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Behind the headlines

Is Ukraine winning the war?

A drone attack on a Russian tank in Ukraine

The evidence that Ukraine is winning this war is “abundant”, says Eliot Cohen in The Atlantic. The failure of Russia’s airborne assaults, its inability to destroy the Ukrainian air force and air-defence system, and the “weeks-long paralysis” of its 40-mile supply column north of Kyiv paint a clear picture. Russian losses are staggering – between 7,000 and 14,000 soldiers dead, which implies around 30,000 “taken off the battlefield by wounds, capture or disappearance”. That’s something like 15% of the entire invading force, “enough to render most units combat ineffective”.

Who’s helping Ukraine?
The UK, US, Sweden, Turkey and the Czech Republic are all supplying armaments: “the best anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles in the world, plus drones, sniper rifles, and all the kit of war”. Moreover, says Cohen, the US has shown itself to have “exquisite intelligence” about Russia’s operations. Judging by the success of Ukrainian air defences and deployments, it seems the CIA is happy to share what it’s learned.

Can Russia be defeated?
Yes, says Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History and the Last Man, in American Purpose. “Russia is heading for an outright defeat in Ukraine.” Russian planning was “incompetent”, based on the faulty assumption that the Ukrainian military would “collapse immediately” following an invasion. Russian soldiers went in carrying “dress uniforms for their victory parade in Kyiv” rather than sufficient ammo and rations for a long war. The collapse of the invasion could be “sudden and catastrophic”. The army will reach a point where it can neither be supplied nor withdrawn, and “morale will vaporise”. This has already begun. Amid reports of widespread desertion by Russian conscripts, Vladimir Putin has apparently ordered deserters be shot.

What do the pessimists say?
The Russian encirclement of Kyiv might have stalled, says Niall Ferguson in Bloomberg, “but the theatres of war to watch are in the east and the south.” In the south, a battalion-sized Chechen force is closing in on the “besieged and 80%-destroyed” city of Mariupol, where Ukrainian troops lack resupply routes. The city’s fall may be “just days away”. That will free up Russian forces to redeploy elsewhere, starting with the complete envelopment of Donbas. And the Russians claim to have used a hypersonic weapon – a first in combat – to take out an underground munitions depot in western Ukraine. The point was “to remind Ukraine’s backers of the vastly superior firepower Russia has at its disposal”.

What does Washington think?
American officials are divided, says The New York Times. The Biden administration wants to help Ukraine “lock Russia in a quagmire” of protracted conflict, without inciting all-out war with a “nuclear-armed adversary”. CIA officers are helping crates of weapons make it into the hands of “vetted Ukrainian military units”, but there will be no large-scale ferrying in of arms as there was in Afghanistan during the 1980s. In other words, says Ferguson, “the US intends to keep this war going”. Washington will continue to supply the Ukrainians with “anti-aircraft Stingers, anti-tank Javelins and explosive Switchblade drones”, and encourage Nato allies to do the same, but it won’t risk American lives. The idea is to “sit back and watch the heroic Ukrainians bleed Russia dry”. That means a long and violent grind.

So has Putin miscalculated?
The real worry, says former US intelligence officer Chris Chivvis in The Sunday Telegraph, is that so many of the scenarios military planners envisage “eventually lead toward the nuclear threshold”. After Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014, the US and allies conducted war games that concluded Putin “would probably use a nuclear weapon” if he felt his regime was threatened. Nato’s military experience of the last three decades has not equipped it well for conflict with a nuclear power, says Chivvis: “I fear we have grown accustomed to fighting enemies who had no way to out-escalate us.” There are really only two realistic outcomes from where we are now: “continued escalation toward the nuclear threshold”, or a “bitter peace” that will be tough for many to swallow.

What if Putin were to fall?
That would be the “rosiest” scenario, says Hal Brands in Bloomberg: a kind of “Moscow Spring”, in which the appalling costs of conflict lead Russian elites to topple Putin, bringing about a “rebirth of the democracy Russia experienced fleetingly in the 1990s”. The urban, liberal swathes of Russian society could demand a broader political opening and the country’s reintegration into the world. The odds of this scenario are “slim” at best. But until Putin goes, a senior US official was overheard saying at a private event earlier this month, Russia will be “a pariah state that will never be welcomed back into the community of nations”. “Putin will lose,” says Ian Bremmer, founder of the political risk group Eurasia. “Tragically, that doesn’t mean Ukrainians will win.”