For a few weeks I’ve been in Kyiv, partly as a visiting fellow at leading Ukrainian thinktank the Transatlantic Dialogue Center. Kyiv is an astonishingly elegant and beautiful city; a premier league European capital. The regular air raid warnings delivered on your phone, as well as by the baleful second world war-style sirens, are largely ignored now – despite the occasional missile strike.
Cafes and restaurants are open and largely busy. It was in one of the latter that I met a senior Ukrainian government official who had contacted me, expressing approval for something I had said in the international media.
“You know, don’t you, that this time next year, a Russian soldier could be sitting right where you are,” he said after a brusque introduction. “We are losing this war.”
He is right. There were the great victories at Kyiv, Chernihiv and Kharkhiv. But with setbacks in Donetsk and Luhansk, the appalling realisation is sinking in that this is likely to be a very bloody war, lasting years. The country’s coastline is in the invaders’ hands and its ports are blockaded. A serious economic crisis is looming both in Ukraine and more widely. While Ukraine is not winning, it is losing.
Last week’s Nato summit stated that it would assist member states “adequately” in providing support to Ukraine, while recognising each member’s “specific situation” – presumably the specific situation of some countries being unwilling to contribute usefully to the defence of Ukraine.
Assistance in the form of weaponry is still carefully enumerated, itemised and counted – doing Russian intelligence officers’ jobs for them, by giving them often precise information as to the numbers and capabilities of the weapons provided by donors.
All that notwithstanding, western weapons have helped Ukraine hold the line, and are likely to continue to do so. They will, however, be unable to impose strategically meaningful costs on Russia’s leaders.
Between 20,000 and 30,000 soldiers killed and one-third of Russia’s tank force turned into scrap are meaningless irrelevancies to Vladimir Putin. Generals fired or killed? Plenty more where they came from. The original Russian objective of neutralising Ukraine as a viable state is being achieved.
For Ukraine, as for Russia, the key strategic front is in the south. Retaking Kherson – the ancient city on the Black Sea coast that Russia seems to be planning to annex as part of its scheme to “return Russian land” – would be a real blow to the Kremlin. Ukrainian forces entering Crimea, a short tank ride from Kherson, would send the message: “This is what strategic defeat looks like.”
So to attempt this would make sense both militarily and politically. But Ukraine’s problem, as matters stand, is that it lacks the combat power to be certain of success. The trend of weapons supply is nowhere near what will be required to ensure the recovery of Ukrainian lands and a consequent end to this war – by negotiation, or decision of arms.
Some weeks ago, the US stated as its aim that Russia is “weakened to the degree it can’t do the kind of things it has done in invading Ukraine”. That is all very well, but the problem is the means by which the west has chosen to achieve this – long-term attrition, rather than decisive defeat.
Wanted: greater firepower
What the west calls its “arsenal of democracy” is open – but barely. Serious doubt hangs over whether the US is serious about its war aims. The question is: does the US want Ukrainians to win, or does it want them to bleed for years?
If the former, arrangements need to be made very soon to release the thousands of M1 Abrams tanks, Bradley armoured fighting vehicles, artillery, attack helicopters and other systems – much of which are currently in storage rather than in service.
No units of the US armed forces need to be depleted. All of this equipment was, by the way, specifically designed to destroy the equipment the Russians now deploy. Biden’s pledge to “stick with Ukraine as long as it takes” has something of a double-edged feel. Without a step change in the delivery of weapons, “as long as it takes” – a phrase we’ve heard before from western leaders concerning Iraq and Afghanistan – might indicate a very long time indeed. There is of course, sadly, the possibility of western boredom with a long war setting in first.
Preparations must begin for a move from drip-feeding weapon systems in single figures towards numbers in the hundreds. Ukraine also requires an extensive and systematic regime to form and train brigades capable of imposing that really heavy strategic cost upon Putin. No such system of mass “training-and-equipping” seems to be planned.
Back in Kyiv, a colleague’s partner Sergiy (until February in product design) was deployed to the Donetsk region two weeks ago. He now lives in a bunker near the frontline. His group is armed with ancient Soviet gear, and ammunition for their weapons is running out
Since deployment, two of Sergiy’s unit have been killed. As matters stand, at best he will be doing these deployments for years as the rest of the world becomes bored, Nato bolsters its borders, and the west provides a trickle of weapons.
In 1941, Nazi officers enjoyed their leave passes in Paris – but not London – as Winston Churchill spoke the words: “Give us the tools and we’ll finish the job.” Like those Germans, Russian officers could yet enjoy Ukraine’s beautiful capital. All that is stopping them are Ukrainian soldiers and their still mostly outdated tools.