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Putin has missed his chance to crush Ukraine

In Europe
June 11, 2024

Fighter jets roar overhead, artillery booms, a crowd cries out.

Not scenes in Ukraine, for once, but Normandy, where President Biden – surrounded by white crosses – chose to connect the conflict in Ukraine with the sacrifice his countrymen made 80 years before.

“Ukraine has been invaded by a tyrant bent on domination,” he said at the D-Day anniversary last week. “To surrender to bullies, to bow down to dictators is simply unthinkable. Were we to do that, it means we’d be forgetting what happened here on these hallowed beaches.”

While perhaps lacking the poetry of Lincoln’s address over the Gettysburg battlefield, that sentiment – that Kyiv now shoulders the burden, the cross, of Western values – when considered in light of the Russian offensive on Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv, has led to major shifts in Washington’s position on the war in recent weeks. This is now having a significant impact on the front lines.

Taken together, these shifts suggest a startling truth: that Putin may have missed his opportunity to score a decisive military victory before the American presidential election in November. In recent days alone, the White House’s decision in May to permit President Zelensky’s armies to use Washington’s advanced missiles to hit certain military targets inside Russia has paid huge dividends.

On Sunday, a Ukrainian fighter jet struck across the Russian border for the first time, reportedly destroying a “command node” in Belgorod. Also over the weekend, Ukrainian drones attacked Russian ships in the port of Taganrog, not far from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, which Moscow controls after some of the most brutal fighting seen on European soil since the Second World War. That, too, marks a first: the first time since the full-scale invasion that Kyiv’s drones have hit a Russian target in the Sea of Azov.

But Ukraine’s most symbolic triumph was a successful strike on one of the Kremlin’s most sophisticated and expensive aircraft: a Su-57 stealth fighter jet stationed at the Akhtubinsk airfield in southern Russia.

Taken in isolation, none of these Ukrainian attacks is a strategic game-changer, but together with frequent strikes on Russian energy depots – one last week is estimated to have destroyed $540 million worth of oil – there is evidence that, logistically, Ukraine has now reached a turning point where it can no longer be overwhelmed by Moscow’s forces.

Further to Washington’s green-lighting of specific strikes on Russian soil, the other key factor is that weapons deliveries from the vital $60 billion aid package passed by Congress in April are now trickling through to the front lines. The situation is still severe, especially in light of low levels of ammunition, but while Ukrainian soldiers were once desperate, it seems that this is slowly changing. A Czech plan to deliver 1.5 million shells from across Europe is also progressing at pace.

In short, the critical window of opportunity where Moscow outmanned and outgunned Kyiv has now almost certainly passed, coming at a heavy price for Vladimir Putin politically as we approach November. His aim was to make substantive inroads into Ukraine before America went to the polls, embarrassing Biden and obliging whoever won the White House to force Kyiv into peace talks.

Instead, he faces frozen front lines, emboldening the West. Furthermore, in his speech in Normandy, Biden said that 350,000 Russian troops have now been killed or wounded since the invasion. For context, the Soviet Union lost 50,000 troops in its 10 years in Afghanistan, a scale of loss that contributed to its collapse.

It is time, therefore, to reassess the period following Ukraine’s failed counteroffensive last year. Rather than Russia making incremental gains, it should be seen as a highly effective Ukrainian defence and potentially decisive military victory.

That is very different, of course, from saying that the war is won. The F-35 jets that flew over my head in Normandy, the advanced artillery that fired blanks over Omaha Beach – neither have been donated to Kyiv, and in many ways Ukraine remains hamstrung by the half-hearted nature of Western support.

But it has survived. While its losses already far outnumber the almost 10,000 white crosses in Normandy’s American Battlefield Cemetery – likely passing 10 times that – it has held on, like those American soldiers who gained a precious foothold in France that fateful June morning, and who ultimately prevailed.


Francis Dearnley is Assistant Comment Editor at The Telegraph and one of the presenters of our daily podcast ‘Ukraine: The Latest’. With over 85 million downloads, it is considered the most trusted daily source of war news on both sides of the Atlantic.

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