The situation on the ground
Ukrainian forces are preparing for new Russian attacks in the east of the country as Moscow deploys more troops there after suffering setbacks near the capital Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Thursday. Tough resistance by Ukrainian forces has prevented Russia from capturing any major city, including Kyiv, where a Russian armed column was held back for weeks. Meanwhile, British military intelligence reports shelling, missile strikes around Chernihiv and heavy fighting in Mariupol, where Ukrainian forces control the city centre. Heavy fighting is expected in Kyiv suburbs in coming days, despite Russia’s claims that it has withdrawn.
In an early morning video address, Zelenskiy referred to Russian troop movements away from Kyiv and Chernihiv and said that was not a withdrawal but rather “the consequence of our defenders’ work.” Zelenskiy added that Ukraine is seeing “a build-up of Russian forces for new strikes on the Donbas and we are preparing for that.”
Russia reframes its narrative
Russia says its forces are regrouping to focus on “liberating” the breakaway eastern Donbas region. The Russian defence ministry said on Wednesday its forces were regrouping near Ukraine’s capital Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv to focus on other key areas and complete the “liberation” of the breakaway eastern Donbas region. The ministry’s statement, part of a reframing of Moscow’s stated objectives in recent days, came a day after Russia said it would scale back operations near Kyiv and Chernihiv to support progress in peace talks.
Ukraine and the West have both reacted with suspicion to that announcement, suspecting a ploy by Moscow in response to the heavy losses of men and equipment it has suffered over five weeks of war in which Ukraine has mounted fierce and effective resistance. (Russian attacks in both locations continued on Wednesday, according to Reuters reporters near Kyiv and the mayor of Chernihiv.)
Going further than previous statements, the defence ministry said on the 35th day of the war that Russia had accomplished “all” the goals of the first phase of what it describes as its special military operation in Ukraine.
It said these were to tie up enemy forces and equipment in defence of major population centres like Kyiv, but without storming those cities, and to hit Ukrainian forces so hard that they could not be deployed in the Donbas region, which Russia now says is the main focus of its offensive.
“Thus, all the main tasks of the Russian Armed Forces in the Kiev and Chernihiv directions have been completed. The purpose of the regrouping of the Russian Armed Forces is to intensify actions in priority areas and, above all, to complete the operation to completely liberate Donbas,” the ministry said.
The grapes, one feels, are definitely sour. There is reported to be considerable tension now between Putin and the defence ministry, which has, US intelligence sources believe, been lying to him because it’s afraid to tell him the truth, according to new briefings today:
The head of Britain’s GCHQ spy service said new intelligence showed some Russian soldiers had refused to carry out orders, sabotaged their own equipment and accidentally shot down one of their own aircraft.
Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) chief Jeremy Fleming said President Vladimir Putin had “massively misjudged” the capabilities of Russia’s once mighty armed forces while underestimating both the resistance of the Ukrainian people and the resolve of the West, which has punished Moscow with largely coordinated sanctions.
“Putin has massively misjudged the situation,” Fleming said in a speech in Canberra at the Australian National University, according to a transcript of his remarks. “We believe Putin’s advisers are afraid to tell him the truth.” Citing new intelligence, Fleming said there was evidence that Russian soldiers had low morale and were poorly equipped. “We’ve seen Russian soldiers – short of weapons and morale – refusing to carry out orders, sabotaging their own equipment and even accidentally shooting down their own aircraft,” Fleming said.
GCHQ, which gathers communications from around the world to identify and disrupt threats to Britain – it’s a pity it can’t seem to do anything about the Tories, however – has a close relationship with the U.S. National Security Agency and with the eavesdropping agencies of Australia, Canada and New Zealand in a consortium called “Five Eyes”.
Russia and Ukraine will resume their peace talks online on April 1, a senior Ukrainian official said on Wednesday after the latest round of negotiations had ended in Turkey. Ukrainian negotiator David Arakhamia said in an online post that Ukraine had proposed the countries’ two leaders should meet, but Russia responded by saying more work needed to be done on a draft treaty.
Ukraine and the West say Russia, which launched its invasion on Feb. 24 with the aim of demilitarising the country, according to President Vladimir Putin, has been forced to outline more modest goals after getting heavily bogged down and failing to take Kyiv and other major cities. Moscow now denies that was ever the objective. The Donbas region includes two self-proclaimed Russian-backed “people’s republics” and Moscow says it is helping to “liberate” these from Ukrainian forces.
The leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, said on Wednesday that offensive operations were intensifying.
“We are well aware that the longer it takes us to liberate our territory, those settlements that are now under control of Ukraine, the more victims and destruction there will be,” he said.
The United States is considering a massive release of oil reserves to counter rising oil prices which are fuelling inflationary fears around the world. The International Energy Agency (IAE) will hold an emergency meeting on Friday.
Meanwhile, fears of a Russian gas supply crunch prompted some European countries on Wednesday to ask people to consume less energy in a move that could potentially yield big results. Despite months of soaring energy prices and tight supplies most governments have avoided taking a step they fear could be unpopular but with concerns growing that Russia could turn off the taps, the message in some capitals is starting to shift.
“Every kilowatt-hour counts,” German Economy Minister Robert Habeck said on Wednesday as Germany declared an “early warning” of a possible gas supply emergency. read more
The International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris agrees that when done on a large scale, small behavioural changes can significantly reduce gas and oil demand. It estimates that turning down thermostats in buildings across the European Union by 2 Celsius would save 20 billion cubic metres of gas, worth about $28 billion at current prices.
That’s also about 13% of the 155 billion cubic metres the 27-nation bloc buys each year from Russia, which is in turn about 40% of the EU’s total gas consumption.
The Dutch government followed Germany on Wednesday saying it would launch a campaign this weekend asking citizens and businesses to use less gas while France’s regulator asked citizens to collectively try to reduce their consumption. Simone Tagliapietra, senior fellow at think-tank Bruegel, said governments should have urged citizens to curb energy use months ago to help manage the supply crunch but politicians resisted because such a message “smells of austerity”.
“Each billion cubic metre of gas we don’t consume, it’s important. That gas is very expensive, and we need now to start filling up the storage ahead of next winter,” he said.
Rather than calling on consumers to cut their energy use, governments have so far mostly been looking for ways to cap utility bills and find alternative sources of fuel. Sweden, France, Italy, Germany and Britain also announced measures to make petrol cheaper this month after crude hit its highest price since 2008, drawing criticism from campaigners who say the measures are fossil fuel subsidies.
But since Russia invaded Ukraine last month, Brussels has declared a mission to cut the EU’s Russian gas imports by two-thirds this year and to end the use of Russian gas by 2027. Cutting demand could reduce the impact of any supply crunch if Russia were to cut exports, which has become more of a worry since Moscow said last week that countries should start paying for gas in roubles.
A detailed EU plan to wean itself off Russian fossil fuels is due in May, but a blueprint published this month showed Brussels would boost non-Russian gas imports, expand renewable energy faster, swap millions of gas boilers for heat pumps and renovate buildings to use less energy.Those solutions will take time, however, and the European Commission has already suggested that consumers could help dent demand immediately.
“Your choices in how much energy you consume co-decide how strong we are in our reaction to Russia,” EU climate policy chief Frans Timmermans said.
Temporarily cutting demand would also help countries build up gas storage for next winter and provide a stop-gap while governments secure lasting options to replace Russian fuel – such as building wind and solar farms, renovating buildings, or securing more non-Russian gas.
“There are tracks for immediate energy savings measures that remain unexplored,” said Adeline Rochet, policy expert at climate think-tank E3G.
If they stick, energy-saving habits such as turning off lights and appliances or using less air conditioning where convenient, could also help bring down carbon dioxide emissions.
Christina Demski, an expert on consumer energy behaviour at Cardiff University’s School of Psychology, said soaring energy bills and a desire to show solidarity with Ukraine may mean Europeans are receptive to such messages.
“People are more likely to make a behavioural change if you are asking to do something that reflects their values,” she said, adding that requests to change behaviour should not target vulnerable households who lack the flexibility to adapt their consumption, or who are already struggling with bills.
Only a few countries have broached the idea of ways to reduce oil consumption, despite the fact Russia, which calls its action in Ukraine a special military operation, providing 27% of the EU’s oil imports.
Denmark is looking at a proposal to temporarily reduce highway speed limits. Ireland’s transport minister Eamon Ryan, who also the environment portfolio, suggested driving slower could save fuel when announcing a cut in petrol duty this month.
The IEA last week published options it said could lower oil demand in advanced economies by 2.7 million barrels per day (bpd) within four months, equivalent to the combined demand of every car in China. Most options would require consumers to change their behaviour.
Lowering speed limits by 10 km per hour in advanced economies could save 290,000 bpd from cars and 140,000 bpd from trucks. Working from home three days a week would cut 500,000 bpd while fuel-saving practices such as car-sharing could save 470,000 bpd, the IEA said.
Some governments are resistant. Britain, which is no longer an EU member, rejected the IEA’s ideas. The country plans to replace the 8% of oil imports it gets from Russia with alternative supplies this year.
“There is absolutely no need to apply this guidance in the UK,” a government spokesperson said.
Of course there isn’t, if you’re the Uk government. The more energy we use, the more profit goes into the shareholders pockets, and most of them voted this government into existence and prop it up with loans and donations. In the UK “austerity” is about making people at the bottom of the pile even more miserable than they already are: it’s not about us making ourselves more self-reliant and less dependent on the whims of our Tory masters.
Mind you, they might have shot themselves in the foot on that one. Most of us are having to choose between heating and eating. We’re not turning down thermostats and reducing consumption to aid the climate or the domestic gas situation, we’re doing it because we’re too skint to do anything else – and, thanks to everyone who voted Tory in the last election, there is no help on the horizon.