Reviews | A looming snag for Putin in Ukraine: warmer weather


Less than a week into Ukraine’s latest counter-offensive against Russian forces, there is a natural desire to pronounce success or failure, but the nature of the fighting and the fog of war do not not allow it. It is simply too early to say whether Ukraine, in the swaggering language of President Volodymyr Zelenskylead Russia beyond the borders of its country.

Overall, however, Ukraine’s counterattack in organized and well-supplied columns is another mark of Russia’s costly and disastrous failure. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s self-proclaimed war aimed to decapitate Ukraine, occupy the capital and install a puppet government in a single blitz on multiple fronts last February.

David Von Drehle: The war proves that Russia is no longer a superpower

When that effort failed, Putin launched a revamped campaign along shorter lines to create a buffer zone for Russia in southern and eastern Ukraine and to grab the throat of Ukraine’s economy by capturing the port from Odessa.

But now that project is also bogged down. After more than six months of fighting – with extreme brutality and waste, at the cost of thousands of soldiers, legions of officers and a huge stash of armor — Russia is heading into winter on her heels. Other than destruction and death, Putin has nothing to show for the biggest invasion of European territory in nearly 80 years.

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Winter has been Russia’s great strategic asset in previous wars, literally freezing the ambitions of Napoleon and Hitler in their tracks on the long road to Moscow. The season has become Putin’s last hope to salvage a result in Ukraine that he could call victory. If voters in Germany, Italy and other Western countries get cold enough without the Russian gas they depend on for their heaters, they could force their governments to withdraw from unified NATO support for Zelensky.

But even Jack Frost could turn his back on Putin.

New long term forecast strongly suggest that Europe is heading for a generally mild winter. La Nina, a change in atmospheric patterns associated with cooling surface temperatures in parts of the Pacific Ocean, will most likely produce warmer than normal temperatures to most of the continent. It would reduce pressure on natural gas supplies, although it certainly won’t end the need for sacrifice and determination.

The Germans, in particular, will be called upon to bundle up and endure because of their excessive dependence on energy from an unreliable supplier. Yet there is no acceptable alternative to stubborn endurance, as Putin must not be allowed to leave Ukraine with more than he had when he invaded.

It is not said with malice towards the Russian people. Russia is a great culture with a tragic Achilles heel: for some reason or a tangle of reasons, it cannot produce and embrace wise leaders. Mikhail Gorbachev’s death at 91 is a sad reminder of Moscow’s inability to bring the former Soviet Union peacefully into the modern era. The chaos that followed the collapse of the empire favored the rise of Putin, who did not seek to build a prosperous future, but to recover a corrupt and repressive past.

Despite weak leadership, Russia is so richly endowed with natural resources that it casts the shadow of a superpower. Or thrown away. A year ago, Russia was seen as a major military force. Ukraine aspired to join NATO, but beyond lip service, the West was making little headway in that direction. Indeed, some major foreign policy thinkers — former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger among them — argued that Ukraine should be designated neutral territory, like Finland. Putin might have gotten his buffer zone without firing a shot.

Instead, Finland is no longer neutral, having joined NATO with Sweden in response to Putin’s war. And Russia’s conventional military strength has proven second-rate at best.

If the weather gods smile on freedom and the Germans hold their ground, Ukrainian forces will surely continue to attack Putin’s army with a bottomless supply of Western weapons and ammunition. The scenario is grim. But make no mistake: Putin can end it whenever he wants.

Of course, that assumes Putin keeps his grip on power. Things have gotten rather sketchy in Moscow lately. A car bomb killed the pro-war girl of Putin’s apocalyptic theorist Alexandr Dugin. Several oil and gas industry executives have been found dead, some with family members, and another – the chairman of Lukoil, Russia’s second-largest oil company – somehow fell from a sixth-floor hospital window. The Minister of Defense was fired, which is rarely healthy in the Kremlin. If one listens carefully, one could hear the first sounds of a tottering regime.

Too soon to say whether Ukraine’s offensive will help them win, but not too soon to say who loses: Vladimir Putin and, because of him, the Russian people.