Discover more from Robert’s Conflict Mitigation Newsletter
174 - Can Ukraine Drive Through the Russian Lines? Is Victory Achievable?
Turkey and Thailand
The headlines are deceptive. NATO and Europe are ramping up important weapon deliveries to Ukraine. German Chancellor Olaf Schulz promises to support Ukraine’s battle against Putin in every material and moral way. Britain is making strident affirmations of enduring support. President Volodymyr Zelensky travels to Germany and Italy, and even consorts with Pope Francis, another moral backer of Ukraine’s defensive actions against Putin’s hellish invasion of his land.
This past weekend Germany announced the transfer of thirty Leopard 1 main battle tanks, twenty armored infantry fighting vehicles, four air defense systems, and 200 drones. Earlier, tiny Estonia donated HIMARS missile launching and air defense batteries to Ukraine. Britain’s modern tanks and aircraft are already in Ukraine. It is also transferring potent air-launched cruise missiles with a range of about 125 miles.
Ukraine’s fighters appear to have regained a two or three square kilometers of territory in Bakhmut after six months of relentless attacks by Russia, including Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group mercenaries. Prighozin has even been complaining loudly about the regular Russian armed forces’ refusal to resupply his own followers with ammunition.
There have been fragmentary reports of Ukrainian martial initiatives in and around Soledar and Volodar, north of Bakhmut, and an attack on Mayorsk, to the south. Ukrainian officers and soldiers have proven adept at learning how to use the new equipment supplied by the West – Patriot missile batteries, new Leopard and Challenger tanks, self-propelled howitzers, long-range missile assemblies, and such important items as night-vision goggles. They have also cleverly rejigged ordinary consumer drones to drop grenades or other explosive devices.
Because of high levels of Ukrainian morale, both at the front and at home, all of Ukraine fights fiercely for its existential survival. It knows that its national concern is for freedom internally, but also – on behalf of the remainder of the free world – for sustaining human freedom everywhere. That sense of moral superiority (and the moral dread of failure in the effort) drives much of the struggle against a clearly immoral, narcissistically driven, foe.
Zelensky says that the Russians not only have no soul, but that everything about their assault on Ukraine and on freedom reeks of hypocritical ambition. He reports that Russian fighting morale is non-existent – that no one, not even Prigozhin believes in the fake goals that supposedly drove the invasion more than a year ago. Putin lies, says Zelensky.
Yet, there are few overt signs of any meaningful opposition to Putin’s continued war from among the ranks of his generals. All popular dissension has been stilled, coercively. The mothers of dead soldiers who objected to losses in Afghanistan have not mobilized yet against the Ukrainian slaughter of conscripts.
But in some ways the most interesting hints of anti-Putinesque action has come from sabotage within Russia, including rail transport explosions. Growing dissension has emerged in both civilian and military circles; many sense that Putin is leading mother Russia obsessively and foolishly into a dead end of his own devising.
Even so, Russia may be short of missiles and drones, but it still seems to have sufficient projectiles to send cascades against civilian targets far behind the war’s front lines, even bombarding distant Kyiv on a nightly basis. Moreover, despite its sharp losses – as many as 200,000 fighters killed or injured – Russia has more conscripts to toss into the maelstrom. According to a senior European defense official, “They’ve run out of quality troops, but they still have big numbers. At some point, quantity becomes a quality of its own.”
Hence, no matter how the headlines hint at Ukraine possibly having an upper hand and being about to use recently acquired Western equipment to launch a counteroffensive, no victory is assured. Battered as the Russians may be, they still can throw hordes of troops at Ukraine. They have a much more potent air force (Ukraine desperately lacks punch in the skies). Their attack drones and missiles are in short supply but are still much more abundant than those at Ukraine’s disposal.
Russia is doubtless preparing to resist Ukraine’s coming counter strikes. Russia can hardly afford to countenance a breakthrough by Ukrainian legions, especially one that would sunder Russia’s control of Crimea and the routes there. Russia’s naval fleet is based at Sevastopol on Crimea’s south coast.
The war in Ukraine could stutter along, with no major shifts in the battle lines and with little regaining by Ukrainians of its Russian-occupied territory. Or Ukraine could make a major surge through Russian trenches and armor and across heavily mined terrain. It could then control towns and cities that Russia clutched in 2014 and more recently. Or Ukraine could attack, be repulsed, and suffer a major defeat
Ukraine and its Western backers hope for the second scenario to be realized, not that it would mean anything like an outright victory. But it would enable Ukraine to confront Russia as an equal at the bargaining table. Such a negotiated halt to the war in Ukraine is what most analysts assume will happen, somehow.
Either the second or third of these scenarios would lead to stronger or weaker Ukrainian leverage at the negotiations that Washington, Paris, and Brussels (and other capitals) earnestly hope can lead to a sustainable cease fire and a meaningful peace.
If a negotiated ceasefire occurs without a major Ukrainian triumph, Zelensky and his government will have to swallow hard and, alas, accept Russia’s presence in the east and in Crimea. The West wants the war over. And so might Putin if his forces are still in formidable, but not triumphant, positions on the battlefield.
There are ammunition, fuel availability, and staff imponderables. Will either side be able to deploy sufficient numbers of fighters in good health? Fortunately, for now Ukraine has the wind at its back. We could see a major advance early next month.
Turkey: Voters yesterday denied both autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, his chief challenger, a conclusive majority. So the two contenders will face off on May 28. Erdogan was ahead with 49 percent of the vote, Kilicdaroglu with 45 percent.
Washington and Brussels were hoping for clear popular rejection of Erdogan and his embrace of Putin’s war aims. Erdogan has also been avoiding Western sanctions, purchasing Russian oil, gas, and nuclear fuel, and allowing critical war supplies and semi-conductor chips to transit Turkey to Russia.
Thailand: In contrast to the Turkish electoral result, in Thailand yesterday progressive younger voters overwhelmingly propelled the anti-monarchical, progressive, pro-democracy Move Forward Party to a striking victory ahead of the long time opposition Thai populist party of the billionaire Shinawatra family and, in third place, the party of the incumbent prime minister and top general. A military coup is always possible in Thailand, but the preferences of the people are now clearly in favor of democracy, freedom, and human rights. It will be difficult to revert to martial law.