Has the West lost its fear of a Ukrainian victory? – The collective West has long hesitated to provide Ukraine with offensive weapons that might appear to be escalatory to the Russian aggressor and precipitate a nuclear strike.
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The dilemma here is that the effectiveness of Russia’s nuclear threats in producing Western vacillation and self-deterrence (understandable given possible dire consequences) incentivizes Moscow to repeat its threats. Thus Western policy has vacillated between offering Ukraine just enough military aid to avoid defeat and intentions to provide aid sufficient to achieve an outright victory. The overriding Western fear was that a notable Ukrainian victory, such as the anticipated liberation of Crimea, might provoke a nuclear strike. Accordingly, the West could not formulate clear objectives and a logical response to Russia’s aggression.
Ramstein-9 and Ukraine
However, a tectonic shift in Western thinking has evidently emerged from the January 20 meeting of the Ramstein-9 Ukraine Defense Contact Group of fifty-one countries. The Group came out for supplying Ukraine with heavy offensive weapons in quantities sufficient for an Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) victory, to be understood as the liberation of all Russian-occupied territories back to the internationally recognized borders of 1991. A number of Western experts now believe the likelihood of a Russian nuclear strike to be quite small. China and India have spoken against a nuclear strike, and a worldwide economic embargo against Russia would stay the Kremlin’s hand, not to mention military actions that the US or NATO countries might take.
Political opinion has changed the most in Germany, which, once having been the country most reluctant to send military aid, has now become one of the main providers. However, Germany has not agreed to allow allied states that had purchased stocks of its Leopard 2 tanks to transfer these tanks to Ukraine. The Leopards are the most readily available in large numbers and are the most suited to Ukrainian conditions. Several of the thirteen countries having the Leopard have offered to contribute some tanks; Poland is ready to send 100 or more immediately. The German government remains reluctant to approve transfers despite the latest Russian missile terror strike on a Ukrainian apartment building, this time in the city of Dnipro, where at least 44 civilians were killed and a larger number injured.
After impressive advances in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions in September and October, the AFU was unable to pursue further because of insufficient equipment and logistical capacity, rainy weather, and the successful Russian tactic of throwing masses of barely trained or untrained amnestied convicts and other social marginals against the AFU lines. This tactic, along with Western vacillation, allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to hold out to his army and public the prospect of ultimate Russian victory.
While the AFU’s advances were stalled, relentless Russian attacks on the Donbas towns of Bakhmut and Soledar in the east, though very costly and gaining little territory, succeeded in holding the AFU from launching offensives in the south. This also gave the Russians a breathing space to train more reserves. The Kremlin has projected an initial mobilization of 300,000 men, possibly growing to 500,000 or even more by the spring or summer, to be added to the approximately 150,000 or 200,000 already in Ukraine. A Ukrainian offensive in the spring will now be more difficult and costly than one would have been earlier.
Yet back in December, the top AFU general, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, had declared that in order to launch a major offensive, the AFU needed the order of 300 additional main battle tanks, 500 modern artillery pieces, and 600 or more armored combat vehicles. The Ramstein-9 meeting has gone a long way toward meeting Zaluzhnyi’s request, and seems to mark a turning point in Western policy.
The Ramstein-9 meeting is heavy with political significance. For the first time, the West is sending equipment that is explicitly offensive, and the quantities are large. The West seems to have overcome its fear of a Ukrainian victory and has made a commitment to support Ukraine that is probably irreversible.
The military significance is that the AFU will likely be able to reach the Azov Sea coast, thereby blocking the Russian land corridor to Crimea. The Russian strategic position in Ukraine’s south is inherently poor, inasmuch as the Russian army is stretched over a front that is long and narrow. The AFU will attempt to find a weak point in the front; and, if successful, will cut the Russian army in half, with Russian forces west of the point, and south in Crimea, isolated from supplies from the east.
The Russians are aware of this possibility. Consequently it appears that their attempts to fortify Melitopol in the west and Crimea to the south are only half-hearted. The main Russian efforts are likely to be in the Donbas, a political objective of Putin’s long standing, and further north, in the Kharkiv and Chernihiv regions, which border Russia and offer favorable logistics.
But after nearly a year of the war, the Russian army is severely degraded. It has lost almost all of its initial complement of modern tanks and armored vehicles. Free-for-all artillery barrages have caused the artillery barrels to be badly worn and inaccurate. Many of the better junior officers and large parts of the professional army have been lost. It seems that the Russians are limited to three strategies. One strategy will be continued missile terror attacks on Ukrainian civilian areas. These attacks will occur particularly because Ukraine will have no defense against the supersonic Kh-22 missile for several months until a few Patriot anti-missile systems are installed and personnel trained for these. The second strategy is to take out of storage and refurbish old Soviet-era tanks and artillery equipment, but this might be technically difficult.
The third – main – strategy will be to throw masses of infantry against the AFU lines and to overcome these lines through sheer weight of numbers. This very costly tactic showed some success in Bakhmut and Soledar – success in the sense that the Russian infantry proved its ability to keep pressing despite phenomenal human losses. The Russian political and military commands are able to use this tactic because they are utterly indifferent to losses. Much of the fighting and dying until now has been done by non-Russians from the east, such as Buryats and Udmurts, and from the south, such as Dagestanis, Ingushetians, and Kadyrovite Chechens. These are supplemented by Russian social marginals from prisons and from the poverty-stricken peripheries of Russia, along with soldiers from the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk Republics and by collaborators and civilians forcibly conscripted from other Ukrainian areas of occupation. Therefore the ethnic-Russian middle class of the large cities has been relatively untouched by mobilization, and the Kremlin has been able to manage any incipient anti-war sentiment.
What Happens Next?
In sum, the stage is set for major bloodbaths this spring. There are some important imponderables. On the Ukrainian side, the list is shorter. The Ukrainians are fighting for their survival against explicit genocide by Russia, so for the Ukrainians, submission is not an option. Their determination to fight remains high, and their morale and capacity are improved by the latest tranche of offensive weapons. The Ukrainians are neither surprised nor intimidated by the ongoing Russian mobilizations, and some Ukrainian military experts think that steel will prevail over flesh, as was the usual historical pattern. The main imponderable could be Western fatigue over the longer term, though Ramstein-9 has indicated that fatigue is not an issue for the present.
The list of imponderables is longer on the Russian side. First, it is not certain that recruitment will be successful and that the army will be able to provide the soldiers adequately with personal equipment, vehicles, and weapons. A related question is whether Russia will be able to ramp up its war industries in view of sanctions on components and the general decline of the economy. Another factor is that ammunition stocks are considerably depleted and might not be replaceable.
A final, and perhaps key, imponderable on the Russian side is a political one concerning the conduct of the war itself. If the AFU blocks the Russian land bridge to Crimea, this will mean that, after a year of heavy fighting and expense, the Putin regime shall have gained almost nothing. At the least, this will cause recrimination within the Russian public, army, and government. Putin’s authority will inevitably decline, though by how much remains to be seen.
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But overall, it appears that Ramstein-9 has started to make a complete Ukrainian military victory both thinkable and plausible.
Dennis Soltys is a retired Canadian professor of comparative politics living in Almaty.