Ukraine End Game: ‘It’s Going To Be Hard and It’s Going To Be Bloody’

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Guardian– As Russian forces gather in the south of the country, it’s becoming clear that the war in Ukraine is entering a new, decisive phase. Russia wants to hold out for the winter, when most of Europe will be in the thick of an energy crisis and more likely to push for a negotiated agreement. President Zelenskiy has made it clear that Ukraine will not cede territory to Russia. So, what happens next?

What does Russia hope to achieve?

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the goal was clear: topple the government and replace it with a pro-Putin administration. When Kyiv didn’t fall, the strategy changed: take the Donbas. “This led to a grinding fight over the last three months that was being fought primarily with artillery, second world war style, where Russia has an advantage,” Luke says. That relentless onslaught led to the Russians gaining some territory – they now occupy all of Luhansk province.

“That’s still happening. But where I am in the south is in phase three of the war,” Luke says. There, Ukraine has launched its first major offensive in Kherson – a city that has been under Russian occupation since the start of the invasion. It’s of significant tactical importance as a transport hub and it has a key river crossing that would act as a natural barrier from attacks. “From a strategic point of view, it makes complete sense for Ukraine to take back the city,” says Luke. He adds that there are humanitarian reasons too: “By all accounts it is a place of murder, of kidnapping, of intimidation, of Bucha style horror.”

However, whether Ukraine will be successful remains an open question: “Talking to commanders here, they still haven’t really got enough heavy weapons. Russia has got enormous advantages in terms of firepower, ammunition, artillery shells, rocket launchers. So for Ukraine, it’s going to be quite hard and it’s going to be bloody.”

What are the chances of de-escalation?

The tactical agreement to allow grain exports via the Black Sea was seen as a tentative sign of cooperation – the UN chief, António Guterres, hailed the agreement as “a beacon of hope”. However it is also incredibly fragile. “You never want to predictive in this situation, because it’s very fluid, but it would surprise no one if Russia were to sink one of these grain ships, and claim Ukraine did it,” Luke says.

While the deal is essential for Ukraine’s economy, it is also beneficial for Russia – so it’s not simply an olive branch from the Kremlin. Their core plan still hasn’t changed, Luke explains. “The goal [for Russia] is still to exterminate Ukraine, its infrastructure, its education system and its culture.” With both sides clear that they will accept no less than full victory, de-escalation seems unlikely.

The west’s response

Earlier this week, the US president, Joe Biden, pledged to give Ukraine another billion dollars in rockets, ammunition and other equipment – its single largest military aid package yet. But Ukrainian commanders say they still need more to stand any chance of keeping Russian forces at bay: one commander has said that for every hundred shells that Russia fires at the city, Ukraine can respond with 10. However, Luke points out that US supplied Himars precision-guided artillery has partly equalised the situation because they’re being used to target Russian logistics centres, weapons depots, and command points, severing some supply lines which has in turn led to a decrease in Russian shelling.

But Ukraine’s reliance on western military aid could create further complications down the road. “Let’s say there’s a change of administration in the US or the Democrats get smooshed in November, the fear is the supply of weapons to Ukraine will decrease or stop,” Luke explains. “If the Americans stop supplying Ukraine with weapons, then you imagine that Ukraine would fall.”

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