After months of grinding deadlock, the war in Ukraine has taken an unexpected turn: the Ukrainian lightning counter-offensive against Russian forces around north-eastern Kharkiv over the past fortnight has reclaimed some 3000 square kilometres of territory and sent the invaders scattering for their lives, reportedly leaving abandoned weapons and ammunition in their wake.
It is too early to suggest that Ukraine’s success in the region heralds the beginning of the end. But it is a major boost to morale and gave Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky – a public relations natural – another opportunity for a propaganda coup with his visit to the city of Izyum, which until recently was a major Russian forward base.
It is also the strongest evidence since the improbable successful defence of Kyiv early in the war that Ukrainian forces, armed with local nous, devolved decision-making and Western-supplied modern weaponry, are, at least in the right conditions, capable of repelling what on paper appears to be a far stronger foe.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has much less to crow about. Despite his recent posturing and sinister threats that he could reverse the Ukrainian gains, it is clear from the recent routs that many of his troops are unmotivated, their supply lines are stretched and his army in general remains hamstrung by internal chain-of-command bureaucracy.
Putin is resisting increasingly strident calls from internal critics for a general mobilisation – which would unequivocally give the lie to his claim that the invasion is not a war but a “special military operation” – yet recent indications he is recruiting prison inmates to serve on the front line in return for their freedom suggests a certain desperation.
Iran remains an ally, supplying Russian forces with a new kind of assault drone that is apparently effective against Ukraine’s artillery. But India’s Narendra Modi, whose country has been happily buying Russian oil, last week publicly criticised the invasion for the first time, telling the Russian leader that this was “not an era of war”. Even China now appears circumspect, with Putin acknowledging that that Xi Jinping, who previously pledged a “partnership without limits”, had “questions and concerns” about the war.
For Ukraine’s allies, Australia among them, Russia’s setbacks should be doubly heartening. Practically, the supply of weaponry and intelligence is clearly paying dividends, rather than unnecessarily expanding an unwinnable war.
More broadly, though, the West’s support has helped to expose Putin’s once-feared army as something of a Cold War relic, vulnerable to a new brand of asymmetric warfare that Ukraine, fighting for its very existence, has taken to with alacrity. The fears earlier this year that Putin would sweep Ukraine and then march through northern Europe uncontested now seem almost absurd. China, too, must be re-thinking its assumptions about a swift occupation of Taiwan.
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