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.
De oorlog in Oekraïne draaide de afgelopen twee weken vooral om de woorden ‘positional war’, oftewel een ‘hopeloze patstelling’. Deze woorden van de Oekraïense opperbevelhebber Valery Zaluzhny waren te lezen in het blad The Economist en gaven een uitzichtloos beeld van de oorlog.
Het Oekraïense tegenoffensief is inmiddels vijf maanden aan de gang en heeft volgens Zaluzhny een armzalige 17 kilometer terreinwinst opgeleverd. Tegelijkertijd kan Rusland zes vierkante kilometer rondom een verpulverd Bakhmut bijschrijven. Een maandenlange, allesverwoestende strijd lijkt zich nu te herhalen bij Avdiivka, waar Zaluzhny voorlopig geen doorbraak verwacht.
Ik ben geen Oekraïens opperbevelhebber, maar ben wel zo vrij om een flink aantal vraagtekens bij deze uitspraken te zetten. Denk aan het bewust verspreiden van (des-)informatie. Oorlog voeren gebeurt ook psychologisch, door de tegenstander zand in de ogen te strooien en te laten geloven dat hij succes heeft. Zaluzhny is de volgende dag niet op staande voet ontslagen en heeft misschien nog wat trucjes achter de hand.
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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 due to 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 is shouting (read: bluffing) from the sidelines that he can end the Ukraine war within 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. These 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 biggest success, namely the crossing of the Dnieper 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 due to their long range. But at the beginning of September, Biden 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.