Russia could ‘still win’ in Ukraine, western officials fear

War could last into next year after ‘some improvement’ seen in Moscow’s tactics

A Russian tank in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol. Moscow’s tactics have changed, observers in the West have said. Reuters
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Russia could “still win” the war in Ukraine, which could last beyond the end of this year, western officials have said.

There had been “some improvement” in their tactics during the new offensive under way in eastern Ukraine that could lead to renewed attacks on Kyiv and Odesa, it was also confirmed.

The security assessment could prompt western powers to speed up delivery of weapons.

On Thursday, America announced it was sending five battalions worth of artillery pieces, numbering 90 guns, to Ukraine, along with 144,000 rounds of 155mm ammunition.

About 76 Russian battalion tactical groups of about 70,000 personnel have launched a broad offensive over a 300-kilometre front in Donbas, with modest success.

“This is a new chapter of the campaign and Putin has clearly failed in meeting his initial pre-war objectives but is still in a position to win,” a western official said.

There was growing evidence that Russian forces had learnt from their failures in earlier operations during which they had suffered about 15,000 dead.

Their forces in Donbas were “narrowing axes of advance” and had resolved problems of command and control.

“That’s led to some improvement in how they’re operating,” a security official told a media briefing. “But it’s not solved all of their problems. They continue to operate in relatively long convoys on single roads and make themselves vulnerable. So, whilst we see some improvement, it is, as yet, not a force transformed.”

The Ukrainians were continuing to fight “in a very smart way” and were willing to “trade a degree of space in open ground to move to areas which are more easily defensible”, which included towns or cities that had proven very hard to attack.

The West appears to be preparing for a long campaign with Russia and the possibility the conflict could last into next year. “We’re now gearing up to sustain our support for Ukraine through a prolonged period of conflict, through perhaps much of the rest of this year, at least, so we have to plan for that eventuality,” an official said.

Asked by The National to expand on the potential for a Russian victory, the official said that if the large concentration of Russian forces was “used intelligently” it could defeat the Ukrainians.

“They might be able to surround and destroy a very significant portion of Ukraine’s armed forces, some of its best forces, and make territorial gains which would then be very difficult to dislodge,” the official said.

“In a really worst-case scenario, they might then be able to look again at whether they could revisit some of their pre-war objectives, potentially renew an attack on Kyiv. Or to or to attempt to take Odesa and deprive the rest of Ukraine from access to the sea,” he said.

“I think that is still something which is potentially within reach if the Russians are successful in the campaign in the Donbas … that is a real possibility.”

While the Russian advance won’t be “rapid” if the estimated 30,000 of Ukraine’s most capable forces were surrounded in Donbas but the invaders would “grind them down over time,” he said. “That would be enough for Putin to be able to claim it as a win.”

But Russian forces were still suffering “significant losses” and it was “inconceivable that it will not suffer more”.

The official stressed that the invasion had been a “strategic blunder” by the Kremlin, which had united the West and led to a rapid increase in defence budgets in light of the new threat. It would also take considerable time for Russia to rearm after it suffered sizeable losses.

The assessment of a Russian victory is likely to give greater impetus for western powers to provide Ukraine with more advanced weaponry in terms of warplanes, missiles and radar, military analysts have told The National.

Updated: April 22, 2022, 12:16 AM