Winter is coming Prospects of Russia-Ukraine conflict in cold and divided Europe First Post 21 Oct 2022 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar

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The damage to the Kerch bridge linking Russia to Crimea led to Putin accusing Ukraine as being responsible. Though the bridge was repaired, and traffic resumed, it was one more of a series of setbacks faced by Russia.

Ukrainian troops have in recent weeks retaken areas in the South and East, while Putin has been compelled to order a partial mobilization of troops which has led to thousands of Russians leaving the country.

Russian commanders were replaced, and Russia launched its largest missile attack on Ukrainian cities and infrastructure resulting in civilian casualties. How many more setbacks will Russia be willing to accept before escalating the conflict is to be seen.

The Kerch bridge has special significance for Putin as it was inaugurated by him in 2018 by driving a truck across it. It was a symbol of Moscow’s control over Crimea. Hence, Putin responded with force. Missile and drone strikes were launched by air, land and sea damaging power stations and plunging large parts of Ukraine into darkness resulting in Ukraine stopping electricity supply to Europe. Moscow threatened Kiev with stronger strikes in case it attempted to target Russian territory.

The clear message

This was a clear message that war will be waged in Ukrainian territory and any attempts to hit across the border will be met with force. Putin had, a few days earlier, threatened the use of nuclear weapons.

Emmanuel Macron, the French President tweeted, ‘We are helping Ukraine to resist on its soil, never to attack Russia. We do not want a world war.’ Putin’s message had its impact.

Ukraine, which had moved all its air defence systems forward to defend its forces on the front, was compelled to request the west for additional air defence equipment to protect its cities. The US and its allies are currently increasing supplies of air defence units to Ukraine. The war has now crossed over 200 days. Ukraine is surviving on western support while Russian military production is impacted by sanctions and speed of expenditure of ammunition and stocks.

A question being raised is whether Europe would face war weariness earlier than pressures on Putin to scale back.

Finally, what will be the impact of winter?

There is a belief that Putin ordered missile strikes targeting civilian population and infrastructure to satisfy hawks within Russia who have been demanding an escalation of the conflict. This was in addition to sowing panic amongst Ukrainians thereby enhancing pressure on Zelensky to seek a ceasefire on Russian terms.

Russia does not possess an unlimited supply of missiles. Hence, it needs to employ them for impact at infrequent intervals. Ukraine claims Russia has thus far employed over 2000 missiles. With sanctions in place, Russian missile production is severely restricted. There are reports stating that Russia even employed anti-ship missiles to target ground positions. While Russia boasts that recent missile attacks achieved their objective, Ukraine claims that no military targets were hit, and many incoming missiles destroyed in flight.

Another factor impacting Zelensky is that Ukraine is too large a country for air defence and hence there will always be targets for Russia to engage. Simultaneously, it will be difficult for Putin to bring Kiev onto its knees.

The perception battle over success and failure will continue being waged as large parts of the world receive only western media inputs, as Russian media is muzzled.

Ukraine can only keep Russians at bay provided it continues to receive weapons, equipment and ammunition from the west. Currently Ukraine has received over USD 17 billion in military aid from the US and its allies.

Can the west continue to provide unlimited military support? Ukrainian forces are expending military supplies faster than rates of production in home nations resulting in countries sending their reserve war stocks as replenishment.

For how long will Europe continue bearing the expenditure is unknown. The next issue is whether military supplies will continue even if Ukrainian forces are pushed back?

Winter in a divided Europe

Europe is currently divided. Nations on the periphery of Russia and Ukraine, largely economically weaker, are more concerned about their security fearing themselves to be the next in line of Russian expansionism, while major European nations battle rising gas and oil prices which impact political stability of governments.

Support for Ukraine comes secondary. Protests demanding changes in foreign policy towards the conflict have begun in large parts of Europe. Leaders are more concerned about retaining power and hence balancing their economy with funding the war.

Will the US be able to browbeat Europe into backing the war despite economic challenges from rising fuel prices is questionable.

There are also speculations on whether the damage to the Nord Stream pipeline was an act of sabotage and the nation which benefitted from it. Europe and Russia were both losers.

There are also doubts that the US is financially gaining from the war as Europe’s dependency on it increases. The German Economy Minister, Robert Habeck, has gone on record to state, ‘Some countries, including friendly ones (US), sometimes achieve astronomical prices (for their gas).’ He went on to demand solidarity from the US. Germany has also proposed the creation of a buyer’s alliance to convince exporters to reduce prices.

In case Russia continues to face setbacks, Putin may be compelled to take desperate measures including expanding the conflict into other nations.

Belarus, which has thus far remained neutral, may be pushed to join the conflict opening another front in Ukraine. Attacks on population centres would witness a rise drawing condemnation but nothing more. The worst scenario could be the launch of a tactical nuclear weapon. Europe is desperate to prevent expansion of the conflict.

In case anti-war protests commence in Russia, repression may be the new normal. Currently, Putin retains power and support. His annexation of four Ukrainian provinces and display of military might in launching missile and drone strikes have won over his hardliners. Whether their support continues despite additional setbacks is to be seen.

The impact of winter on the war is not only within the war zone or Ukraine but also throughout Europe. Large parts of Ukraine are already facing multiple problems including damaged housing and lack of electricity. Winters would make it worse. It is unlikely they will be supported. Casualties will rise.

Europeans would also face a harsh winter with shortfalls in gas supplies. Gas imported from other parts of the globe would be costlier, adding to economic burdens. Countries would be compelled to subsidize gas prices rather than fund the war.

War logistics challenge in winter

On the war front, operations may become a war of attrition, will and logistics. How would the two adversaries handle it remains to be seen. Russia has already faced logistic shortfalls. Winters could make it worse. Ukraine would remain dependent on the west. Reduction in support could mean a collapse.

Ukraine faces an economic collapse, high inflation, immense debt and huge reconstruction costs. How much more can it sustain remains the question. The end state by both sides is nowhere near completion. Russia seeks to bring Ukraine to its knees while Ukraine’s claimed end state is regaining all territory including Crimea.

For the west, which backs Ukraine, the intent remains to exploit Ukrainians to fight a proxy war on their behalf against the Russians, thereby saving Europe from the claws of Putin. In the current scenario the visualized end by all sides is unlikely.

Russia is weakened and would be some time before it rises again and becomes a threat for Europe. Ukraine is largely destroyed. Restoring basic necessities alone would take funds and time, finances for which will flow slowly. Its reputation of corruption would result in close monitoring by the west.

In case further damage is to be avoided, peace must be restored. This is where neutral nations can come into play. However, for this global leader’s ego’s must be set aside for the global good. Can this be done?