Article by Peter Jennings for The Australian – 11.06.22
The Ukraine war is reaching a pivotal moment. Defeated in its initial aim to take Kyiv and install a puppet leader, Russia is nevertheless making small gains in the east of Ukraine.
The democracies are dithering over what support to provide and voices calling for a peace settlement that advantages Russian president Vladimir Putin are on the rise. The Ukrainians continue to fight like tigers but, almost four months into the conflict, combat deaths and exhaustion are taking a heavy toll.
What happens over the remainder of this month will define Ukraine’s future. Australia has a compelling interest in the outcome. We face our own authoritarian threat from an aggressive Beijing wanting to dominate Asia. That means we should back Ukraine in the way we will expect to be supported if conflict looms in our own region.
Intense ground fighting is taking place at several locations between Kharkiv city, east of Kyiv, through the Russian-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and south to the coastal city of Mykolaiv. That amounts to a front line of contested territory stretching something like 800km, behind which Russia occupies a fifth of Ukraine in the east and south.
To the east Russia is making slow progress in towns, with heavy street-to-street fighting. Fierce Ukrainian resistance at times regains territory and everywhere is slowing Russian gains.
In the south Ukrainian counteroffensives slowly are pushing Russian forces back.
This is critical ground. If Moscow could push a further 200km to the east it would be at the gates of Odesa, Ukraine’s key port city and export hub, but there is no obvious sign the Russian military has the forces or the will to achieve that objective.
It’s dangerous to generalise about a complex battlefield picture, but the following points can be made with some certainty.
First, this is not a stalemate but a slow-moving and costly war where neither side has the air or ground forces to stage a decisive blow.
Second, where Russia takes ground, it does so by decimating the territory it occupies with long-range artillery and missiles. For all of Putin’s claim that “Russians and Ukrainians were one people – a single whole”, the reality of Russian military action is that if they can’t control Ukraine, they are happy to destroy it.
Third, the Ukrainians are not giving up. The war is strengthening a sense of Ukrainian nationalism. There are reports of partisan attacks against Russian forces happening in occupied territories. An opinion poll last month in Ukraine reported 82 per cent opposition to making territorial concessions in return for peace.
Fourth, Russian military morale is falling. The Ukrainian General Staff has reported instances where troops of usually high-quality Russian units such as the 76th Guards Airborne Assault Division have refused to participate in combat in Luhansk.
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Peter Jennings is a Senior Fellow and was the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) from May 2012 to May 2022. For more, please click here: https://www.aspi.org.au/bio/peter-jennings
Ukrainian troops drive along a road near Sloviansk, Ukraine. Picture: Scott Olson/Getty Images