By Geoff Mirelowitz
March 28, 2022—In the face of fierce and effective resistance by Ukrainian forces, signs are appearing that the Russian military may be adjusting the goals of its brutal invasion. “Russia says its main goal is Donbass, suggesting scaled-back ambitions in Ukraine,” Reuters reported March 25.
The news agency cited Sergei Rudskoi, head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Operational Directorate, who claimed, “The combat potential of the Armed Forces of Ukraine has been considerably reduced, which… makes it possible to focus our core efforts on achieving the main goal, the liberation of Donbass.” The Donbass refers to eastern areas of the Ukraine that were partly taken over by pro-Russian separatists in 2014.
Whether Russia has concluded that its initial military goals were too ambitious or is regrouping in preparation for escalating the war further at some future point, is not clear. However, the available evidence suggests a different explanation for its choice other than a reduction in “combat potential” of Ukrainian forces.
“One month into the Ukraine war, a defiant nation is forever changed but adapting” was the headline of a March 24 article in the Washington Post. “A month of war,” it explained, “has focused the world’s attention on the unexpected ferocity and power of ordinary people uniting to defend their homes and nation.”
“The aggressors planned three weeks ago to be in the capital,” Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko told journalists March 23. “To be here because it is the heart of the country. Everybody is surprised,” he said.
Russian president Vladimir Putin and his generals may be among the most surprised. Putin originally aimed a substantial military convoy at Ukraine’s capital city with the goal of capturing it and, if possible, installing a compliant regime that would accept his false assertion that there is no Ukrainian nation; that Ukraine is nothing other than a “creation” of Russia. Achieving that goal has proven impossible, for now.
Frustrated by the inability to score a quick, decisive military victory, Putin intensified a brutal air and artillery assault on the Ukraine, one that is intended to terrorize the civilian population. That offensive has created an enormous humanitarian crisis, but it has not broken the will of the Ukrainian people despite the fact that one in every four Ukrainians have been forced from their homes.
Reuters reported on March 27 that the United Nations human rights office estimated 1,119 civilians had been killed and 1,790 wounded since Russia began its attack on Ukraine. The actual toll is likely higher.
A month of war has devastated Ukrainians and empowered them
Nearly four million have fled the country seeking safety. But others have remained, determined to fight. As the Post reported, “Four weeks of explosions, fire and death have devastated Ukrainians and empowered them.”
Volodymyr Marusiak was an attorney who now commands a 140-person unit of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces which, the Post reported, “is made up of civilian volunteers. Doctors, construction workers, start-up founders — men and women — are now some of his fighters.” The Post continued, “Viral videos show farmers in tractors towing abandoned Russian military equipment down country lanes. Even in places now under the control of Russian troops, such as the southern port of Kherson, Ukrainians have stared down enemy soldiers while chanting pro-Ukrainian slogans during protests.”
By March 25 news outlets began reporting that the Russian military’s hold on Kherson, a city of some 280,000 on the Black Sea, is slipping. It is one of a few mid-sized cities taken by Russian troops. “Ukrainian forces have launched a counter-offensive in Kherson, the country’s only major city seized by Russian troops, and it is once again ‘contested,’ a senior US defense official says,” the Times of Israel reported.
Also citing Pentagon officials, the Washington Post reported, “Ukrainian forces have pushed back Russian advances in other parts of Ukraine as well. The Pentagon said Friday that Ukraine has made ‘incremental’ progress against Russia outside the northern city of Chernihiv, and other offensives were underway in the western suburbs of Kyiv, the capital.”
The same article, reporting on the possible change in Russian military strategy, said, “It is ‘difficult to say’ whether that is a full change in strategy, the senior defense official said. He added that Russian troops, stalled outside Kyiv for weeks, have begun to establish defensive positions instead of prioritizing an advance.”
The establishment of defensive positions, of course, is not the same as a retreat by Russian forces. In assessing all of this information it seems wise to remember the war began only a little over a month ago. However, the determination of the Ukrainian resistance now seems a well-established fact, one that Putin and his generals must take into consideration even if they are not willing to admit it.
‘It’s a shitshow’ Russian soldiers say
Nor can they ignore the initial signs of low morale among Russian soldiers as they are thrown into a war that is turning out to be more difficult than they were told to expect. On March 23 the Daily Beast reported on information provided by the Ukrainian Security Service, which claims it has a recording of Russian troops discussing their lack of progress:
“Basically, it’s a shitshow here, I’ll put it that way,” an unnamed soldier near Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine can be heard telling a colleague in a recording released by Ukraine’s Security Service late Tuesday. [March 22]
After telling his friend that Ukrainian forces “tore apart” a column of Russian forces sent along with his own unit, he described complete disarray among the Russian military, with 50 percent of the unit suffering from frostbite on their feet.
“But they don’t plan to treat them in the [field] hospital,” he said.
On the fourth day of their deployment, he said, the general commanding the unit, General-Lieutenant Yakov Rezantsev, told them it’d be over quickly.
“Do you know what he told us? ‘It’s no secret to anyone that there are only a few hours until this special operation is over.’ And now those hours are still going.” [The Russian military refers to its invasion as a “special operation” rather than a war.]From Daily Beast March 23, 2022, article by Allison Quinn
There is no independent verification of this report. There are also no independently verified estimates of Russian military casualties.
According to Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoy, first deputy chief of the general staff at the Russian Ministry of Defense, more than 1,300 Russian troops have been killed during Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine since it began on February 24 and nearly 4,000 wounded. The Ukrainian government, on the other hand, claims the enemy’s toll is as high as 16,000 Russian soldiers dead, according to a March 25 report by U.S. News.
What can be verified is that Putin’s plan for a quick, decisive victory has failed. Meanwhile, morale on the Ukrainian side appears to be high despite the death and destruction.
The Post interviewed 19-year-old Ian Panitov, who was born in Russia but moved to the Ukraine at age 5. “I’m sure Kyiv will not be occupied,” he said. “We have a lot of weapons in the city, a lot of Territorial Defense, a lot of army, a lot of people who make Molotov cocktails. And everybody is ready to just choke the occupiers with their hands if they do not have weapons.”
Categories: World Politics