The end might be approaching for Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut. Maybe. It depends on whose statements and reports you choose to agree with. The Russians and their Wagner Group mercenaries claim to have made tremendous gains and are on the verge of encircling the city. Despite the encouraging tone and content of Russian statements, the fighting continues.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government’s position on Bakhmut is undergoing a revision. Volodymir Zelenskiy has promised Ukrainian troops will continue fighting on in Bakhmut. By continuing to hold the city, he explained in an interview yesterday, it denies Russia from being able to claim a symbolic victory, as well preventing Russian forces from capturing Bakhmut and using it as a jump-off point for future operations in the east. As for the city’s value to Ukraine and its military, at this time it is representational. Ukrainian forces have prepared hardened defensive lines to the west in anticipation of the future Russian axis of advance. The danger right now for Ukrainian forces in and around Bakhmut is time. The longer they remain in place, the greater the chances of their eventual encirclement becomes. Nevertheless, Zelenskiy and his military commanders met earlier in the week and decided Bakhmut will continue to be defended.
NATO is preparing for the possible fall of Bakhmut as well. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg admitted today that the city could be in Russian hands within a matter of days. However, Stoltenberg was also careful to point out that should Bakhmut fall it will not represent a turning point in the war or swing momentum back to the Russian side.
As fighting intensifies on the eastern front, Volodymyr Zelinskiy was wrapping up his second trip abroad since the war with Russia commenced almost one year ago. The Ukrainian leader’s final stop was Brussels where he gave hearty gratitude for the European Union’s assistance since February, 2022. Zelenskiy’s sincere thank you was followed by requests for even more support in the coming weeks and months. In a meeting attended by all twenty-seven leaders of EU member-states, Zelenskiy specifically asked for financial aid to help cover rebuilding costs once the war draws to an end. He also pressed for the EU to accelerate Ukraine’s bid for membership, speaking of his nation’s desire to live freely in a united Europe. In conclusion, Zelenskiy informed the gathering of leaders that Ukrainian intelligence services had discovered “a detailed Russian plan to undermine the political situation in Moldova.”
How accurate this claim is remains to be seen. Yet the timing and location of its disclosure, along with Zelenskiy’s renewed requests for a continued steady flow of financial and military aid could indicate growing anxiety in Kiev over the state of the Ukrainian armed forces as well as the direction the war could go in come early spring. It goes without saying that the Ukrainian military has absorbed heavy casualties and material losses over twelve months of war. According to recent reports from sources inside Ukraine, shortages of small arms ammunition and artillery rounds are especially acute. More alarming is the small number of serviceable main battle tanks remaining in action on the eastern front. Some tanks and other armored vehicles are obviously being held in reserve, yet the whirlwind campaign by Zelenskiy and some Western leaders to persuade Germany to unlock access to its Leopard 2 MBTs and older tanks presently in storage amplifies the Ukrainian need for tanks as a major Russian offensive in the spring appears more likely with each passing day.
By hinting about possible Russian action in Moldova, Zelenskiy is deliberately playing on the European fear that Vladimir Putin truly has designs on European territory and sovereign nation-states beyond Ukraine. Europe waking up to this realization will assure another tidal wave of money and weapons for his beleaguered country and its defenders, Ukraine’s leader is wagering. He is no fool and in his estimation the move will conceivably reap large rewards as Ukraine’s military leaders warn of decisive battles being waged in the coming months.
The Germans caved to pressure from Kiev and its erstwhile NATO allies and has reversed its decision on sending Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine. Later today the United States is expected to announce it will be sending M-1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine. Chancellor Olaf Scholz informed the Bundestag of the decision earlier today and took a moment in his remarks to praise Germany’s relations with the United States. At the time this seemed rather peculiar, however, following the recent news about the US decision to send tanks it makes perfect sense. There was obviously a deal struck between Washington and Berlin behind the scenes at some point yesterday.
Details are limited, such as the number of tanks Germany will provide and when they will be shipped. They won’t arrive in the near future though. It will take some time to get the tanks prepared for action (assuming they are coming out of storage) and have Ukrainian tank crews trained to proficiency. The same goes for the Abrams tanks the US intends to send over. Since the start of the war NATO members have ruled out sending MBTs to Ukraine. Now that the taboo has been broken, it is safe to wonder if there will be any tanks left in Europe by this time next year. 😊
Kiev is certainly happy. Zelenskiy has once again had his demands met by the West, which has been tossing weapons and money into the conflict at a brisker pace lately. Zelenskiy’s reply to the German decision is undoubtedly a heartfelt ‘tanks a lot!’
There is some historical precedent to Germany’s move as well. After all, this won’t be the first time in the past 100 years that Ukraine has seen German-made tanks rolling through its towns and farmland to meet and do battle with the Russians.
In the opinion of most experts, diplomats and talking heads across the globe, the Ukrainian War will come to a conclusion at some point in the next twelve months. On this point I am in agreement. However, it is fair to remember that a year ago around this time there was a divide in opinion about whether Vladimir Putin would order an invasion of Ukraine. Even more worthy of recollection is the rather somber fact that just about every single prediction put forward about the scope, shape and timeline of Russia’s invasion was thoroughly incorrect. My own included and misery, as they say, loves company. 😊
Here we are now in January, 2023 with the war continuing on down a path unforeseen twelve months ago. The question of ‘How is the war going to end?’ continues to crop up regularly in the first days of this new year. The collection of responses are every bit as varied and colorful as were the answers to the January, 2022 query of ‘will Russia invade?’ And in all likelihood, these responses will be nowhere near as accurate.
Barring a complete change of heart by Kiev and Moscow, the Ukraine War will be decided on the battlefield. The diplomatic avenue continues to be explored but with each side placing terms and conditions on negotiations that the other side views as beyond the bounds of possibility. Therefore, the war will be decided on the battlefield. With Ukrainian forces being better equipped and highly motivated, it is expected they will attempt to keep up pressure on Russian forces in Donbas and perhaps also in areas of southern Ukraine. Russian forces, on the other hand, appear to be using the winter pause to build up supplies and incorporate new troops in preparation for a spring offensive. Of the 300,000 Russian reservists mobilized in summer and fall of 2022, three quarters of them are in training for 2023. When they arrive at the front in great numbers more indications of a coming spring offensive will become visible.
For Ukraine, disruption needs to be centerpiece of its military strategy through the remainder of the winter months. Kiev has to buy time for additional arms and supplies to arrive from the West. The best way to create time and throw off the Russian timetable for spring is to keep up the pressure on the ground in Donbas.
Over Christmas weekend there have been indications of both Russia and Ukraine at the very least signaling a willingness to open sincere negotiations with the other side. But only under specific sets of circumstances. In an interview aired on Christmas Day, Russian leader Vladimir Putin claimed he is ready to negotiate with ‘all parties engaged in the Ukraine War’ however, the Ukrainian government and its Western supporters have refused to consider peace talks. “We are ready to negotiate with everyone involved about acceptable solutions, but that is up to them – we are not the ones refusing to negotiate, they are,” Putin said in the interview.
Today, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said his nation wants to chair a so-called ‘peace summit’ at the United Nations in February, 2023. He suggested that the UN secretary general could mediate the conference, but then went on to apply a caveat to Russia’s participation in a peace summit: Russia would be included only if it faces a war crimes tribunal in an international court. Since the chances of Moscow agreeing to this term are basically non-existent, don’t expect to see Russia and Ukraine sitting down to discuss peace at any point in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, a second attempted Ukrainian drone attack on an airbase deep inside of Russian territory appears to have taken place. The Russian defense ministry reported that air defense forces in and around the Engels Airbase engaged and destroyed a drone near the base. But unfortunately, falling debris killed three servicemembers. Engels is a major Russian bomber base that was supposedly targeted by the Ukrainian military earlier in December. Neither the Ukrainian government or armed forces have admitted being behind the attack, but military spokesman Yuriy Ihnat said the explosions were the result of what Russia was doing on Ukrainian soil.