Bob Seely is MP for the Isle of Wight. He is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. His doctrinal thesis was on integrated Russian warfare.
A week or so on from Ukraine’s successful retake of much of Kharkiv province, it is difficult to underestimate the change of mood in Ukraine that the ‘re-occupation’, as Ukrainians term it, has brought.
Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, was an emotional place as news of the collapse of Russian military positions became clear. I was there leading a cross-party group of seven MPs from four UK political parties, the first since February. We met Vladimir Zelensky, his ministers, MPs and advisers.
We entered Ukraine as news of Her Majesty’s death came through. After discussions with our respective whips, we continued. Our late Queen came of age in when our nation was fighting for our survival. We were travelling to a nation fighting now for its own. The parallel was not lost on us.
President Zelensky met us as the breakthrough was happening. Despite the darkened and sandbagged corridors of the buildings through which we were escorted to meet him, the optimism from the president and his advisors was clear. Zelensky spoke with a direct emotional intensity and energy which has become his trademark.
There is still a difficult road to travel before this war ends – as the air raid sirens over Kyiv reminded us – but at the Yalta Economic Summit we were attending, which now takes place in Kyiv due to the 2014 war, there was a clear sense that victory was achievable.
What next for Ukraine?
Neither hubris nor a single counter-offensive will deliver victory. A sense of proportion is needed.
Russia, whose military positions have again solidified, still controls 20 per cent of Ukraine’s territory. Kyiv still lacks the 3:1 force ratios which military planners say are needed for offensive operations. Whilst Ben Wallace has done a remarkable job as Ukraine’s global quartermaster, Ukraine remains short of tanks, air defence and long-range precision artillery. Supply is complex. Ukraine is running multiple Western artillery systems. Ensuring that the right supplies go to the right places is a jenga-like puzzle. Logistics as well as morale will define this war.
Yet by opening up a southern front with motivated and well-led Ukrainian soldiers, coming into contact with demotivated and badly-led Russian troops, Kyiv has pressed Russian lines. That weakness is now being brutally exposed on the war’s eastern flank. In the short-term, Ukraine will continue with opportunistic and small case attacks, probing Russian lines to find weakness and demoralise. It is gearing up for a larger offensive later this winter or the Spring.
On an even battlefield, Ukraine’s highly motivated and generally well-led forces would, very likely, defeat Russian forces. However, its most serious challenges are off the battlefield. Its weaknesses are economic; it runs a deficit of $5 billion a month, and political; it is entirely dependent on external support. Western war fatigue, in the EU or the US, may yet limit arms supply, which in turn would collapse Ukrainian offensive operations. Ukraine’s international coalition is therefore its weak link.
What next for Russia?
The future is grim and will get worse. The Russian state will become more unstable, more dangerous and more desperate. We must not normalise how bad this situation is.
Russia’s partial collapse will force its generals to commit reserves that it would have wanted to build up for offensives next year. Russia’s strategy may now become largely defensive, not offensive. A new phase of the war has effectively begun.
The best that Putin may be able to muster is a declaration of victory now and to dig in. Russia still has its prized land corridor between Crimea and the Donbas. Putin could probably ‘sell’ a victory to the Russian people, if not to anyone else. He could speed referendums in occupied territory, incorporating the land into the Russian Federation or another ‘People’s Republic’.
He may yet declare a general mobilisation to raise more soldiers, although that would expose the perilous state of the Russian military and increase risk to his regime.
Putin is probably calculating that Ukraine’s vulnerability is political. If he can destroy cohesion inside Ukraine, or politically between and the collective Western nations, he may yet deliver a victory that his troops are unable to take on the ground. Therefore, Russian will continue to try to divide Europe, using the energy, information warfare and nuclear threats. It will likely also step-up targeting of Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure to show that Ukraine cannot protect its own people.
If these fail, a worst-case scenario sees Putin widening the scope of the war – and we need to be clear that the interlinked narrative from the Kremlin is the following –
First, this is a global conflict against NATO, of which the Ukraine operation war is one aspect. The Russian leadership believes it is at war with us.
Second, the war is existential for this Russian state. That narrative of ‘life or death’ leaves the door open to justify use of nuclear weapons. Whilst that may sound unbelievable, we need to understand the mindset of those running Russia. As someone who remembers the collapse of the USSR, I do not rate conventional wisdom. Those dismissing Russian use of nuclear weapons are Western commentators. Those threatening their use are Russian politicians.
Russia’s security state arguably does not distinguish between the collapse of a regime and the collapse of the state. Defeat in war for Russia heralds reform or state collapse. Examples include: the Crimean War, the 1905 Russo-Japan war, World War I and the Afghan War. The collapse of the current Russian regime will be seen by its members as a devastating blow to their idea of Russia, as the global leader of an illiberal, anti-Western axis.
However, what is now clear is that a significant phase of Russia’s military and political history is coming to an end. During the past 20 years, Putin and his generals have developed the doctrinal concept of integrated conflict – with all the tools of state power – to be able to fight a perpetual conflict against the West in whatever forms that might take: political, military, economic, informational.
Up to 7 February, one could argue Putin had delivered a string of partial or full victories: the Syrian war, the 2014 Ukraine war, the 2016 US election. It also provided the tools for Putin’s new Cold War, so shamefully ignored or underplayed by Western and UK politicians since its inception in 2007.
Yet Putin’s great, historic goal, the reabsorption of Ukraine into the Russian world, lies in tatters. He has done more than any man to create a western-looking Ukrainian nation. Putin is a tactical genius but a strategic disaster. He has become the midwife of his nightmare; an independent Ukraine. As a result, the collapse of his authoritarian regime may now only be a matter of time. What comes after is unclear.
Ukraine’s battle for survival has taken a major step forward. We should pay tribute to their remarkable armed forces that we have helped to train. We should congratulate our Government for its global leadership. I and others will be writing to it to suggest further options for supporting Ukraine, as discussed with our Ukrainian allies last week.
In Parliament we must also reinvigorate the Ukraine All Party Parliamentary Group so that it becomes a leading vehicle for understanding and supporting Ukraine.
But, let us be under no doubt of the coming dangers: to Ukraine, to Russia, to us all, which lie ahead. Support for Ukraine must not waver, but we must not be blind to the risks – but instead seek to manage them as best we can.
The visit by seven MPs (two Tory, three Labour, one Lib Dem and one SNP) to Kyiv was supported by Yalta European Strategy Ltd.