Picture credit: Jose Colon/Anadolu via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Ukraine can still triumph

It needs, and deserves, Western patience and solidarity

Alexei Navalny. I am still waiting for someone to nudge me awake and tell me it isn’t so. That human life is more valuable than to be snuffed out in some remote arctic dungeon at the whim of a paranoid psychopath. Secure in a gulag, Navalny posed no physical threat to Putin, but ruffled his pride. If there were any doubters, from Spain came the news of another death on 19 February. This time it was Maksim Kuzminov, a Russian helicopter pilot who defected to Ukraine with his twin-engined Mi-8 machine on 23 August last year. Ukraine’s GUR intelligence agency had persuaded him to cross the frontier during an elaborate six-month operation, even extracting his family from Russia beforehand. 

Kuzminov’s extinction was brutal and public, being murdered in a Spanish car park, close to where he was living in secret exile. The killer left a curious calling card. He executed the Russian not with one, two or three, but twelve 9mm shots. To those who know, this was the work of someone armed with a PMM (Pistolet Makarova Modernizirovannyy – Modernised Makarov pistol), the FSB’s favourite weapon, and issued with a 12-round magazine. It was a visceral and very overt confirmation that Putin will order the death of anyone he hates, as easily as you or I order our cappuccinos.

That is why, in defiance of all logic, the war in Ukraine has reached its two-year point today. President Zelensky and the entire ruling class of Ukraine and its armed forces know that if they lose, a 9mm Pistolet Makarova Modernizirovannyy bullet, or an encounter with Polonium 2-10, or Novichok, or a tumble down some stairs, from a window or seat in an exploding executive jet awaits them also. This is a Russian tradition. In 1940, Leon Trotsky, ironically one of the originators of extra-national political violence, received his novel demise of an ice-axe in the head on the orders of his political rival, Stalin, in far-off Mexico. In the forests around Katyn, near Smolensk, 4,443 corpses representing much of Poland’s intelligentsia were discovered in 1943, murdered by the NKVD as a blood tribute to their leader in the Kremlin. Putin clearly feels the weight of history on his shoulders, to live up to the murderous exploits of his forebears in the KGB, MVD, NKVD, OGPU and Cheka.

The bigger wheels of history also explain the visceral violence witnessed in several Azerbaijani-Armenian clashes in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, and are seeing in Israel-Palestine, as well as Ukraine. For Armenians, there are smouldering memories of their Medz Yeghern (“Great Evil Crime”), the genocide inflicted by the Ottoman Empire during 1914-17. Israel rightly remains haunted by the Shoah (“Calamity” in Hebrew), a term for the 1933-45 Holocaust, but also beginning to be applied to 7 October 2023. Palestinians remember the Nabka (“Catastrophe”), the destruction of their society, culture, identity, political rights, and national aspirations in 1948, which they see as being re-enacted in their displacement from areas of Gaza. Ukrainians recall the Holodomor (“Killing by Hunger”), the Soviet-induced famine that felled up to 5 million during 1932-33. 

History also reaches down to today’s leaders in these struggles. Colonel Semyon Zelensky, Jewish grandfather of Ukraine’s president, served in the Red Army’s 57th Guards Motor Rifle Division during World War II, while his great-grandfather and three great uncles died in the Holocaust. Viktor Putin, elder brother of Vladimir, died of diphtheria and starvation in 1942 during the Siege of Leningrad. His father, also Vladimir, served in Soviet submarines, later an NKVD battalion and finally the Red Army, being severely wounded in 1942. His maternal grandmother was killed by Germans 1941, and several maternal uncles were posted missing on the Eastern Front. Benjamin Netanyahu’s paratrooper brother, Yonatan, died leading the Entebbe airport raid in Uganda in 1976. From our armchairs and in ignorance of these national and personal tragedies, it is easy to sign a petition, or wave our hands and demand a ceasefire. Out of the straitjacket of the Cold War, we now find ourselves in an era of the settling of ancient blood feuds. I fear a cessation any time soon simply ain’t going to happen.

History can also blind you. In July 2021, President Putin offered us a glimpse of his visual impairment with his essay claiming “there was no historical basis for the Ukrainian people to be separate from Russia”, denying every aspect of its centuries-old existence as a separate state. Putin went on to demand that NATO end all activity in Eastern Europe and refuse admission to Ukraine. Pre-planned military manoeuvres in Donetsk, Luhansk and neighbouring Belarus followed, which his generals assured the west were not a prelude to invasion.

Then, two years ago today, Russian forces poured over Ukraine’s borders in four great thrusts from the north, east, southeast and south as Putin announced a “special military operation to demilitarise and denazify the pro-NATO neo-Nazi government in Kyiv”, which he claimed were bullying the Donbass and Crimean breakaway republics. Zelensky’s Jewish ancestry was ignored for the greater needs of Russia’s history. The biggest attack on a European country since 1945 began with dawn land and air attacks. The attackers marked their vehicles with a white letter “Z”, which soon became a nationalist “brand”, a sort of latter-day Afrika Korps palm tree insignia made famous by Rommel, and seen on a variety of merchandise throughout Russia, from coffee mugs and posters to badges, uniforms and tee shirts. 

Cruise missiles struck every Ukrainian city, some reaching as far west as Lviv. Two years on, a much older Ukrainian friend of mine has just visited the city from exile in western Europe. He couldn’t fly there for obvious reasons, and the Krakow-Lviv-Kyiv-Odessa Express was full of European and NATO VIPs going about their business. So he took a bus, travelling for a gruelling 16 hours. He arrived in his hometown just as an air raid sounded, and his end of our WhatsApp call was conducted in the surreal atmosphere of a candlelit, sandbagged air raid shelter. After the All Clear siren, by video he walked me around a city with all its public monuments sandbagged for protection and windows covered with tape to stop flying glass. The museums and art galleries are empty, their exhibits hidden away from the “Orcs”, the most polite of many terms for Russians. 

Uniforms throng the streets, private vehicles are few. At one stage a squad of uniformed men stopped my friend, looking for draft-dodgers. I chatted with them by video while he unpocketed his ID papers to establish his bona fides. Ordinary citizens are suspicious of everyone and everything — taking photographs is frowned upon, so are Russian accents, even in a population where 17 percent, my friend included, are of Russian extraction. “Are you a spy?” he was asked, without a hint of irony. The nightly TV equivalent of Eastenders, which he thinks should be called Eastfronters, is about the loves and life of a sniper at the front, interspersed with government ads to join the army. From others I find the picture in Kharkiv and Kyiv is the same, though with far more bomb damage. 

More friends have joined the UK-based charities Ambulance Aid and United Ukrainian Foundation to buy vehicles and drive them from London to Ukraine. Each ambulance is “packed to the roof with medications no longer needed by NHS trusts, sanitary products, hand sanitising gel, and cleaning materials”, while cross-Channel ferry fares are waived and fuel costs for the long journey covered by donations from supporters. 

Some of this I recall from my last visit in 2021, like the orthodox churches displaying candle-lit portraits of heroes recently felled in battle, and pharmacies selling “government-approved” medical kits, but he showed me how open-air markets have switched from selling eggs, jackets and hats to hand grenades, body armour and helmets. Phone bills show a small surtax on all phone conversations to help pay for the war, to which everybody assumes the SBU (Ukraine’s domestic intelligence service) are listening in. Tourist signs for coffee shops are replaced by directions to the nearest shelter. Having reached retirement age, he was one of around eight million Ukrainians who fled abroad, while another eight million moved to western towns, creating Europe’s largest refugee crisis since 1945. The population slumped to 36 million, with a brain drain of entrepreneurs and techies heading into the European Union. Those civilians not slaughtered in occupied areas were forcibly evacuated to Russia and Belarus, their children kidnapped and, in some cases, adopted by total strangers.

Two years ago, Russian airborne forces in helicopters appeared from out of the blue to take Hostomel Airport in Kyiv but were unexpectedly defeated in fierce fighting, withdrawing on 6 April. Other Russians attacking from Belarus were repulsed from north west Kyiv at Irpin and Bucha, leaving a trail of massacred civilians in their wake. An eastern thrust advanced towards Kharkiv and Sumy but halted at great cost, while a southern front from Crimea headed towards the regional capital of Kherson, captured on 2 March, but failed to reach beyond to Mykolaiv and Odessa. However, other forces from Crimea linked up with troops from Donetsk to take Melitopol and the Azov Sea ports of Berdiansk and Mariupol, finally subdued on 20 May at great cost to both sides.

We all saw how President Zelensky refused to leave Kyiv, instead rallying his nation with Churchillian nightly broadcasts, declaring martial law and introducing conscription. Ukraine’s early battlefield successes were partly the result of NATO doctrine and training received from American, British and Canadian troops during 2015-22. Britain’s Operation Orbital trained 22,000 Ukrainians in-country, and is now replaced by Operation Interflex, which sees Kyiv’s troops, generals included, rehearsing in the UK. “NATO-approved” has since become slang for anything innovative or superior, from bazookas to beefsteak. 

Russian cyber-attacks were defeated because Kyiv’s keyboard warriors had gained an edge over their adversaries during the preceding eight years. This is an important point, for the two-year mark of the Ukraine-Russian war is also near to the tenth anniversary of Russian-engineered unrest which saw Moscow’s special forces illegally occupy Crimea in March 2014. The following month, Russian-backed separatists proclaimed independence in the oblasts (provinces) of Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively the Donbass region, containing much of Ukraine’s mineral wealth. In other words, Ukraine has actually been in a state of war with Russia and already bloodied for a decade, like an ancient Greek city state.

Russia and the world expected victory within a week

Since then, apart from NATO training, there has been an ongoing cyber war, attracting relatively little attention, which is the way its antagonists prefer. Once across the border in February 2022, Rasputitsa (“the season of bad roads”), muddy conditions that make travel on unpaved roads problematic, slowed and stopped Moscow’s armoured columns, which were then ambushed by their nimbler opponents. With shades of the halting of both Napoleon and Hitler, I have never understood why Putin did not wait another couple of months for better weather. Russian tanks and trucks were found to be undermanned and deficient of much equipment while their supporting troops proved to be poorly trained conscripts, including convicts, underfed and short in nearly every aspect of logistics, from medical supplies to clothing, ammunition and fuel. Russia and the world expected victory within a week and some of the attackers optimistically packed their best uniforms for a triumphal parade in Kyiv.

Though qualitatively inferior and slow to learn, Russia still possessed its traditional weapons of quantity, and the Red God of War — artillery, which drenched every Ukrainian counterattack with high explosives. Moscow’s campaign leadership was woeful, with the 4 thrusts operating independently, and without coordination. Subsequent unified command hasn’t helped, with generals afraid to use their initiative, instead following the Kremlin’s rigid orders. Attrition of Russian commanders, on and off the battlefield, has been high, but Putin never visits the front. Moscow reorientated to a war economy with drones supplied from Iran and ammunition from North Korea, both relatively small economies, but with disproportionately powerful military production. 

Although the West’s economy is 20-25 times greater than Russia’s, the Kremlin now spends roughly 40 percent of government income on attacking Ukraine, estimated at 6-10 percent of the country’s GDP. This commitment helps Putin compensate for the West’s much larger economic potential. Between August 2022-May 2023, an attritional slog developed for the city of Bakhmut, in the eastern Donbass, the bloodiest battle seen so far in the 21st century. The nine-month struggle, of Stalingrad proportions, cost the Russians, including many Wagner convicts, 40,000 dead and 80,000 wounded. The defenders lost a quarter of these totals, but casualties of experienced soldiers they can ill afford. 

 Halted but not ejected from Ukrainian territory, gradually the fighting settled down in a concave arc of trenches and fixed defences, including 750,000 landmines, which in two years of combat Russia was unable to penetrate, but neither was Ukraine. In the centre lies Avdiivka. Defended at great cost, but when faced with total encirclement, Ukrainian forces withdrew on 17 February. Mr Putin is crowing at this pyrrhic “success”, but any cost-benefit analysis reveals the Russians have merely occupied a total ruin, bought at a material expense they cannot long sustain. The defenders observe that Russian artillery was outfiring them at twenty times the rate of their own guns. However, the city’s loss provides an important morale boost for Moscow and dents that of Ukraine. 

With justification, some of Kyiv’s troops complain that NATO prepared them for the wrong sort of war, but no one could have foreseen the mass attacks, where Russian conscripts were thrown against fixed positions merely to exhaust the defenders’ supplies of ammunition. NATO’s way of war calls for massive preparatory airstrikes, artillery barrages and demining before the infantry advances, but without the modern jets, long-range missiles, demining equipment, tanks and armoured personnel carriers they requested, Ukraine’s army had to resort to tactics not found in any NATO handbooks. 

That is why, during the summer counteroffensive, Ukraine suffered high casualties and losses of Western-supplied armour, as they bogged down in the thickest minefields ever seen, and were forced to come up with their own battlefield solutions. “As we’re defending our Motherland, we’re prepared to take losses, but are jealous of NATO soldiers who know they’ll always be supported and can advance knowing they’re unlikely to be killed or maimed,” said one defender. More than 55 percent of Ukraine’s land is arable, and provided employment for 14 percent of the population. The World Bank estimates that demining these will cost upwards of $37 billion, with a minimum nationwide reconstruction bill of half a trillion dollars. 

At sea, numerous Russian warships including the flagship Moskva proved themselves vulnerable to cruise missiles and unmanned suicide boats, often identified with the help of western intelligence. It was maritime drones that broke the Russian naval blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and forced the bulk of Putin’s fleet to retreat from Crimea. Surprisingly, Russian jets failed to dominate in the air through their lack of experience in supporting ground troops, and exposure to sophisticated Ukrainian air defences. Both sides used vast quantities of drones and already the war suggests that unmanned flying machines will soon outnumber manned aircraft in all the world’s air forces. Early this February, President Zelensky announced the creation of a separate branch of his armed forces devoted solely to drones. He has set a target of more than one million domestically-produced in 2024, while a coalition of ten European allies has promised to deliver another million within a year, to offset ammunition shortages and the funding fight in Washington DC.

I remain upbeat about Ukraine: Kyiv will prevail if the west supplies enough aircraft, tanks, long-range artillery and rockets

Unmanned reconnaissance and strike drones were already used extensively in eastern Ukraine from 2014, but the unprecedented numbers deployed by both sides since 2022 lead experts to label this the First Drone War. They revolutionised surveillance, making it difficult for commanders to employ surprise, which explains why both armies find it difficult to punch through each other’s defences. Drones also evolved as precision strike weapons, with loitering munitions (designed to crash into their targets) replicating many of the functions of artillery and smart missiles at a fraction of the price. During a single week earlier this year, Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, reported his drone units had destroyed 73 Russian tanks. Every combat unit has a drone detachment, often crowd-funded by grassroots clubs, while a vibrant assembly industry has emerged from nowhere.

I remain upbeat about Ukraine: Kyiv will prevail if the west supplies enough aircraft, tanks, long-range artillery and rockets to destroy Russian logistics. However, if we fail in our duty, Russia with its population of 145 million and larger economy will triumph if it can concentrate enough armour, artillery and well-trained manpower to advance. Yet it would be a mistake to think that Ukraine can continue holding the front for as long as the West needs in order to decide its approach. All my Ukrainian friends accuse us of dithering and delay in supplying the kit they need, especially when their requests were made immediately after the invasion. 

The rebellion of Prigozhin’s Wagner Group, coupled with the excesses of the US Blackwater Group (subsequently renamed Academi, and now Constellis) in Iraq have led some to surmise the era of the private contractor in mainstream battle is over. With its mass use of tanks, artillery and troops, two years on modern generals across the globe are pondering whether the Ukraine War is a throwback anomaly, or with the addition of mobile phone networks, social media and vast numbers of unmanned aircraft, it is the portent of all wars to come. 

Russia has lost staggering quantities of battlefield equipment, including a minimum of 3,500 tanks (probably far more) fed pointlessly into combat. Statistically that is five percent of all the 70,000 tanks in the world. There are few reliable human casualty figures, but best guesses suggest 100,000 Ukrainian troops killed, 150,000 wounded, plus 50,000 civilian casualties. Across the divide, by most estimates the war so far has cost Mr Putin over 200,000 killed with another 200,000 wounded. However, the man in the Kremlin is in denial, having reached his Act 3 of Macbeth moment: “I am in blood: Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as to go o’er.” In other words, having reached this stage in all his slaughter and tyranny, it will make little difference if he retreats or just keeps pushing on. Thus, Putin and his regime are in this for the long term.

In terms of available reserves, Zelensky finds himself in a pickle. Despite 40,000 Ukrainians still dodging the draft, Kyiv has around 1.1 million personnel under arms, the majority conscripts and volunteers aged 25-60. Obliged to serve until the war’s end, they are allowed ten days’ leave a year and well-paid, courtesy of western economic aid. Yet, this is not enough. In December, politicians and army chiefs debated calling up another 500,000. Influential voices pushed back, faced with a birth-rate slump since 2014 and unwilling to gamble the nation’s youth of 18-24-year-olds. With the defence of Avdiivka alone having cost 17,000 killed and 30,000 wounded, wise counsel suggests that additional numbers are pointless unless they receive the latest western weaponry and ammunition. 

Hence the enormous pressure Zelensky is applying on his international allies for guns and money. This was also one of the differences of opinion between Zelensky and his former army chief, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, which got him fired. The general advocated the “metal, not flesh” approach adopted by Field Marshal Montgomery during World War II – superior weapons and training, but not necessarily more personnel. By contrast, Putin (also faced with a shrinking birth-rate) has just summoned another 300,000 conscripts into uniform with a flick of his pen.

 The dreadful losses take us back to the Western Front of 1915-17 or the Eastern Front struggles of 1941-4 and it is worth pausing to consider the international picture at the two-year mark of both global conflagrations. Two years after the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia, 28 July 1916, none of the main protagonists could sense victory at Verdun or on the Somme. Likewise, on 1 September 1941, two years after the invasion of Poland, the war looked grim for Britain and Russia, and was about to verge on the catastrophic for the United States. Big wars (and this is one such) have a dynamic of their own, which cannot be hurried, and although more dark days certainly lie ahead for Ukraine, remember that the underdogs prevailed in the end. Ukraine seems like a judo expert being attacked by a boxer: history suggests that agility, doctrine and training tends to win wars, not raw brawn and bulk. 

Moscow has faced and ignored international condemnation for its aggression and human rights abuses, while trade and financial sanctions have had only a limited effect, partly because Russia is selling huge quantities of cheap oil to India and China in exchange for hard currency. There is also great reluctance to impound and donate to Kyiv the Russian sovereign wealth funds held in western banks, for fear of setting a dangerous international precedent. Both sides have relied on television and social media to bolster their own populations and demoralise opponents. In this light, do not worry about the widely-reported comments of ex-president and former prime minister Dimitri Medvedev of 20 February. 

In a bizarre “thought experiment”, he discussed the possibility of Ukraine’s success, an interesting development in itself. In Medvedev’s opinion, the return of Ukraine to its pre-2014 borders would “contradict the Russian constitution”. He then expounded, “And now to the main question: Do these idiots [in the West] really believe that Russia’s people would accept such a disintegration of their country? On the contrary, our armed forces would deploy their entire nuclear arsenal and attack Washington, Berlin and London in addition to Kyiv.” 

Take heart, gentle reader, at the unlikelihood of this eventuality, for three reasons. Most of the Russian leaders’ families lurk secretly in the west; much of their money sits in western banks. Finally, if the United Kingdom cannot get its Trident missiles to function correctly, and Moscow’s new “Sarmat” long-range nuclear weapons have been rushed into service on the back of a single successful test, there is no chance that any of Mr Medvedev’s intercontinental ballistic rockets will reach their targets.

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