A Ukrainian colleague told me a joke yesterday. ‘We used to believe the Russians had the second best army in the world. Now we know they have the second best army in Ukraine.’ Five weeks ago, most people would have bet that after a month of Russian aggression, Kyiv and Kharkiv would have fallen, and the Ukrainians would have been pushed back into the Carpathians. Yet a combination of home match, high morale, sensible tactics, defence advantage and foreign weapons has given Ukraine the edge.
By contrast, Russia has scored own-goal after own-goal: hubris born of a belief in the ease of the initial victory; a bad plan with no main effort; reliance on conscripted cannon fodder; poor command and control; insecure communication systems; an amateur grasp of combined arms tactics; poor coordination; lack of precision guided munitions; execrable logistics. The list goes on. Even the vaunted Russian cyber bear hasn’t growled.
Perhaps this should have been obvious because wars rarely end quickly or tidily. Putin probably imagined something akin to France in 1940, or even Austrian Anschluss in 1938. He is a prime example of Margaret Atwood’s acid observation that ‘wars happen because the ones who start them think they can win’. It might equally be said that wars end when one or both sides realise they can’t win, or they redefine what winning means.
Despite the Kremlin’s statement this week about pulling back from Kyiv, intelligence agencies continue to predict that Russia wants to secure Ukraine’s capital. Ukrainians also want to win and to recapture as much territory as soon as they can. The problem for Ukraine is that while limited tactical gains are possible, it does not have the combat power for more substantial victories. What’s more, Russian desperation will grow; the closer Ukraine gets to its pre-February boundaries, the more likely Russia will resort to extreme violence, including the use of unconventional weapons.
The British charity I run, The HALO Trust, stabilises countries after war by clearing explosive weapons. We had been clearing landmines from the Line of Control in the Donbas since 2014 from our headquarters in Kramatorsk. Since 24 February, we have repurposed our headquarters as an emergency refuge and medical centre. But as Kramatorsk comes closer into Russia’s sights, the majority of our highly-skilled men and women (apart from our 15 colleagues who remained trapped in Mariupol) will move into Western Ukraine, where we are setting up a new operational base to deal with the immediate hazards of Putin’s invasion.
HALO has a vital role to play in saving lives in Ukraine now because, despite the probable stalemate, the underlying drivers of the conflict remain just as strong. Yesterday, Human Rights Watch confirmed that Russian forces have been using banned antipersonnel mines in the Kharkiv region. These mines indiscriminately kill and maim people within a 20-metre range. By clearing mines and other deadly ordnance, HALO deminers will save thousands of lives in Ukraine and help secure vital routes for the delivery of humanitarian aid and evacuation of casualties.
While the number of refugees who have left Ukraine is appalling, we must not forget the 41 million Ukrainians who have stayed in their own country. Many of them – like my colleagues – have abandoned their homes and are now relying on the kindness of strangers in new cities or villages. But this cycle of misery, in which people move around seeking shelter until they return to their homes – whether intact or not – carries serious risks. The mining of transit routes is an obvious peril, but so is the return of residents to former battlegrounds. If Mariupol is recaptured by Ukraine, the clearance of ordnance will be vital before anyone can reoccupy and rebuild the city. For that reason, we will focus our immediate efforts in areas with high concentration of displaced people, then expand to areas where the most intense fighting has taken place.
But Putin’s armoury has caused us some challenges. The use of the newly-developed POM-3 anti-personnel landmine has been widely circulated. The fragmentation pattern and lethality of these mines is so great that it will require our staff to develop new clearance techniques, due to the mines’ innate ability to ‘sense’ human movement (rather than being activated by pressure) and its ability to penetrate softer body armour. These lethal weapons, which can detect approaching footsteps, are fired into enemy territory using rocket launchers. When detonated they can obliterate anything within a 16-metre radius.
The British government has done the right thing by standing up for Ukraine and the rules-based order. By funding NGOs such as HALO, it can help stabilise those parts of the country that will be in free Ukraine. Britain has championed aid for mine and weapons clearance before because it sees that how it reflects our values and shows Global Britain in action. We now call on the government to get behind HALO, as it has before in countries such as Afghanistan, Angola or Libya, and help Ukraine clear the scourge of unexploded ordnance.
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