The unpalatable truth is that Ukraine’s counter offensive has reached a dead end – and its casualties are mounting.
The future of the West now rests on us helping them win
SWEAT stings my eyes. It pours down my face and gathers in the crook of my shoulder. I have just run into a trench on the frontlines of eastern Ukraine.
As I enter, an odour hits me: a combination of cheap deodorant, unwashed bodies and burning debris that has become so familiar. The smell of men at war.
The ‘zero line’ near the city of Kreminna is so close to the Russian forces that the two sides sometimes shoot directly at each other. It is the height of the summer counter-offensive earlier this year and I’m surrounded by Ukrainian soldiers.
The sound of shelling is inescapable. Drones zip through the forest around us. One of the officers, Dima, gestures vaguely into no-man’s land in front of us: ‘just across there,’ he says wearily. ‘So many Russians. So many mines.’
The Ukrainian counter-offensive was supposed to change the course of the war. The Ukrainians, backed by large deliveries of Western weapons, would punch through the Russian lines and move inexorably toward Crimea — and victory. It did not happen. Over the past two months, the hopes of Ukraine and its Western partners have shattered against the hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers and millions of mines that stretch across the line of contact from Kupiansk in the north to Robotyne in the south.
The Russians have laid minefields that stretch for ten to 12 miles from the frontline along almost its entirety.
In some areas there are up to five mines per square metre. Then there are the tank traps and trenches.
In the age of drones and AI, it is the most painful of ironies that old-fashioned Soviet tactics are now proving decisive.
Two weeks ago, Commanderin-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valerii Zaluzhnyi admitted that things had reached a ‘dead end’. It was a sobering moment.
This year began with so much hope. The Ukrainians had sent the Russians scuttling back over the border in the Kharkiv Oblast region of north-eastern Ukraine. The soldiers on the fronts I reported from were convinced they would win.
Almost a year later, things look bleak. Those soldiers fight on, determined to protect their land from Russian aggression. They know they have no choice. They know Russian President Vladimir Putin believes Ukraine is just a geopolitical delusion that he will smash through conquest. They know that if they lose, Ukraine as they recognise it is gone.
But the situation is dire. The Ukrainians didn’t push on as much as they had hoped over the winter of 22/23, which gave the enemy time to build entrenched defensive lines.
The Russians dug in.
THE resulting cost has been horrific — for both sides. On November 13, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence estimated Russia’s combat losses since the start of the war to October 13 as 312,550 killed and wounded, with huge losses of equipment, including 5,354 tanks, 322 aircraft and 5,634 drones. U. S. figures claim 120,000 Russians dead and 180,000 wounded.
But U.S. officials also claim that the Ukrainians have suffered roughly 70,000 killed and 100,000-120,000 wounded to date and is now losing men at higher levels than ever before.
Since the counter- offensive began, Ukraine has advanced a mere ten miles. It lost 20 per cent of its battlefield weapons in the first two weeks of the operation. Brave Ukrainians charged onto positions stuffed with conscripts who faced execution by their own officers if they dared to retreat.
The fighting is currently most intense in the city of Avdiivka in the Donetsk Oblast, which Russia is trying to encircle.
It is taking huge losses, but just like in their siege of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, this makes no difference to Moscow. It can absorb huge losses without any problems. It is not like Putin and his bolus of thugs are accountable to anyone.
In Russia, people are as expendable as vodka — and of much less value.
As Ukrainian General Yuriy Bereza told me in Kreminna, grinning at me through his long grey beard that he has vowed not to cut until Moscow is defeated. ‘The Russians don’t pay attention to mines.
‘I have no idea how this is possible — maybe they are using drugs, it’s not normal behaviour.’ Either way, they keep pushing forward and it’s very dangerous.
Ukraine has sent commandos into the Russian-held points along the east bank of Dnipro river, and recently retook a village there, but the Russians claim they will wipe out the incursion soon enough. Either way, military sources tell me that neither side is likely to make any significant territorial gains in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, the front is sodden with rain and mud. I know the Ukrainian winter well. It strafes your bones. The mud and frost get into everything: they congeal onto equipment; they clog up tires and tracks.
Fog falls like a drape; it gets so thick that you can’t see more than a foot in front of you. Using drones becomes almost impossible.
When the ground freezes in coming months, the armoured columns will start rumbling again. But for now both sides are bogged down — almost literally. Then there is the question of weapons. From the beginning Ukraine has been reliant on deliveries from the West — mostly tanks, armoured vehicles, drones and artillery rocket systems such as the M142 HIMARS and MGM-140 Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), which can strike targets up to 300 miles away. But Zaluzhnyi claims that delays in the delivery of ATACMS and tanks allowed Russia to regroup.
Ukraine, he says, has been given enough to stem the invasion, but not win the war.
Meanwhile, the Russians are relentless. This industrial land war that we thought would never return to mainland Europe is now largely fought out by artillery — often guided by drones as the 20th meets 21st century on the battlefields of the east — and will be determined, in large part, by whether Ukraine can sustain its rate of fire. The West is shipping in ammunition daily, but Nato stockpiles are depleting while Moscow continues. Officials tell me that Putin has put 20 per cent of his country’s economy behind the war effort.
The UK Ministry of Defence estimates Moscow will produce one to two million shells next year. By contrast, Washington says it can produce 336,000.
Then there is their cost. Nato member Estonia can manufacture each artillery shell for £4,000-£4,800.
For Russia, which cares little for paying its labour force properly or giving them any benefits, and anyway has stateowned arms manufacturers, the cost is about £500.
No country in the West with voters to consider can compete with this. It is yet one more ‘gift’ of autocracy that Russia’s modern-day Tsar can do things that our leaders in the West, ‘ cursed’ by democratic accountability to their electorates, cannot.
And Russia is not alone. An emerging alliance of rogue states is benefiting Putin, as his bloodthirsty peers in Tehran and Pyongyang have stepped in to help bolster his genocide in Ukraine.
I have lost count of the number of times in Ukraine my positions have been attacked by Iranian Shahed drones, while North Korea is believed to have sent over 300,000 — 500,000 artillery shells ready for use. For their part, U.S. officials argue that much of what they have given was sent to the wrong places.
UKRAINIAN soldiers on the front agree, telling me equipment was sent from Kyiv to the wrong units — inexperienced brigades who could not effectively use them, while battle-hardened soldiers were left with inadequate equipment.
When Putin launched his allout invasion of Ukraine in February of last year, those who rushed to volunteer were the best Ukraine had to offer: motivated, tough, smart. Many are now dead.
Now Kyiv must rely on calling people up — which is not always simple. Estimates are that 20,000 men have fled the country since the beginning of the war to avoid being drafted. The reams of conscripts who do fight are often eager and patriotic, but green and often less effective.
Of course, they’re far better than the thousands of Russians press-ganged into service. But Moscow is happy to keep sending a seemingly endless number of its men to their deaths, and that becomes difficult to stop.
As an ex-marine friend of mine remarked to me recently: ‘Quantity has a quality all of its own’. It’s a phrase mis-attributed to the dictator Joseph Stalin but certainly sums up the Russian approach.
All is not lost by any means. Zaluzhnyi says a break
through remains possible if Ukraine can improve in five key areas: air superiority, breaching minefields, counter-battery combat, training for reserves, and electronic warfare capabilities.
The supply of air defence equipment is an absolute priority. The last time I was in the southern city of Odesa, the Russians were striking almost daily. Downing Street remains staunch.
Last month the Government announced a new £100 million support package. Germany has pledged to double military aid from £3.5 billion to £7 billion next year, with the Bundestag Budget Committee expected to officially confirm the decision next week (though it faces opposition from the opposition AfD party). But all eyes now swivel to Washington.
It is bad enough for Kyiv that Washington — and the world — is now diverted by the war between Israel and Hamas.
Every dollar of assistance the White House earmarks for Jerusalem is one fewer dollar for Kyiv. The Ukrainians are terrified that a Donald Trump win in the 2024 election will mean the end of US support. Sources inside the UK government tell me they fear the same. Trump has been ambivalent about Ukraine. ‘We don’t have ammunition for ourselves’ he said in May, but he also claimed in September ‘no one was tougher on Russia than me’.
I also hear talk of rifts over strategy. The Pentagon advised Kyiv to concentrate its forces to break through in one or two strongholds, rather than spreading thinly as they have done, and it is annoyed at being ignored.
POLITICALLY, the cracks are more obvious. In disputes over the Speaker of the House earlier this year, Republicans were able to completely strip billions of dollars in humanitarian and military aid out of the Stopgap Spending Bill, which eventually passed in September without any additional funding for Ukraine.
Back in Europe, things are looking equally gloomy. In November, a Russian prankster released a recording of a phone call with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in which he posed as an African Union official.
‘I see there is a lot of fatigue,’ the credulous Meloni told him. ‘I have to say the truth, from all the sides. We (are) nearing the moment in which everyone understands that we need a way out.’
It was a depressing summation of a lot of what I am hearing from various officials and diplomats of my acquaintance.
The weariness is real. And it is contagious. But it is an egregious error. Ukraine’s fight is our fight. The future of the West is being fought out on its battlefields.
It was Boris Johnson who understood from the beginning the threat Putin poses to us all — and he was right. If Putin is not stopped in Ukraine, he will continue to Georgia and Moldova, and then possibly the Nato states on our eastern flank.
His allies, China and Iran, will become emboldened. These are rogue states with little in common except a near-pathological desire to attack and to challenge the West wherever they can. If we don’t confront the threat now, we will have to face a far greater — and more costly — one later.
Never in recent years has the West been under so much threat.
Never has ‘abroad’ been so local. Make no mistake, a front line between us and our enemies is emerging across the world — and it runs from Ukraine to the Middle East. Its battlefields are many and varied: from the trenches of the Donbas to the tunnels of Gaza to the streets of Tehran where protesters have repeatedly tried to overthrow their sadistic rulers.
The world is changing. The 21st century is bringing forth a new struggle: between the West and all those who seek to destroy it. They scent blood in Ukraine. They think we will give up and abandon the Ukrainians as they think we did the Iraqis and the Afghans.
We must prove them wrong. We must hold the line. Our futures depend on it.