Ukraine Will Face A New Battle This Winter: How To Boost Morale
No significant breakthroughs, growing skepticism about optimistic claims, and a war with no end in sight add to the psychological struggles of Ukrainians already facing the prospect of energy and heat shortages.
KYIV — Ukraine is bracing for a bitter winter. Continued enemy attacks and further disruptions in energy supply, leading to more power outages, are not only on the cards but almost guaranteed.
Millions of Ukrainians, from Kharkiv to Chernivtsi, are pondering the same question: Will this second winter at war be more or less gruelling than the previous one?
On the one hand, Ukraine has achieved a great deal this year which puts it in good stead ahead of the winter. This includes modern air defense systems, essential backup power infrastructure like generators, charging stations, power banks, and portable stoves, as well as invaluable experience gained from the challenges faced in 2022. Power workers, utility personnel, and ordinary citizens are now better prepared to handle emergencies, and the once-dreaded term "blackout" no longer evokes the same fear. Many of those who endured the previous winter now feel like seasoned veterans.
On the other hand, the country has also lost a great deal over the past 12 months. The loss of irreplaceable human lives destroyed by enemy attacks is incomparable, but with winter looming, Ukraine is also reckoning with body blows to its power infrastructure, which has seen a significant reduction in its safety margin compared to the previous year.
Yet equally critical is the noticeable decline in the country's morale compared to 2022. Unfortunately, a majority of Ukrainians are heading into the new winter of conflict in a worse psychological state than before. There are at least three compelling reasons for this decline in morale.
One: no big breakthroughs
Prior to the winter of 2022, the Ukrainian front had achieved notable victories. In September, the country celebrated the liberation of Kharkiv region, and in November, Kherson was de-occupied. These victories delivered a much-needed dose of optimism just in time, which helped sustain the civilian population during the darkest days of winter.
If this year ends without a significant victory, Ukrainians will lack the strong psychological boost they received during the previous winter.
However, there haven't been comparable successes on the front recently. Throughout the year, it has been repeatedly emphasized that the Ukrainian Armed Forces shouldn't be treated like a sports team, and it's unethical to expect them to provide victories and positive emotions for the general public. Nonetheless, this expectation remains widespread.
The intense battles in 2023, where soldiers had to sacrifice their lives for every inch of Ukrainian territory, fell short of the population's expectations. If the year ends without a significant victory, citizens will lack the strong psychological boost they received during the previous winter.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at a commemoration on Kruty Heroes Remembrance Day at the Askold's Grave memorial site.
Two: skepticism, mobilization, disillusionment
During the winter of 2022, Ukrainians were hopeful of significant spring successes. Bloggers following the war as well as Ukrainian officials were vocal about the impending collapse of the enemy's defenses. As early as October 2022, Kyrylo Budanov, the head of the GUR (Main Directorate of Intelligence), had predicted that the Ukrainian Armed Forces would retake Crimea by the end of spring 2023. These assessments, given the previous year's military victories, seemed quite plausible and contributed to a sense of optimism among the general population.
Similar forecasts can still be made this winter, but they won't have the same uplifting impact as before. The announcement of future victories has already proved incorrect once, and it is unlikely to work a second time. Bloggers and officials making upbeat claims will be met with doubt and skepticism. Even if the Ukrainian Armed Forces do manage to retake Crimea next spring, a declaration to this effect is unlikely to significantly improve people's morale during the harsh winter months.
Over the previous winter, enemy missile attacks and intermittent blackouts gave Ukrainians a profound sense of being actively involved in the war effort. Generators lining city streets, candles illuminating darkened apartments, and the communal charging of devices in public spaces were all seen by the population as symbols of resilience and unity with the frontlines. Successfully dealing with these everyday challenges instilled in people a sense of pride and moral satisfaction.
However, the unpopular topic of mobilization is now gaining prominence. The population is increasingly reminded that enduring domestic hardships alone is insufficient. True engagement in the war isn't just about living by candlelight but also being willing to replace fighters on the front lines. Real stability and solidarity with the front aren't merely about cooking dinner on a portable stove but also about being ready to send someone dear to you to the frontlines.
To many ordinary citizens, it may seem that the state is demanding too much from them, and this can adversely affect their psychological well-being.
Three: long war
In the winter of 2022, the prevailing belief was that it would be the last military winter for Ukraine. People endured the winter with the sense that it was the final, decisive battle, like an athlete's last push before the finish line. If only they could endure a few months of enemy blows and power outages, went the popular sentiment, they would get to relax on the beaches of a liberated Crimea come summer.
Millions of Ukrainians will face a progressive shortage of optimism this winter, and Moscow will likely work to exacerbate it.
However, as Ukraine approaches yet another winter, there's a growing awareness that this war is unlikely to end even in 2024. The population is now realizing that winter hardships won't be the last hurdle before returning to peaceful life but rather signal a new normal. Enduring the hardships of a winter in wartime won't be rewarded with a quick victory but with another challenging year of war. Even if objectively the new winter turns out to be no worse than the previous one, it won't be enough to ameliorate the psychological distress felt by the average Ukrainian.
The immediate future remains uncertain. It's unclear how effective the response to the energy disruptions will be, or how badly the electricity and heat shortages will impact life in Ukraine's cities. However, what is certain is that millions of Ukrainians will face a progressive shortage of optimism this winter, and Moscow will likely work to exacerbate it.
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