition doesn’t augur well for Russia’s ability to play the long game militarily. 

The viability of the counteroffensive is a testament to Ukrainians’ fearsome will to fight. Thanks to this advantage — the only unqualified one Ukraine has over Russia in this war — Ukraine appears to have deeper reserves than its attacker. Ukraine is able to mobilize psyched-up fighters, while Putin still refuses to resort to mobilization; the morale of any force he could raise by finally agreeing to it would also be in question. In this sense, time is on Ukraine’s side as more of its recent recruits get training and fighting experience.

As for Europe, its reputation for softness is undeserved. Many of my neighbors in Germany barely turn on the heating during the winter months, anyway. And, given that gas storage facilities are more than 85% full in Germany, France, the UK, Italy, Spain, Poland, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, Europe isn’t going to freeze during the coming winter — it will just look for alternative suppliers, mainly of liquefied natural gas, a search that will be easier than Russia’s hunt for alternative buyers. 

Russian propaganda seized on the Prague rally — not a huge one compared with some others the Czech capital has seen in recent years — and chose to disregard the pro-Ukrainian Czech government’s survival of a confidence vote in parliament over the energy price hikes. That things will be different as it gets colder is conjecture. European politicians would be irresponsible to go soft on Ukraine just to get more Russian gas until Putin decides to shut off the faucet again: Even a bundled-up voter can understand that feeding a blackmailer is not a wise strategy.

To expect Western countries to throw Ukraine under the bus while it’s clearly capable of sustained, spirited armed resistance is wishful thinking. Aid flows increased exponentially in the first months of the war as Ukraine proved that its unwillingness to surrender wasn’t empty talk. As long as Ukraine can maintain pressure on the invaders and retake territory — even if it’s just a village here and there — it makes sense for its allies to keep sending money, equipment and ammunition. Under the same laws of voter-pleasing democratic politics that Putin seems to think are on his side, giving up while it’s demonstrably not too late would be a loser’s move.

By making a credible grab for initiative, Ukraine has already proved that the long game isn’t necessarily Putin’s game. Russians — perhaps not Putin, but those who want their country to have a future — should consider the very real possibility of defeat.

More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• Putin Can Be Pressured to Pull Troops From Ukraine Nuclear Plant: James Stavridis

• Putin Will Turn Gorbachev’s Death to His Advantage: Clara Ferreira Marques

• America, China, Russia and the Avalanche of History: Niall Ferguson

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team. He recently published Russian translations of George Orwell’s “1984” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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