23 Apr 2022
We must – and can – do more for Ukraine
The war in Ukraine has entered a new phase where Russia’s aim over the next few weeks is to deliver a paper victory for Vladimir Putin to justify a parade on May 9 in Moscow marking Victory Day, the anniversary of the Nazi surrender in 1945.
There are reports that a Russian military parade is planned to march through the rubble of Ukraine’s port city of Mariupol on May 9, where the remaining Ukrainian forces are fighting to the end, surrounded in the wreckage of the Azovstal Metallurgical Combine, and pounded by Russian artillery and airstrikes.
Russia is consolidating its forces in Ukraine’s east. To the extent that they have a coherent war plan after being defeated in their attempt to take Kyiv, it is to consolidate their control of the Donbas, the area controlled by Russian proxy forces since 2014, and establish a land corridor south east to the annexed Crimea.
There is a second war aim: if Ukraine won’t surrender, then Russia is intent on crushing its Slavic brothers, applying a scorched-earth policy, demolishing infrastructure and poisoning whatever support Moscow might once have had in Europe.
Writing for The Australian at the start of the war, I said two unknown factors were the depth of Ukrainian determination to resist the country’s aggressors, and the capacity of the Russian military to deliver a quick victory.
Now we know. The Ukrainian armed forces have been magnificent. They have fought in an intelligent and flexible way using real-time intelligence information to destroy a huge volume of Russian weaponry.
The sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, is a case in point.
The US has confirmed the ship was hit by two Ukrainian-made Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles.
The Neptune system only came into service in March last year. It is not a particularly elegant weapon but something that looks like it has been rapidly flung together in a hasty collaboration across Ukrainian industry.
It is a remarkable achievement that the weapon could be brought into service within 13 months and be used successfully to locate, track, target and destroy an 11,490-tonne guided missile cruiser more than 100km offshore.
The Moskva, moreover, was Russia’s main anti-aircraft platform, providing air defence for other Russian ships attacking Ukraine with missiles. It should have been able to detect and destroy the incoming Neptune missiles.
The sinking of the Moskva points to the second conclusion we can draw about the war: Russia’s military performance has been abysmal.
The Russian intelligence service overseeing countries in the former Soviet Union, the FSB Fifth Service, dramatically failed in efforts to build Ukrainian support for a Russian occupation and misled Putin on the prospects for a quick and easy takeover of Kyiv.
That failure may have led to a badly designed Russian plan of attack, using relatively small numbers of paratroopers in a helicopter assault north of the capital. The Russian target on February 24 was Hostomel airport, 10km from Kyiv. Had that been taken it would have supported a military air bridge, but Ukrainian forces repelled the attack.
In the north of the country, Russian forces ground to a halt, plagued by fuel, food and ammunition shortages and a profound lack of morale on the part of badly trained conscripts.
Russian armoured columns that were forced to stick to highways because of boggy land became soft targets for highly effective small teams of Ukrainian forces armed with shoulder-fired anti-armour weapons.
The secret to the Ukrainian success – apart from obvious courage – was a highly effective intelligence gathering system using everything from drones to residents calling in information about Russian movements.
It remains a mystery why Russia did not seek to destroy the Ukrainian Air Force more completely and to dominate the air. Equally, why did Russia restrict its ground offensives to widely dispersed battalion-sized manoeuvres? Why has Russian use of missiles been so oddly random and poorly targeted. Why did the expected cyber attack on critical infrastructure not eventuate?
It’s expected that the Russian offensive in the east is going to be a larger, heavier offensive. No doubt they will try but we should be sceptical that the Russian generals are capable of shifting from dysfunctional disaster to well-co-ordinated success.
As Ukraine moves into spring, Russia will find it hard to mass formations of tanks and armoured vehicles on soft ground. And they will come up against some of Ukraine’s most experienced military units in well-fortified positions.
The Ukrainian Defence Ministry’s estimates that Russia has already lost 20,900 personnel. The figure may be an overestimation but clearly many military units have been rendered ineffective.
I seriously doubt that Russian military morale will be up for a hard fight. Nor has Russia had any success in using Chechen fighters, the Wagner mercenary group and Syrians to replace Russian losses.
There are reports also that Russia is running out of missiles. More will be made but the Russian military is grinding to a halt based on the country’s logistical shortcomings. By contrast, NATO and other countries are gearing to provide more weapons to Ukraine.
Canada has promised heavy artillery and late last week the US relented on providing combat aircraft, but without releasing much useful detail on what is being provided.
Russia will continue to inflict cruel and indiscriminate destruction on the Ukrainian people, but from a military perspective the best it might achieve in the east is a hard-fought stalemate where any gains will be contested.
Will Putin resort to using tactical nuclear weapons in a bid to avert disaster? Possibly, but we should expect that the US will be privately warning Moscow against such folly. Using tactical nuclear weapons could well lead to regime change in the Kremlin as the generals and oligarchs choose to oust Putin before he brings the whole country to its knees.
The next few weeks will be desperately important for Ukraine, and its hardly surprising that NATO and other decent democracies are pulling out all stops to provide defence equipment.
Hopefully Poland will find a way to provide its MiG-29 fighter aircraft to Ukraine. The red line on combat aircraft drawn by Joe Biden seems to be shifting with the latest US weapons deliveries.
Australia should step up to the mark as well. We shouldn’t allow an election campaign to prevent us from doing more.
Right now, Australia has a significant number of Bushmaster vehicles, additional to the 20 already promised, which should be provided to Ukraine. Two hundred vehicles armed with the roof-mounted Remote Weapon Station along with the ammunition they use would make a valuable contribution.
Although a debate is rumbling through strategic circles in Australia, it’s way too early to pronounce the death of tanks and armoured vehicles. Bushmasters saved many Australian lives in Afghanistan and they can do the same in Ukraine.
During an election, the caretaker conventions demand that the opposition would be fully consulted and hopefully support such a move. Here is an opportunity for a bipartisan initiative that all Australians could proudly support.
Australia needs to make this effort because the war in Ukraine is a war of an authoritarian system against a democracy. Putin has lowered the threshold for war globally.
In the Indo-Pacific, it is possible that Xi Jinping will take the wrong lesson from the Ukraine conflict. A rational assessment of the war might lead one to conclude that invading a neighbour is a very unwise strategy. However, Xi might well conclude that China will simply do war more effectively than Russia. If Xi links that idea to another strongly held view in Beijing that the US is in terminal decline, a possible conclusion might be that China is better off trying to take Taiwan while Biden is in the White House.
Western support of Volodymyr Zelensky is not so much an act of charity as it is the best way to strengthen global deterrence against military adventurism from authoritarian regimes. The more Australia can do to strengthen Ukraine, the more confidence we can have that fellow democracies will help us should we ever need it.
Hopefully by mid-year we may be able to start thinking about the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine. Again, Australia should not settle for a bit-player role. We should engage in all areas to help rebuild the country, particularly looking to partner with the Ukrainian military.
This wouldn’t be a one-way street. We have much to learn from the Ukrainians about how to speed up weapons acquisitions; how to get usable equipment into the hands of soldiers quickly; and how to innovate with what we have rather than planning to innovate a decade from now.
How we engage with Ukraine in the next few weeks will be a test of our seriousness as a substantial power with global interests.
Are we up to it?