6 Months Into War, Ukraine and Russia Are Both Reshaped
For six months, a major land war has sown horror in Europe.
It is a war in which violence and normality coexist — death and destruction at the 1,500-mile front and packed cafes in Kyiv, just a few hundred miles to the west.
It is a war fought in trenches and artillery duels, but defined in great part by the political whims of Americans and Europeans, whose willingness to endure inflation and energy shortages could shape the next stage of the conflict.
And it is a war of imagery and messaging, fought between two countries whose deep family ties have helped turn social media into a battlefield of its own.
No one knows how it will end. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, having silenced dissent, has proclaimed that “by and large, we haven’t started anything yet in earnest.” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, emboldened by a defiant populace and a mostly united West, has played down the chances of a settlement and urged his people not to bend.
Will Western backing hold as Europe braces for the possibility of a winter with little Russian oil and gas? Will Mr. Putin, after strikes in Crimea and the killing of a nationalist commentator, escalate the war? And will Mr. Zelensky be able to sustain his nation’s determination against a nuclear-armed foe?
Mr. Putin now controls about 20 percent of the country. But he appears as far as ever from bringing Ukraine back into Russia’s fold — and there is little indication he is prepared to stop fighting.
Half a year after Russian forces massed at their neighbor’s border made their move, here is how the conflict appears to the combatants, and to a continent plunged into turmoil.
In Ukraine, Bracing for Something ‘Nasty’
On the eve of Ukrainian Independence Day, President Volodymyr Zelensky offered a cleareyed view of the threat facing his country.
Moscow might seek to mar the Aug. 24 celebration, which commemorates the country’s 1991 separation from the Soviet Union, with “something particularly nasty, particularly cruel,” Mr. Zelensky warned on Tuesday.
After all, Wednesday also marks six months since Russia invaded Ukraine, unleashing a war that has driven many Ukrainians from their homes, killed thousands of troops and shaken the economy. Officials warned that Russia may strike with a volley of cruise missiles, or stage show trials of Ukrainian prisoners of war in the occupied city of Mariupol.
But Mr. Zelensky said the Ukrainian authorities planned no extraordinary precautions if Kyiv, the capital, was hit. The Ukrainian government will respond “the same as now” or any other day, he said at a news conference.
In towns along the front, in Russian-occupied areas and at the sites hit by long-range missile strikes, the most intense war in Europe since World War II burns with visible force.
Our Coverage of the Russia-Ukraine War
- Nuclear Plant Standoff Russian and Ukrainian militaries accused each other of preparing to stage an attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. The United Nations issued warnings about the risk of a nuclear disaster and called for a demilitarized zone around the plant.
- A Brazen Bombing: A car bombing in a Moscow suburb that killed the daughter of a prominent Russian ultranationalist has injected new uncertainty into the war and rattled Russia’s elite.
- On the Ground: Analysts say that a new Ukrainian strategy of attacking logistical targets in Russian-held territory is proving successful — symbolically as well as militarily.
- Crimea: With the drumbeat of Ukrainian strikes inside the strategically and symbolically important Kremlin-held territory, the reality of war is becoming increasingly apparent to Russians.
But acclimated to risk, Ukrainians are creeping back to a sense of normality after the shock of the winter invasion.
After some early successes by the Ukrainian Army in repelling the Russian military from assaults on Kyiv and northern Ukraine, families prepared for the start of school. Patrons packed sidewalk cafes.
Regions where a majority of Ukrainians live are stable and relatively safe, the government still stands, and the army, equipped with ever-more-potent Western weaponry, remains intact.
“The original threat was that the Russian Army, being the second-largest in the world, would establish air superiority and domination,” said Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian minister of defense. “We managed to learn how to stop them.”
But the cratering economy, the risk of airstrikes and the toll of attrition warfare could chip away at Ukraine’s ability to resist, he said. At the six-month mark, he said, survival is not the same as victory, or even a clear path toward it.
“We cannot stop, and we cannot move into a boring, low-intensity war,” Mr. Zagorodnyuk said. “We need to think how we can squeeze them out.”
At the least, the war is far from where Moscow had hoped it would be — a fact that Ukrainians drove home with taunts and a mocking parade this week of about 80 burned and disabled Russian tanks and military vehicles in Kyiv. Ukrainian children climbed onto the wreckage; passers-by stopped for selfies.
“In February, the Russians were planning a parade,” the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense said on Twitter. “Six months into the large-scale war, the shameful display of rusty Russian metal is a reminder to all dictators how their plans may be ruined by a free and courageous nation.”
Still, the fragile normality masks the staggering toll the war has taken on Ukraine. The U.N. High Commissioner for human rights has reported that 5,587 civilians have been killed and 7,890 wounded — and acknowledged that these figures are most likely drastic undercounts.
This week, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the Ukrainian commander of the armed forces, said that about 9,000 Ukrainian soldiers had died in the six months of combat.
In his speech, Mr. Zelensky suggested Ukrainians could hardly expect anything worse from Russia than the blows already absorbed.
But Ukrainians are preparing.
Kharkiv went into lockdown and announced a curfew for Wednesday. At checkpoints in Kyiv, soldiers who had for months waved through cars searched them carefully.
Mr. Zelensky, advisers said, would record a celebratory video to avoid presenting a public target.
“It is important to never, not for a minute, relent to the enemy’s pressure,” Mr. Zelensky said. “Don’t bend, don’t show weakness.”
Andrew E. Kramer
In Russia, Hard-Line Nationalists Reign
Few Russians could imagine in February that President Vladimir V. Putin would order a sweeping invasion of Ukraine. Even pro-Kremlin commentators dismissed the idea as foolishly risky and needlessly cruel. And Mr. Putin, keeping his plans from all but his closest advisers, by all accounts expected the war to be over in days.
Then came the mismanaged invasion, the crush of sanctions, the flight of antiwar Russians, a humiliating retreat from Ukraine’s capital, pictures of Russian atrocities and mounting evidence of a devastating toll among Russian troops. Rather than being greeted as a liberator, Mr. Putin was the instigator of Europe’s biggest land war since World War II.
But now, at the war’s six-month mark, Mr. Putin is still fighting — and others have joined him.
“One country, one president, one victory,” intoned Leonid Slutsky, a nationalist lawmaker, at a memorial service on Tuesday for the pro-war pundit Daria Dugina, whose death in a car bombing last weekend has emerged as the latest inflection point in the war.
The Russia that remains after half a year of war is both stunningly different and shockingly unchanged.
What remained of independent news media, politics and culture — voices that had survived other crackdowns by Mr. Putin — all but evaporated, replaced by a militant ultranationalism piped through state television. The angry antiwar rallies of the invasion’s first weeks have petered out, with even a dissenting social media post punishable by up to 15 years in prison under a censorship law passed in March.
Yet Mr. Putin has also resisted the calls of the invasion’s most ardent supporters to put the entire nation on a war footing. His government has succeeded in blunting the impact of economic sanctions on daily life while avoiding a large-scale military draft. That may explain why the Levada Center, an independent pollster, found last month that 43 percent of Russians say they are paying little to no attention to events in Ukraine.
With his forces bogged down at the front, Mr. Putin seems to have settled into waging a war of attrition while staying vague about what sort of deal to end the war he would be prepared to accept. He accuses the West, with its deliveries of increasingly potent heavy weaponry to Kyiv, of fighting Russia “to the last Ukrainian” — an insistence that he can still outlast the enemy.
The coming winter and Europe’s reliance on Russian energy supplies are emboldening Mr. Putin to fight on until divisions emerge in the West or Ukraine’s army and government are exhausted. But the war’s supporters are increasingly questioning that approach, citing explosions in the occupied Crimean Peninsula and the blast that killed Ms. Dugina on a highway in an affluent Moscow suburb as evidence that the Kremlin may be underestimating its adversaries.
Her father, the ultranationalist theorist Aleksandr Dugin, said at her memorial service on Tuesday what her wish now would be: “Don’t glorify me, but fight for our great country.”
Kyiv has denied any role in her death, but Russia has accused it of responsibility, and it appears to have given new momentum to the demands of Russia’s hard-liners that Mr. Putin escalate the assault on Ukraine. They see the war as not just about regaining a lost empire, but about stripping the last vestiges of liberalism from Russian society.
“For them, the deeper the country gets into this catastrophe,” said the Russian political expert Marat Guelman, “the less the chance that at some moment there will be a turn.”
Europe Is Staying United — for Now
Six months into a war with no clear end in sight, European solidarity with Ukraine is holding despite significant strains from the cost of economic sanctions.
Even the leaders of larger countries farther from the war — like France, Germany and Spain, which are on the verge of recession after being hit hard by inflation — have kept their criticism of E.U. policy on Ukraine low-key, even as they worry about how and when the war will conclude.
European leaders have worked closely with American officials to keep the pressure on Moscow, coordinating not just punishing sanctions but also shipments of weaponry to Ukraine. The invasion, which has dominated NATO meetings, has bonded America to Europe more tightly than at any time since the Cold War.
As Ukraine resists and Russian atrocities mount, European countries have sharpened their condemnation of Moscow. They are no longer looking for a swift cease-fire or trying to bring Russia into a new security architecture for Europe, as President Emmanuel Macron of France tried to do early in the war.
“You really have to look at the bright side,” said Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “Europe remains much more united and effective than most of us would have expected six months ago. The ability and willingness of Europe to uphold and increase the sanctions despite occasional disagreements and tensions are tangible realities.”
For Fabian Zuleeg, the head of the European Policy Center, a Brussels research institution, the war has already brought about profound changes in the European Union. That includes unprecedented action on sanctions, on military aid and spending, and on expansion, with Ukraine and Georgia being given candidate status. Relations between the United States and NATO have improved considerably, and Europe has opened its arms to Ukrainian refugees.
“It’s easy to forget how big these changes are,” Mr. Zuleeg said.
Guntram Wolff, the director of the German Council on Foreign Relations, said it’s “so far so good — European unity at the moment is still there.” Even on some of the most difficult issues, such as economic sanctions, he said, “there is not so much disagreement, but also not a lot of new action either.”
Mr. Wolff is also disappointed that given the stakes, countries like Germany and France are not sending more arms more quickly to Ukraine because of anxiety that too much Ukrainian success might push Russia to escalate the war and drag in NATO.
From the first major tremors of the Russian buildup near Ukraine’s borders, the United States has worked closely with the European Union and NATO to create a stronger coalition of countries prepared to act in the face of unprovoked Russian aggression that ripped apart post-Cold War peace and violated the United Nations Charter.
But as the war grinds on, it is increasingly being seen as an American-led struggle against Russia. The United States far outstrips Europe in terms of both financial and military aid to Ukraine.
Large parts of the world have been silent, indifferent or even on Moscow’s side. Perhaps half the world has refused to impose sanctions on Russia over its actions, though a huge chunk of that half is China and India. Both consider themselves rising powers unfairly constrained by the American-dominated global order and believe that the United States and Europe are in relative decline.
European countries closest to the conflict, like Poland and the Baltic nations, have kept the continent morally focused on the dangers of Russian aggression. But even in Poland, there is growing fatigue with the massive numbers of Ukrainian refugees, and there are clear splits, especially on energy sanctions. Hungary and Serbia in particular maintain close ties to Russia and have rejected sanctions pushed by Brussels.
“Winter may be the moment of truth, the trial by fire,” Mr. Tertrais said, “with economic hardship, social impact and reaction by populist forces that will try to blame the domestic situation on the sanctions — the rhetoric encouraged by the Kremlin.”