It’s a confronting question for an ambassador to his host country to ask: “If you’re willing to die for Australia, please raise your hand?”
That’s what Ukraine’s Ambassador to Australia Vasyl Myroshnychenko has been asking groups since his arrival in April. He says he’s asking for two reasons: First, Ukrainians are dying every day. He often opens Facebook in the morning and finds an obituary for someone he knows.
“No country can assume that it will never be attacked,” he says. “If someone had told me a year ago that Russia would not only invade eastern Ukraine but also try to take Kyiv, I wouldn’t have considered it a serious possibility.”
Second, says Myroshnychenko, Australia cannot assume that it will not face its own war.
“In the world we live in now, all countries must consider the possibility of war. In 30 years, both China and India will likely have 2 billion people each — that’s 4 billion people who will need food and water,” he says.
“A country like Australia is rich in water. In my view, future wars will be fought over water. Australia needs to ensure its defense forces are ready if necessary.”
Sobering words from someone who is helping his people wage war against Russia, which until recently was considered one of the most formidable armies in the world.
Over the past two weeks, Ukrainians have launched one of the most extraordinary counterattacks in recent military history, leading Russian President Vladimir Putin to announce this week a “partial mobilization” — the recruitment of members of Russia’s reserve forces to join the war.
Regarding his who-is-ready-to-die-question, Myroshnychenko says: “It’s not a question people expect, it’s one that needs to be asked.”
What does mobilization actually mean?
In most wars it is difficult to determine who is winning and who is losing. Ukraine has clearly won some serious military victories recently, particularly in the north-east. Proof of this was the Russian news agency Tass, which called on Russian sympathizers to evacuate immediately.
But two things are not so clear. First, the state of affairs in other parts of the war. The front line is some 2,000km long – longer than the distance from Melbourne to Brisbane – and at some points the two sides are still locked in a deadly deadlock.
And second, what does “partial mobilization” mean in reality? As winter begins, it will not be easy for Russia to get more troops – many of whom have no recent battlefield experience – to the front lines.
Since Putin’s announcement, there have been some protests in Russia. They are small so far. But given the regime’s ruthlessness, the fact that any protests are taking place suggests growing unrest.
The rush reported by many to leave the country also points to dwindling support for the war. Why would anyone want to go to the front lines when they have to hear stories from neighbors and relatives who are losing loved ones?
For this column, I interviewed two close observers of these issues: Ukraine’s ambassador to Australia, Vasyl Myroshnychenko, and Australian academic Stephen Fortescue, an internationally renowned expert on Russia. The interviews took place before Putin’s announcement of “partial mobilization.”
“Putin lost the day he invaded”
Myroshnychenko spends much of his time in Australia lobbying for more equipment to bolster Ukraine’s war effort. “At this stage of the war, as we head into winter, the most important thing we need is artillery and ammunition,” he says.
“Australia has provided six howitzers – we would like 12 more if possible. And Australia’s Bushmasters have performed very well – 40 have been delivered and 20 more are on the way. I have requested another 30 if possible. I’ve also made a request for Hawkeis.”
Myroshnychenko speaks to Australian officials about how to help rebuild infrastructure. He hopes Australia will “adopt” the rebuilding of Mykolayiv in the south and then expand to Kherson once the Russians are driven out. Both regions are on the Black Sea and share similarities with Australian coastal cities.
How would he describe the current state of war? “Lately, Ukraine has been able to retake large tracts of land – cities like Izium and Kupiansk, which were important supply centers for the Russians. We have seen the Russian army collapse in these areas. It was very liberating and uplifting for Ukrainians,” he says.
“We now feel we can win this war – 90 percent of Ukrainians now believe we can win this war. But in a way, Putin lost the day he invaded. He cannot win this war because he cannot subdue the Ukrainians. We never will. We will give up. We will resist until we all die, if necessary. He underestimated us – he could kill us all, but he will never subdue us.”
Is Ukraine’s victory inevitable? “Definitely,” says Myroshnychenko. “We will drive out the Russians. But for that we need the world to provide all the artillery we need now.”
The problem with military mobilization
Myroshnychenko says one of the reasons for Ukraine’s recent successes is that many of the weapons promised by various countries have arrived. He says the US-supplied Himars missile launchers are “a game changer.”
Regarding what Vladimir Putin is doing now, the ambassador says: “He can always get meaner. We do not know it. I would rather see him ousted by the massive demonstration of the Russian people, weary of his kleptocratic and insane rule.”
When Russia invaded in February, its army was estimated to be ten times that of Ukraine. It is clear that the Ukrainian army, now bolstered by foreign supplies and a wave of Ukrainian volunteers, has reduced this disparity.
“When I was in Kyiv in June, I saw long lines of people wanting to volunteer for the army,” says Myroshnychenko. “By contrast, according to British intelligence, we have killed or wounded an estimated 80,000 members of the Russian army.”
Academic Stephen Fortescue says it’s difficult to gauge how Putin and his advisers might view recent Ukrainian gains, but “it may well be that he sees Ukrainians catching us in a weak spot, but that persistence will still get us through — on the battlefield and in the energy confrontation with the Europeans”.
Prior to Putin’s announcement of “partial mobilization”, an honorary associate professor at the University of NSW Fortescue said the problem with military mobilization was not only that it might be unpopular but that it was of “limited value”.
“If the so-called professional army can’t do it, why should a bunch of reservists do it? The problem with hitting cities hard is that it wouldn’t do much to improve the situation on the battlefield and [would] probably the Ukrainians only make more determined. And if things got too barbaric, it would put pressure on the so-called friendly and neutral countries to reconsider their positions,” says Fortescue.
“If the Russians passed on their willingness to engage in serious talks, the West could and would address Zelenskyi harshly,” he adds. “But I can’t imagine Putin being willing or able to offer enough to pique even the interest of the West. So I’m left with an exclusion process ‘continue as before’. Of course, if the situation on the battlefield worsened, it would become untenable. I would then probably go for a combination of military mobilization and attacks on Ukrainian cities.”
Putin’s fate may lie in the shaky hands of the military
According to Fortescue, the harshest criticism of the war in Russia comes from the extreme right.
“It probably doesn’t count enough within the elite or the general population to worry Putin much,” Fortescue said. “There is no sign that the elite is faltering or that Putin is giving in to the hawks on mobilization, including on the economy. But it’s hard to believe that there aren’t serious disagreements and interests within the elite elite that could produce cracks in the future.”
Regarding the pressure that Putin would be under at the moment, he suggests that more pressure is likely to be put on the military. “But he could be very uncomfortably aware that his fate is in their shaky hands.”
Does he think Putin wishes he never started this war?
“He once said that he couldn’t remember ever making a mistake, but would have a hard time convincing himself that the current geographic advantages were worth it,” says Fortescue. “Even if the war… stops tomorrow and he’s in control of the currently occupied territory, he’s clearly worse off – in every way – than he was before the invasion. So I think negotiations are the least likely option for him.”
Former Australian diplomat and Ukraine expert Dmitry Grozoubinski says perhaps the most significant part of Putin’s decree this week was that all current military service contracts, which typically last three to six months, would be extended indefinitely. “I think Putin was told that his entire professional army would quit at the end of their contracts instead of facing Winter huddled in trenches being hunted by Ukrainian SOF and torched by Himars,” Grozoubinski wrote in the social media.
As a matter of fact. Forcing soldiers to keep fighting and forcing reservists to go to the front portends an army in deep trouble.
But troubled armies and their isolated, deluded political commanders can still commit war crimes. This war is far from over.