The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A potential new snag for Putin: The retreat of Jack Frost

Soldiers walk amid destroyed Russian tanks in Bucha, in the outskirts of Kyiv, on April 3. (Rodrigo Abd/AP, File)

A previous version of this column incorrectly said Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has been fired. He has reportedly been sidelined. The column has been corrected.

Less than a week into Ukraine’s latest counteroffensive against Russian forces, there’s a natural desire to pronounce success or failure, but the nature of the fighting and the fog of war don’t allow that. It’s simply too soon to tell whether Ukraine will, in the swaggering language of President Volodymyr Zelensky, drive Russia beyond his nation’s borders.

In the larger picture, however, the fact that Ukraine is counterattacking in organized, well-supplied columns is another mark of Russia’s costly and disastrous failure. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s self-made war was intended to decapitate Ukraine, occupy the capital and install a puppet government in a single multi-front blitz this past February.

David Von Drehle: War proves that Russia is no longer a superpower

When that effort failed, Putin launched a reorganized campaign along shorter lines to create a buffer zone for Russia in the south and east of Ukraine, and to seize the throat of Ukraine’s economy by capturing the port of Odessa.

But now that project is equally mired. After more than six months of fighting — with extreme brutality and waste, at a cost of thousands of troops, legions of officers and an enormous supply of armor — Russia heads toward winter on its heels. Other than destruction and death, Putin has nothing to show for the largest invasion of European territory in nearly 80 years.

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Winter has been Russia’s great strategic asset in previous wars, literally freezing the ambitions of Napoleon and Hitler in their tracks on the long road to Moscow. The season has become Putin’s last hope for salvaging an outcome in Ukraine that he might call victory. If voters in Germany, Italy and other Western countries get cold enough without the Russian gas they rely on for their heaters, they could force their governments to back away from NATO’s unified support for Zelensky.

But even Jack Frost might turn his back on Putin.

New long-range forecasts strongly suggest that Europe is headed toward a generally mild fall and early winter. La Nina, a change in atmospheric patterns associated with the cooling of surface temperatures in parts of the Pacific Ocean, will most likely deliver warmer-than-normal temperatures to most of the continent. This would reduce the strain on natural gas supplies — though it certainly won’t end the need for sacrifice and resolve.

Germans, especially, will be called on to bundle up and tough it out due to their overreliance on energy from an unreliable supplier. Yet, there is no acceptable alternative to stubborn endurance, for Putin must not be allowed to leave Ukraine with more than he had when he invaded.

This is not said with any malice toward the Russian people. Russia is a great culture with a tragic Achilles’ heel: For some reason or tangle of reasons, it cannot produce and embrace wise leaders. The death of Mikhail Gorbachev at age 91 is a sad reminder of Moscow’s inability to bring the old Soviet Union peacefully into the modern age. The chaos that followed the empire’s collapse fostered the rise of Putin, who set his sights not on building a prosperous future but on recovering a corrupt, repressive past.

Despite weak leadership, Russia is so richly endowed in natural resources that it throws the shadow of a superpower. Or threw. A year ago, Russia was perceived as a major military force. Ukraine aspired to join NATO, but beyond lip service the West was making scant movement in that direction. Indeed, some leading foreign policy thinkers — former secretary of state Henry Kissinger among them — were arguing that Ukraine should be designated neutral territory, like Finland. Putin might have gotten his buffer zone without firing a shot.

Instead, Finland is no longer neutral, having joined NATO along with Sweden in response to Putin’s war. And Russia’s conventional military force has shown itself to be second-rate, at best.

If the weather gods smile on freedom and the Germans stand fast, Ukrainian forces will surely continue to grind away at Putin’s army with a bottomless supply of Western weapons and ammunition. The scenario is grim. But make no mistake: Putin can end it whenever he chooses.

Of course, that assumes that Putin keeps his grip on power. Things have become rather sketchy in Moscow of late. A car bomb killed the pro-war daughter of Putin’s apocalyptic theorist Alexandr Dugin. Several oil- and gas-industry executives have been found dead, some with their family members, and another — the chairman of Lukoil, the second-largest oil company in Russia — somehow went tumbling from a sixth-story hospital window. The defense minister has reportedly been sidelined, which is rarely good for one’s health at the Kremlin. If one listens closely, one might hear the first sounds of a teetering regime.

Too soon to say if Ukraine’s offensive will help it win — but not too soon to say who is losing: Vladimir Putin and, because of him, the Russian people.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia fired at least 85 missiles on at least six major cities in Ukraine on November 15, in one of the most widespread attacks of the war so far. The strikes came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking by video link, presented a 10-point peace plan to G-20 leaders at a summit in Indonesia. As in previous Russian missile attacks, critical civilian infrastructure appeared to be primary targets. Parts of several cities that were hit were left without electrical power on Tuesday afternoon.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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