Bucha, Ukraine. Bucha, Ukraine. Photo: Houses of the Oireachtas, Flickr

There isn’t the capacity to enable Ukraine to win the war, or even sustain it for long, so the West needs to broker a peace agreement to stop the bloodshed, argues Chris Bambery

The US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, jetted into Kyiv on Tuesday to say it was ‘imperative’ that fighting corruption in the country continues along with fighting Russian aggression. He also said it was important that Ukraine developed ‘the strongest possible democracy’ that reflects its citizens and attracts investment.

It was an unusual admission that Ukraine is not the beacon of democracy as it has been painted in the West. It shares with Russia and other former Soviet Republics institutionalised corruption and an economy dominated by oligarchs, many of whose wealth stems from family position in the old Nomenklatura of the Soviet Union.

Blinken’s surprise visit follows the approval by the US Congress of a long-delayed US military-assistance package for Ukraine. It granted a $61bn (£48.1bn) in aid for Ukraine, much of which will go toward replenishing badly depleted artillery and air-defence systems. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy lauded the ‘crucial’ US aid, stressing the country’s biggest deficit: air defence. He also told Mr Blinken that Ukraine needs two air-defence batteries for the north-eastern city of Kharkiv, being targeted by Russian Cruise missiles and drones.

Neither Blinken nor Zelensky addressed Ukraine’s fundamental problem: Russia has a three-to-one advantage in available military manpower. The average age of a Ukrainian soldier is 44 and many have been on the front line for over two years, becoming fatigued and demoralised. Nearly one million have escaped the country to avoid conscription.

Even the $61-billion aid package for Ukraine finally passing Congress is not sufficient and does not address Ukraine’s lack of sufficient troops. Retired U.S. Army brigadier general Mark T. Kimmitt, who has also served as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for political-military affairs, points out:

‘… the war has unmasked a major problem in war-fighting logistics. Even if the supplemental had been passed in October of last year, we now know that the U.S. military production base — and that of its European allies — is too small to support even a mid-sized conventional war like Ukraine …

For example, though herculean efforts have doubled the production of U.S. artillery rounds to 28,000 per month, Russia fires, on average, 10,000 rounds per day. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s own program to increase military production is in full force, stunning analysts with its rapid expansion, now said to be the leading sector of the Russian economy. Russian units on the Ukrainian front lines may be enduring horrific casualty rates, but it’s not from a lack of logistics.’

Kharkiv offensive

Russian troops are conducting an offensive in the northern Kharkiv oblast. The Western media and the Ukrainians are stating that the Russian aim is to capture Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv. Ukraine’s defence minister says it is ‘extremely difficult’ for troops to hold their positions as they remain outgunned by Russian forces. Rustem Umerov pleaded for more shells and military supplies as Russia intensifies its offensive in the country’s northeast. ‘We need more artillery shells as Russia is still many times ahead,’ he admitted, adding: ‘Under such conditions it’s extremely difficult to hold the ground.’ Umerov knows those shells are simply not available.

But the Russian aim may well be not to capture Kharkiv or Zaporizhzhia in the south or to break through to the Dnipro River, but to launch more limited attacks, using their superior fire and manpower, to wear down the overstretched Ukrainian forces. So, the current offensive in the north may well be intended to divert troops and equipment from other critical areas of the front in Ukraine’s east. The re-enforcements being sent to Kharkiv have had to be taken from other parts of the front and from the country’s limited reserves.

Former Australian general Mick Ryan points out: ‘If the Ukrainians decide to hold ground at all costs, they will lose more of their increasingly smaller army; if they chose to preserve their army, they will have to give up ground.’ The Russians have the advantage that Ukrainian forces are holding a long front line and are badly over stretched. The Russians can choose where to attack, looking to exploit weak Ukrainian positions. That also raises the possibility that at some point those forces could break, clearing the way for a more dramatic Russian advance.

The BBC interviewed Denys Yaroslavskyi who, as the Commander of a Ukrainian Special Reconnaissance Unit, fought in Ukraine’s surprise offensive in Kharkiv in the autumn of 2022, which pushed an initial Russian invasion back to the border. Today Yaroslavskyi is fighting to defend the border town of Vovchansk, whose civilian population is being evacuated.

The town has come under heavy bombing in recent days, and several thousand residents have been evacuated. He told the BBC: ‘There was no first line of defence. We saw it. The Russians just walked in. They just walked in, without any mined fields.’ He showed the reporter video from a drone feed taken a few days ago of small columns of Russian troops walking across the border, unopposed. The Ukrainian government had claimed that defences were being built at huge cost, but Yaroslavskyi said that, those defences simply weren’t there: ‘Either it was an act of negligence, or corruption. It wasn’t a failure. It was a betrayal.’

Western calculations

Within Nato, there is a growing realisation that the odds are stacked against Ukraine winning this war. Some argue for a ‘frozen war’, maintaining a war of attrition in the hope that it can wear down Russia. Given its re-invigorated economy, the aid it gets from China, North Korea and Iran, and its far greater manpower, that is unlikely, but even if this was to materialise, it’s a brutal scenario recalling the horrors of trench warfare in World War One.

In Washington, the Biden administration wants to avoid any Ukrainian collapse before the Presidential election. They also hope that Donald Trump’s thumbs up to Republican Representatives voting for the aid package signals a U-turn from his opposition to American involvement in this war. We will see.

There are also voices prepared to consider negotiations with Moscow. The Sunday Times newspaper reported this weekend that Cameron had argued fresh aid would help Ukraine hold its front lines, and give Trump the ‘best possible conditions’ to try to secure a deal between the warring sides. According to the paper’s source, Cameron asked Trump: ‘What are the best conditions in which you as president can make a deal in January? It’s both sides holding their lines and paying a price for that.’

Cameron wishes to throw in more weapons to keep the war going for seven or eight months to create a better negotiating position for Kyiv. How many more Ukrainians and Russians does he want dead or maimed? Leaving aside the cynicism of this, the issue is whether Ukraine can hold out.

The former commander of the UK’s Joint Forces Command warned that Ukraine could face defeat by Russia in 2024. General Sir Richard Barrons told the BBC there is ‘a serious risk’ of Ukraine losing the war this year. The reason, he says, is ‘because Ukraine may come to feel it can’t win.’ ‘And when it gets to that point, why will people want to fight and die any longer, just to defend the indefensible?’

Barrons pointed to the reality on the front lines: ‘We are seeing Russia batter away at the front line, employing a five-to-one advantage in artillery, ammunition, and a surplus of people reinforced by the use of newish weapons.’ Barrons continued, saying, ‘At some point this summer, we expect to see a major Russian offensive, with the intent of doing more than smash forward with small gains to perhaps try and break through the Ukrainian lines. And if that happens, we would run the risk of Russian forces breaking through and then exploiting [sic] into areas of Ukraine where the Ukrainian armed forces cannot stop them.’

If Barrons is correct and the Russian aim is to create the mood in Ukraine that ‘it can’t win’, a sense of hopelessness, that would bring them to the conference table. French President Emmanuel Macron has suggested sending Nato troops into Ukraine, but that was vetoed by Washington and Berlin who were able to perceive that could lead to a nuclear war.

It is obvious Russia is not going to withdraw from the Donbass and the Crimea, nor is it going to accept Ukraine joining Nato. These are not going to be up for negotiation. The question is how much more territory it could gain before peace talks begin. Surely, rather than fighting to the last Ukrainian, the USA, Britain, France and Germany would be better off brokering peace talks now.

The conclusion to this will not be good. Western regime change in Ukraine and its holding up of Nato membership to Kyiv created the crisis leading to war. Putin’s criminal invasion unleashed horror. Any settlement will create an unstable situation where both sides will be glowering at each other across the new border, waiting for a chance to regain or win more territory at some point in the future.

All of this is not a pretty picture. Our leaders, both Sunak and Starmer, have followed the US line on Ukraine, step by step. They boast of the military support they have given Kyiv and have fed illusions of a Ukrainian victory. Those were false dreams, and they knew it. In plain language, we have been lied to about the state of affairs in Ukraine. Both Sunak and Starmer should be held responsible for that.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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