Ukraine: Still Defending Its Independence
Having fought off the blitzkrieg, and battled Russia to a draw in round two, Ukrainians are in for the long haul.
On the anniversary of independence, and six months into the Russian invasion, Ukraine is confident but still firmly in the grip of its northern neighbour.
The impressions over recent days were in extraordinary contrast to the scenes this winter and spring.
In Lviv, the central square is full, while the main promenade is notable by the absence of displaced families, suitcases in hand, from earlier months. The pressure is there, but on face at least, feels lighter. In Odesa, Ukrainian opera stars sang Rigoletto, an Italian opera, to a largely Russian-speaking audience in their finery reading Ukrainian-language subtitles. This is what the mixed port city is supposed to be.
In Kyiv there are occasional air raid sirens as a reminder, including on Independence Day. But the population is out – filling cafes, parks, even river beaches. Street music seems everywhere. The highlight is the “parade” of destroyed Russian tanks leading to Maidan square, a typically Ukrainian parody of Moscow’s threat in the first days.
For those who have been in the villages and towns, it feels unseemly. Each is, after all, a machine of death and itself a coffin. But after such struggle, Ukraine has every right to show off its war trophies, and families gawked, children climbed, flags were waved, and many selfies were taken in front of the booty, striking a pose and raising a middle finger.
It is not just attitude. Ukrainians expect the war to last another year or two, but they still feel they have reasons for confidence.
The war began as a total, countrywide blitzkrieg, with the fear of imminent collapse.
Having withstood that, and beaten off the siege of the capital, the next phase also presented grave risk: Russia consolidating troops, stepping up its command, with better logistics and a tighter remit: seize the Donbas, destroy the forward-deployed Ukraine army, strangle the country by extending control of the coast.
This, too, was existential, and this, too, has been held off. Much of the Donbas is now taken, rather destroyed and taken. Shells anywhere remain possible, leaving Ukraine to ban public anniversary celebrations. While many people remain and are even returning, there is also a fatigue, and some people now begin to think maybe they have had enough. It takes its toll.
Now there is a third phase, or an interregnum, a “stagnation”, as put by a former senior defence official. The long front line has not moved significantly in recent weeks, a positive if also a drain on resources. Kharkiv, close to the Russian border, and Mykolaiv, neighbouring occupied Kherson, remain at risk, and under shelling, but holding firm.
Critically, Odesa receives only random shells, and the shipping agreement under Turkey’s auspices is allowing Ukraine to export food. The coastal stranglehold is eased.
The widely trailed southern front to retake Kherson has not happened. But it likely will not, at least in terms of a major move, for now. The feint may have drawn Russian troops away from the east. For the time being, Ukraine is focusing on attacking logistics lines, bridges, materiel and supplies.
They are also using drones and probably sabotage to target Crimea and military targets there. The aim of these attacks is both to degrade Russia’s capacity and compel it to keep forces in place. It also strikes a psychological blow. To Ukraine, this is entirely Ukrainian territory, so fully a legitimate target, despite Western instructions not to hit inside Russia. But to Russia, it is fully Russian territory, so attacks there bring the war home to Russians, to make them feel it, as Ukrainians have too much.
Recent attacks at and around Mykolaiv must raise the question of whether Russia will insist on its Odesa strategy, and mount a fresh push. Kherson is clearly in Ukraine’s sights, and would represent a morale boost as well as a political victory if it could be liberated – a demonstration for western backers.
Yet Kherson would be bloody and risky, and Ukraine may not yet have the arms required for the effort. The recent pledge of a further 750 million US dollars in military aid from the US, with more in the pipeline, could be with this in mind. Certainly, Ukraine will not take rash steps with its soldiery – the civilian Territorial Defence now being joined with the Army – unless the ground is well prepared and the likelihood of success high. They will only attack when the moment is right, and that might be for some time.
Ukrainians are proud not only of those busted tanks. They also feel that they have some cards in hand, some initiative. With reports suggesting that Russia is running low on sophisticated missiles and other supplies and grappling to fill its ranks with qualified troops, they feel time is on their side. In terms of the harsh numbers, Russia almost certainly has several times more deaths among its soldiers than the stated 9,000 for Ukraine; their number could be up to 40,000 and more, according to some estimates.
But Russia, the enormous neighbour, will always have its own cards to play. The urgent one now is the nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia. The largest in Europe, it supplies up to one-quarter of Ukraine’s energy needs. Russia’s threats to disconnect it and switch it to its grid could not only risk a meltdown but also deprive Ukraine. After Chernobyl, the prospect of another major nuclear disaster is harrowing, “blackmail” against both Ukraine and the West. Some international solution is essential.
The other immediate card is referenda, expected to be orchestrated on the newly occupied territory. This is in essence the issue that sunk the Minsk agreement – Russia’s insistence on holding votes under conditions of harsh, dictatorial military control. Should they proceed, such as in Kherson, Ukraine and the West will certainly reject them as entirely illegal and illegitimate.
But Russia’s targets will be their own population, providing a theatrical political showpiece, and courting susceptible countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, where their alternative universe presentation of the war has been more positively received.
The overall goal may be to lay down a marker, to try to legitimise the seizure of these areas and put pressure on Ukraine to consider settlement, including softening voices in the West.
In that case, the question of resolve will not be on Ukraine and the Ukrainians, who remain determined to fight for their country and their democracy, but on the West and their own commitment to these values.