Joe Biden has made it to Kiev – and back – safely. The Russians were told, late in the day, for deconfliction ( that’s a new one! ) purposes. Biden announced another arms package and no doubt he and Zelensky discussed fighters, tanks, artillery and offensives although Zelensky probably has a lot more military knowledge than Biden who pleaded five draft deferments otherwise I might have met him in Vietnam.
The Ukrainians have cleverly drawn the Russians around the city of Bahkmut, using this eastern city as a magnet to keep significant numbers of Russians locked in a battle of attrition. Ukrainians defending the city would only withdraw to avoid encirclement. There has been debate in Washington over whether Ukraine’s forces can defend the city and still launch an offensive elsewhere. If the Ukrainians attack anywhere other than their eastern front a lot of Russians will be in the wrong place, maybe hundreds of miles wrong. Throughout this month the fighting intensified around Bahkmut. Russia’s generals reverted to forming two conventional divisions rather than a collection of battalion battlegroups. However, the team at the Institute for the Study of War ( ISW ) based in Washington DC assess that few armoured or airborne formations exist with sufficient strength to provide any strong support. When the Russians commit their new trainees to the front line, dramatic gains remain very unlikely. The Russian Army is worn down by a year of full scale warfare against a very capable foe. Putin regards his fellow Russians as cannon fodder. Even small gains have horrific costs. The ISW has maintained for some time that the Ukrainians are handling the overall situation very well.
The Ukrainians have received pledges from several countries to provide modern tanks and armoured fighting vehicles, artillery and long range missiles, ammunition and manpack ant-tank and SAM missiles. More was pledged at a conference in Munich. Britain was the catalyst that made this happen.
Ukraine wants modern jet fighters. NATO quality air power would transform the tactical battlefield. Putin knows, that’s why he threatens nuclear war. Questions need answers. Perhaps we have the answers already? I don’t have access to the material used by our intelligence agencies for such answers but some questions are obvious. Are Russia’s nuclear forces in any better shape than their conventional forces? What is Putin’s mental state? China’s twelve point peace plan reflects his desire for an exit though on his terms, plus their irritation with Putin. What are the politics of the Russian military and security universe? If he gave the order to use nuclear weapons would anyone obey? NATO has three nuclear armed powers but only two would react. France has not threatened Putin and supplied Ukraine less military aid than Estonia. Draw your own conclusions but my gut feeling is that Putin is too rational to trigger the vaporisation of the Winter Palace and the Kremlin by America and Britain. He seems obsessively focused on staying alive – remember that lunatic table, remember his twitching. The German, French and I’m sorry to say UK fudge plan offers Putin the breather he wants to recover and rearm before round three – Crimea was round one.
May I wrap up the debate about sending modern fighters to Ukraine by offering wise words from former Supreme Allied Commander Europe ( SACEUR ) Admiral Jim Stavridis – nowadays vice chairman of Carlyle Group, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Rockefeller Foundation, adviser to NBC News New York City, chairman emeritus of the United States Naval Institute, senior fellow at the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and member of the Inter American Dialogue.
Jim Stavridis puts it in a sentence: during his time as SACEUR they drew up many plans for using tanks in a variety of crises but he can’t recall one without fighter cover.
Joe Biden’s media message was a photo with NATO prime ministers and presidents whose countries had once been in the Warsaw Pact. The Cold War wasn’t cheap but we won it in the end. Ukraine requires similar resolve and patience.