Do not be distracted by the Russian missiles and drones bombarding Ukrainian cities. Ukrainian civilian casualties are in single digits most days, and the local power outages rarely last more than half a day. These attacks are more a Russian temper tantrum than a strategy because the Ukrainian electricity supply system is among the least vulnerable in the world.
It was mostly built in Soviet times and was therefore designed to remain functional even during a full-scale nuclear war. The substations are spread over huge areas and even the individual transformers are widely separated. A single missile strike can never take out all the transformers in a substation, and they are quick and easy to repair.
Ukraine is so energy-rich that it was selling electricity to Moldova, Belarus and even the European Union in pre-war times. The missiles the Russians are using cannot do much damage to big generating stations – and at least 80% of them are now being shot down.
Moreover, most of Ukraine’s power plants are either big dams (practically invulnerable) or nuclear plants (untouchable unless the Russians want fallout on their own territory). If the ‘energy offensive’ is the worst thing Vladimir Putin’s regime can do to Ukraine’s civilian population, they haven’t got much to worry about.
So, then, where will the next big Ukrainian ground offensive hit? It will definitely happen because Kyiv feels obliged to show it is making progress in the war in order to keep its Western supporters committed.
Talk of the fighting being stalemated, like Ukrainian military intelligence chief Kyryko Budanov’s remarks to the BBC last week – “The situation is just stuck. It doesn't move.” – is merely diversionary. It’s just part of the psychological war before the attack.
Ukrainian generals have about a thousand kilometres of front to choose from, and enough artillery now, including fifty HIMARS long-range rocket systems (counting some equivalent non-US systems) to isolate almost any bit of the Russian front from its rear support. They will try to take another big bite out of it, and the likeliest choice is Melitopol.
The goal would be to cut Russian road and rail links across the Russian-occupied stretch of Ukraine’s south coast and roll up the Russian forces west of there. Barring a wholesale collapse of the Russian army, it would not culminate in the reconquest of Crimea, but it would bring Ukrainian forces to the peninsula’s northern border.
An alternative would be an attack to retake the parts of Luhansk province that were under Ukrainian control until the Russian invasion last February. The Ukrainians have been hacking away at the Svatove-Kreminna line for a while already, and it may be ready to crumble.
This was where the Ukrainians had their first big victory last September, and although it’s of little strategic or economic importance it would serve well enough as a demonstration that their army is still making progress.
Or the Ukrainian attack could fail, of course: this is a war, not a movie. But they are past the point where one defeat would be decisive.
The constant journalistic speculation about how long the West, and in particular the United States, will be willing to bear the cost of this war utterly misses the point. The war in Ukraine is a very low-cost solution to a problem the Americans didn’t even know they had.
Until last year, Russia ranked fourth or fifth on Washington’s list of foreign policy concerns. Putin’s regime was unattractive and sometimes aggressive towards its immediate neighbours, but it was a de-industrialised minnow (smaller economy than Canada’s) with a lot of nuclear weapons and legacy status as a great power (‘Upper Volta with rockets’).
Putin’s astonishingly foolish invasion of Ukraine rapidly promoted Russia to second place (after China) in terms of getting Washington’s strategic attention. But it still wasn’t a major military threat to NATO Europe or the United States, apart from the nukes – and the Russian invasion of Ukraine created its own antidote: the Ukrainian military resistance.
The United States doesn’t have to commit a single American soldier to combat to keep Russia fully occupied and drifting towards bankruptcy. US military aid to Ukraine so far is less than the annual cost of its long war in Iraq, and about one-tenth of the current US defence budget. This is the best bargain in American military history.