Ukraine won’t be able to resist Russian advances if Western help is diverted to the Middle East - Patrick Mercer
Suddenly, there’s little mention of Ukraine and that, for Kiev, is thoroughly dangerous.
There’s plenty of horror to hold your attention in Israel, of course. The strike on the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza City rightly appalled the world, but it also torpedoed President Biden’s regional trip when Jordan's King Abdullah II called off their vital summit. President Biden was due to meet not just King Abdullah, but also the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — all three of whom blamed Israel for the blast and simply refused to meet the American President.
In other news, the ‘Special Military Operation’ has dragged on for almost 20 months with Western interest and materiel support being remarkably consistent. It’s only this consistency which has allowed Ukraine not to be overwhelmed, but suddenly there’s a distraction in Israel, a distraction that is not only on our doorstep, but one that feels more immediate than a war thousands of miles away fought over towns whose names few can read let alone pronounce.
Now there’s a real urgency for Kiev to see the Israeli crisis settled soon, because if Western help is diverted to the Middle East, she simply won’t have the ammunition and materiel to resist Russian advances. And that urgency bites Israel as well. Tel Aviv cannot allow this crisis to turn into a lengthy, full blown regional conflict because, despite President Biden’s rhetoric and assurances that America can sustain two wars at the same time, US resources are finite.
Remember Admiral Kirby’s statement - he’s the head of strategic communications in the White House - when he said that American assistance to Ukraine was, “…coming to the end of the rope”. Well, that assistance is going to be doubly stretched now that Israel needs it and there are no prizes for guessing whether Tel Aviv or Kiev will get priority.
There’s also another mundane but hugely important time pressure on Israel. Only a few of her troops are regulars: most are reservists who have full time, civilian jobs and whilst they’re toting rifles there’s no one to keep Israel’s economy turning over. As the tanks and troops mass ready for a probable decisive assault on Gaza, Israeli commanders will be only too conscious that the war must be a short one.
This time pressure, of course, is reflected in Ukraine - but doubly so. I have no doubt that the general staff in Kiev, in the light of the unsuccessful counter attacks that were launched in June, were hoping for the weather to turn and for their great ally, the cloying autumn mud, to suck the Russians into immobility. This should have bought some time to build up combat supplies and for the latest wave of conscription to take effect.
It’s worth bearing in mind - whatever Ukraine says officially - her casualties have been enormous. That’s why she’s now asking for her military age citizens who have fled abroad to be repatriated and why 16 year olds are now being called up.
Similarly, it was hoped that there would be a breathing space for units that had been mauled to be reinforced and hastily retrained. In the same vein, it should have been easier to husband existing reserves as Western aid flowed and the fighting dwindled in the worsening weather.
Suddenly, though, that’s all changed. The imaginative and highly aggressive information campaign that Kiev has mounted with the help of NATO experts has been aimed at one thing - holding the West’s support and with it the money that has flowed so bountifully. But, with many Western politicians and journalists having direct connections to Israel, it’s hardly surprising that a more immediate crisis looks likely to distract them.
That change of mood was made very obvious to President Zelensky when he asked to visit Israel a few days ago and was refused. Suddenly, he had to act decisively if he were to keep his donors interested and, despite the season and the situation at the front being less than promising, he did.
Without any meaningful reserves left, the Ukrainians stripped four Marine brigades away from the Zaporizhzhia area, regrouped them and then thrust them into a crossing of the Dneiper. Opposite Kherson a fleet of assault boats and pontoons clawed their way onto the Russian held bank although so far only infantrymen and mortars have crossed; there are no heavy guns and no armour at least, not yet.
I believe that Russia’s decision to abandon the western bank of the Dneiper was their most serious mistake of the campaign so far. Certainly, the Ukrainians will find it tricky to hold a bridgehead on the eastern bank, but they’re now across - albeit without much punch - and that will demand disproportionate attention from Moscow’s troops who now need every soldier, sailor and airman they can find to sustain their attacks on Avdivka, Kupiansk, Liman and elsewhere.
As if the situation in Ukraine wasn’t bad enough, the brutality in Israel has now opened another, extremely dangerous front. The situation may be bloodily containable, but if, as threatened, Iran becomes directly involved, a general war in the Middle East becomes a real possibility.
Patrick Mercer is a former MP for Newark and Army colonel.