Wounded Ukrainian soldiers are seen in a vehicle in the freed territory of the Kharkiv region, Ukraine, Monday, September 12, 2022.

Until a few weeks ago, it looked as though the conflict in Ukraine would head into the bitter winter months frozen in place – with neither side making appreciable progress.

That prognosis has changed with the sudden and successful Ukrainian offensive through most of occupied Kharkiv, which has galvanized Ukraine’s Western backers as much as it has led to recriminations in Moscow.

The Russian military must now ask itself what sort of force, and where exactly they are deployed, can regain the initiative after Ukraine captured more territory in one week than Russian forces had in five months.

There are important political dynamics involved too. The Kremlin faces tough choices: whether to declare a general mobilization to reinvigorate its increasingly ragged units in Ukraine and how to manage a budget deficit – even though it’s sitting on historically high foreign reserves.

Far beyond the theater of war, Russia must choose how far to weaponize its influence over Europe’s gas supply, as governments prepare to spend big to mitigate the effects of exceptionally tight supply.

Another potential dilemma: the first signs that Chinese support for the Russian invasion, never whole-hearted, may be waning.

A changing battlefield

Ukraine’s stunning counter-offensive across Kharkiv, combined with more attritional advances in the south, have presented the Kremlin and Russia’s much criticized Defense Ministry with a range of bad options.

As winter approaches, they must choose which front to prioritize, and whether to double down on efforts to fulfill Putin’s stated objective: the seizure of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The Russians currently hold about 20% of Ukrainian land, including Crimea and parts of the south.

Taking Donetsk is a taller order now for the Russians. Seven months of war have shown the shortcomings in Russian logistics, which will get no easier in wetter, colder weather.

Wounded Ukrainian soldiers are seen in a vehicle in the freed territory of the Kharkiv region, Ukraine, Monday, September 12, 2022.

In a matter of days, Russia lost one of three axes of attack in Donetsk; no progress has been made on the other two since the end of June.

At the same time, Russian defenses in Kherson are under growing pressure despite being reinforced, thanks to Ukraine’s success in cutting off resupply across the River Dnipro and in targeting command posts and ammunition depots.

The Russian military does not have a wealth of fresh units to inject into the conflict. The recently stood-up 3rd Army Corps largely comprises volunteer battalions recruited across the Russian regions. Other battalion tactical groups have been reconstituted after suffering heavy losses. There are persistent reports of discipline fraying among Russian units. The disorderly retreat in Kharkiv, with vast amounts of military hardware abandoned, is testament to that – and to chronic command problems that will not be remedied overnight.

Obviously, Ukraine has also lost thousands of soldiers, including many from its best units in Donbas. And a NATO military official told CNN that while the sweep across Ukraine had been a major boost for morale, “I can’t imagine the same thing happening twice.”

And Russia’s artillery and rocket forces still vastly outnumber those of Ukraine. But it’s been unable to leverage this superiority into gains on the ground. Some 40% of Donetsk remains under Ukrainian control.

President Vladimir Putin acknowledged this on Friday – saying that the offensive operation in the Donbas “goes at a slow pace, but it keeps going. Gradually, gradually, the Russian army occupies new territories.”

And despite calls in Moscow for a general mobilization, this still seems unlikely. Putin said: “We are fighting with only part of the Russian army, the part that’s on contract …Therefore, we are not in a hurry on this part.”


A Ukrainian victory?

Some observers have begun to ask whether a Ukrainian victory is conceivable. That depends on how victory is defined. It is President Zelensky’s stated intention to recover all occupied territories as well as Crimea.

General David Petraeus, former CIA Director and commander of US military forces in Iraq, said he expected Ukraine to retake territory seized by the Russians since February, and “it’s even conceivable they could retake Crimea and the Donbas,” aided by growing resistance in occupied areas.

But that would take time and involve tough fighting, Petraeus told CNN. If that were Ukraine’s goal, its supply lines would be stretched and its better units spread thin. In turn, Ukrainian forces would be vulnerable to counter-attacks.

Ultimately, Ukraine’s battlefield success will depend on a continuing and expanded supply of Western hardware. Meetings in the next few weeks will determine what’s in that pipeline, but inventories in several countries are dwindling.