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War in Ukraine, day 24: a new strategy of attrition requires firm stance both from Ukraine and the West

Russian fuel truck destroyed by Ukrainian forces
War in Ukraine, day 24: a new strategy of attrition requires firm stance both from Ukraine and the West
Article by: Hans Petter Midttun
Russia is now pursuing a strategy of attrition. The unprecedented measures have turned the Russian Federation into the most sanctioned country in history but come at costs to the West as well. While calls for Ukrainian “compromises” (meaning: loss of sovereignty and independence) is already heard, it is crucially to convey the message that any Russian victory – however small – will infringe our collective security tomorrow. The sanctions cannot be lifted before Russia has fully withdrawn its proxy and regular forces from all of Ukraine, has agreed to transfer its strategic bank reserves to Ukraine as compensation for war damages.

The report is based on media reports, expert analyses and official information posted online.

Situation

According to information from the General Staff as of 06.00 19.03.2022, supplemented by its [noon assessment]:

The situation and the nature of the actions of the Ukrainian Armed Forces have not changed significantly during the last day. The Armed Forces of Ukraine and other units of the Defense Sector continued to strike at groups of enemy troops trying to hold the captured frontiers.

[Russian occupation forces are conducting a strategic offensive operation against Ukraine. The main tasks of defeating the groups of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, encircling Kyiv, reaching the administrative borders of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and establishing control over the left-bank part of Ukraine have not been fulfilled.]

[During Friday 18 March the enemy fired 4 missiles strikes (14 missiles) and carried out more than 40 air raids.]

Ukraine’s anti-aircraft missile forces and fighter jets hit 12 enemy air targets – 2 planes, 3 helicopters, 3 UAVs and 4 cruise missiles.

Also, during the day, Ukrainian defenders destroyed several columns of equipment of the occupiers in Mykolaiv and Sumy regions, the losses of the enemy are currently being clarified. In addition, as a result of fire on the enemy by the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the Commander of the 8th All-Military Army of the Southern Military District of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, Lieutenant General Andrei Mordvichev, was killed.

[The occupiers partially succeeded in the Donetsk operational area – temporarily deprived Ukraine of access to the Sea of ​​Azov. On approaches to Mykolaiv the enemy was stopped by joint actions of divisions of defence forces.]

[The enemy is trying to compensate for the failures in advancing troops during the ground operation by launching missile and bomb strikes using both high-precision weapons and indiscriminate bombardment. The invaders are destroying the infrastructure of cities, destroying densely populated areas to intimidate the civilian population of Ukraine and persuade the military and political leadership of our country to negotiate on enemy terms.]

[The situation in the Volyn direction has not changed significantly.]

[In the Polissya direction, the enemy is trying to hold the previously captured frontiers on the Irpin River. The occupiers did not take active offensive action. The enemy is forced to move to the defence at unfavourable borders and positions, trying to regroup the remnants of forces, as well as to establish logistics. It does not abandon attempts to resume advances towards Kyiv. Conducts air reconnaissance with the use of UAVs.]

[In the northern direction, there were no changes in the composition of the enemy troops and the nature of his actions. The occupiers continue to partially blockade the city of Chernihiv, shelling civilian neighbourhoods in the city. UAVs are actively used to conduct reconnaissance and fire correction.]

[In the Slobozhansky direction, the nature of the enemy’s actions did not change significantly. Attempts to block the cities of Sumy and Kharkiv, as well as attempts to resume the offensive in the direction of Pokrovsk, continue. The occupiers strengthened the group by introducing from the territory of the Russian Federation two units of the 6th General Army and the 1st Tank Army of the Western Military District.]

[In the Luhansk direction, the invaders are trying to establish control over the settlements of Rubizhne and Popasna, as well as blockade Sievierodonetsk.]

[In the area of ​​Rubizhne, the enemy established itself on the western and north-western outskirts of the city, making unsuccessful attempts to reach the southern part of the city. Fighting continues for the city of Popasna.]

[In the Donetsk direction, the occupying forces are fighting in the settlements of Verkhnotoretske, Krymske, Avdiivka, and Taramchuk. The blockade and attempts to storm the hero city of Mariupol continue.]

[In the Pivdennyi Buh directions, a group of Russian occupation forces is taking measures to equip the positions and set up a logistics system. The enemy does not leave attempts to redeploy separate divisions on Mykolaiv on the Kryvyi Rih directions.]

[The Armed Forces of Ukraine are holding back the enemy and carrying out counter-offensive operations in certain operational areas. Artillery and rocket-bombing strikes on groups of troops and columns of equipment.]

Given that the enemy has suffered heavy casualties, it is likely that the military-political leadership of the Russian Federation will decide to amend existing legislation and begin open mobilization to continue a protracted, attrition warfare. In order to justify such actions, it is possible that a number of provocations will be carried out on the territory of the Russian Federation with the death of civilians, as was done before the start of the second Chechen campaign. This will allow the government to decide on martial law and total mobilization of citizens.

The dead and wounded servicemen of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and the National Guard of Russia continue to be transported from the territory of Ukraine. Thus, in the city of Gomel (Belarus), all medical institutions with surgical departments are involved in the reception and treatment of wounded occupiers. Surgeons work around the clock; all planned operations of Belarusian citizens are either cancelled or postponed indefinitely. A high death rate is recorded among the severely wounded Russian invaders.

The enemy continues to suffer significant losses. It has problems with the logistics of units. The low level of the moral and psychological condition of the personnel leads to an increase in the number of cases of desertion and refusals of servicemen of the armed forces of the Russian Federation to take part in the war against Ukraine.”

According to British Defence Intelligence, (last 24 hours):

  • The Kremlin has so far failed to achieve its original objectives. It has been surprised by the scale and ferocity of the Ukrainian Resistance.
  • Russia has been forced to change its operational approach and is now pursuing a strategy of attrition. This is likely to involve the indiscriminate use of firepower resulting in increased civilian casualties, destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure, and intensifying the humanitarian crisis.
  • Putin has reinforced his control over Russian domestic media. The Kremlin is attempting to control the narrative, detract from operational problems and obscure high Russian casualty numbers from the Russian people.

As of 19.03.2022 morning, the approximate losses of weapons and military equipment of the Russian Armed Forces from the beginning of the war to the present day:

  • personnel – more than 14,400 people (+200),
  • tanks – 466 units (+16),
  • armoured combat vehicles – 1470 units (+23),
  • artillery systems – 213 (+8),
  • multiple rocket launchers – 72 (no change),
  • air defence means – 44 (+1),
  • aircraft – 95 (+2),
  • helicopters – 115 (+3),
  • automotive technology – 914 (+35),
  • light speedboats – 3 units (no change),
  • fuel and lubricant tanks – 60 (no change),
  • UAV operational and tactical level – 17 (+5)
  • Special equipment – 11 (no change).

 

Humanitarian

The world is only starting to grapple with the humanitarian catastrophe caused by the Russian assault, the Washington Post reports. The United Nations said Friday that roughly 9.8 million people have either fled Ukraine or are internally displaced as a result of the fighting, while 12 million are stranded or otherwise face dangerous living conditions.

According to UNHCR 3,270,662 refugees has been registered as of 18 March.

The UN says that so far Poland has taken in 1,975,449 refugees, Romania 508,692, Moldova 355,426, Hungary 291,230, Slovakia 234,738, Russia 184,563 and Belarus 2,127.

The situation in Mariupol is critical according to the Mariupol City Council, Ukrainska Pravda reports. “The city has been under blockade for 16 days; more than 350,000 Mariupol residents continue to hide in shelters and basements from continuous shelling by Russian occupation forces. On average, 50 to 100 bombs are dropped on the city per day.”

80-90% of Mariupol is today destroyed.

Gordon Brown and Sir John Major want a new international tribunal to be set up and investigate Vladimir Putin for his actions in Ukraine, BBC reports.

“The former PMs are among 140 academics, lawyers and politicians to sign a petition calling for a legal system modelled on the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals after World War Two.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is already investigating Mr Putin for alleged war crimes in Ukraine. But some say its powers are limited. The ICC cannot pursue the crime of aggression without a referral from the UN security council, which Russia could veto.

Writing in the Daily Mail, Mr Brown said creating a new tribunal would close off this loophole” in international law that Putin could use to dodge justice”. We must move with speed, to assure the people of Ukraine that we are committed to action and not just warm words – and we must make Putin’s collaborators aware that the noose is tightening. If they do not distance themselves from Putin, they face prosecution and prison, Mr Brown wrote.

It is hoped the tribunal will act in addition to the ICC’s current investigations into war crimes. The campaign has already been backed by 740,000 people – including dozens of public figures.”

Support

EU transfers another EUR 300M in emergency aid to Ukraine, Ukrinform reports. “Today Ukraine receives another €300 million in EU emergency MFA aid. The EU will continue to provide political, financial and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. For the first time, the EU will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons to a country under attack.

Russia’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that giving Ukraine air defence systems, as requested by Ukraine’s president in the US Congress a day earlier, would be a destabilising factor that would not bring peace to the country, Euronews reports. President Zelensky urged American lawmakers on Wednesday to do more to protect his country from Russia’s invasion, pushing for the imposition of a no-fly zone and asking for aircraft and defensive systems.

Such deliveries … would be a destabilising factor which will definitely not bring peace to Ukraine, foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told a news briefing. In the long term, they could have much more dangerous consequences,” she added.

The House on Thursday passed a bill to end normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus as the US and its allies tighten the economic vice on the Kremlin, The Hill reports. The bill also sets up strict guidelines for when the president can restore normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus based on the state of the Ukraine war. The Biden administration will additionally be obligated to push for Russia’s removal from the World Trade Organization and oppose Belarus joining the group, which would subject both to higher tariffs and steeper trade barriers.

Several Nobel Price laureates and former heads of states signed an appeal for more and adequate support for Ukraine, Friday 18 March, Wyborcza.pl reports. “One cannot resist the analogy of the Munich accords of 1938. One cannot trust Putin any more than Hitler. For this reason, in searching for a scenario to end this war, we must follow the example of Churchill, not Chamberlain. Thus speaks the Ukrainian president, thus think the Ukrainians, and thus we appeal to all to proceed. Furthermore, we believe that the time has come to form a joint plan for victory.” They argue in favour of closing the sky over Ukraine and to give Ukraine all possible means of defence; of refusing imports of Russian gas and oil; accepting Ukraine into the European Union and opening a path to NATO membership, and not at least, a new Marshall Plan for Ukraine.

New developments

  1. On Friday, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia made his first public appearance since ordering the invasion on Feb. 24. He told a crowd in the country’s largest stadium that Russians “have not had such unity for a long time”, the New York Times reports.
  2. Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the conflict in Ukraine with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron by phone on Friday, telling him about Moscow’s approach to a potential deal on ceasing hostilities, the Kremlin said, Reuters reports.
  3. Russia requested a Security Council meeting on Friday to discuss its claims of (an alleged) biological weapons programme in Ukraine. Russia’s envoy Vasily Nebenzya claimed that components of biological weapons were created in Ukraine, saying that there are documents that prove “direct funding and supervision of the Pentagon” to Ukrainian bio laboratories, Aljazeera reports. Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN high representative for disarmament affairs, told the 15-member council that the United Nations is “not aware of any such biological weapons programme”. Nakamitsu made the same assertion at last week’s meeting.
  4. Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during a phone call on Friday that Kyiv was attempting to stall peace talks with Russia, but that Moscow was still keen to continue negotiations. “It was noted that the Kyiv regime is attempting in every possible way to delay the negotiation process, putting forward more and more unrealistic proposals,” the Kremlin said in a readout of the call, Reuters reports. “Moscow has previously said it was close to agreeing on a formula that would keep Ukraine neutral, one of its key demands. Ukraine has said it is willing to negotiate but will not surrender or accept Russian ultimatums. It is sticking to its position that it retains sovereignty over areas seized by Russia and Russian-backed forces since 2014.”
  5. Mixed signals from Ukraine’s president and his aides leave West confused about his end game, Washington Post reports. “Volodymyr Zelensky faces agonizing choices at the negotiation table with Russia. His government is still sorting out what might be acceptable, say US and European officials. The secretive rounds of meetings […] could hold the key to ending the conflict but also carry broader implications for European security depending on how the warring parties settle their differences. If President Putin can use military force to compel political change in Ukraine, he could use the same tactic elsewhere, US and European officials fear. The prospects of a near-term deal look bleak, diplomats say, but mixed signals from Zelensky about how close he is to strike an agreement have only heightened anxiety about the trajectory of the negotiations.
  6. The Ukraine crisis is something that we don’t want to see,” the Chinese President said, Reuters reports. The Chinese President Xi Jinping told his US counterpart Joe Biden on Friday that conflicts and confrontations such as the events unfolding in Ukraine are in the interests of no one.
  7. Poland will formally submit a proposal for a peacekeeping mission in Ukraine at the next NATO summit, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Friday, Reuters reports. Opinions of some western European countries are reserved at the moment, but further pressure may cause a peace mission to Ukraine to be organized – said government spokesman Piotr Müller. He announced that the proposal would be presented at the NATO summit and the meeting of the European Council, PAP reports.

Assessment

On the War and Russian strategy of attrition

According to the Ukrainian General Staff, the Commander of the 8th All-Military Army of the Southern Military District of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, Lieutenant General Andrei Mordvichev, has been killed. That makes him the fifth Russian general killed since 24 February.

This list includes Maj. Gen. Oleg Mityaev, Vitaly Gerasimov, Andrei Kolesnikov and Andrei Sukhovetsky and is a testimony to the intense resistance and heavy casualties Russian forces have faced since invading Ukraine.

Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the CSIS International Security Program and a retired Marine Corps colonel, said Russian generals have a tradition of leading troops into battle going back to the roots of the Soviet Union and the Red Army, Military.com reports. But the vulnerability of an invading force makes these officers more susceptible to fire in the open, he added

Jeffrey Edmonds, the former director for Russia on the National Security Council in the Obama administration and now a senior policy analyst at the CNA think tank in Washington, D.C., told Military.com that political pressure from Moscow is likely pushing many of Putin’s military officers to the front lines. “I think in this particular case, generals are much closer to the line because they’re trying to force this move, probably because of political drivers behind it to just get in the city,” Edmonds said. “They clearly still think that they can take Kyiv and then the rest of this thing will still fall.”

Compounding the problem, the Russian military is currently short of personnel in the lower-level officer ranks, meaning a lot of the responsibility for movement is on generals in the field.

Col. John Barranco, a US Marine Corps fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, said targeting Russian generals may prove to be an effective strategy for the Ukrainians. “I do think it hurts Russian morale, and I think it helps Ukrainian morale,” Barranco told Military.com. “I think it has an impact tactically. These guys are up front for a reason.”

Notably, Ukrainian special forces have been targeting Russian officers and military leaders with remotely piloted drones and special weapons such as high-powered sniper rifles provided by NATO allies.

Even as officers in the field face heavy fire, there are reports that those back in Moscow have their own problems. Last week, Ukraine Defence Secretary Oleksiy Danilov claimed Putin had fired as many as eight generals over his country’s military losses during the invasion.

The Institute for the Study of War has made the following summary for the period 15-17 March:

  • Russian and Ukrainian negotiators have likely agreed that Ukraine will not join NATO, but the Kremlin maintains maximalist demands of Ukraine that it is unlikely to drop in the coming weeks.
  • Russian media continues to amplify government officials and “experts” who falsely claim that the United States is preparing to wage biological or chemical war on Russia.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed Ukraine for allegedly developing nuclear weapons with foreign assistance and falsely claimed that Ukraine planned to conduct a nuclear attack against Russia.
  • The Kremlin continued to claim that Ukraine is the aggressor and that Russia’s invasion is going according to plan and will soon accomplish its objectives.
  • The Kremlin downplayed the impact of sanctions on the Russian economy and took additional steps to mitigate and counter their effects.
  • Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko stated on March 15 that Belarusian soldiers will not enter Ukraine and accused Ukraine of trying to drag Belarus into the war.
  • The Kremlin is kidnapping local leaders to set conditions for controlling and subduing occupied Ukrainian territory.
  • NATO defence ministers agreed to deploy additional troops to NATO’s eastern borders but reiterated that the Allies will not create a no-fly zone over or send troops to Ukraine.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin asked China for military and economic support for the war in Ukraine. China has neither confirmed nor denied whether they will provide aid to Russia.

Consequences and what to do?

The unprecedented measures have turned the Russian Federation into the most sanctioned country in history but come at costs to the West as well. The biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis in Europe since WW2 is already challenging both the cohesion and unity within the EU, as well as that of states and their citizens. Business and finance markets are responding negatively to the introduced measures. Maritime transport, already deeply affected by covid, are facing multiple challenges, ranging from disruption of trade, access to ports, increased risks, lack of containers to real manning problems. The European energy security is weakened, and the cost of oil, gas and electricity are increasing. The urgent need to strengthen the Security and Defence Sector will come at the cost of other important sectors. Inevitable jobs will be lost across all sectors. The bottom line is that the costs of living are bound to increase, and the poor will become poorer. What is today seen as a remarkable act of solidarity and support across Europe might soon turn into something else altogether.

While calls for Ukrainian “compromises” (meaning: loss of sovereignty and independence) is already heard, it is crucially to convey the message that any Russian victory – however small – will infringe our collective security tomorrow.

It is, therefore, extremely important to decide the prerequisites for lifting sanctions against Russia as soon as possible, while we all share a common sense of purpose, and before the war in Ukraine becomes our “new normal” that inevitable will divide us because of its costs. This is one of the reasons we failed in 2014 and why we ended worse up eight years later. We cannot possibly afford to be in an even worse situation in 2030. We must at no point signal the will to lift “some” sanctions if Russia stops the warfighting and in essence, turns a hot war into a frozen conflict.

In my humble opinion, the sanctions cannot be lifted before Russia has fully withdrawn its proxy and regular forces from all of Ukraine, has agreed to transfer its strategic bank reserves to Ukraine as compensation for war damages, has agreed to demilitarize and relocate its forces eastward, President Putin and his inner circle have been turned over to International Criminal Court in the Hague, and all Russian laws imposed during the last 8 years restricting universal rights have been abolished. Lastly, the Russian Duma must apologize to the Ukrainian people before they resign.

I am tempted to suggest that after having insisted that Ukraine should be federalised for 8 years, Russia should be forced to do the same to reduce the power of the Kremlin. It should also be asked to turn over its nuclear arsenal to Ukraine, after which the USA, the UK and Ukraine should meet in Budapest to sign a memorandum guaranteeing the sovereignty and independence of the Russian Federation. But I guess that is a bit farfetched ….

The message is all the same: There can be no “business as normal” until we see something resembling normality in Russia.

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