Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine appears to be running out of grist. The Russian leader had nothing to say after Ukrainian troops retook the Kharkiv region in northeast Ukraine, a pivotal moment that gave Russia its first major defeat since Ukrainian forces turned back a Russian blitz on Kyiv during the early days of the war.
Instead, Putin tried in vain to divert his country’s attention by helping inaugurate Europe’s largest Ferris wheel at a Moscow park last Saturday. “It is very important for people to have a chance to chill out with their family and friends,” Putin told the nation.
For the Kremlin, it’s even more important to keep Russians in the dark about what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine. But no amount of truth-bending could paper over Putin’s humiliating defeat in the Kharkiv region.
It wasn’t just that Russian troops failed to hold on to more than 1,000 square miles reclaimed by Ukrainian forces. Putin’s soldiers fled — literally. Ukrainian officials reported that Russian troops left tanks, rifles, ammunition behind. Some even put on civilian clothes and escaped on foot or on bicycles to avoid Ukrainian drones.
Even key Putin loyalists such as Chechen strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov were shaken by Ukraine’s big victory in the Kharkiv region, saying on social media that if “changes are not made in the conduct of the special military operation, I will be forced to go to the country’s leadership to explain to them the situation on the ground.”
Pro-Kremlin bloggers took aim at Russia’s military leaders. Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence officer and ex-commander of pro-Russian separatist fighters in Ukraine, gloomily suggested on social media that Ukraine “had already won” the war. “Now, in fact, our side can only talk about how to stop its further deepening and prevent the escalation of an operational defeat into a strategic one,” Girkin wrote.
Girkin is overreacting, but there’s no doubt that Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region is a stirring and crucial moment — both for Kyiv and for the West.
For Ukrainians, the success in Kharkiv fortifies their belief that Putin can be defeated. Russian forces have inflicted on Ukrainian civilians a scale of death and destruction best described as barbaric and medieval — and yet the nation’s will remains unbowed. When nations fight for their very existence, they find ways to surmount a much larger, more potent invader. In the case of the Kharkiv counteroffensive, it may have been a crafty feint that helped the cause.
For weeks, Ukrainian forces had been telegraphing a strong push to retake territory in the country’s southern regions. Russian military leaders shifted manpower and resources to defend positions in the south, leaving the Kharkiv region vulnerable. In a matter of days, Ukrainian forces swept in and reclaimed the region.
Now Zelenskyy must weigh the pros and cons of forging ahead with the counteroffensive. On the one hand, there’s merit to capitalizing on the momentum from the success in Kharkiv territory. But doing so carries the risk of overextending Ukrainian forces and becoming vulnerable to Russian counterattacks.
That’s why this moment is crucial for the U.S. and its NATO allies.
For Ukraine to be able to push ahead with the offensive and still capably defend territory already gained, it will need the West to step up its supplies of materiel and weapons, including the U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, now an invaluable asset for Ukrainian forces. Though the U.S. has given Zelenskyy more than $15 billion in military assistance since President Joe Biden took office, Washington cannot afford to begin scaling back wartime help now — particularly at a time when Putin’s forces appear to be on the back foot.
NATO nations can also help bolster Ukraine’s momentum. Unabated military assistance will be vital, but just as important will be European unity in the face of what is sure to be a challenging winter, when Putin is likely to shut off natural gas supplies to Russia’s European customers.
It’s not just the prospect of Europeans shivering in their homes, or choosing between heat and food, that matters; a shutdown of Russian energy would severely hamper the functioning of the European Union’s economy. Europe’s collective resolve to support Ukraine could become severely strained if EU productivity nose-dives. European nations have been hurriedly trying to build up storehouses of natural gas to get through the winter, but energy assistance from the U.S. must be on the table to keep Europe unified against Putin.
It remains to be seen whether the Kharkiv counteroffensive marks a decisive turning point. But this much is clear. Putin isn’t winning. His high-stakes gamble to brutally and illegally invade a sovereign neighbor made him a global pariah, and now even some Kremlin loyalists have begun wringing their hands about their leader’s “special military operation.”
We expect Ukraine will seize this moment and build on it — if only because it has no choice.
At the same time, the U.S. and Europe mustn’t waver in their resolve to back Kyiv. Given that the alternative would be to allow Putin to impose his will wherever and whenever he wants, the West — like Ukraine — has no other option..