Ukraine's recent successes on the battlefield have put pressure on Vladimir Putin, who has launched what appear to be desperate attacks on civilians and infrastructure in response. Experts warn that it is dangerous to believe that Russia is bound to fail.
Russia's airstrikes on Ukraine have continued unabated throughout the week.
More than 40 cities have been hit by Russian missiles over a period of just 24 hours, the General Staff of the Ukrainian army announced Thursday. Heavy strikes occurred in the outskirts of Kyiv for several nights in a row. Sirens wailed, people ran in panic through the darkness.
Thirty percent of the country's energy infrastructure has now been destroyed, according to Ukrainian figures — a dramatic development as rain and cold weather are just around the corner.
Ukraine needs to urgently "defend itself against the terrible Russian attacks on civilians," NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg told the alliance's defense ministers meeting in Brussels earlier this week. The message got through.
Germany and the U.S. made new commitments to supply air defense, and a total of 15 countries signed a declaration of intent for a "European Sky Shield" in Brussels on Thursday. The goal is to "close the gaps" in air defense, said Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht.
But to be clear, as brutal as they are, the Russian missile offensives are the direct result of Ukraine's huge military gains in recent weeks.
Ukrainian forces were able to recapture more than 600 villages and towns. They achieved spectacular successes in the Kharkiv and Kherson areas. In addition, Kyiv succeeded last weekend in a spectacular attack on the Crimean bridge, which holds great symbolic and strategic importance for President Vladimir Putin.
Retaliation against Ukraine's successes
Is this a turning point in the war? Austria's top military strategist, Commander Markus Reisner of the Defense Ministry in Vienna, told Die Welt: "The question is whether these operational successes will be enough to bring about a decision by winter. Very likely not."
He added: "Even though we have a hard time believing at the moment that the Russians can still unleash a massive offensive force, we have to expect that they will succeed in doing just that in the coming months. Putin will now try to massively increase military pressure."
Die Welt looks at the four options that Putin has ahead of him in order to strike back.
Option 1: targeting key infrastructure
In the short term, Moscow is likely to try to stop the Ukrainian army until the onset of the rainy season in November — when no more major combat operations will be possible — in a way that will prevent it from achieving further military successes.
"In the coming weeks, Russia's primary concern is to hold on to the occupied territories," says Stefanie Babst, former Nato deputy assistant secretary-general and longtime head of strategic foresight at the alliance.
The population will presumably suffer greatly in the winter.
At the same time, however, there is much to suggest that Putin will continue to intensify the attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure that have been underway for days. "Moscow has regained the initiative with the latest missile attacks. Putin is being celebrated for this on social networks. What is crucial for him is that as long as the people of Russia stand behind the tyrant, they will continue to fight," says Reisner.
After Russia had long attacked only military infrastructure in Ukraine, such as depots or railways, civilian supply facilities are now being targeted for bombing. Reisner: "This escalation with precision weapons is a decisive change in strategy. The population will presumably suffer greatly in the winter."
But why hadn't Moscow attacked civilian infrastructure before? "For a long time, the calculation was to use the critical infrastructure immediately after occupying the country," Reisner explains.
Of great importance now will be how many cruise missiles (Kalibr) and ballistic missiles (Iskander, Totschaka-U) Moscow still has in its arsenal. No one knows. But the stockpiles are apparently much larger than the West had long assumed. In addition, Russia has so far fired 4,150 missiles with a hit rate of about 80%. Ukraine has only been able to intercept 250 of them, according to Kyiv. That is why new air defense systems from the West are so urgently needed now.
But most of the defense systems are not expected to arrive until next year, so they won't help Ukraine in the winter.
Moreover, the planned total of twelve batteries will not be nearly enough to cover a country as large as Ukraine with effective air defense, especially considering that Moscow also deploys the Iranian Shahed-136 kamikaze drone, in addition to missiles.
Smoke rises above residential buildings in Lviv after Russian missiles hit the critical infrastructure
Option 2: help from Belarus
Call it: the Belarus card.
Moscow and Minsk have recently formed a "joint regional force" in Belarus.
Satellite images show that the new unit is currently moving towards the Ukrainian border.
In the short term, Moscow could relatively easily attack targets near the border on Ukrainian territory, such as Kovel or Korostov, which lie directly on the highway from Lublin in Poland to Kyiv.
"Kyiv has massively reduced the number of soldiers in the west and would have to withdraw forces from the east and south" to counter an offensive in the West, says Reisner. That would weaken the Ukrainian offensive in the areas where it is now regaining territory.
Option 3: hybrid attacks against the West
Moscow could disrupt Elon Musk's Starlink satellite communications system, making attacks and communications by Ukrainians much more difficult. It is possible that this has already happened at times.
In addition, Russia could fuel conflicts in Syria, in Libya or in the Sahel. The consequence: new waves of refugees toward Europe.
Or Moscow could attack critical infrastructure in Western countries through cyberattacks.
NATO expert Babst: "I assume that hybrid attacks against the West will increase significantly. We will see quite a few more surprises."
In addition, Putin could further tighten gas exports.
Reisner: "The most important goal for Putin is to make the West's military and financial support for Ukraine dry up. That's the 'center of gravity' for Moscow — the area that must be preserved at all costs if you want to win."
Option 4: long-term mobilization
The long-term mobilization of up to 30 million Russian reservists over the course of 2023, while Ukraine has far fewer people available.
"If you want to conquer or regain a country, you need infantry," says Reisner. "Afghanistan has shown that it's not the F-16 fighter-bombers that decide a war, but who has their foot in the villages, like the Taliban."
Putin is likely to go all out for victory in the coming year.
"His sights are firmly set on 2024: his own elections, those in Ukraine and, above all, the U.S. presidential election," Babst says.
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