April 21, 2022

Diane Francis

This week Russia launched its full-scale offensive to take the portions of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region that it didn’t conquer in 2014. Both sides have geared up for a do-or-die contest involving thousands of tanks, trenches, artillery, and more than 100,000 troops that will fight for control of an industrial and coal mining heartland the size of New Hampshire. A “very large part of the entire Russian army is now focused on this offensive,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address. “No matter how many Russian troops they send there, we will fight. We will defend ourselves.” But win, lose, or “quagmire”, this is Ukraine’s “Alamo” and the world will now witness the heroic struggle by outnumbered patriots fighting for independence against a monolithic wall of woe.

On February 24, Russia invaded to steal the rest of the Donbas and all of Ukraine. After Putin’s army failed to capture Kyiv, it began concentrating its efforts on the battle for all of Donbas in order to claim a victory of sorts. In response, Ukraine’s army is concentrated there, and a deluge of weapons — including some fighter jets — are flooding into Ukraine in recent days from the U.S., Britain, and other NATO members. By so doing, President Joe Biden and his alliance ignore warnings by Putin to stop supplying lethal weapons or face possible nuclear escalation. This is a pivotal moment and Russia must be stopped.

It would be naïve to think that Ukraine can quickly win this battle – much less the war — but it’s also naive to think that Ukraine will lose. Motivated by the need to survive, Ukraine’s defenses already repelled Russia’s 40-kilometer convoy of death machines and tens of thousands of troops headed toward Kyiv earlier. This failure forced a shift in strategy by Russia to the eastern region. Now the battle for Donbas is joined and “is important and could influence the course of the war”, said Zelensky.

For Putin, winning here is essential. Experts say he wants to pronounce victory over Donbas on April 24 (Orthodox Easter) or May 9 (Russia’s anniversary of the defeat of Germany in 1945). “He needs a symbol of success,” explained a U.S. military official. That comment, in itself, is telling: that the murder of thousands of Orthodox Ukrainians by Easter would be considered a cause for celebration is incomprehensible. But so is Putin’s belief that Ukraine’s defeat would be equivalent to Hitler’s. Such twisted history ignores the fact that as many Ukrainians, Belarusians and Polish died fighting Germany in World War II as died from the rest of the former Soviet Union’s republics combined. Putin’s narrative that the Russians defeated Nazism and saved the world from Hitler, is fantasy.

Ironically, this battle of Donbas will be fought where one of the bloodiest and most protracted World War II clashes took place, resulting in the defeat of an entrenched German army that had occupied the Donbas region for 22 months. Now Ukrainians fight the marauder from the east, a struggle which may also last months. Fortunately, Ukraine’s advantages today are its morale, mobility, knowledge of the terrain, mastery of innovations such as Turkey’s killer drones, a

mountain of new weaponry, and ongoing intelligence provided by the U.S. and NATO. “Never underestimate the impact of morale in execution,” commented retired U.S. Major General Paul Eaton. “The Ukrainians want a piece of the Russians. My bet is on the Ukrainian defense of the region.”

What also helps is that as Russia bombs Ukraine, the West is saturation bombing Russia’s economy, corporations, institutions, exports, imports, oligarchs, people, and reputation. Every day the war continues, Russia loses financial staying power. Its assault costs $1 billion a day, and energy exports earn $1 billion a day and are dropping. European countries scramble to find alternative energy supplies and huge pressure is being applied on Germany, Hungary and Austria, in particular, to step up and cut off all energy exports soon even though this will bring about recessions in their economies. Russian imports are now considered “blood money” and once imports abate, all bets are off in terms of Russia’s future.

But at present Russia remains Goliath. Its advantages are size and airpower. “The plan of the Russians is to bring pincer movements down from the north and up from the south in an attempt to encircle Ukrainian forces and get beyond the line of contact,” said a Pentagon official. Russia’s numerical advantage of heavy military equipment, tanks, armored vehicles, and air power will help, but Ukraine has never been a walk in the park. 

Despite the asymmetry, the military outcome is far from certain. And the political outcome is also uncertain. If Ukrainian forces prevent Russia from capturing its east, it would strengthen Kyiv’s hand in negotiations – if Russia ever agrees to talk. But if Russia gains ground, it will use newly occupied land to trade for concessions in order to end the conflict and stop the economic pain. However, Russian chess master and political activist Garry Kasparov believes that unless Russia obtains a “decisive win by May 9”, Ukraine will start a counter-offensive to get the country back which will threaten Putin’s regime. “Putin needs a win. He can’t look weak.”

Some worry that a Russian loss could anger a desperate Putin and result in a further escalation in the form of weapons of mass destruction. Already, he fired off a warning intercontinental missile this week at the outset of the Donbas struggle as a “test” and a warning. But Kasparov discounts this and says “it’s not up to him [Putin] only to decide on whether to push the button. There are generals and admirals involved too, and if Ukraine begins to restore its territorial integrity, it’s all over for Putin, a collapse of his dictatorial rule.”

What’s interesting is that some conclude that even if Russia wins the battle in the Donbas it will lose the war. “No matter what happens in the Donbas, the costs are likely to be so high that the Russian military will be a spent force,” said a retired U.S. General. Already, Russia falters. Its casualties are double those of Ukraine’s, and its army has failed to advance dramatically anywhere. Capturing Kyiv was impossible, Putin gave up on taking Mariupol, and the Russian navy’s flagship, Moskva, was sunk by Ukrainian missiles and, along with it, hopes of an amphibious invasion along the Black Sea coast.

Even so, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expects the conflict to last for years. “I think it’s measured in years. I don’t know about a decade, but at least years for sure. This is a very extended conflict that Russia has initiated and I think that NATO, the United

States, Ukraine, and all of the allies and partners supporting Ukraine will be involved in this for quite some time.”

A protracted conflict in Ukraine would be bad news for Putin because it will bring about dire circumstances for Russians who may become restive, as well as for the world economy, triggering a global slump and recession in some regions. Growth rate estimates were slashed by the World Bank Organization from 4.1 percent to 2.8 percent because of the war. And if Ukraine is unable to harvest the grains it has just planted, the food price and supply crisis will worsen contributing to starvation and inflation.

The best outcome for the world is if the Ukrainians stop Putin in the Donbas. Only if Goliath cannot beat David, is a regime change possible in Moscow. What began in 2014 in the Donbas has now become Cold War 2.0. Ukraine is both a victim and the West’s protagonist. This is why in the coming weeks and months, Ukraine must receive more help in order to prevail or the world faces the unimaginable.