Moment of greatest danger in Ukraine is approach with the war on a knife edge - Patrick Mercer

The moment of greatest danger in Ukraine is fast approaching. Ignore what most of our media is saying: Ukraine’s not going to thrash the Russians in the next few months and President Zelensky’s not going to have his summer holidays in Crimea. No, the reality’s stark: the whole campaign’s on a knife edge.

In my last column in early January I predicted that Russian assaults were imminent and this was right - up to a point. Again, our media and politicians have downplayed this, but the hard truth is that Russia stormed the town of Soledar a few days ago which was only significant because of the supply roads and railways to other fortresses that it dominated. One such is Bakhmut which has been labelled as strategically unimportant by some commentators but which has taken a third of the entire Ukrainian Army to prevent its fall - so unimportant is it.

Similarly, many armchair generals have criticised the slow progress of the Russian forces there, expecting to see blitzkrieg advances of tanks and armour capturing towns and territory in a vast swoop, but I don’t think Moscow ever intended that. Of course, there’s the important political image of taking ground, but there hasn’t been much talk of the real business of war - the bloody destruction of troops and equipment.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

And it’s the politics of Bakhmut which, I fear, have mesmerised Kiev. The Ukrainians have poured troops into this “unimportant” town to stop its falling and to demonstrate to their Western sponsors that the dollars and guns that have been sent have not been wasted. This was a particular focus at last week’s Ramstein conference where the NATO allies met with Ukrainian officials with a view to supplying further aid.

Germany approved the delivery of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, after weeks of pressure from Kyiv and many allies. PIC: Ronny Hartmann/AFP via Getty ImagesGermany approved the delivery of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, after weeks of pressure from Kyiv and many allies. PIC: Ronny Hartmann/AFP via Getty Images
Germany approved the delivery of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, after weeks of pressure from Kyiv and many allies. PIC: Ronny Hartmann/AFP via Getty Images

What was not mentioned there, though, was the butcher’s bill which has been paid to shore up Bakhmut. Precise numbers are hard to gauge, but thousands of Ukrainians have been killed by Russian artillery and, just as importantly, their reserves have been sucked into this inferno at the expense of counter offensives - especially in the south where a thrust was being prepared to sever the Russian troops holding the corridor to the genuinely important Crimea. Had that succeeded, Moscow’s ‘Special Operation’ would have been doomed, but the scheme was stillborn as reinforcements were diverted to Bakhmut.

Now Russia’s looking increasingly dangerous as her recently mobilised forces arrive around Ukraine’s borders and a new commander in chief has been appointed. General Gerasimov’s posting has been painted as a demotion for the erstwhile commander - Surovikin - but that’s nonsense. An extra tier of command has been added to allow, I believe, coordination of larger and more complex operations.

For instance, why is Russia so interested in reinforcing Belarus? Wide marshes make a thrust into Ukraine from the north very difficult whilst the narrow routes that the Russians used from there to attack Kiev last February have now been sealed by President Zelensky’s troops. No, it’s been suggested to me that forces are being built up here so that - once Ukraine’s been dealt with - Poland and Estonia can be pushed aside and a land bridge seized to the isolated Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic. Just the sort of lethal jaunt which a new general might command, I’d suggest.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Well, Ukraine cannot be allowed to go under if for no other reason than it will embolden Russia and allow plans like the Kaliningrad one to be put into practise plunging us into war. But what is the West going to do about it? NATO’s already denuded its war stocks of ammunition and only after weeks of wrangling are a few Leopard and Abrams tanks going to be sent with a clutch of artillery pieces.

Tanks? Really? Have we all forgotten Moscow’s debacle eleven months ago when columns of leviathans were seen off by brave Kiev irregulars armed with light anti-tank weapons? No, the tank’s had its day and sending more is just political tokenism: what’s needed is satellites, drones, plenty of guns and oceans of shells.

Yet, even if we send these sensors and guns, who’s going to fire them? It’ll take another round of conscription and several months to replace Ukrainian casualties and when these men do arrive, they won’t be up to the complex task of using modern artillery. But toy with this thought: powerful hawks in Washington have been lobbying for a military intervention in Ukraine by a ‘coalition of the willing’ - Poland, Romania and the Baltic States have been bandied about - backed by US expertise. They’re not suggesting a NATO wide offensive merely a discrete part of the alliances - and this was first being discussed just as a new American division deployed to Romania.

Now ponder a little further. Kiev’s government was wracked a few days ago by a slew of ministerial resignations revolving around corruption, but I’m told that all of these former ministers had been groomed, to one extent or another, by Westminster. Now it seems that their replacements are from the other faction, trained and influenced by Washington. Add to this the curious presence of Boris Johnson who was unexpectedly in Kiev just before the resignations took place. There’ll be nothing altruistic about our former premier’s trip: he’s influential in Ukraine, but it’s difficult to know what he was trying to achieve. Certainly there are tensions between the British and American advisors and these have been reflected by the mixed success of Ukrainian operations in the field. I wonder, therefore, if President Zelensky is realigning his cabinet for the trials that lie ahead?

Patrick Mercer is a former MP for Newark and Army colonel.