Mon. Nov 28th, 2022
Ukrainian flag in blue and yellow, wrapped over sky and grain

Today’s update: Mariupol, Kyiv.

Reuters reports that Ukraine will make a new attempt to deliver supplies to civilians trapped in the encircled city of Mariupol on Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said. She made her announcement as Vitaliy Koval, the governor of the northern region of Rivne, said the death toll from a Russian air strike on a television tower in his region on Monday had risen to at least 19.

Moscow on Monday allowed the first convoy of civilians to escape Mariupol, but a senior presidential aide said Russia had again blocked a humanitarian aid convoy trying to reach the city with supplies. Obtaining safe passage for aid to reach Mariupol and for civilians to leave has been Kyiv’s main demand at several rounds of talks. Previous attempts at a local ceasefire in the area have failed.

Vereshchuk said a convoy with humanitarian supplies would head for Mariupol on Tuesday and that on the way back it would pick up women and children. Civilians have been trapped in the southern port city by Russian shelling for more than two weeks and have been without heating, electricity and running water for most of this time, the Ukrainian authorities say.

A convoy of at least 160 cars left the city on Monday, local officials said, but many more residents remain in Mariupol. Russia says it does not target civilians. More than 2,500 residents have been killed in Mariupol since the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, a Ukrainian official said on Monday.

Ukraine hoped altogether to open nine “humanitarian corridors” on Tuesday, Vereshchuk said. The regional governor of Sumy in eastern Ukraine Sumy governor said the evacuation of civilians was again under way in his region.

More explosions have been heard in Kyiv on Tuesday morning as Russian bombardment continues. An apartment bulding was reportedly hit and set on fire, according to the state emergency service. The fire was put out and one person has been hospitalised. CNN staff on the ground there report constant bombardment.

What about talks?

They resume today. The Guardian reports that one of Zelensky’s spokesmen said that the war in Ukraine was at a crossroads that could lead to an agreement at talks with Russia or a new Russian offensive.

“Either we will agree at the current talks or the Russians will make a second attempt [at an offensive] and then there will be talks again,” Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff said. Citing a video published by several Ukrainian media outlets, Reuters also reports Arestovich as saying, “I think that no later than in May, early May, we should have a peace agreement, maybe much earlier, we will see, I am talking about the latest possible dates. We are at a fork in the road now: there will either be a peace deal struck very quickly, within a week or two, with troop withdrawal and everything, or there will be an attempt to scrape together some, say, Syrians for a round two and, when we grind them too, an agreement by mid-April or late April.”

Apart from fighting for his country, Zelensky is doing his best to demoralise Russian troops A report from Ukraine media covers a speech he made recently, appealing to Russian soldiers to desert: a transcript follows, provided by Zoya Sheftalovich, Ukrainian born editor of the Brussels and London Playbooks, and contributing editor @POLITICOeurope. She reports:

“A very strong speech from Zelensky. First, he addresses the “free people of a free Ukraine,” in Ukrainian. Says it has been another difficult day, but adds that we are “approaching peace for Ukraine.”

He says Russian soldiers and officers know they can’t win. “They flee the battlefield, abandon their equipment. We take the trophies and use them to protect Ukraine.” Says Russia is now “one of the suppliers of equipment for our army.”

Zelensky now switches to Russian, and addresses Russian soldiers, “those who have already entered our land, and those who are preparing to be sent to fight us. Russian conscripts, listen to me especially carefully. Russian officers, you already understood everything.”

“From Ukraine, you will take nothing. You will take lives; there are so many of you. But your life will also be taken. What do you need to die for? … I know you want to live.”

“We hear in your intercepted phone calls what you really think about this war, about this shame, and about your state. Your conversations with one another, your calls back home – we hear everything. We draw conclusions. We know who you are,” Zelensky says.

“So I am giving you a choice. A chance, on behalf of Ukrainians. A chance to live. If you surrender to our forces, we will treat you the way people ought to be treated … The way you were not treated in your army. The way your army doesn’t treat ours. Make your choice.”

Switches to Ukrainian, gives update on captured/destroyed equipment. Switches back to Russian. “I am grateful for those Russians who aren’t stopping to tell the truth. Those who are fighting disinformation and are telling the truth,” Zelensky says.

Grateful to Russians who are “telling the real facts to their friends, close ones, loved ones. And personally to the lady who walked into the studio of Channel 1 with a poster against the war. Those who aren’t afraid to protest.”

He is referring to Marina Ovsyannikova, an editor working for Russia’s state-run Channel One, who ran onto set live on air, held up poster that said “Don’t believe the propaganda. They’re lying to you here” and shouted: “Stop the war. No to war.”

The presenter at the Russian state television was speaking about Belarus-Russia collaboration, when a woman just ran onto the stage with a sign that said, “Stop the war! Don’t believe propaganda! They’re lying to you here!”

(A link to that event is below)

Zelensky continues in Russian, speaking to Russians: “For now, your country has not yet fully closed off from the rest of the world and turned into a very large North Korea. You must fight. You must not lose your chance.”

He switches to Ukrainian. Talks about EU’s 4th sanctions package, “the fourth and I’m sure not the last” and says everyone who is responsible for helping Russia’s war will be hit. “The whole world sees what is happening” in Ukraine.

Zelensky says he has spoken with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, President of Poland Duda, PM of Luxembourg Bettel.

Now this is crucial bit. Zelensky says: “The conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Bennett is also important. As part of a negotiation effort to end this war as soon as possible. With a fair peace.”

[Bennett has been speaking with both sides, and there has been criticism of Israel for not doing more to help Ukraine. This is a nod to that – Zelensky is signalling that Bennett has been working behind the scenes on peace talks – but also that any peace deal must be fair.]

Zelensky continues. Says his negotiating team has told him peace talks with Russia have been going “pretty well,” but he shrugs and sounds skeptical. Adds: “But let’s see. They continue tomorrow.”

Then gives update on new rules to help SMEs and businesses with tax reforms. For small business, says there’s a voluntary tax. “Whoever can, pay. If you can’t, no questions asked.” Finally, speaks about medals and awards for Ukrainian troops, including 59 posthumously.”

A link to the actual speech is here.

Here is the link to the video of the Russian protester. I hope she is safe. There is a huge informational generation gap developing in Russia, with the older generations who take their information from the television accepting the Kremlin’s point of view, and the younger generations who are more social media savvy understanding what the true situation is. This has to have been a brave attempt to reach that older generation.

Is Zelensky correct about how the war is going?

Reuters had an interesting piece yesterday:

“One of President Vladimir Putin’s closest allies said that Russia’s military operation in Ukraine had not all gone as quickly as the Kremlin had wanted, the strongest acknowledgement yet from Moscow that its invasion is not going to plan. Viktor Zolotov, chief of Russia’s national guard and a member of Putin’s security council, said progress had been slower than expected, blaming what he called far-right Ukrainian forces hiding behind civilians.

“I would like to say that yes, not everything is going as fast as we would like,” Zolotov said in comments posted on the National Guard’s website. “But we are going towards our goal step by step and victory will be for us.”

The United States and its European allies have cast Putin’s invasion as an imperial-style land grab that has so far been poorly executed because Moscow underestimated Ukrainian resistance.

Ukraine, which says it is fighting for its survival, denies Russian claims that its forces have used civilians as shields in battle and has accused Moscow of war crimes for killing civilians.

Zolotov has been at Putin’s side since before the turn of the century, running the Kremlin leader’s personal security for 13 years. Since 2016 he has headed up the National Guard force, which reports directly to Putin and has deployed troops in Ukraine. His comments, made at a church service led by Orthodox Patriarch Kirill on Sunday, deviated from those of the Kremlin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu who say Russia’s operation in Ukraine will be completed on time and in full.

The Kremlin said on Monday that the operation was going to plan, but that its army might change tack and look to seize full control of major cities. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia had been careful not to target civilians.

Peskov said claims by the United States and European Union that Putin was somehow disappointed with the progress of what the Kremlin casts as a special military operation amounted to a provocation aimed at prompting Russia to storm cities.

“All the plans of the Russian leadership will be achieved on time and in full,” Peskov said of Ukraine.

Zolotov is a veteran Kremlin insider who provided KGB security for communist leaders in the Soviet Union and was photographed atop a tank outside the Russian White House during the Soviet breakup as Boris Yeltsin faced down a hardline coup in 1991. He headed the presidential security service from 2000 to 2013, according to a biography from TASS. The National Guard is a kind of internal military force that includes the OMON riot police and other units.

At a Russian security council meeting three days before the invasion, Zolotov was the most frank of all members when asked to give his opinion on what Russia should do. He recommended Putin recognise two Russian-backed rebel regions of Ukraine but added a further piece of advice.

“We should go further to defend our country,” Zolotov said. It was the last word of the meeting.”

And a military point of view on the past, present and future of the Russian war against Ukraine. Major General Mick Ryan AM served as a member of the Australian Defence Force for more than 35 years. He held a range of roles from operational to command, and contributed to planning and strategic reviews of the defence force, as well as writing the Army’s contributions to the Defence White Paper and Force Structure Review. He was most recently commander of the Australia Defence College. This is his most recent (tweeted) analysis.

“Day 19 of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Today I examine the implications of Russian personnel commitments and losses, and what this now means for their campaign. Almost a week ago, I explored the Russian campaign, and how it had already absorbed 100% of allocated forces. It is worth revisiting this issue, as we have seen the Russian forces adapt to this reality over the past week.

Russia committed around 55% of their total regular ground forces to their invasion of Ukraine. It was tactical risk. While there are forces still in Russia for reinforcements, they are either on other missions, in training, or of a lower quality (esp their reserves). It is also a strategic risk. Russia has deployed a large proportion of its ground combat power on a single mission that it hoped would be over quickly. This was not a calculated risk by the Russians; it was a gamble. There is a big difference between the two in military ops.

Plan A was the ‘fast, cheap and easy’ campaign plan. Use light and airborne forces to seize Kyiv and other key points, capture government leaders and force a political accommodation from Ukraine. Within 48 hours, combat losses indicated to Russian commanders this had failed.

Therefore they needed a Plan B without a massive additional injection of forces. If the Russians had been clever as many thought, they would have war-gamed worst case scenarios during the build-up phase of this invasion. They clearly did not war-game – or not rigorously enough if they did. But then again, these are the same folks who have talked up concepts like ‘strategies of limited action’.

So, the Russian campaign Plan B after day 2 of the war has been ‘creeping, multi-axis attrition’. It features lots more firepower, as well as destruction of smaller cities to set an example for Kyiv. Plan B also appeared to hope the Russian Air Force eventually turns up. The latest Pentagon background brief notes Russian forces are now at about 90% strength of the original forces that invaded the country. This is optimistic. Even in most benign circumstances, losses to minor medical conditions, psych issues, etc. eat away at forces.

Plan B has not worked out either. They have slowly gained ground, but at massive cost in personnel & equipment. At the same time, rear area security has suffered. This is obviously a trade off by the Russians so they can push forward as much combat power as possible. But rear area security is a significant mission, and normally absorbs thousands of troops (infantry, air defence, cavalry, engineers, etc). Because the Russians have incompetently executed this mission, there have been constant ambushes against logistics convoys.

Summing up, Russia has not achieved its key military objectives in the north, east or south. It is conducting concurrent offensives in different, disconnected parts of Ukraine. It has committed all the military forces it had for Ukraine on these missions.

The Russian campaign, if it has not already, is about to culminate. US doctrine defines this as (for offense) “the point at which continuing the attack is no longer possible and the force must consider reverting to a defensive posture or attempting an operational pause.” So, the Russian high command has had to go back to drawing board (again) with their campaign design. As I noted in an earlier thread, it is through campaign design that commanders and their staffs’ sequence and orchestrate tactical goals and actions.

Now we see the beginnings of Russia’s ‘Plan C’ campaign in Ukraine. It is an even more ad hoc & brutal plan that their two previous attempts. This demonstrates Putin’s frustration, the desperation of Russian military leaders & weakness in the Russian military position.

Plan C might be described as: hold current gains, long range firepower on cities, foreign fighters as cannon fodder, destroy as much infrastructure and manufacturing capacity as possible, expand the war to the west to deter foreign volunteers & aid providers.

This will permit the Russians to economise in personnel, trickle in replacements (and foreign mercenaries), while expending large amounts of cheap artillery and rockets in the hope they can terrorise Ukrainian civilians to force a political accommodation.

Two final issues. First, the number of personnel committed demonstrates that the Russians miscalculated & under resourced the war. Best case planning rarely works. Russia is also now probably suffering from the ‘sunk cost’ fallacy over its Ukraine operations. As we have seen in other wars however, countries adapt to wartime crises & survive longer than logic dictates. Under Putin’s leadership, the Russian’s are likely to do this. And the Ukrainians will keep fighting conventionally or in an insurgency. It will be a long war.

This in turn, leads to the second issue. There may be a requirement for a military intervention if the west doesn’t want a forever war on the doorstep of Europe. The US and NATO may have to start making some hard military choices that they have been delaying. Provision of lethal aid is low cost in money and personnel. But to end this war, something more may be needed. Estimates (not fear) of Russian escalation should inform decisions, but not defer them. Russian operations have been compromised by the size of their forces committed, and force attrition. This now has strategic consequences as their campaign culminates, and adapts to be firepower-centric, resulting in mass destruction and deaths of Ukrainian civilians.”

This is a thorough and sobering analysis, backed up by what I have read elsewhere. Unfortunately for the analysis, a new player appears to have entered the game. The Guardian reports that:

“China has already decided to provide Russia with economic and financial support during its war on Ukraine and is contemplating sending military supplies such as armed drones, US officials fear.

The US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, laid out the US case against Russia’s invasion in an “intense” seven-hour meeting in Rome with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, pointing out that Moscow had feigned interest in diplomacy while preparing for invasion, and also that the Russian military was clearly showing signs of frailty.

The US delegation in Rome had not expected the Chinese diplomats to negotiate, seeing them as message deliverers to Beijing.

“It was an intense seven-hour session, reflecting the gravity of the moment, as well as our commitment to maintaining open lines of communication,” a senior administration official said. “This meeting was not about negotiating specific issues or outcomes, but about a candid, direct exchange of views.”

Asked if it had been successful, the official replied: “I suppose it depends on how you define success, but we believe that it is important to keep open lines of communication between the United States and China, especially on areas where we disagree.”

However, the Americans walked away from the Rome meeting pessimistic that the Chinese government would change its minds about backing Moscow.

“The key here is first to get China to recalculate and re-evaluate their position. We see no sign of that re-evaluation,” said another US official familiar with the discussions. “They’ve already decided that they’re going to provide economic and financial support, and they underscored that today. The question really is whether they will go further.”

Top of the Russian military shopping list in China are armed drones and various forms of ammunition, but any military transfers would not be straightforward.

“Both sides understand that they don’t share common systems, and so that makes it problematic,” the official said. CNN reported that the Russian military is also asking for ration packs, underlining its severe logistical problems in a more prolonged and tougher conflict than it anticipated.

Russia needs economic and financial aid most urgently, in the face of devastating sanctions imposed by the US and its allies since the 24 February invasion. The country is danger of default on its debt payments, with two interest payments due on Wednesday, though it will have a 30-day grace period.

Moscow is unable to access nearly all of its $640bn in gold and foreign exchange reserves, but still holds part of those reserves in yuan, so Beijing will be able to step in to provide immediate assistance.

There is pessimism in Washington about the possibility of steering China away from throwing in its lot with Russia, largely because it sees the partnership as being driven from the top.

“It really is a project of Xi Jinping. He is totally, fundamentally behind this closer partnership with Russia,” the US official said. There is more scepticism lower down the ranks, but Xi and Putin have bonded over their shared view of the US as being heavy- and high-handed, and determined to end the period of US global dominance.

If China does back Russia in its showdown with the west, the Biden administration will shift its focus to persuading allies, in Europe particularly, to rethink their relationships with Beijing. Sullivan is due in Paris on Tuesday for discussions with the French government.

“The United States believes that the key here is a careful process of dialogue and discussion with Europe about what China is revealing about its global policies and priorities,” the US official said. “Our goal basically is to carefully engage China, letting the Europeans know [what we are doing] all along, but if it becomes clear that [China] is moving in another direction, so be it.”

It would be difficult to persuade the West to do without Chinese materials and goods. Sanctioning China – if that is a step that the US and the Eu were prepared to contemplate – would be a massive step with a major knock-on effect on the global economy. Disengaging from our reliance on both China and Russia would force a ground-level upwards rethink of our global supply chains.

Solidarity from the EU and the US

Meanwhile, Agence France Press covers a tweet by Petr Fiala, the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, who said that the leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia are travelling to Kyiv to meet Zelenskiy on a European Union mission to show support for Ukraine as Russia’s invasion intensifies. Fiala said in his message that “The aim of the visit is to express the European Union’s unequivocal support for Ukraine and its freedom and independence.” He will be joined by Prime Minister Janez Jansa of Slovenia, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who is the deputy Polish prime minister for security but also the conservative ruling party leader, Reuters also reported.

One has to hope that the negotiations will actually get somewhere. It is clear that Russia miscalculated. The question is whether anyone can persuade or strong-arm Putin into backtracking, and whether, if he does, a face-saving arrangement can be put into place to appease Russia. (It shouldn’t have to be, of course, but sometimes pragmatism is necessary.)

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