WAR IN EUROPE
Russia turns to general who razed Syria’s Aleppo to lead forces to ‘victory’
Russia’s war on Ukraine continues to take a sad toll on Ukraine’s people. Moscow is trying to reorient its attack to at least claim a minimum victory — but that clock is ticking.
A few days ago, in the town of Kramatorsk in the eastern part of Ukraine, hundreds of people crowding a local railroad station, mostly women, children and the elderly, all of them increasingly desperate to leave a place likely to become a battlefield due to Russian attacks, came under attack from the air as a missile deploying thousands of pieces of shrapnel hit the station.
There were no military personnel among them. No chance they were sheltering Ukrainian military personnel disguised as small children or the elderly.
The inside of the station, and outside, are now littered with clothing, whatever bags the would-be passengers could carry, a child’s shoe shed by someone — and blood. Now there is dried blood everywhere. One could see it over and over on television. The dead have now been carried away and the wounded have been evacuated elsewhere for treatment in already crowded hospitals, but part of the missile is still on this killing field — its spent engine and fuel tank perhaps — bearing the inscription “for the children” painted on it.
This is either the evil, deliberate handiwork of deranged people or from the hands of modern savages. No one launches a cruise missile at a train station simply on a whim or by mistake and gives it a sardonic message for its intended victims.
No nation’s military attacks a train station packed with desperate non-combatants trying to flee yet another outbreak of warfare unless it is one deliberately trying to sow terror in the hearts and thoughts of those not yet attacked.
This is to sow terror emanating from the fear that for others their time may be coming soon enough. However, so far, at least, what this terror campaign has done, besides causing all the death and injuries, is to stiffen the collective resistance of Ukrainians in the defence of their nation against the invaders, even as it has also evoked astonished horror on the part of the rest of the world about how savagery has sunk to this level.
A few days prior to that latest horror, Ukrainian forces had fought back hard enough that the Russian military withdrew their military from the northern reaches near the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. But then that withdrawal revealed the shocking brutality of the brief Russian occupation in the towns and suburbs near the capital.
Those acts were almost certainly the kinds of things previously defined as war crimes in other conflicts. Civilians were bound hand and foot and then shot in the neck; hundreds of bodies of civilians thrown into mass graves. These and other acts were not military actions. Either they speak of an army that had become unmoored from control by its officers and acted as a uniformed criminal mob (after discovering they had not entered Ukraine as liberators greeted by garlands of flowers); or it was an army carrying out such things while acting under orders from higher-ups, as a deliberate part of a terror campaign.
In response to their apparent bloody nose, the Russians are now regrouping and shifting their military effort to the eastern part of Ukraine — from the Donbas region already under the control of insurgents who have been supported by Russia for years, and on through to the territory between that area and Crimea, similarly controlled by Russia after its seizure in 2014.
This time around, after a month-and-a-half of confused Russian military action, they have unified control under one commander, Captain-General Alexandr Dvornikov. This is the commander who was in charge of Russian forces in Syria as they devastated the city of Aleppo and its people back in 2015 in their rebellion against the Bashar al-Assad government, as one of the last acts of the Arab Spring. (Maybe the general will bring along one-time action hero actor Steven Seagal, especially since Seagal has received Russian citizenship. Maybe he has some clever ideas about how to finish up the fighting before the final moments of this action film. Or not, since this is real life.)
In response to the general’s appointment, the New York Times commented, “The appointment of General Dvornikov came as the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank that tracks the fighting, said in its latest assessment that Russian forces in the east appeared to be stalled, and were ‘unlikely to enable a Russian breakthrough and face poor morale.’
“General Dvornikov was the first commander dispatched by Moscow to oversee Russian forces in Syria’s civil war in 2015 after the Kremlin intervened to shore up President Bashar al-Assad’s struggling military.
“General Dvornikov was there for about a year and was named a hero of the Russian Federation for his role. He oversaw forces that have been widely accused of bombing civilian neighborhoods, targeting hospitals and resorting to other scorched-earth tactics to break the back of the rebel movement that sought to oust Mr. al-Assad.
“ ‘Bashar al-Assad is not the only one to be held accountable for killing civilians in Syria. The Russian general should, too,’ said Rami Abdulrahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor based in Britain. ‘As the commander of military operations, that means he’s behind killing Syrian civilians by giving the orders.’
“The actions of the Syrian government and Russian forces were widely decried by Western officials and human rights organizations, which said that some of their tactics amounted to war crimes.”
Accordingly, Ukrainian forces should expect a hard-fought military campaign in the weeks between now and 9 May. On that date, Russian leaders would likely be expected to declare some kind of gimmicky military success in Ukraine to run in sync with the Victory Day holiday commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany.
One has to wonder what will happen to all those grandiose (and fraudulent) war aims originally voiced by Russia’s president as the fighting was about to begin, things like fighting a neo-Nazi criminal gang running an imaginary country. This will be an especially bitter truth to bear if the only real outcomes become a Ukrainian population that now reviles Russia (rather than embraces the warmth of its “Third Rome” a la Vladimir Putin) and that now supports the sturdy resistance articulated by its president, but with much of its infrastructure wrecked courtesy of its would-be liberators. Russia’s economy will similarly take time to be restored after the growing impact of sanctions, the dislocations of this war and the loss of many of its most creative younger professionals who have chosen exile.
Moreover, if at the end of the fighting the Russians control only the Donbas and some part of the southern landscape connecting Crimea to that region — it will have to cope with a subject population in those territories existing in a state of barely repressed insurrection. This would require an army of occupation for years to come. And of course, internationally, there will be growing calls for prosecutions over war crimes as well as demands for reparations for all the damage caused by this invasion.
Amid these actions, a still-growing list of economic and financial sanctions is continuing to be put into place by EU and Nato nations, along with the US and others. The real test, though, will come in how to handle continuing Western European imports of natural gas and oil from Russia, although coal imports are to be blocked in future.
By value, oil is worth much more than gas. But while oil imports theoretically could be made up from other sources such as the US, gas is strategically more difficult as it supplies much of the heating for Germany and several other nations. Moreover, if China were to pick up the oil and gas exports in place of Europe, in real terms it would not significantly lessen the revenue from oil that now underpins so much of Russian military spending.
While not significantly part of actual battlefield engagements, right about now is when the extremely productive grain fields in Ukraine are about to be planted. If the new crop is adversely affected by fighting or from a lack of fertilisers, equipment fuel or manpower, and especially if the new crop, as well as the bumper harvest from the previous season, cannot be exported due to a Russian blockade of Black Sea ports like Odesa, numerous fragile states like Lebanon will be in for exceedingly rough times.
Moreover, the UN’s World Food Programme usually obtains about half of its grain from Ukraine and if it cannot do so because of the fighting and blockade, food insufficiency in many problematic places will become serious threats to national stability. The ripples of this invasion extend well outward from the actual battle lines.
Another increasingly likely — and ironic — outcome of the war, almost regardless of who prevails, is the growing likelihood that Finland will opt to apply for membership in Nato. As The Economist observed, “For most of its history, Nato shared only 196km of border with Russia, in the uppermost fringes of Norway. When Poland joined Nato in 1999 that rose to 428km, thanks to its border with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. And after the accession of the three Baltic states in 2004, the shared frontier leapt to 1,233km. If Finland takes the plunge in the coming weeks, as it is likely to, the common border will more than double at a stroke…
“That has implications for both sides. A country that has prized stable relations with Russia for 74 years would face a new and sustained level of threat, as Mr [Sauli] Niinisto [Finland’s president] warned recently. But Russia, too, would have to reconsider the security of the Gulf of Finland and the strategic ports around Murmansk. The irony is that a war launched by Vladimir Putin ostensibly to keep Nato at bay, in Ukraine, looks set to bring the alliance closer than ever before.” A Finnish decision may actually come quite soon.
The next several weeks, then, seem to be crucial for the outcome of the current invasion — both in terms of the battlefield as well as the impacts on so many other questions. And above it all looms how the Russians will somehow manage to position their circumstances as a victory next month, even as they may well lose on yet other fronts. DM