This is no time for complacency

Published by The i paper (12th September, 2022)

I first met Maria Avdeeva, an expert in cyber-security, in early February when we had a coffee in a chic Kharkiv cafe to discuss the looming threat of invasion by Vladimir Putin’s circling forces. Since then she has seen her home city ripped apart by Russian troops, while becoming a bit of a social media star with brave updates from the battlefront speaking direct to her phone against disfigured backdrops. We have stayed in touch. And when we spoke on Saturday, she told me more stories of the sort that have become horribly familiar in recent months of Russian atrocities and terrified Ukrainian citizens forced to hide in basements for months to survive.

Unsurprisingly, Maria sounded weary. Kharkiv is still being shelled daily, something I saw and heard returning there for 10 days in May. But this time, there was something different, something she said “gives me a lot of joy and hope”. For she was telling me about events in a village almost 40 miles from Kharkiv that was liberated last week in the stunning counter-offensive by Ukraine that might just prove to be a decisive turning point in this dispiriting war. Kyiv’s forces punched through the frontline in a rapid drive forward that seems to have become something of a rout as Putin’s soldiers and stooges fled, recapturing several key towns along with more than one thousand square miles of stolen land.

This is the latest chapter in the remarkable story of Ukraine’s resistance against a fascistic dictator who sought to crush their freedom in a few days with the world’s second biggest army. Putin proclaims himself the successor to Peter the Great but is instead destroying Russia’s reputation in a botched bid to shore up his corrupt regime. Conflict is inherently unpredictable so we do not know how his stupid war will conclude. But we can see clearly that the Kremlin’s plans have gone astray. First there was the failure to capture Kyiv. Now its fleeing troops have abandoned positions in towns such as Balaklyia, Izyum and Kupiansk – and there is a swelling chorus of concern from distraught Russian nationalists who fear a looming defeat.

The speed of Ukraine’s recent advance indicates smart military tactics – in sharp contrast to their flat-footed foes who showcase only the plodding style of top-down autocracy. It is too early to tell if all the talk of a major attack on Kherson, hundreds of miles along the frontline to the south, was really a diversion or – as I suspect – led Russia to shift its best forces there and thus exposed a weak point in their lines that has been cleverly exploited by Ukraine. Wise commanders keep all options open with a range of plans in their pocket. Regardless, Kyiv has again exposed the complacency of conventional wisdom, this time all those siren “expert” voices that said they would struggle to make significant territorial gains or retake urban areas.

Suddenly Russia is losing – but it has not yet lost. Putin retains about one-fifth of the country he invaded, so there is still a long way to go in this cruel conflict. Ukraine is also suffering painful losses; although hard to verify, one Swedish volunteer spoke last week of being among only three surviving members of his 22-person platoon still able to fight. Yet Moscow’s forces – hollowed out by years of corruption – have made surprisingly little progress in the Donbas, their morale seems pitifully low and they struggle with reinforcements. Last week saw the most senior Russian officer fall into enemy hands since the Second World War. Now these losses of key towns further hamper their supply lines, already hit hard by Western-supplied advanced missiles systems that can strike ammunition dumps much further behind the frontline than earlier in the war.

This unexpected breakthrough is timely. It lifts spirits in Ukraine as winter looms and among allies as the energy crisis bites hard. The lightening advance underlines the need to rush as many weapons and as much logistical support as possible to Kyiv to aid their fight for freedom. Forget any talk of appeasement: this is how to ensure the fighting, deaths and misery ends as soon as possible. There can be no sustainable peace until Putin is driven off all their terrain, including Crimea. This success shows the defeatists and doubters that Ukraine can win its existential struggle for survival if given the right supplies and sufficient weapons – although only if their fortitude is matched in their fellow democracies far from the frontline.

Sadly, there are some signs of cracks emerging in the European alliance that has proved so wonderfully strong since Putin launched his full-scale attack in February. This month’s election in Italy is particularly alarming since it is predicted to see two hard-right parties with past ties to Russia’s president return to government. Matteo Salvini, the bigoted leader of the League who once heaped praise on Putin, claims sanctions are not working. Yet the World Bank says Russia’s economy will shrink this year at its fastest rate since the Soviet Union’s collapse. And last week one oligarch allegedly offered Ukraine $1bn if Britain would lift restrictions imposed on him, which indicates the policy is inflicting pain on the Russian elite that feasted off their state.

Intriguingly, there are also signs of dissent emerging inside Russia. This does not come from the democrats, liberals and peaceniks, largely silenced by Putin’s repression, but from pro-war bloggers infuriated by military setbacks and nationalist cheerleaders with ties to the armed forces who fear their nation faces humiliation. These people puncture the Kremlin’s pretence that the “special military operation” is going according to plan as they highlight the “catastrophe” of retreat and predict “the complete defeat of Russia”. Let us hope the Ukrainian advances seen in recent days show they are right – and that people such as Maria can focus soon on rebuilding their lives, their cities and their country after months of suffering.

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