The apparent fall of Bakhmut has triggered furious debate and no little alarm in the West, but very little considered analysis as to the timing of Putin’s claim to have seized the city.
We should all pause, take a deep breath, and look at why Putin would suddenly try to declare a great victory over Ukrainian forces today, despite there being nothing of Bakhmut left to rule.
The fundamental reason is simple: he has just had one of the worst weekends of his war. Not militarily, but politically.
First there was Zelensky’s visit to the G7 in Hiroshima and the Arab summit in Jeddah, where the Ukrainian shook hands with his allies as well as leaders of countries more friendly to Putin. He was received with sympathy at both. India’s Prime Minister Modi lamented the human cost of the war and said far more than many expected, committing to finding a way forward to the end of the conflict. His remarks were hardly those of a great friend of Vladimir Putin.
But of far more significance was President Biden’s decision to allow European countries to give F-16s to Kyiv. In my view, it hammered the final nail into the coffin of a Russian victory in Ukraine. It’s no wonder Putin is urgently seeking to urgently change the narrative about the future shape of the war by declaring a seismic victory in Bakhmut.
The significance of these F-16s cannot be underestimated. Air superiority really matters for combined forces manoeuvres. There’s a reason why so many modern wars against conventional armed forces were over so quickly, such as in the Gulf: air power. Not only this, but F-16s will make a future invasion of Ukraine by Russia almost impossible in the future: they are devastating machines and will act as a powerful deterrent. Western after-burners must be rattling the windows of the Kremlin to breaking point.
I and many others have been campaigning since the beginning of this war for the West to give Zelensky greater military means to allow the removal of Russian forces from Ukrainian borders. Frustratingly, we have delayed when he should have emptied the shelves.
The West hesitated on sending tanks, then eventually saw the light. There is now a significant and powerful force of Leopard 2 and Challenger 2 tanks, stealthily “snuggling” somewhere in Ukraine ready to pounce and dislocate the entrenched Russian attackers at a time and place of their choosing. I’ve fired many rounds from Challenger 2s at Soviet tank hulls and the results aren’t pretty, let me tell you.
There was also early reticence over the gifting of air defence assets – again overcome after many weeks of delay. These assets have since proved vital in shooting down the vast majority of missiles sent to bombard Ukrainian cities, including the much-vaunted “unstoppable” hypersonic Kinzhal.
And don’t forget the long range precision artillery and HIMARS, able to hit command posts and logistics in depth. So successful were these actions that General Progozin, the theatrical mercenary leader, had to threaten the Kremlin with desertion from the battlefield if he did not get more ammunition.
Had more of these assets been given to Ukraine sooner, then this war might already be over with a decisive Ukrainian victory. More importantly, had all this military hardware been available to Ukraine in February 2022, Putin would not have invaded. That fact is we took our collective eye off the ball, in a manner not dissimilar to President Obama ignoring the red line when Assad used chemical weapons on his own people in Syria. Failing to show a strong hand to tyrants and autocrats only encourages them.
At least now Putin is increasingly aware that the West remains firm. Never again will Russian armoured columns, if they manage to rebuild some, be able to steam across the border. They would be met by a phalanx of F16s well before they pick up any momentum.
Putin’s nuclear threats have failed, his ground assaults have failed, and now his air force has just become even more impotent. History suggests that failed tyrants do not tend to last long in these circumstances.
Col Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a former commander of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a regular contributor to the Telegraph’s ‘Ukraine: The Latest‘ podcast. With over 27 million downloads, it is your go-to source for live reaction and correspondents reporting on the ground. You can listen here