16 month’s on and no end in sight

The past week has been a momentous one for both sides in the Russo-Ukraine war. Now well into the sixteenth month of the conflict, there appears to be no end in sight.

Much of the world’s attention has been focussed recently on the battle for Bakhmut, which has been raging for many months. It seems to be reaching some sort of conclusion now, with Russian forces having captured most if not all of the city and with their Wagner troops proclaiming victory. Indeed, they say the Russian flag now flies over the ruins.

The Ukrainians, on the other hand, are not so sure, claiming defiantly that they still maintain a toehold in the outskirts. Such is the fog of war here that it’s difficult to verify either claim independently, and there is some evidence that the UkrAF have regained some ground on either flank of the city.

Whatever the truth of the matter and whichever side wins, it will have been a truly Pyrrhic victory. Bakhmut has been flattened and little remains, while both sides have suffered catastrophically in blood and treasure.

In particular, I suspect the Russians have exhausted themselves and will be unable, in the short term at least, to exploit any success they may have had. The reported redeployment of Wagner forces away from the area would seem to confirm this, but we shall see.

Away from Ukraine itself all eyes have been on the G7 meeting in Hiroshima, where Zelensky was a guest as part of his round of friendly nations to keep them onside. Although its main geopolitical focus was on Taiwan and China’s increasingly aggressive signals towards that island, what is happening in Europe also took up some conference time, as you would expect.

Zelensky’s diplomatic round seems to be focused on encouraging further weapons supplies from the west and also on dissuading western leaders from allowing the conflict to become “frozen”, that is stalled along current lines. If that were to happen a stalemate could ensue lasting years if not decades, with the prospect of the war flaring up again. Nobody, except possibly Putin, wants that result.

One bit of good news for Ukraine, though, was that US President Biden signalled that he was now willing to allow the transfer of European-owned F-16 Fighting Falcons to Ukraine, something Zelensky has been pleading for over many months. Why the US has been pussyfooting around this issue remains a mystery, to me at least, but now the block has been removed.

When the ‘planes arrive in Ukrainian hands they will be a significant addition to the UkrAF arsenal. They will not, however, win the war on their own, and although they are a definite step up for Ukraine they will still be vulnerable to the more modern radars and longer range air-to-air missiles carried by Russian aircraft, plus of course their enemy’s comprehensive and capable ground based air defence systems.

And, while the world still waits for Ukraine’s counteroffensive, the latest news tells of a ground advance into Russian territory. The Ukrainians have attacked into Russia before now, of course, but it has been almost exclusively via armed helicopters and uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones.

This time two organisations calling themselves the ‘Russian Volunteer Corps’ and the ‘Free Russia Legion’ seem to have advanced into the Belgorod region which borders Ukraine and claim to have captured – or ‘liberated’ as they have put it – a couple of settlements there. These troops appear not to be from the Ukrainian army proper but recruited from exiled Russians and deserters who are opposed to the Putin regime.

Ukraine is not claiming responsibility but has not entirely disassociated itself from the groups’ actions. As ever, details are sketchy and independent verification of the news will take some time to come, but it’s an interesting development nonetheless. Whether these raids are planned as a diversion or feint to draw Russian military attention from elsewhere is a matter for speculation.

However, it’s unlikely that Vladimir Putin will draw a distinction. He is likely to use this as propaganda to his own people that Russia is the victim, not the aggressor, in the war. Whether the Russian population will believe him or not remains to be seen.

In Ukraine itself it’s reported that the ground has hardened up at last after the rain and mud of spring. Armoured vehicles may once again manoeuvre off-road over the flat farmlands. The Russians have spent much time and effort in fortifying the areas where they most expect the Ukrainians to attack.

It can’t be long now. Watch this space.

Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk




Tank CommanderLt Col Stuart Crawford’s latest book Tank Commander (Hardback) is available now

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