Military analysts and officials in the US and other NATO countries warn that the next week to 10 days will see a major intensification of Russian military operations, resupplying Russian troops in the Donbas region in an attempt to break out Ukrainian holdouts. Mariupol, Russian troops there for a pincer move from both the north and south.
As poor as the Russian forces have performed on the battlefield thus far, it now has a more realistic set of objectives. Instead of invading from three fronts, Russia will now have one axis to focus on, and one where its supply lines are less vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks. Russia has also taken the measure of the Ukrainian army, which it has grossly underestimated.
Before the war, in the east, the Joint Forces Operations (JFO) of Ukraine, with more than 40,000 units, had the best equipped and trained armed forces in Ukraine. Those troops remain determined, but the past five weeks of hard fighting have taken their toll. They are also more difficult to deliver and do not have the same air defense advantage as those around Kiev.
Putin may have in mind May 9 – already known as Victory Day in Russia, when the country celebrates the defeat of Nazi Germany – as some sort of deadline for reclaiming eastern Ukraine, which Putin sees as a step in the right direction. towards the recovery of the lost empire and the atmosphere of Russia of control. If Russian troops succeed in capturing territory, they will try to close off that part of Ukraine.
But Russia lacks the strength to move beyond Ukraine’s JFO area, notes Jack Watling, a land warfare expert and senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. Putin deployed most of Russia’s available military forces for the original operation and has limited reserves. The units not yet in Ukraine are either support troops, new conscripts or units with responsibilities elsewhere, which the Kremlin is reluctant to shift.
If Russian troops lose momentum and are dulled by anti-tank weapons and artillery, Watling believes they will be exhausted in about four weeks. Then Putin will have to make a bigger decision: whether to go on a war base, stop referring to the conflict as a “special military operation,” but expand it and mobilize the country.
The withdrawal of troops around Kiev and the dropping of Russian objections to Ukraine’s accession to the EU ultimately suggest some recalibration from Russia is already underway. “Zelenskiy is now in a much stronger position than anyone in the West thought he would be,” notes Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former British Defense and Foreign Secretary, who sees some cause for optimism. “NATO has never been stronger than it is today. Germany has completely changed its defense policy from the policies it has been pursuing for the past 40 years. Russia is on the brink of losing one of its two main energy destinations and its main source of income, even if that will take some time. The Nordstream project has collapsed. The Russians have lost control of their foreign exchange reserves.”
And yet winning the opening round is not the same as winning to the very end. A dismembered Ukraine would significantly change the European security landscape. And while some are urging Ukraine to reach a settlement as soon as possible, any ceasefire or deal that leaves Ukraine vulnerable to renewed attacks will make a real reconstruction effort — which will require investment — impossible.
The new phase of combat to come calls for a new kind of Western support, argues Keir Giles of Chatham House, author of two books on Russian foreign policy in recent years. “The weapons Ukraine needs to continue fighting are not fully defensive weapons, to help Ukraine not lose, but also tools to help Ukraine take the fight to the enemy and must include long-range firepower to penetrate deep into Russian-controlled areas. areas,” he says. The US, he says, has been in crisis management rather than focusing on Ukraine’s needs at a critical stage of the struggle.
There is plenty that Britain and other NATO countries can do. Ukraine’s shopping list includes anti-tank guided weapons (ATGWs), portable air defense systems, ammunition, drones, radar, surface-to-air missile systems and so-called suspended munitions, passively waiting around the target for the right moment. Soviet-era T-72 tanks sent by the Czech Republic are useful because the Czech Republic can also produce spare parts and Ukrainians know how to use and maintain them. It’s less obvious that a mix of other weaponized vehicles, on different platforms, would be helpful and resupply going east will be more difficult.
Ukraine will need supplies for reservists and recruits sent to the front while the besieged troops are dispatched there. NATO countries must facilitate the transition from some of Ukraine’s defence, including air defense, to platforms that can be better supported (at a time when those countries are concerned about their own supplies). There is also an urgent need for humanitarian and economic aid to prevent the economy from collapsing.
Punishing oligarchs and seizing yachts was an eminent performance compared to what is needed now to influence Europe’s future security landscape.
Putin’s invasion was not an arbitrary black swan moment, as devastating but completely unpredictable events are called, geostrategists Florence Gaub and Andrew Monaghan note. Instead, they say, it’s a “gray rhinoceros” — impactful but highly likely and completely predicted. Formulating a response requires a thorough consideration of strategic objectives and potential pitfalls, not just crisis management.
This next phase of war will be a test not only for the Ukrainian armed forces, but also for the unity, purpose and ability of the democratic world to think clearly about the future.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editor of the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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