These are heartwarming, moving images that have emerged from Ukraine in recent days. From soldiers who are welcomed as liberators, with hugs, flowers or a hot meal. From villagers who can hardly believe that the Russian occupier has fled, sometimes leaving behind everything from cans of food to ready-to-use tanks. Experts are not candid about the military success of the Ukrainians. Can hardly follow the events. First, an offensive was launched against the strategically important Kherson in southern Ukraine. Kiev now claims it was a ruse to get Moscow to move troops and equipment from the north to the south. Then the Ukrainian army unexpectedly struck in the north. On Sunday, the Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed that almost all of Kharkov province has been abandoned.
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Classic deception, in other words, which not only puts the Russian army on the defensive, but also causes a noticeable change in the atmosphere in Russia itself. On Russian state television, there may still be little room to question the motives of the war, but criticism of the military strategy has escalated in recent days. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, this is undeniably a major setback, not only militarily, but also psychologically.
A setback of the dangerous kind. Because how will he react? Is the deployment of the nuclear arsenal now a step closer? Will there be (even more) bombings against civilian targets? Will the Russians throw out the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant they occupied? These questions also popped up in the last few days. The concerns are justified. Putin has shown many times, not only in Ukraine, but also in Syria and Chechnya, that he does not shy away from brute force. On Sunday, the Russians bombed the entire Ukrainian power grid in retaliation, leaving civilians but also hospitals in the dark.
Still, this is no time to falter and give in for fear of Putin’s reflexes. As long as Putin has not already lost his seat at the negotiating table as a result of all the suffering that has been caused, it is above all important to be in the best possible position if these negotiations ever get underway. This means that the Ukrainian offensive must be as successful as possible – and this in turn means that Western arms supplies must continue unabated and even escalate. If Ukraine has shown anything in recent days, it is that the supplies work and, together with the fighting spirit of the Ukrainian military, help turn the tide. One must therefore hope that the last doubts in Western Europe about this, especially in Germany, will soon disappear. The omens are favorable. Prominent German politicians have called in recent days to stop sending tanks and armored vehicles.
Can the Ukrainians keep up the momentum? They have liberated a large area, but maintaining control over such an area requires manpower – and it can also slow down an offensive. In addition, there is still a long way to go, no matter how impressive the successes achieved so far. The battle is won, the war is not yet. The Ukrainians themselves know this better than anyone, and yet they continue. The West can, no, must not be left behind.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on 13 September 2022