Only a decisive loss on the battlefield will end Putin’s savage war in Ukraine
Although western intelligence agencies knew of Vladimir Putin’s plans for a lightning strike on Kyiv, and the absorption of Ukraine into a Russian puppet state, it is now crystal clear that the Russian military leadership in the field were totally unaware of the strategic intentions of the Kremlin.
Moreover, on the eve of launching his “special military operation” a year ago, Putin became a victim of his own hubris. He firmly believed his security services had infiltrated and undermined the Kyiv government, that a majority of the Ukrainian population were opposed to President Volodymyr Zelensky and favoured better links with Russia. He believed his military was fit, capable and ready to mount a quick strike on Kyiv to effect regime change. Within the first month of this outrageous and savagely illegal war, the harsh reality of humiliating failure for Putin became most evident.
Determined resistance by the Ukrainian people, heroic leadership by Zelensky, unprecedented levels of gifted military hardware and training, and a unified front by the West have now combined to prevent Ukraine being defeated on the battlefield. A year into the war, the question turns to the prospect for its conclusion.
A sustained offensive could finally destroy what is left of Russian morale and break the back of the Russian army
Conventional wisdom would suggest that resolution to this conflict will come about through negotiation, but the public positions of both Putin and Zelensky are irreconcilable. Zelensky has made it quite clear that his strategic objective is the reclamation of all Ukrainian territory, including the Donbas region and Crimea. Anything less than that would be a failure on his part. Putin, on the other hand, has to show to the Russian people that even if he has not suborned Ukraine completely that part of her territory is now Russian. At the very least this must include the four provinces that Putin declared to be “forever Russia” last autumn, and Crimea, of course. Thus, if resolution is not possible around the negotiating table, the denouement must be on the battlefield.
The joint press conference by Zelensky and Rishi Sunak in front of a Challenger 2 main battle tank visibly underlined the message. The shift in the German and American positions resolved the tank debate, the focus now having moved to the provision of fast jet attack aircraft. With the exception of the bloody battles around Bakhmut, winter has temporarily put the war into the deep freeze but both sides are preparing offensives for the coming months.
On the evidence displayed so far, a future offensive by the Russian military, characterised by heavy artillery strikes and massed poorly trained infantry, is likely to fail. This will provide the opportunity for a Ukrainian counter offensive spearheaded by the gifted western equipment.
If the Ukrainian operational command can construct a bold combined arms scheme of manoeuvre, then there is the possibility of delivering decisive blows to the Russian military. A sustained offensive combining tanks, armoured infantry and self-propelled artillery – supported by long range missile strikes and close air support – could finally destroy what is left of Russian morale and break the back of the Russian army. An army does not need to be defeated in detail but if its soldiers believe they are beaten, then they are indeed beaten. As happened around Kharkiv last autumn, the Russian young men are likely to turn and run. Such a collapse would almost certainly sweep Putin out of the Kremlin.
There are perfectly reasonable fears over who might replace him, but I suggest that the group of leaders most disaffected in Russia today are the military. If General Valery Gerasimov can garner enough support, and find the moral courage to act, then this war could be over well before the second anniversary.
Lord Dannatt, crossbench peer and a former chief of the general staff.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.