The Strategist

The Looming Winter of Discontent: Who is Winning the War in Ukraine?

26 Oct, 2022    ·   5837

Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar (Retd) writes that distinguishing myths from the reality of disparities key to understanding the direction of this conflict

Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar
Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar
Distinguished Fellow

Impact and Veracity of Social Media
The widespread popularity of social media, despite its loud and frequently boorish content, has made the study of events that form historical processes a disarrayed function of the common, rather than the orderly and elitist function that it used to be. With around 63.4 million tweets relating to the Russia-Ukraine conflict within a fortnight of the commencement of operations, reality is often tossed around and mangled in order to be presented in the garb of history. People blithely debate whether nuclear holocaust is an option; whether NATO should impose a no-fly zone (forget the consequences); if the alleged counter-offensives are kosher; the imminence of a palace coup in the Kremlin through a revolt by the oligarchs; or even the return of Alexei Navalny.

A viewpoint built on contrived interpretations serves only to manipulate human understanding in a manner that gives life to wishful projections. All this has left discernments of the conflict in Ukraine confounded in a mire of half-truths, myths, and propaganda.

Where Lies the Truth?
In this ambience of facts being irrelevant to a distorted narrative, as Orwell suggests, the truth  “is not merely determined by the accuracy of verbal veracity; it is the sense of the importance of the event that is its truth; a combination of actual fact and factual relevance ultimately impel an outcome which is the inviolable truth…” Arguably, this is the most important sense in which the truth exists, and also the only way of deciphering the goings-on in the war in Ukraine.

While addressing his nation, President Zelenskyy stated that “The pace of providing aid to Ukraine by partners should correspond to the pace of our movement.” To a military mind, this may suggest that western arms and war material are either not keeping pace with losses or that Ukraine is running low on reserves. What of the Ukrainian counter-offensive? It appears to be vacated space that is being reclaimed; not on account of having exacted a military rout but more due to the Russian operational inability to consolidate territorial over-reach.

Not the Era for War
At the recent 77th session of the UNGA, deliberations were dominated by the situation in Ukraine. President Macron went to some lengths to quote lines from Prime Minister Modi’s dialogue with President Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit. Modi had exhorted Putin to understand that  “Today’s era is not an era of war…” There can be several interpretations of the discourse; but the one that underscored sense and criticality to Macron, the EU, and rest of the world was the impact that Russian-controlled energy cut-offs will have on the people and economies of the EU.

Russia’s Menacing Energy Bludgeon
Russia supplied the EU with 40 per cent of its natural gas last year. Germany, Europe's largest economy, was the leading importer. As the main supplier of gas for many European countries, Moscow controls the energy to propel industries and keep alive essential services and domestic heating. The resource has become a lever that governs relations and, indeed, tensions. Europe’s dependency on Russian gas was no accident. It began as a measure to wean itself away from the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and then became a part of a larger project spearheaded by Germany to deliberately tie the two together in bonds of reliance. The understanding was that increased dependency on Russia would open their vast markets to bilateral trade and mutual dependency would bring to an end an historical adversarial relationship. But the war in Ukraine exposed the failings of this strategy as Russia’s dominance over energy supplies far outweighed any sense of mutuality. On the contrary, it has put immense pressure on European leaders without in any way reducing Russian oil revenues, as demands mount.

The Kremlin has already cut off gas to five countries and fettered supply to six more in response to NATO’s sanctions. While energy policies of EU states have recognised that it is overly dependent on Russia, they offer no definitive answers on how to reduce that dependency. After all, Russia earned over US$ 430 billion in revenue from oil and gas exports to the EU in the last one year, and this figure far exceeds the estimated costs of Russia’s war in Ukraine. In balance is the menacing hardship of an extreme winter for Europe without Russian gas to brave it. Adding to this is Russia and Ukraine’s joint control over a third of global wheat supplies that has laid bare global food insecurity. Clearly, economics has trumped strategy.

In the meantime, in a referendum ordered in the occupied Eastern and Southern regions of Ukraine, the people have apparently voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining the Russian Federation. The annexation has made clear that the aims of Moscow’s war were the territories that comprised the Donbas region, Kherson, and the Zaporizhizhia Oblasts (if it wasn’t discernible all along). A reported partial Russian mobilisation has been called, perhaps to generate the necessary “boots-on-ground” that will secure fresh appropriations.

External Factors and Peace Prospects
Distinguishing myths from the reality of disparities in the Russia-Ukrainian war waging potential and the flagging nature of NATO aid are key to understanding the direction of this conflict. There is little doubt that Moscow has suffered military reverses, yet its hold on substantial swathes of land in the east and south to the extent of near 20 per cent of the Ukrainian land area is firm and in the process of being consolidated.

On a daily basis, Ukraine confirms the pivotal dependence upon external factors. Fundamental to the war and, ironically, the weakest link are the US and NATO’s material backing. Both, surprisingly, have been bristling at the start of the conflict. It is likely that they are becoming aware that sanctions are not going to make the Kremlin sue for peace. The answer does not lie in more sanctions as the political will to see through privations, a harsh winter, and the current economic downturn. NATO’s strategic patience has worn thin.

Given the emerging correlation in terms of the hazards of escalation and NATO’s wilting resolve to stay the course, one is unlikely to see the appearance of an olive branch until the worst of winter is past—and that too on Kremlin’s terms.


Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar (Retd) is Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, and former commander-in-chief of the Strategic Forces Command of India.