As talks about possible peace talks start, Ukraine’s backers must hold firm

The following article, which is behind a paywall, comes courtesy of the excellent FB page; Boycott Russia Today.

The war will not end soon.

Ukrainian marines attend military drills near a frontline in Donetsk region

image: reuters

Aug 4, 2023

The Economist
Aug 4th 2023

SENIOR OFFICIALS from as many as 40 countries—Russia not included—are heading to Saudi Arabia this weekend, for the latest attempt to build support for a peace process in Ukraine.

The timing might well have been very dramatic. A week ago came the word that Ukraine’s 10th army corps, a mighty unit centred on three Western-trained brigades equipped with advanced NATO weapons, was on the move in the south. The aim, it seemed, was to punch through Russia’s elaborate defences in the occupied Zaporizhia sector of southern Ukraine, scattering the invaders before it, and driving on to the city of Melitopol and beyond it to the sea.

Such a bold strike would upend the entire war. Russia’s forces would be cut in two. Those to the west of the new Ukrainian positions would be denied resupply and reinforcement. Crimea itself, illegally annexed in 2014, would be isolated. The “land bridge” linking the peninsula to the occupied Donbas region and to Russia itself would be severed.

The only way in or out would be via a vulnerable road and rail bridge across the Kerch strait, which the Ukrainians have already badly damaged and would easily be able to take out altogether from their new positions. A humiliated Vladimir Putin, his position only likely to get worse, might feel compelled to head to the negotiating table far weaker than he was a few weeks ago.

It was a thrilling prospect. Sadly, it has not happened, though it still could. The 10th seems so far not in fact to have been fully committed, presumably because the necessary weakness in the Russian defences has not yet been found.

Perhaps it will be. More probably, though, Ukraine’s backers will have to understand that ejecting Russia is turning out to be a grinding war of attrition. So far, the summer counter-offensive, which this week entered its third month, has liberated only about 200 square kilometres of territory.

To put that in context, Russia still holds about 40,000 sq km of the land it has grabbed since it invaded in February last year (on top of the 40,000 or so that it seized in 2014). The front lines have barely shifted since Ukraine took back a big chunk of Kherson province last November.

What flows from that? First, that patience is critical. It is entirely possible that the war will drag on with village-by-village Ukrainian gains but no dramatic change until the autumn mud and the onset of another winter make armoured movement very difficult. Russia’s defences, its anti-tank trenches, minefields and concrete obstacles are formidable, though not invulnerable to attrition. Another year of fighting looms in 2024. So Ukraine needs first not to be criticised for moving slowly, which will only damage morale and delight Mr Putin, but praised for its tenacity.

Next, it needs supplies, supplies and supplies—more HIMARS long-range rocket systems, and preferably the enhanced ATACMS munitions for them; more shells, more drones, much more demining equipment, more cluster bombs and more bullets. It ideally needs more tanks, and fighter-planes too.

Air-defence rockets are essential, as Russia continues to target Ukraine’s cities. It also needs plenty of medical kit: it is getting better at keeping its wounded soldiers alive, but much more could be done.

This will take money. The total cost of military and financial aid by the Western backers of Ukraine so far has been almost $200bn. That is a tidy sum to be sure but, considering the huge dangers were Mr Putin to prevail, it would be bearable compared with the size of their economies—Russia’s GDP was $2trn last year, that of Ukraine’s backers was some $55trn. The West will need to get used to spending this kind of cash until Mr Putin is dealt with, one way or another.

Lastly, Ukraine will need wider international support. Countries around the world should understand that allowing land grabs to succeed sets a precedent that is bad for everyone. That is why this weekend’s meeting in Jeddah is worth watching. Called at the urging of Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, and hosted by the Saudi crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, it aims to draw together representatives at senior official level from dozens of countries. These include not just from Ukraine’s Western backers, but also fence-sitters like Brazil, Egypt, India, Indonesia, South Africa and even China—though the full invitation list, let alone the acceptance list, has still not been disclosed.

Ukraine’s aim for the meeting is to try to win international support for a peace plan that Mr Zelensky has been touting since last year. It calls, among its ten points, for the full restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, a point that Mr Zelensky says is non-negotiable.

The fence-sitters are much more ambivalent, tending to put the emphasis on getting peace talks going first and thrashing out the tedious details (like Russian withdrawal) in the course of them. This is a dangerous misconception, and if Jeddah is to accomplish anything it would be to puncture the illusion that their plan would be anything other than a victory for Mr Putin.

As long as Russian troops squat in a swathe of some 18% of Ukrainian territory, Ukraine cannot be a properly functional state. It has lost access to most of its shoreline. Where it retains it, the seas are not safe for its vessels, even those transporting food to some of the world’s poorest countries; Russia has currently suspended a deal that allowed limited quantities of grain out.

No commercial aircraft can fly in or out of the country, for fear of a Russian rocket. The Ukrainian economy is hamstrung by keeping so many men and women at the front, despite the generous help the West gives it.

And bitter experience shows that when Russia keeps a foothold, it spins out peace-talks endlessly, while preparing to take another bite. If the West continues to back it sufficiently, Ukraine will go on grinding the Russians down. If most of the world supports Mr Zelenksy’s vision of peace, the pressure on Mr Putin will mount. A collapse in morale inside Russia, or even of the regime, might happen at any time. But it cannot be counted on. Get ready for a long haul.

One comment

  1. “Next, it needs supplies, supplies and supplies—more HIMARS long-range rocket systems, and preferably the enhanced ATACMS munitions for them; more shells, more drones, much more demining equipment, more cluster bombs and more bullets. It ideally needs more tanks, and fighter-planes too.”

    Yes, while Biden is sleeping at the wheel, we have masses of materiel baking in the sun. Thousands of items could’ve already been activated again and sent to where they would do some good.

Enter comments here: