Ambassador says Ukraine needs more aid to press home advances against Russia

Behind Ukraine’s euphoria about the success of its counteroffensive against Vladimir Putin’s troops is a lingering alarm about what Moscow might do next.

‘Fear is always there, but Russia likes to be feared,’ Ukraine’s ambassador to Australia, Vasyl Myroshnychenko, tells The Strategist.

Ukraine and the nations that have come to its aid must make Russia fearful in turn, the ambassador says. A world that is united and which won’t be intimidated by Russia delivers a message in a language Moscow understands, he says. ‘If Russia smells fear among the allies, that will be bad for them and bad for democracy. Putin can be stopped if the world unites against him.’

A week into Ukraine’s counteroffensive, the ambassador says the ultimate goal is to recapture Crimea and the other territory occupied by Russia in 2014. ‘We have to drive the Russians from the entire country.’

Ukraine’s commander-in-chief, General Valery Zaluzhny, said on Sunday that in a major counteroffensive, his forces had liberated more than more than 3,000 square kilometres of Russian-occupied territory in less than a week. The Ukrainian forces punched through thinly guarded Russian lines east of Kharkiv, severing lines of logistics and forcing the withdrawal of major Russian units from many areas, but most importantly the key transport hubs of Izium and Kupiansk.

In a classic disinformation operation that the Russians should have been awake to if their reconnaissance and surveillance was effective, the Ukrainians talked openly of a coming offensive to recapture Kherson in the south of the country. Russia withdrew troops from the areas it held in the north to reinforce Kherson, but Ukraine attacked in the northeast.

The Russians appear to have been caught by surprise and found themselves cut off from supplies.

After a week of fighting, many Russian troops withdrew from the Kharkiv region in haste and often in complete disarray. Some reportedly pulled right back onto Russian Federation territory and others negotiated surrender terms with Ukrainian forces. Media reports said individual soldiers threw off uniforms and body armour and changed into civilian clothes to escape the advancing Ukrainians. They also abandoned large numbers of tanks and other vehicles.

Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, tweeted a video of an Australian-designed and -built Bushmaster troop carrier that brought soldiers from the 80th Air Assault Brigade to the Oskil River during the offensive. To protect freedom, the vehicle had travelled half the world, Reznikov said.

The Ukrainian troops are particularly impressed with the remote weapon station atop some of the Bushmasters delivered so far. Myroshnychenko says it would be good to have the system fitted to all of Ukraine’s Bushmasters so that their machineguns can be fired while the crew remain safely inside the vehicle.

The adaptive Ukrainians have added additional armour to some of their Bushmasters and they’ve told the Australians they’d like heavy (12.7-millimetre) machineguns on them rather than the 7.62-millimetre weapons most arrived with.

The Bushmaster is designated as a protected mobility vehicle and is not intended to take on tanks or modern anti-tank weapons. But some of the Ukrainian forces have been using them as though they are infantry fighting vehicles even though they lack the very heavy armour needed to deflect anti-tank gunfire and missiles. During the offensive, troops using the stocky vehicles rolled on through the front lines to take part in the rapid advance.

Masterfully targeting friends in Australia, Ukraine’s defence department issued a choreographed tweet in which airborne soldiers praise the Bushmaster as a great asset that delivered them safely to their forward operating areas. Their message comes with a raucous punk rock accompaniment (‘Marauder’ by Tigerblood Jewel, our interns tell me) punctuated by bursts of gunfire.

Beyond the cheery messaging and the undoubted courage of the Ukrainian forces is a sobering reality. Ukraine has been promised 60 Bushmasters and has asked for 30 more along with smaller Hawkei protected vehicles, M777 howitzers and ammunition. Forty Bushmasters have been sent so far, and within weeks of their arriving at least three had been destroyed in action.

It is understood that those aboard escaped from two of the destroyed vehicles but the third was hit by an anti-tank weapon and the soldiers it carried were killed.

Despite long and intense use in Iraq and Afghanistan in Australian and allied hands, and the loss there of about 100 Bushmasters in bomb blasts, no Australian soldier died in one.

Myroshnychenko says weapons such as the long-range HIMARS precision missile systems provided by the United States had been game-changers because they allowed Ukraine to destroy Russia’s logistics and stop its advance. Intelligence provided by the US also proved crucial.

But Ukraine needs more heavy weapons and materiel from allies including Australia. Ukrainians are willing to fight and are volunteering to do so in large numbers, Myroshnychenko says. The problem is training them and equipping them with weapons and ammunition, helmets and body armour. ‘It’s important for our allies such as Australia to keep providing it. And winter is coming so we need thermal coal.’

He says the democracies must increase diplomatic and economic pressure on Russia and its people. Russians are accountable because they keep Putin in power and polls indicate that 80% of them support the war.

He says Australia should refuse entry to Russians except those fleeing as refugees. ‘This is the only language they understand.’

Much now depends on how Putin responds to the so far successful Ukrainian offensive. He has often implied that he would be willing to use nuclear weapons if Russia is ‘threatened’.

Retired lieutenant general Ben Hodges, former commander of US forces in Europe, told the ABC this week he doubted that Putin would resort to nuclear weapons.

But if Russia did carry out a nuclear attack, he did not think Western nations would respond with a nuclear strike.

More likely would be a devastating conventional response against Russian targets, Hodges said.