Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 17 December 2022. © Richard Kemp
Rumours of Putin’s imminent escape to Venezuela are greatly exaggerated, as Mark Twain might have said. This flight of fancy has been triggered by the cancellation of an annual press conference and other high profile fixtures, including the Russian dictator’s traditional ice hockey match in Red Square, although a simpler explanation for that might be the optics of the president capering around on the ice while his men are freezing at the front.
That being said, any ruthless despot worth his salt has a Plan B up his sleeve in case the axe gets too close to his neck. Alas, we’re not there yet. It’s unlikely Putin’s generals are telling him that the game is up in Ukraine because, true or not, that’s definitely something he does not want to hear. Instead, despite everything, as they did at the beginning of the year, the military chiefs will be assuring him that victory can be his.
To save his own skin and salvage something of his tattered reputation, Putin has no other option but to vanquish Ukraine. With 100,000 soldiers killed or wounded, Russia isolated on the world stage and its economy savaged, he cannot possibly consider reverting to the pre-February status quo or anything like it no matter how many off-ramp arrows the French president flashes in front of him.
Hence the Ukrainian general staff say Putin is preparing to launch a major offensive between January and March, with Kyiv as the target. There has been increased Russian military activity in Belarus over recent weeks, but it is not clear whether that amounts to a demonstration of force to tie up large numbers of Ukrainian troops, or a real threat to Kyiv and to supply lines from Poland.
Those who reckon Putin would not contemplate another ground assault against Ukraine’s capital after failing so ignominiously earlier in the year are not looking through the eyes of a dictator who has boxed himself into a corner, whose neck is on the line and who is surrounded by yes men.
Is there any chance Putin can succeed now in a renewed offensive having suffered so many devastating setbacks? One of his major problems in February was failure to field sufficient forces for his blitzkrieg, hubristically expecting Zelensky to fall to his knees within days of the opening salvoes. Putin now understands that folly and is building up a much bigger force while manufacturing artillery and tank shells and buying up drones and ballistic missiles from Iran and North Korea.
Contrary to the dismissive views of many armchair generals, the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, General Valery Zaluzhny, says that Russia’s mobilisation ‘has worked’ and its army is powerfully reconstituting. We should take his warning seriously, even though his public utterances are necessarily made with one eye to the West, on whose support his forces are totally dependent.
Then there is the Ukrainian army. General Zaluzhny will have to either mount a major offensive to seize the initiative and try to prevent the Russians from attacking, or, if they launch first, counter attack. Or both.
The challenges are immense. With Russia potentially assaulting along axes in the north, the south or the east, early intelligence could make the difference between victory or defeat.
It is ultimately a race between two armies to build up forces and be ready first with the most – men, machines and combat supplies. And while all this is going on, don’t forget, Ukraine is fighting for its life every single day, with much of the front-line active and regular missile attacks on its cities. The next few weeks could be the most crucial so far and the West should be pulling out all the stops to ensure Ukraine wins the race to attack.
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