OPINION - While Zelensky grapples with betrayal, Putin is growing more dangerous

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·4-min read
OPINION - While Zelensky grapples with betrayal, Putin is growing more dangerous
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The fortunes of war engulfing Ukraine are as unpredictable and ominous as ever. There is not much good news for any of us. Volodymyr Zelensky has fired the chiefs of his intelligence services, and the prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova — accusing them of allowing Russian agents to flourish in Ukraine’s security apparatus.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin has made a rare trip abroad — to Tehran to consult with two frenemies, presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Ebrahim Raisi of Iran. He wants Turkey to help get Russian exports out through the Black Sea. From Iran he wants a new fleet of drones, and help in processing gas and oil products to Asia.

Both Zelensky and Putin seem to be in a tight spot, though neither will admit it. On the ground the fighting goes on — with very little new ground being captured by either side in Donbas and along the Black Sea Coast. Putin’s artillery continues to smash towns and villages; the latest ploy is to set wheat fields alight and shell harvester crews as they dash to cut the grain.

On the eve of the Tehran visit, Putin told state media that everything was still going to plan. His former deputy Dmitry Medvedev said “we will achieve peace in Ukraine on our own terms”.

It is unlikely, though, that the Russians can conquer Donbas by the end of August. They have crude firepower and little else. “Since February, Russian forces have become weaker and Ukrainian forces relatively much stronger because of the new weaponry provided by the Nato allies,” a senior Nato official told me this week.

In the short term, it looks as if a bloody stalemate in Donbas could lead to a series of shaky ceasefires. But as happened with the Donbas wars that began in 2014, followed by two unfulfilled Minsk peace accords, there is no permanent truce in sight — much though an increasing chorus of opinion across Europe desires this.

President Volodymyr Zelensky (PA Media)
President Volodymyr Zelensky (PA Media)

The problem is where Ukraine sits in Putin’s war aims. As Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the R.Politik think-tank, explains in a brilliant essay in the New York Times this week, the project to “russify” Ukraine and bring it back to Moscow is only a means to a much wider aim to challenge Nato, the US and EU and all it stands for.

The fight in Donbas and along the Black Sea is becoming a communal and civil war with a contemporary twist. Communities are mixed, and so are their loyalties. Some 600 Ukraine security agents are thought to have stayed behind and are now helping Russian occupiers and their local proxies. Mobile phone apps — used so brilliantly in the defence of Kyiv in February and March — are now being used by Russian sympathisers to spot and message the co-ordinates of gun positions across the farmlands still held by Ukrainian forces.

Russia has difficulty in occupying the lands its forces have taken, which are being hit by sabotage raids by stay-behind squads. There is something almost desperate about the requirement for drones from Tehran. Drones on both sides are being lost in quantity — and they are needed more than ever for targeting in the ferocious artillery duels across Donbas. Ironically, the Shahed 191 which has caught Moscow’s eye was based on an American RQ-170 Sentinel downed over Iran after it had strayed from Afghanistan in 2011.

Robert Fox (Evening Standard)
Robert Fox (Evening Standard)

The armed commitment of Nato allies to Ukraine will now have to go up a gear, and swiftly. The prospect of a messy deal to get gas and oil from Russia through the winter, or a sudden collapse by Ukraine and all its forces, are extremely unlikely this year and probably next — whatever the peace lobbies in France, Germany and Italy may wish.

Nato allies have surprised the world with the speed with which they brought arms and funds to Ukraine and introduced Russian sanctions last spring. But that’s just the first, and maybe easiest, move. After all the gestures and pledges of defence spending increases, the strategy must move from aspiration to hard practicalities, working a plan of strategic support that starts now.

This applies to the UK especially. Ukraine has laid Britain’s ordnance and military thinking stocks bare — it has shown some big holes in our forces’ capability and management. The next government needs a new strategic road map and plan which will need a big commercial and industrial buy-in if it is to have a rapid effect.

Any further delay is opting for jeopardy, trouble and the new complexities of conflict.

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