OPINION - Ukraine has begun its summer offensive — and now F-16s are coming into play

OPINION - Ukraine has begun its summer offensive — and now F-16s are coming into play

With characteristic guile and misdirection, Ukraine appears to be executing the opening stages of its long-awaited summer offensive. The shaping operations have been going on for more than a week around Bakhmut.

Seemingly cut off and surrounded a fortnight ago, the Ukrainians now appear to have established corridors for resupply and rescuing the wounded. Beyond the town they claim to have retaken several square kilometres.

The battle has been supervised by Ukraine’s ground force commander, Colonel General Olesksandr Syrsky.

The offensive is likely to be a series of rolling battles as Ukraine’s refreshed brigades push and probe with punch and counter-punch at any weak points they can find along the nearly thousand kilometres of Russia’s frontline across southern Ukraine. It will be a mixture of conventional and improvised moves, with a growing element of guerrilla and sabotage actions.

“We shouldn’t get too focused on the tactical details,” a senior military source tells me. “There will be setbacks and reversals but we need to focus on the long term.” The rolling battles on the ground will be matched with diplomatic and political moves. We have just seen the opening of President Zelensky’s summer diplomatic offensive with the series of visits to Berlin, Paris, Rome and London.

These focused on the call for more arms, more long-term backing for stabilising and then reconstructing the Ukraine economy, and exploring paths to peace .

It was a direct appeal to the leaders of Europe, including Britain, to stick with Ukraine. A lot of the new weapons promised by Rishi Sunak won’t arrive for months. It is not yet clear precisely what air defence missiles and attack drones are to be sent.

General Syrsky’s ground commanders will have to husband their resources. Only three or four of the new armoured brigades can be in battle at any one time — as many or more have to be held in reserve. There is still a problem with air cover, particularly in close fighter cover.

This has brought a change in posture by the Europeans over the supply of strike aircraft. The group now prepared to provide Nato F-16 fighters is nicknamed “the Flight Club” among the allies. The Dutch are preparing to send up to 18 of their surplus F-16s while Britain is less decisive, offering some training, but awaiting Washington’s final decision on providing F-16s.

President Macron has said France will also train pilots, while Norwegian veterans are suggesting they should send all 57 of Norway’s recently retired F-16s. The American-designed F-16 Fighting Falcon has been built for Europe with a consortium of Dutch, Norwegian, Belgian and Danish companies. Though reluctant to sanction the forwarding of former US Air Force planes, Joe Biden would find it hard to veto Europeans sending their F-16s.

The aim is to defeat Russian forces psychologically as much as physically. Ukraine doesn’t have the means to retake the entire swathe of the country now occupied by Russian forces. The aim must be to show Moscow that it is an unwinnable war. This will require innovative tactics and surprise guerrilla actions, sudden attacks on Crimea, insurgent operations and ambush within the occupied zone, as we are seeing already round Melitopol.

This now leaves Vladimir Putin with tricky choices. For once it appears that time isn’t on his side. His bleak speech on Victory Day in Red Square on May 9 had one clear message — that his personal future, and that of his regime very likely, depends on the war and garnering some semblance of a win from it. Yet his forces in southern Ukraine are exhausted, bewildered, undernourished and badly led. He cannot afford to call up another 300,000-strong army. That would likely require a general mobilisation and martial law, a very dicey proposition.

Increasingly, Russia is relying on irregular patriot groups and company militias, now all singing from the Putin hymn sheet. Guerilla and sabotage attacks inside Russia are on the rise.

This means Europe’s allies must consolidate their efforts to supply and support Kyiv. This is now a core security interest. The new UK Defence Command Paper, due in a month, must recognise that stability and security in the Europe-Atlantic region is vital. And takes priority over fantasies about global power.