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Ukraine is running out of battlefield options

Ukraine direly needs whatever men and materiel it can scrape together at the front. Credit: Getty

May 1, 2024 - 7:00am

Earlier this month, Ukraine’s military intelligence chief Kyrilo Budanov warned that from mid-May onwards, the country will face a battlefield situation that is “difficult” but “not catastrophic”. As Russian troops exploit February’s costly victory in Avdiivka by pushing westwards with increasing speed and success, Ukraine’s best hope is that he is correct.

While the Russian push to take the strategically important and topographically useful town of Chasiv Yar, west of Avdiivka, is developing slowly, Vladimir Putin’s troops have made a rare breakthrough around the town of Ocheretyne, pushing through longstanding defensive lines and rolling up Ukrainian defences from the flanks. Beyond Chasiv Yar, the Russian goals for this operation are likely to be the towns of Kostyantynivka, a vital regional stronghold for Ukrainian forces since 2014, and the sizeable rear base and logistics hub of Pokrovsk.

As the Polish analyst Konrad Muzyka — a reliable commentator in a war dominated by grifters and propagandists — has observed, “the situation looks very bad and is not expected to improve in the coming weeks,” adding that “we have reached the point where the situation on the front is the worst since March 2022. The numerical advantage of the Russians is constantly growing, as is the number of attacks. Ukraine did not survive the darkest hour. It’s just about to start.”

While Ukrainians rightly blame the ebbing supply of munitions from the West for much of their current predicament, by allowing Russian artillery to outcompete the Ukrainian weight of fire fivefold, this crisis also has causes much closer to home. Against American advice, Ukraine frittered away much of its materiel and precious manpower in the doomed defence of both Bakhmut and Avdiivka, and then persisted with its ill-judged summer southern offensive long after it was clear the operation would end in failure.

Having failed to mobilise enough new troops from its increasingly unwilling population to make up losses, Ukraine’s strategy of battlefield attrition, though costly for Russia, is primarily attriting  own army. Elite units such as the 47th Mechanised Brigade — raised then trained in the West as the planned spearhead of the southern offensive — are exhausted and undermanned, losing combat effectiveness as they are rushed from one Russian assault to another in an effort to plug the gaps. While the West can, over the course of years, produce enough munitions to stabilise the front, it cannot produce more Ukrainians.

Worse, it is not yet clear if the ongoing Russian push in the Donbas is the main effort, or if a larger offensive, perhaps in the northeast, is yet to come this summer with the Russians apparently maintaining a fresh operational reserve of two army corps and hinting — perhaps for disinformation purposes — at a looming battle for Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv. While sprawling Kharkiv would be a major challenge for a Russian army that has so far found urban operations slow and costly, the threat alone forces Ukraine to deploy troops sorely needed elsewhere to man the lines. The situation has been worsened by Ukraine’s baffling failure to construct fortifications equivalent to Russia’s dense and deadly Surovikin Line.

The “best case” scenario offered for Ukraine by sympathetic analysts, of denting Russia’s advance while simultaneously building up new forces for an offensive push next year, already looks improbable. Ukraine direly needs whatever men and materiel it can scrape together at the front, right now. While a total Ukrainian collapse does not yet look imminent, the choices available to Kyiv are narrowing every day: recapturing Russian-held territory, still the West’s stated strategy, is a non-starter, while the defence of what Ukraine still holds is increasingly challenging. Unless Ukraine’s battered forces can blunt Russia’s offensive soon, the calls for direct Western intervention will only grow louder.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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Christian Moon
Christian Moon
21 days ago

Any government attempting to send Western troops to fight Russians in Ukraine won’t last five minutes, certainly not beyond its attempts to explain to its public the losses suffered in the first battlegroup annihilation battle.
The whole decision for war was ill-conceived by the West. That needs admitting, but we’ll need elections to get rid of the guilty parties first.

Peter B
Peter B
21 days ago
Reply to  Christian Moon

Hold on – the “decision for war” was taken by Russia !!!
All the West did was take a “decision for defence” – i.e. to support an independent state that was illegally invaded and wished to defend itself and its people.
Let’s call a spade a spade here.
We simply don’t know what the future holds and it’s rather foolish to make such sweeping predictions about how people may or may not react. None of us know.

Jim C
Jim C
21 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

Yes, history in that region started in 2022.
No MI6 support of Bandera post WWII, no Banderites/Pravvy Sektor, no Victoria Nuland admitting the US had spent $5b buying influence since the fall of the USSR, no snipers on the roofs of opposition-held buildings shooting protestors and policemen alike at the Maidan protests to instill chaos, no Western-backed coup, no puppet governments in Kiev ever since, no repression of Russian-speakers in the East, no OSCE-recorded buildup of Keeev’s forces in the East during the two weeks prior to the Russian invasion…
No, history started with the “unprovoked” Russian invasion in 2022.
How deliciously untrammelled by knowledge your thinking is!

Peter B
Peter B
20 days ago
Reply to  Jim C

Surely you mean “no support of Bandera post-WWI” !!!
But with you guys, who knows ? Facts – they simply don’t matter, do they ?
But you’re right. The Russians also invaded in 2014. Good point.
Ignorant. Stupid. Deluded.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
21 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

The decision for war was taken when the West’s Neocons followed the Brezinsky/Wolfowitz playbook to provoke a war so that sanctions could be imposed on Russia to seek regime change.

However that didn’t work out very well, especially not for Ukraine. The US MIC has done well though…

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
20 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

“the “decision for war” was taken by Russia !!!”
And WW2 was started by Britain and France declaring war on Germany.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
20 days ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

US/NATO proxy war.

Peter B
Peter B
20 days ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

You really are a prize idiot.
Even Basil Fawlty knows who started WWII.

A D Kent
A D Kent
21 days ago
Reply to  Christian Moon

Absolutely right Christian, but the chances for any electoral consequences are close to zero – there’s a cross-party consensus almost everywhere regardind Putin’s nefariousness which in many parties extends to the Russians themselves. Peter B’s comment to you is a case in point and it’s heavily represented in the writings of Unherd’s columnists.

There’s all sorts of strings that can be pulled to add to the decade or two of rank propaganda – see for example the German state’s lawfare against the AfD and sudden cluster of Russian & Chinese espionage cases, all the time while those responsible for the Nordstream epic industrial and ecological terrorism remains a complete mystery.

Peter B
Peter B
21 days ago

“recapturing Russian-held territory, still the West’s stated strategy”.
The West has no stated strategy ! He just made that bit up. This – having no clear strategy – is part of the problem.

Jim C
Jim C
21 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

The only “strategy” I can see is to keep shovelling money into the blood-funnels of the Western MICIMATT.
I see our “experts” are now blaming the western-trained Ukrainians for their defeats; including the disastrous “counter offensive”. Anyone remember this classic bit of agitprop?:
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2023/06/09/british-made-tanks-about-to-sweep-putins-conscripts-aside/

Martin M
Martin M
21 days ago

Unless Ukraine’s battered forces can blunt Russia’s offensive soon, the calls for direct Western intervention will only grow louder.
Let me jump the gun a bit, and register my call for direct Western intervention.

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
21 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Off you pop then Martin. I’m sure the Ukrainian armed forces will welcome you with open arms.

Martin M
Martin M
20 days ago
Reply to  Mike Michaels

I don’t think the presence of one overweight 60-something will tilt the balance that much.

jane baker
jane baker
21 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

You go then.

Jim C
Jim C
21 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Yes, I can just see the average Westerner urging their children to go get their limbs blown off so Eastern Ukrainians can have their wages skimmed by Keev rather than Moscow.

Martin M
Martin M
20 days ago
Reply to  Jim C

Western nations have regular armies, and it is in the West’s interests that Russia be defeated.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
21 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

I will buy you boots, a rifle and the air ticket to get there.

When are you going?

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
21 days ago

deleted

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
21 days ago

As the Polish analyst Konrad Muzyka — a reliable commentator in a war dominated by grifters and propagandists — has observed, “the situation looks very bad and is not expected to improve in the coming weeks,”

This is what most reliable commentators have been saying for close to a year…

A D Kent
A D Kent
21 days ago

“Ukraine’s baffling failure to construct fortifications equivalent to Russia’s dense and deadly Surovikin Line.”

Not at all baffling to anyone who remembers that before this Russian invasion Ukraine was almost universally considered to be one of the most corrupt countries on Earth. But that was back before the sainted Zelenski purified their state, banished the grift and morally cleansed all the nastiness from those battalions with all those tattoos and wolf fixations.

jane baker
jane baker
21 days ago

Go Putin,whip Bidens ass. Glory and Victory to Holy Russia and Truth.

Alexander Thirkill
Alexander Thirkill
16 days ago
Reply to  jane baker

Yep, what would Jesus do? Blow up a maternity hospital?

God I hope you are being ironic.

Walter Lantz
Walter Lantz
21 days ago

Acknowledging that Ukraine cannot win a war of attrition was probably obvious from the beginning. Other than a misguided opinion that Russia’s military capability was a house of rusted out cards, the problem seems to be that someone in the West (I’ll assume the US) thought that economic pressure could mitigate Russia’s numerical advantage. That appears to have been incorrect.
The plan to cap Russian oil at $60 so as to cause economic pain without entirely disrupting oil supply is apparently not working. There’s a good explanation on YT – What’s Going On With Shipping. Side note: WGOWS also explains that despite Operation Prosperity Guardian – meant to protect commerce in the Red Sea – the result is Russia/China cargo transits the Red Sea/Suez as usual while Western vessels are diverting.
The West, which will never give Ukraine what it really needs – boots on the ground – has few if any options to help Ukraine without escalation which is a non-starter in a US election year. Another suggested option is to talk China and other BRICS partners) into withdrawing support for Russia using the argument that China needs the US markets a lot more than they need Russian oil but what would be China’s asking price? Taiwan? IMO, the answer to the “who needs whom?” question is far from clear or settled.
At their core, Rules Based Order and Net Zero are ideologies of the G7 and the EU, not the World. Thanks to the self-inflicted economic and cultural damage of the latter the ability to enforce the former is not only not guaranteed, it may not even be possible. “Get out of Ukraine or else!” is not an option on the table so what does that leave? Acknowledge that RBO is meaningless and tell Ukraine to take the best deal they can get and call it done? How do we live with that morally or politically?

A D Kent
A D Kent
21 days ago
Reply to  Walter Lantz

We ‘live with that’ by returning to the pre-2014 position of not really minding who controls Ukraine’s eastern oblasts. That’s what this comes down to, that’s what troops on the ground would be fighting for. It wasn’t worth it then & it’s not worth it now.

Walter Lantz
Walter Lantz
21 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

I tend to agree that the West probably didn’t/doesn’t care about Eastern Ukraine. We didn’t really care much when Putin took Crimea. If that’s true then the honest advice to Ukraine would have been “fight or make a deal – it’s up to you – but we’re staying out of it” which would have exposed RBO ideology as a charade. All of the support – ie; all of the money – for Ukraine since the invasion then looks like utter fiscal irresponsibility on the part of the West, particularly the US, that has serious unattended issues at home. The arms industries and Blackrock might be happy but mega-billions spent on a failure to achieve what we didn’t really want anyway will require a herculean truth-bending effort.
Aside from that the fallback theory that the real objective wasn’t to liberate Ukraine at all but to neuter Putin and Russia economically and militarily doesn’t stand up either.

Paul Chubbock
Paul Chubbock
20 days ago
Reply to  Walter Lantz

I would add that a side objective (of the US) was to stoke the fears of Sweden and Finland, and flush them into joining NATO on a wave of popular home support.

Hennie Booysen
Hennie Booysen
20 days ago
Reply to  Walter Lantz

Rules Based Order as practiced by the West very much of the ‘do what I say and not what I do’ type. The West, led by the USA with NATO as its lapdog has certainly not followed any RBO over the last 60 years at least. It is quite ironic to state that RBO is an ideology of the G7 and the EU when they are the ones not following any sort of RBO and invading / bombing countries at will. And all in the name of peace and democracy.

Walter Lantz
Walter Lantz
20 days ago
Reply to  Hennie Booysen

No argument there. Currently RBO is basically a propaganda program for domestic consumption. The rhetoric has hints of cancel culture tactics that often put the frighteners in the home folks but are meaningless to anyone else. The same sort of empty threats have been used in an attempt to cajole the Third World into adopting Net Zero- approved green energy and that hasn’t worked well either.

B Emery
B Emery
20 days ago

.’ Unless Ukraine’s battered forces can blunt Russia’s offensive soon, the calls for direct Western intervention will only grow louder.’

What about some UN intervention in the form of diplomacy. The un has been going for over fifty years, one of the only times we need it to prevent a global conflict and it is proving woefully inadequate at doing so.
What about diplomacy and free trade. What about preventing Europe from turning into a bankrupt, missile attacked dystopian nightmare. This is the UNs job, it is not doing it.

Elon Workman
Elon Workman
20 days ago

Surely in terms of man power alone this is an unwinnable war ? At the end of the day there will have to be some sort of deal with Putin however obnoxious that may be. But I doubt whether a return to the borders prior to February 2022 is feasible.

William Brand
William Brand
18 days ago

A nation has 3 armies regulars, heroic volunteers and involuntary conscripts. Both nations have killed off their regulars and heroic volunteers and are down to the conscripts. The Ukrainians won the first 2 stages of the war but are losing the third. As a dictatorship Russia can use more force to recruit unwilling conscripts. They can station the remnants of the regular army as executioners of any conscript who refuses to advance in battle. Units of regulars and secrete police are behind regiments of conscripts prepared to force men to attack. A democracy cannot do this.