Germany to give Ukraine weapons, ammunition and more aid 0:41

(CNN) -- In the basements of Orikhiv, Ukrainian troops do not move from the walls. Although they are underground, the powerful Russian bombs that fall daily could bring down everything above them, making the edges of their underground world safer.

Think of this risk, and of the men and women who endure it every night, when you hear about the advances of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. It's slow, dangerous, bloody and harder than anyone expected. But make no mistake: it is perhaps the most important moment for European security since the fall of the Berlin Wall, or even since 1945.

Ukrainian forces are nowhere near where they expected to be as autumn approaches. The summer months around Robotyne, south of Orikhiv, and north of Mariupol have been marked by a gruesome crawl over acres of minefields, with troops fighting for weeks over tiny settlements that can be counted in streets, or even buildings.

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Once captured, as seen in villages like Staromaiorske or Urozhaine, there is so little left standing that there are almost no places where Ukrainian liberating troops can take refuge. The victor is left alone with the rubble.

The impatience and weariness evident in the West over Ukraine's progress will no doubt be overlooked in New York this week, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky uses his revamped Defense Ministry to present a rejuvenated government, prepared for the long and painful winter that is likely to await him. But you shouldn't even feel the need to make a sales pitch.

Ukraine is fighting for its territory, yes. But it is an astonishingly vital moment for European security: the outcome of the next two months' battle could decide the tenor of the next decade in global terms.


Although the Ukrainians' advance on the southern front accelerated at the beginning of the month, it now appears to have partially stalled. They are still some distance from Tokmak, the halfway point to Melitopol, and from achieving the goal of separating Russian-occupied Crimea from the land corridor to mainland Russia.

Kyiv's forces are slowly advancing southwards in the direction of Mariupol, but the advance is tortuous and the terrain is large tracts of farmland. The newly captured territory shown to CNN by Marines from the 35th Regiment in August was nothing more than the ruin of a tiny municipal building, among hilly, potholed rural roads. There is little to take and little to defend.

Ukrainian soldiers maneuver a Bradley fighting vehicle (BFV) in Orikhiv. Credit: Oliver Weiken/picture alliance/Getty Images

But the struggle remains, in spite of everything, critical. At the end of November, the weather will turn cold and winter will not be long in coming. It is already at risk of becoming wetter and muddier than Ukrainian assault tanks would prefer. But Kyiv's last major breakthroughs were made in mid-November last year, following Russia's withdrawal in Kherson, so it's fair to assume they have another eight weeks left.

Once the snow arrives, Moscow will try to further consolidate its current front line. Daylight hours will be less. The cold will make Ukrainian strike units much more vulnerable when trying to penetrate Russian lines. This will make an already gruesome task even bloodier.

Presumably, Russian President Vladimir Putin is counting on winter to bolster his position. Their forces have held out this summer with more vigor than many anticipated. They may still begin to falter: their human resources are not infinite and the slow pace of Ukrainian attacks on their supply lines risks the same kind of collapse that was seen in Kharkiv last September at some indefinable moment in the future. But Russia could resist.

That could mean a winter of dystopia. The West conveys its relentless determination to support Kyiv. But there is no doubt that the billions of dollars of aid that Washington seems to announce weekly could be in jeopardy as the 2024 election campaign approaches.

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U.S. President Joe Biden would rather campaign with a Ukrainian solution at hand, rather than a promise to invest American taxpayers' money for the indefinite future in a war that few Americans follow on a daily basis. Some Republicans are already expressing doubts. Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, believes he can magically fix the war in 24 hours, risking major concessions to the man he seems afraid to criticize: Putin.

European support has not materialised either. In the face of economic pressures, the bloc's all-out unity in the war is an outlier, and could also falter if U.S. support wanes. Another winter of high fuel prices and impending elections could cause this unit to flounder as well.

The freezing of the southern front lines could also lead to an escalation of the war. Ukraine is increasingly comfortable attacking Moscow with drones, launching cross-border attacks and bombing Crimea with long-range missiles. It is the natural evolution of Kyiv's military response to an invading neighbor.

But think back to what happened a year ago and remember the fear Western officials felt at the mere thought of Russia itself being attacked. That was the reason why Ukraine was not supplied with long-range missiles that could reach Crimea or Russian territory bordering Ukraine.

Now Crimea is being attacked almost daily, and the West has little say in the matter, as the missiles are apparently Ukrainian-made. As winter approaches and Ukrainian civilians suffer the consequences of further Russian attacks on infrastructure, calls for further damage to the Russian mainland are expected to increase.

Moscow, for its part, seems somewhat more daring. Whatever the outcome of Putin's meeting with North Korean autocrat Kim Jong Un, the mere fact that the Kremlin chief addressed a pariah neighbor with cap in hand, begging for ammunition, suggests that the list of things Putin will not contemplate is actually very short. We may never know the outcome of this meeting, and the role China has played in facilitating or moderating it, until it makes itself felt on the Ukrainian battlefield.

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There is another, more serious risk of escalation. Two recent incidents in Romania and Bulgaria, in which drone fragments have been found on, or detonated within, the borders of NATO states, suggest again that the unthinkable a year ago is happening now.

Bulgarian authorities offered few details about how the drone reached the Black Sea town of Tyulenovo, saying it was not possible to say conclusively who it was and where it came from. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis called the discovery of a second batch of suspected Russian drone fragments in a week an unacceptable violation of its airspace and NATO airspace.

Western public opinion on the war, fought in a distant territory, by a nation on the fringes of Europe, is far removed from that of the Russians, where war has permeated daily life. On Russian state television it is an existential war against the whole of NATO. On the televisions of NATO member states, it is presented rather as an opportunity to deal a lasting blow to Russia, fortunately inflicted by someone other than NATO.

But NATO cannot allow the next two months to pass without a greater sense of urgency, without realizing that the arrival of winter without a serious worsening of Russian fortunes seriously jeopardizes European security in the next decade.

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