Ukraine’s counteroffensive to oust well dug-in Russian forces has begun with fierce fighting reported.
But news in recent days that Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group had withdrawn from the battlefield and were instead heading for Moscow caused consternation among Russia’s elite — including President Vladmir Putin.
The immediate threat to Putin appears to have receded for now, but what are the implications for the ongoing war in Ukraine?
Below is a Q&A with John Hewko, CEO of Rotary International and The Rotary Foundation.
Hewko, a Ukrainian-American, recently returned from a trip to Ukraine. As a lawyer working in Ukraine in the early 1990s, he helped the working group drafting the country’s first post-Soviet constitution.
(The conversation has been edited for length and clarity)
WTTW News: You recently got back from a trip to Ukraine. What were your impressions?
Hewko: I went to Ukraine and then Poland and I went there primarily to attend a large Rotary event that was happening in western Ukraine, but also to meet with government officials and other groups. I was mostly in western Ukraine. It was great to get there and see things firsthand. Meeting with Rotarians at the big event we had was a good way to get a pulse of what’s happening in the country. Ukraine Rotarians from all over the country came and you hear firsthand from them what they’re experiencing what their thoughts were, etcetera.
We crossed the border. I drove in from Poland and then just as we crossed the border the sirens go off. I asked the guy that was driving me to what do we do? He goes, “nothing. We’ve gotten used to this.” And then the first night there, at 2am in the morning the sirens go off, you head down to the hotel bomb shelter. It’s kind of just the reality of life in Ukraine now.
What is your assessment of the level of morale among Ukrainian citizens as well as the soldiers you met?
I visited a rehabilitation center for wounded veterans where they had lost limbs and all of that. And that was a very moving experience to talk to these guys with legs blown off, arm blown off whatever. What struck me in talking to them was there was no sense of regret, no anger, no bitterness in terms of what happened to them. Many of them wanted to get back and fight as soon as they got their prosthetics.
I was just struck by the sort of the strength and the courage they were showing. And in terms of the Ukrainian people in general, I just saw extraordinary unity, extraordinary resilience. There is no question, this war has completely backfired on Putin.
What is your assessment of the Ukrainian counteroffensive so far?
Well, this counter offensive was never going to be easy. I think nobody was, I certainly wasn’t, expecting it to be a cakewalk. And the Russians had a long time to put in place really solid defensive fortifications that are heavily mined. And of course, we’re seeing, we’re seeing that.
The Ukrainians are claiming that all these intrusions that they’ve had so far, all these counteroffensive actions so far, have really been probing actions to find weaknesses in the Russian lines. And they’ve had some limited success. The majority of forces are still holding back in the big counter that hasn’t yet happened. So I think it’s still too early to certainly assess whether it’s been successful or not. It’s very early days, but it’s going to be a long slog.
My sense based on everything I’m reading and hearing is that they’re still in the process of shaping the battlefield. The destruction of the dam by the Russians I suspect forced Ukraine to step back and rethink a bit.
The Wagner events, that’s good news for Ukraine in showing that there is certainly considerable disarray on the Russian side. I see it as kind of an enigma within an enigma, within an enigma. I don’t think we all still fully know what really happened here. There’s all kinds of conspiracy theories flying around. Who knows what was really behind this and how it actually all will wind up playing out. But certainly based on Putin’s pronouncements and the anger with which he gave the speech he last night, the palpable anger — the kind of quivering lip type of thing — you would think that Prigozhin is a dead man walking.
Regardless of how things turn out for Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group, Putin has never looked weaker. What’s your assessment of that? Does it potentially make him more dangerous and unpredictable? How do you see you see a cornered Putin responding?
Well, how did he respond to this thing? Apparently, and there’s reports that he gave this speech and then got on a plane and fled? Compared to (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelenskyy who probably delivered one of the most famous lines in this war, right? “I need ammo, not a ride” when it was known Russian commando units were looking to assassinate him. He stayed put. Apparently it’s been reported that Putin may have may have fled to St. Petersburg. So I think he’s got a much weaker hand.
What are your thoughts on how this war is likely to end? It seems unlikely at this point that Russia could completely defeat Ukraine, but obviously Ukraine isn’t going to invade and take over Russia either. What’s your best guess as to the endgame here?
Well, clearly there’s going to have to be some end at some point and some kind of a settlement, whether it’s an armistice or whether it’s a frozen conflict. I think it’s just the law of physics this thing is going to end. The question is how much territory will Ukraine have been able to recover when that endpoint comes?
Whether it’s because Ukraine has run out of steam, or because it’s forced to the table or because Russia throws in the throws in the towel. So for me right now, the only realistic next steps are to accelerate the provision of arms to Ukraine to ensure that this Ukrainian counteroffensive is as successful as possible and Ukraine is able to recover as much land as possible when the time comes for some kind of negotiated settlement.
If I were a policymaker, I’d be singularly focused on one thing, giving Ukraine the weapons they need now as quickly as possible to allow them to have as successful a counteroffensive as possible. And once that happens, we’ll see where the chips fall, we’ll see how far they’re able to advance. We’ll see how much success they’re able to have. We’ll see how, what kind of impact this has on Russia internally, what kind of impact that has on Putin.
I think it’s very, very difficult to predict at this point how this is going to play out.