IT’S been a busy 48 hours in the Ukraine war. Firstly the Azov battalion (or regiment or brigade) defending Mariupol has announced that the Russians used chemical weapons delivered by drone. As yet this remains unverified and, given the ongoing devastating siege and urban combat, it’s hard to see independent verification coming any time soon. (Someone should explain this to the frenetic Liz Truss).
While both sides are fighting a propaganda war on social media, Russia has form with chemical weapons – despite being a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention and that organisation having verified that Moscow has no stockpile. Certainly taking Mariupol is taking an awfully long time, as capturing towns tends to, and it may be putting the timings for the next phase of the offensive at risk. That being so, chemical weapons make military sense inasmuch as they have the ability to kill without the Russians having to get soldiers there with grenades and bayonets. One could speculate that delivering such weapons by drone gives the ability to put them in one room or building only, reducing the complexities for one’s own troops.
The Ukrainians were reported to be defending a steelworks – a large industrial complex. (In the World War Two Battle of Stalingrad the Russian defence of the Tractor and Steel and Arms factory complexes tied up an entire German Army Corps – in the parlance of the Ukraine War equivalent to some 27 battalion tactical groups – for almost six weeks.)
It is thought that the Russian Army is under pressure from Mr Putin to deliver something that could be described as victory by May 9, Victory Day, when the armed forces parade in Red Square in Moscow and across the country. It’s a day of huge significance in Russia. If that is the deadline and Mariupol is one of the jumping-off points for the operations to capture all of Donetsk and Luhansk (as it might well be) then continued Ukrainian resistance is jeopardising Putin’s plan. Senior commanders, all too aware of the personal risks of failure, might well have decided it’s time to deploy another level of weaponry. To a Russian general (or president) international opprobrium is probably preferable to military failure. The Russians, unsurprisingly, are denying use of chemical weapons – which of course may also be true.
Meanwhile James Heappy, our Armed Forces Minister, stated on Sky News that ‘there are some things that are beyond the pale, and the use of chemical weapons will get a response and all options are on the table for what that response could be’. One wonders what options he thinks the UK, or the indeed the West, has.
President Zelensky has been very clear about what he needs if Ukraine is to survive the likely assault that Russia is assembling. He wants heavy weapons (and the ammunition to go with them). That’s tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and artillery. If the Russians are working to the May 9 deadline he does not have time for his army to be trained on new equipment, so he’s seeking more of what he has: the Soviet-era weaponry. The UK doesn’t have any and those Nato nations that do (Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia) have either sent them (the Czechs) or are sufficiently concerned about Russian intent to be uncomfortable about handing over their main weaponry, at least until it is replaced. Retraining troops on new tanks, say the American M1, takes months – as does building up the logistics necessary to use them. Developing tactics and training commanders takes years.
Which means that Ukraine will have to fight with the heavy weaponry that it has, perhaps supported by more ammunition from the West – although again those countries might reasonably be nervous of depleting their stocks given Russia’s aggressive posture.
The other thing Zelensky would like is for Nato to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Certainly it could be done, but it would require Nato aircraft to be prepared to engage Russian ones, which is thought to be the path to Armageddon. Committing ground forces would also set us on that path, although given the Army’s diminishment of its armoured capability there isn’t much available at short notice, and most of it is in Estonia.
As Mr Heappey should know, thanks to successive governments (mostly Conservative) the UK’s military cupboard is almost as bare as Mrs Hubbard’s. Even without the threat of Armageddon we’re very short of military options, and we will be for some years to come. He should focus on fixing that.