Decisive Phase of the War in Ukraine

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Sergiu CEBAN
The Russian-Ukrainian conflict may cross another Rubicon this autumn
It seems that a new phase of fighting in Ukraine, which many view as decisive, has indeed begun. Large-scale battles have unfolded on the front in various areas, their main task being to seize the strategic initiative before winter arrives. For the past six months, Russian troops have been on the offensive almost constantly, even in limited areas, essentially forcing the course of the war. Last week, however, the Ukrainian army turned the tide and for the first time launched a counteroffensive on several fronts. This put Russia in the unexpected position of being the defensive side. And while the results on the Kherson perimeter have so far been modest, in the Kharkiv region the AFU found weak spots and broke through the front, after which in just a few days it de-occupied most of the territories previously occupied by Russia. The major success in this area posed a serious threat to the Russian Donbass group, frustrating Moscow’s plans to further “reclaim” the “DPR” territory. Further development of the counterattack is crucial for Kyiv. It is important for the country’s leadership and military commanders to show both Ukrainian society and Western partners that their international assistance is effective and reasonable. Whether it will continue depends largely on the success or failure of military operations. Moreover, many countries have begun to form budgets for 2023, and among other things, they will determine the amount of resources to allocate to Kyiv. Moreover, effective military action in the Kharkiv region could consolidate various political groups around the government and smoothen the recent contradictions within the Ukrainian government’s upper echelon. In this sense, it is worth considering a policy article by Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhny, reflecting on Ukraine’s strategic goals and the amount of Western assistance needed to achieve them. It is possible that such a move by the Ukrainian military commander is a desire to show independence and subjectivity within a complex domestic political environment. In August, Ukraine received a record amount of foreign aid, and the start of the Kharkiv operation coincided with the Ramstein 5 session and the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to Kyiv. He brought to the Ukrainian capital the news about the allocation of the next aid package of $675 million and $2 billion for the military support of Ukraine and its neighbors. The North Atlantic Alliance is also expected to contribute. In view of all the information, we can say that a separate contour of the general military-industrial complex is being formed in the West, which will work exclusively on supplying Ukraine with both defensive and offensive weapons. The effective frontal breakthrough, new aid, and Blinken’s visit to Kyiv are of high importance for U.S. domestic policy as well. In the run-up to the midterm congressional elections, the current U.S. administration needs to show that the White House and Democratic Party strategy is successful and that spending on supporting Ukraine and containing Russia is effective. While Washington is determined to continue its military and financial support of Kyiv, continental Europe is more cautious. Obviously, there is still hope to reduce the heat of the military confrontation and bring the parties to the negotiating table. Thus, the French leader tried to ease the tension around the Zaporizhzhia NPP (ZNPP), talking by phone with the presidents of Ukraine and Russia. The situation with NPP remains dangerous even after the IAEA delegation visited it and published a report recommending the creation of a demilitarized zone around the plant. After the “grain deal” was agreed upon, many expected that Kyiv and Moscow, with the mediation of a third party, would launch other negotiation lines to conclude, for example, an “energy deal”. However, it didn’t happen, and by the end of the week, the ZNPP was completely shut down. By the way, the so-called “grain truce” is also fragile, being valid until the end of November. Moreover, Putin hinted the other day that Moscow might not extend it if Russian conditions are not met. Most likely, the Kremlin began bargaining well in advance, pushing the Western sponsors of this deal to lobby for the easing of anti-Russian sanctions and the removal of barriers to Russian exports. Last night, a new phase of hostilities was compounded by Russian missile strikes on critical infrastructure in some eastern regions of Ukraine, which had not happened before. As a result, several regions were temporarily left without electricity, with all the ensuing consequences. This once again shows that the conflict between Kyiv and Moscow is escalating into a protracted military campaign possibly involving an entirely different range of forces, means and most importantly targets, as the ultra-patriotic part of the Russian establishment claims so often and so loudly. Yes, the worst-case scenario where Moscow turns out to have shifted its red lines and expanded the set of targets for strikes should not be ruled out. On the other hand, yesterday’s shelling of power plants (in fact, made in such a way that everything could be repaired quickly) could also be an attempt to convince Kyiv to agree to the “rules of the war” after all and, for example, to take the same ZNPP and other similar infrastructure facilities out of the “war context”. Anyway, all solutions to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is clearly shifting to at least 2023. The coming weeks will show what Kyiv and Moscow are preparing for, what strategic goals each side sets based on the frontline situation, and what arsenal of forces and means will be used to achieve them.