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The writer is author of ‘Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine’

There has been a significant shift in western attitudes to Ukraine’s war with Russia. Thinking has moved a long way since the hopes earlier in the war that it would be enough to keep Ukraine in the fight until an opportunity for a peaceful settlement came along. The consensus now among leading western states is that the only way to persuade Russia that it cannot succeed in its war of conquest is for Ukraine’s armed forces to liberate much more territory.

This requires a significant boost to the next offensive. That explains France’s promise to send armoured reconnaissance vehicles, and US and German pledges to provide infantry fighting vehicles. The UK is ready to send Challenger 2 main battle tanks, setting a precedent it hopes others will follow, especially with the German-built Leopard 2. After Poland and Finland declared themselves willing, we now wait to see if German chancellor Olaf Scholz can bring himself to join them.

Vladimir Putin’s current strategy is bleak and uncompromising. He appears to believe that even with a military stalemate Russia can outlast Ukraine, along with its western backers, by putting his economy and society on a war footing. He adopted this strategy three months ago when, after a series of reverses, he laid claim to four provinces of Ukraine, announced the mobilisation of 300,000 additional troops and began a sustained missile and drone campaign to take out Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. The aim was to ensure enough manpower to stabilise the front lines, impose maximum damage on Ukraine’s economy and demoralise its population. To keep the Russian population committed they were offered a territorial prize worth the suffering and long wait, with a warning that they were engaged in a civilisational struggle with decadent Nato powers, and that everything they valued would be put at risk if the country faltered at this critical moment in its history.

Putin is not seeking a negotiated settlement because any deal that requires Russian withdrawals will appear as a defeat and raise questions about the aims and heavy costs of this war. The first result of this intractable stance has been to take the pressure off Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy to seek a deal because of the suffering of his country and the burden the war has placed on his international supporters. When Putin insists that a precondition for negotiations is accepting the four claimed provinces as “forever Russia”, even though not one of them is wholly under Russian military control, there is evidently no way forward on the diplomatic front.

Ukraine certainly has been battered and taken a massive economic hit. Millions have fled the country. But still it fights. Putin sought to make winter as miserable as possible by denying its people electricity and water. Frustrating this effort and promoting Ukrainian resilience is a vital part of western strategy, whether through improved air defences, or help in keeping the lights on and the economy afloat. Putin also hoped that western support would wither during the winter but in this he has been disappointed, a gamble that has lost Russia its share of Europe’s energy markets. It is true that US House Republicans are threatening future spending but since a significant new assistance package has just been agreed, that is a problem for later in the year. It does, however, serve as a reminder that it could be difficult to sustain Ukraine at current levels indefinitely, which adds to the urgency of the moment.

Russia’s economy has not suffered anything like as much as Ukraine’s, although it is now contracting faster than before. The main challenge facing Moscow is generating sufficient combat power to retain the territory it already holds and mount further offensives to fulfil Putin’s ambitions. Having used up much of its stock of precision guided missiles and armoured vehicles, it is stuck with a crudely attritional mode of warfare. It has taken much of the town of Soledar. As with next door Bakhmut, artillery and manpower have been thrown at Ukrainian defenders in a desperate effort to get something to show for months of huge effort.

Elsewhere Russia has strengthened its defensive lines using the thousands of mobilised men. This, plus boggy ground, has prevented Ukraine from following through on its breakthrough offensives of early September as fast as it would have liked, although it is still advancing slowly in Luhansk. Its main successes have been in using accurate long-range artillery to take out Russian ammunition dumps and troop concentrations. The latest shift in Russia’s command arrangements — putting General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff, in overall charge — indicates Moscow still lacks confidence in its military organisation.

The western view is that the only way to shift Putin’s thinking is for Ukraine to get the better of the coming battles. Until it inflicts more defeats on Russian forces and regains lost ground, Moscow is unlikely to budge from its maximalist aims. Military success can never be taken for granted, and even if it comes there is no guarantee that Putin will admit defeat if he still feels able to hang on to power. There are no easy ways to end this war but a further demonstration of the weakness of Russia’s military position will be a good start.


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