Ukraine needs a victory before autumn to silence Western doubters

·4 min read
A Ukrainian platoon commander in the Donetsk region - AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky
A Ukrainian platoon commander in the Donetsk region - AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

It took the best part of three months, but the battle for the Luhansk region is over.

Over the weekend, Ukrainian forces fell back from Lysychansk, their last toe-hold in the province, to avoid imminent encirclement.

Russian flags are raised on a government building in Lysychansk - EPN/Newscom/Avalon
Russian flags are raised on a government building in Lysychansk - EPN/Newscom/Avalon
The destruction of Lysychansk shows the battle for Luhansk has been bloody and slow - EyePress News/Shutterstock
The destruction of Lysychansk shows the battle for Luhansk has been bloody and slow - EyePress News/Shutterstock

Russian forces rode in triumph into the centre of the shattered city, claiming one of Vladimir Putin’s stated objectives - the full “liberation” of the Luhansk “people’s republic”.

Their victory has been costly, bloody and slow.

The tactical gain has brought almost no strategic advantage and Russia’s initial plans for a grand battle of encirclement in Donbas to destroy the Ukrainian army have failed.

The Ukranians are still in the fight and the coming struggles for Siviersky, Slavyansk, Bakhmut and Kramatorsk will be no less difficult.

But Ukraine is running out of time too.

Sergei Gaidai, the energetic governor of Luhansk region, told The Telegraph in May that Severodonetsk must be held as long as possible - despite the deaths - to tie down the bulk of Russian troops, inflict as much attrition on them as possible and buy time for a counteroffensive.

Hopes for a Ukrainian counter-stroke are currently pinned on the Kherson region, where Kyiv’s forces have been making incremental, probing gains for some weeks.

They are now reported to be in sight of Kherson itself, which fell to the Russians in the early days of the war.

Retaking it would be a major achievement for the Ukrainians and a blow to Russian confidence.

But like the Russians in Donbas, the Ukrainians have failed to achieve a decisive breakthrough. It is unclear whether they can muster the concentrations of men and arms needed to do so.

Back then, the idea was that Ukraine would be able to field newly-trained and equipped brigades by August this year.

But many new Ukrainian recruits, including irregulars from the Territorial Defence were thrown piece-meal into Donbas to hold back the Russian offensive. It is unclear whether the new brigades exist, let alone when they will reach the front if they do.

All of this plays into an even more important battle for international opinion.

A Ukrainian offensive victory would be seen as vindication of the policy championed by Britain, Poland and - for the time being - Joe Biden’s administration in the United States.

In short, that Ukraine must win the war and the West must do all it can to help do so.

If that effort is sustained, Ukraine’s victory in the long-term is almost inevitable. Russia cannot out-produce Western economies.

But there are plenty of influential voices in Western capitals - particularly Washington, Berlin and Paris - who still believe Western support for Ukraine is futile.

Perhaps Putin’s army is hollowed out. Perhaps it is relying on men and weapons made in the 1960s. And yes, perhaps it has paid dearly for each metre of ground.

But the Russians are still advancing and the Ukrainians are still retreating.

With the exception of Russian retreats from Kyiv in March and from Kharkiv in May, the grinding battles of attrition have ended almost entirely in Russia’s favour

In Mariupol, Severodonetsk and now Lysychansk, superior Russian numbers have prevailed. And shells are once again hitting outlying suburbs of Kharkiv.

Until and unless the Ukrainian army begins to put encirclements around the Russians, the self-proclaimed realists will feel vindicated - and their calls for a ceasefire and settlement in Moscow’s favour will gain influence with governments.

So Ukraine needs a victory - and in short order.

They have used Western-supplied weapons to evict the Russians from Snake Island and long-range HIMARS strikes are every day obliterating high-value targets like ammunition dumps and command posts in the Russian rear.

On Monday morning alone, they destroyed three ammunition dumps and struck the Russian airbase in occupied Melitopol, sending smoke from explosions towering into the air.

In time, that may suffocate Russia’s offensive capabilities.

Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, has made clear to his Western allies that he would like to finish the war by Christmas.

He will have to begin to turn the tide before autumn for a chance of doing that.