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Aftermath of massive Russian missile attacks in Kyiv
KYIV, UKRAINE—October 10, 2022. Kyiv residents inspect the aftermath of massive Russian missile attacks on the city center.

During the third quarter of 2022 the Ukrainian army seized the initiative on the battlefield and liberated almost all of Kharkiv oblast while having some success in the East and Donbas. In response, Russia quickly organized fake referendums in four Ukrainian regions, followed by annexation of these regions on trumped-up legal grounds. After Russia’s parliament and Constitutional Court approved the decision to annex four Ukrainian regions, Kyiv submitted an application to join NATO on a fast track.

1. ROLLOUT OF THE WAR

General War Developments during July–September

During the third quarter of 2022 the Ukrainian army effectively turned the tide of battle, much as it had at the beginning of the second quarter (described in the April–June Quarterly Digest), when the Russian military summarily withdrew from Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy oblasts.

In early July the Russian army was moving very slowly, mainly toward the Donbas, with the intent of occupying the whole of Luhansk oblast. But a rapid counteroffensive operation begun September 6 by the Ukrainian army liberated almost all of Kharkiv oblast in the East of the country (this map shows the progress of the counteroffensive in Kharkiv oblast). By the end of September, more than 450 towns and villages in this area had been liberated, and the amount of occupied territory in Kharkiv oblast had decreased from 30 percent to 6 percent.

Progress was also made, though at a slower pace, in retaking Kherson oblast in the South, despite the superiority of Russian troop numbers. The hastily retreating Russian army left behind massive stores of ammunition and weapons.

The Ukrainian army attacked installations used by Russia in the Crimean Peninsula, destroying airfields serving as Russian military air bases and an electricity substation. The latter action prevented a Russian attempt to connect the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant to the Russian power system. This change is highly damaging for the Ukrainian energy system.

Long-range artillery systems provided by friendly countries, such as the HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) equipment supplied by the United States, helped Ukrainian forces stabilize the situation at the front and neutralize Russian military bases in the occupied territories. At the same time, the biggest source of weapons for the Ukrainian army became those captured from retreating Russian forces.

The Russians started targeting civil infrastructure with missiles more frequently at the beginning of the third quarter of 2022. Attacks on critical urban infrastructure and the energy grid are assumed to be part of the Kremlin’s strategy to compel Kyiv to negotiate.

Force Losses

On average, fifty Ukrainian servicemen die in hostilities every day, a lower figure than during the hot stage of hostilities in the Donbas in June. Ukrainian officials said that as of late August, 9,000 Ukrainian servicemen had died in action.

According to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, since the start of the invasion, the Russian army has lost 60,000 soldiers, which has led to a shortage of manpower needed to prosecute Putin’s war. In addition, almost 500 airplanes and helicopters and nearly 5,000 tanks have been lost or abandoned on the battlefield. Moreover, because the war has lasted longer than the Kremlin expected, Moscow has had to use obsolete weapons systems and to request arms, rockets, and drones from other countries.

This deficit in arms and fighting forces, together with the loss of territory to Ukraine's counteroffensive operation, pushed the Kremlin to announce a mobilization in Russia and to speed up the process of formalizing the annexation with fake referendums.

Fake Referendums and Annexation: Ukraine's Reaction

From the very beginning of the invasion, Russia’s political proxies in the occupied territories of Ukraine had expressed their desire to hold “referendums” in the occupied territories to integrate these into Russia. But the fake referendums were always postponed, probably in the expectation that more territories would be seized.

After the quick liberation of Kharkiv oblast by the Ukrainian army, Russia-sponsored militants in Donetsk and Luhansk got nervous and demanded an immediate referendum, following similar initiatives from the Kremlin’s puppets in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts. The referendums were held on September 24–27, with 87–99 percent of voters in these oblasts allegedly voting for integration with Russia. These referendums, held at gunpoint, were illegal and illegitimate, and the published number of voters participating exceeds the likely number of residents in the given territories.

On September 29, Vladimir Putin signed a decree recognizing the independence (from Ukraine) of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts, and the next day he signed an accord on the annexation of four of Ukraine’s oblasts. This accord was subsequently approved by Russia’s Constitutional Court and both houses of the Russian parliament.

After the fake referendums and the annexation, Ukraine's Security and Defense Council met to discuss steps to ensure the collective security of the Euroatlantic space and Ukraine. After the meeting, President Zelensky, who chaired the session, signed an application to join NATO immediately. President Zelensky also said negotiations with Russia would not be possible so long as Vladimir Putin remained president.

The Kremlin’s Position and Threat of Nuclear Strikes

After Russia formally annexed parts of Ukraine’s regions, Putin’s spokesperson Dmitrii Peskov said that the Kremlin would rely on military means rather than peace negotiations to end the war, arguing that Ukraine had withdrawn from the peace process. Earlier, Peskov said that the Kremlin did not see any prospect of a political or diplomatic solution to the war. Russia’s minimal goal, according to Peskov, is capturing all of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. In his speech before signing the decree on annexation, Vladimir Putin called on Ukraine to engage in peace negotiations, but did not mention the annexations.

Earlier in the summer, after Ukraine seized the initiative on the battlefield, Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons if Ukraine tried to liberate territories annexed by Russia. Dmitrii Medvedev, former Russian president and now a deputy chair of Russia’s Security Council, expressed confidence that NATO would not interfere if Russia used nuclear weapons in the war against Ukraine. Medvedev had previously threatened Ukraine with a “judgment day” should Ukraine attack Russian positions in Crimea, but nothing extraordinary happened after Ukraine conducted strikes over the annexed peninsula in August.

Belarus’s Involvement

Belarus has remained a key Russian ally in the war against Ukraine without, however, directly involving the Belarusian army in warfare. Self-proclaimed Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko publicly recognized his country as the only state supporting Russia in the war because Russia and Belarus were on track to establishing a Union state with a single army prior to the start of full hostilities in Ukraine. Lukashenko also said that Belarus had intercepted missiles launched from Ukraine. In an interview with French media, he argued that Belarus’s participation in the war was needed to prevent a NATO attack on Belarus and Russia.

The Russian army has continued to use Belarusian air infrastructure to attack Ukraine with missiles and airplanes, and Russian and Belarusian forces have conducted joint military drills. However, the Russian army contingent in Belarus is insignificant, according to Ukraine’s intelligence services.

In the past quarter, Belarusian forces conducted intelligence operations across Ukraine’s borders, and Belarusian missile launching capabilities along the Ukrainian border also increased. Ukrainian forces informed that Russian mercenaries were preparing to conduct a false flag operation on the Belarusian-Ukrainian border in late September. Ukraine is ready to respond in case of a new offensive from Belarus, security and defense officials say.

In late September, Ukrainian intelligence announced that Belarus would be receiving 20,000 newly mobilized Russian servicemen and was preparing its transport and housing facilities to receive them.

The Occupation of Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant

Russia continued posing threats to Ukraine’s nuclear power plants (NPPs). A critical threat has arisen with the Russian army’s occupation of the Zaporizhzhia NPP since early March. In early July, Russia turned the plant into a military base, having located ammunition and army vehicles there. Later, the Russians mined two of six nuclear power units at the plant. Plant personnel have reportedly been kidnapped and in some cases killed, risking a nuclear accident in the absence of proper maintenance of the facility.

As a result of continued shelling and hostilities, the Zaporizhzhia NPP has twice been without a power supply. On September 11, after it was reconnected to Ukraine’s grid, the plant stopped operations and was switched into a “cold shutdown mode” for safety reasons.

In addition to shelling the Zaporizhzhia NPP, the Russians have twice hit an area close to another NPP in Mykolaiv oblast containing three nuclear units. The national nuclear power company Energoatom, which operates all four NPPs in Ukraine, has reported cyberattacks on its website originating in Russia.

IAEA Visit. On September 1, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) mission arrived at Zaporizhzhia NPP for an inspection and remained there until September 5, with two inspectors remaining indefinitely at the site thereafter to monitor the situation.

In a report published after the mission, the IAEA called for the “immediate establishment of a nuclear safety and security protection zone” around the NPP and subsequently voted for a resolution calling on Russia to leave the NPP, which Russia said it would not do.

The capture of the Zaporizhzhia NPP by the Russian army poses a vast range of threats, including radiation accidents, energy deficits, security and economic losses, and industrial espionage. Another Focus Ukraine piece explains why it is important not to normalize the situation at the Zaporizhzhia NPP.

Attacks on Critical Infrastructure

The Russian army has attacked numerous nonmilitary targets, including both civil infrastructure and key energy and heating plants, which are particularly important for Ukraine to get through the coming winter. In early August, Russians shelled the Kharkiv cogeneration thermal power plant, which supplies heat to a third of the city. On September 11, Russian missiles attacked the power plant again, together with another one in the region and some electricity transmission and distribution facilities. The attack interrupted the electricity supply to at least 17,000 households in five southern and eastern regions, making it the most disruptive attack on the electricity infrastructure since the start of the invasion. There followed additional attacks on Kharkiv's energy infrastructure with interruptions of the electricity supply. Ukrainian intelligence has informed that Russia plans both missile and cyberattacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.

In the city of Kryvyi Rig, Russian missiles attacked a water dam, threatening to flood the city and posing a risk to the water supply. A week later, missiles attacked a dam on another river close to Kryvyi Rig. The fuel depot was destroyed by missiles in this city as well. Critical infrastructure in some other cities also suffered from missile attacks.

Informally, Russian president Putin admitted responsibility for these attacks and threatened to increase their intensity.

Attacks on Civil Infrastructure

Besides targeting critical infrastructure, Russian forces continued targeting civil infrastructure. Among the targets were schools, rehabilitation centers like the one for children in Odesa region, universities, a medical center in Vinnytsia city, a psychiatric hospital, agrarian facilities, an airport in Kryvyi Rig, a convoy of civilian vehicles in Kharkiv and in Zaporizhzhia, and a bus depot in Dnipro, with 100 buses burned. On a single day, September 17, the civil infrastructure of thirty villages and cities was damaged by attacks and shelling.

In many cases the Russians have acknowledged attacking civilian infrastructure but argued that the targets were being used for military purposes by Ukraine. Retired U.S. General Alexander Vindman describes civil targets as “morale” targets and believes that, by attacking civil infrastructure, Putin intends to “break” Ukraine and force it to sue for peace.

Russian War Crimes against Ukrainian POWs and Civilians

In late July, dozens of Ukrainian POWs were killed in Olenivka, a city in the occupied part of Donetsk oblast. About 2,500 Mariupol defenders, including members of the Azov Regiment, had been taken to Olenivka under Russian convoy after Ukraine’s General Staff ordered them to save lives and evacuate from the Azovstal factory. Russia had guaranteed they would not be killed and would receive treatment for wounds.

The POWs were killed by artillery shelling over the prison barracks or with thermobaric weapons. Russian propaganda said it was Ukrainian forces that had shelled the prison using HIMARS. But mass graves had been prepared near the prison before the attack, and there were no Russians among the victims. On-site photographs taken by journalists and surveillance photographs from space later put the lie to Russia’s claims. Russia refused to let international experts and victims’ relatives visit the site.

Ukrainian POWs are tortured in captivity as well.

Crimes against Civilians. Crimes against civilians in the occupied territories are occurring on a much wider scale. At least eighteen filtration camps—black holes where human rights abuses abound—were established along both sides of the Ukraine-Russia border. About two million Ukrainians have been forcefully deported to Russia.

In the liberated regions of Kharkiv oblast, officials reported identifying more than 500 individual war crimes committed by Russia, and at least eighteen torture chambers have been discovered in Kharkiv oblast. In just one townsite in the region—the city of Izyum, which faced a massacre—the graves of 447 civilians were found. Most bore traces of a violent death. In July, the terrible siege at Mariupol saw more than 10,000 residents held as virtual prisoners by Russian forces.

UN investigators have confirmed evidence of war crimes committed by the Russian occupiers in Ukraine but stated that the number of crimes still was not final because of the impossibility of checking the situation in the noncontrolled territories.

POW Exchange

On September 21, Ukraine and Russia held a prisoner swap that was mediated by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Russia released 215 POWs, mostly Ukrainians plus ten foreign citizens, and Ukraine released fifty-five Russian servicemen and Viktor Medvedchuk, Vladimir Putin’s ally and a Ukrainian politician under house arrest. Medvedchuk was suspected of high treason and was a prominent pro-Russia actor in Ukraine; he was swapped for 200 Ukrainians.

Most of the Ukrainian POWs released were members of the Azov Regiment, who defended Mariupol in mid-May. About 800 Azov Regiment members, including up to 50 women, are still held captive.

Released persons have described torture, the lack of medical care, and no meetings with Red Cross missions.

2. INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS

As has been the case throughout the full-scale war, almost all foreign affairs concerned the defense and support of Ukraine by other states. Western countries condemned Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory, and many continued to support Ukraine financially and militarily.

UN Secretary-General Guterres’s Visit to Ukraine

In August, UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Turkish president Erdoğan visited Ukraine and met with President Zelensky. President Erdoğan sought to mediate between Ukraine and Russia, playing a key role in negotiating the prisoner swap and the grain export deal. Halting the deportation of Ukrainian citizens to Russia and protecting the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant were among other key topics discussed during the meetings.  

Ukraine and NATO Cooperation

President Zelensky signed an application to join NATO under a fast-track procedure in response to the annexation. Surveys conducted immediately after found a record-high level of support for doing so—86 percent of respondents expressed interest in Ukraine joining NATO. Ten NATO member states officially supported Ukraine's intention on the first day after the statement.

During his press conference, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg avoided giving a direct response on the future of Ukraine’s application, saying that current support of Ukraine during the war is a key priority. Stoltenberg also said that the Alliance would continue to support Ukraine for as long as it took, and that NATO would never recognize the Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory. 

Relations with the USA

The United States remained a key supporter of Ukraine in the war with Russia and the biggest contributor of military aid. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid an unannounced visit to Kyiv in a show of support for Ukraine in early September. Secretary Blinken stated that the United States would support the people of Ukraine for as long as was necessary. Later, President Zelensky called on the United States to become a key guarantor of Ukraine’s security, and for other states to join the initiative.

Relations with the EU and Member States

EU member states continued to support Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell called on EU member states to continue supporting Ukraine.

As in the previous quarter, top officials representing EU member states continued visiting Kyiv to discuss military aid and postwar recovery, and to demonstrate unity with Ukraine.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, twice paid a visit to Kyiv—on July 1, when she gave a speech in the Verkhovna Rada that set out a very clear Ukraine European perspective, and again on September 15. President von der Leyen said the EU would never allow Russia to realize its goal of destroying Ukraine. During her second visit to Kyiv, President von der Leyen proposed that Ukraine should have free access to the EU’s single market and join the EU cellular roaming zone.

Grain Export Agreement

In early July, Ukraine started negotiating with Turkey and the UN regarding the unblocking of Ukrainian ports and recommencing grain exports. The Russian naval fleet was blockading sea routes to Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea coast, creating obstacles for safe grain transport to other countries and threatening food security around the globe. Initially, grain exports were 40 percent behind schedule owing to bottlenecks on the railways and at river ports in the export transit system.

On July 22, Russia and Ukraine signed separate agreements with the UN on green exports. The following day, however, Russian missiles struck the port of Odesa, where ships were standing by to load grain, putting the deal in doubt. After additional diplomatic maneuvering the boats loaded and sailed. By the end of September, about 240 boats had left Ukrainian ports with 5.5. million tons of grain destined for ports in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

In late September, Vladimir Putin proposed amending the agreement’s conditions and restricting the countries that could receive grain shipments. He framed his maneuver as if most of the shipments—98 percent—were going to Europe rather than to economically developing states threatened with famine, as stipulated by the language of the agreement. But in reality, 30 percent of the shipments were going to low- and middle-income countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Ukraine also sent grain free as humanitarian aid to Somalia and Ethiopia, both countries suffering from famine, at a total cost of $420 million. Putin kept returning to his obviously false claim, which Kyiv viewed as an attempt to sink the deal.

An independent investigation showed that Russian theft of Ukrainian grain could amount to at least $530 million. Moreover, Russia has destroyed or occupied 15 percent of Ukraine’s grain depot capacity.

Speculation about Weapons Smuggling

In early July, U.S. congresswoman Viktoria Spartz, an ethnic Ukrainian who emigrated to the United States in 2000, accused the head of Ukraine's presidential administration, Andrii Yermak, of anti-Ukrainian sabotage and of having “Russian ties,” and Ukraine’s government of not taking the war seriously enough. Later, the congresswoman proposed establishing a real-time auditing system for the U.S. aid sent to Ukraine, referring to the risk that weapons sent to Ukraine could be smuggled.

Ukraine’s commander-in-chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, said Ukraine would not allow weapons provided by the West to fall into the hands of terrorists. Europol, the law enforcement agency of the EU, said it had full confidence in Ukraine’s measures to monitor and track munitions. For more guarantees, the Verkhovna Rada established a commission to monitor the receipt and use of arms and other aid.

The congresswoman’s statements were not well received even by some of her colleagues in Washington. A prominent supporter of Ukraine and cochair of a group supporting Ukraine in the U.S. Congress, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur accused her colleague Congresswoman Spartz of playing into Vladimir Putin’s hand.

Other Aspects of Relations with Russia

Beginning July 1, the visa-free regime for Russians to visit Ukraine was suspended. Some 79 percent of Ukrainians supported this move. In September the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry considered introducing visas for Ukrainian citizens.

In September, to align with Western sanctions, Ukraine imposed sanctions on 3,600 Russian citizens, including politicians and some oligarchs, such as Mikhail Fridman and Oleg Deripaska, and persons close to Vladimir Putin, including his daughters.

Tensions with Iran

In July, U.S. intelligence officials said Iran might be preparing to sell drones to Russia. In September these suspicions were proven correct as the Ukrainian air force started shooting down Iranian drones that were attacking Ukrainian cities.

On September 24, Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Ministry expelled several Iranian diplomats from Ukraine and canceled accreditation for the ambassador, who had already left the country, at the start of the full-scale war. The Iranian ministry said its steps in response to Ukraine’s actions would be proportional, and denied sending weapons to Russia. There are unresolved tensions between the two countries: in early 2020 the Iranian air force shot down a Ukrainian civil passenger aircraft, initially denying any fault on Iran’s part.

Breaking Relations with North Korea

Ukraine broke off diplomatic relations with North Korea in July. The Russian ally has recognized the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. In September, news outlets announced that North Korea had supplied millions of artillery shells and rockets to Russia, which is suffering from a lack of munitions in its war against Ukraine. North Korea also recognized Russia’s annexation of parts of Ukraine following the phony referendums.

3. INTERNAL AFFAIRS

Public Sentiment during the War

During another three months of war, Ukrainians demonstrated a high level of trust in the government and army and did not tolerate territorial concessions. Some 91 percent of survey respondents approved of President Zelensky’s actions.

The army leads in enjoying the public’s trust: as of mid-September, the net balance of trust (the difference between the percentage of respondents who have trust in an entity and those who do not) was highest for the army, at 91 percent. Net balance of trust with respect to the president was 71 percent. At the same time, political parties stood out as least trustworthy, having lost fifty-five percentage points in the net balance of trust. Parliament lost nineteen percentage points and the government lost seven percentage points.

As of late August, more than 90 percent of respondents were proud of their Ukrainian citizenship, and 93 percent were confident that Ukraine would be able to repel Russia’s attacks. As of mid-September, 87 percent of respondents did not consider territorial concessions in the war acceptable. At the same time, 80 percent considered the military’s success in resisting Russian forces to be attributable to the joint efforts of Ukraine and the West.

Government Reshuffles

On July 18 the Verkhovna Rada, on President Zelensky’s appeal, dismissed the head of the Security Service of Ukraine, Ivan Bakanov, and General Prosecutor Iryna Venediktova. Some of Bakanov’s and Venediktova’s deputies were subsequently dismissed as well. A formal reason for the reshuffle was the large number of traitors in both agencies. Also on July 18 parliament changed the minister for social policy, who had been in office since 2020.

Bakanov, an old friend of Zelensky, had had no experience in security, defense, or intelligence before being appointed to the position in mid-2019. Venediktova was part of Zelensky’s team in the run-up to the 2019 presidential elections and later became a member of parliament. A career security officer became the new acting chief of the Security Service, and Venediktova’s successor was Andriy Kostin, a member of parliament affiliated with the Servant of the People presidential faction.

4. PROGRESS IN REFORMS AND SUCCESS STORIES

In late July, the selection commission approved the winner of the competition for the position of chief of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office. The position was vacant for two years, and the selection process was artificially delayed for various reasons, causing concern and disappointment among key donors and international partners who had facilitated Ukraine’s fight against corruption.

In July, the European Commission voted to invite Ukraine to join the Convention on the Common Transit Procedure and the Convention on the Simplification of Formalities in Trade in Goods. In August, the Verkhovna Rada passed a corresponding law. The two conventions are intended to simplify trade with EU member states and some other European countries.

In July, the European Commission amended the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) regulation and extended four European Transport Corridors to the territory of Ukraine and Moldova. This will help improve transport connectivity between Ukraine and the EU, facilitating economic exchanges and better connections for people and businesses alike. These corridors will also be a key priority in rebuilding the transport infrastructure of Ukraine once the war ends.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Andrian Prokip

Andrian Prokip

Senior Associate, Ukraine;
Director, Energy Program, Ukrainian Institute for the Future
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more