Monday, May 23, 2022
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Putin walks the tightrope

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FOR the last few days, the news has been dominated by evidence of war crimes in Ukraine. Such vileness will, understandably, overwhelm people’s senses, but they must not be allowed to cloud an objective analysis of what lies ahead.

So, when pondering what will happen next in the Ukraine, two stark images occur to me. The first is the ‘Parade of Victors’ in Red Square in June 1945 when hundreds of Nazi flags and trophies were dumped at Lenin’s Tomb by troops of the Red Army. This followed the end of the Great Patriotic War and the Russians’ equivalent of VE Day on 9 May – an anniversary only a month away and one not lacking in symbolism – possibly why columns of Ukrainian Marines were marched out of Mariupol, hands above their heads, a few days ago. The second image is that of Russian armour firing on the White House (the workplace of Russia’s prime minister in Moscow) when Boris Yeltsin unleashed the army on his parliament in October 1993. The next five weeks will be pivotal for Russia and Ukraine and I suspect that we may be about to see either one or both of those scenes re-enacted.

In late February, Russia launched 200,000 troops against about 600,000 Ukrainians. Taking on a much larger number of forces who were defending their own land was a major gamble with, most eye-catchingly, Putin’s ambition to seize Kiev and rapidly decapitate the government failing badly. Nevertheless, Russian forces pinned large numbers of Ukrainians there and held the attention of the West’s media – to the almost complete neglect of other areas of the campaign except Mariupol. In the east, up to 60,000 Ukrainians have been similarly fixed in a conventional battle around the borders of the Donbas. That fighting continues with much more to come.

Meanwhile, in the south, rapid advances were made along the shores of the Sea of Azov, north of the Crimea and along the Black Sea as far west as Mykolayiv, with Mariupol bypassed and then besieged. Similarly, an unknown number of defenders have been fixed in Odessa by a series of ruses involving warships and marines in the Black Sea. As mentioned in an earlier article, plans exist for a thrust by these forces northwest towards and into Moldova with a view to them being then poised for deep penetration into the heart of Ukraine. Although that plan is still possible, there are not the troops currently available to execute it – a limitation that also applies to the storming of Odessa.

But, with the land corridor from Donbas via Crimea and as far as Ochakiv now firmly established (despite some continuing resistance in Mariupol), Putin has some real achievements to set against his army’s heavy casualties and lamentable tactics around Kiev and elsewhere. It was against this backdrop that the Kremlin announced changes. On March 29, following the latest round of peace talks in Istanbul, Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin confirmed that Moscow intended to ‘drastically reduce military activity in the direction of Kyiv and Chernihiv’. He went on to say that the conquest of Donbas would be Russia’s main effort.

Right now, Russia appears to be marshalling the limited forces she has chosen to deploy and employ. Withdrawals may be confused by Western observers with retreats or even routs and there has been premature, I believe, talk of the scent of a Ukrainian victory in the air. I would weigh that against a recent comment from Russia: ‘We are about to see the biggest battle of the 21st Century’.

On April 1, the Kremlin called up thousands of reservists. There was also another tranche of conscription, but the reservists are trained soldiers, sailors and airmen who will be with their units (albeit for retraining) by mid-April. Meanwhile, Russian formations will have redeployed for a major offensive to conquer the whole of the Donbas over terrain on which her forces are much better designed than the towns and cities where much of the grinding fight has happened so far.

Their aim will be to defeat the 60,000 Ukrainians who face them, probably by encirclement from the air and the rear and that, I believe, is why crucial bridges over the major rivers have been left intact. To face this onslaught, there will be battle-weary Ukrainians with little air cover, diminishing fuel and, above all, no reinforcements. Undoubtedly, Russia has been rightly impressed by their courage, but they will be banking on a force with only limited stocks of anti-armour and anti-aircraft weapons, whose lines of supply have been cut, who are being attacked from all directions simultaneously and who are dead beat.

Now, Russian success in this ‘mother of battles’ is by no means certain – there have been more than enough reversals in this campaign already. Critically, though, there are also strategic events which could affect matters fundamentally.

The first of these is the next round of peace talks being planned in Istanbul for April 12. How constructive those are remains to be seen unless a deal has already been struck under the counter. Secondly, there are also rumours of an unscheduled meeting of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) which is this year hosted by China. Whether this happens in whole or in part is not clear, but Messrs Putin and Lavrov will want the leverage of substantial military achievement to underpin their prestige in the group.

Last, there are Zelensky’s demands on the UN and Nato. There is no doubt that Ukraine’s leader speaks passionately – particularly under the spur of war crimes – and his suggestions that the West should get more deeply involved in Ukraine (not just in terms of equipment but also manpower) is obviously concentrating minds. His calls will only become more compelling should Russia’s offensive start to kill or capture large numbers of his forces: the magnitude of this war will then rest upon the West’s response.

The next few days will see whether Russia can recover from the quagmire into which she has got herself, and if America and the West can respond better than they did in Afghanistan. If Putin wins his gamble by successfully walking the tightrope he will get his moment of glory; if he does not, he may follow Yeltsin into the dustbin of history.

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Lieutenant-General Jonathon Riley
Lieutenant-General Jonathon Riley
Lt Gen Riley is a former commander of British Forces in Sierra Leone and Iraq and Deputy Commander of all Nato forces in Afghanistan.

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