Discover more from Persuasion
Ukraine Is Not A “Frozen” War
Increasingly ignored by the international community, fighting in Ukraine has far from abated.
It’s been quite some time since the war in Ukraine has dominated international headlines. Since June, when Russia destroyed the Nova Kakhovka Dam on the Dnipro River and Ukrainian forces launched their long-awaited counteroffensive, few if any events from the war have seized the world’s attention. With the start of renewed conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Ukraine has all but disappeared from public consciousness. The conventional wisdom is that the war is headed towards a “freeze”—which, in a media ecosystem desperate for news, means, in practice, forgetting all about the war.
The problem with the “freeze” narrative is that it’s just not true—as any Ukrainian living through this war well understands. And having, on a recent trip to Ukraine, witnessed how the war’s impact is felt all across the country, I can wholeheartedly attest to this myself. Even in the absence of headline-grabbing developments, monumental battles churn on across the southern and eastern fronts, and Russian missiles continue to terrorize and kill scores of civilians each month. The war’s reverberations are still felt throughout European and global politics, and, even as the existential threat Russia has posed to Ukraine has somewhat decreased since February 2022, the risk of great power conflict has hardly abated.
The idea that things have fallen quiet is an illusion—one that serves to diminish outside interest in and support for Ukraine. If the outside world hopes to remain as committed to Ukraine’s defense as it was in the dramatic days of 2022, it’s vital to remain engaged with the conflict and to know what’s happening now, even if there aren’t easy “hooks” to grab onto like dramatic military breakthroughs or the summer’s much-hyped Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Due to the sky-high expectations surrounding it, the counteroffensive was always going to disappoint. In a best-case scenario, the Armed Forces of Ukraine could have broken through the immense Russian defenses to retake Tokmak, before closing the gap and making it to the Sea of Azov at Berdyansk. But even this outcome faced stiff odds due to Russia’s vast, dug-in, and well-manned lines of defense along the southern front. Since June, Ukraine has only managed to make inroads in a few limited areas, most notably at Robotyne, which could theoretically put Ukrainian forces on the road to Tokmak if they achieve a meaningful breakthrough—something that Ukraine’s commander-in-chief General Valery Zaluzhny admits is highly unlikely.
Even though comparatively little territory has changed hands this summer compared to much more dynamic campaigns like the Kharkiv counteroffensive in 2022, the fighting has continued to claim thousands of lives on both sides—the result of grinding, unsatisfying fights of the kind that don’t make for front-page news. Readers may be surprised to learn that, in fact, one of the costliest periods of the war for Russian forces took place last month. In a weeks-long assault on Avdiivka in the Donbas, Russia lost several hundred men and over 100 tanks and armored vehicles. It’s not a breakthrough for Ukraine, and it’s not the kind of war-altering victory that was hoped for when the counteroffensive was launched, but few would call such a frontline “frozen.”
Although the war’s impact is still heaviest in the east, what often fails to come across in coverage of the war is that soldiers fighting at the front come from all over the country, and, with casualties continuing to mount daily, the impact is felt across Ukraine. Even a tiny village I visited in Lviv Oblast in western Ukraine in August had to postpone Independence Day celebrations to bury a local man who had been killed fighting in the Donbas. Not far away, a town mayor held back tears as he told me about young men from the town, some of whom he knew personally, who had died in battles in the east—deaths that had shaken the municipality to its core.
Although, after 20 months, war has become the new normal for Ukrainians who have found ways to live their lives, the constant threat of Russian missile and drone attacks has continued to cast a long shadow over daily existence. This threat is not just an abstract one. In early October, 59 people were killed by a Russian missile in the village of Hroza in Kharkiv Oblast in eastern Ukraine, and, late last month, another missile strike on a postal terminal killed six in the same region. Meanwhile, the city of Kherson, recaptured by Ukraine in late 2022, was once again heavily shelled by Russian forces less than two weeks ago. I was in Kherson shortly after its recapture and saw the devastation of Russian artillery strikes. It’s hard for me to fathom the toll that so many months of subsequent bombardment have since left on the city.
Yet even hundreds of miles from the active line of contact, air raid sirens go off on a near-weekly basis in major cities. I witnessed this most recently in August, in Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine, with air raid sirens piercing the air on an otherwise cheerful, sunny summer day. Although no attacks hit their target in the region then, a Russian missile had hit a private home in another part of the region a few days earlier. Subsequently, a downed Russian drone in the same region caused a fire to erupt in a dormitory.
Ukraine’s economic outlook has gradually improved in 2023, with the country adapting to wartime realities, but the economy remains significantly affected. The agricultural sector in particular has been stunted by the conflict, and, due to the military threats facing Ukraine’s export terminal in Odesa, Ukrainian farmers have faced significant obstacles in selling their products overseas. Ukraine’s grain export problems have not only resulted in political disputes across Eastern Europe but have also continued to affect the global food system as a whole.
But most menacingly for the international community, the war in Ukraine poses very real threats of escalating into a great power conflict between NATO and Russia. Though all eyes have turned toward the Middle East as the origin point for a larger international conflagration, Ukraine remains a potential trigger. Russia in October rehearsed its ability to deliver a nuclear attack, a sort of celebration of its de-ratification of a landmark nuclear test ban treaty. For weeks now, recent NATO admittee Finland has suspected that an external actor deliberately damaged a gas pipeline between it and Estonia, also a NATO member. The Hong Kong-registered ship Newnew Polar Bear—owned by a Russian parent company and materializing in a Russian port immediately after the incident—appeared to have struck the pipeline with an anchor. As one report observes, “All evidence points to the Russian government.” Such an act, if confirmed, would be a significant escalation in the shadow conflict between NATO and Russia, even though it has hardly generated the level of international attention it warrants.
At the same time, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky is clearly worried about Ukraine’s ongoing ability to push back against its enemy. Western assistance is starting to run dry, leaving Ukraine with limited options in its ongoing counteroffensive. Ever-greater talk is circulating of a “frozen war,” which is far from an ideal outcome for Ukraine. “Freezing the war, to me, means losing it,” Zelensky told TIME in a recent interview.
He’s not wrong. A long-term ceasefire would allow Moscow to cement its gains in Ukraine and to continue its eradication of Ukrainian identity in the territory it has conquered. Yet the current status quo isn’t much better, and, until the guns fall silent, until the missiles stop falling, and until Ukrainians are able to stop fearing for their future at every hour of every day, the war will continue to be a very hot one—whether the world pays attention to it or not.
Michal Kranz is a Warsaw-based journalist who covers Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He has reported from the ground during the war in Ukraine, covered politics and society in Lebanon, and regularly reports on regional developments from Poland.
And, to receive pieces like this in your inbox and support our work, subscribe below: