Ukraine’s recent military success requires us to think more strategically about what happens next. This is far from over
20 September 2022 •
Make no mistake: the war in Ukraine just moved up a dangerous gear. Far from turning into the frozen conflict that could have tested the West’s staying power, Ukraine’s recent major counteroffensive has so humiliated Putin that there is every expectation he will now play even uglier than he has already.
Ukraine’s success was textbook deception. Similar to the D-Day landings where Calais was the pronounced target – prompting Hitler to weaken his Normandy defences where the invasion then took place – President Zelenskymade great fanfare of a counter-offensive east of Odessa only for the main effort to take place hundreds of miles north, near Kharkiv.
The few Russian forces that hadn’t shifted south were easily overwhelmed. Poorly equipped and low on ammunition and morale, they soon abandoned their positions.
For Ukraine to achieve such an extensive land grab, taking them to the Russian border, is arguably the most serious setback for Putin to date, and has fuelled a sense of optimism that Ukraine could indeed win.
But it would be irresponsible to assume this turning point in the war will see Russia’s obvious demise.
This is Putin’s war of choice and part of a far wider strategy to re-impose Russian influence across Eastern Europe.
Putin cannot afford to lose. He may have miscalculated Ukraine’s heroic efforts to stay the course and fight but was spot on gambling on the West’s reluctance to get directly involved.
We should anticipate Putin further advancing his unconventional warfare tactics (along with military strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure) to compensate for the poor showing of his conventional forces. Expect more interruptions to remaining oil and gas flows as well as delays to grain departures in order to cause increased economic hardship as winter approaches.
More alarming is his threatened use of weapons of mass destruction – chemical, biological or tactical nuclear. These are lines we should not assume he won’t cross but, if he does, what will be the West’s response?
Whether by accident or design there is also the possibility of Ukraine’s nuclear power stations being turned into improvised nuclear weapons.
The West can throw money at the food and fuel crisis to alleviate problems in home countries and less developed ones, but not at the nuclear conundrum.
Money will not stop Zaporizhzhya, the largest Ukrainian nuclear facility, from potentially blowing up and spreading radioactive contamination across Europe, if that is where Putin chooses to take this war. Only this week Russian forces carried out a missile strike that only narrowly missed a nuclear power plant in Pivdennoukrainsk, southern Ukraine.
As this conflict moves into a more dangerous chapter, we must show greater confidence in framing the character of this conflict rather than responding to events as we have done to date.
If we are to prevent a serious disaster, we must be far more proactive in establishing and defending precedents for modern nuclear warfare before it’s too late.
Both the IAEA and the UN are calling for a demilitarised zone to ring fence Zaporizhzhia and other nuclear power stations. This must now be pursued. The situation at Zaporizhzhia is untenable and has the potential to create the most devastating nuclear accident in history, worse even than Chernobyl.
If a missile strike did lead to a radiation plume drifting westwards there would be serious criticism as to why more was not done to prevent it.
So, first, we need a No-fly zone around the plant. The UN could deploy air defence systems to enforce it. An anti-missile system could be in place to prevent missiles hitting the reactors.
The Ukraine State Emergency Services are looking to create a radiation detection system around the country, and no doubt the Ukraine military are doing the same to protect their own troops to ensure they do not wander into contaminated areas unwittingly.
Sadly, we still lack the confidence or political appetite to directly stand up to Putin. Opportunities such as sending in a NATO division to deter a Russian invasion in the first place or seizing the initiative through a UN maritime coalition protecting the grain convoys from Odesa, were lost. Frankly, they weren’t even considered.
Doing nothing is not an option. Putin is now in a corner; this is arguably when he is at his most dangerous. Ukraine’s recent military success requires us to think more strategically about what happens next. This is far from over and will get worse before the situation improves.
Tobias Ellwood is Conservative MP for Bournemouth East and Chair of the Defence Select Committee
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE is former commander of UK and Nato CBRN Forces.