June 22, 2022

More calm on the Eastern Front

The Battle of kyiv is over; the Battle of Donbass is about to begin. On this last point, the Russian General Staff and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky agree, after the Ukrainians left kyiv as victorious as they were in the international battle for information and narration. I spent the last week at Ukrainian bases on the eastern front line, and despite intense Russian rocket and artillery fire going on around the clock, the Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine remains at a standstill. Russian forces would suffer heavy casualties there as Vladimir Putin harasses his generals to achieve ever more improbable goals ahead of Russia’s annual Victory Day parade, commemorating the end of World War Two. Over the years, the May 9 parade in front of the Kremlin has turned into a tribute to Russian imperialism and chauvinism. Moscow has only a few days left to turn any tactical gain in Ukraine into a crushing symbolic victory. Britain’s foreign secretary predicted that Putin would use the parade to announce a massive mobilization of his reserves. On the front line, meanwhile, the Ukrainian military is playing tricks on reducing the number of Russian vehicles available for the pump.

The war changes register, going from a methodical attrition to an increasing crescendo. A week-long pause in fighting gave both sides an opportunity to rearm, resupply and reorganize. Both sides are entrenched and preparing for a massive confrontation in the East. Russian artillery hammered the confines of the Ukrainian positions, while the Ukrainians continued their strategy of slowly trading territory for time while degrading Russian logistics and supply lines and eliminating Russian generals one by one. A dozen Russian generals are believed to have been killed in the field so far, a heartbreaking break in the chain of command not seen since 1945.

Moscow intends to cut Ukrainians off from all access to the Black Sea and the Sea of ​​Azov. Over the past week, I have watched new Ukrainian convoys pour in to reinforce the country’s defensive positions in the Donbass. I was also in Odessa last Friday when Russian rockets destroyed the city’s recently repaired airstrip. I’m glad my mother-in-law, of blessed memory – she had worked there as an air traffic controller for 40 years – didn’t live long enough to see her beloved airport rendered inoperative.

Predictably, recent attempts by UN Secretary-General António Guterres to negotiate an armistice through personal shuttle diplomacy have failed. Guterres had been widely criticized for making the trip to Moscow in the first place; the Russian army had hit the outskirts of kyiv with a pair of rockets while the General Secretary was still in the city. If the brazen disrespect wasn’t obvious enough, Ukraine’s foreign minister wasted no time in clarifying:

Russian forces that captured the eastern Ukrainian town of Izyum about three weeks ago hope to push their way south and encircle hardened Ukrainians deployed in unoccupied parts of Donbass. When I visited their positions, I was informed that wounds received from artillery barrages were the main cause of casualties, not infantry fighting. Over the past 10 days, Russian forces have focused their eastern assaults on the towns of Rubizhnya, Popasnaya and Liman, where the majority of civilian populations have been evacuated. A Ukrainian soldier who fought in the area described the bombardment to me as “completely hellish. Bad enough that we all deserved to go straight to heaven. Still, Russian advances in the region were mostly repelled and, with the exception of Izyum, Ukrainian positions mostly held. The Russians are also trying to capture small towns north of Kharkiv in order to besiege the city, but here too the results have been decidedly mixed, with Ukrainian forces mounting small-scale counterattacks.

In the Dergachyovsky district of Ukraine, which adjoins the Russian border, Russians are being expelled from the small villages and towns they first occupied in early March. A Ukrainian officer from the town of Dvurechni Kut – he was given the ironic and humorously inaccurate call sign “mulatto” because he is half-Tatar and quarter-Jewish, with dark black hair and a voluminous beard – told me that the Russians had been stopped only a few kilometers from his house. Her cousin, who was driving home to see his aunt, was dragged out of his car by Russian soldiers checking documents and has not been seen since.

“They were hitting schools in my town thinking that the Ukrainian army was living there, and because of the inaccuracy of their ammunition, a number of people were killed. Russian planes fly high and therefore strike the civilian population. But our guys on that front had a very polite conversation with the occupiers and insisted they move on,” Mulatto told me with a chuckle. “Our guys pushed them back from my town, and with their usual results, I think the chances of them surrounding Kharkiv are now significantly lower than they were even a week ago.”

Ukrainians currently have the manpower they need in the east, but many of the young men I spoke with in the newly formed or reorganized national guard battalions had enlisted only very recently, and officials continue to advocate for more heavy weapons and the replenishment of their ammunition. shares. Most of those I met had only a few weeks or even days of training. Kyiv has been full of even anecdotal stories of Ukrainian men harassing territorial recruiting stations and demanding a chance to volunteer, only to be turned away due to exceeded recruiting quotas. Precise figures are hard to come by, but the Ukrainian mobilization of the last two months seems to have more or less stabilized the losses so far. The same does not seem to be the case on the Russian side, although due to the asymmetry of information available we still lack an accurate picture of the state of the two armies.

What we seem to know is that the morale of the pro-Russian “separatist troops” in eastern Ukraine is particularly low. As another front-line Ukrainian officer explained to me: “Some of them do indeed fight better than the exhausted and tattered Russian conscripts who are forced to be here, but in this sector, for the most part, they are now being used as cannon fodder – and they both know it and hate it. Social media platforms showed videos of women in the Russian-occupied eastern territories protesting the forced conscription of their husbands, sons and brothers. Desperate for more manpower, the Russian occupation authorities have already begun forcing all men under the age of 55 in the self-proclaimed people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk to fight as lightly armed conscripts. and consumables. Several Ukrainian soldiers and officers have pointed out to me with disgust and contempt that the demoralized Donetsk People’s Republic and its conscripted forces often forgo collecting the remains of their comrades, regularly leaving the bodies of their dead to rot in the streets.

A serious, if not still serious, concern is the shortage of fuel throughout Ukraine, as Russian forces have strategically destroyed oil depots and gas stations. Crossing the Romanian-Ukrainian border in Odessa last weekend, I didn’t see a gas station for great distances, and the ones I found in the south had already started rationing supplies. Meanwhile, numerous mysterious explosions have destroyed Russian oil depots in areas near the Ukrainian border. Asked about these obviously targeted strikes on Russian territory, several Ukrainian flag officers replied “without comment” and looked at me with wide smirks.

It’s hard not to feel elated by such encounters with these courageous and dedicated men. But on our way out of eastern Ukraine, the special reconnaissance officer who took me explained to me that large sections of the Ukrainian forces are incredibly exhausted after two months on the front lines. “Some of our infantrymen are already at breaking point as personalities and human beings after continuously fighting without rotations,” he said. “Most days in this place are like a week. Some days are a month long.