The fortunes of war in Ukraine are as uncertain as ever — and of deepening global impact. Heavy losses are reported from all sides. Cities are threatened with blackouts courtesy of strikes by Iranian drones and missiles, on which Russia now increasingly relies.
Unusually, Russian officials have responded to bloggers claiming losses of hundreds of lives of raw recruits in ill-judged battles at Pavlivka and Makiivka in the Donbas. At Makiivka only 130 of the 570-strong battle group survived, according to reports, and most commanders fled.
Ukraine is still far short of adequate air defences to protect its large cities, according to a field report by Jack Watling and Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute. They conclude that Ukraine needs to rebuild its defence industry. Furthermore, it needs its own modern air force rather than leftover aircraft and kit from the Soviet era and cast-offs from Western allies.
The priority now is to get Ukraine through the winter, and to prevent the conflict spreading, on which Russia seems intent by covert means. A major cyber offensive has started, judging by the number of IT glitches and cuts in and around the UK alone. This potentially includes damage to cable from Shetland to mainland Scotland, and the Faroes, and internet failures. One group of specialist analysts think the incidents are now running at about 600 per week in Britain.
The principal European regional allies will be asked to do a lot more in sending equipment and military training, and the means to repair and rebuild essential infrastructure.
Up to now the American-European coalition has remained solid — almost unexpectedly so. Germany and France are sending more weaponry. This week Britain is hosting a summit of 10 Joint Expeditionary Force allies outside Edinburgh to map out what to do next. These allies, including Finland, the Nordics and Baltic states, guard the northern flank from the Baltic to the Arctic, where Russia is now very active.
Fears that a change of complexion of the US Congress at this week’s elections will mean the US taking a softer line with Russia seem unfounded. But Viktor Orban of Hungary, the EU’s closest friend to Vladimir Putin, says “the hope for peace is named Donald Trump”.
Both armies seem exhausted, and the war cannot go on at this rate for much longer. “It’s in the peace, rather than the fighting, that the tensions will become clear,” Bulgarian commentator Ivan Krastev writes.
Jake Sullivan, the US National Security adviser, has been talking to his opposite number in Ukraine, Oleksiy Danilov, about possible peace moves. The talks will have to be between Kyiv and Moscow — the US seems to have learnt from the mistake of dealing over the head of a sitting government in Afghanistan two years ago.
The Ukrainians are playing tough. They have lost too much for a soft deal. At least 25,000 people were killed in Mariupol — Ukraine’s total dead now must be over 100,000. So far the terms of discussion are no direct talks with Putin himself, and Russia must quit all the territory claimed since 2014 — a tall order, as this includes Crimea.
To leave Russian forces where they are now, strung out across east and southern Ukraine, would be unthinkable. Besides, Russia seems physically unable to hold on to the four districts it has just claimed unless they can raise a completely new and improved army of about 400,000.
This is Putin’s war. Now his personal position is showing signs of eroding, the longer the conflict runs. But, in the end, it will have to be the Russians who decide his fate. Nor should the aim be to defeat the Russian forces so that the Russian Federation breaks up — a fantastic notion with dangerous, possibly nuclear, implications.
The objective should be to contain Russia and maintain an independent and viable Ukraine. A dose of realism is needed in working out how much of the trashed Donbas, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson districts can be clawed back — plus the fractious status of Crimea.
Then comes the bill. Reconstruction is likely to cost at least half a trillion dollars. And it will need heavy proofing against Ukraine’s corruption culture.
For the UK, it’s a tricky proposition at a tricky time. The Government is committed to extending its current £2.5bn commitment to Kyiv, just as the defence budget is due to be frozen or even cut by Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt.
Ukraine is a crisis and obligation which the UK cannot duck. It should be a spur to clearer and more practical thinking as the Sunak government overhauls its defence, strategic and foreign policies.