Less than a fortnight ago, signals emanating from Russia indicated that the Kremlin was open to the possibility of a peace deal with Ukraine that would allow Russia to fix much of its gains, while requiring permanent neutrality for Ukraine. It was said that Moscow might be munificent enought to consider such terms. With energy prices sky-high and winter on the way, and with Ukraine having yet to show any decisive battlefield victories – the defence of Kyiv notwithstanding – Putin hoped once again to break Western resolve.
This evidenced a fundamental misunderstanding of Ukrainian and Western confidence in the overall position: economic, political and military. Despite Moscow’s bluffs to the contrary, expert consensus in the West was that Russia’s economy was teetering towards collapse; that its political isolation (forcing Russia to seek arms supplies from Iran and North Korea, and bringing Finland and Sweden into NATO) was profound, and that its military had shown itself to be ill-trained, undisciplined and generally no match in combined-arms operations for the determined, numerically superior and increasingly well-equipped Ukrainian armed forces.
All eyes were on the highly-anticipated Kherson counter-offensive in the south. Having isolated Russian forces on the West bank of the Dniepro River, and having conducted a number of “shaping operations” in the weeks prior, could Ukraine now inflict a decisive battlefield defeat on the Russian army? The hope was that such a victory would silence the nay-sayers in the West, bolster support amongst European populations for increased energy costs over the winter and open up the possibility of further supplies of heavy weaponry to Ukraine.
Yet, after several days, and under a reporting blackout imposed by Kyiv, the Kherson counter-offensive had not produced (except to well-informed military pundits, such as those at Mriya Report) any obvious gains. We were cautioned to be patient, and to wait for this steady, careful and well-prepared advance towards the now-stranded Kherson garrison to proceed at its own pace.
Then, reports began to emerge last week of an advance by Ukrainian forces in an entirely unexpected direction: from Kharkiv in the north-east, towards Balakliya. It started as gossip, but then it became clear that the Russian lines had been broken, and that the Ukrainian armed forces were pushing rapidly eastwards towards Shevchenkove, on their way to Kupiansk: a major railway hub which – if captured – would cut off Russian forces further south in Izyum and potentially enable the encirclement of a large number of Russian forces. There was hardly time to process this staggering possibility before news arrived that Ukrainian forces had recaptured Kupiansk, then Izyum, then Vovschansk – pushing the Russian invaders back inside Russian territory in several areas. Renewed fighting around Lyman, Lysychansk and even Donetsk City was also reported, and by the weekend’s close, Russia had retreated from almost all of Kharkiv Oblast.
This stunning wide-scale defeat (or rather, rout) of Russian forces – with large quantities of Russian matériel captured in the process – has not been seen since WWII and, according to those better-informed than me, will be studied in military staff colleges for many years to come. The Ukrainian tactic of sending mobile mechanised units deep into the soft underbelly of Russian-held territory, riding straight in to the centre of a town or village, guns blazing, before dismounting and laying down suppressive small-arms fire while waiting for their armoured groups to reinforce them (who did reinforce them) showed the kind of daring, competence and confidence that is the stuff of military legend. It’s given rise to the term blyatskrieg, combining the Russian swearword – always on the lips of Russian soldiers – with the term for a lightning advance by a superior and well-organised force.
But there is one unanswered question. Had it always been Kyiv’s intention that the much-publicised Kherson counter-offensive would be a feint, designed to draw away Russian forces from the Kharkiv region? Or had Kyiv – through careful advanced planning – merely given themselves the option to take advantage of such a possibility, should it arise? Given the ongoing counter-offensive around Kherson, which (as of going to print) has led to negotiations for the complete surrender of some Russian units in that area, it seems clear that Kyiv is fully committed to the recapture of Kherson – and will achieve it. And by delivering a crushing and humiliating blow to the Russian forces, Ukraine has firmly gained the initiative – causing panic in Moscow and on Russian state TV.
Those who argued from the beginning of this latest round of aggression that the West should arm Ukraine with everything it could muster will feel justifiably vindicated by this display of strategic brilliance from the Ukrainian armed forces. But it also shows that those who wanted to abandon Ukraine were misguided to believe in the inevitability of a Russian victory. Ukraine has demonstrated that it knows how to use the equipment that has been provided. But this should not come as a surprise, after years of NATO training: Ukraine does not possess a second-rate military force, merely living off scraps from NATO countries, but rather a thoroughly purposeful, highly-trained and motivated force that can – and will – achieve total victory against a brutal and criminal aggressor.
Providing the military equipment that Ukraine needs to end this war swiftly is now the order of the day. Whether they be Abrams, Leopards or Challenger main battle tanks: send them. Whether they be ATACMS or other longer-range battlefield missiles: send them. Whether they be F-16s, Gripens, A-10s or other fixed-wing aircraft: send them. Let’s end this war quickly. The videos of Ukrainian civilians greeting their liberating soldiers with unalloyed delight after months of occupation will inspire, but should also inform the West that not doing everything possible to prevent the ongoing brutality, rapes, murders and forced deportations (on a massive scale) of Ukrainian civilians will weigh on our conscience for a very long time.
It’s a time for choosing. But it’s much easier to choose to be on the winning side.