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HomeNewsThe Ukraine War one year on, Part 2: It’s going to be...

The Ukraine War one year on, Part 2: It’s going to be a long, cold winter

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This is the second of three articles looking at the war in Ukraine as it reaches the end of its first year. In this piece, I will look at what happens next and what winning and losing could look like. Tomorrow: What lessons can be identified and learned?

YESTERDAY I outlined the view of Western governments and media that Russia is on the back foot and that this is evident from the retreat at Kherson. In this second article I suggest that there is an alternative which could define what winning and losing might look like. The Russians, as I have already noted, are calling up their large pool of trained manpower. While they do this, they are making a calculated exchange of space in return for the time needed to do this. Why? Because once the wet weather of autumn and early winter is replaced any time now by a hard freeze, a winter offensive is entirely possible once the Ukrainians have lost momentum and used up their resources. The Russian Army is quite capable of this.

In the short term, the Russians will withdraw units where they are operationally compromised or outnumbered, counterattacking only where key terrain must be held. The Kherson garrison, for example, has been largely redeployed to the Zaporizhzhia front line. The Sevastopol anchorage is now more secure from drone attacks, while warships from the Caspian as well as the Black Sea are being used to launch missile strikes, and are largely invulnerable to a Ukrainian response.

A continuous system of defensive positions has been prepared from Vuhledar, through the Donbass front, all the way north to Lysychansk. This will likely link up with the much-publicised Wagner Line and the concrete emplacements on the border of the Belgorod Oblast. Most units will be concentrated under the cover of the Russians’ overwhelming artillery and air umbrella, wearing out Ukraine’s pool of manpower and what heavy equipment stocks remain. The first use of the Tu-160 Blackjack bomber, in service since 1987 but still being manufactured, has just occurred, but Western analysts seem unable to understand General Surovikin’s emphasis on air and missile bombardment rather than ground assaults. The reasons are those that I have already laid out, but the Russians are obeying Napoleon’s dictum that the essence of war lies in a careful and circumspect defensive, to hold securely what you have, followed by a rapid and audacious attack.

New Russian equipment is currently moving into Belgorod, Zaporizhzhia and the Crimea; anywhere between 250,000 and 300,000 new troops, with equipment, are being moved to the Belgorod and eastern Belarus regions – they will be kept concentrated and not dispersed; and considerable numbers of heavy aircraft are reported to be assembling in the Rostov region, joining the forces already there. Once the prepared defences are ready, yet more troops can be drawn from there. All this is being made ready for a series of moves when overwhelming force ratios have been assembled and the ground is hard, preceded by an even heavier bombardment than that which we have seen to date. The Ukrainians seem to think that such an attack would be aimed at Kiev, since the city is the only one being evacuated, defences are being prepared and large numbers of troops tied down in fixed positions. A raid southwards towards Lvov is also a possibility as this could cut the supply line from Nato. It is difficult to see how the Ukrainian government could continue to operate without its capital city; conversely, should the Russians fail again, the humiliation might be enough to force a compromise peace. Can the Russians succeed? Possibly – but the performance of Russian units on the ground will have to improve markedly, or else their deficiencies made up by firepower. At the moment there is an eerie calm – perhaps Putin and the entire Russian General Staff are criminally incompetent. Perhaps there is no plan other to hold on to what they have. I would be very surprised if so.

Putin has raised the issue of nuclear and chemical weapons and if the Ukrainians are able to make gains in the south, these threats will become more strident. Will they come to anything? The referenda in the occupied provinces – described by Serhiy Haidai as ‘an opinion survey under the gun barrels’ – has allowed Putin to go through the legal processes of annexation so that, for him, these are now part of Russia. Russian policy and practice, like its Soviet forerunners, is quite clear: not only can Russian troops be deployed there rather than local levies, but also that WMD will be used to defend the territory of the narod, the motherland. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, said plainly that ‘all of Russia’s laws, doctrines and concepts’ would apply: Russia’s nuclear doctrine allows the use of WMD, whether tactical or strategic, if the country faces ‘existential threat’, although these may be Russian propaganda.  

It could be argued that it was the fear of Russian withdrawal, especially from the Donbass, that prompted the Russian population there to demand referenda on annexation with the resulting hurried procedures, partial mobilisation, and loss of the information battle: the result of genuine fear of life under Ukrainian governments, and the suppression of their language, culture and civil rights. Some estimates put the death toll of ethnic Russians in Ukraine before the current war at 14,000, although these may have been inflated by the Russians, and there were some horrible episodes like the burning of 50 people in Odessa in 2014. 

The evacuation of civilians to Russia has been portrayed by the western media as ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Ukrainians – it is far more likely to be ethnic Russians being rehoused out of danger. What is clear is that short of major battlefield defeat and the disintegration of the Russian military forces, these territories are not negotiable in any peace settlement.

However, the mere mention of WMD shows that these annexations are fundamentally a declaration of war against the modern West and indeed, the post-Cold War world in general. As the Communist Party chief in Russia, Gennady Zyuganov, has said: ‘. . . the President signed decrees on the admission of the DPR, LPR, Zaprpzhye and Kherson regions into Russia. Bridges are burned. What was clear from the moral and statist points of view has now become a legal fact: on our land there is an enemy, he kills and maims the citizens of Russia. The country demands the most decisive action to protect compatriots. Time does not wait.’ 

Would those close to Putin allow him to press the button, even if he were minded to do so? It remains to be seen. But if he were to do so, there is no doubt that this would invite a massive response from the US military, if not by the rest of Nato. The language so far has been coded and it seems most probable a nuke-for-nuke response is less likely than a large conventional response. The US has moved considerable numbers of heavy and stealth bombers to its British bases at Mildenhall and Lakenheath; strengthened its land forces in Europe by reactivating the V Corps and increasing rotational postings of brigades from, currently, 1st Infantry Division and 101st ABD, and a number of artillery, rocket, aviation and air defence brigades. They have established and stocked new logistic supply bases in western Europe. Perhaps most significantly, there are two US carrier battlegroups, the Gerald R Ford and the George H W Bush, each carrying more aircraft than the RAF has in total, within range of European Russia through the use of air-to-air refuelling and tasked by AWACS; and an unknown number of cruise and ballistic missile-equipped submarines and surface ships. The response to the use of WMD would probably be a series of heavy strikes on Russian military infrastructure, missile sites, communications, air defence, airfields – and the total destruction of the Black Sea Fleet.

A strategic attack, so much touted by the more irresponsible voices in the Western media? This appears unlikely. Putin knows the consequences and is not likely to bring on the reduction of major Russian cities to radioactive debris. Putin is not a madman. He is not excitable. He is a somewhat stolid, thorough, pragmatic, not very charismatic dictator. While Ukrainian counterattacks have been pushing his troops back in some areas, he has calmly proceeded with the legalistic aspects of annexing the four oblasts so as to enable a suitable response to a Ukrainian move into any of them – or perhaps to deter one. Everything he does is a calculation of risk versus reward or penalty.

In doing this, Putin is pursuing what was probably a major aim all along – to fracture the cohesion of Nato, reduce or neutralise direct and indirect involvement on behalf of Ukraine and, if possible, detach one or more of its members. Turkey looks like a good candidate from where he sits. Its EU aspirations are dead, its continued stand-off with Greece is a delight to the Russians, and as Erdogan turns his eyes towards influencing the Turkic republics of Central Asia, he will need Putin’s agreement to proceed. This will carry a price tag. The attempt to halt or delay Swedish accession was probably the first instalment. Had the operation in Ukraine proceeded rapidly, it is also extremely likely that Russia would by now be making mischief in the Balkans. Serbia has Nato aspirations, but Russia controls many of those in government; and of course, the Dayton settlement in Bosnia looks increasingly shaky. A Russian nod to Republika Srpska leader Milorad Dodik for secession from the federation by the RS would certainly cause Nato to divert resources to the Balkans, resources which might otherwise be brought to bear on behalf of Ukraine. 

Ukrainian Nato membership is now firmly off the table, but Finland and Sweden are joining in spite of Turkish obstruction, and this has infuriated Putin; battlegroups have been deployed to Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Moldova and Georgia must be eyeing Moscow with apprehension, but would their accession be possible? Even talk of joining might be enough to encourage pre-emptive action, especially given the presence of Russian troops in the separatist region of Transnistria in Moldova. Putin can do nothing about Sweden and Finland, but he could stop anything more. And indeed, to Nato, Moldova and Georgia bring nothing much in the way of military capability, they merely represent an increased commitment under Article 5.

Winning and losing, therefore, are as always difficult to define. For the Russians, a neutral and neutered Ukraine along with the annexed territories look like a win. So too does the ability to control Western governments’ behaviour through blackmail, using oil and gas while avoiding going just that bit too far and inviting a direct Nato/US intervention. This means long-term, managed instability on Russia’s western borders, of the sort that in the Middle East favours Israel.

For Ukraine, survival may be the best it can hope for, unless somehow the Russians can be ejected from the annexed territories. Holding on to the key seaport of Odessa is a win-or-lose factor and Odessa must be being viewed by both sides as a bargaining chip. Holding Kiev is a must. In order to survive, Ukraine needs about $40billion annually in subsidy but is not getting it. To date, the US has stumped up around $45billion and the EU and Britain about $29billion. Ukraine cannot by itself continue a multi-year war against an enemy which has five times its population and a far superior system of command and control, not to mention an enormous military-industrial capacity located beyond the reach of the weapons that Ukraine currently has.

Continued proxy help is therefore needed. But the looming energy crisis this winter in Europe will compound the economic problems brought on by governments’ hysterical reaction to Covid-19. And will this aid continue in the aftermath of a war to rebuild Ukraine’s shattered infrastructure? Or will Ukraine be abandoned as soon as the shooting stops, just like Afghanistan at the end of the Cold War, or indeed Russia herself at the same time?

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Jonathon Riley
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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