Observations of an Expat: Ukraine: Bad or Worse

Too often the political choice is not between good and bad or moral or immoral. It is between bad and worse.

Ukraine’s President Vlodomyr Zelensky is facing just such a choice. And he must decide soon or sooner.

Eastern Europe’s bitter winter is coming to a close. The spring thaw and rains are turning the wheat fields into mudflats. But summer is coming and the ground will be hard, flat and ready for tanks.

It is strategic decision time. Does Zelensky abandon the counter-offensive hopes of last summer, withdraw to defensible positions and start digging trenches, laying minefields and constructing tank traps? If he does he will be building a man-made hard border that separates the Donetsk Region from the rest of Ukraine with physical obstacles and increases the possibility of the permanent loss of Eastern Ukraine to Russia.

If the Ukrainian leader does concentrate on strengthening his defences by summer, then he runs the risk of the Russian steamroller breaking through all the way to Kyiv.

His decision-making window is small and closing. By May the ground should be suitable for a tank attack. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu is reported to have 350-500,000 fresh troops ready to move into the front line. And Putin is expected to use his recent electoral victory to justify another mobilisation.

Zelensky made the decision to make a stand at the factory town of Avdiika. He lost. It cost the Russians an estimated 17,000 lives, but they have eliminated a Ukrainian foothold in the Donetsk Region and improved their position for a spring offensive. Ukraine’s battle for Avdiika was at the expense of building defensive fortifications elsewhere along the 600-mile front line.

Key elements throughout the Ukraine War have been artillery, drones and air defences. Russian armaments factories are now churning out three million shells a year and Putin has secured a regular additional flow from North Korea and Iran. Putin’s artillery and now firing five shells for every Ukrainian one.  He clearly has been mobilising and planning for war for years—and his planning is paying dividends.

The EU promised a million-plus artillery shells by the beginning of this year. It came up with just half that amount and will only be up to 1.4 million by the end of this year.  The Czechs, Danes, Poles, Germans, Canadians and Dutch have clubbed together to buy shells on the world market and are said to have found 800,000 which have given the Ukrainians “breathing space” until more weaponry can be bought and rushed to the front.

As important are drones and drone interceptors. The Ukrainians are running out of both. The interceptors are especially important because they were protection against Russian missiles knocking out key infrastructure targets. The drones have, to a certain extent, compensated for the shortfall in artillery. But drone stocks are now running low as well.

Of course, Ukraine’s problems would be eased considerably if America’s Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mike Johnson, would allow a vote on the $61 billion military aid package for Ukraine. History will not be kind to the Republican Christian nationalist. The House of Representatives has now gone into its Easter recess and won’t return to Washington until 22 April.

It would also help if German Chancellor Olof Scholz gave the Ukrainians the German Taurus missile which would enable the Ukrainians to hit more targets inside Russia. The British and French have sent similar long-range Scalp and Storm Shadow missiles, but those stocks are starting to run low.  Scholz refuses to send the German-Swedish weapons for fear that it would lead to an escalation in the fighting. Scholz, however, is facing growing opposition to his stand from both the CDU opposition and from within his governing coalition.

Another problem is the size and age of the Ukrainian army and Ukraine’s conscription laws. The average of a Ukrainian soldier is 43. This is because the minimum conscription age is 27. Legislation is currently working its way through the Ukrainian parliament to lower the conscription age – to 25. But the legislation is being held up with a staggering 1,000 amendments.

The one bit of good news is on the high seas.  Ukrainian drones and ships have are winning the naval war in the Black Sea. They have opened up the routes in and out of the Odessa, blown up key Russian ships and naval installations, and kept the Russian navy largely bottled up in its Sevastopol base.

Don’t give up on the Ukrainians. The odds are that eventually the US military aid will be released. Scholz will probably send the Taurus missiles and more artillery shells will be found for Ukrainian howitzers. It is just a matter of time. In the meantime the Ukrainians must concentrate on a defensive strategy. The generally accepted defensive military equation is one defensive unit can hold off up to ten attacking units.  But that involves a hard, in depth defensive line which would create the politically unacceptable border hiving off Eastern Ukraine.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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7 Comments

  • Mary Fulton 30th Mar '24 - 8:03pm

    A very realistic and balanced article – the options are not good and a least bad one has to be chosen. It now appears that any chance of a negotiated settlement has gone and the chances of a Russian defeat are continuing to shrink as the Russians begin to build slow but steady advances on a number of fronts. The idea of Ukraine embarking on a purely defensive strategy and hoping to inflict so great losses on the Russians for each settlement captured that the Russians finally decide on a negotiated settlement rather than total victory, is the only option that holds the prospect of Ukraine continuing as an independent country in the longer term.

  • Nonconformistradical 31st Mar '24 - 11:16am

    “The Pope is not for power but peace.”
    But is Putin up for peace?

    I don’t think so.

  • Peter Hirst 1st Apr '24 - 2:31pm

    Thank you for pointing out the (obvious) point that defensive lines can be used to separate forces more permanently. It’s a tricky dilemma. Perhaps they can be constructed so that they can be easily demolished or one way so they don’t provide the same barrier to the party that built them.

  • Zachary Adam Barker 6th Apr '24 - 12:13am

    “Last year, the West promised military victory and provided vast amounts of weapons.”

    It is a promise that we should keep.

    “Please can we now try peace talks based on Minsk 2 and ask the Pope to help get the two side to talk. The world’s Catholic communities in the Global South would support peace talks. ”

    Minsk 2 led to where are now. Appeasement doesn’t work and ultimately costs lives.

  • Yesterday (5 April) Lord Cameron re-iterated his position of, no Western boots on the ground in Ukraine. Since Putin already describes his operation as a battle against the West in Ukraine, I am at a loss to identify the escalation associated with the West directly defending Ukrainian land and air space. The war will not be won that way but it can be made much more expensive for Russia.

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