Ever since Russia launched its “special military operation” in Ukraine in February, the world has been mesmerised by the spectacle of a superpower’s army being outmanoeuvred and humiliated by a smaller, better-motivated force. But now Ukraine’s army, too, is reported to be struggling with heavy losses in an increasingly bloody struggle to hold the invaders at bay.
News from the eastern Donbas region is grim: the Ukrainian military is losing ground and between 60 to 100 soldiers a day, as well as 3,500 a week injured, according to President Volodymyr Zelensky, suggesting that overall Ukrainian losses, which in April he put at less than 3,000 soldiers killed, are now far higher.
Ukraine’s huge and easy victories around Kyiv and Kharkiv may soon seem a lifetime ago: one-fifth of Ukraine is now under some form of Russian occupation.
So is President Vladimir Putin in the process of salvaging a tactical — albeit Pyrrhic — victory from his extraordinary strategic folly?
Before the start of the war, the Ukrainian army fielded around 30,000 troops in the Donbas region. Now many of those on the front line are volunteers, including teachers and taxi drivers, with no battlefield experience and who had signed up to defend their home towns rather than fight in the trenches.
Morale among them is reportedly suffering: Russian commanders are concentrating massive firepower on Ukrainian positions. The Russian 152mm diameter shells, weighing around 114lbs, distribute shrapnel at 3,000ft per second, which is lethal at 50 yards — and sometimes as far as 150 yards.
Nobody who has been shelled is left unmoved by the experience: six artillery guns firing together will engulf a space the size of a football pitch with a devastating effect on anyone in it: the human body is no match for hot metal splinters.
No house or unarmoured vehicle can provide any protection. The sense of isolation and gnawing uncertainty chips away at the bravest. The soldiers dig trenches as deep as they can. But only a concrete bunker — or at least 20ft of earth overhead — can offer any safety.
The constant, random nature of shelling makes any movement a risk to life. Getting casualties out and supplies and reinforcements in is a high-risk activity. Battle-hardened regular soldiers manage it with some degree of equanimity. Citizen soldiers lifted from civilian life only weeks ago must learn quickly — exactly the experience of the British citizens who volunteered for “Kitchener’s army” in 1915 and found themselves being pounded on the western front.
Brutal dynamics are at play here: Ukraine is gradually trading land and dead soldiers for the depletion of Russian combat power, buying crucial time for the West to deliver the heavy weapons and ammunition it needs to match Russian artillery in range and lethality. There is a direct connection between the will of the Ukrainian soldier to face immense Russian firepower and the will of western states to deliver the equipment needed to change the odds — and make the sacrifice worth it.
Like all wars, the outcome is forged through a combination of effort, will and luck that endures long enough to break the opposition’s will to continue. Taking Ukrainian will to resist as a given, this war ends either when Russia gives up or the West gives up on Ukraine.
But does Ukraine have the capability, with western assistance, to throw the Russians back over the border?
Wars are won in the end by effective offensive action. There are fewer prizes for even skilful withdrawal and none at all just for sweating and dying. The situation today shows us what must be done to give Ukraine the military capability it needs to take its country back.
What matters now is long-range artillery. The US and UK decision to provide rocket launchers with ranges of up to 50 miles is vitally important. Several Nato countries have also taken some satisfaction from the results of training provided to Ukraine since 2014: it helped to create a military more capable and agile in leadership and tactics than the clunky Soviet-style opposition that crossed the border on February 24.
Ukraine going on the offensive will give some advantages back to the Russians, who will think that they can hold off the attackers — and their new long-range artillery — if their force is at least three times larger, from what are assumed to be well-prepared defensive positions.
If not conducted skilfully, a Ukrainian “fire and movement” offensive would involve a risk of even higher casualties than they are suffering now. It would demand agile, resilient logistics support, including medical resources.
At the same time, Ukrainian commanders hoping to push Russians out of their country must understand that this is more than a land and air war: breaking the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast is also a strategic imperative — not so vital to the war today, but to the sustenance of several hundred million people in fragile parts of the world who rely on Ukrainian grain. Access to the sea is an existential issue for the future economy and prosperity of Ukraine. This means restoring Ukrainian maritime capability too.
This will not be achieved only by having equipment that outweighs what Russia can field. Ukraine will also need a very large supply of highly motivated fighters; and these two vital ingredients are only capable of winning battles with the right leadership, training and logistical, maintenance and medical support that allows an army to endure.
So the artillery and ammunition being sent in now should be just the prelude to wholesale military reconstruction and support. The Ukrainian military needs not only leadership training, but also help with command and control systems, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; air defence, offensive air power and armoured vehicles.
The West will not be doing the fighting but paying the costs of keeping Russia in isolation as a pariah state, steadily depleting its economy, industry and global prospects.
So the Ukrainian fighter on the front line and the British family facing huge energy bills are locked in a combined effort to conclude the whole ordeal as successfully and swiftly as possible.
The cost, in the end, will be less than that of abandoning Ukraine to armed aggression on the periphery of Europe: this would not only stoke Russian expansionist ambitions. It would spread to other parts of our increasingly fractious world the belief we do not stand up for our values.
D-Day in Normandy in June 1944 was the result of at least three years of preparation. Enabling Ukraine to win on the terms it sets and the West supports should be comparatively simpler — and quicker — but it is no less important to all our futures.