As Russia raises the spectre of nuclear war, Kyiv faces the difficult challenge of how to reclaim territory Moscow considers its own.
ByRoland Oliphant, SENIOR FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT
Ukrainian soldiers walk past columns of destroyed Rusian vehicles in the village of Shestovytsia, UkraineCREDIT: DANIEL BEREHULAK/The New York Times
“The war in Ukraine is our war – it is everyone’s war… because Ukraine’s victory is a strategic imperative for all of us,” Liz Truss said in her Mansion House speech this week.
“We are doubling down. We will keep going further and faster to push Russia out of the whole of Ukraine.”
With those words, the Foreign Secretary made it official. Britain may not be directly at war with Russia in Ukraine, but indirectly it is most certainly in a Cold War, a proxy war.
For the first time, Britain, and by extension the wider Western alliance, is publicly committed to Kyiv’s own war aims. It is a dramatic shift.
They may not like to admit it now, but at the beginning of the war Western governments were all but convinced Vladimir Putin would prevail.
So little faith did they have in a Ukrainian victory that they pulled their embassies out of the capital – Britain even pulled its out of the country – and they refused to send heavy weapons that might fall into Russian hands.
Ms Truss’ speech articulated a change of course that has been underway for weeks before it crystallised in a series of announcements this week.
On Wednesday, Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, convened a meeting of counterparts from over 40 nations to cement an alliance to provide Ukraine with military support, telling reporters that “Ukraine can win”.
On Thursday, the Biden administration asked Congress for approval for a $33 billion military aid package – a sum equivalent to half Russia’s entire annual defence budget.
And on Friday, Congress approved a Lend-Lease act for Ukraine modelled on the plan that helped Britain and the Soviet Union defeat the Nazis.
The American moves are the most significant, but they came alongside a flurry of activity by other allies, including most of Europe and Australia pledging heavy weapons and other assistance.
Kier Giles, an author specialising in the Russian military, says Western governments are slowly realising “Russia is not going to stop until it is stopped”. In other words, Ukraine’s allies not only believe it could win, but that it has to. But how?
Russian military movements
The shortest path to victory lies across the battlefield. In the imagination, it goes something like this: While resisting the Kremlin’s current offensive in the Donbas, Ukraine re-equips and retrains on the armour, artillery and air-defence systems currently pouring in from Western allies.
As the Russian offensive peters out, Kyiv launches its own strategic counter-offensive. Ukrainian tanks rout Vladimir Putin’s exhausted and over-extended troops and chase them all the way back to the border.
The Kremlin, with its army shattered and its arms industry throttled by sanctions, has no choice but to come to terms.
But that, says Mark Galeotti, a veteran Russia watcher specialising in its security services, is unlikely.
The Russian army may have botched its blitzkrieg; it may also have clear problems with morale, logistics, and leadership. But Moscow still has more men and more guns, and it has historically been very tenacious on the defensive.
f it digs in on captured territory, the onus would be on the Ukrainians to find the 3:1 numerical advantage required for offensive operations.
If Vladimir Putin formally declares war – a step many expect him to take on May 9 – he could raise conscripts from a population three times the size of Ukraine’s.
Even with the new kit provided by the West, a Second World War-style strategic counter offensive to retake swathes of Kherson, Zaporizhia, Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts would be a tall order.
“The odds are we are not heading for a situation in which either Russia or Ukraine can deliver a knockout blow. So the question is where the lines are, will it freeze or not?” said Mr Galeotti.
The second route to Ms Truss’ version of victory is a combination of military and economic attrition that eventually becomes unbearable for the Russian government.
“That is about Russia’s capability to rearm a war under sanctions. But also I think it is to lead to this revolution in the Russian elite’s mindset, that they cannot wage a war against the united West. They have never waged a war against a united West that they have won,” said Orysia Lutseyvich, the director of the Ukraine Forum at Chatham House.
How long it will take for that realisation to dawn in the Kremlin, no one knows. Mrs Truss spoke about the war being a “long haul” – a sentiment echoed in public and private by almost any Western official you ask. Some are speaking in terms not of months, but years.
In the meantime, the prospect is of a repeat of the grinding stalemate that took hold in the Donbas after 2015: a heavily fortified front line snaking hundreds of miles across the steppe between Russian occupied and Ukrainian held territory, slowly calcifying into a de-facto border.
And time can work for both sides. While the West hopes to grind down Russia economically, the Kremlin will be hoping to hold out until cracks appear in the Western alliance.
“We see some alignment on those objectives between Eastern Europe, the UK, US and Canada, but there is still a gap with what Germany and France say or think,” said Ms Lutsevych. “They have another view that we should not corner him or threaten Putin too much militarily with defeat.
“I think that is the strategic thinking about how to approach this war, and the big question is: ‘how do you defeat a nuclear power?'”
It is a reasonable question. How would Mr Putin react to the prospect of defeat, especially with the war arriving on what he considers as sovereign territory, like Crimea?
Mr Putin and his allies have spent the past week making explicit references to the use of nuclear weapons, but exactly when the Kremlin might resort to such apocalyptic measures remains ambiguous.
Mr Putin himself told the Russian parliament this week that “interference” in unfolding events might be a threat to Russia’s vital strategic interests warranting a “lighting fast response”. But he did not say whether current Western arms deliveries meet that bench mark.
Margarita Simonyan, one of his most loyal propagandists, suggested the mere threat of defeat would be enough to do it. “Either we lose in Ukraine or the Third World War starts,” she told Russian Television.
Many Ukrainian officials are dismissive of such threats. “People are saying we should be careful not to win too much,” said Vadym Pristaiko, the Ukrainian ambassador to London. “But we have been fighting a nuclear power for eight years. What do you want us to do?”
And there remains some obfuscation about where Western war aims end. President Volodymyr Zelensky said early in the war that there could be no ceasefire until Russian forces had retreated to their positions before the February 24 invasion.
Western officials speaking on condition of anonymity just before Ms Truss’s speech described a similar goal as the “minimum” objective.
Ms Truss has gone further. She seems to be implying that Ukraine must also take back both the parts of the Donbas occupied by Russia and its proxy separatist republics in 2014, and Crimea, which Russian annexed the same year.
That, many believe, may not be realistic.