By The Montreal Gazette
Kyiv/Lviv – Russian forces in Ukraine are blasting cities and killing civilians but no longer making progress, Western countries said on Thursday, as a war Moscow was thought to have hoped to win within days entered its fourth week.
Heavily outnumbered Ukrainian forces have prevented Moscow from capturing any of Ukraine’s biggest cities so far despite the largest assault on a European state since World War Two. The invasion has largely stalled on all fronts, with Russian forces suffering heavy losses and making minimal progress on land, sea or air in recent days, British military intelligence said on Thursday.
“Ukrainian resistance remains staunch and well-coordinated,” the Ministry of Defence said.
“The vast majority of Ukrainian territory, including all major cities, remains in Ukrainian hands.”
US officials say Russia has deployed all the forces it had gathered on Ukraine’s borders up to February 24, thought to be around 170,000 troops.
Now, Vladimir Putin is calling on foreign armies and mercenaries for a second wave of fighters, in a tacit acknowledgement that Russia has taken significant casualties — more than 12,000 soldiers killed and a further 3,000 taken prisoner, by Ukraine’s count.
Moscow launched the campaign with a force of around 170 battalion tactical groups, each of about 1,000 troops. The majority of these were infantry.
In comparison, the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 had around the same total number of troops, but only 45 battalions. The remaining troops were logisticians, engineers, medics and other supporting forces vital to keep an army going.
“Russia hugely underinvested in logistics,” said Ben Barry, of the International Institute of Strategic Studies. “It’s very difficult to tell how much of the force is actually on the front line or stuck in traffic jams.”
Success at the start of the invasion
In the first days of the invasion, Russian expectations seemed to be getting met. Its forces broke out of Crimea on the morning of Feb. 24 with little opposition and, for the next 10 days, proceeded across about 500 km of coastline.
“The Russian military that has gone in from Belarus in the north is essentially the B team, while the more elite bits of the military that came from northeast of Kyiv and the south have performed better,” said General Richard Barrons, who retired as commander of the UK’s Joint Forces Command in 2016.
“They were also on easier, more open ground and had the big advantage of shorter supply lines, with a firm foot on the ground in Crimea.”
On Feb. 26, Russian troops entered Melitopol, about 130 km northeast of Crimea. A day later it was Berdyansk, 120 km further west. On March 3 it was the turn of Kherson, 130 km northwest of Crimea, and with a population of 280,000 the only larger Ukrainian city to fall to Russian troops to date.
The treatment of these cities, as well as some smaller towns in the south, appears to have followed a blueprint.
First, they were secured by the army.
Next, units of Rosgvardia –- a well-armed Gendarmerie that performs a similar role to the Soviet-era special police –- moved in. Russian flags replaced Ukrainian ones at the main administrative centres.
In Melitopol, elected mayor Ivan Fedorov was abducted and marched across the town square by soldiers, according to fixed camera footage released by the office of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Fedorov was replaced by Halyna Danylchenko, a local politician willing to collaborate. In a video address, she asked citizens to accept “the new reality” and stop “extremist” acts, an apparent reference to protests.
In Kherson, local politician Serhiy Khlan said house-to-house searches were being conducted in a hunt for pro-Ukraine security officials, journalists and activists, something Shelest said friends in Kherson had also told her.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Russia was trying to organise a referendum to declare a “Kherson People’s Republic,” analogous to the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics further east. Russian authorities have yet to confirm such a proposal.
On Wednesday, Putin said the “special military operation” he ordered in Ukraine was going to plan, but even in the south that looks unlikely. Far from hanging out their own Russian flags, thousands have gathered daily in Kherson to protest the occupation. In Berdyansk, smaller crowds chanted “go home”. In Melitopol, protesters scuffled with Russian soldiers on March 14, as they demanded Fedorov’s return.
Mariupol, meanwhile, risks acquiring the totemic status of Vukovar or Sarajevo during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, sieges whose destruction and cruelty sparked indignation around much of the world and, eventually, contributed to more forceful international intervention. Thousands of civilians have escaped Mariupol this week. The city’s theatre, used as a bomb shelter by hundreds, was destroyed on Wednesday. Russia denies responsibility and says it does not target civilians.
Odessa will present an even bigger challenge for Russian commanders, because it holds a special place in Russian historical and cultural imaginations. So far, perhaps as a result, it has been spared the aerial bombing suffered by some other cities.
The city of just over 1 million traditionally has had a large pro-Russia population but if that support remains, it has yet to show itself.
Instead, Mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov, who had a Russian passport until 2017, has been vocal in denouncing the Russian attack and has directed volunteers as they fill sandbags and make tank traps.
“They really hoped Odessa would raise the Russian flag,” said Shelest. “Now it has to be an assault and that is not something easy for them to bear either psychologically or militarily.”
First the Russian military will need to get past Mykolayiv and move the remaining 130 km to Odessa. Multiple efforts to break through or circumvent the town so far have ended in failure.
And while Russian landing craft have gathered off Odesa’s Black Sea coast several times over the last two weeks as if to attack, a sea landing would be difficult. Suitable beaches have been mined and are defended, said Shelest. On reaching the city, there’s every indication Russian troops would have to fight their way in.
Sealing Ukraine from the Black Sea in the south will likely remain a major strategic objective for Russia as long as fighting continues, according to Barrons, now chairman of Universal Defence & Security Solutions, a strategic consultancy of former military officers. Though wary of the firepower Russia still wields, he was sceptical that anything like Putin’s original plan for Ukraine is still attainable.
“This is an occupation that will never work,” Barrons said, and the reasons for Putin to look for an off ramp are mounting.
The question for Odessa and other cities, he added, is just how far a frustrated Putin will be willing to go, including options such as chemical weapons or ethnic cleansing, in his bid to control Ukraine.
Top: A volunteer of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces stands next to his APC in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Mar. 16, 2022. Photo by Andrew Marienko/AP and published by The Montreal Gazette
First insert: The destroyed theatre in Mariupol. Photo: Reuters and published by BBC
Second insert: The Russian word for “children” had been written in front of and behind the theatre to warn Russia not to attack it. Photo: PA Media and published by BBC
Home Page: Rescuers help a woman evacuate from a residential building damaged by an airstrike, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine, in this handout picture released on Mar. 17, 2022. Photo: Press service of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine/Handout via Reuters and published by CNA
This story is a compilation of reporting by Marc Champion of Bloomberg News, Dominic Nicholls and Rozina Sabur of The Daily Telegraph, and Reuters