Explosion in Odesa, Ukraine. Picture Credit: Siegfried Modola / Alamy Stock Photo

Ukraine cannot avoid partition

Ukraine must not capitulate and demilitarise, but de-facto partition is now an inevitability

Artillery Row

After two years of bloody conflict, an end of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not in sight. Following the failed counter offensive and continuous delays to Western military support, the war of attrition is moving from a stalemate to a renewed Russian onslaught on five fronts along Ukraine’s eastern and southern flanks — in Luhansk from Kreminna to Bakhmut, in Donetsk from Avdiivka to Marinka, and north of Crimea in Robotyne. Just as Russia dug deep defensive positions to halt Ukrainian advances in 2022, so Ukraine has to build a bulwark against relentless Russian attacks. The country’s heroic resistance is at stake.

The Ukrainian people are paying the price of decades of depleting our armed forces and our industries

A total victory for Ukraine looks increasingly beyond reach. The US will only disengage further, giving Kiev just enough not to be defeated while denying it the arms and ammunition to launch a successful counter offensive. The US$ 60 billion package of American military support is still being blocked by the Republicans in the House of Representatives, and this despite a string of bitter defeats in Bakhmut and Avdiivka as well as the violent death of Vladimir Putin’s nemesis Alexey Navalny. Or indeed despite Kiev’s stunning success in targeting Russia’s Black Sea fleet and weak spots in Russian supply lines on the Crimean Peninsula and behind the Eastern border. Ukraine seems doomed if it does and doomed if it doesn’t. Amid Western dereliction of duty, the prospects of defeat loom large — gradually then suddenly.

The Ukrainian army and people have also been badly let down by the failure of the EU’s big member-states to make good on the pledge to provide a million artillery shells by next month, with hardly half of that number delivered on time. Meanwhile Moscow has benefitted from Iranian drones and North Korean supplies, giving its army a ten to one advantage in artillery barrage on the battlefields.

Even if the US and the rest of the West did deliver all the promised weaponry, there are doubts as to whether Ukraine has the demographic depth to vanquish the Russians who can call not only on conscripts from ethnic minorities in far-flung parts of the Federation but also on about 300,000 recently recruited volunteers. The Kremlin and Russia’s military leadership have no hesitation to send them to their near-certain death in the Donbass meatgrinder. The Ukrainian troops have too suffered catastrophic losses, but the difference is that the average age of Kiev’s soldiers on the frontline is said to approach 43. Ultimately, Moscow’s manpower and military-industrial complex exceed not just Ukraine’s but also Western Europe’s. The Ukrainian people are paying the price of decades of depleting our armed forces and our industries — tens if not hundreds of thousands are making the supreme sacrifice.

Yet the war will end not by military means but rather by the resumption of politics that was in some sense suspended during the worst battles in 2023. If, as the Prussian General and strategist Claus von Clausewitz remarked, “war is not merely a political act but a real political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, a carrying out of the same by other means”, the inversion of this insight is true too. Politics is a continuation of military conflict by other means. As the war is reaching an inflection point, the focus is fast shifting from the battlefield to the political arena, from the frontline to the home front.

Zaluzhny is a realist who recognises that the war has hit a dead end

At a time when Ukrainian troops are on the backfoot, Volodymyr Zelensky faces political unrest. The national consensus around which people rallied is crumbling, as evinced by the sacking of the widely trusted General Valerii Zaluzhny whose popularity by far exceeds that of the President and the ruling party in power. Kiev also has to confront growing opposition from some of Ukraine’s main mayors who resent the increasingly authoritarian rule. And the fusion of atavistic ethno-nationalism with corporate capitalism does little to keep the nation unified behind the country’s political leadership.

Of all those political tensions, the fall-out between Zelensky and Zaluzhny is by far the most serious. While the two disagreed openly about the failed counter offensive last summer and a controversial mobilisation law, the rift is far deeper. It’s a clash of two rival visions. As someone raised in the Soviet military tradition who thwarted the assault on Kiev two years ago, Zaluzhny is a realist who recognises that the war has hit a dead end. In a sober assessment, he wrote last November that “A positional war is a prolonged one that carries enormous risks to Ukraine’s armed forces and to its state.” For the General, Zelensky’s talk about total victory is a form of idealism the country can ill afford as it threatens to end in defeat. For the idealists, before reaching a breakthrough point when it can retrieve territory at speed, Ukraine has to go through an attritional phase of the war to degrade Russia’s capability. The realists contend that Kiev will only lose more men and land, making its position much worse ahead of any ceasefire and a negotiated settlement.

There can be no peace with Putin on his terms — a neutral and demilitarised Ukraine — as it would simply provide Russia the chance to regroup and attack again. What the Ukrainian realists are fighting for is a Ukraine that avoids the terrible fate of being landlocked and reduced to a rump that cannot be rebuilt. That means defending Odessa and the southern Black Sea coast, being able to trade and export grain and — once the guns are silent and there are security guarantees, including foreign troops — the long process of reconstruction can begin in earnest. It’s a case of de facto partition, never accepted as the ultimate reality, but preferred to the spectre of defeat.

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