OPINION - Our fragile alliance over Ukraine is wavering as Vladimir Putin’s forces rampage

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·5-min read
OPINION - Our fragile alliance over Ukraine is wavering as Vladimir Putin’s forces rampage
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The news from Ukraine is very grim – to paraphrase Churchill on the fall of France in 1940. The Russians are advancing slowly, steadily, brutally in Donbas. There are hundreds, possibly thousands if civilians are included, of casualties every day. Cholera is reported to be spreading through the uprooted populations of Mariupol and the trashed towns of the Black Sea shoreline.

Granaries are being pillaged, harvests fields burned and shelled and some of the best wheat lands of Europe are uncultivable wastes.

The plight of the Ukrainian forces is grim – with more than a hundred soldiers dying each day and frontline units about to run out of ammunition. The Guardian and the New York Times are plied daily with figures of losses and privation by Kyiv officials. One claimed that they need some 500 sophisticated rocket launchers, the MLRS and HIMARS from the US, UK and their allies.

Of course, no such figures and claims should be taken at face value. They are carefully calculated pieces of information ops, and propaganda. It pays to exaggerate – President Zelensky knows he has to keep his country’s war on the front pages and in the headlines – an offensive he is just beginning to lose.

Casualties run high for sure, and freshly trained and new fighters are needed – and Ukraine’s people are exhausted. Now it is likely that the professional units will have to pull back to a more defensive line on the edge of Donbas, if this can be managed. The alternatives have to be considered, where and how to hold the Russians. Kyiv’s allies have to face the prospect of the possibility of collapse and large elements of the government retreating to exile.

For the Russian forces now rampaging and battering their way into the heart of Luhansk there is another problem. They lack the numbers to fully occupy the Donbas they have seized, let alone the rest of Luhansk and the Black Sea coast to Odesa. Soviet style rocket and artillery systems can bash cities and villages to bits, but they are no good for crowd control, fighting guerilla ambushes and running a police state. Currently there are about 120, 000 Russian forces of different kinds in Donbas. To occupy what they now claim, would need about 250,000.

Putin knows he cannot rely the best Russian troops for this task. So far he has been relying heavily on units contracted from minority communities such as Ossetia, Dagestan, and the Eastern Districts of the Russian Federation. “It’s remarkably like the later campaigns in Chechnya,” says one of the UK’s leading experts on European security, “Putin throws in the kitchen sink to trash the place. Then he puts in local levies , from the poor minorities, to try to manage the occupation.”

In Donbas the Russians have been forcibly conscripting prisoners and militias of the so-called National Popular Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk to do the occupation. There are increasing numbers of protests on social media from Donetsk about their young men who have been ‘disappeared’ by the Russian forces to uncertain duties and destinations.

The battle for Ukraine is at a flexion point, and moving to a different dynamic and narrative. What opened as a nasty regional war is now vibrating unsympathetically across the region, and on a global scale – though many of the interested and affected parties, the main allies of Nato and EU included, seem reluctant to share this perception. This week, Scholz, Macron and Draghi – leaders of the three leading EU democracies and economies, are due into Kyiv to see Volodymyr Zelensky. Important constituents of Germany, Italy and France want Ukraine to made to sue for peace. They want access to Russian oil and gas on the old terms and the old price.

But things cannot go back to where they were before February 24th. Russia broke the rules it agreed to in the UN and the OSCE, and Putin has said he intends to go on remaking the boundaries of Europe to reflect a new reality of Russian power and glory. His commemoration of the 350th anniversary of Peter the Great, and his defeat of the 17th Century Swedish Empire of Charles XII, seemed a piece of historical fantasy. But he meant it – and the speech has been repeated constantly since on state media.

In the next fortnight or so there are to be summits galore, G7, Nato twice, the EU and UN agencies. All will have agendas about new security architectures for a new tomorrow, for peace and cooperation, climate change, managing the Arctic, and of course there is the worrisome about war in Ukraine, which mustn’t be allowed to spill over. After all, a newly appointed British Nato official stated this week, “Nato is not committed (by obligation) to defending Ukraine. We don’t want war with Russia.”

So, there is nothing so specific or timely as a combined action plan for military support, humanitarian and reconstruction activities. More worrying are the signs of increasing indecision from the Biden administration. This month the New York Times, considered close to the Biden inner council, has been publishing regular opinion pieces about dialing down the Ukraine conflict, of finding a way out, implicitly settling with Russia.

Britain, on the other hand, is being seen as too incisive and clear about what needs to be done to support Zelensky’s Ukraine and contain rather than appease Russia’s excesses. “It’s several brilliant and far-sighted individuals rather than the ministries and institutions themselves,” one of the UK’s most successful retired general observes.

A key premise of their analysis is that Ukraine is part of a gathering crisis involving food, grain shortages, dearth of manufactured diesel fuel – to give a few detailed examples. These thinking Brits realise that the war and the crisis has no simple solution, or set of quick fixes, and will run.

And since it involves us all, we all need an action plan.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting