Russia is concentrating men and weapons for a new offensive. This very January, though more likely in the spring, it could launch a major attack from Donbas in the east, from the south, or even from Belarus, a puppet state to the north. Russian soldiers will attempt to push back Ukrainian forces and may even make a second attempt to take Kyiv, the capital.
We are not saying this, but General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, head of the Ukrainian armed forces. In an unprecedented series of briefings over the past two weeks, the general, as well as President Volodimir Zelensky and General Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of the ground forces, have warned us of the critical months ahead. “The Russians are preparing about 200,000 fresh troops,” General Zaluzhnyi told us. “I have no doubt that they will try again with Kyiv.” Some Western sources claim that General Sergei Surovikin, the Russian commander, has always thought in terms of a multi-year conflict.
A deadlocked conflict?
Outside of Ukraine, on the other hand, no offensive is being considered. The conflict is considered to be at a stalemate, stuck in the middle of a frozen quagmire. There has been almost no movement for a month along the 1,000 kilometer front line. Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, Britain’s most senior officer, said this week that, right now, a shortage of artillery shells means that Russia’s margin for ground operations is “rapidly shrinking”.
That appearance of deadlock fuels a renewed interest in peace talks. French President Emmanuel Macron, American Joe Biden and (for very different reasons) Russian President Vladimir Putin have all referred in recent days to a diplomatic solution. This is an outcome that many in the West, horrified by the suffering and, more selfishly, weary of high energy prices, would welcome. However, the Ukrainian commanders maintain that this will not happen in the immediate future, and they are right.
If Ukraine tried to stop the war today and accepted the current front lines, the Russians could better prepare for the next attack. Putin’s generals have not stopped their program of training and deploying new troops and reorganizing industry to help the war effort (including, according to Ukrainian commanders, the production of artillery shells). A stoppage of the front would repeat the mistake made in the three years before the invasion of February 24, 2022. During that time, Putin did not stop talking to the Western leaders, who let him do it, and at the same time he dedicated himself to preparing their armies for the invasion.
The West’s greatest responsibility is to ensure the failure of any Russian counteroffensive. To do this, you have to increase the supply of weapons, and do it quickly. Ukraine has already used HIMARS, a rocket system supplied since June by the Americans; its effect has been devastating against Russian ammunition depots and command and control centers, allowing a rapid advance first in the northeast and then in the south. However, Russia has moved many of those targets out of the range of Ukrainian HIMARS batteries. So Ukraine needs more powerful artillery, such as ATACMS missiles, capable of hitting targets at least twice as far away. And you need a lot of them, just as you need normal ammunition and artillery of all kinds; plus tanks and helicopters and many other things.
Ukraine also needs help to repel Russian attacks on civilian electricity, water and heating systems. These attacks are aimed at destroying the Ukrainian economy and undermining the morale of soldiers deployed on the front lines, who worry about their families.
As General Zaluzhnyi explains, Ukraine is short of ammunition for its defense systems (mostly Soviet-era anti-aircraft material repurposed for use against missiles). It also needs more and better anti-missile defenses; the American Patriots that seem to be about to arrive will be a huge help, but training the soldiers tasked with handling them takes time, and they should have been supplied months ago.
If Ukraine wants to emerge from this conflict as a prosperous democracy, it will not be enough to have better air defense: it also needs to reclaim more territory. Although they have seized only a small portion of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast this year, Russian forces are in close proximity to all major Ukrainian ports and pose a threat to shipping. Ukrainian exports, beyond the limited amounts of grain leaving the country thanks to a deal struck under the umbrella of the United Nations, remain largely disrupted.
Taking back more of the territory also helps avoid a stalemate in the conflict by showing that Putin risks losing everything he has won. With the current border, Russia has a land bridge that allows it to resupply the annexed Crimea and threaten the south of the country. On the other hand, if Ukraine managed to cut that land bridge and recapture the northern coast of the Azov Sea, it would be in a position to negotiate from a position of strength and would even have Crimea within artillery range. It would thus dismantle the existing idea in Russia that Putin can get away with keeping what he has now and simply launch another attack in a few years.
Ukraine remains ready to make sacrifices
Ukraine remains ready to make the sacrifices demanded by the struggle. According to what Zelenski told us, “95 or 96% of the population wants to vacate all their territory”, that is, to recover everything Russia annexed in 2014 and what it has invaded this year. Zelinski argues that Western promises of security guarantees are a weak substitute for his country’s territorial integrity. After all, similar guarantees offered to Ukraine by the United States and the United Kingdom in 1994, when it gave up the Soviet nuclear weapons deployed on its soil, proved practically worthless 20 years later.
Supporters of Ukraine take a somewhat different view. They believe that taking it all back is a maximalist goal that Ukraine will have a hard time achieving; above all, because in some places that means releasing people who do not want to be released. Putin’s nuclear threats are a reason to ensure that Russia does not emerge victorious, but also to demand that Ukraine does not appear to threaten Russia’s recognized borders. Ukraine must also understand that the flow of military and economic aid depends on it avoiding any infighting that may be brewing and ensuring that entrenched corruption is curbed.
That being said, the entire world (including Russia) will benefit from the failure of the revenge-seeking idea that it is possible to recreate the old Russian empire. If Ukraine receives adequate support, its warlords will push far to the coast and possibly recapture most of what Putin has gained since February. The more territory Ukraine manages to recapture, the better its chances of lasting success.
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Translation: Juan Gabriel López Guix