Steve Aiken: Kyiv is the critical battle in Russia-Ukraine war, and with things going badly for Putin he has to win it

Stuck in isolation with Covid has brought me the time again to reach out to my friends and colleagues from my advanced command and staff course days.

By Steve Aiken
Thursday, 17th March 2022, 12:34 am
Updated Thursday, 17th March 2022, 12:40 am
A deserted downtown Kyiv yesterday as the authorities declare a 35 hour curfew in the capital. Much of the 2.9 million population has fled eastward If the city is still in Ukrainian hands as the spring thaw sets in, the Russian military will be approaching operational failure, writes Steve Aiken
A deserted downtown Kyiv yesterday as the authorities declare a 35 hour curfew in the capital. Much of the 2.9 million population has fled eastward If the city is still in Ukrainian hands as the spring thaw sets in, the Russian military will be approaching operational failure, writes Steve Aiken

Many of the senior military leaders, from many nations, I studied with, are from Eastern Europe; some from current front line states like Poland, Georgia and Turkey, and even from the Ukraine.

Talking to my fellow graduates, we’ve tried cutting through the fog and friction of the war so far.

The one ‘fact’ that we all agreed on is that the war is going badly; and that the future of Kyiv will be critical.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Badly, firstly for the Ukraine and its brave people.

Thousands of civilians have been killed or injured, millions have become refugees, billions of dollars of damage have been done to its infrastructure. Even if we took all the money seized from Putin’s oligarch chums it would barely cover what will be needed to rebuild Ukraine. The war’s effects will be felt for generations.

Secondly, for Russia.

The ordinary Russian has an affinity for the Ukraine; it’s not seen as being different and many Russians regret the split up of the old USSR.

The Crimea, Kyiv and Odessa have special places in Russian history — but, with the possible exception of the Crimea, these are not places the average Russian feels worth dying for.

That Russian troops are dying in large numbers is a growing shock; that Russia has been torn asunder from the international system that this generation of Russians thought they were part of, are both realities that the Kremlin is having difficulties explaining. Russia’s place in the community of nations isn’t going to be restored if the pseudo Stalin stays in place.

Finally, for Putin — for this is his war. He made a massive miscalculation on the will to resist of the Ukrainian people. He gambled on a quick campaign and is now stuck with a long drawn out campaign — one he cannot afford to lose.

Every day Ukraine resists, every Russian who is killed, every oligarch’s fortune confiscated, are all like the sands of time running against him. He needs to win — and the capture of Kyiv has to be his goal.

It is not just the capital of the Ukraine. It is the political, economic and logistical hub of the Ukraine. Rail, road, air, telecommunications, media, fibre — all are centred there.

In Russia it is seen as the foundation of the Rus, the beginning of what is now known as Russia; something fundamental to the Russian psyche.

It has a population of 2.9 million, although now much diminished as many have fled westwards from the capital. These are all reasons why President Zelensky is determined to hold it; and why Putin, has to seize it.

The battle for Kyiv is about to begin.

There is something medieval about besieging cities; cities that where declared open, and not defended, where given, what was euphemistically called ‘quarter’. Those that declined were laid waste – precisely what we are seeing in Mariupol, and fates that befell Grozny, Aleppo and too many others.

However, in the 21st century, the nuance of ‘quarter’, especially against civilians, is frequently ignored.

The shelling of hospitals, fleeing civilians, and the flouting of ceasefires has become the norm.

President Zelensky has no option, other than to turn Kyiv into a fortress.

On humanitarian grounds, as events elsewhere in his country have shown, there is little to be gained by surrendering the city.

Russia has a limited amount of forces to deploy, it has already lost a significant amount of its forces from attrition and expended a lot of its ammunition. Sieges are very, very costly.

A force ratio of close to 10-1 against a determined defenders (which the Ukraine’s will undoubtedly be) will be required. Turning large chucks of the city into rubble won’t help the attackers either, it will just slow down advances and increase casualties.

There will be a temptation, by the Russians, to use chemical weapons, to clear out streets and wipe out nodes of resistance. As well as being horrific, it is also likely to be counterproductive, as fighting in a chemical environment, against an opposition who probably has as good, or even, better NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) protection kit than you do, will mean that you’ve crossed a threshold, for no real gain.

Every street, every intersection, sub-way station, tower block, will become a bloody mini-Stalingrad.

Every day Kyiv survives, is a day closer to Putin’s demise. If the city is still in Ukrainian hands as the spring thaw sets in, and the resistance outside the city continues to disrupt supply lines for the besieging forces, the Russian military will be approaching operational failure.

It should be our job, in the West, to make sure that Ukraine has the tools to help make this happen. Anti-tank weapons, air-defence missiles, NBC equipment, many of the classified ‘enablers’, are things that we must provide.

Kyiv is the critical battle. If it falls, it’s a victory for Putin. The longer we can help hold that off, the greater the chance of avoiding a much worse conflagration.

The final thought my friends and colleagues had this week is one of will. Appeasement of Putin got us into this mess (you’d have thought that lesson of history had been learned). A failure of will amongst western leaders to support President Zelensky in his battle for Kyiv will be catastrophic.

Steve Aiken is a UUP MLA & ex commander of a Royal Naval nuclear submarine