'No one doubts Ukraine will win the war. The only question is how long it will take'

·15 min read
A Russian Mi-28 anti-armour attack helicopter fires rockets on Ukraine - Russian Defence Ministry Press Service
A Russian Mi-28 anti-armour attack helicopter fires rockets on Ukraine - Russian Defence Ministry Press Service

It is a morning no one who was there will ever forget.

Six months ago today Ukrainians were woken by a barrage of Russian missiles, Europe was plunged into war, and Ukraine itself, Volodymyr Zelensky said in an independence address, was "reborn".

It is embarrassing to admit, but the truth is that I slept through the start of the war. I had been woken at 4am by a phone call from a London radio station asking for comment on the invasion and immediately went out onto the balcony of my hotel room in Severodonetsk, in the Luhansk region, to listen for explosions.

The sky was overcast and pre-dawn blue. A few birds were singing. Other than that, tranquil silence. I went back inside and checked the news again, before coming back onto the balcony. Nothing. No booms. No crack of bullets. No rumbling tank engines. I wondered what to do. At least if I could hear something I could have reported it – or run away.

Months later, Serhiy Gaidai, the governor of Luhansk region, listened incredulously as I recounted that morning. “A Kalibr [Russian cruise missile] struck the aerodrome that morning. It was very loud, you must have heard it! Everything started from that moment,” he said.

Oh well. In six months of war, one thing that has remained constant is the impossibility of knowing what on earth is going on. Information is confused and often wrong. Even soldiers rarely see the enemy. And sound plays strange tricks on the frightened mind.

I later met a woman who described hearing a “distant thump” as she left her daughter’s apartment in the Donbas city of Bakhmut. She thought nothing of it, cycled out of the courtyard and found an airstrike had sliced away the street-facing wall of her block of flats. The third-floor kitchen she had just left was exposed like a furniture showroom. Miraculously, no one died.

The morning of Feb 24 has changed everyone it has touched – Ukrainians, Russians, and, in our own rather insignificant way, foreign correspondents. Western capitals have suffered what Mark Galeotti, an expert in the Russian security state, calls a “death of optimism”.

The long-held belief that political difficulties in dealing with Vladimir Putin’s government were just a blip, that common ground could be found, has been replaced by a begrudging acceptance that there will be a Cold War as long as he remains in power. Politicians and diplomats are still trying to figure out what that means – and how to explain this painful and expensive shift in history to their voters.

In Russia, where I lived for 10 very rewarding years, the last vestiges of the post-Soviet experiment with democracy have well and truly been shed. It sounds mad now but, for a long time during Vladimir Putin’s rule, an atmosphere of creativity, opportunity and optimism flourished in Moscow and other Russian cities alongside – and despite – an ever-encroaching tide of nationalist authoritarianism.

Now the long debates about whether Putin is a fascist – a tedious and much-ridiculed feature of commentary on Russia in the 2000s – seem absurd. What is there to debate? Many Russians have embraced the Kremlin’s war madness. Others have fled their country. Some have returned, despairing at the difficulty of setting up a new life abroad. Most, I think, have engaged in what the Soviets called “internal migration” – escaping into your own head, since you can’t escape the country.

That ostrich act reached a surreal apotheosis when Ukraine blew up a military airbase in Crimea. Thousands of holidaymakers fled the peninsula in horror, their pretence at normality blown away by gently rising mushroom clouds.

Black and white, light and dark

But no one’s pain matches that of the people of Ukraine. “Shock?” muses Nikita Rozhenko, below, a city councillor from Kharkiv now fighting as an infantry man on the Izyum front, when I ask him about the impact of Feb 24 on his home city. “People have divided their lives into before and after. Those who remained in Ukraine will never be the same people they were before. They’re already not the same people. Those who left, yes, they’re scared, they are suffering, but they don’t understand those people who stayed here. And there will be big problems when we all come back.”

Nikita Rozhenko - David Rose
Nikita Rozhenko - David Rose

Ilia Novikov, The Telegraph’s fixer in Ukraine, concurred. A nightclub promoter in civilian life, he can remember when traumatised veterans began to show up in Kyiv bars after the 2014 war, when Russia invaded Crimea and the Donbas. Post-war reconstruction, both physical and psychological, will be even tougher this time around.

Serhiy Gaidai, like many, didn’t have time to think about anything back in February – even whether Ukraine was about to win or lose. He was busy organising evacuations as the Russians overran the eastern part of Luhansk region. Now, with a bit of time and space to think, he has noticed some changes.

At a personal level, he has wholeheartedly embraced a Tolkienist explanation. The war is, he says, literally a struggle between light and darkness. In his updates and public comments on the instant-messaging service Telegram, he refers to the enemy not as Russians, but orcs. He read The Lord of the Rings with “great pleasure”, he tells me, but the choice of word is “not an intellectual thing. Just that is what they [Russians] are to me. Semi-animal beings whose only function is to destroy”.

He goes on: “Since the war began, I see things in black and white. There’s something good, or there’s something bad.” A struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, “is exactly what is going on here”.

Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai - Luhansk Regional Military-Civil Administration/Handout via REUTER
Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai - Luhansk Regional Military-Civil Administration/Handout via REUTER

There is no place for detached nuance in war. If you want to win, you need your legends. The grubby details, the moral compromises, will be worked out later. That’s one reason an Amnesty International report that came out earlier this month and accused the Ukrainian army of endangering civilians with their fighting tactics caused such uproar.

The brutality to which Ukraine has been subjected has given its countrymen an iron-hard sense of dignity that has to be encountered to be believed. But six months of fear, adrenaline and sleep deprivation also produce tensions. Gaidai says the remarkable unity of the first months has begun to give way to a sense, familiar from the previous eight years of war in Donbas, that some regions of the country have started to think of the war as something “over there”.

In western Ukraine’s Lviv, swamped with refugees and foreign diplomats, journalists and aid workers, it is possible to detect a degree of exasperation – especially with wealthy Kyivans parking their SUVs all over the city’s picturesque but impossibly narrow and overburdened cobbled streets. More than one irritated Kyivan has suspected prices have been jacked up to exploit rich folk from the capital. One darkly suggested a bit more direct experience of war would teach Lviv some compassion.

“F--- them!” exclaimed one such acquaintance, who fled westward when the assault on Kyiv began in February. “I think once the war is over, Lvivian people should be banned from visiting Kyiv. Lots of people support this idea.”

Irina Prudkova, an activist from Mariupol who showed me around the port city just before the invasion in February, is more diplomatic. “They are just people who don’t know anything about war,” she told me. She has become used to explaining, patiently, that Russian-speaking volunteers and soldiers from Donbas have been fighting for Ukraine since 2014. Much stranger, she said, was the way loyalties in her home city seemed to flip overnight on the 24th.

“People who supported Ukraine, who I thought were going to defend Mariupol, are now working for the Russians. And the ones who were always for Russia and used to call me a Banderite are fighting for Ukraine,” she told me by telephone from Ternopil, a west Ukrainian city where a friend has lent her a room.

She has no explanation for the strange inversion of loyalties and little time to philosophise. Her home city has been all but flattened. Her flat, neighbours tell her, was ransacked by a search team from the FSB (the successor agency to the KGB) as soon as the city fell. She and her husband Alexander have been reliably informed their names are on the arrest lists handed out to Russian soldiers at the checkpoints.

A citizen of Bucha walks past a destroyed Russian tank - Paul Grover
A citizen of Bucha walks past a destroyed Russian tank - Paul Grover

If they had not escaped before the siege closed in the first week of the war, they would be in prison or shallow graves, with bullets in their heads and their hands bound. After the massacre in Bucha in March, no one has any illusions about Russian methods in the occupied territories.

She is rebuilding a life from a suitcase. Alexander, a laconic car mechanic who drove us around the muddy southern front line, is now in the army, away fighting on the southern front. “I’ve accepted I’ll never, ever relax again in my life,” she says. “Even after victory we will have so much to do. We will have to rebuild Mariupol. And we will have to deal with the traitors.”

No one doubts Ukraine will win. The only question is how long it will take.

The long winter

It is already late summer and, on the battlefield, things seem sluggish. The Russians long ago gave up on Kyiv, but they continue to batter Kharkiv. The northern and eastern districts look like 1980s Beirut. Every day for the past week, there have been reports of large explosions in or around the city. In Donbas, the Russians have abandoned their plans to take Slavyansk, but are still trying to fight towards Bakhmut and Avdiivka in the Donetsk region. There are reports of fighting in the suburbs of the former.

The artillery barrages that used to light up the entire front have been severely disrupted by Ukrainian Himars rocket strikes, but the shelling is still intensive in those concentrated areas of interest.

Down on the southern plains near Kherson, the Ukrainians are manoeuvring for advantage ahead of a widely advertised counteroffensive to crush the Russians’ vulnerable bridgehead on the west bank of the Dnipro. The Russians are rushing in their own reinforcements. There is talk of a spoiling operation near Zaporizhzhia.

In May, Gaidai was talking of a hoped-for general counteroffensive by August. Now, he says: “[The war will last] until next summer, I think. We have stopped the Russians, but we don’t yet have the forces for a counteroffensive. That will take a long time to prepare.” And that means a long winter.

To seriously threaten to push the Russians back, Ukraine needs fresh, highly trained brigades, with sufficient tanks and artillery to support them and properly trained staff officers at headquarters who know how to carry out combined arms offensives. It is backed by its Western allies. Britain is training 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers at centres in the north of England. Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Germany and Latvia recently joined that effort.

But the Russians are also racing to raise new divisions. Western officials confirmed last week that Russia is preparing a new army corps of 10,000 to 15,000 men in the Nizhny Novgorod region. Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of Russian internet sleuths, believes it will be ready for deployment next month.

In an era of goldfish-bowl aerial and electronic surveillance, this war is unlikely to be won or lost by some sudden Napoleonic masterstroke. Surprise is almost impossible to achieve. Instead, it will be won in the same place as the great wars of the 20th century: on factory shopfloors.

In the struggle of economic attrition, time is probably on Ukraine’s side. Putin has made a point of shrugging off sanctions, citing a strong rouble and soaring income from oil and gas exports. But a recent study by Yale University that cross-checked the Russian government’s official claims with other data concluded the Kremlin has been cherry picking its statistics and making massive interventions to paper over the fundamentals. In fact, it said, Russia was hurtling towards “economic oblivion”.

More than 1,000 foreign firms contributing up to 40 per cent of GDP have quit the country. Domestic production has come to a “complete standstill”. And that is without counting the self-inflicted pain of reducing gas flows to Europe. Burdened by sanctions and struggling to obtain key imported parts for its advanced weapon systems, Moscow will eventually be out-produced and its army out-gunned and out-manned.

The end may come with a sudden reversal on the battlefield, like the 100 days of Allied advances that ended the First World War, or more slowly, like the politically forced Soviet retreat from Afghanistan in 1989. But eventually – provided the West keeps up its commitments – Putin or his successor will be forced to negotiate from a position of weakness.

At least, that is the theory. In reality, it will be incredibly expensive, demanding commitment and sacrifice from both Western governments and their citizens. The effort means up-front investments and financial commitments to keep the Ukrainian economy afloat in the meantime. It will require significant expansion of arms production, with new production lines and, in some cases, entirely new factories. And it will not be quick. Modern weapons like Javelin anti-tank missiles and the GMLRS rockets fired by Himars launchers are extremely complicated to produce.

“There’s no disagreement in the West’s defence ministries about that,” says Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute, who closely follows the Ukraine war. “But the finance ministries think that’s the kind of thing you only do in a war economy. And they don’t think we’re at war.”

Whether or not the West is at war, and if so what it wants out of this war, is quite an important question. But if war is confusing, it has nothing on diplomacy. Late last month I attended a briefing with a senior Western official who denied observing “Ukraine fatigue” in the Biden administration and strongly pushed back on the widespread view that Germany is wavering.

Asked to lay out the real thinking about what the US would be prepared to accept as an end game however, the tone changed. “They haven’t reached a settled view, even on which scenarios they want to concentrate on, let alone what the outcome of those various scenarios might be”, the official said. “There is no US or Western preferred outcome other than that there should be a ceasefire and the resolution starts with withdrawal.”

Even if, say, the conflict was frozen and Russia somehow held onto its current gains, in a re-run of the Minsk agreements that ended the 2014-15 war? After all, that could hardly be construed as a Ukrainian victory or a Russian failure. “Nothing is off the table,” the official said.

Hearing that kind of obfuscation while people are dying in the trenches of Donbas is maddening. But there are good reasons for refusing to define war aims. Doing so preserves unity by avoiding debates between Western capitals about what an acceptable peace would look like and leaves politicians room to manoeuvre as fortunes change on the battlefield.

It also, however, lends Putin hope of splitting his enemies as the winter energy crisis approaches. He is already sending up smoke signals. In the first week of August, Gerhard Schroeder, the former chancellor of Germany and a friend of Putin, told Stern that “the good news is that the Kremlin wants a negotiated settlement”.

From the Kremlin’s point of view, it is a worthwhile gamble. A ceasefire now would probably lock in Russia’s current territorial gains, leave Ukraine deprived of key industrial and agricultural areas, and force the West to lift sanctions.

It may be a forlorn hope. Even after six months of horror, Ukrainian public opinion is in no mood to accept the kind of settlement that the Kremlin would be happy with. President Zelensky dismissed Schroeder, who sits on the boards of Russian state oil and gas firms, as “simply disgusting”.

Western governments – including British ministers and officials – frequently say it will be up to the Ukrainians to decide what the terms of victory will look like. But that mantra doesn’t make the basic questions go away.

“It is used frankly to avoid having the proper conversations, the deeper conversations about Western interests and what we’re willing to support,” says Galeotti, who has briefed both American and British officials. “No one thinks Western governments are going to stop saying they support Ukraine. But where are you on the thoughts-and-prayers to every-bit-of-Western-military-kit-you-want-and-all-the-financial-assistance-necessary-to keep-the-economy-afloat spectrum?” he asks. “There is a sense the slider is going to move down the scale at some point.”

Or will it? Several weeks after waking up in Severodonetsk, I returned to Britain to nurse my own small identity crisis. Like Rozhenko, I had gone through a looking glass on the 24th, and I did not expect anyone who was not there to understand.

But everywhere I went I found Ukrainian flags. Wealden villages in Kent and Sussex resembled Donbas checkpoints – if only Donbas checkpoints had Norman churches. For now, at least, the flags are still fluttering.

“Of course I worry about it,” says Gaidai of the coming winter and Western support. “But frankly I am not going to worry about the price of a cup of coffee in Prague or Vienna. The Russians will only stop where they are stopped. If they are stopped in Ukraine, so much the better.”