Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Russia! Together forever!” Well, this is getting a little embarrassing. There was President Putin, in the gaudy Grand Kremlin Palace on September 30, announcing the annexation of the four Ukrainian regions. Meanwhile, somewhere not so far away, the Armed Forces of Ukraine (ZSU) were encircling Lyman, gateway to Putin’s self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). At the same time, the ZSU were planning the liberation of Kherson city, capital of Kherson Oblast. After it was taken by the Ukrainian army on November 11, a triumphant Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a surprise visit to the re-captured town to declare “the beginning of the end of the war”. Given almost 20 per cent of pre-2014 Ukrainian territory remained in the hands of the Russians, he may have been getting ahead of himself. But maybe not.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Over the past two decades, Vladimir Putin has earned a reputation as a foreign policy mastermind. Russia’s strongman seemed to singlehandedly rewrite the ending of the Cold War, returning Russia to the status of world power it enjoyed as the dominant state of the Soviet empire. Putin’s propaganda outlets could portray the Second Chechen War (1999 to 2009), the Syrian Civil War (2011 to the present) and the war in Donbas (2014 to 2022) as triumphs. The lightning win in Georgia (2008) and the bloodless annexation of Crimea (2014) appeared to be effortless. Here was the kind of success of which Putin, long-time practitioner of judo, was probably the proudest—not so much a matter of outthinking his adversary with three-dimensional chess moves as taking him completely by surprise. How soon would the knockout blow come in his “special military operation” in Ukraine?
Once Russia’s sixty-four-kilometre military convoy—“a slow-moving train of death” in the colourful language of one pundit—began its approach to Kyiv in late February 2022, the world awaited the end for Zelenskyy’s “Nazi” regime. Even earlier, on the first two days of Putin’s war, it was not inconceivable that the Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) would capture Hostomel (or Antonov) Airport, less than ten kilometres outside the suburbs of Kyiv, and thereby provide the Kremlin with the means of airlifting into the heart of Ukraine an unassailable Russian army to overwhelm any defenders of the capital. However, the paratroopers’ mission was unexpectantly foiled—due, in part, to Western-supplied intelligence—by Ukrainians. Although the invaders did eventually retake Antonov, the element of surprise was lost and with it the perception of Russian invincibility. Meanwhile, two Russian commando raids on Zelenskyy’s presidential compound were thwarted. Nevertheless, Putin and his spokesmen continued to insist in the weeks and months ahead that events were proceeding “according to plan”.
Perhaps the coup de grâce would come from the sky. The Russian Airborne Forces (VKS) happen to be the second-largest air force in the world, larger than China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force. Surely the Russians would obliterate Ukraine’s military assets, including its air force and air defences. It was not to be. Justin Bronk, on February 28, writing for the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) British think-tank, posted an article titled “The Mysterious Case of Missing Russian Air Force”. The absence of Russian fighters and strike aircraft sorties “allowed Ukrainian SAM operators and troops with MANPADS such as the US-made Stinger missile to engage Russian helicopter gunships and transports with significantly less risk of immediate retaliation”. It also permitted the small and vulnerable Ukrainian Airforce (UkrAf) to keep playing a useful a role in the war. Eight months later, Bronk (in conjunction with Nick Reynolds and Jack Watling) went some of the way to clearing up the mystery in a subsequent article for RUSI.
First, the VKS has not been without success in the war: “Russian fighters have remained highly effective and lethal near the frontlines throughout the war, especially the Su-35S with the R-77-1 long-range missile and, in recent months, the Mig-31 BM with the R-37 very long-range missile.” However, the Russians discovered in the first days of the war that they could not disrupt Ukrainian air-defence radars and communications links using electronic warfare (EW) without disrupting their own communication links on the ground. So it was, then, that not only did Russian rotary sorties became highly hazardous but their fixed-wing raids as well: “From early March, the VKS lost the ability to operate in Ukrainian airspace except at very low altitudes due to its inability to reliably suppress or destroy increasingly effective, well-dispersed and mobile Ukrainian SAM systems.” The increasing provision of Stingers to mobile air-defence teams meant Russian air sorties “beyond the front proved to be prohibitively costly during March and ceased by April 2022”.
It was a similar story with that sixty-four-kilometre-long “slow-moving train of death”. The bravery and tenacity of Ukrainian ten-man killer squadrons, equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry such as American Javelin and British NLAW shoulder-fired anti-tank missiles plus Turkish-made Bayraktar drones, brought the Russian column to a halt twenty-five or so kilometres outside the capital. Doubtless there were other reasons why the convoy failed to appear in downtown Kyiv, not the least being chronic logistics problems, including food and fuel shortages, poor maintenance of vehicles and mechanical breakdowns, and the failure of the Russians to establish a forward base of operations. On April 2, the Zelenskyy government announced that all Russian troops had fled Kyiv Oblast.
The victory of the Ukrainians in the Battle for Kyiv changed everything. The ZSU had proved they could not only hold the line against the Russian behemoth but also send the over-sized enemy scurrying away in retreat. The Battle for Kyiv not only galvanised the Ukrainian population to resist; it also steadied the nerves of the “collective West” (as Putin refers to us). If Boris Johnson is to be believed, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz—on the eve of the Russian invasion—believed that if war came, it would be better if the Ukrainian people folded and submitted to the will of the Kremlin, however disagreeable that might be. Neither France nor Italy, according to Johnson, favoured a war of resistance against the Russians. We do know that on February 24 President Biden offered to relocate Zelenskyy to Warsaw, where a government-in-exile might be formed. But Zelenskyy chose not to repeat the path of ignominy of former Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, helicoptered out of Kabul in August 2021 by the Americans as the Taliban approached the capital. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in contrast, drolly rebuked the defeatism of Joe Biden: “I don’t need a ride, I need more ammunition.”
Putin was not entirely without success in the early stages of the war, particularly on the southern front. Russian battalions originating in the Crimean Peninsula—territory occupied since 2014—easily crossed the bridges of the Dnipro River and seized the provincial capital of Kherson. The fact that those bridges remained intact probably accounts for the greatest feat of Alexander Bortnikov’s Federal Security Service (FSB) in Putin’s war. Ever since Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution in 2014 saw the overthrow of pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych, Russia’s intelligence services had allegedly spent vast sums of money trying to co-opt every level of society. After seizing Kherson, the focus of the invasion in the south turned to the Black Sea port of Odessa. The Russians, however, were repulsed at the city of Mykolaiv. Had Odessa been captured by the Russians, Ukraine would have become a non-viable land-locked state. There was talk of an amphibious invasion of Odessa but after the sinking of the Moskva on April 14, flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the talk fell silent. Further afield, the Russian advance on the provincial capital Kharkiv was thwarted, though Russian artillery would go on striking the city from a safe distance over the ensuing months. If Putin had anything to be pleased about by May 9 Victory Day, it was Russia’s expanded hold on the Donbas (Donetsk and Luhansk), territories that had been in dispute since 2014. Maybe Putin should have simply declared victory in his May 9 address and ended hostilities at that point—but he did no such thing. His predicament might be summarised in these lines from Macbeth: “I am in blood / Stepped in so far that should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
The summer of 2022 saw no decisive developments in terms of territory changing hands. The Russians, admittedly, captured Severodonetsk in late June and then the hill-top town of Lyschansk in early July, giving Moscow more or less complete control of Luhansk Oblast. The capture of Severodonetsk, though, came at an appalling cost with up to 1000 troops (an entire division) killed earlier in May amidst three abortive attempts to cross the Siverskyi Donets and encircle Severodonetsk. Russia’s modus operandi for taking Severodonetsk and Lyschansk was right out of the playbook for the Second Chechen War and the Syrian Civil War: pummelling a town with heavy artillery; hitting civilian and military targets indiscriminately; marching into an expansive urban hellscape and claiming victory amidst the smouldering ruins and charred bodies.
Significantly, the summer of 2022 also saw the steady influx of a new variety of Western artillery along with the input of Western strategic thinking on the Ukrainian side. This was to dramatically alter the dynamics of the battlefield. Thomas Mutch, in the article “How HIMARS Rocket Launchers Helped Ukraine ‘Get Back in the Fight’ Against Russia”, details how US advanced weapons systems, particularly High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, eventually allowed the Ukrainians to take the initiative. With a range of eighty kilometres, HIMARS are capable of “overshooting any Russian artillery piece”. The French, Italians and Germans belatedly provided similar “shoot and scoot” mobile artillery. Mutch cites Jack Watling, from RUSI, on the threefold impact of the new weaponry: “The first is the destruction of Russian artillery ammunition, which reduces the body of fire generated by Russian batteries … The second is the destruction of Russian command posts, which kills the skilled operators who do the Russian fire control … The third is to target logistic and troop movements, reducing the number of troops the Russians can support in a given position.”
Putin maintains that his “special military operation” is not the business of NATO or the collective West. His 5000-word 2021 opus “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” asserts that Russia and Ukraine are not two entities but one. He employs an array of unsubstantiated historical claims that are hinged together to make a case for the so-called “triune Russian nation”—the civilisational indivisibility between Greater Russia (the Russian Federation), Little Russia (Ukraine) and White Russia (Belarus). Ukraine, from this perspective, is a sovereign state only in the minds of Ukraine’s ultra-nationalists who are, ipso facto, anti-Russian Nazis. The problem for Putin, unfortunately, is that NATO and the collective West view Ukraine as an independent sovereign state, a status it has enjoyed since 1991 when the Soviet empire dissolved. Thus, Western military strategists worked with Ukraine’s General Staff through the summer of 2022 to devise a counter-offensive in Kharkiv Oblast.
In early autumn, the ZSU launched its campaign in Kharkiv region, advancing more than fifty kilometres in the opening gambit and retaking the town of Balakliia. President Zelenskyy, in one of his nightly addresses to the nation, reported that a total of 1000 square kilometres of territory had been recaptured in the first stage of the campaign. Forty-eight hours later, he was talking about 2000 square kilometres of land regained. Then it was 3000 and later almost 8000 square kilometres. Even Russia’s occupation authorities had to acknowledge on state television that the Ukrainian Armed Forces were surging. Kupiansk, a key railway junction, was seized and large swathes of the Donbas were suddenly vulnerable to Ukraine’s counter-offensive. Soon Russian forces abandoned Izium, their major logistic centre in the region, and entire units were being lost to the enemy, the first time since the Second World War.
Criticism in Russia of Putin’s war takes two forms. In the first instance there are the anti-war activists such as Marina Ovsyannikova, a journalist at Moscow’s prominent Channel One, who held up a sign on live television in March 2022 reading “No War”. She was arrested, held by the police without access to her lawyer and then fined before being released. Further charges, not surprisingly, were brought against her. However, when the authorities went to interview Ovsyannikova, they found she had escaped her pre-trial house arrest and fled to the West.
Vladimir Kara-Murza, astonishingly, went in the opposite direction. He returned to Moscow from his temporary sanctuary in the West after the commencement of the invasion. Kara-Murza, according to his wife Evgenia, did not feel his criticism of the war carried enough weight if he remained outside of Russia. Now he has been charged with treason and locked up while awaiting trial. His words (contained in a letter) indeed do possess a certain weightiness: “The Kremlin wants to portray Putin’s opponents as traitors … the real traitors are those who are destroying the well-being, the reputation, and the future of our country for the sake of their personal power.”
The other form of domestic criticism is not anti-war as such but scathing about the way it has been carried out: that it has not been prosecuted comprehensively or brutally enough or even in a workable and focused way. For instance, Igor Girkin, a Russian pro-military blogger, appraised his 430,000 viewers in the aftermath of the Battle for Kharkiv that if the Kremlin continued in the same manner all would be lost: “The war in Ukraine will continue until the complete defeat of Russia. We have already lost; the rest is just a matter of time.”
More surprisingly, perhaps, Kremlin insiders such the Wagner Group’s Yevgeny Prigozhin and Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov have criticised the prosecution of the war. By mid-September, in the opinion of some Western commentators, Kadyrov was beginning to sound as if he might be turning against Putin: “If today or tomorrow no changes are made, I will be forced to speak with the leadership of the defence ministry and the leadership of the country to explain the real situation on the ground to them.” In retrospect, at least, Kadyrov was not turning against Putin but goading him to do whatever it took—however pitiless—to defeat “Little Russia”. Kadyrov’s admonition probably gave Putin the hope that an elusive knockout blow eluding him to that point might still be summoned from somewhere. But from where? On October 8, President Putin appointed General Sergei Surovikin, the Butcher of Syria, as the commander of all Russian forces in Ukraine.
Surovikin’s military record, if Pavel Felgenhauer’s chapter in Russia’s Military Strategy and Doctrine (2019) is any guide, tells the story of a killer and brute who happens to wear the uniform of a soldier. A report produced by Human Rights Watch in October 2020 asserted that the 2019-20 Russian-Syrian offensive in Idlib, initially commanded by Surovikin, adopted a merciless civilian-based strategy: “The alliance launched dozens of air and ground attacks on civilian objects and in violation of the laws of war, striking homes, schools, healthcare facilities, and markets—the places where people live, work, and study. They used cluster munitions, incendiary weapons, and improvised ‘barrel bombs’ in populated areas to deadly effect.” Putin knew exactly what he was doing when he engaged Surovikin to vanquish Ukraine; and Surovikin unquestionably sounded as if he were reading a passage from Putin’s “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” in his first interview after being promoted to commander: “Our opponent is a criminal regime, while we and the Ukrainians are one people and want the same thing: for Ukraine to be a country that’s friendly to Russia and independent from the West.”
Surovikin’s decision to pull Russian forces out of northern Kherson Oblast and Kherson city itself demonstrated a tactical sensibility lacking in the earlier chaotic Russian retreat in the Battle for Kharkiv. The Russians retreated across the Dnipro River in good order and were re-deployed to defensive positions fifteen to thirty kilometres from the river’s bank, and further along in Zaporizhzhia and the Donbas. Any delay in the Russian retreat might have resulted in many of the retreating 25,000 or so Russian troops being killed or caught. Ukraine’s recapture of Kherson city on November 11, the only provincial capital taken by the Russians, was a momentous victory. The taking back of the city of Kherson points to the probability that the ZSU now has the military and tactical wherewithal to seize—in time—southern Kherson Oblast, Zaporizhzhia Oblast and even Crimea.
Naysayers might argue that the Crimean Peninsula is the one territory Putin’s regime cannot afford to lose, as if that were in itself reason enough for Crimea not to fall to the Ukrainians. The new reality is that the ZSU conquering Crimea no longer falls into the category of impossible. Already the peninsula is a prime target for the resistance. In September, for example, the Ukrainians blew up the Saky military airbase; in October, the Crimean (or Kerch) Bridge linking the peninsula with the Russian mainland was attacked and partially destroyed. Moreover, if the Ukrainians are able to set up an active third front (after Donetsk and Kherson) in Zaporizhzhia and capture Melitopol, Russian troops in southern Kherson and Crimea will be cut off from the rest of Russia—they will be encircled and under siege, in other words. What the (residual) inhabitants on the peninsula will think about re-unification with Ukraine is hard to know, despite the majority of Crimeans ostensibly supporting the intervention of Putin’s “little green men” back in 2014. The locals later endorsed their region’s incorporation into the Russian Federation as the Moscow-proclaimed Autonomous Republic of Crimea. Still, plebiscites overseen by the Kremlin are not renowned for their scrupulous impartiality.
In fact, not a few Crimeans (including those in exile) will be thankful if the Russians are expelled. A 2015 report for Human Rights Watch had this to say: “The authorities did not conduct meaningful investigations into the 2014 enforced disappearances of Crimean Tatars and pro-Ukrainian activists.” Six years later, a further HRW report stated that Tatars, “the main voice of peaceful dissent to Russia’s occupation of Crimea”, were the “victims of enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, and ill-treatment in custody”. It is no coincidence that this pattern of terror was duplicated in Moscow’s occupation of Izium, Kherson and elsewhere. The FSB’s caricature of Zelenskyy’s government as “Nazi” on the eve of the invasion, and the accompanying fantasy that the Ukrainian people would welcome the Russian armed forces as saviours, encapsulates the fallacious and self-deceiving nature of Russia’s premier intelligence agency. Bluntly stated, Russia today is ruled by an FSB man and his FSB and FSO (Federal Protective Service) oligarchic allies (silovarchs). Putin’s war is essentially their enterprise, given that the rest of Russia—including senior levels of the military—was taken by surprise by the events of February 24.
Horror and terror are a part of war and doubtless the Ukrainians are not without blemish. The alleged execution of up to a dozen Russian prisoners of war in the village of Makiyivka on November 12 may be a case in point. We can only hope that Kyiv, supported by and wishing to integrate with the liberal-democratic West, will comprehensively and impartially investigate the matter. That said, the horror and terror perpetrated by the Russians on the ground—and this is before we get to horror and terror perpetrated by the Russians from the sky—was not random. Witnesses, according to an HRW report, identified seven separate facilities used to systematically interrogate or torture Ukrainians during Russia’s six-month occupation of Izium: “Witnesses identified seven facilities in the city that Russian forces had allegedly used as bases and detention facilities: two schools, a police station, a former hospital compound, a water and sanitation station, a private residence and a private factory.” The torture techniques by the Russian Chekists (intelligence agencies) during the six-month occupation of Izium ranged from electric shocks and beatings to rape. The same crimes against humanity occurred in Kherson only on a larger scale. The original Chekists identified themselves as the “sword and shield” of the Party, but since the Bolsheviks/CPSU were cast into the dustbin of history in 1991, Putin and his coterie are now the sword and shield of themselves. The give-away is that Russian interrogators referred to their victims as Banderovets or Banderites, harking back to the anti-Soviet partisans in the Second World War. Thus, a Ukrainian must either throw his lot in with Putin and his henchmen or be persecuted as a traitorous Nazi-fascist.
The casualty rate will continue to be horrendous, especially on the Russian side of the ledger. If President Putin has already lost 100,000 soldiers, is he prepared—as some reports suggest—to sacrifice another 100,000 or so young men to hold the line until President Zelenskyy and/or his Western allies agree to an armistice? At what point will Putin attempt to persuade his grossly misinformed population that he has secured a victory against the Nazi-fascists in Ukraine and their Nazi-fascist allies in the West? In late November, Putin staged a choreographed meeting with the mothers of Russian servicemen to assure them that he has the best interests of their sons at heart. Sometimes the beneficent leader calls a random soldier at the front to express his appreciation of their sacrifice. Closer to reality, however, we know that as many as a 100,000 of the 230,000 men conscripted over the past two months have been sent to the front lines without training or proper equipment. They are being used, in the words of Michael Clarke, Professor of Defence Studies at King’s College London, in “human wave attacks” around Svatove and Kreminna, with as many as 700 to 800 Russians being killed each day in late November. Tell that to the grieving mothers of Russia.
David Satter’s It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway (2013) maintains that Russia “differs from the West in its attitude towards the individual”. In the West, or so his assertion goes, “the individual is treated as an end in himself”; in Russia, on the other hand, “the individual is seen by the state as a means to an end”. This tragedy has haunted Russia through centuries of tsarism, seven decades of communism, and now twenty-three years of Putin in which the Russian individual is expected to “submit to the supererogatory claims” of the Kremlin. Notwithstanding Putin’s ponderings in “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, the divergence between Russians and Ukrainians is that the former are invested in Greater Russia fantasies while the latter have developed a taste for Western-style freedom and liberal-democratic patriotism. This is why the barbarism of Surovikin’s aerial assault on Ukrainian cities, which commenced after the war on the battlefield had turned decisively against Russia, is unlikely to terrorise the Ukrainian people into submission. The mistake of Putin is to believe that the tactics of intimidation so successfully employed against his own browbeaten population would work on a different people. This is the same miscalculation Hitler made when he began losing on the battlefield and in his fury rained down an earlier version of kamikaze drones and missiles—the V1 and V2 “revenge” rockets—on Britain’s wartime population.
Some will argue that the European Parliament’s decision on November 23 to designate Russia as “a state sponsor of terrorism”, after its military strikes on civilian targets such as hospitals, energy infrastructure, schools and shelters, is largely symbolic. The larger point is that fewer and fewer people in the West can ignore the truth that Vladimir Putin, along with Sergey Surovikin, the Wagner Mercenary Group’s Yevgeny Prigozhin, Chechnya’s Ramzan Dudayev, the murderers of Bucha, and on and on, are terrorists. For that reason alone, we are forced by all measures of civilised behaviour to keep providing the weaponry necessary to a heroic people who are denying Putin his bloody imperialist ambitions. Not for nothing is Ukraine’s national anthem titled “The Glory and Freedom of Ukraine Have Not Yet Perished”.
Daryl McCann contributed “Russia, China and Iran: An Uneasy Alliance of Rogues” in the December issue. He has a blog at https://darylmccann.blogspot.com.