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Saky airbase attack indicates Ukraine has the will to win war

Barry O'Halloran


Smoke rises from the beach at Saky after explosions were heard at a Russian military airbase near Novofedorivka, Crimea, August 9, 2022. Photo: AP

Smoke rises from the beach at Saky after explosions were heard at a Russian military airbase near Novofedorivka, Crimea, August 9, 2022. Photo: AP

Smoke rises from the beach at Saky after explosions were heard at a Russian military airbase near Novofedorivka, Crimea, August 9, 2022. Photo: AP

It was supposed to last just a few weeks with a quick Russian victory virtually assured, or so the smart money said. However, it seems nobody asked the Ukrainians. Six months later, the war in Ukraine has entered its most critical phase to date. Earlier predictions of a rapid Ukrainian capitulation have been confounded. In fact, based on the evidence of the last month in particular, Ukraine could win this war.

During the first phase of the invasion, Russian armoured columns raced across Ukraine toward Kyiv. Vladimir Putin’s goal was to occupy the country and replace Volodymyr Zelensky’s government of ‘Nazis and drug dealers’ with a puppet Russian regime. At first, Putin’s ‘special military operation’ blitzkrieg seemed to be on course.

At this early stage, even Joe Biden lost faith and offered to evacuate Zelensky. It wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence. But Zelensky declined Biden’s offer of safe passage in words that Ukrainian school children will read about for generations: “The fight is here; I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition.”

From early on the contours of the Ukrainian war were becoming manifest. Three features stood out.

Russian military incompetence was in early evidence as Putin’s invasion forces outran their supply lines. Lacking fuel and ammunition, Russian tanks and armoured vehicles lay strewn in long static columns along the wintry roads that led to Kyiv. Marooned in unfamiliar terrain, these vehicles became sitting ducks. Russian troops’ morale plummeted.

Ukraine’s surprising success in bringing the Russian invasion to a shuddering halt was largely attributable to the second feature of this war — Western willingness to provide Ukraine’s military with sophisticated, modern, hi-tech equipment.

Initially, enormous quantities of Javelin anti-tank weapons, armoured vehicles and reconnaissance and attack drones from the US and UK were instrumental in destroying Russian tanks. But advanced weaponry alone would have been insufficient without the third critical feature — the effective application of Ukrainian military strategy and tactics.

Faced with a numerically superior enemy, the Ukrainian military quickly yielded ground but, crucially, it held its nerve. A strategy of attack, withdrawal and then counter-attack proved very effective in degrading the enemy’s military capacity. With his war machine visibly disintegrating, Putin was forced into an ignominious retreat from Kyiv and compelled to forsake his ambition of occupying the capital city. His much-vaunted military had to withdraw to the Donbas, a region that had been largely under Russian control since 2014.

The retreat inaugurated the second major phase of the war as the two armies faced each other in eastern Ukraine along a frontline of over 1,000km. For three months, the war became an artillery duel reminiscent of World War I. The casualties on both sides have been enormous.

Yet, in spite of their vastly superior firepower, Putin’s forces made only modest territorial gains. Just as in Chechnya, Georgia and Syria, the Russian military is showing itself to be a one-trick pony — using relentless artillery bombardments to grind down its enemy and slaughter civilians. At least, that was until about a month ago when the momentum of the war shifted perceptively.

The catalyst for this change was the West’s supply of state-of-the-art long-range artillery systems, especially HIMARS and M777 howitzers. It is the precision-guided munitions these artillery pieces can launch that have proved decisive. Their superior accuracy has allowed Ukrainian artillery crews to target Russian munitions dumps and command-and-control centres with devastating and deadly consequences. It has disrupted Russia’s ability to supply its frontline positions, so much so that artillery bombardments have tapered off significantly.

The new artillery’s greater range has also been key to tipping the military balance in Ukraine’s favour. Its military can now target not only ammunition dumps and command centres at distances of up to 80km, but it can also destroy critical communications infrastructure such as bridges.

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However, of the three principal features of the war: — Russian incompetence, Western military aid and Ukraine’s more innovative military approach — it may be the last that proves most decisive. The Ukrainian attack on Saky airbase in occupied Crimea exemplifies this.

The massive explosions at the Russian airbase that lies 180km behind enemy lines destroyed fighter aircraft worth up to half-a-billion dollars and had Western military experts scratching their heads as they didn’t think Ukraine possessed rocketry with such a range. It has now emerged, however, that this may have been the work of a daring raid by Ukrainian special forces.

Destroying enemy aircraft on the ground was a tactic pioneered by Irishman Paddy Mayne in North Africa during World War II. Such raids cause as much psychological damage as physical destruction, as confirmed by last week’s images of Russian tourists fleeing Crimean beaches.

The destruction at Saky has been a massive propaganda victory for Ukraine, while causing Putin’s military chiefs to radically revise their defence assumptions. It also demonstrates Ukraine has the will to win.

With Russian military shortcomings unlikely to get resolved quickly, the final outcome of the war will be down to the West’s ongoing willingness to supply large quantities of long-range artillery, precision munitions and satellite intelligence.

If its western allies don’t falter, it seems unlikely that Ukraine will. A recent opinion poll revealed 97pc of Ukrainians believe victory will be theirs. Compared with six months ago, the odds on Ukraine winning have shortened considerably.

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