Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative party.
The blitzkrieg has failed. Ukraine must now resist the blitz.
Unable to take Kyiv by surprise, the Kremlin is reverting to traditional tactics. Indiscriminate shelling of civilian targets. Sieges. Artillery. Unguided rockets. Cluster bombs in built-up areas. These are Bosnian Serb tactics, at Russian scale.
Russian forces have been hampered by poorly maintained equipment, logistical troubles and terrible morale. Putin has sent young boys with no combat experience into battle telling them they were going on a training exercise. They communicate on open radio frequencies, and are running out not only of fuel, but apparently of food. He carried out a surprise attack — on his own troops.
Ukraine has resisted magnificently. President Zelensky has grown into an inspiring war leader, galvanising his people like Henry V, and the West’s like De Gaulle. On the first day of battle, Ukrainian reservists prevented Russia’s elite paratroopers from holding an airport from which they would have flown in men for a lighting assault on the capital. Astoundingly, Ukrainian air defence, and even the Ukrainian air force, is still operating. Bayraktar drones are raining death on columns of Russian armour. Their terrified crew are abandoning vehicles and running away. As well they should: while casualty figures need to be taken with a pinch of salt, Russia appears to have lost as many tanks in five days of war as the British Army has in its inventory.
Yet Russia still has vast reserves of equipment, and men of fighting age to press-gang into its war of aggression. The men will be raw, and the equipment run down, but it is the red army that gave us the slogan “quantity has a quality all of its own.” Its forces in the southern theatre, bursting out of Crimea, have made gains in tough fighting. A siege of Mariupol appears unavoidable, and the defence of Odessa critical.
If we can be allowed a moment of hope, it is that Putin’s central objective, seizing Kyiv and replacing the Zelensky government with a puppet administration, is looking extremely difficult. Ukrainian defenders are holding out, and citizens have been armed. Vikor Yanukovich, the ousted president, is said to be in Minsk – ready to play Quisling in 1940, but more likely to end up like Mussolini in 1945.
The rapid movement phase of this war will soon come to an end. Cities are being fortified, and checkpoints are being set up on roads. Russian advances will be further slowed as their supply lines get more stretched.
Decisions made in the next few days will shape where trenches are dug. The most agonising will fall to Ukraine. Can it maintain supply lines open to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, or attempt to relieve Mariupol, where residential areas are currently under devastating attack from Russian artillery, without exposing what are generally thought to be its best units from being encircled, and cut off from resupply from the West?
Russian commanders face equally tough, if less heart-rending dilemmas. Should they keep pressing westwards to Odessa, to cut Ukraine off from the sea, while at the same time pressing east to besiege Mariupol? Could that not leave them stretched too thin to achieve either objective? Now that Ukraine has instructed people in cities occupied by Russia to begin an insurgency, how many troops will be needed to maintain control of cities it has already cost them so much to seize?
Recent Western weapons supplies will help shape this evolution. Huge quantities of anti-tank and stinger anti-aircraft missiles are pouring in. Though stingers have limited range, they are deadly at low altitudes, forcing Russian aircraft so high they could only have a realistic chance of attacking with guided weapons — of which Russia has relatively few. Ground attack drones (the Bayraktar is so effective, Ukrainians have made a song about it) will continue to sow fear in Russian armoured columns. Javelins and NLAWs will menace them at ground level. More young boys will desert.
The outline of the next phase of the war can then begin to be discerned. Russia occupying parts of Ukrainian territory, reducing Mariupol to rubble and attempting to suppress Ukrainian insurgents with Nazi brutality. Kadyrov’s Chechen fighters couldn’t make it through Ukrainian lines to Kyiv, but could easily be let loose in occupied territory.
Ukraine will secure its lines, and if necessary try to regain access to the sea. It will be supported by unlimited Western resources, which must in time turn from defensive to offensive weaponry.
Russia, whose economy has collapsed to around the size of Belgium’s in the past week, will have to devote attention to re-equipping its military, and trying to break holes in sanctions and rattling its nuclear sabre. It will try further subversion in the West and look to keep energy prices high, while trying to keep hold of Belarus, from which it is able to menace the Ukrainian capital.
I don’t expect Putin’s regime to fall soon. He can tough it out for some years and won’t be removed unless he does something crazy like trying to use nuclear weapons. He will use any slowdown in the fighting to consolidate, re-equip and get ready for the next bite.
Our job is to ensure Ukraine defeats him.