Long stories short
- Mohamed Mansour, an Egyptian-born billionaire, handed £5 million to Britain’s Conservatives, the party’s biggest donation in 20 years.
- Greece will hold another round of elections after the country’s ruling centre-right party fell just five seats short of a majority.
- Sinn Féin made big gains in Northern Ireland’s council elections, winning 144 seats.
Put aside the claims and counter-claims. It’s clear that Russia’s best-known mercenary has taken enough of Bakhmut after ten months and perhaps 40,000 deaths to claim to Putin that it has fallen.
It’s equally clear that if Ukrainian forces have withdrawn they haven’t withdrawn far. Ukraine’s deputy defence minister and soldiers on the ground say instead of occupying the devastated Donbas city they now have it at least half-encircled; a case, perhaps, of reculer pour mieux sauter.
Meanwhile, F-16s are coming (more below).
So what? Yevgeny Prigozhin’s declaration of victory on Saturday still matters.
- It stole some of President Zelensky’s headlines from Hiroshima, where he was the toast of the G7 and recipient of yet more military hardware from most of its members.
- It gave Russian state TV a chance to switch the domestic narrative, temporarily at least, to “liberation” after 10 months of recrimination.
- It moved the war to a new phase, when two theories will be tested – that Bakhmut never had any strategic value, and that Ukraine now has enough weapons for its spring offensive.
Strategy. Prigozhin’s claim, made on Saturday and endorsed by Putin on Sunday, raises three questions: Is it true? If so, is it reversible? If so, would that be worth the effort for Ukraine?
- True? Mainly. Analysts say Prigozhin spoke in the centre of Bakhmut far from the western front line on territory his Wagner Group has held for months, but Russian TV showed his fighters raising flags on the city’s western edge. Zelensky denies Bakhmut has fallen but his senior commander on the ground concedes his forces still hold only a few buildings and are focusing instead on probing Russian defences on its flanks.
- Reversible? Yes. Prigozhin said at the weekend he would withdraw his fighters in five days. If he does and the Russian army fails to replace them Bakhmut could fall quickly.
- Worth it? That depends. If Ukraine is not in fact ready to launch its spring offensive and more fighting in Bakhmut would force Russia to commit troops that would otherwise be defending weak points on its 900km front line, then yes. If Russia’s troops in the area are already exhausted and Ukraine’s can hold their new positions on higher ground west and south of the city, then no.
Weapons. Zelensky’s trip to Japan, which the UK’s Rishi Sunak claims was his idea, was a diplomatic coup but also a logistical one. Germany promised more fighting vehicles. The US said it reckons Ukraine now has all the weapons it’s been promised. And Biden finalised his painfully slow U-turn on fighters. The US will lift re-export bans and assist with pilot training. Third countries will be free to revive Ukraine’s air force so it can control its skies
Those F-16s. Why all the fuss? Three factors are worth considering:
They’re available. More than 3,000 F-16s have been built. Many overseas buyers including the Netherlands (24) and Denmark (30) are now replacing them with F-35s, leaving hardly-used late-model F-16s available for Kyiv.
They’re effective. Ukraine says they’re four or five times more capable than the Soviet-built MiGs flying against Ukraine, and it’s true that a) they can launch “standoff” weapons including air-launched cruise missiles without ever coming in range of Russian air defences; and b) they were conceived in the cold war by John Boyd and the “fighter mafia” to be more manoeuvrable than the US F-15 and the Soviet MiG 23, and have outperformed them ever since, notably in Iraq.
They hog the limelight. While the question of whether or not to arm Ukraine with F-16s has been exhaustively litigated in the media and the corridors of power, shipments of artillery, tanks and ammunition have proceeded relatively unreported, which suits Ukraine and her allies well.
Further reading: Boyd: the Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Course of War, by Robert Coram, is that rare military biography that transcends the genre to reveal profound truths about how humans organise, lead, and follow.
Also, in the nibs
Mexico’s president hands (yet) more power to the military
The founder of Amazon is bailing out Nasa
Starmer is echoing David Cameron in his bid for power
New York sinks under its skyscrapers
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Photograph Staff Sgt. Joshua R. M. Dewberry/U.S. Air Force
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