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Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Ukraine
Lukas Coch/AAP

Russia’s Ukraine invasion is slowly approaching an inflection point. Is the West prepared to step up?

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has finally delivered him something approaching a minor victory. With his forces recently taking control of Lysychansk, Russia now controls virtually all of Luhansk oblast (province).

That’s one of the two Donbas provinces the Kremlin has decided to “liberate”, in rapidly-adjusted war aims made necessary by its botched assault on Kyiv in February 2022.

That it took Putin so long – some 130 days since his invasion, and over eight years after the Kremlin engineered an uprising there – to capture the easternmost province of Ukraine speaks volumes for the poor performance of the Russian military, both in terms of tactics and capability. But it’s enough for the Kremlin to consider an operational pause before trying to capture the rest of the adjoining Donetsk province.

This lull before the next phase of a long attritional campaign will be a test of Ukrainian resolve, Russia’s ability to resupply, and the West’s strategic patience.

Luhansk loss a serious setback for Ukraine

Anecdotal reports of its combat fatalities and injuries suggest Kyiv is understating its losses. Its need for artillery shells is diminishing stockpiles among Western donors.

Ukraine is using around 5-6,000 artillery shells a day. That’s equivalent to shooting off the United States’ entire yearly production of artillery rounds every ten days or so.

But Russia’s armed forces have been churning through a far vaster number of artillery rounds: an estimated 60,000 per day, around ten times what Ukraine is using. That has raised questions about how long Moscow can sustain such a pace. Recognising this, the Ukrainian military has begun targeting Russian ammunition dumps using a US-supplied “HIMARS” multiple launch rocket system in order to destroy munitions stores before they’re used.

Putin’s forces are also becoming rapidly depleted of personnel. Having already emptied its garrisons along the Finnish border to replenish losses in Ukraine, Putin’s future “operational pauses” will draw on increasingly older and weaker equipment and individuals. Russia’s parliament has recently raised the maximum age for military service from 40 years to 65 years.

Coastline an inflection point

Beyond Luhansk and Donetsk, the pattern is more mixed.

In the country’s south, for instance, Ukrainian counter-offensives around the city of Kherson seek to open corridors to recapture coastal cities vital to Kyiv’s ability to export grain. Even if it’s successful, Kyiv will then have to tackle the question of how to lift the Russian naval blockade in the Black Sea, to which it has no easy answer.

Control of Ukraine’s coastline is the real strategic inflection point around which the outcome of the war turns. Putin’s plan is to deny Ukraine access to the sea, turning whatever survives the war into a landlocked rump state. That scenario would leave Ukraine shrunken, weak and reliant on the West for aid and reconstruction.

Russian solders in the now Russian-controlled Kherson region
Ukraine is preparing a counter-attack on the now-Russian controlled Kherson region in southern Ukraine. AP/AAP

Darkly illustrating how that might play out, Andrey Shushentsov – the Valdai Program Director and Dean of the School of International Relations at MGIMO University – this week gave an instructive interview for the Valdai Club. This is a Kremlin-sponsored organisation known for pumping out Putin-friendly narratives.

Shushentsov painted Volodomyr Zelenskyy as acting “like an unbridled Cossack Ataman” who “personifies the party of war”.

He foresaw a catastrophic Ukrainian collapse due either to military defeat, a disaster at Ukraine’s nuclear facilities, or the destruction of gas pipelines supplying Europe.

The result, Shushentsov claimed, would be Western disillusionment due to fears of nuclear war and high energy prices. All that would remain of Ukraine would be an “anti-Russian enclave”.

This combination of veiled nuclear threats, assertions about the weakness of European publics and confident predictions of a collapse in Western support have been an ongoing feature of Russian messaging since its invasion, and a transparent window into its hopes and intentions.

That’s why it remains critical NATO states do not waver.

NATO’s strengthened resolve

Thankfully NATO has finally come to terms with the fact Moscow cannot somehow be managed. At its Madrid Summit on June 29, the alliance adopted a new strategic concept which unambiguously moved Russia from a potential future partner to its main threat.

NATO has:

After the summit, the formal NATO accession bids by Sweden and Finland were signed. Their fast-track membership applications are expected to be confirmed in as little as six months.

Read more: China, Russia and climate change: why Australia's place at the NATO Summit was so important

One of the more notable supporters of Ukraine has been Australia – indeed, more than some NATO members. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese attended the NATO Summit as part of the Asia-Pacific Four, comprising Australia, Japan, Korea and New Zealand.

His subsequent visit to Kyiv to meet Zelenskyy and tour the sites of human rights atrocities by Russian troops also resulted in an extra A$100 million in military assistance. That included Bushmaster protected mobility vehicles, armoured personnel carriers and drones.

Continuing the commitment of the previous Morrison government, Albanese also announced:

As long as it takes?

These developments certainly indicate a strengthened commitment by NATO and its partners to confront Russian aggression. But they still leave open the question of lasting support for Ukraine, making the supply of much-needed weapons systems a matter for individual member states.

In that context Albanese’s pledge to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes” is a welcome one. But Australian assistance will always be more symbolic than those capable of performing the real heavy lifting, especially the US, Germany, UK, and France.

Read more: Russia’s Ukraine invasion won’t be over soon – and Putin is counting on the West’s short attention span

Thus far, NATO unity remains remarkable. It has certainly rendered false Putin’s assumption the West would fold quickly.

But as his war in Ukraine drags on, Putin will be increasingly banking on the West’s famously limited attention span to reassert itself, and that it will eventually lose interest in assisting Kyiv.

For the sake of NATO’s credibility, Europe’s security and Ukraine’s future, it’s vital Putin is proven wrong once again.

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