As Ukraine’s ‘shaping’ activities continue across Russian-occupied Ukraine—and parts of Russian territory—ahead of its much-anticipated counteroffensive, the global political environment is gradually, but significantly, shifting in Ukraine’s favour.
In the week leading up to this month’s G7 summit in Japan, and during the meeting itself, the symbolism and political decision-making surrounding Ukraine demonstrated more unified and unqualified support for President Volodymyr Zelensky, and may represent a turning point in the conflict.
Indeed, it may turn out to be the moment Ukraine won the war.
That has not always been the most likely outcome.
As Russia’s troops withdrew from around Kyiv six weeks after its unjustified but poorly planned invasion of Ukraine in February last year, it looked very much like Russia had lost the war, particularly in relation to its original aims of overrunning Kyiv and installing a Russia-friendly puppet regime.
However, since that time, and despite significant Ukrainian victories, including the retaking of vast swathes of territory in the Kharkiv region and Kherson city late last year, NATO governments have been focused primarily on ensuring that Ukraine is not overrun, rather than providing it with the tools and weapons to win the war.
The result has been a drip-feed of weapons, initially short-range missiles such as anti-tank Javelins that helped halt the Russian advance, and then eventually more substantial weapons such as HIMARS and missiles with a range of around 80 kilometres, Patriot air-defence systems and NATO main battle tanks.
However, while these weapons have been used effectively by Ukraine, at the moment they can’t be employed to attack Russian positions in Crimea, key supply routes or other targets deep behind enemy lines due to the longer distances involved.
The rationale for the frustratingly gradual rollout of long-range military hardware is NATO’s concern about Russian escalation, potentially through nuclear weapons. Initially, at least, there was also the desire for an ‘exit ramp through diplomatic means’ for Russian President Vladimir Putin, which culminated in French President Emmanuel Macron’s statement in June last year that ‘we must not humiliate Russia’. Ukraine was understandably furious about that remark and the general hesitancy of NATO to supply long-range weapons, which ensured it was fighting with one hand tied behind its back. But NATO has now substantially shifted its approach.
The first inkling that major NATO members had revised their risk assessment of Russian escalation was the confirmation on 11 May that the UK was supplying Ukraine with Storm Shadow cruise missiles, with a range of around 250 kilometres. Missile strikes in Luhansk a few days later made it clear that this had significantly altered calculations regarding the war: targets deep in Russian-held territory were now in the crosshairs.
Meanwhile, Germany announced a significant new €2.7 billion (A$4.43 billion) package of military aid to Ukraine as Zelensky undertook a whirlwind tour of European allies including Germany, France, Italy and the UK. He then travelled to Saudi Arabia to address an Arab League summit, a grouping generally notable for their neutrality in the conflict.
The potential coup de grâce came, however, on the final leg of the tour when Zelensky attended the G7 summit in Hiroshima.
In addition to Zelensky being feted as a guest of honour, in the company of President Joe Biden and other world leaders, the sense that support for Ukraine was widening and hardening came with the announcement that the US would train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 fighter jets and allow NATO allies to supply Ukraine with American-made F-16s.
This decision by the US was the first that supplies NATO-made warplanes to Ukraine and is likely to be a game-changer. The fourth-generation F-16s have some technical shortcomings against fifth-generation Russian jets, but they will go a long way towards levelling the playing field in the air. F-16s will provide Ukraine’s air force with much greater vision and capability against Russian warplanes and will deliver much better air support for ground forces.
Beyond the military benefits of the planes, it is the shift in rhetoric and policy from NATO partners that will likely have the greatest effect on the outcome of the war.
That shift was underscored in US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s comments during the G7: ‘We have not placed limitations on Ukraine being able to strike on its territory within its internationally recognised borders … And we believe Crimea is Ukraine.’
This is the first time that NATO and the Biden administration have clearly given Ukraine the green light to use NATO weapons in its attempt to take back all of its territory, including Crimea. The supply of Storm Shadow missiles by the UK reinforced this approach, and has made the potential US supply of long-range ATACMS less contentious, since their ranges are similar.
Ukraine will probably have the F-16s ready for deployment later in the northern autumn, which would allow them to be used to reinforce any gains achieved in the coming counteroffensive.
In any case, it’s now clear not just that Putin and Russia have lost this war, but that Ukraine could actually win, with the prospect of regaining all of its territory, including that which it lost in 2014.
This was unthinkable until quite recently. NATO appears no longer concerned that escalation is likely. In Hiroshima, Biden openly mocked the Russians. Asked for his response to the Kremlin arguing that the supply of F-16s was a ‘colossal risk’, he replied: ‘It is, for them’.
There’s a long way to go in this war, and there’s no guarantee that Putin, having made the terrible decision to invade in the first place, won’t make another terrible decision in escalating the conflict.
However, it’s now clear from recent NATO policy and rhetoric that by the time the next US president comes to power, whether Democrat or Republican, the main phase of the conflict may well be over. A steady supply of F-16s, long-range missiles and other modern NATO materiel this year and next should ensure that Ukraine has the best opportunity to regain control of large swathes, if not all, of its legitimate territory.
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