It’s possible to take a dark view of the Ukraine war. The astonishing courage and sacrifice of the Ukrainians has stopped the Russian onslaught when very few, initially, thought this could be done. But now the fighting has stabilised into an attritional bloodbath. Putin is assembling a new invasion army, ready to launch a fresh offensive in the spring. Some Western experts believe that Russian successes are imminent.
And yet the war in Ukraine has also exposed Russia’s weaknesses. Firstly it has become clear that Russian air power is a mere shadow of what the West had thought it to be. Neither side has been able to make much use of the skies during the fighting, which has created a unique, strangely old-fashioned combat environment on the ground – one very different to that seen in recent conflicts such as the Gulf War, the Iraq invasion and the destruction of Colonel Gaddafi’s army in Libya.
Russia’s air forces were thought to have some of the world’s most advanced aircraft, weapons and sensors at their disposal, together with the knowledge to employ them effectively above Ukraine.
Yet those forces have made little contribution other than in the war’s earliest days. Ukraine’s occasional air sorties across the battle lines have proved so costly that they, too, are rare.
So far there has been a lot of talk about supplying Ukraine with Western jets – but only talk, despite President Zelensky’s difficult-to-refuse requests for “English planes” this week.
Sadly the practical reality is that getting Ukrainian pilots and ground crew trained to operate Western planes would take a long time: and Britain, at least, simply doesn’t have any suitable jets to send. This week the Prime Minister suggested “nothing is off the table” when it comes to supplying the Ukrainian air force, although in reality the timescale for producing combat-ready pilots trained to fly and fight with Nato procedures is measured in months or even years.
In this unique situation there may be purely ground-based ways to break the current stalemate – or at least to knock the Russians back. Some in the West believe that the Russians might be driven back not just to their start lines of 2022, but those of 2014. That means recapturing the Crimean peninsula and the Donbas.
One way the West could perhaps help Ukraine achieve this lofty ambition is to supply the Ukrainians with more powerful battlefield weapons than it has done so far. Among other things, the Ukrainians have asked for 300 modern, Western-built main battle tanks (MBTs). The West has pledged to hand around 130 such vehicles to Ukraine’s armies to date.
Shock action: speed and power
Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former British tank officer, believes that a division-sized armoured force equipped with Western tanks could mean a swift Ukrainian victory.
“If there are 130 Western tanks, a brigade, I think the Ukrainians can successfully defend against any spring offensive that the Russians might mount,” he says.
“When it comes to defeating the Russians, I think that’s where you need a tank division, which is 300 tanks. A division can move very rapidly through static Russian lines to get behind them in the Crimea and the Donbas and cut off their lines of communication: attacking them in effect from the rear where they’re weakest.
“That could all happen very rapidly. The whole thing about shock action is its speed and power. But it’s essential that tanks are supported by infantry and artillery.
“That is why I’m being fairly upbeat and saying, yes, an armoured tank division could defeat the Russians. A tank brigade would at least prevent the Russians getting any further. I think there is a chance for optimism.”
Col de Bretton-Gordon is not alone. Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, a former commander of the US Army in Europe, also believes that a division-sized Ukrainian armoured force could sweep the Russians out of Crimea, especially if it had long-ranging ATACMS missiles at its disposal. Gen Hodges does not think that the Ukrainians would need all 300 tanks to be Western: he considers that many could be Ukrainian tanks or captured Russian ones.
The decision by the UK to send a limited number of our current Challenger 2 MBTs is to be endorsed, even by those who doubt that MBTs in general and Challengers in particular are a sensible way for the West to spend its money.