The death of Rory Mason, a 23-year-old Irishman who was killed while fighting with the Ukrainian armed forces, is a reminder of the terrible pain so many families have suffered as a result of Vladimir Putin’s senseless invasion. Eight months in, the war is at a critical stage, with Putin escalating in response to a series of battlefield reversals and Ukraine forcing the Russians to retreat in the north and south.
The Ukrainian defence defied most expectations in the early stages of the war by seeing off Putin’s attempted capture of Kyiv. Strengthened by a steady supply of western weapons and intelligence, Ukraine has in recent weeks made major progress in breaking through Russian lines and liberating occupied territory in the Kharkiv region, where Rory Mason was killed on the frontline.
Putin’s sham annexation of four Ukrainian provinces, none of which Russian forces fully occupy, was surely intended to deter further advances by the Ukrainian military, but instead it appears to have motivated Kyiv to press home its current battlefield advantage. Ukrainian forces now have a window in which to advance on the strategic Kherson region in the south, where they could re-open an important route to the sea and block any Russian attempt on Odesa further west. Russian forces have dug in in the south, but low morale and persistent supply problems leave them vulnerable.
The mobilisation of Russian ex-soldiers is unlikely in itself to alter the course of the war, but their imminent arrival at the front will help to strengthen Russia’s defensive lines. The coming winter is another important factor: the ground in the south has not frozen for the past three years, meaning the terrain will soon become extremely muddy. Such treacherous conditions help those defending territory. Ukraine’s challenge is to go into winter with the momentum, and winning back more terrain in the south would ensure that. Retaking the city of Kherson and surrounding areas would boost Ukrainian self-belief, encourage the country’s allies and send the clearest signal yet that Ukraine can win this war.