Even before Russian troops crossed the border, Microsoft set up a secure communications line with Ukraine’s cyber authorities. After the invasion, Ginny Badanes, a Senior Director of the company’s Democracy Forward initiative, reported that Microsoft provided Ukraine with 120 intelligence tips, 173 support missions, and 23,000 hours of free consulting help.

Ukraine’s cyber defenses held.

Microsoft has published a full account of the lessons learned from this success. Russia targeted Ukraine’s governmental data center in an early cruise missile attack and focused its cyberattacks on Ukrainian digital infrastructure. But government services, banks, energy networks, and other critical infrastructure survived thanks to backups stored outside the country.

“Ukraine’s government has successfully sustained its civil and military operations by acting quickly to disburse its digital infrastructure into the public cloud, where it has been hosted in data centers across Europe,” Microsoft President Brad Smith writes. Countries must “disburse and distribute digital operations and data assets across borders and into other countries.”

Russian disinformation offensives were also repelled. Google’s Central Europe Public Policy Director Marta Poślad reported that YouTube not only blocked Russia Today and Sputnik but also removed 9,000 channels and 70,000 videos linked to Russian disinformation.

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The company helped provide Ukrainians – and Russians – with accurate information from authoritative sources about the conflict. It launched a “rapid air alert” for Android phones, warning Ukrainians of imminent air attacks and of cyberattacks attempting to capture their data.

“Across our platforms, Google and YouTube have mobilized,” Poślad said. “We warn users of government attempts to access their data and offer increased protection to institutions of the civil society that are in a high-risk group of being targeted by malicious actors.”

Communications have kept flowing. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy broadcasts to the world via YouTube. Ukraine’s troops used Elon Musk’s Starlink low-orbit satellites to stay in contact with headquarters (Starlink and USAID donated 5,000 terminals), and Microsoft’s Skype offered 43 million free minutes to Ukrainians, according to Senior Director Ginny Badanes.

Russia’s invasion forced millions of Ukrainians to flee. Home rental company Airbnb responded by offering free, temporary housing for up to 100,000 refugees, according to Katherine Kendrick, Airbnb’s Director of International  Affairs. Since February, more than 40,000 hosts have opened their homes free of charge.

One host, Maria, opened her home in Ukraine to refugees. When Russian troops approached, she fled to Bratislava – where she found free lodging, thanks to Airbnb. In Slovakia, she gave birth to a healthy baby.

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On February 24, fighting began on the territory of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, the site of the notorious 1986 nuclear disaster which left its hinterland uninhabitable for 20,000 years. Chernobyl fell to the Russian invasion forces and remained under its control for a month. 

By March 4, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation also seized the enormous Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, Europe’s biggest. For the past two months, there has been fighting in and around the facility, with Russian and Ukrainian officials blaming each other. The Russian Ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Vasily Nebenzia, said that Russia does not use nuclear infrastructure for military purposes. This, however, is hardly the case.

During the Cold War, Russian experts called nuclear power plants “a nuclear bomb on enemy territory.” Conventional weapons, when used to strike nuclear power plants, can have the properties of nuclear weapons (and have a significantly greater negative impact on the environment.) This led to the possibility of considering nuclear power plants and peaceful nuclear facilities as weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and to consider a strike on them as a “passive form” of employing WMD.

The question of nuclear power plant vulnerability in an attack by a hostile state has not been widely considered, because it was unofficially recognized that it was impossible to protect such facilities from a missile or air strike. That is, it was recognized that it was irrational to conduct military engagements on a territory where there is a nuclear power plant. The benefits from the destruction of the nuclear facility as a strategic, energy, and economic facility were offset by direct and indirect collateral damage.

Thus, the understanding grew that nuclear power plants are no less of a threat than nuclear weapons, and according to some indicators are actually “peaceful weapons” of mutual nuclear deterrence. Yet Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the seizure of nuclear power plants destroys this concept. The military is used both to capture and to hold the nuclear power plant (International Atomic Energy Agency — IAEA —inspectors reported that the Russian army had stationed military vehicles in the Zaporizhzhia turbine halls at the heart of the plant.) 

Ukraine’s civil military facilities have become important military strategic locations for Russia. It has not needed to threaten the use of nuclear weapons. And since there is an order of magnitude more radiation inside a reactor than in a bomb, radiation pollution due to the explosion of a nuclear reactor would be far larger.

Russia’s military leadership has probably always understood this. For example, back in 2001, Admiral Vladimir Valuev, commander of the Baltic Fleet of the Russian Navy (2001—2006), speaking about a war in Europe, noted that it was not necessary to use nuclear weapons to inflict heavy losses; it would be sufficient simply to destroy just a few of the existing nuclear power plants. Currently, the Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, on his Telegram channel, commenting on the shelling of the Zaporizhzhia plant, said that the EU should not forget that they also have nuclear power plants that can suffer “accidents.”

The only way to ensure this is the withdrawal of Russian troops from the plant. But Russia will keep a presence at the facility for as long as possible. By controlling it, Russia has a means of political coercion and nuclear threats. And while the Kremlin rightly draws attention to safety concerns, it benefits from the existing instability.

The Russian Foreign Ministry seeks to accuse Ukraine of nuclear terrorism, both in order to shift the blame and to deny its control of the plant, and in order to justify its presence to “ensure [its] safe functioning.” It argues that since the Russian military provides the plant’s security, repelling Ukrainian attacks, a withdrawal would allow Ukraine to arrange a “monstrous provocation” and cause a nuclear catastrophe, according to Russian Ambassador to the UN Nebenzia.

This directly contradicts the experience at Chernobyl. After Russia’s withdrawal there, there were no direct threats to the security of the plant, no one fired at it and no sabotage was carried out there.

In fact, a Russian withdrawal is hindered by other fears. Some pro-Kremlin experts are afraid that UN peacekeepers might be deployed in the region, and later replaced by NATO peacekeeping forces, citing the Kosovo case of 1999 as an example. Others are afraid that after leaving Energodar, the community close to Zaporizhzhia where its workers live, it will result in the same situation as at Bucha, near Kyiv, with crimes detected and publicized. It is also true that the plant and Energodar have military significance and that a withdrawal would risk its control of the entire Zaporizhzhia region.

The IAEA, which primarily provides consulting and intermediary services in the nuclear safety and security sphere, cannot solve the issue of military security of the plant, even if it keeps staff in place there. Any agreements on a demilitarized or nuclear safety and security protection zone will be difficult to implement — the whole concept would collapse in the event of a provocative act; in the event of shelling, for example, either side could immediately withdraw from the deal.

It is almost impossible to achieve its implementation in the conditions of an ongoing war.

It can only be hoped that the plant will remain a peaceful site of nuclear deterrence, and that the Kremlin is not interested in a nuclear catastrophe on the territory under its control.

Maxim Starchak is an independent expert on Russian nuclear policy, defense, and the nuclear industry. Based in Moscow, he is a Fellow at the Centre for International and Defence Policy of Queen’s University in Canada, and a contributor to the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor. He has also written for the Atlantic Council, FPRI, Marshall Center, and others.

The bursts of fire were more likely trigger-happy Russian troops than advancing elements of the Ukraine Armed Forces (UAF), revealing a key detail of the military operation now underway —unlike Russia’s tactics of victory through destruction, Ukraine wants to take the city without leveling it.

“We want to avoid street warfare, because we don’t want to destroy the city,” UAF Major Roman Kovalyov, based north-east of Kherson province, told the Economist.

Kherson and its remaining citizens are luckier than most cities affected by Russia’s war, cities like Mariupol and Kharkiv, which have been the targets of months of indiscriminate shelling. The former city, now captured, was estimated to have suffered more than 20,000 dead.

It is hard to know exactly what is happening inside Kherson at the moment, other than the occasional video. There were more than 280,000 inhabitants before Russia’s all-out invasion, but that number is now much lower and its composition has changed — Russia has given empty and stolen apartments to loyalists and is banning the Ukrainian currency and use of the language in schools.

Over the past few weeks, Ukrainian forces have been slowly preparing for a counteroffensive so that they can eventually push the Russians entirely out of the country. That process begins to the north of Kherson, which is now probably the most important contested territory in Ukraine. The offensive began on August 29, and according to some (optimistic) assessments by the Ukrainian military, their forces can reclaim Kherson by September.

That would have a significant impact on the war. Current trends favor Ukraine. Over the past six months, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense estimates that nearly 50,000 Russian soldiers have been killed, and billions of dollars of Russian military hardware have been destroyed (Western estimates put Russian dead at 20,000-plus.)

Russian morale is low, as an extraordinary August 31 story illustrated. At least three Russians died after drunken soldiers engaged in a close quarters gunfight with FSB troops. The surviving mutineer is being prosecuted for murder. Reports say ragtag battalions of mostly older men along with convicted criminals and some willing foreigners are being sent to the front, some with barely any training. While the backbone of the Russian regular army remains, albeit badly bloodied, this is a battle they cannot afford to lose.

Kherson is one of the few major metropolitan centers Russia has captured since the start of the war; its loss would bode very badly for Russian forces. It might also lead to political backlash back home, where the population is told that the operation is going to plan.

There is another motivator for the Ukrainians. Numerous reports have suggested the Russians aim to hold an illegal referendum in Kherson in September. During the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Russian Federation also held a rigged referendum. The falsified results claimed that the residents of the Crimean peninsula voted to reunify with Russia. Likewise, in February 2022, Russia announced that it had incorporated the Russian-occupied territories of Donbas. The Ukrainian military response is therefore a key element of its existential fight.

Yet this will be a deadly and costly process. Over the past few weeks, Ukrainian forces have been attacking four bridges near the city of Kherson in an attempt to restrict Russian movements in and out of the city (these attacks are now almost nightly and have made the infrastructure unusable for resupply convoys). As the Ukrainians continue to destroy other forms of infrastructure to the north of the River Dnipro and to the west of the River Inhulets, to trap the Russian troops, the aim is to separate these Russian forces from the rest of the Russian-occupied portions of Ukraine.

Ukrainian forces are also slowly encroaching on Kherson, thus making a southern siege more likely. To date, the Ukrainians have destroyed ammunition depots, command posts, and Russian strongholds in the south. While reinforcements have been observed, the quality of the new troops is unclear. By strategically weakening Russian positions, the Ukrainians are hopeful that this will “degrade Russian forces to such a degree that an attack can succeed.” This strategy would also limit the number of Ukrainian casualties. Thus, the ongoing advance on Kherson requires patience and precision.

Russia is certainly vulnerable. Earlier this month, a series of surprise attacks were launched on occupied Crimea, attacks which have been attributed in foreign reporting to partisan or special forces commandos working far behind the lines. Russian airfields and ammunition depots were destroyed (along with a significant number of navy combat aircraft), badly damaging its military capacity in the south. Despite its lack of a navy, Ukrainian forces have sunk several Russian naval vessels and its Black Sea flagship. 

The recapture of Kherson would give the Ukrainians a strategic advantage on the Black Sea and in southern Ukraine. It would allow them to fortify positions near the critical port city of Odesa, and would put them within striking distance of Crimea. Should events unfold in Ukraine’s favor, it would then allow the Ukrainians to shift their focus to the eastern theater in the Donbas.

But first, they must take the city and its hinterland. That requires a continuing stream of weaponry, which in turn requires continuing support from the West. Unfortunately, military aid alone is not enough; the world should continue to provide financial, humanitarian, medical, and defense aid to Ukraine.

Ukraine has demonstrated that it is committed to winning this war, and will do whatever it takes to achieve this outcome. The democratic world has the power to help the Ukrainians win this war, to force the Russians out of their country, and to demonstrate that the West remains clear about its values and determined to uphold the rules-based order.

Mark Temnycky is an accredited freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He can be found on Twitter @MTemnycky

The Ukrainians are keeping a tight lid on information: Officials have been asked to keep a “regime of silence” for operational purposes – a sure sign that this is indeed a major operation. This may be a major turning point, six months after the beginning of the war. 

For the past two months, on the ground at least, the conflict has turned into a stalemate. This is exactly what Ukraine has sought to avoid: A frozen conflict that would slowly be forgotten, just as it had been since Russia’s first invasion in 2014. The Kherson offensive is, in that sense, an opportunity to break that stalemate, and show that time is not on Russia’s side and that Ukraine can, in fact, win. 

Yet opportunities tend to come with significant risks and the Kherson offensive is no exception. Ukraine has successfully halted Russian advances in Donbas in the East, and the pace of Russian breakthroughs have decreased significantly. But liberating new territories from Russia is a different endeavor. There needs to be a realization that the idea that an offensive starts with a bang, followed by swift Blitzkrieg-like advances are just that — an idea. The first weeks of the Russian offensive was a perfect example of how misguided grandiose military plans often end as debacles. 

Slow and steady is the word. The Ukrainians have been carefully planning their move. In effect, the offensive started weeks ago with a series of precision strikes against Russian weapons depots, and airfields that have since become a near-daily occurrence. Ukraine has been probing Russian air defenses in Crimea, possibly to pave the way for additional attacks, and to force Russia to move some of its systems out of Kherson and into the occupied peninsula. Recent indications that Russia removed an S-300 battery from Syria and transferred it back to a port near Crimea may be a sign that its air defenses are being spread thin. So are the claims by Ukrainian authorities that they were able to carry out a series of airstrikes against Russian positions in the Kherson Region. 

These strikes give us an insight into the possible Ukrainian strategy. Though Russia has been able to pile up reinforcements in the south, the Kremlin is also increasingly relying on poorly trained troops with low morale, be it “volunteers” out for a buck, or residents of the so-called “separatist republics” in the Donbas, snatched out of the street and sent as Russian cannon-fodder. 

The first days of the offensive will test the cohesion and morale of Russian forces. Ukrainian strikes have effectively isolated Russian units situated on the northwestern bank of the Dnieper: Knowing you may not be able to run once the offensive really starts is a good incentive to do so now, while you still can.

The first week(s) of the offensive will also test Russian logistics and the extent of the damage caused by broadening Ukrainian precision strikes using Western-supplied weapons. When supply lines crumble, defensive lines tend to follow. Those two main factors, morale, and logistics, are the two invisible key elements that may turn the Kherson offensive into a success or a defeat, and allow Ukraine to seize the initiative.

Michael Horowitz is a geopolitical and conflict analyst, as well as the head of the analyst team at Le Beck International. As such he and his team advise multiple companies and NGOs operating in Ukraine following Russia’s invasions. Michael’s commentary and analysis can also be found in multiple international and regional outlets, including major publications like The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, BBC, NBC, AP, and elsewhere.

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its fifth month, many west European leaders, former government officials, and policymakers are calling for peace negotiations to end the war.

Many cite the certainty that many more Ukrainian civilians will die and that more destruction will be inflicted on the country, while one analyst repeated the argument that a prolonged war continues to cause a “higher risk of escalation . . . between Russia and NATO,” although there is as yet no sign of this happening. The pro-peace camp does seem to have a compelling argument — ending the conflict would not only secure peace in Europe, but it would also end the destruction of Ukraine’s cities, release grain stockpiles, cool commodity prices, and thereby global inflation, and allow the diplomats to replace the guns.

Who could possibly object?

Ukraine for a start. The discussion about a peace deal ignores critical facts militating against a ceasefire in the short term. Not the least is that Ukraine — often the subject of such discussions but rarely a participant — has its own internal considerations. President Zelenskyy does not have a free hand, especially now that unprovoked Russian aggression has buried so many thousands of his compatriots and left Ukraine’s towns and villages in ruin.

While the intentions of Western political leaders, policymakers, and commentators may be good, the situation in Ukraine is actually very clear. According to a recent poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and the University of Chicago’s NORC, 89% of Ukrainians believe that it “would be unacceptable to reach a peace deal with Moscow” that would see Ukraine concede territory seized since the start of the 2022 invasion. In the same survey, 78% of Ukrainians approved of Zelenskyy’s response to the Russian invasion. Meanwhile, a study conducted by the International Republican Institute found that (a truly extraordinary) 97% of Ukrainian participants believed Ukraine will win the war. Finally, the majority of Ukrainians believe that Russo-Ukrainian relations have reached a point of no return.

Zelenskyy now has considerable support from a people at war (as recently as November, two-thirds of voters said he was doing a bad job). His current support is built on his extraordinary leadership during the war and his refusal to leave his capital. Cutting an unpopular deal with the country’s tormentor, Vladimir Putin, would be politically reckless. His government has made clear that any concession of Ukrainian territory taken since February 24 would be unacceptable. That means that the southern capital city of Kherson, and the recent Russian advances that have resulted in the capture of (the remains of) Severodonetsk and Lysychansk would have to be reversed.

That limited demand is complicated by the popular clamor for a return of all the Eastern Ukrainian land taken since 2014 and (though many regard this as vanishingly unlikely in the near term) the Crimean peninsula. It may be that Ukrainians would in the end be willing to compromise for peace, but simply halting hostilities on the current frontline is — polling and other evidence suggests — a political impossibility. Were the government to agree to it, public opinion might well seek its removal and replacement with a much more hardline irridentist administration.

There are additional problems. The discussion of peace assumes that Russia will act rationally. But Russia’s behavior since February shows no indication that it is willing to end its invasion. Indeed, when the Italian government proposed a four-point plan to end the war, (including autonomy for the Russian-occupied Donbas and Crimea under Ukrainian sovereignty, and a Ukrainian renunciation of future NATO membership), Zelenskyy lambasted this proposal. So too did Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who termed it “not serious.” The idea was then withdrawn by Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, who said the time was not ripe. The French government’s attempted peace plan just before the Russian invasion, also ran into strong Ukrainian opposition.

The failure of the Minsk Agreements and Normandy Summits has left many Ukrainians skeptical about European-led efforts to resolve the conflict. 

It is worth asking how Ukraine would benefit from a peace deal. First, it would allow Russia to maintain control over the Crimean peninsula and the occupied portions of southern and eastern Ukraine. Russian troops would be present in these regions, and this would keep the Ukrainians on edge. The Russian naval blockade might remain in the Black Sea. Just as before February 24, when Russia daily ignored the Minsk ceasefire deal, its violations would be likely to continue. And just as before February, the world would lose interest and look away. Deprived of battlefield urgency, Western arms shipments would dry up, economic assistance would wind down and Ukraine would once more be left at the mercy of an aggressive and land-hungry neighbor.

In these circumstances, it would be reasonable to assume that Russia would use the end of hostilities simply to re-arm, re-group and await its moment to start again. In other words, it would leave open the possibility of future wars. Russia is not a reliable peace partner.

Finally, a premature peace would signal to Russia that the West is more interested in halting conflict rather than countering aggression. That too would lower the risk of future Kremlin adventurism.

What, then, are Ukraine’s terms for peace?

First, the international community should continue to supply Ukraine with defense aid. During NATO’s Madrid Summit, the alliance pledged to provide a long-term military package. For well-known reasons (huge numbers of citizens under arms, improving equipment, tactically savvy generalship) Ukraine can reasonably expect to make future gains against the Russians. These counter-offensives could possibly enable Ukraine to reset the theater to the January 2022 borders.

Second, Russia should be forced to help rebuild Ukraine. Western sanctions should remain in place until the occupation has ended, Ukrainian territories have been restored, and until Ukraine has been fully rebuilt. Only once it is taught a painful lesson will the Kremlin’s enthusiasm for military expansion against sovereign neighbors end.

Finally, the fighting is likely to end with Russia still occupying part of Ukraine, including some Donbas territories and Crimea. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, about 84% of the inhabitants of Donetsk and Luhansk freely chose to be part of the newly independent Ukraine. Similarly, 54% of Crimean residents voted for Ukrainian independence, clearly stating that they wanted to remain with Ukraine. Since then, they have voted in numerous Ukrainian presidential, parliamentary, and local elections, and they had representation in Ukraine’s parliament. They were part of Ukraine’s political process. The matter could be decided through the International Court of Justice in the Hague which rules on disputes between United Nations member states.

No one wishes for peace more dearly than the 44 million citizens of Ukraine (8 million of whom have had to flee their homeland). But as the 1930s showed and as the 2020s have again underlined, peace at any price is not worth having.

Ukraine should not be forced into a peace deal. The only outcome of negotiations at this point would be to acknowledge Russian gains. Thus, the international community would unintentionally reward Putin and his acolytes. And it would not last — Russian forces would simply have an opportunity to regroup, re-strategize, and launch a new invasion.

Ukraine is best placed to decide when negotiations are viable and to determine the terms. That is because the country has already made a down payment in blood and destruction. The democratic community should of course offer its advice to the government, but ultimately it is in everyone’s interest that Ukraine defeats Russia, and ensures that Russia never again invades its neighbors.

Mark Temnycky is an accredited freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He can be found on Twitter @MTemnycky

The Roman empire had the Colosseum. The modern world has gladiatorial radio programs. I donned a rhetorical sword and shield last week and joined the fray in the Moral Maze, a flagship discussion show on the main BBC speech channel, Radio 4. The topic was Ukraine, framed with the question: “What should western countries do next?”

I arrived grumpy and left angrier. One reason, was details. The host, a BBC grandee, mangled my Ukrainian fellow contributor’s surname. She shrugged this off. I did not. Such bigwigs usually take exquisite care to pronounce French or Italian names properly. But “east European” names are just alphabet soup. Who really knows how to pronounce them? Who cares? It underlines the idea that Ukraine is distant and different.

I had only a few minutes to deal with the other protagonists’ arguments. War is bad (who knew?). We should be “careful and sensible” (remind me — who’s in favor of recklessness?). NATO is to blame for our difficulties with the Kremlin. Putin’s talk about restoring the Russian empire is merely “flamboyant” language. The phony desire for balance, as so often, trumps the search for truth, bogged down in sanctimony, myth-making, and kneejerk anti-westernism.

But the real reason for my anger was framing. I missed any sense of immediacy or urgency. It is a fair bet that a dozen or more Ukrainians were killed and maimed in the hours it took to prepare and broadcast the program. But we cannot hear their screams and we do not know their names.

Also unclear are the assumptions behind the title. What is meant by “western countries”? Is it just the big rich countries of the “old West”?  Or does it include Russia’s neighbors, which are also members of the European Union and NATO? Who has the luxury of deciding what to “do next” — ie, whether to get involved or not? The implicit assumption here is outsiders are spectators, watching a fight between wild animals. They may choose to intervene (and risk getting bitten). Or not. The contest may be unfair, the outcome cruel. But it is not our fight.

I must have missed the sale of tickets for the trip to another planet, one where Russian imperialism is no longer a threat. As I have repeatedly tried to explain, we in the “old west” own this problem because we enabled it. Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Ukrainians, and many others warned us about the threat from Russia back in the 1990s. Westerners dismissed these warnings, because we were ignorant, arrogant, complacent, and most of all greedy. Belatedly, we did the minimum, or less, that was asked of us to deter Russia. The result is that tens of thousands of people are dead; hundreds of thousands have life-changing physical or mental injuries. Millions of lives are shattered. Even if the war stops tomorrow, Ukraine faces a generation of psychological, social, economic, and political torment, akin to the traumas faced by post-war France. And what does our commentariat do? It pontificates on a radio program.

The old motto of the 1863 uprising against Tsarist autocracy, “For Your Freedom and Ours”, has never been more relevant. On Ukraine’s fate turns the future of Belarus, of Poland, of Lithuania — and indeed of Russia. For me, schooled by thirty-plus years of experience in the region we used to call “eastern Europe” the resonance is indeed deafening. In the confines of a London radio studio, it is muffled. Yet the war’s outcome will shape Europe’s future, and — given the danger of nuclear aggression if Putin wins — the world’s. A radio program on that would be interesting.