haass143_Ukrainian PresidencyHandoutAnadolu Agency via Getty Images_zelensky decisions Ukrainian Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Ukraine’s Coming Winter of Decision

Ukraine’s stunning recent counteroffensive marks a turn, but not yet a turning point, in the war that Russia has been waging against it since 2014. It is too soon to extrapolate from Ukraine’s gains, much less conclude that what happened in the northeast Kharkiv is a harbinger for the entire country.

KYIV – Russia’s war against Ukraine, which President Vladimir Putin began in 2014 and expanded in February, has taken a dramatic turn following Ukrainian forces’ liberation, in less than a week, of some 3,400 square miles (8,800 square kilometers) of territory in the country’s northeastern Kharkiv district. Russian strategists, apparently focused on the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive in the country’s south, were unprepared for the attacks, and Russia’s poorly trained and poorly led troops were no match for their highly competent and motivated Ukrainian counterparts.

What happened was a turn, but not yet a turning point, in the war. It is too soon to extrapolate from Ukraine’s gains in one area, much less conclude that what happened in Kharkiv is a harbinger for the entire country. Russia still occupies the vast majority of the territory it seized in 2014 and subsequently, and many Russians regard Crimea in particular as being theirs. This suggests that taking it back would prove extremely difficult, especially as more military force is required to conduct offensive operations than to defend.

Still, what Ukraine has accomplished is significant by any measure and has led to a major shift in thinking within the Ukrainian government, as I learned firsthand in Kyiv. Months ago, the goal for many Ukrainians was the survival of an independent, viable Ukraine – even if the state was not in possession of all its territory. But the government’s war aims – the definition of what constitutes victory – are becoming more ambitious, owing to Russian brutality and Ukrainian forces’ recent territorial gains. In response to my question, Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov called for the return of all the country’s land, including what Russia took in 2014. To this he added a call for economic reparations to finance a reconstruction bill estimated at $350 billion. And he insisted that those in Russia responsible for this act of aggression and associated war crimes be held legally accountable.

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