Ukraine is months into a counter-offensive which has won little territory but cost many lives. Chris Bambery argues US and western policy makers are not being honest about the tactics they are pushing.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has described 2023 as “the year of victory”. His military intelligence chief, Kyrylo Budanov, raised the possibility of Ukrainians vacationing this summer in Crimea.
We are now months into the major, much-heralded military offensive against Russian forces in the east of the country. Before the launch, western reports were bullish, predicting a decisive blow that could sever the so called ‘land bridge’ linking Russia via seized southern Ukrainian territory to the Crimean Peninsula.
What might make these claims sound plausible is the shambolic Russian military performance since February 2021, and the success of last year’s Ukrainian offensive in the North East of the country. Infighting on the Russian side briefly evoked some of these hyper-optimistic attitudes. Western commentators entered a frenzy of unfounded speculation that Vladimir Putin’s downfall was imminent when Yevgeny Prigozhin led a small number of troops from his Wagner private military contractor towards Moscow. The crisis now seems resolved, with Ukraine unable to take advantage of a significant disruption in Russian lines.
In the bigger picture the war is changing, becoming less mobile, more defensive, and bloodier. The halting character of the offensive has confirmed this picture so far. These new conditions are directly related to the political character of the war.
The offensive comes at the urging of Nato and, especially, the US. Training, arms, intelligence, and co-ordination are all sourced from the US security state, just as with the successful offensive of 2022. But this is not 2022. The war in Ukraine is one of attrition today, not of sweeping manoeuvre or lighting advance. With each act, the war in Ukraine has slowed. Defensive warfare has proved the more efficient in destroying the opposing side’s military capacity, and offensives have proved increasingly costly.
Russian positions are now layered networks of trenches, with built fortifications and extensive minefields. In the south, Ukraine is attacking slowly across a wide front. Ukriane needs to keep its options open to drive home an advantage where it finds a point of weakness. But this is a kind of slogging warfare that inevitably results in mass casualties.
A report for the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the UK’s leading defence and security thinktank, presents a grim picture of what Ukrainian forces are up against:
“…concrete reinforced trenches and command bunkers, wire-entanglements, hedgehogs, anti-tank ditches, and complex minefields. Russian mine laying is extensive and mixes anti-tank and victim-initiated anti-personnel mines, the latter frequently being laid with multiple initiation mechanisms to complicate breaching. These defences pose a major tactical challenge to Ukrainian offensive operations.”
Footage from the front (never entirely reliable) seems to show that Ukraine is already sustaining significant losses. Yet US politicians, military officers and pundits alike are urging Ukrainians on to their deaths. Some no longer even conceal it.
Writing in the Atlantic, Eliot Cohen, co-founder of the neo-conservative Project for the New American Century, is certain of immanent victory: “[Russia’s] final theory of victory—that the West does not have the heart to pour vast resources into Ukraine indefinitely—needs to be disproved as well, because there is nothing beyond that.”
With appalling candour, he croons over the strategic returns the US is gaining by fighting through Ukrainian troops: “Breaking the Russian army, as we have, by spending only a small fraction of our defense budget and none of our blood is an astounding strategic bargain.”
On the surface, seizing Crimea remains the objective. Colonel Dale Buckner, a retired special forces commander who runs Global Guardian, told Al Jazeera: “When you get to the point where the Russians are weak and the Ukrainians are at their height, that’s when, if and when the decision is made, that we’re not looking for a diplomatic solution, we really think we can take Crimea.”
Yet the same article points out that Crimea is highly defendable. Any attacker would have narrow points of access, the terrain suits defence in depth, and the Russians would possess air cover and could call on its Black Sea Fleet for help. It quotes the chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, describing its conquest as a “very, very difficult military task”.
An attack aimed at Crimea would be a radically different military operation than anything previously carried out by Ukrainian forces. According to Stefan Gady of the International Institute for Strategic Studies: “… you have a shorter front line, you have more troops, you have layered defenses — you didn’t have all these factors in play during the Kharkiv offensive…”
Away from the bombast, there are many more cautious, even pessimistic assessments of Ukraine’s capacity to sweep Russia out of the country. The Former US Ambassador to Finland, Earle Mack, has reasons to over-egg his pessimism about Ukraine’s chances. He wants the US and its European allies to provide Ukraine with even greater amounts of weaponry, including more Patriot missiles and many more Leopard 2 and Abrams tanks. Even so, writing on his return from Ukraine, the picture he paints is bleak: “Morale is slipping. I could see it in the eyes of the children. More importantly, I could hear it in the voices of their leaders, who continue to say all the right things but lack the same conviction as before.”
The toll of the war on Ukrainian society is extreme: “Russia has spent months pummelling the country with missiles…Ukrainian soldiers have described acute shortages of basic ammunition, including mortar rounds and artillery shells…upwards of 100,000 Ukrainian forces have been killed or wounded…”
The disruption to Ukrainian demographics, the numbers leaving the country, stalling of the economy and upending of civilian life all weigh heavily on the Ukrainian war effort. These are problems that western arms cannot solve: “Ukrainian cities are systematically being pounded into rubble. Critical infrastructure totally destroyed or rendered inoperable. Over 10 million Ukrainians have crossed the border or fled their country. The loss of population, death and destruction has left the people, especially its children, emotionally devastated. Time is one commodity the Ukrainians don’t have.”
US Politicians are talking increasingly tough in public. But the Congress Research Service finds the same problems, with attrition and a shortage of manpower undermining Ukrainian fighting capacities: “Since the beginning of the 2022 war, the UAF [Ukrainian Armed Forces] reportedly has suffered high levels of casualties, lowering force quality. Losses are likely higher among regular UAF and Special Forces units, leading to a greater reliance on TDF [Territorial Defence Forces] and Reserve units…unlike in the initial period of the war, when most recruits were veterans, at present most new recruits have little military experience and, as a result, take longer to train.”
In the west, we only ever hear that Ukraine is united and determined to fight on until some final, total victory. This idea is re-enforced by talk of regime change in Moscow, Putin standing trial in fantasy future proceedings, and the removal of every last Russian soldier from all parts of Ukraine. We are given to believe this is also the outlook of everyone in Ukraine. But the truth, of course, is much more complex.
When Russia invaded there were large numbers of motivated volunteers willing to resist but with a mounting war of attrition that no longer seems the case: “…now men across the country who did not sign up have begun to fear being handed draft slips on the street. Ukraine’s internal security service recently shut down Telegram accounts that were helping Ukrainians avoid locations where authorities were distributing summonses.”