May 29, 2022
I did not write any updates for a few days because, like everyone else, I am in a holding pattern — waiting to see when the Russians will call it quits on the Easter Offensive, and whether they will achieve any of the much-reduced goals of the invasion. There have been very few notable developments there, and all of them are, for now, tactical and mixed.
Going clockwise from Kharkiv: Zelenskyy visited the frontline yesterday to see the destruction in that city first-hand and to lift the spirits of the defenders. The city is attempting to go back to some semblance of normal life but some of its suburbs are still within reach of the Russians, and they are launching sporadic attacks, killing dozens. The Ukrainian attempt to push them back into Russia has been unsuccessful, not least because the Russians must absolutely preserve their control of Vovchansk. In other words, no changes on this front.
South of Izyum, the Russians have yet to launch another offensive toward Slovyansk. The RFA seems to have taken most or all of Lyman, giving them a place to regroup, but the attack on Slovyansk from there would be extremely difficult. They would have to cross the river Severskyi Donets — yes, the same one that’s become a symbol of their gross incompetence — and the geography there is terrible for the Russians. The river bulges eastward, so any forces that cross it could be attacked from three sides and get pinned by the river itself. A Russian offensive in this precise spot during WWII ended in disaster when the Germans trapped them in the pocket and destroyed them. If anything, the Russian command has probably studied this battle and would not repeat the same mistake. But, then again, they are the ones that tried to cross Severskyi Donets before, so who knows.
The situation in the Severodonetsk salient remains critical. The RFA and allied forces (from the “people’s republics” and Kadyrov’s troops) has penetrated into the northern suburbs where they seem to have established themselves in some hotel, incongruously named “Мир” (Peace). The city is still assaulted from three sides, but so far the Ukrainians have not decided to withdraw to the more easily defensible heights of Lysychansk. The Ukrainian high command seems to believe that the Russians will not be able to complete the encirclement, and are therefore determined to stage an extremely costly battle in the city itself. There is reason for their optimism because the Russian advance from Popasna — so menacing just a few days ago — has been mostly contained. The RFA took temporary control of a section of the highway to Bakhmut, but the Ukrainians dislodged them and the road currently remains open albeit very dangerous. The Ukrainians actually managed to score some surprising victories there (taking Komyshuvakha), pushing the stunned Russians back a few kilometers before being stopped themselves. They used the time wisely to rush convoys with supplies to Lysychansk. All in all, I am starting to hope that the Russian offensive will run out of steam before they manage to occupy all of Luhansk region.
The Russian attempt to strike toward Zaporizhzhia has been beaten back and they do not seem to have the forces necessary to achieve a breakthrough there. The Ukrainians had quite a bit of time to fortify, and it is very costly to dislodge them. Thus far, the Russian are continuing to shell the Ukrainian positions, but the situation there is stable.
In occupied Melitopol, the Ukrainians staged a demonstration against the Russians. In occupied Mariupol, the Russians have stolen all metal that had been prepared for delivery under contracts. It is not just the Russian soldiers who are thieving and marauding, it is the entire state that’s openly criminal now. They forced the farmers in Kherson to sell their grain at ridiculously low prices or face confiscations, and they are still trying to sell that grain to anyone that would buy. (More on their grain blackmail below.)
Speaking of Kherson, the local collaborationist government announced that the incorporation into the Russian Federation cannot occur before the fall. Apparently, there are still too many Ukrainians who are sabotaging the effort and they need to hunt them down. This delay may or may not be related to the recent Ukrainian military success: they launched a counter-attack on the border of Kherson and Mykolaiv regions. The information is conflicting: the Russians claim that Ukrainians attempted to ford Inhulets River at Andriivka, Lozove, and Bilohirka but were repulsed. The Ukrainians, however, said that they were able to force the Russians into subpar defensive positions there. The current information I have is that the Ukrainians did manage to cross and are now South of the river. This attack has therefore split the Russian forces between Kherson and Kryvyi Rih in two, which will make it very difficult to organize defense of Kherson later on. Moreover, this crossing puts the Ukrainians in a position to attempt to take control of the road from Davydiv Brid to Nova Kakhovka, where the second of only two bridges over the Dnipro River in the region is located (the other is in Kherson). The road is through flat steppe and so hard to defend. If the Ukrainians somehow manage to take control of that bridge, the Russians will find it impossible to reinforce units stranded north of the river. I have no idea if that is what Ukrainians are planning or, indeed, if they are capable of doing this. But the possibility will make the Russians nervous and they will have to commit forces to prevent it from happening.
Further South, in Odessa, no changes either. In fact, the formidable residents of that city braved mines and missiles to go to the beach. The Harpoon missiles from Denmark will make landing an extremely dicey proposition, which means that the Russian dreams of conquering Odessa are probably now on ice.
Consistent with that, the Russians seem to have abandoned the idea of reinforcing their units in Transnistria to open a second front there. It was far-fetched already, as I have repeatedly noted, but everything seems to have quieted down there. In fact, the government of Moldova just arrested the pro-Russian former President (who basically owns a good chunk of the country, like a true medieval baron). The charges are corruption, so let’s see if they make them stick and whether this is the first salvo in a fight to get Moldova out of the Russian shadow.
The frantic movement of Belarusian troops seems to have stopped, and there is no concentration of forces that are capable of launching a new attack on Kyiv there. While the movement of missile launchers Iskander is cause for concern, this is more for harassment than any invasion. This is notable, for several reasons.
Yesterday, the Kremlin leaked information that Putin still wants to conquer Kyiv, and that a new northern offensive will come. I thought that this was just propaganda, a rumor designed to scare Westerners away from supporting Ukraine by portraying the war as inevitably much longer than currently anticipated (some analysts predict it would end before the end of the year) and that Ukraine would still lose. In keeping with this, former President of Ukraine Yanukovych — I was sort of surprised to realize he’s still around — released a multi-page open letter claiming that Ukraine will be defeated, that the country will disappear (gobbled up by Poland, apparently), that nobody can make peace with Russia by force of arms, and that Kyiv must agree to concessions. Basically, the same nonsense that Kissinger peddled at Davos earlier, but in English. Since the Russians have yet to invent imaginary magic unicorn forces, any notion that they are going to conquer Kyiv with what they currently have is absurd.
I have another reason to mention this letter. Earlier, I had noted that right before the war, Yanukovych had filed lawsuits to have the courts declare his deposition in 2014 illegal. I speculated that there was some conspiracy involving judges to do precisely this when the anticipated fall of the Kyiv regime was realized within a day or two of the invasion. Well, it looks it was a good guess: the government of Ukraine has issued an international warrant for Constitutional Court judge Oleksandr Tupitsky — who fled Ukraine after the war began — for precisely this scheme. Putin’s original plans are coming into better focus now.
The Belarusian situation is also interesting because of odd maneuvers by Lukashenko. He proposed the formation of a new Southern Command to deal with threats along the border with Ukraine, and the Belarusians have taken their heavy machinery out of storage for “testing.” Both can be read as preparation for direct involvement in the war. (The second, on the other hand, could also be that they are going to transfer these weapons to the Russians since the Belarusian army is too small to use them all by itself.) On the other hand, he gave a televised talk with his military commanders, where he argued that while Belarus was going to modernize the army along the Russian model, the lessons from Ukraine told him that they no longer wanted to do it. It would be too expensive and would not work for “their situation”. Essentially, he acknowledged openly that the Ukrainians are besting the Russians, and that the Belarusian army is no match for the Ukrainian. Whether this means that Lukashenko — again — stabbed Putin in the back, remains to be seen.
The Russians are clearly in trouble in terms of manpower. The government ruled out mobilization, and there are signs that there would be serious resistance if it tried it. So they are continuing with hidden mobilization. They pushed the upper age limit for both domestic and foreign contracts to 50 years (it was 40 for domestic and 30 for foreigners), keeping the minimum age at 18 (for now). This, however, is not going to help them except for providing more canon fodder. The Russians are suffering from serious lack of trained personnel, especially pilots. The Ukrainians have basically neutralized all their veterans from Syria, and most of the experienced Russian pilots already. They recently downed two planes that turned out to have been flown by reservists over 60 years old, which is a telling sign that the Russians are increasingly desperate to make up the losses there. Pilots are very hard to replace, and this shortage is indicative that the Ukrainian claims about how many Russian planes they have taken out are probably close to reality.
There are problems in “Donetsk People’s Republic”, where the Russians have apparently mobilized — sometimes impressed — essentially all men of military age. Locals are now calling it the Donetsk Women’s Republic since all males have disappeared. More videos of DNR troops refusing to fight have popped up, and things are only going to get worse. It will be difficult for Russia to keep claiming how they are liberating Donbas when the people there refuse to fight on its side.
The Russian economy is steadily disintegrating at a pace that continues to surprise me. With imports having declined by 90%, nobody needs dollars and euros, and so the ruble has rocketed into the stratosphere. The government trumps the strong ruble as evidence that its measures are working but meanwhile Nabiullina is saying that the Central Bank will have to take drastic action to prevent financial collapse. Undeterred, the government is spending a billion rubles to buy flags and patriotic paraphernalia for the schools. The Duma, on the other hand, is considering empowering the President to take emergency measures to stabilize the finances. Among these are contract cancelations, changes in payment currencies, and so on. That the sanctions are having a serious effect is also evidenced by oligarchs who are trying to bribe their way out of them personally, and Putin offering to lift the blockade of the Ukrainian ports (so that grain exports can resume) in exchange for sanctions relief. With this, of course, he is also unequivocally demonstrating that it is Russia who is responsible for the impending humanitarian disaster in Africa and parts of the Middle East. There is no chance that the grain blackmail would work. Sooner, the Western allies will give the weapons Ukraine needs to deblockade its own ports.
Putin’s spokesman Peskov recently openly declared the Russian strategy that I have been arguing they are pursuing since the beginning of the second phase of the war. He essentially stated that the world would have acquiesce to relinquishing territories that Russia has managed to conquer for any peace to work. The Washington Post published an editorial, which rebuked the defeatist Kremlin-inspired one the NYT had run earlier, and insisted that Russia cannot be allowed to win even in that limited sense. German Chancellor Scholz again received a dose of spine-stiffener and declared that the West cannot allow Russia to impose terms. (The Russian propagandists did not take that pronouncement lightly, and duly threatened nuclear war, as has been their wont.)
One event that so far has gone unnoticed in the Western media but that will have serious consequences is that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church left the Moscow Patriarchate over the war. In other words, the Russian Church has now split, completing a process of separation that the Ukrainians had been trying to achieve since independence. Thus far, the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra (a monastery founded in 1051, and a center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity) has refused to submit to the declaration of Metropolitan Onufriy, but I think this is now just a matter of time.
Internationally, Israel has doubled down on its policy of not upsetting Russia by forbidding the transfer of weapons using its technology from Germany. The Israeli government is hoping that Russia would help keep Hezbollah out of Syria, but I think this ship has sailed. With the Russians leaving Syria, Assad is going to become entirely dependent on Iran, which means that the Tehran-supported Hezbollah is going to form a mini-state in Syria like it did in Lebanon. If Israel continues to upset its Western allies, it might find itself alone when Hezbollah attacks from Syria. They might not care about this, of course, but the policy seems a bit short-sighted.
Finally, a quick note about the “good Russians” and the various initiatives of Russian expats like Kasparov. After regaling people with his absurd ideas about he and other useless emigres like him defending Russians in Crimea from non-existent Ukrainian atrocities after Crimea is liberated, he has now taken to lecturing Russians too, arguing that anyone who remains in Russia bears some personal responsibility for the war. While this is a point that I happen to agree on, he — and people like him — is not the one to be making it. The Russians he is condemning do not have dual citizenships and multi-million dollar homes in the West. I understand that he wishes to be a “good Russian” but I do not see him working in Russia to achieve any change. If anything, it is Russians like him — with name and resources — who should be organizing popular resistance to Putin. Instead, he’s organizing campaigns to save Russians from dangers that only exist in some wild fantasies, and even then in the future.