Ukraine has blown its best chance to defeat Putin

Article published in The Sunday Telegraph, 24 October 2023. © Richard Kemp

Ukraine’s counter offensive had to achieve strategic breakthrough against Russian defences or inflict sufficient attrition to cause a collapse of enemy forces while at the same time energising Western countries to maintain their support. That had to be accomplished before the winter rains set in and armoured manoeuvre became unsustainable. Well, we’re there now and there has been no such breakthrough or attrition.

Nor are any such successes on the cards. Rather, the counter offensive is atrophying towards deadlock, with no prospect of penetrating Russia’s heavily fortified defences with current military capabilities. Even this may be an optimistic view, with Russia undoubtedly preparing its own offensive against a worn-down Ukrainian army.

Of course, the hard truth is that the counter offensive could have succeeded if the US and European countries had stepped up to the plate. They failed to do so, providing only enough military aid to keep Ukraine fighting but nowhere near enough to secure victory against such a powerful enemy. Every step has been marked by procrastination and heel-dragging reluctance to give Ukraine the tools it needed to finish the job.

For example, after months of indecision, it was only in October that the US eventually supplied the long-range ATACMS missiles that could have been decisive if sent in earlier. F16 fighter planes that would have multiplied Ukrainian combat power still remain a distant vision.

Lying behind this abject failure was a successful Russian campaign of deterrence. At a time when bold action was essential, Moscow’s threats of escalation were met instead with timidity and dread. Washington prioritised avoiding retaliation over Ukrainian victory. The ATACMS are a case in point. Biden feared Putin’s wrath if he supplied Ukraine with weapons that could hit Russian territory. Yet, showing the emptiness of his threats, when ATACMS were first used last month, Putin played them down, claiming the weapons ‘cannot change the situation on the front lines’.

All this has left Ukraine in a dire situation. European leaders, many of whom vacillated from the outset, now have little hope of seeing their military aid transformed into battlefield success. They are tiring of the war and want to broker a deal with the Kremlin to end it. Giorgia Meloni admitted as much in a phone call with Russian pranksters: ‘I see that there is a lot of fatigue, I have to say the truth, from all the sides. We are near the moment in which everybody understands that we need a way out.’

That was in September. Since then the attention of the world has shifted from Ukraine to the Middle East where Russia’s ally Iran is fuelling a regional conflagration. Putin’s strategy of wearing down Western support for Ukraine could not have been better served. The fallout from the Middle East conflict has also created increasing worries at home, with US and European cities hit by massive protests against their governments’ support for Israel.

Meanwhile Joe Biden has an election looming. Foreign policy may not be a decisive vote-winner but it is certainly a key factor. He needs a major plus to cancel out the Afghanistan negative that is being endlessly recycled by his opponents. He had hoped that a resurrection of Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and a historic normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia would give him that. But both are now off the table, at least for the medium-term.

A resolution to the war in Ukraine is one remaining option. What if he chooses to pressure Ukraine into a ceasefire by threatening to deny or reduce American support? Few European leaders would seriously object as Meloni’s phone call suggests.

Whatever happens, we – Britain – must continue to support the more noble, if difficult, pathway to ultimate victory. Give Ukraine the air superiority, combat engineering and artillery it needs to change the battlefield. For as things stand, only Putin may emerge victorious.

Image: President of Ukraine