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The Ukraine War in Its Second Winter—and Beyond

The Russian invasion in 2022 was almost beyond satire. The outlook for 2023 is grim but not hopeless.
January 4, 2023
The Ukraine War in Its Second Winter—and Beyond
Emergency service workers extinguish a fire after shelling on the Bakhmut frontline in Ivanivske, Ukraine as Russia-Ukraine war continues on January 02, 2023 (Photo by Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

As Russia’s war in Ukraine crosses over into 2023 and approaches its one-year mark next month, consider this thought experiment: Suppose that in early 2015, after Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution, Russia’s seizure of Crimea, and the start of the Kremlin-instigated low-grade war in Eastern Ukraine, a fiction writer with a satirical bent—say, the late Vladimir Voinovich—had written a novel about a full-fledged Russia-Ukraine war in which the following things happen:

  • The Kremlin announces the annexation of four Ukrainian provinces after high-speed “referendums,” and President Vladimir Putin solemnly declares that they are permanently part of Russia—but officials acknowledge that the actual borders of these newly “Russian” lands are unknown since a good part of them is under Ukraine’s control. About six weeks later, a major city in the annexed territories, Kherson, is retaken by Ukraine while “Russia is here forever” billboards and posters still festoon its streets and squares.
  • After claiming that the “special military operation” in Ukraine was a preemptive measure to repel NATO encroachment, Russia sees major neighbors Finland and Sweden pursue NATO membership in response to the invasion. Russian propagandists start to claim that Russia’s flagging fortunes in the war are due to the fact that it’s actually at war with NATO.
  • Russia’s representative at the United Nations claims with a straight face that secret American labs in Ukraine are hatching plots to attack Russians with virus-carrying birds and mosquitoes.
  • The Kremlin habitually slams Ukrainian leadership as a “Nazi regime” even though the president of Ukraine is Jewish—an apparent paradox the Russian foreign minister tries to handwave away by explaining that, actually, Adolf Hitler also “had Jewish blood.”
  • Tens of thousands of Russian convicts, including murderers and rapists, are offered instant release if they go to fight in Ukraine. At first, they are recruited into a once-shadowy, now openly celebrated “private military company” owned by an ex-convict multimillionaire caterer known as “Putin’s chef”; then, the Russian armed forces also get on the convict recruitment bandwagon after the Russian parliament moves to allow such recruitment.
  • Meanwhile, “Putin’s chef” emerges as a mainstream political player in Russia’s “war hawk” camp, becoming sufficiently influential to help oust the commander of military operations in Ukraine. His mainstreaming is unaffected by the posting of a video in which a would-be defector from his private army is summarily executed with a sledgehammer—or, several months later, by the posting of another video in which his fighters denounce the Russian Army’s chief of general staff for incompetence and inaction, hurling obscenities and anti-gay slurs.
  • In a televised meeting with carefully selected mothers of servicemen, Putin muses that mothers of fallen soldiers can take comfort in the thought that tens of thousands die every year in car accidents and alcoholism.
  • The host of a leading political talk show on the country’s main television channel routinely calls for the use of nuclear weapons, fantasizes about Russian tanks rolling over Paris and Berlin if the West continues to “disrespect” Russia, and suggests that casualties don’t matter because “we’re all going to paradise.”
  • A Russian ad campaign recruiting volunteers to fight in Ukraine uses clips in which an army contract is portrayed as an answer to chronic and hopeless misery; characters include a husband stuck living with his wife’s obnoxious parents, a hapless debtor dodging loan sharks who threaten to break his legs, and a young man whose grandfather can’t afford a pack of sausages and nearly sells his car for a fraction of what it’s worth.
  • Seven months into the war, Putin declares that Russia is waging a crusade for Christian values against Western “satanism” (also, gays). A few weeks later, Dmitry Medvedev, the former president and prime minister who is now deputy chair of the Russian security council, issues a statement on a national holiday proclaiming that Russia is fighting “the Lord of Hell” himself.
  • After initial bluster about taking Kyiv in three days, Russian forces finish out the year trying and failing to take the once-obscure town of Bakhmut (pre-war population: 70,000), where thousands have died over some five months of hellish, World War I-style trench warfare.

Surely the author of such a novel would have been told that satire is good and fine, but this is way over the top. Yet this is only a very partial list of the surreal absurdities of Russia’s war, in which draftees have been forced to buy their own equipment and soldiers have been abruptly dropped in combat zones after being told they were being taken for field exercises.

If you really want to talk about stranger than fiction, there’s also the fact that Ukraine’s heroic president is a former comedian who kicked off his political career by playing the president in a television series—and who, exactly ten years ago, cohosted a New Year’s entertainment program on Russian television. But that’s from the realm of the epic, not the absurd. As one year-end profile put it: Charlie Chaplin turned Winston Churchill.

That was the year that was—the year that, as Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said in his stirring New Year’s greeting, abruptly and frighteningly became the Year of Ukraine.

For Russia, 2023 started out with a New Year’s address from Putin that promised little in the way of holiday cheer. Putin delivered his monologue standing against a backdrop of men and women in soldiers’ uniforms; the scene looked so fake that many observers such as New School international affairs professor Nina Khrushcheva hypothesized that Putin was nowhere near his uniformed extras and the video was a bad editing job. It appears that these conjectures were wrong, since other footage showed the Kremlin dictator drinking champagne with the same extras—almost certainly members of his security detail, one of whom had been previously spotted playing a churchgoer and an ice cream seller in Putin’s public appearances—but the faux soldiers were so stone-faced that they amounted to a human green screen. Putin’s speech, full of his standard rhetoric about hypocritical Western elites, Russia under attack and forced to defend its sovereignty and security, and patriotism vs. treason left no doubt that the coming year in Russia would be a year of war and Russian society was on track toward total militarization.

What Putin really needed for full effect, said exiled Russian TV journalist Aleksandr Nevzorov in a video watched by more than a million people in two days, was “a scythe and a shroud,” since the main purpose of his speech was “to bring joy to the dead and terrify those still living, taking away their last hope.”

The Grim Reaper was not far behind. In the early morning hours of January 1, U.S.-made Ukrainian HIMARS rockets hit a trade school building housing Russian soldiers—mostly mobilized men—in the occupied town of Makiyivka. The damage was worsened by explosions in an ammunition depot in the same building. Official Russian estimates by now are 89 dead; both the Ukrainian military and independent Russian military bloggers, most of them “war hawks,” say the real casualty count is in the hundreds. The attack highlights the poor decision-making that has plagued the Russian war effort: Many observers are wondering why soldiers were housed in such large numbers in a location within range of Ukrainian artillery. (Russian journalist Igor Yakovenko speculates that it’s because the mobiki, the newly mobilized Russian troops thrown into the Ukraine mess, are so undisciplined and inclined to go AWOL or even desert that herding them into one place is the only way to keep them under control.)

Is this symbolic of the war’s current momentum? Recent developments include Ukrainian drone strikes not only on Russian soil but deep inside Russian territory; there were three in the month of December. And the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Eastern Ukraine, which has been slowed down in recent months by weather conditions and insufficient weaponry, seems to be picking up pace again: Ukraine looks poised to retake Kreminna, a likely gateway to further advances in the East, while the Russian forces’ progress at Bakhmut has been slowed down or halted.

Obviously, Russia is very far from being defeated in Ukraine. It is not running out of rockets and other ammunition as quickly as some observers had hoped, perhaps thanks in part to help from Iran. (The New Year’s rocket strikes against Kyiv and other large Ukrainian cities, which did not target infrastructure, may have been intended simply to convey the message that Russia has not run out of rockets.) It still has the capacity to damage Ukraine’s power grid, though apparently not to shut it down completely; as Russian commentator Yulia Latynina points out, that grid was built in Soviet times with a view to being able to survive nuclear war.

Russia can also continue to throw bodies at the Ukrainian military and launch another round of mobilization, which many commentators now regard as inevitable. But unless there are drastic improvements in training and equipment, it seems unlikely that the new draftees can turn things around. A new round of mobilization may, however, push Russia closer to widespread internal discontent, especially if the Kremlin clamps down on draft evasion by fully or partially closing the borders—and if the steep drop in Russian oil exports as the G-7 sanctions finally take effect makes itself felt throughout the Russian economy.

Russia’s international isolation in the coming year is also likely to keep getting worse. New Year’s Eve may have provided an omen: a speech by Putin’s closest ally and fellow authoritarian, Belarus’s Aleksandr Lukashenko, in which the canny dictator seemed to distance himself from Russia and its war. The televised greeting was pointedly devoid of military themes and focused on peace and security (the year-in-review clip show that preceded it showed Lukashenko saying that “we did all we could to avert bloodshed”). There was no mention of Russia; instead, Lukashenko stressed that Belarus was giving shelter to numerous “refugees from hot spots” and touted visa-free visits for European Union citizens. Ukrainian journalist Roman Tsymbaliuk colorfully described this address as a cow pie flung in Putin’s direction—less than two weeks after Putin’s visit to Minsk, during which Lukashenko jovially referred to Putin and himself as “co-aggressors” and the planet’s most “toxic” people. At the very least, it’s the usual Lukashenko two-step, and right now it involves stepping away from the Kremlin. What that means for a possible new Russian offensive via Belarus is anybody’s guess.

The challenges faced by Ukraine should not be underestimated: As Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, the head of Ukraine’s armed forces, told the Economist in a December interview, Ukrainian gains in liberating occupied areas will remain limited without more Western weapons. Ukraine’s supporters should steer clear of overconfidence and wishful thinking. But there is also plenty of wishful thinking in the sector of the right-wing commentariat that strenuously insists Ukraine isn’t really winning. One such article in the American Conservative, published on December 19, relied on the assumption that Ukraine’s counteroffensive had ground to a halt (wrong) and that Russia was about to take Bakhmut (also wrong). It also trumpeted temporary power outages in Ukrainian cities as if they were permanent blackouts and asserted that “Ukraine is drafting sixty-year-old men”—linking to an article which said that Ukraine may extend the draft to all men under 60. (Left unmentioned: the fact that Russia already extends its mobilization to 60-year-olds and that stories of even older, or disabled, Russian men being drafted already abound.)

So much in this war depends on the human factor that any predictions would be foolhardy: For instance, opinions among Russia-watchers differ wildly on whether the Putin regime is in danger of a challenge either from grassroots protests or from intra-elite conflict if the current fiasco continues to worsen in 2023. Nor do we know what new stranger-than-fiction stories from Russia’s war in Ukraine will be coming our way in the next twelve months. What’s certain is that Ukraine will remain the battlefield where the forces of freedom face off against the forces of tyranny—and a place where, as Zelensky said in remarks addressed to Russians on New Year’s Eve, one man is not only ravaging a neighboring country but destroying his own with no purpose but to preserve his power.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.