Ukraine: an increasingly entrenched war


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February 10, 2023

Ukraine: an increasingly entrenched war

  • Dispatches from Ukraine
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • war

Lacking men and equipment, the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the south of the country still cannot proceed in earnest. It will fail without more help from abroad.

Photo: General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine

Clouds of heavy smoke float above the white wooden houses and gazebos. Some tourists record, others run away. “We have to go, this is a mess,” “Our wooden house won’t protect us from anything”—voices are heard out of frame. In total, there were from a few to about a dozen explosions, and ambulances rushed to the site immediately. The event took place on August 9 near the Saky air base in occupied Crimea. This is the first such incident since the beginning of Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Russian authorities have admitted that there were explosions but, they say, not an attack. Missiles were deliberately detonated by the army, and the planes stationed there were not harmed. This is not true—satellite photos published by the American company Planet Labs show at least eight destroyed machines, along with base infrastructure. The Ukrainian side did not provide a single version of events. President Volodymyr Zelensky said: “This war against Ukraine and all of free Europe began with Crimea and is to end in Crimea, with its liberation.” The Ministry of Defense wrote in a mocking post on Facebook that it could not determine the cause of the explosions, but reminded the Russians about safety regulations and not smoking in places that are not intended for it.

There are speculations about how this attack was carried out—especially since the Saky air base is protected by anti-aircraft defenses, including modern S-400 systems. There is a popular thesis in Kyiv that the Americans quietly handed over ATACMS missiles for the HIMARS and MLRS launchers already in use by the Ukrainian army—Ukraine has been wanting to get them for a long time but so far, at least officially, it has not received a positive response. One source in the The New York Times spoke about the activities of partisans in Crimea. On the other hand, the Russian editorial office of the BBC is inclined to believe that the attack was carried out using so-called kamikaze drones. Earlier, on July 31, just such a machine hit the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet on the peninsula.

Regardless of what really happened at the air base in Crimea, the explosions caused a wave of joy among Ukrainians. The reason is clear—once again they brought hope for victory. And at a critical moment. The Russian-Ukrainian war has entered a difficult phase. The fronts are solidifying and lines of trenches stretch for thousands of kilometers. Spectacular and breakthrough battles are replaced by a “creeping” offensive. On the one hand, this is good for Kyiv. According to the Pentagon, currently Russian losses (wounded and killed) reach about 500 soldiers a day, and in total, since February 24, their number could be as high as 80,000. In recent weeks, the offensive in the Donetsk region has brought the Kremlin only insignificant successes. Achieving the basic goal, the seizure of territory in eastern Ukraine, may not be possible by the end of the year.

On the other hand, this increasingly positional war is a huge burden for Ukraine. It means the inability to rebuild frontline cities, a significant weakening of the economy and high unemployment. This is alongside constant mobilizations and significant human losses. The Ukrainian side does not inform about wounded and fallen soldiers; President Zelensky mentioned 100-200 dead per day. This is a war of attrition, and the question of who will retain more strength is becoming more and more important. It will be difficult for Ukraine to fight effectively without support from abroad, not to mention transition to a counter-offensive in the south, which, despite announcements, cannot proceed in earnest due to the lack of manpower and military equipment.

Russia is aware of all this, which is why it will try to prolong this war for as long as possible so that, just like after the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Donbas in 2014, it will wait until the West loses its enthusiasm for supporting Ukraine and goes about its business. And when the winter cold comes, the latter will be more willing to make concessions.

This text was originally published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Translated from Polish by Lukasz ChelminskiThis piece is part of the DS collection: Dispatches from Ukraine.


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