Whisper it, but Ukraine may no longer be winning

Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 28 April 2023. © Richard Kemp

In recent weeks, optimism has been the main feature of analysis regarding Ukraine’s chances this summer, as Kyiv gears up for a major offensive. The failure of Russian forces to gain any significant territory since the winter has, quite understandably, excited Western pundits. But there is a risk that we are over-estimating Kyiv’s abilities and becoming complacent in the process.

Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, is now trying to damp down expectations. ‘It is definitely overheated – everyone wants another victory,’ he says. ‘We didn’t believe in victory before. We used to want Ukraine to survive at least minimally.’ His words are a critical reality check for those predicting the imminent collapse of Russian forces. We should all adopt such caution; not just to avoid disappointment, but also because it signals the need to plan for a sharp change of gear in our support for Kyiv.

The Ukrainian army says it has been generating more than a dozen brigades with tanks, artillery and engineers, much supplied by the West, to hurl at the Russians. While continuing to fight in the Donbas, the general staff has been conserving reserves and building them up to form a corps that can have a decisive effect against a strengthening Russian defence. But while this makes strategic sense, the fighting, especially in Bakhmut, has been very costly in artillery shells and missiles, depleting Kyiv’s reserve forces.

Armoured assaults against heavily defended enemy positions – which will define the Ukrainian offensive – are complex operations requiring extensive training and the ability to co-ordinate attack forces, combat engineers, air defence and air support. Yet the picture that emerged in the apparent leaks of classified Pentagon papers is one in which Ukraine will struggle to maintain these functions.

One reported leak stated that the ‘enduring Ukrainian deficiencies in training and munitions supplies probably will strain progress and exacerbate casualties during the offensive’.

Ukraine could attack strategic locations from afar, but pushing the Russians back in the south and east will be a very tough fight. The enemy have spent months preparing heavy fortifications against potential axes of advance and have been building up their own forces and combat supplies. So this offensive will be a very different proposition to the amazing successes last year at Kharkiv and Kherson against a thinly spread enemy that was willing to trade ground for time.

Ultimately, it could all mean that, rather than a series of victories and ever-increasing momentum, the coming months bring yet another stalemate. And while this short-term failure would not amount to an outright defeat of Ukrainian forces, some actors – such as China and France – may use the subsequent disappointment of Western observers to pursue an unbalanced peace deal.

In anticipation of just that, Xi Jinping is now making overtures to Volodymyr Zelensky, hoping to lure him towards accepting terms that would be bad for Ukraine, good for Russia and, above all, good for China. No doubt Emmanuel Macron, who recently returned from a conciliatory trip to Beijing, will be pressuring Kyiv to cave.

It’s urgent, therefore, that Western countries which have supported Ukraine to the hilt develop a plan to counter that ‘diplomacy’. We should make it clear that if this offensive fails, we will redouble our support, with fresh sanctions on Moscow, fighter jets to Kyiv and more pressure on countries such as Iran to stop facilitating Putin’s sanctions-avoidance.

As long as Ukraine has the will to keep fighting, it must never be left to the whims of disingenuous actors who, sensing a stalemate, will try to force it to make peace on unfavourable terms. Western complacency now may lead to such a disaster in the autumn.

Image: Wikimedia Commons