Ukraine's Biggest Challenge This Winter: Staying United
Last winter, many Ukrainians believed the only factor delaying the war's end was the weather. A year later, the country faces a very different situation, with a stalled counteroffensive ahead of the coming cold days creating fertile ground to lose precious national unity.
KYIV — The winter ahead is likely to be extremely difficult for Ukrainians.
And this year, the challenges extend beyond energy network resources, which have already been adequately covered, and reserves of anti-missile systems. The real issue is that Ukraine is heading into this winter with far lower reserves of psychological resilience and greater collective fatigue than ever before.
Last winter was preceded by a series of military triumphs, with the Ukrainian army successfully pushing the enemy out of Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy regions. They reclaimed Snake Island, initiated the Kharkiv counteroffensive, and liberated Kherson by the end of February. During that time, the country held onto the belief that the only factor delaying the war's end was the weather.
The prevailing sentiment was that with the arrival of warmer weather in the spring, the enemy would be pushed back and eventually defeated.
The Supreme Commander of Ukraine's armed forces, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, recently provided a thorough overview of this year's military outcomes. Contrary to expectations, there has been no Ukrainian blitzkrieg; instead, the country experienced intense battles in the south and east, fighting hard for every inch of land. The situation has shifted from a sprint to a marathon.
Military triumphs can temporarily numb societal tensions by overshadowing disagreements and mitigating contradictions. Victory tends to have many winners, providing ample room for individuals to bask in its glory. However, sustaining morale when there is little visible sign of progress is far more challenging. Despite promises of ongoing victories, society now grapples with frustration, creating fertile ground for political bickering and even witch hunts.
None of the options have a positive outcome.
The country faces various potential divides: between those on the frontlines and those in the rear, between military leadership and the political elite, and between the current president and his predecessor's team. Certain key topics, such as corruption and mobilization, have the ability to consistently provoke the nation. These issues guarantee attention, views, and followers, acting as journalistic fertile ground where any prodding can spark significant discussions.
With fewer noteworthy updates from the frontline, there's an increase in news from the rear. Each political faction may be enticed to bolster its standing at the expense of rivals. Additionally, instigators of internal discord may not necessarily be top figures in these factions; anyone can play this disruptive role. This includes political strategists eyeing elections, politicians seeking career longevity, bloggers aspiring for followers, parliamentarians craving attention...
Some will resort to social media posts, while others may provide sensational interviews or leak insider information to foreign journalists. However, as subsequent exposures generate diminishing viewership, each revelation will still have a lasting impact, and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visiting the frontlines near Kharkiv in October
Moreover, the media tends to be reactive, not shaping an agenda but rather obediently following its course, even if it originates in social networks. This implies that every interview will inevitably touch upon the topic of division. Each studio guest will be linked to the theme of confrontation, and every speaker will be prompted to vocalize on this sensitive issue. The increased mentions will trigger a snowball effect. A year ago, only 14% believed in a conflict between the army and authorities in our country; now, that number has risen to 32%. Somewhere in Moscow, champagne is being opened to celebrate this statistic.
In the Ukrainian case, the "self-fulfilling prophecy" could lead to a multitude of undesirable consequences. This includes hostility between officials and generals, a loss of legitimacy for the authorities, and a sense of betrayal from the front towards the rear. Under conditions of war, any such scenario poses a potentially serious threat
And we’re already seeing such tensions between military and civilian leadership. Last Saturday, President Volodymyr Zelensky's office criticized Supreme Commander General Zaluzhny for publicly declaring the war a stalemate, suggesting that these comments would help the Russian invasion. The deputy head of the Office of the President, Ihor Zhovkva, commenting on Zaluzhny's article in The Economist magazine, said that "the military should not make public what is happening at the front." It was a public rebuke that signaled a rift between the military and civilian leadership at an already difficult time for Ukraine.
Moreover, Zelensky’s recent fury after a Russian airstrike at a Ukrainian military award ceremony left 28 soldiers dead, reveals how war fatigue is causing Ukrainian officials to take their eyes off the ball. Safety rules had been “violated,” Zelensky confirmed, leaving soldiers and civilians exposed to a deadly Russian missile strike on a village in the Zaporizhzhia region, which he described as “a tragedy that could have been avoided.”
If a collapse between military and civilian leadership does occur, each party will likely claim innocence in the resulting chaos. Those currently causing division in the country will insist on their innocence, always shifting blame onto others. Consequently, one's own failure to remain silent will be portrayed as asceticism, while the actions of others will be labeled as provocations.
What's crucial is who will be the first to quash the rumors.
This would place us in a recurring century-old role-playing scenario. Ukrainians already lack substantial trust in the power structure, and with each passing month of the war, it becomes increasingly easier to undermine this trust.
It doesn't matter who first initiated talk of confrontation; what's crucial is who will be the first to quash the rumors. Failing to fill the information vacuum allows someone else to take control.
We won't have an alternative government until the war is over, nor should there be another military leadership until the active phase of hostilities ends. Pursuing a victory for personal ego will not end well.
Public opinion is a powerful force, and challenging it is like attempting to beat back the sea. However, the decision-makers— politicians, officials, news editors, and public intellectuals — determine the height of the waves. The country's fate hinges on whether these individuals can keep the waters calm and the ship steady.
Whether they can or not, a challenging winter almost certainly awaits Ukrainians.
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