Kharkiv Offensive Has Shown the West That Ukraine Can Win

Across the Russian media there is generalized gloom. Even among Russia’s cheerleaders there is a sense of anger and some desperation, including (or especially) among the most nationalist voices.

Igor Girkin – the pro-Russian commander of the breakaway so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” during the 2014-2015 campaign in Donbas and an influential and well-connected blogger – takes the view that: “We have already lost, the rest is just a matter of time.”

Away from Russia, those countries who do not oppose the Kremlin (Putin has few allies) will be reassessing whether they have backed a loser. This especially includes China, whose leader Xi Jinping is due to meet with Putin this week.

On the other side, Ukrainians have been hearing their president, Volodymyr Zelensky, talk about liberating all of Ukraine’s lost lands. Now they believe it – and they are not alone. The offensive has demonstrated conclusively to Western donors that Ukraine is capable of complex combined operations to retake its territory.

This is important. It is one thing to use complex equipment such as Himars rocket launchers effectively in small numbers. It’s quite another to organize thousands of weapons systems in combination with tens of thousands of troops in fast-moving combat.

Allies and donors can now be confident that Ukrainian commanders are capable of using Western aid not only in defense but, crucially, also in operations to retake land. In doing so, the narrative of Ukrainian success is firmly reestablished in international media. This is vital for keeping the country’s situation high on government agendas.

Western Reactions
All of this asks questions of Western strategy, which until now was predicated on weakening Russia and preventing Ukrainian defeat. Ukraine has now demonstrated that there is a real possibility to impose strategically significant costs on the invaders – and eventually defeat them.

The dilemma for Joe Biden and European leaders is whether to reinforce success and double down. The war is nowhere near over. One-fifth of Ukraine’s territory is still under occupation, the criminal nature of which becomes ever clearer when the territory is retaken and atrocities revealed.

Syrski’s boss, chief of staff of the Ukrainian armed forces General Valery Zaluzhnyi, recently co-authored an article asking how far Ukraine’s military ambitions should extend in 2023 and assessing what Ukraine will need from its partners to achieve them.

He sees the focus for Ukraine’s operations as Crimea. The means for retaking Crimea, he says, are to be “ten to 20 combined military brigades” representing about 60,000 fully-equipped combat troops armed with modern Western equipment.

Zaluzhnyi observes the essential and continuing disparity between Russia’s weapons, which can – and regularly do – strike deep into Ukrainian territory, and those of the defenders which have only one-20th the range. Ukraine needs the capability to threaten or impose costs deep into Russia if the war is not to go on and on.

While that disparity continues, he argues, and given the nature of the Russian regime, the war could go on indefinitely no matter how much territory Ukraine has recaptured recently. Facing an all-out war wherein Ukraine is effectively defending the West, full-scale support is required, not simply replacement of losses.

Will the West have the courage to back him up? Last week, Zaluzhnyi’s article would have seemed quixotic fantasy. Now, with the blitzkrieg liberation of most of the Kharkiv oblast, and the obviously abject and ramshackle state of the Russian armed forces made even more apparent, Ukrainian victory looks truly achievable for the first time.

Frank Ledwidge is Senior Lecturer in Military Strategy and Law, University of Portsmouth. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.