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WAR IN EUROPE ANALYSIS

As Russia abandons conquest of Kyiv, Putin’s strategic gamble unravels

As Russia abandons conquest of Kyiv, Putin’s strategic gamble unravels
A street in Bucha, outside Kyiv, littered with destroyed Russian military machinery in the areas recaptured by the Ukrainian army on 2 April 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Oleg Petrasyuk)

The fighting in Ukraine continues — even as the Russian military appears to be repositioning itself to achieve some kind of victory in the Donbas on the eastern side of Ukraine, and even if it means giving up on a quick victory at the gates of Kyiv. Can Ukraine hang on to hold off the Russians?

One terrible thing we know for sure — the hostilities inflicted upon Ukraine from a Russian assault on its neighbour (and the supposedly close fraternal Slav national relative) are not poised to end, certainly not yet. 

International human rights NGOs, in addition to the Ukrainian government, are now charging the Russians with having carried out killings of unarmed civilians when their hands were tied behind their backs, the shootings of other innocent civilians as they attempted to flee the bombings, mass graves of those executed, along with other serious crimes, such as rape, and uncontrolled looting, most visibly in the town of Bucha.

Gruesome evidence is increasingly coming to light as Ukrainians have been retaking significant areas of territory that had initially been seized by Russian troops in the early days of the conflict. 

In fact, as the world has been watching, astonished, the Ukrainians have held their own against the invaders and they have given the Russians something of a bloody nose on the battlefield in several sectors of the conflict. As this is being written, the Russian military now appears to be pulling back from their forward positions on the northwestern and northeastern approaches to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, including, most recently, the shattered wreck of Antonov Airport and that town of Bucha.

Nevertheless, rockets are still being fired and artillery bombardments continue to take place in many parts of the country. Russian military actions, such as the destruction of a fuel-storage facility in Lviv, the westernmost big city in the country, continue. In other parts of the country, notably around cities such as Kharkiv and Mariupol, and in the eastern Donbas region, the ground fighting also continues with little let-up.

 

 

 

In fact, if Russian public announcements can, any longer, be accepted as containing real facts (previous Russian government statements had said, after all, there would be no invasion, and the Kyiv government was a bunch of thugs, drug dealers and neo-Nazis ruling an illegitimate regime of an imaginary nation), the Russian military’s retreat/repositioning is being carried out to allow them to achieve their actual, original objective — the liberation of all those oppressed Russians in the Donbas. That, of course, is where Russia had been supplying military materiel to separatist insurrectionists for the past 14 years in their fighting with the Ukrainian military.

Quite suddenly, though, this military campaign is no longer the one originally articulated by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his speeches wherein this “special operation” was being carried out to liberate a beleaguered Ukraine from its appalling government under that notorious international criminal, President Volodymyr Zelensky. In the view pronounced from the big corner office in the Kremlin, Ukraine was really just an imaginary country that was supposed to be a core, constituent part of a greater Russia, the Third Rome.

This renewed superpower’s anointed task was to save the white Christian world from all manner of global societal ills and degenerate activities. That bombastic language seems, suddenly, to have vanished into the ether, replaced by absolutely no clarity, now, over Russia’s supposed war aims

Worsening misery

Meanwhile, humanitarian relief efforts and refugee evacuations from the nearly destroyed city of Mariupol — now the shattered husk of a city — have largely been stymied by continued Russian artillery shelling, as well as the cruel imposition of a mountain of bureaucratic obstacles designed to constrict the refugee flow and make the misery even worse. The result has left any remaining inhabitants there — perhaps 160,000 people — without food, water, electrical power, heating, or, indeed, much in the way of shelter from the elements or Russian artillery bombardments, or both.

 

 

 

To this writer, the images of Mariupol taken from the air resemble nothing so much as those infamous aerial images from World War 2 of the destruction of Rotterdam in 1940 or of Warsaw in the course of Germany’s crushing of the 1944 uprising. Blasted shells of buildings that had previously sheltered families, schools, hospitals, offices, businesses and factories are now just burnt-out walls.

Eventually, someone will be judged for this, and someone, too, will be called on to pay for this savagery.

In fact, if no more destruction were to occur beyond what has already been delivered and if the fighting were, miraculously, to stop now, international economists are estimating that the damage to Ukraine’s physical infrastructure and the death, severe disruptions, dislocations and trauma to its human capital would take at least a decade of heavy lifting before the country could even return to the economic levels that had prevailed before hostilities began. But, undoubtedly, there will be yet more destruction and misery, making things that much worse before the guns fall silent.

Negotiating about negotiating

Meanwhile, a kind of negotiations about negotiations have been taking place in Istanbul, under the general sponsorship of Turkey, between Ukraine and Russia. These discussions are, despite many peoples’ hopes, nowhere close to becoming actual negotiations about ending hostilities and moving towards an actual settlement of outstanding issues and territorial arrangements, let alone addressing the much more vexed questions of reparations for the damage and destruction. But perhaps they are still better than no meetings at all.

 

 

 

So far, the Ukrainians have offered to embrace a kind of non-Nato future of guaranteed national neutrality, although one that would come with the proviso that they could certainly join the EU.

In addition, they have offered to undertake negotiations on the future of Crimea over a 15-year period (the peninsula seized by Russia in 2014), although they have offered no real give on the status of the Donbas as part of Ukraine, save for the vague idea of future discussions about a form of regional autonomy.

So far, the Russians have been less forthcoming about real concessions, but there is, in this early, pre-negotiations posturing, something to talk about. If the invading army would leave, and if the Russians would join to guarantee — with other key nations — the absolute sovereignty of the Ukrainian state, that could be real progress. (That sovereignty and borders had already been a part of the older Budapest Accord three decades earlier, in which Ukraine had given up all the nuclear missiles left on its soil from the by-then-collapsed Soviet Union.) Still, there is a tremendous distance to travel in such talks when they resume, and it is crucial to remember that, in the meantime, the war grinds on, and the death and destruction continue apace.

Detritus of war

Just by the way, is it also time to talk about how to handle salvaging the hundreds of tonnes of high-quality steel scrap now lying around from the destruction of hundreds of Russian tanks, armoured personnel carriers and all the other weaponry destroyed by Stinger and Javelin missiles? Is there a South African scrapyard prepared to bid on it?

In contrast to that valuable detritus of war, according to various media reports, Ukrainians have mobilised an ad hoc but comprehensive effort to repair both their own vehicles as well as captured-but-still-usable Russian ones.

The country already has a munitions industry, although those factories have come under substantial Russian aerial attacks. But, in response to need and opportunity, Ukrainians have pulled together a network of machine shops, garages and similar facilities to carry out necessary repairs, thus sending back into battle numerous previously Russian tanks and other military vehicles.

By the end of the week, there was a raid on a major fuel depot inside Russia at Belgorod near the border, apparently carried out by two Ukrainian military helicopters in a tit-for-tat earlier Russian raid on a Ukrainian fuel depot in Lviv. Much Russian gnashing of teeth has followed with their response to this raid, saying that it was not helpful to any nascent peace process.

Whoever wrote that statement for the Russian military deserves kudos for some serious chutzpah, given the way in which the hostilities started. Regardless, this raid has again drawn attention to the difficulties the Russians have been having with their resupply efforts and logistics support for their forces more generally, something that may also have much to do with their withdrawals from around Kyiv and their apparent redeployments towards the Donbas and perhaps in the south of the country as well.

Russian embarrassment 

Another factor in this redeployment may be one particular date in the calendar. This is the rapidly approaching 9 May, or Victory Day in Russia, marking the victorious end of their campaigns in World War 2, with the defeat of Nazi Germany. But, if you are Putin, you probably are increasingly desperate to have something flashy to show for all this effort, all those thousands of military fatalities, the vast economic disruptions and pain as a result of sanctions (with the threat of still more to come), and the unassailable reality that Russia is no longer a trusted partner to pretty much any nation that really matters.

A strategic withdrawal from the Kyiv neighbourhood is not going to be something to celebrate with a major parade in Red Square. The generals will be embarrassed as well, especially those who failed to deliver the goods. 

We may not see much about this in the news, but a conundrum like this will plague Putin in the coming weeks as his strategic gamble unravels. Assuming the West continues to deliver the kinds of well-suited tactical weaponry needed to destroy tanks and ground support aircraft, as well as anti-aircraft systems to deal with higher flying craft, things may actually get more troubling for Russian military units in the coming weeks.

As far as international support is concerned, the Chinese have not turned their backs entirely on Russia — there was that report of their providing MREs (military meals ready to eat) — but there has been no ringing endorsement of Russia’s military action either.

And India? Yes, they will buy oil, but that is rather a different thing than offering a warm embrace. Remember, too, that India is increasingly tied into the US-Japan-Australia-India quad formation designed to keep a wary balance with China. And, of course, they still have the loyalty of Belarus and the South African government, for what that’s worth.

Putin’s people

Domestically, it is reported support for Putin and the war effort has been rising inside Russia. In part, that is a function of there being no independent media left to critique those actions, and the fact that where protests have occurred, those participating have been hustled off to jail. But there is also the very real effect of national pride in being able to demonstrate some military heft and power against the nation’s enemies, as defined by their president — at least until the body bags start coming home by the truckload. The last time that happened, from Afghanistan, it was the harbinger of the collapse of the entire Soviet system.

Even now, when nationally — and internationally — renowned artists such as the Bolshoi’s Olga Simonova have decided to bail out of Russia. Her departure can be read as symbolic of the outward flow of young professionals, cultural figures and media people who have given up on Russia, at least a Russia under the increasingly repressive regime under Putin. There is going to be a calculation of just how much Putin’s people can push the nation, as any unrealised gains from attacking Ukraine torment the nation.

That, of course, supposes that Ukraine can hang on, can make some military progress and not collapse in on itself from the strain of trying to hold off the weight of the Russian military. Even the growing aid packages from the West — both military and economic — may, in the long run, be only enough to stave off total disaster.

As it is often said, all wars end eventually, and the next battle comes in the peace settlement. The Ukrainians hope that their strength of purpose — bolstered with Stingers and Javelins — will be just enough. The Russians hope they can eventually throw sufficient military formations at their opponent that no matter their losses, they can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. But keep in mind the importance of that date of 9 May, just one month ahead. DM

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