As Vladimir Putin prepares for ‘maximum escalation’, will the US go the distance?
War is about waiting. HIMARs are waiting to fire. Conscripts await the advance. Generals await orders. This nearly year-long war has been shrouded in this uneasy wait while offensives are prepared. Russia’s mobilized battalions have reinforced its fronts. Ukrainian depots and patrols, very different from a year ago, are now a parade of Western weapons. The map of Ukraine, stable – almost – since Vladimir Putin’s troops left Kherson and the west bank of the Dnieper in November, is about to be rocked.
Ukrainian commanders and officers in the field have felt increasing Russian pressure over the past week. Maneuvers in Belarus, northwest of Kyiv, are increasing. Shelling is increasing over Sumy to the north-east. What remains of Bakhmut in Donbass is likely to fall. This pattern is part of something bigger. Ukrainian officials have hard intelligence Russia is preparing for a major offensive in the next few weeks. Getting Oleksiy Danilov, the chairman of the National Security and Defense Council, to warn the enemy is “gathering everything” for “maximum escalation”, potentially on many fronts.
Western and Ukrainian officials and analysts have been trying to figure out what that might look like, from secret and open sources respectively. The fog of war isn’t as dense as it used to be, thanks to drones and listening devices. Feigned diversions in the north, even as far west as near Poland, coupled with pinning the best Ukrainian troops at Bakhmut against the mercenaries recruited by the Wagner group, could be the plan to divert Zelensnky’s forces from a massive offensive that will be launched from the south Melitopol, explained a member of the Ukrainian secret service.
It is believed that Putin ordered his generals to rush into completing the conquest of Donbass with the aim of encircling Ukrainian forces. This is very ambitious, but Russia, some concerned analysts point out, now has more operational forces than when the campaign began – with the intent of an artillery-covered steamroller, not an attempted blitzkrieg like the one we saw a year ago.
The mood among the troops, however, is not that of an intimidated people. Rather, with their defenses currently threatening to collapse in only one place – Bakhmut – the Ukrainian soldiers believe not only that they will win, but for the most part that they have already destroyed the real Russian weapons outside of Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson. It is often said that the forces they face, while superior in numbers, are mostly poorly trained, unqualified, and only recently mobilized. Their WWI-style advances are derided as “meat bumps,” and rumors circulate that the men are drugged and are advancing like zombies.
Few in Kyiv or Washington expect the Kremlin’s planned offensives to redraw the map like those led by Ukraine last fall. There is confidence that the new weapons package the allies are preparing for Ukraine will be enough to hold its ground. But that’s where, to a greater extent, agreement ends.
The smaller camp believes that there is a real chance for Ukrainian general Zaluzhny, armed with Leopard and Challenger tanks, to break through the so-called “land bridge” of the occupied territory to Crimea and liberate cities like Mariupol or Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov . However, among analysts and officials, both Ukrainian and American, the larger camp believes that the West has given Ukraine just enough to last but not enough to win. Ask yourself the question: how long can Western support continue at this level, given that Putin seems ready to throw unlimited “meat ties” at the Ukrainian army and its population is calm?
For this reason, Washington, not only Donbass, is the next critical front for Ukraine. Following the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in the midterms, Donald Trump’s Republican faction, exemplified by figures such as Marjorie Taylor Green, slandered and attacked Zelensky in what they portray as Biden’s blank check. The ex-president has castigated tanks for Kyiv as a prelude to nuclear war and called for an end to the conflict, with a recent CBS poll showing he still embodies – embodies – the spirit of his party, with 52% of Republicans representing their representative want against new military aid to Ukraine. Putin’s hope will be for this to grow in strength and intensity: get the United States to call in aid and get him to hold his occupied territories until the next round.
In it, Boris Johnson swam to Washington on what he called a personal mission to deliver a speech at my think tank, the Atlantic Council, to bolster support for Ukraine, particularly among Republicans. The ex-prime minister, who is still in contact with Zelenskyy, was unhappy with some of the skepticism he found. “I was amazed and appalled,” Johnson said in the Q&A, “at how many people … are afraid of a guy named Tucker Carlson,” who name-calls the far-right Fox News anchor for spreading Putin-sympathetic narratives . “America is everything,” Johnson once said, citing his indispensable material support for Kyiv to keep fighting. That’s obviously true. But as America, that also means the culture war is everything. Also for Ukraine.