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Putin has little to celebrate in Ukraine as a key anniversary approaches

The horrific scenes in Bucha have brought a moral clarity to strategic calculations, both for Ukraine and its allies.

By Lawrence Freedman

On 24 February, as they began their invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces began shelling Mariupol, a port city of over 400,000 inhabitants. The next day they began to advance to its outskirts. By 2 March the city was surrounded and the shelling had become routine and deadly. Soon reports came in of schools and hospitals being hit. On 5 March came the first attempt to evacuate people under the auspices of the Red Cross; a convoy was organised but it was unable to escape because, despite Russian promises, the shelling did not stop. This was to be repeated many times. The lives of the residents became progressively more miserable and dangerous, with shelters, including one under a theatre, being targeted as well as homes. Some 90 per cent of the buildings are now said to have been destroyed. By late March the mayor was reporting that 5,000 civilians had been killed.

Russian forces have been “two or three days” away from taking the city for the last few weeks. On 20 March the Russian ministry of defence demanded that the city surrender. This was rejected by Mariupol’s mayor and the Ukrainian government. Whatever the potential strategic relevance — Mariupol provides Russia with a land bridge from the Donbas region to Crimea — the duration of the battle means that it has now taken on an extra symbolic significance, for the Ukrainians as a demonstration of their resilience and determination, and for the Russians of their refusal to be beaten when they have already expended so much effort on the target. As with so much in this war, Mariupol has confirmed Ukraine’s dual status as both a suffering victim and a likely victor. Whatever happens to the city now, the Ukrainian defence has held up Russia’s military progress and warned it of the hazards of urban warfare.

It is as a symbol of the victimisation of Ukraine for which Mariupol has attracted the most notice. The suffering of its people was one reason why, on 26 March, President Joe Biden departed from his prepared script for a speech in Warsaw. Having previously called President Vladimir Putin a “thug” and a “war criminal”, now he exclaimed: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” This was soon described in the media as a “gaffe”, not because the sentiment was misplaced but because its expression was undiplomatic. Memories are still fresh of past American drives for “regime change” which had not ended well. So almost immediately the White House explained that this was a statement of moral outrage and not a new policy. Nonetheless, the BBC website carried an article explaining what a blunder this was, crossing a line that had been respected even during the Cold War, jeopardising peace talks, while making Putin even more desperate. President Emmanuel Macron of France was quoted advising that “we should not escalate things — neither with words or actions”. He was at that time embarking on yet another effort to persuade Putin to de-escalate, at least to allow humanitarian relief for Mariupol. This move, unsurprisingly, came to naught.

The Bucha effect

And then on 2 April, as Russian forces left the towns of Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel, all close to Kyiv, journalists came upon horrific scenes of wanton destruction, looting, rape and summary killings, publishing graphic images that will long stick in the mind. We have been warned to expect scenes that are as bad, perhaps even worse, as more towns are liberated from Russian occupation. Moscow’s propaganda machine has had to move into a new gear. It remains dependent on some well-worn and discredited themes, the sort used every time Russia has been caught out behaving badly. It blames the Ukrainians for the murders, suggesting that for some reason they put a lot of effort into killing their own people solely to embarrass the Russians. (As always, Bellingcat does an excellent job debunking such claims). In something of a tribute to the British secret service, elements in the Russian media have alleged that the UK has a particular talent for fabricating massacres and so played a part in concocting the stories.

Strip away the denials and dissembling and an even more sinister theme lurks behind. Russian state media has commentators now explaining that the Ukrainians deserve whatever they get. This is because they are “Nazis”, the legatees of the enemy from the Great Patriotic War. The nonsensical nature of this claim when applied to the current Ukrainian government is evident, yet the Russians are stuck with it because they are not very good at abandoning their propaganda themes. Thus Ukrainians are castigated for being what they are not, for their impertinence in pretending that they are a separate nation with their own identity, and then for resisting Russian aggression when it should have been welcomed as a liberation.

On 4 April Biden noted pointedly, “You may remember I got criticised for calling Putin a war criminal. Well, the truth of the matter, you saw what happened in Bucha. He is a war criminal.” Macron now also accepts that something has changed because of the “very clear signs of war crimes” in Bucha, adding: “We can’t let it slide.” He called for the EU to impose new sanctions. These were agreed by the EU on 5 April, although there was insufficient support for an embargo on oil and gas imports — just coal. At the United Nations the Russian representative cut a lonely and pathetic figure, stuck with his big lie, as President Volodymyr Zelensky showed a grisly video of the murder scenes and questioned the value of the organisation so long as Russia was a member. Countries that had tried not to get too committed against Russia, such as Israel and India, now recognise that war crimes must be investigated.

Yet what precisely has changed? Indifference to human life has been a hallmark of Russian strategy throughout this war. Thousands of civilians have already been killed by missiles, shells and bombs. There has been no shortage of reports of the appalling treatment being meted out by Russian troops. The “Bucha effect” may confirm the phenomenon that after a certain point the casualties of war become statistics, the numbers so large that it is impossible to comprehend their human meaning. What makes the difference are images that are visceral and intimate, so that we can imagine not only the terror of the victims but also the barbarity of the perpetrators. It is one thing to fire into residential areas from a distance, quite another to go into those areas, look helpless people in the eye and then kill them in cold blood.

[See also: Putin’s war aims are in disarray, as the debacle in the Donbas shows]

The effect has also been to bring a moral clarity to all strategic calculations. Having now seen what happens when Russia occupies Ukrainian territory, Western governments know that they cannot push Zelensky to make any territorial concessions simply to bring the war to an end. Of course, the West is in no position to bring regime change to Moscow. Nor can Ukraine. Only the Russians can do that. So all that can be done is to support Ukraine until Russian troops have left, leaving Putin to face the consequences of his catastrophic folly. It may still be too much to expect to recover Crimea, but for Kyiv it is now imperative that all the Donbas, including the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, remain part of Ukraine, by force of arms if not by diplomacy.

This moral clarity is reinforced by the fact that the war has acquired a new military clarity. This is the result of Russia’s decision, announced on 25 March, to make the Donbas its prime military focus. It has been obliged out of military necessity to concentrate on an area where it has the fewest logistical problems and which also provided the Kremlin’s casus belli. Russian forces have now retreated from the northern areas of Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy. This is one reason why we got to find out about the atrocities before they could be covered up. As a result of this retreat, Ukraine now controls the border area with Belarus. There is no longer a danger of Belarusian brigades joining the war. As we pause to take account of the horrors and hardships of this war, thinking of the Ukrainians as victims, we should note that this represents a stunning victory, against what were widely assumed to be hopeless odds.

The next stage

This new stage of the war, however, promises to be much harder for Ukraine. Before considering Kyiv’s strategy we first need to consider Moscow’s options.

Russia’s forces have been badly depleted and so they must make choices about where to concentrate their efforts. Estimates vary about how many battalion tactical groups (BTGs), the main unit with which the Russian army organises its operations, they have left. Of those involved in the first wave of the invasion, often elite units, half, maybe more, have either been damaged beyond repair or can be repaired but are not usable in the near future. The casualties — wounded and captured as well as killed — perhaps represent about 20 per cent of the original force of 190,000.

We know from assiduous work that Russian equipment losses have been heavy. For example, 425 tanks are known to have been destroyed, damaged, abandoned or captured. There are reports that many of the replacement weapons being brought out of storage suffer from the effects of age and corruption, lacking key components and with ordnance that does not work. Aircraft and helicopters have shown themselves to be vulnerable to air defences, and many have been shot down. The inability of Russian airpower to impose itself remains one of the remarkable features of this campaign.

[See also: Ukraine is better prepared than Russia for a long war]

Russian personnel reserves are also not in a good state. Moscow has been casting about for extra bodies — whether Syrian volunteers or the mercenary Wagner group. The Belarusian army is no longer available, while troops from South Ossetia, a breakaway region of Georgia, have decided, when asked to go to Ukraine, to decline the invitation. There is a huge new cohort of conscripts about to join the army. Conscripts have already been used (Putin claimed without his knowledge) but there can only be risks in putting unwilling young men into battle without training.

Of course, even half the original Russian force is still substantial, and it now has fewer and more manageable tasks to accomplish, but its position is not straightforward. Having decided to concentrate their efforts, the Russian high command still have choices to make about priorities. They do not yet appear to have wholly given up on Kharkiv. Meanwhile they have been shelling Mykolaiv, on the southern coast, on the road to the important city of Odessa. For some time, there has been speculation about an encirclement operation that would enable them to trap the considerable, and capable, Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region. But these objectives are easier to accomplish by drawing red arrows on a map than in practice. And they carry risks. Are they prepared to relinquish their gains in Kherson, where Ukrainian troops have been pushing them back? If Ukrainian forces can take back Melitopol, might Russian forces to the south get caught?

Simplifying somewhat, the Russians must work out what offensive operations they wish to complete before they feel that they can then move into a largely defensive stance so that they can hold on to what they have. An analysis from the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) suggests that the most immediate Russian objective will be to take the city of Slovyansk, with a population of 110,000, in Donetsk. There is some irony in this city taking a pivotal role because exactly eight years ago a small force led by Igor Girkin, the subject of my last post, took this city, marking the start of military actions in the Donbas, until he was forced out by Ukrainian forces.

Evidence of this intention can be found in a rare Russian military success at the start of April when they took Izyum (southeast of Kharkiv), inflicting heavy losses on the Ukrainian defenders, and they have now advanced beyond that. According to the ISW they “have conducted active preparations to resume offensive operations for the past three days — stockpiling supplies, refitting damaged units, repairing the damaged bridge in Izyum, and conducting reconnaissance in force missions toward the southeast. Russian forces will likely begin offensive operations towards Slovyansk, 50km southeast of Izyum, in the coming days.”

Taking Slovyansk would be a first step to a more ambitious objective of cutting off Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine, but to encircle the Ukrainian forces they will still need to meet up with Russian forces advancing from the south. Slovyansk is preparing for the battle, and many of its civilians have been evacuated. As the ISW notes: “If Russian forces are unable to take Slovyansk at all, Russian frontal assaults in Donbas are unlikely to independently break through Ukrainian defences and Russia’s campaign to capture the entirety of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts will likely fail.”

If this analysis is correct, this new stage of the war could be critical. Another Ukrainian victory will not push the Russians out of Ukraine but will make their position more difficult for the stage after that. Ukrainian losses have also been significant, both in personnel and equipment, although with the country now mobilised for war, they are not short of committed and reasonably well trained soldiers. Their problem is with equipment. Their successes up to this point have largely been with judicious use of portable, light equipment, including drones, anti-tank weapons and air defence systems. They have a shopping list that has been discussed with Western donors to fill some of their gaps. This means keeping up supplies of the equipment they already use, but also providing the extra armour, aircraft and artillery to raise their game for the coming operations. Here there has to be balance between taking in aged kit from the former Soviet Union, which could be put to use quickly, and getting more modern kit, which may require more training. 

Yet even if Russia does acquire the territory it seeks in the Donbas and prepares for a climactic defensive battle, there still remains the perplexing question about the nature of Putin’s endgame. From the start, the most baffling aspect of this war has been the incoherence of Russian strategy. The gap between stated aims and available capabilities was wide enough when it began but it has now widened even further, especially after defeat in the war’s first round.

Putin no doubt wishes to avoid being seen as a loser. It is possible that the ideas developed by the Ukrainian government for it to abandon Nato and rely instead on security guarantees might provide some consolation, but it would not be much. He is left with the worst of both worlds. He is seen as a bully but not a winner, and his battering of the very territories he claimed to care about most has reduced their attraction. Putin is not really a “hearts and minds” man, and now has no hope of incorporating the Donbas into Russia with minimal fuss. For all his talk about historically close bonds, his approach has been brotherly only in the sense of Cain and Abel. Taking over the Donbas now would mean oppressing a hostile population, reconstructing shattered towns and cities, and guarding against future Ukrainian military action.

Maybe he will soon lose interest in a land grab but satisfy himself with a de-industrialised and impoverished Ukraine, its people traumatised and its infrastructure broken. There are suggestions from American intelligence, who seem to have some good sources, that Putin has set a target for Russian forces to get the whole operation concluded in time for 9 May, the anniversary of the conclusion of the Second World War, normally marked by a big parade in Moscow. There is another round of intense military action to come but if that fails as badly as that of the first round, then perhaps he can do no more than look at the mess his forces have made of Ukraine by 9 May and call it a day.

[See also: Bucha shows that remembrance without resolve is empty]

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