The problem with prognostication
Does this mean Russia is losing? It’s tempting to take a snapshot of the situation on a given day and draw sweeping conclusions.
But Russia now controls a crescent of Ukrainian territory that extends from around Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv, continues through separatist-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk and reaches westward to Kherson, forming a land bridge linking the peninsula of Crimea (forcibly annexed by Russia in 2014) with the Donbas region.
Russia’s main direction of effort is now in the Donbas region, where things have settled into a grinding war of attrition. Recent fighting has focused around Severodonetsk, an industrial city where Ukrainian forces hold the last sliver of eastern Luhansk region.
Ukrainian troops have ceded most of Severodonetsk to the Russians. The fall of the city will be a symbolic loss, but one that military analysts say spares the Ukrainian forces there from a protracted — and likely losing — siege.
“Both the decision to avoid committing more resources to saving Severodonetsk and the decision to withdraw from it were strategically sound, however painful. Ukraine must husband its more limited resources and focus on regaining critical terrain rather than on defending ground whose control will not determine the outcome of the war or the conditions for the renewal of war.”
The battles in Ukraine’s east are being fought in much more open terrain than the more densely-packed urban environment around Kyiv. That explains the urgency with which Ukrainians have requested heavier weaponry — particularly artillery systems that can strike targets at longer ranges — from the US and its allies.
That’s welcome news for Kyiv, but Russia’s offensive in the east is playing out as international media attention on Ukraine recedes somewhat from the headlines. And that may be what Putin is counting on, perhaps mindful that high energy costs and rising consumer prices — both of which have been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine — are more likely to concentrate public opinion (and drive election outcomes) in the United States and elsewhere.
In that respect, Zelensky has been one of Ukraine’s biggest assets in the information war. He has made a string of virtual appearances before parliaments around the globe, while reminding other world leaders who might be inclined to placate Putin by pushing for Ukraine to cede territory that it is the Ukrainian people, not he, who must decide outcomes.
In Zelensky’s appearances with wounded Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, the Ukrainian leader takes selfies and projects a warm, humane and self-effacing leadership style. That contrasts with the Russian leader’s lone public visit to a military hospital: Putin, in an oversized white laboratory coat, met with wounded soldiers and officers who stood stiffly at attention before their commander-in-chief.
But Putin, who has ended all domestic political opposition and effectively controls his country’s airwaves, does not face the same domestic pressure as Zelensky. Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Putin’s Security Council, said in recent remarks that Russian forces aren’t “chasing deadlines” in Ukraine, suggesting Putin has a much more open-ended timeline for his war in Ukraine. Ukrainians, in contrast, fear international fatigue may set in, leading the international community to press their government to make concessions to Putin.
“You have the watches, but we have the time.” That saying, sometimes attributed to a captured Taliban fighter, summed up America’s dilemma in fighting the Afghanistan war, a grudging acknowledgement that insurgencies operated on different political horizons and timelines, and that insurgents needed only to outlast — not defeat — the technologically superior US military.
To repurpose that phrase, the deciding factor in Ukraine may be who has the time: A Russian dictator who is likely to hold power until he dies, or a Ukrainian people who are fighting for their national survival.