Defense expert Ko Colijn has been providing Dutch people with insight into armed conflicts for almost fifty years. For NU.nl he follows the battle in Ukraine and answers your (and our) questions. This time he responds to statements made by the Ukrainian commander-in-chief.
The war in Ukraine in the past two weeks has mainly revolved around the words ‘positional war’, or a ‘hopeless stalemate’. These words of the Ukrainian commander-in-chief Valery Zaluzhny could be read in the magazine The Economist and gave a hopeless picture of the war.
The Ukrainian counter-offensive has now been going on for five months and, according to Zaluzhny, has yielded a paltry 17 kilometers of territorial gain. At the same time, Russia can add six square kilometers around a pulverized Bakhmut. A months-long, devastating battle now seems to be repeating itself at Avdiivka, where Zaluzhny does not expect a breakthrough for the time being.
I am not the Ukrainian commander-in-chief, but I do take the liberty of questioning these statements quite a few times. Consider the conscious spreading of (dis)information. Waging war is also done psychologically, by throwing sand in the opponent’s eyes and making him believe that he is successful. Zaluzhny wasn’t fired the next day and may still have a few tricks up his sleeve.
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Statements may be a cry for attention
We can also see the statements as a cry for attention. The outrage in the West has shifted dramatically by the Gaza war. Zaluzhny may also be sending a cunning signal to the United States. Ukraine’s largest donor is facing a looming threat shutdown, which puts new expenditure on the war at risk. President Joe Biden wants to continue helping Kyiv, but senators are reluctant.
It is up to Zaluzhny to make it clear that Ukraine still needs that expenditure. Especially since presidential candidate Donald Trump (read: bluff) shouts from the sidelines that he can end the Ukraine war in one day with a phone call to Russian President Vladimir Putin. That fuels these kinds of sentiments.
Zaluzhny therefore ignores Ukraine’s successes, for example those in the Donets basin. They are not very shiny, but the Russians are currently wasting a lot of people and firepower on relatively unimportant cities. It disrupts Russian planning: elite troops have to be shifted at the last minute and elsewhere defense against long-range artillery arrives too late.
The greatest success, namely crossing the Dnjper River and the possible withdrawal of the Russians, was not even known at the time of the interview.
Zaluzhny also does not mention the main target
Zaluzhny also did not mention Ukraine’s main target; the reconquest of the Crimean peninsula and the possible advance to the Sea of Azov. They are already making life miserable for the Russians, thanks to Storm Shadow and Scalp missiles from Europe. The Russians can no longer rely on the land bridge at Kerch and grain ships are leaving Ukrainian ports again.
The deliveries of ATACMs missiles are also paying off. These missiles can hit Russian targets up to 300 kilometers away and were initially… not delivered because of the long range. But early September Biden still changed tack. This resulted in the destruction of a large number of Russian helicopters in October.
But Zaluzhny ignores all these successes. He also has to continue lobbying for support. For example, training of Ukrainian pilots has just started, but actually flying above the battlefield will take at least another year.
Russians are also achieving success
Finally, Ukraine and Zaluzhny already seem to be taking into account a new wave of Russian aggression through the air in the winter. After all, the Russians are also achieving success. They have better drones, with which they can see Ukraine arriving sooner. They also entrenched themselves in trenches, behind minefields, with air superiority. What is especially decisive is the ‘mass’ of the Russians. This sometimes makes Ukraine, and Zaluzhny, pessimistic.
The Ukrainian commander-in-chief paid no attention to the mud, which made it virtually impossible to continue fighting last winter. The eastern front will not shift much, but Ukraine has already announced that it will continue to fight.
It will treat the Russians to an interdiction campaign. That is military jargon for bombarding supply lines (by air), for which Kyiv now has the right cruise missiles and drones. Russia is increasingly able to intercept these projectiles, but remains quite defenseless against these attacks. Relative ‘silence’ is expected on the ground front, but Ukraine will therefore push even more for the supply of additional Western anti-aircraft systems.