It is too early for Ukraine to claim that it has defeated Russia. Yet, Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s recent visit to Izium, about 15 kms from the front in Ukraine’s northeast, was a tangible sign of Ukraine’s soaring morale and its growing boldness. It did not bother him that he could have been targeted by Russian missiles. The visit underscored Ukraine’s success in recapturing thousands of kilometres of land that the Russians had earlier captured. Videos and photographs of abandoned Russian armoured vehicles further testified to the setback the Russians suffered. What is not clear is whether the withdrawal by the Russians is strategic, to let the Ukrainians to spread thin and thus weaken their position. There is also the fear that the Russians would be tempted to use unrestrained force in the ongoing war. That they have not used their full potential against Ukraine is a reality that cannot be shied away from.
There is no doubt that Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s gamble when he started the war on February 24 this year has clearly failed. Not just Mr Putin, even the world at large believed that Ukraine did not have a chance against the mighty Russians and the war would not last more than a week. In fact, videos of the massive movement of Russian troops that could encircle Kyiv gave the impression that a collapse of the regime was imminent. The popular belief was that the war would end quickly with the possible capture of the Ukrainian leader. What the world saw was the determined resistance from the Ukrainian forces, led from the front by Mr Zelenskyy, who was alleged to be a drug addict, who did not have any knowledge of grassroots politics, let alone the dynamics of war. Far from that, he proved that he was no pushover.
Undeniably, Vladimir Putin had underestimated the Ukrainians and their capacity to fight. For a leader, especially when he plans a war, there can be nothing more damaging than under-estimating his rival. If he thought that Ukraine would become part of Russia and he could have a puppet regime in Kyiv in a matter of days, it is now seven months since the Russians have been fighting aimlessly. Mr Zelenskyy’s biggest achievement is not the land mass he has recaptured from the Russians but the demoralisation that has begun to grip the Russian forces. Already, Russian nationalists have urged Mr Putin to use deadly force against their enemy. The bombing of an hydroelectric station in Mr Zelenskyy’s hometown to cause floods there is a measure of their desperation. The recent assassination bid on Mr Putin, if true, is a pointer to the challenges the Russian leader faces.
What is certain is that Russia stands alone in the comity of nations. Never before has Russia faced such isolation. The successive votes in the UN Security Council and the General Assembly showed that even countries like India, which had been favourably inclined towards Russia for defence and historic reasons, preferred to be neutral. The situation continues more or less the same as Mr Putin had the first face-to-face contact with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in the Uzbek city of Samarkand on Thursday. By and large, the world blames him for his brinkmanship which has created an energy crisis from which most countries are yet to recover. The European Union is not just one bloc of countries that has suffered. The economic crisis in Sri Lanka in India’s neighbourhood could be linked to the war. Ukraine might not have been defeated but it has suffered losses and it will take decades to recoup them.
Russia might not accept the fact that the war, especially the sanctions against the country, has crippled its economy. The ordinary people have been suffering, though the totalitarian system does not allow the true ground situation to find reflection in media reports. Desperation by any combatant is not an ideal situation. Especially when the country has a huge stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. Any situation in which such weapons can be deployed needs to be averted at any cost. Tragically, there is no attempt now to bring the warring sides to a negotiated settlement. In the initial days of the war, the Russians were adamant about the removal of Mr Zelenskyy as one of the conditions for talks. They were also under the impression that victory was within their reach. Seven months of war have taught both Russia and Ukraine about their strengths and weaknesses and what all are required to establish a decisive victory. Even if one side is able to win, it would be at terrible cost to the people of both countries, especially Ukraine. It should be possible for the United Nations to take the initiative to end the war by letting this realisation dawn on Mr Putin and Mr Zelenskyy.