THE alleged crisis in Ukraine continues, albeit without a shot being fired. I may be wrong, but I don’t think one will be, and I don’t think that was ever Vladimir Putin’s intent.
The Russian president and his advisers are well aware of the challenge that invading Ukraine presents, as the Red Army has done it before. In 1943, it recaptured Ukraine from German occupation in an operation known as the Belgorod-Kharkov offensive.
In about three weeks following the Battle of Kursk – the largest tank battle in history, and the last Nazi offensive in the East – the Soviet forces retook most of Ukraine east of the River Dnieper, including Kiev. Most of Ukraine is west of the Dnieper.
Despite outnumbering the Germans five to one in men and ten to one in tanks, the Red Army suffered some 250,000 casualties, about 25 per cent of their committed forces.
The ground has not changed that much since then – if anything, it’s more urban now, which favours the defence. And today’s tanks and other weaponry are more lethal.
Unlike the Nazis in 1943, the Ukrainian Army is fresh, motivated, well-equipped and would be fighting on home ground. Its troops, a mix of regulars and conscripts, have worked with UN and Nato forces in places such as Kosovo and are currently deployed in Mali.
Taking Ukraine would be no pushover. Assuming the Ukrainians stood and fought, a conventional invasion would need far more force than the 100,000 to 140,000 troops Russia has deployed.
The Red Army knows this. Putin knows this. One hopes that the UK and Nato generals know this. It seems that Ukraine does not think the Russians will invade and its president Volodymyr Zelensky worries that the West is creating a storm in a teacup.
So what’s the problem? Sure, eight years ago the Russians took Ukraine’s Donbas region and Odessa with little effort. But that’s because many of the residents weren’t ethnic Ukrainian and the Russians achieved a level of surprise. That’s not the case now.
Putin says he has no intention of invasion. Of course he would say that – but it may be true. While he desires the unification of the Rus peoples, it can’t be delivered by the blood-letting and damage of an invasion. Military threats seem to be stiffening Ukrainian resolve.
Sunday’s British government press release suggests we will do more, although it’s light on detail. It remains unlikely that our forces will deploy there; the Prime Minister envisages strengthening Nato’s Russian frontier, which is a bit of a non sequitur as it’s unlikely that Russia has any intention of attacking Nato.
Currently we have about 1,000 soldiers, 15 Challenger tanks and a similar number of Warrior infantry fighting vehicles in Estonia as part of a Nato multinational battlegroup, plus a light cavalry (reconnaissance) squadron in Poland. Neither of these token units can alter the fate of Ukraine; strengthening them makes no difference.
The UK’s military impotence is stark; warfare on the Russian/Ukrainian steppe involves huge distances. That requires heavy armour, which the British Army has abandoned.
It maintains a pretence of an armoured division, which has the combat power of little more than a Cold War armoured brigade. Today’s Army is about the same strength as the British Army of the Rhine in the early 1990s.
The BAOR fielded nine armoured brigades, plus three infantry brigades, an artillery division, a corps headquarters and a Nato army group headquarters. Successive defence reviews have delivered the same headcount with, at best, 15 per cent of the combat power. There’s deranged genius in that achievement.
Worse, if our token force was defeated or bypassed and ignored, as it surely would be, what are we going to do? Economic sanctions are slow to take effect. Cyber-warfare is in its infancy and can’t stop a tank. I would be astonished if Joe Public supported lobbing a thermonuclear weapon at some Russian city in response to, or rather retaliation for, Russian tanks promenading in Tallinn.
Whatever else it has achieved, the fallout from Putin’s winter exercises has shown that the Ministry of Defence is about as well equipped and prepared for the defence of the realm as the NHS was for Covid. Is there any part of government that is working?