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Six Months And Counting: Five Things To Watch As Russia's War On Ukraine Grinds On

Damaged Ukrainian national flags flutter in the wind at a cemetery in Chernihiv in April.
Damaged Ukrainian national flags flutter in the wind at a cemetery in Chernihiv in April.

Shortly before dawn on February 24, everything changed: for Ukraine, first and foremost, but also for Russia, and increasingly, for much of Europe and the peace and prosperity it had enjoyed since World War II.

Russia's invasion -- an explosive escalation of the low-level, below-the-radar war that had been going on in eastern Ukraine since 2014 -- was unforeseen by many. The most notable exception was the United States, whose blunt prewar warnings now appear prescient.

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Six months in, the conflict is now a war of attrition, as one veteran military expert, Lawrence Freedman, concluded: "Two punch-drunk boxers, trading jabs and uppercuts, yet unable to land a knockout blow."

So what, in fact, are the chances there will be a knockout blow in the coming days, weeks, or months?

That may depend as much on what happens outside the boxing ring as what happens inside it.

"In the next six months, the war is likely to enter a simmering phase, with military and economic attrition draining both sides," said Maria Shagina, now a research fellow for economic sanctions, standards, and strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Berlin. "Talks about finding a compromise will become louder."

Here are five things to watch in the future, near and distant:

It's The Economies, Stupid

In its latest forecast, released on August 17, Russia's Economics Ministry forecast that the country's GDP would shrink by 4.2 percent by year's end and that inflation would be just 13.4 percent. Those and other related predictions were notable improvements from earlier ones, by the International Monetary Fund and others, predicting a retrenchment of the Russian economy.

It still might happen.

Russia's Central Bank has been credited with swift and effective action to blunt the effects of the Western sanctions imposed after the February 24 invasion. But for many experts, the sanctions have not yet fully rippled through the economy. Supply chain disruptions, credit market freezes, foreign markets shut off, imports blocked, rising unemployment, consumer goods shortages: The full impact of the sanctions is expected to show up only in the coming months.

"The breadth and severity of these actions vary greatly, and their full effects on the Russian economy are still unfolding, as are the related implications for economic activity in other countries," Chad Brown, an economist and senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C., said in blog post.

"The quality and quantity of consumer goods available, and even food products, will decline. Inflation will further erode real wages. Factories around the country will grind to a halt, and workers will either be laid off or furloughed," said Daniel Treisman, a political scientist and expert on Russian politics at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"That is bound to generate discontent, which could interact negatively with a sense that the war is going badly, if it is," he said.

And then there's Ukraine's economy. Wrecked by Russia's attacks, Ukrainian GDP could shrink by as much as half, according to World Bank estimates, estimates that are expected to worsen the longer fighting goes on. Ukrainian agriculture exports, halted until recently by Russia's naval blockade and Ukraine's mined Black Sea ports, have only recently started up again.

The government budget deficit reached $4 billion in May and climbed to nearly $6 billion in June.

Western donor countries and multilateral financial institutions have pledged billions of euros in support for Ukraine's budget, but only a fraction of the amount pledged has actually been delivered, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, based in Germany.

Kyiv's ability to stay fiscally solvent, and stay functional, while continuing to fund its fight, will depend in large part on how much Western nations are willing to open their wallets.

Ukraine's prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, said in May that rebuilding the country after the end of the war would cost approximately $750 billion.

That assumes the war doesn't grind on indefinitely.

Winter Is Coming

Last week, many European nations shuddered after Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom unexpectedly announced plans for a three-day shutdown of supplies via the Nord Stream pipeline.

Ostensibly, the cause was routine: for "servicing and maintenance." But it followed an earlier 10-day interruption, which slowed European customers' efforts to fill storage facilities ahead of next winter. And it added to mounting worries that the Kremlin indeed intended to use its dominant position as the main supplier of Europe's gas, and to a lesser degree oil, to punish the bloc for its support of Ukraine and its imposition of sanctions.

Several European countries face potentially dire circumstances this winter. Germany is scrambling to reduce energy consumption across the country: asking public buildings to turn down their thermostats; public pools and gyms to turn off hot water; and even contemplating restarting its nuclear generating plants.

The European Union's executive body has urged EU member countries to prepare for a complete cutoff of Russian gas.
The European Union's executive body has urged EU member countries to prepare for a complete cutoff of Russian gas.

"We have a very critical winter right in front of us," German Economy Minister Robert Habeck was quoted by Bloomberg as saying during a visit to Canada with Chancellor Olaf Scholz. "We must expect [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to further reduce gas."

The European Union's executive body has urged EU member countries to prepare for a complete cutoff of Russian gas.

Still, as some experts have pointed out, Russia is also dependent on Europe, to sell its gas and garner export revenues, something that is badly needed by the Kremlin, both to keep its economy from imploding while also funding the war.

That could limit the willingness of Gazprom to order a full cutoff.

"The Kremlin is aware that it has a limited window to leverage energy flows, particularly gas," Shagina said. "It cannot be entirely excluded that Gazprom will cut gas supplies to Europe, but it's more likely that the strategy will be to unnerve European countries by reducing gas flows on short notice."

All Politics Is Local

Prior to February 24, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who won the Ukrainian presidency in a landslide election in 2019, was suffering from sagging ratings. Ukrainians had soured on his leadership amid concerns he wasn't doing enough to root out corruption and bring an end to the low-level conflict that had been going on in eastern Ukraine since 2014.

Since Russia's invasion, his popularity has soared. A poll taken in May showed nearly 90 percent of Ukrainians positively assess his leadership; 85 percent said they fully trust or trust him as president. (Support for his political party, Servant of the People, was markedly lower, however.)

"This is genuine support based on his policy, courage, ability to marshal Western support for Ukraine, especially delivery of armaments," said Orysia Lutsevych, manager of the Ukraine Forum in the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House in London. "Zelenskiy's rhetoric and actions are very much in line with how Ukrainians imagine victory over Russia."

Since the Russian invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's popularity has soared.
Since the Russian invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's popularity has soared.

Still, she said, Ukrainians will eventually get impatient, particularly if the war persists and the winter becomes a challenge.

"Ukraine is like a ship during a storm that must be mended in order not to sink," she said. "This winter will be difficult for many households, and this may build political pressure. But as long as the active phase of the war lasts, all major current political players are mainly focused on the war effort and will not challenge Zelenskiy head-on. Society remains united around the external enemy."

The Russian military position is deteriorating, and the West's backing for Ukraine has yet to slacken. The trends therefore favor Ukraine."
-- Lawrence Freedman, King's College London

For Putin, it's a different calculus.

Even before the invasion, the Kremlin had been gradually stifling Russian civil society, independent media, and political dissent. After February 24, Russia's slip toward outright authoritarianism quickened, with people being jailed for merely questioning the Ukraine war, or criticizing it.

Still, the Kremlin is sensitive to public opinion. A handful of Russian regions will be holding gubernatorial elections in the coming weeks, and Putin's presidential administration has taken pains to ensure its favored candidates come out on top, with little public pushback.

"Again, the Kremlin will react strongly to any protest," Treisman said. "But on the economic side, they may feel more constrained by the knowledge that the vast majority of Russians probably share the same discontent. Coming down hard on individuals who protest economic hardship could turn them into martyrs. So things are going to get more complicated.

"I don't expect this to lead in the short run to a significant political threat for the Kremlin, but I also don't rule that out," he said. "In any case, managing deteriorating trends in the economy, public opinion, and maybe Russia's military position will demand a great deal of skill and care. It won't be easy."

War-Weary West

In Germany, Scholz has seen his popularity slip to its lowest level since he took office in December.

In Britain, the government is in flux while the ruling Conservative Party is trying to find a replacement for Boris Johnson, who resigned as prime minister, while also warning of possible shortages of home heating gas due to Russia's potential gas cutoff.

The United States, meanwhile, has for years been Ukraine's single largest supplier of weaponry, something that has jumped dramatically since the invasion: $9 billion worth of equipment since February 24, according to administration figures.

But President Joe Biden's popularity has cratered due in large part to Americans' dissatisfaction with record-high inflation, car fuel prices, and impatience with COVID-19 restrictions. And he faces the prospect of his Democratic Party losing control of Congress to Republicans in November's midterm elections.

In Germany, Chancellor Olf Scholz has seen his popularity slip to its lowest level since he took office in December.
In Germany, Chancellor Olf Scholz has seen his popularity slip to its lowest level since he took office in December.

A growing number of experts warn that Western support for Ukraine is in danger of waning the longer the war goes on. That goes double should this winter result in major energy disruptions in Europe or another spike in gasoline prices in the United States.

"This winter will test Europe's resolve and will show how deep the Ukraine fatigue is," Shagina said. "As economic woes mount, Russia will seek to increase the costs for the Europeans -- sowing discord and [pushing to lower] military and economic assistance to Ukraine."

In a poll conducted in May among 8,000 Europeans, the European Council on Foreign Relations found that a majority of Europeans supported Ukraine and sanctions against Russia, but split about long-term goals. The poll found 35 percent of respondents wanted the war to end as soon as possible, while 22 percent wanted more punishments for Russia.

In Sweden, Germany, Poland, Germany, and Finland, there was substantial public support for increasing military spending, the poll found.

But that was three months ago.

As for Americans, a poll published on August 18 by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 80 percent of respondents supported U.S. economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia, 72 percent supported providing more weapons and equipment to Ukraine, and 71 percent support economic assistance for Ukraine.

Even if Republicans take control of Congress in November, strong support for Ukraine is likely to continue.

Peace Without Victory

The most difficult thing to watch for in the coming months is the most important thing to watch for: Who will win?

On the battlefield, the battle lines have moved little in recent weeks. In the eastern Donbas region, Russian forces claimed the entirety of the Luhansk region and have pummeled several key towns in the Donetsk region, including Bakhmut. But Ukrainian defenses have largely held.

One explanation is that Russia is shifting some of its battalion tactical groups to the southwest in anticipation of a widely telegraphed Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Kherson region.

In Kherson, Ukrainian forces, armed with U.S.-supplied precision weapons known as HIMARS, have been hitting bridges, ammunition depots, command posts, and other key targets. Attacks on a handful of sites on Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia has occupied since annexing it in 2014, have also rattled Russian commanders, though Ukraine hasn't taken responsibility for them.

WATCH: U.S.-supplied high-mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS) have helped diminish the Russian Army's firepower by blowing up munitions depots, command centers, and other key targets. Ukrainian soldiers in eastern Ukraine say this has made a palpable difference on the battlefield.

'It Was Hell Here': Ukrainian Troops Say U.S.-Supplied HIMARS Make A Difference
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0:00 0:02:25 0:00

Russia is also widely believed to be suffering from a personnel problem, as commanders struggle to replenish the ranks while stopping short of declaring general mobilization.

The correct question, analysts say, is not who will win but rather: What does winning look like?

For Ukraine, the answer would be regaining control of the entire Donbas, including the parts that have been under Russian-allied separatists' control since 2014, and eventually even Crimea. In his nightly video address on August 10, Zelenskiy asked the question outright: "When will the war end?"

"The question of time actually directly depends on the question of the losses that Russia will suffer. The more losses the occupiers suffer, the sooner we will be able to liberate our land and guarantee Ukraine's security," he said. "This is what everyone who defends our state and helps Ukraine should think about: how to inflict the greatest possible losses on the occupiers so that the time of the war gets shorter."

"The goals of this operation are clearly and precisely defined," Russian President Vladimir Putin told a Moscow security conference last week.
"The goals of this operation are clearly and precisely defined," Russian President Vladimir Putin told a Moscow security conference last week.

For Russia, the answer is more complicated, mainly because the Kremlin keeps changing its justifications for going to war.

First, it was "demilitarization and "de-Nazification." The latter refers to the Kremlin's false claim that Ukraine's government is populated by neo-Nazis, a Soviet-era trope that Moscow has wielded regularly since the 2013-14 Maidan protests that culminated in the ouster of a pro-Russian president. The former refers to what Moscow said would be a serious threat to Russian security if Ukraine were to join NATO or even host weapons or troops from the alliance.

But Russia also justified the invasion by claiming there had been a "genocide" against the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine, a claim that has been repeatedly debunked.

"The goals of this operation are clearly and precisely defined: These are to ensure the security of Russia and our citizens, to protect the inhabitants of the Donbas from genocide," Putin told a Moscow security conference last week.

In the same speech, Putin also framed the conflict as not between Russia and Ukraine but between Russia and the West, something that a growing number of Russian officials have discussed openly.

In his blog post, Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King's College London, called the war one of attrition but predicted that momentum is on Ukraine's side.

"The Russian military position is deteriorating, and the West's backing for Ukraine has yet to slacken," he wrote. "The trends therefore favor Ukraine."

The Kremlin "will have to work out how long they can continue to pretend that they have a credible path to victory," he said.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.