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A little Ukrainian boy, a refugee, at the Shehyni border crossing when war broke out. Alamy Stock Photo

Tom Clonan An emboldened Putin and a possible Trump return pose real dangers for Europe

The security analyst says we’re at a crossroads in this conflict, two years after the Ukraine war began.


AS PUTIN’S INVASION of Ukraine reaches its two year anniversary, the conflict has mostly been a military stalemate.

Russia’s capture of Avdiivka this week is a costly symbolic set-back for Zelenskyy – in an increasingly bloody war of attrition.

Estimates of military casualties on both sides vary. Ukraine does not publish its casualty figures which are classified as militarily sensitive. US intelligence sources estimate up to 70,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed in action. The figure is likely closer to 50,000 deaths with up to 200,000 wounded in action. As of February 2024, President Zelenskyy’s forces are depleted, exhausted and in the process of re-organising and reinforcing.

in-this-photo-provided-by-the-ukrainian-presidential-press-office-ukrainian-president-volodymyr-zelenskyy-center-poses-for-a-photo-with-soldiers-during-his-visit-to-the-front-line-city-of-kupiansk Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, center, poses for a photo with soldiers during his visit to the front line city of Kupiansk, Kharkiv region, 19 Feb. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Russia’s forces are also under pressure. Putin’s battlefield losses are conservatively estimated at approximately 100,000 killed in action, with a further 200,000 seriously wounded. Despite these losses, there have been relatively few breakthroughs – on either side – over the Winter months. This week’s victory for Putin – however pyrrhic – is a consequence of ‘meat-grinder’ tactics, suicidal mass wave assaults by conscripts on Ukrainian positions. Such tactics may not be sustainable without a formal and full Russian mobilisation.

Ukraine’s position

In the first year of the war, President Zelenskyy and his forces under the command of General Valery Zaluzhny enjoyed a number of significant successes. These included the heroic defence of Kyiv at the start of the war, the liberation of much of the Kharkiv Oblast in September of 2022 – followed by the dramatic liberation of Kherson in November.

2023 brought very high expectations of Zelenskyy’s forces, with many commentators – myself included – predicting major gains for Kyiv in a much-vaunted Summer offensive. This time last year, Ukraine was supplied with a fleet of NATO standard main battle tanks, multi launch artillery systems and air defence platforms. However, as the year wore on, with relentless combat at flashpoints along the 1000km front in the east and south of Ukraine, Zelenskyy’s forces failed to inflict a major setback on Putin.

Ukraine did manage to establish a bridgehead across the Dnieper River in the Kherson Oblast – which carried the promise of a thrust east and south into Zaporizhzhia Oblast toward Melitipol, cutting Putin’s ‘land-bridge’ from Russia to the Crimean Peninsula. However, despite repeated probing attacks and assaults, Ukraine’s Summer offensive failed to inflict a major setback on Russian forces.

Putin’s forces

Throughout the Winter, the Russian military has continued to mount attacks – primarily in the eastern sector of Donetsk towards Marinka. They had also continuously – and doggedly — attempted to conduct encirclement operations around Avdiivka with ongoing assaults in the direction of Chasiv Yar, near Bakhmut. Putin has also directed his forces to attack further north toward Kupiansk.

president-joe-biden-and-first-lady-dr-jill-biden-greet-ukraine-president-volodymyr-zelensky-upon-arrival-at-the-white-house-december-21-2022-in-washington-dc-credit-ken-cedenopool-via-cnp-mediap President Joe Biden and first lady Dr. Jill Biden greet Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy upon arrival at the White House, 2022. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

As Spring approached, on the approach of the 2nd anniversary of Putin’s invasion, there were significant intelligence reports that the Kremlin had concentrated a force of up to 40,000 combat troops east of Avdiivka – with the possibility of a major assault in that area. That assault has now materialised, and as Ukraine experiences shortages in artillery rounds and personnel – Putin will hope to replicate his success at Avdiivka at other points along the frontline.

‘Intelligence blunder’

Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, it is abundantly clear that Putin’s forces will continue to attempt to punch holes in Ukraine’s eastern defences. Despite the worrying setback at Avdiivka, the Kremlin has been denied a major, ‘decisive’ victory in Ukraine and Putin’s criminal invasion remains – at this point – a major strategic and intelligence blunder.

Ukraine has held the line at great cost however and so-called ‘Ukraine Fatigue’ has become a major issue.

Ukraine desperately needs to reorganise, re-boot and re-focus its combat operations in 2024 if it is to continue to successfully defend its eastern front. Success or failure in this regard hinges on continued aid and support from the EU, NATO and the United States. The EU – after obstacles mounted by Hungarian PM Viktor Orban – has committed 50 Billion Euro in aid to Kyiv. Germany alone has committed 8 billion Euro in military aid.

However, the decisive factor in aid, munitions and weapon systems resides with the United States. Washington is currently stalling on a $60 Billion dollar aid package to Ukraine. If this fails to materialise in the coming months, President Zelenskyy and his forces will struggle to repel and contain repeated mass attacks from the Russian military. Russia has ramped up its weapons production and appears capable of continuing a grinding war of attrition – in the short term at least. Avdiivka is an object lesson for the West in what will happen if support for Ukraine falters.

Zelenskyy’s next move

A shortfall in military aid has already impacted Kyiv’s ability to defend its civilian population centres. In the Summer and Autumn of 2023, Kyiv’s US-supplied Patriot missile defence system successfully engaged Russian cruise missiles and ballistic missiles on Ukrainian civilian targets. In December last and January of this year, Putin launched wave after wave of missile attacks on Kyiv and Kharkiv – with Zelenskyy’s air defences only succeeding in intercepting approximately 50% of the missiles fired.

This is a worrying development and a portent of what might follow – in all theatres of the war – if Western military support wavers.

In this context, in the event that Putin were to continue to make major gains in Ukraine in 2024 – it would be a major defeat for Zelenskyy and a major setback for the credibility of European and US political, diplomatic and military solidarity. With the possibility of a Trump presidency in the US – and his overtly stated support for Putin’s right to ‘do anything he wants’ in Europe, this is a worrying moment for the NATO alliance.

Screen Shot 2024-02-19 at 15.47.45 The possibility of a Trump presidence presents a real danger to global security.

It is against this background that President Zelenskyy has almost completely changed his general staff. After two years of war, he has replaced Valery Zaluzhny with Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi. He has also replaced his ground forces commander with Lieutenant General Oleksandr Pavlyuk and his joint forces commander with Lieutenant General Yuri Sodol.

Syrski’s appointment is particularly significant. He was the general directly responsible for the successful defence of Kyiv and the dramatic light infantry strikes into Kharkiv – which liberated much of that Oblast in September 2022. Syrski has a reputation for aggressive leadership and his general staff appear hand-picked to provide renewed leadership and possibly, a renewed initiative in a static ground campaign.

In a hint at a further major mobilisation, Zelensky has also replaced all of his regional conscription officers – with a renewed conscription drive including the targeting of older males between the ages of 27 and 60. There is growing unease in Ukraine among the military age population at the ‘meat-grinder’ tactics on the frontline – and the catastrophically high casualty rates.

For his part, Putin has not yet declared a full-scale war on Ukraine. He still refers to the conflict as a ‘Special Military Operation’ with just partial mobilisation. However, Russia’s prison population has now been almost depleted of military aged convicts – used as reinforcements in Ukraine. In order to significantly shift the military dynamic in the Donbas, Putin will inevitably have to consider a much wider – and highly unpopular – military mobilisation in 2024. Such a move – if it were to take place – would likely happen in April or May after Putin’s mid-March Presidential re-election.

The Ukraine war has been Europe’s largest inter-state conflict since World War Two. 2024 will see both sides renew their efforts to break the grinding stalemate and inflict a major setback on the other party. Zelenskyy’s new military leadership will strive to re-energise and innovate the defeat of Putin’s defence in depth in eastern Ukraine. Kyiv will step up its attacks on targets inside Russia proper. Putin will no doubt re-double his efforts to achieve a clear and unambiguous ‘victory’ in Ukraine following his re-election.

moscow-russia-29-february-2020-lubov-sobol-abd-aleksey-navalny-on-march-in-memory-of-boris-nemtsov-people-flag-and-poster-on-the-background Aleksei Navalny on march in memory of Boris Nemtsov in 2020. The Putin opposition figure died in prison this week. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

It is a thoroughly depressing scenario which will convince many European leaders of the requirement for Europe to re-arm itself and prepare for a renewed collective deterrence and defence capability. The prospect of a Trump presidency – and his threats to NATO coherence – will accelerate this sentiment. History tells us that whenever Europe arms itself, the outcomes are hard to predict and rarely positive.

However, Putin’s murder of Russia’s main opposition leader Alexei Navalny – in advance of March elections – demonstrates a regime that has no intention of moderating its grand design for Russian expansion, with a hard-line old-style murderous dictator firmly ensconced in the Kremlin for the foreseeable future.

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 Éireann.