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Tom Clonan 'Putin's aggression is going nowhere as this war reaches its first anniversary'

The security analyst says Putin’s back is to the wall and the global community must redouble efforts to bring an end to this war.

PUTIN’S INVASION OF Ukraine reaches its first anniversary this week. Combat operations in Ukraine have been ongoing for one year – a tragic war in which there have been hundreds of thousands of casualties.

Ukrainian civilians have been slaughtered wherever Putin’s forces have taken ground. Millions of Ukrainian men women and children have fled the country in one of the largest refugee crises in Europe since World War Two.

However, President Zelenskyy’s leadership and his forces have survived the initial attempt to decapitate the Kyiv regime. Furthermore, his leadership has persevered for 12 months of brutal, grinding, attritional combat. He has also galvanised support from EU and NATO leaders. This support endures after a year demonstrating clearly that Zelenskyy enjoys the unwavering support of western leaders.

Global support

Today’s visit to Kyiv by US President Joe Biden is an unambiguous demonstration of western unity – unanimous NATO and EU support for Zelenskyy’s defence of Ukraine. Biden’s carefully worded tweet today signals western intentions, ‘As we approach the anniversary of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, I’m in Kyiv today to meet with President Zelenskyy and reaffirm our unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s democracy, sovereignty and territorial integrity’.

Biden’s walkabout of Kyiv with Zelenskyy – with air-raid sirens clearly audible in the background – signalled clearly that this war will continue into the Spring and Summer months.

It may well continue for another year. It will continue for as long as it takes to deny Putin a ‘victory’ in Ukraine.

But, what will a victory for Ukraine resemble? Zelenskyy is certainly winning the diplomatic and propaganda war – but what about the ‘facts on the ground’ – the battlefield? After the initial shock of invasion, Ukraine’s forces have re-organised, re-calibrated and have pivoted from a series of desperate defensive operations last Spring to a successful strategy of offensive – costly – combat operations. Over the Summer and Autumn months, Ukraine regained approximately 50% of the territory it lost to Putin’s most recent invasion.

In the north east, Ukraine’s forces have pushed invading units away from Kharkiv towards the Russian border. In the south, Zelenskyy’s commanders have re-taken the provincial capital of Kherson and continue to consolidate their positions in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts.

However, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the invasion at the end of this week, Putin has begun a major Winter/Spring offensive. Having mobilised over 300,000 reservists before Christmas, these troops are now arriving on the battlefield and are being thrown against Ukrainian positions in a number of key areas.

Russia’s brutal pushback

In my analysis of this war thus far, I did not think that Putin’s generals would be in a position to field a credible counter-offensive force in eastern Ukraine. However, far from disintegrating from mounting losses, Putin’s forces have reorganised and large numbers of mobilised reservists are now arriving in-theatre and are mounting meaningful ground operations towards Kreminna, Bakhmut and Vuhledar in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts.

These three axes of advance, north, centre and south respectively seem directed towards the complete occupation of Luhansk and Donetsk.

However, these ground operations have been brutal and are reported to resemble ‘human wave’ attacks on Ukrainian positions. Putin’s recently appointed General Gerasimov has deployed the equivalent of three divisions into this effort. It is a brutal and unrelenting series of assaults, with inexperienced reservists launching themselves at Ukrainian positions with incredibly high losses on both sides.

On Monday 6 February, it was reported that over 1000 Russian soldiers had been killed in action in just one day. Since then, various sources have estimated that between 500 and 800 Russian troops are dying on a daily basis in Ukraine with multiples of that number sustaining serious injuries. It is not known what Ukrainian losses have been – but they are bound to be similarly high. Some Ukrainian commanders have reported that Russian troops have been forced to mount endless frontal assaults – a ‘Zombie-like’ tactic – suffering enormous losses until Zelenskyy’s forces run out of ammunition. Thus yielding ground – little by little and at a huge cost – to Putin’s renewed offensive.

In the central axis of advance, towards Bakhmut and eventually, it is assumed, towards the heavily fortified towns of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk – Russian reservists have been augmented with Wagner Group mercenaries and experienced formations such as the 106th Airborne Division.

In the north, Putin’s forces are gaining traction towards Svatove, north of Novovodanye, Kremmina and Yampolovka. In the south, at least four Russian brigades have been launched towards Vuhledar with very high losses of troops and armoured fighting vehicles and tanks.

Further south again, perhaps in anticipation of a Ukrainian counter-offensive, Putin’s forces have reinforced their positions along the Dniepro river and are consolidating their control of the Dneiper Delta – presumably to further secure their land corridor from the Crimean Peninsula to Russian territory.

Ukrainian sources state that Russia is conserving artillery ammunition along all of their active fronts and fear that Putin may be building up a reserve of fire support for a massive attack timed to coincide with the anniversary of the invasion. Zelenskyy’s military commanders have stated that they believe that Putin has also assembled a force of up to 500,000 troops to strike a decisive blow in the Donbas region.

Despite the relentless propaganda, disinformation and confusion in the current situation, it is clear that Putin’s forces have regained the initiative in eastern Ukraine and are gaining some traction. However, this is happening at an enormous cost. The casualty figures reported for the last two weeks are similar to those from some of the biggest battles of World War Two. The blood-letting or ‘meat grinder’ strategy being pursued is simply unsustainable in the long term.

What next?

For its part, Ukraine will desperately attempt to stem the renewed tide of Putin’s aggression. New weapon systems such as the promised Leopard 1 and 2 tanks, along with a re-supply of artillery shells, anti-armour systems, rockets and missiles will be required for Ukraine to hold ground in Donbas. Ukraine may also attempt their own offensive along the active front – which now stretches over 1000 kilometres – possibly in the south in the Kherson region to divert and split Putin’s forces.

For his part, Vladimir Putin’s leadership seems secure. The raising of convict armies and the targeting of civilian infrastructure in Ukraine has undermined the rule of law in Russia and has severely damaged Russia’s diplomatic and political capital internationally. However, her economy remains capable of supporting the war effort and with assistance from other powers such as Iran, Putin has circumvented international sanctions and embargoes to continue to batter Ukraine’s infrastructure.

Human toll

At the heart of all of this is the tragedy of human suffering created by this war. Tens of thousands of young Ukrainian and Russian men – and boys – are being sacrificed on a battlefield that will yield little or nothing for either country. As we reach the one year anniversary of the conflict, world leaders must remain mindful of the continued risk of escalation in the war. If Putin’s appalling losses fail to deliver a face-saving ‘victory’ in his ‘Special Military Operation’ in Donbas, he may resort to non-conventional methods to prosecute a wider war against the west. This might include targeting the critical infrastructure and assets of those states aligned with Zelenskyy’s regime in classic ‘grey zone’ operations.

If confronted with the supply of fighter jets to Ukraine or the encroachment by Ukrainian forces onto Russia’s borders, Putin might even resort to the use of a ‘tactical’ nuclear weapon or ‘mini-nuke’ to permanently ‘deny ground’ and create a de-facto dead zone or buffer zone between Ukraine and Russia. He has threatened to do so. He has stated explicitly that he is prepared to do so.

World leaders – including the largely absent Secretary General of the UN – need to re-double their efforts to bring this war to a swift and just end. A victory for Ukraine needs to be calculated on their accelerated membership of the European Union and some sort of negotiated settlement with Russia. However unpalatable this compromise might seem – an end must be brought to the slaughter and with it, a significant de-escalation in the conflict.

Some argue that this would constitute ‘appeasement’ and risk further aggression in the future – comparing the current situation with that of the 1930s in Europe. I do not believe that this is an analogous situation. Putin is a man in his 70s and not a man in his late 40s. He is a leader with a certain ‘shelf life’. With his back to the wall, he could use nuclear weapons with all of the consequences that would entail. It is in all of our interests to stop his army in its tracks. It is also in all of our interests to invest the same efforts in bringing this catastrophic war to a close.

Dr Tom Clonan is a retired Army Officer and former Lecturer at TU Dublin. He is currently an Independent Senator on the Trinity College Dublin Panel, Seanad Eireann.

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