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The war in Ukraine is now entering its 11th week. Neither side, the Ukrainian nation in arms nor Vladimir Putin’s battered legions, is admitting defeat or declaring convincing victory.
Things are about to change. At the Victory Day Parade on May 9, Russia’s supreme leader has to declare some sort of success, or declare that he is widening the conflict as the Russian state and people are under threat from an invented international fascist conspiracy led by Ukraine. For Putin now it is a matter of personal survival.
An army of some 20 Russian “battalion tactical groups” has begun launching a thrust south from Izyum to cut off some nine Ukrainian battalion groups in central Donbas. A final assault is under way on the vast Azovstal steel works in Mariupol. Missiles and rockets have rained down on the port city of Odesa. To the north the Russian rouble has been distributed in Kherson, and rejected in angry demonstrations by its citizens. This sets the scene for Putin to declare, for next week’s parade, a series of phony referendums in Luhansk and Donetsk in Donbas, and Kherson to be annexed to Russia itself.
To seize and hold Donbas and the coast to Odesa would require an occupying force in excess of 100,000. Already Russia has lost nearly a third of its forces from the army that invaded on February 24. This suggests Putin will have to declare some form of general mobilisation, calling out extra conscripts and reservists, and martial law. This carries huge risks of sporadic, scattered and possibly uncontainable protest.
There is something rotten at the heart of the Russian forces, despite the expenditure of $250 billion annually on defence. “The command and hierarchy are rigid, doctrinaire and out of date, while at base the forces are riddled with corruption,” a former UK ambassador to Moscow told me.
The Ukrainians are genuinely grateful for the help from Britain — not only crucial bits of kit but training in command and logistics, which allowed them to prepare for this war. Britain, too, must prepare its defence and security for the issues raised by the Ukraine crisis , with a renewed focus on food and energy security.
Defence policy needs adjustment, not overhaul — there must be no cuts in personnel. The trained fighting man is needed to win the close, contact battle. After all this is how Ukrainians are winning the initiative.
Robert Fox is Defence Editor