Could Russia triumph? There’s a growing sense that, as the months wear on, Ukraine’s resistance is faltering. The West is losing interest in the conflict and the unthinkable is being said: Putin is winning the war on and off the battlefield.
The image of countless hordes of Russian troops grinding down the Ukrainian defences with a 3-to-1 advantage in artillery is at first glance quite convincing. Meanwhile, off the battlefield, the ruble rate is sky high, and sanctions seem to have no discernible effect on the war. Putin’s fiercest opponent Boris Johnson is leaving office, and the energy-dependency of Europe seems to play right into Russia’s hands.
Putin now occupies nearly 25 per cent of Ukraine and is attempting, with limited success, to Russify these areas. Territorial gains in Donbas are important, if mostly symbolically – particularly as the invasion took place under the pretext of rescuing the region from the Ukrainian ‘Nazis’. Yet these gains have come at a high price: Putin recently declared an ‘operational pause’ in the fighting, claiming the soldiers should ‘have some rest’. But it’s a lot more likely this is a sign of depletion, and that no major new offensive is possible until more reserves arrive from Russia to make up the losses.
This, at least, is the assessment of the head of MI6, Richard Moore, who said this week Russia was about to ‘run out of steam’. ‘Our assessment is that the Russians will increasingly find it difficult to find manpower and materiel over the next few weeks,’ he told Aspen’s security forum, in a rare public appearance.
This tallies with indications of the growing Russian death toll on the battlefields of Ukraine. Although Putin is clearly prepared to tolerate a huge number of Russian fatalities (the UK government conservatively estimates them at 15,000: the figure of Russian dead in nine years of the Afghanistan war), the current attritional nature of the war has made the availability of operational reserves a crucial factor, and the barrel is now not so much being scraped as scoured.