IT’S NOT just the British Army that is running out of soldiers. According to the Washington Post and Associated Press the Ukrainians are too. Running out of soldiers is another way of saying battlefield defeat. At the same time President Zelensky has sacked his commander-in-chief, who asked for 500,000 more soldiers (whence?) and the Ukrainian parliament is reducing the conscription age from 27 to 25. The upper age limit is already 65. Why 25? The average age of a conscript combat soldier in Vietnam was 19.
The war has degenerated into the meat-grinder of trench warfare. Like the Western Front 1914-17, small advances can be made only at a huge cost in casualties and artillery ammunition. Like the Germans in 1914-17, the Russians don’t have to advance. Like the French (and their allies), the Ukrainians must recapture the occupied terrain. While the Russians occupy ‘only’ 20 per cent of Ukraine, if the Ukrainians run out of soldiers taking the other 80 per cent will be unopposed.
Constant Ukrainian assaults to recapture territory would cause them heavy casualties, effectively doing the Russians’ work for them. Defending where they are means casualties, albeit at a lower rate. Battle shock will become a problem unless they are able to rotate their troops in and out of the front lines on a regular and short cycle. On the Western Front, Tommy Atkins could typically expect four days in the front line, eight days in support and then on rest (which actually involved training and other military activities rather than 100 per cent rest.) The more soldiers available, the more rotation is possible. If you have too few, as the Ukrainian commanders state, fatigue becomes an increasing problem. Tired soldiers are more likely to suffer from battle shock, more likely to make a mistake and more likely to surrender or desert. According to the Romanian immigration authority, by last June 6,200 Ukrainian men of military age had crossed the border into Romania illegally and been granted temporary protection. That’s eight battalions worth.
Of course, it may well be that articles about running out of soldiers are based on an unrepresentative sample or are deliberate disinformation by the Ukrainians (hardly a first in this war, or any other come to that). However the Ukrainian population is, or was, a third that of Russia. Worse, at least17 per cent of Ukraine’s population are ethnically Russian. Fighting a war of attrition against a larger foe is not a winning strategy, so that can’t be the entire Ukrainian plan. Kiev is understandably very coy about the military casualties it has suffered; it is likely that they are substantial.
To win the war Ukraine must regain the initiative, as it briefly did in the pursuit from Kharkov last summer. It must concentrate firepower and overwhelm a Russian force somewhere on the 600-mile front line and then pursue them and prevent the Russians from regrouping. Such a pursuit might have to continue into Russian territory. That’s not easy.
Building sufficient force to deliver that killer punch requires taking units out of the front line, refurbishing and training them, all the while keeping them hidden from prying Russian eyes. If the Ukrainians have such a force, somewhere, it will in part have been filled by thinning out soldiers from its defensive front line. If and only if the missing soldiers are in fact now forming a counter-attack force, the suffering and risks of fatigued soldiers in the trenches makes sense.
Even so, such a force will need tanks and armoured vehicles. Of the 80 or so Leopard 2 tanks they were given last year, at least 33 have been lost, as has one of 14 Challenger 2s, according to the usually reliable Oryx. Count in 30 or so American M1s and that leaves them with about a brigade’s worth of Western tanks. That is sufficient to launch a sustained armoured assault on a ten-mile front. That attack must succeed, so is unlikely to happen without the supportof the F-16 fighter jets that the Ukrainian Air Force has not yet deployed.
Unsurprisingly, the Ukrainians are also coy about how many F-16s they will have and when they will be ready. There are considerable challenges, not least where they will operate from. Unlike their surviving Ukrainian Sukhoi and MiG warplanes, F-16s need decent runways and can’t operate from Ukrainian roads.
How does this affect the UK?
Britain’s Chief of the General Staff (as the head of the Army is known) said a couple of weeks ago that Ukraine is‘really important’. General Sir Patrick Sanders explained: ‘It is the principal pressure point on a fragile world order that our enemies wish to dismantle. I use that term with care, noting that the definition encompasses those who actively oppose or are hostile to our interests. This war is not merely about the black soil of the Donbas, nor the re-establishment of a Russian empire, it’s about defeating our system and way of life politically, psychologically, and symbolically. How we respond as the pre-war generation will reverberate through history. Ukrainian bravery is buying time, for now.’
Either way, the British Army is in a mess. Several European ones are in a worse state. Building them up to credible levels will take years. It is doubtful if the Ukrainians can fight that long, so they will have to surrender.
We failed to deter Putin from attacking Ukraine. We failed to provide anything close to war-winning support. We have pretended that the Russian army is weak and that Ukrainian drones will defeat it. We have misled our new ally into shedding its people’s blood to no avail (for them) to buy us time to replace hubris with hardware. All we have demonstrated is just how weak Nato really is, morally and militarily. Why do we think Putin will believe that Nato has the will or capability to stop him in the Baltics?
Article Five of Nato provides that provides that ‘if a Nato ally is the victim of an armed attack, each and every other member of the Alliance will consider this act of violence as an armed attack against all members and will take the actions it deems necessary to assist the ally attacked’. This is all well and good, but we’ve eroded our non-nuclear forces to such a point that we’ve been returned to the tripwire scenario of the 1960s. That was where any Soviet incursion into Nato territory would trigger a massive nuclear response. That wasn’t credible then and it certainly isn’t now. An incredible deterrent is not a deterrent.
Even if we had the forces the only sensible defence of the Baltics is to advance into Russia from Poland. Despite the experiences of Napoleon and Hitler, Russia fears this and fears the formidable firepower of the Americans (assuming they come to fight). Even a conventional defence of the Baltics therefore could end up with Armageddon when Nato and Russian forces clashed, a point made again by Russian security council deputy chairman Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday.
The options available to the Prime Minster and his successors are all bad.
The first and cheapest, also the most dangerous, is do nothing. That requires Mr Sunak to confirm that in the event of Article 5 being triggered by a Russian advance into the Baltic States he would immediately launch strategic nuclear weapons (the only ones we have). Putin might not believe him. Sunak might not believe it himself.
The second, and most expensive, is to build up the UK’s armed forces as rapidly as possible. That would come with budgetary problems; cutting welfare spending to buy weapons and recruit soldiers is unlikely to fly well with the public. Increasing the defence budget by another £25billion or so a year won’t fly well in the financial markets. The plan’s success would hinge on whether the Ukrainians can keep fighting on until such a force (citizen soldiers and regulars) is ready – a minimum of three years.
The third is to suggest that the Baltics leave Nato or agree that the Article 5 requirement doesn’t apply for them. That’s the end of Nato and a total victory for Putin.
Which course do you prefer?