West must not pressure Ukraine into counter-offensive, says former Nato military leader

Retired US general John Allen tells The National that Ukraine should be allowed to take all the time it needs to prepare before launching attacks against Russia

Cars destroyed during a Russian drone strike on Monday. Reuters
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Ukraine’s western allies risk a “suboptimal outcome” if they pressure Kyiv into launching its much-anticipated counter-offensive against Russia too soon, the former head of US forces in Afghanistan has told The National.

“Leave them alone. Let them do this when they’re ready,” Gen John Allen, who also led the Nato international security assistance force, said on Tuesday on the sidelines of a defence forum in Slovakia’s capital Bratislava.

What is at stake is both the lives of Ukrainian soldiers and the credibility of the Ukrainian military, he said. Most Europeans support Ukraine in its war against Russia, but support is on the decline in some neighbouring countries such as Slovakia.

“The worse that could happen is if we force them to go early and they have a suboptimal outcome. Then there’s no-one to blame but ourselves, and a lot of wonderful Ukrainian troops will pay the price for it,” said the retired general.

The conflict reached both the Russian and Ukrainian capitals this week, with intensified Russian missile attacks that killed four people and wounded 34, including two children, on Tuesday, according to Ukrainian officials.

Another 11 were injured in Kyiv by Iran-made Shahed drones launched by Russia. A 33-year-old woman died on her balcony when debris from a destroyed Russian projectile hit a Kyiv building.

In parallel, mysterious drone attacks hit a wealthy Moscow area on Tuesday, in a rare attack on the Russian capital. Russia says all drones were intercepted and that two people were injured.

An aide to Ukraine’s President denied that his country was behind the attack but said he was “pleased to watch” it.

The US is Ukraine’s most important military ally and has provided the war-torn country with close to $38 billion military assistance since Russia’s invasion last year.

Ukraine has been expected to launch a spring counter-offensive but President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said earlier this month his country needed more time to prepare.

There has been speculation among senior European officials attending the GlobSec forum in Bratislava about what such a large-scale military operation could achieve.

While many hope that Ukraine will eventually regain all its territories occupied by Russia, including Crimea, some, including Gen Allen, have warned that Ukraine will probably need several counter-offensives, not just one.

“We need all to have an appetite suppressant here,” Gen Allen told The National.

“We need to be very careful about assuming that as a result of this [counter-offensive], this will be the great Napoleonic decisive blow and the Russians are going to collapse.

"The Russians are going to take a terrible beating, frankly, but getting through those obstacle belts – that’s a hard fight.”

Obstacles facing the Ukrainian military include “multiple lines of [anti] tank ditches, dragon’s teeth, barbed wire, fortified positions with interlocking fire [crossfire],” added Gen Allen.

“I’m telling you, it’s a tough fight to get through those belts, but the Ukrainians are working on it right now.”

When it finally happens, this new phase in the war is still expected to be decisive for Ukraine.

“[It is] not this push that will get them into Crimea, but this push may set the conditions for the Russians to really start thinking about whether they want to stay in this fight or not,” said Gen Allen.

Gen Allen did not reveal which countries he believed had been putting Kyiv under pressure. However, Czech President Petr Pavel said in March that Ukraine needs to launch a major counter-offensive within the next months and that if it fails, it would be "extremely difficult to get funding for the next one".

Also speaking at GlobSec, Ukraine’s State Secretary for Defence Kostiantyn Vashchenko said on a panel on Monday that the counter-offensive would start in “several days”.

Mr Vashchenko described discussions about the attack as part of Ukraine’s psychological warfare against Russia, which he views as nervously awaiting Ukraine’s onslaught.

Gen John Allen. AP Photo

Gen Allen also stressed the importance of “shaping the information space”.

“We are a bit short-sighted in viewing war and conflict as being the same,” he said.

“The physical dimension of this war is in many ways being waged in the larger conflict of competing information, narrative and cyber operations.”

Updated: May 30, 2023, 3:51 PM