By Serhiy Kudelia, author of “The Ukrainian State under Russian Aggression: Resilience and Resistance” Current History (2022) 121 (837): 251–57.
The Ukrainian military counteroffensive launched in August has restored Ukraine’s control over most of Kharkiv province and parts of the Donetsk and Kherson regions. It led to the liberation of several strategic towns and cities, such as Kupiansk and Lyman, which served as major transportation hubs for Russian forces. It also allowed Ukraine to advance closer to the city of Kherson—the provincial capital located on the Dnieper River, seized by the Russians early in the war. While many military analysts credit the success of the counteroffensive to the supply of Western armaments, particularly long-range artillery and rocket systems, it also testifies to the new strengths of the Ukrainian state, which I identified in my recent article in Current History.
Throughout the war, the Ukrainian military has demonstrated remarkable capacity for precise planning and implementation of complex operations, which require a high degree of coordination between multiple units. The latest series of successful maneuvers in the eastern and southern regions of the country included the leveraging of terrain to the military’s advantage, the use of precise intelligence data on the location of Russian troops, and the competent operation of Western-supplied military equipment. Russian forces had to retreat to prevent their encirclement and annihilation.
Ukrainian intelligence services reinforced these gains with effective strikes in occupied territories and even in Russia. A series of assassinations of Ukrainians collaborating with the Russians points to a wide network of Ukrainian agents successfully operating behind the enemy lines. The most impactful operations, such as the October attack on the bridge connecting Crimea to mainland Russia, carried a powerful symbolic significance and exposed the major security failures of the Russian state.
These military successes serve as a decisive refutation of the key propaganda tenets of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. Instead of yielding to Moscow’s pressure, the Ukrainian state has appeared strong enough to sustain itself under the Russian assault, and even to put the Russians on the defensive. In occupied areas, Ukrainians refused to take the Russian side; tens of thousands left, and some of those who remained engaged in openly subversive activities against the Russian state. They did so even though Russians offered multiple incentives for defections—distributing Russian passports, offering free housing to some of those who lost their homes, and promising teaching jobs at schools as long as the Russian curriculum is used.
Aware of anti-Russian sentiments, however, the occupation authorities also launched mass surveillance and control of the population and encouraged denunciations to suppress Ukrainian underground resistance. Arrests of civilians suspected of cooperating with the Ukrainian side have been publicized on Russian television to instill fear in other pro-Ukrainian residents. When intimidation failed, the Russians resorted to executions. In the recently liberated city of Lyman in Donetsk oblast, Ukrainian prosecutors have found mass grave sites, where the remains of more than 200 civilians in total have been discovered so far. The bodies of over 500 civilians have been recovered in the liberated towns of the neighboring Kharkiv oblast. This fits with the pattern of prior actions of the Russian forces in towns near Kyiv, like Bucha and Irpin, where civilians suspected of pro-Ukrainian sympathies were executed.
Despite these atrocities and brutal rocket attacks, Ukrainian society has not turned to supporting extreme ideologies or political actors. It remains united around civic identity markers and maintains key political freedoms, such as freedom of speech, which have long been destroyed in Russia. It also remains a remarkably open society, which encourages visits of Western policymakers, journalists, and observers, and offers frequent opportunities to the Western media to directly question its leaders.
Putin’s recent decisions to annex new Ukrainian provinces seized by the Russian military, and to announce a mobilization campaign calling up hundreds of thousands of reservists, reflect a lack of confidence in Russia’s ability to hold onto these territories without additional manpower. While characterizing this annexation as the start of the partition of Ukraine, Moscow in fact has contributed to the consolidation of Ukrainian society around the goal of returning these and other areas lost since 2014. Putin’s pompous and haphazardly organized annexation ceremony demonstrated that the main motive behind his invasion was not to ensure security for Russia or protection for Russian-speakers in Donbas, but an expansionist drive to gain more territory and reassert dominance over neighbors. The mass flight of Russian men to other countries in the wake of Putin’s mobilization announcement made it very clear that many in Russian society are not willing to risk their lives for the sake of fulfilling Putin’s ambitions.
Since neither of his goals is likely to succeed, Putin will ultimately have to face the wrath of the nationalists he has nurtured within Russian society, and recalcitrance in Russia’s regions where people recognize the futility of war against Ukraine better than the country’s servile political class. Instead of revealing the hollow nature of Ukrainian statehood, as Putin expected, the war would thus raise questions about Russia’s own viability not only as a regional power, but even as a relatively modern and coherent state.