Ukraine Conflict Update – April 4
Military and hard security developments
- The most significant military development over the weekend was the Russian withdrawal from north and northeast Ukraine, including the withdrawal from Kyiv. While it remains unclear at the time of writing how far the Russians have withdrawn, and whether Ukrainian forces have retaken key border areas near Sumy in the east, it appears that Russian forces have withdrawn from the west bank of the Dnieper north of Kyiv. Ukrainian forces have reportedly retaken Chernobyl near the Belarusian border. It remains likely that Russian forces will continue withdrawing from Chernihiv and Sumy oblasts in the northeast over the coming days. 16 out of a potential of 44 BTGs have been withdrawn to reinforce the Donbas area. The race is on to finish the operation by the May 9 May Day Parade with the key area being retention of Kherson which is a vital strategic area as the Ukrainians control the water supplies to Crimea from Kherson; without these water supplies, the log-term future of the Russian occupation of Crimea is unviable. There is talk of the formation of a People’s Republic of Kherson. Also Mariupol remains key for the land bridge to Crimea. Given the huge damage it remains to be seen whether Russia will want to pay the reparations. Another big concern is the proliferation of mines and booby traps around Kyiv which will take years to clear up. All Russia’s short range artillery and missile batteries have been withdrawn from the area around Kyiv, leaving Iskander batteries and other long range missiles as the main threat. The threat of a strike from Belarus, where there are 3 Russian BTGs, remains which may deter Ukraine from withdrawing all its forces around Kyiv to the Donbas area where Russia forces are advancing at 4-7km a day now that there is less mud and flooding to encounter. Reports that Russian forces in Transnistria have been deployed to the Ukraine Border has been denied by Moldova.
- The deployment of STARStreak and other SAMs has led Russian helicopter tactics to change and they are now flying at heights of ten feet down from 100 feet which of course raises the risk of damage from low flying, particularly at night. Ukraine’s stock of anti-ship missiles is believed to have been destroyed so it is keen for supplies from NATO. Russia has effectively blocked Ukraine’s access to the sea by laying mines.
- There are now 7-8 million displaced people of which 4.2 million are refugees of which 90% are women and children. Given the ongoing threats and food shortages they are likely to remain in the EU for the foreseeable future.
- Russia continues to recruit mercenaries form the Wagner Group and other Middle Eastern and African countries.
- Long-range strikes have continued despite the withdrawal from Kyiv, with Russian missiles striking various targets in Mykolaiv, Ivano Frankiusk, Koloyma and Odesa, including fuel depots, as well a strike that destroyed the country’s main oil refinery in Kremenchuk, in the centre of Ukraine. The fact that the Russian withdrawal from north of Kyiv has seemingly been conducted with minimal Russian loss indicates Ukraine’s limited offensive capabilities, with further strikes on fuel depots likely aimed at undermining Kyiv’s ability to rapidly redeploy its forces to the east, where Russia is set to concentrate further forces and launch new offensives in the coming days.
- Amid the withdrawals in the north, the Russians are still on the offensive around Izyum and Kamianka to the southeast of Kharkiv, with the front around Severodonetsk and Lysychansk similarly an area of more vulnerability for Ukrainian forces in the coming days. It is expected that up to 18 battalion tactical groups (BTGs) could be recommitted to the east in the coming days, though Russian advances remain slow at present in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts especially.
- This weekend, Moldova denied claims made by the Ukrainian General Staff on 1 April that Russian forces in the breakaway region of Transnistria have been redeployed along the Ukrainian border, in an effort Kyiv claims could mark preparations for new attacks. The General Staff stated it expects “provocations” from Russian forces in Transnistria, but Moldova maintains that they have observed no indications of mobilisations. Given the comparatively limited number of Russian forces in Transnistria, it remains unlikely that Russia would open a new front there without substantial support from other axes of attack further east, namely from Mykolaiv. Nevertheless, while Moldova denies any unusual activity, indications of Russian troop movements in the breakaway region could serve as a reminder of Russian capabilities in the region, and the vulnerability of Odesa oblast to potential attack. Much like the naval task force that frequently probes waters off Odesa, activity by the Transnistrian garrison could serve to force Ukraine to commit forces to screen the Moldovan border, preventing those same troops from being deployed against Russian-held Kherson, and thus easing pressure on Russian forces operating in southern Ukraine.
Diplomatic and strategic developments
- NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated on 3 April that membership of the alliance is open to Sweden and Finland, and that they could be admitted into the alliance relatively quickly if an application is made. As EU but non-NATO members, both Sweden and Finland remain more vulnerable to coercive Russian action given they are not protected by Article 5, with Moscow previously threatening “military-technical measures” if they move towards NATO membership. Given Russia’s apparent downgrading of its war aims in Ukraine and the extensive logistical and manpower issues, the trajectory of the conflict could determine whether Stockholm or Helsinki perceive the threat of retaliation from Russia to have diminished, which could in turn embolden them to apply for NATO membership. Nevertheless, such an action would be high escalatory, threatening Russian “military-technical” retaliation.
- Over the weekend, two key elections in Hungary and Serbia saw pro-Russian leaders consolidate their rule. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party secured its ‘supermajority’ during general election on 3 April, while Serbian President Alekasndar Vucic won another five-year term during the first round of presidential elections, with his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) on course to win a firm parliamentary majority. Both Orban and Vucic have retained cordial relations with the Kremlin in recent years, and are seen as key European allies of President Putin. However, while Orban has indicated support for further sanctions against Russia, in his victory speech he included President Volodymyr Zelensky in a list of his “opponents”, indicating a far from clear-cut Ukrainian policy that is likely to complicate efforts to formulate the next package of EU sanctions.
- The Russian withdrawal from Kyiv oblast has exposed apparent war crimes in Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, and other locations that have triggered outrage from the international community. The scale of the atrocities is still being assessed, but Ukrainian prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova has stated 410 civilian bodies have been recovered so far, amid reports of mass graves and evidence of summary executions of civilians which President Volodymyr Zelensky has described as “genocide”. The Kremlin has denied these claims and blamed the Ukrainians, alleging that they have falsified images of corpses. Moscow has called for a special UN Security Council meeting to discuss the claims, with Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN claiming it was rather a “heinous provocation of Ukrainian radicals”.
Economic/business environment developments
- The weight of evidence emerging from Bucha has led to widespread condemnation and refocused many international capitals’ attention on the need to increase sanctions against Russia in response. Most notably, the atrocities have seemingly hardened calls for a ban on Russian energy imports across the European Union. Germany and Italy had previously been the leading dissenters in calls for a ban on oil and gas imports from Russia, but both have now joined calls for new sanctions and indicated that energy export bans are not excluded from discussions. The EU has today, 4 April, stated that it will urgently discuss a new round of sanctions, but whether Berlin, Rome and other capitals will agree to sanctioning Russian energy remains to be seen given their continued reliance upon such imports and concerns over the economic impact. Russia continues to supply 40% of Germany’s natural gas needs, and a move to target Russian hydrocarbons would have a severe economic impact on not only European energy security, but would also reverberate more broadly across the global economy already characterised by historic inflation, energy shortages and increasingly strained global commodity supply chains. There are nevertheless discussions in Germany about reducing industry production times, and as such restrictions on business operations are possible in the coming weeks even if a ban is now agreed.
- The Kremlin has furthermore stated that demands for ruble payments for gas is only the “prototype” for a payment system which Moscow intends to apply to other major Russian exports, which could include metals, oil and other resources. The requirement for “hostile states” to pay in rubles for their gas has been tempered to a large extend by the Gazprombank workaround, which allows European states to continue paying in euros, which are then converted into rubles. This ultimately prevented an energy stand off last week, but the issue is likely to resurface for other key sectors and natural resource supply chains in the coming weeks. Notably, the Slovakian Economy Minister said on 3 April that his government stands ready to pay for gas in rubles given its need to ensure a steady supply of gas, underlining emerging rifts on the policy within the EU.
- Nevertheless, pressure is likely to continue building after Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania confirmed on 2 April that they had ceased all imports of Russian gas as of 1 April in response to the invasion of Ukraine. The Baltics’ current gas requirements are being supplied by underground gas reserves in Latvia, which should provide supply for a number of months. However, it remains unclear where the Baltics will obtain replacement supplies from, and how quickly they can come online once reserve stocks run low.
- Russia has reversed its 10 March decision to temporarily ban the export of grains and sugar to other members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) which had been intended to safeguard domestic supplies between 1 April and 31 August. The initial decision sparked panic-buying and price hikes on flour and sugar in countries such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, despite Moscow’s claims that EAEU countries had already purchased their required supplies, free of duty. As such, the reversal is likely to stabilise prices in the coming weeks to an extent, while tempering calls from EAEU members to withdraw from the bloc amid concerns over the wider economic fallout of sanctions on Russia. Meanwhile, Moscow is considering banning uranium exports in retaliation for the US ban on Russian oil imports, underlining the increasing risk of major disruption to key commodities in the coming weeks. As the US’ third-largest external uranium provider, the Russian ban would likely to drive uranium spot prices beyond their current record highs, consequently increasing nuclear power costs for producers and consumers.
- Russia has suffered a notable brain drain, particularly in the tech sector, since the outbreak of the war, with the latest estimates indicating that between 50,000 – 70,000 workers in the sector have left the country. Additional 70,000 – 100,000 workers are projected to leave in April. The development will further compound Russia’s socio-economic problems, particularly as the government has previously emphasised the role of the tech sector in accelerating Russia’s economic development, as well as post-pandemic economic recovery. The government has also reportedly even taken measures such as exempting young workers in the tech sector from compulsory military service, as well as offering various financial incentives, indicating that the state is keenly aware of the issue and is seeking to prevent the trend from exacerbating. However, the war has only exacerbated the brain drain in Russia and will further lead to a demographic decline in the country, underlining the long-term demographic and economic crisis.
- Considering the withdrawal of Russian troops from around Kyiv, the security situation in and around the city is likely to see a moderate improvement as of 4 April. The H01/P01 remains the safest routes out of Kyiv, while demining operations are taking place along the E373 and E40 by Ukrainian forces, therefore, security threats along these routes remain higher than along southbound routes. The south-west E95 and the P04 remain unsafe as well following missile strikes in the vicinity of Fastiv and air raid warnings in Vinnytsia.
- It is highly likely that ad-hoc checkpoints and stop-and-search checks by Ukrainian units continue to take place routes northwest and east of Kyiv. These are likely conducted in order to identify potential Russian fifth columnists/saboteurs and remaining Russian units. Ukrainian units conducting these checks are believed to be operating on capture/kill orders. As such, those seeking to leave/enter Kyiv should treat such checks with due caution.
- Air raid warnings across western Ukraine – notably in Khmelnytskyi, Ivano-Frankivsk and Lviv – highlights the spread of the conflict into western Ukraine as Russian ground forces withdraw from around Kyiv, therefore, safety cannot be guaranteed on any westbound evacuation routes at present.
The Russian withdrawal from Kyiv, and the ongoing withdrawal from north-eastern Ukraine, marks a major turning point in the war that will significantly reduce the threat posed to Kyiv and the surrounding areas. The rapidity with which Russian forces have withdrawn, and the apparent lack of significant casualties or Ukrainian counterattacks during the process, indicates Russia is likely to redeploy these forces as quickly as possible to their new focus of effort in the Donbas, where new offensives are likely in the coming days.
While it remains unclear at the time of writing where the Russians are in the north-east, it is clear that Russian forces are withdrawing back towards the border, and as such the pressure on Chernihiv and Sumy will also likely reduce in the coming hours and days. Ultimately, however, despite the withdrawal and reduction in threat from short-range artillery, Kyiv and other key cities will remain at risk of long-range missile and air strikes. Fuel depots, water infrastructure and food stores are likely to all remain high-priority targets for Russian forces for the foreseeable future, sustaining the risk of precision and unguided strikes in Kyiv and elsewhere.
Looking ahead to how these developments will impact timelines for the war, the withdrawal underlines the reduction in Moscow’s war aims and focus on conquering Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts in the weeks ahead. Numerous US officials drawing on the latest intelligence assessments have stated that Russian war aims are now to take the Donbas and other unspecified regions in Eastern Ukraine by Victory Day on 9 May. This provides Russian forces five weeks to achieve these key political objectives. This remains feasible but would require a major offensive that would likely be highly costly in terms of military casualties and equipment, but strikes against fuel depots will likely degrade Ukraine’s ability to pivot their own forces to the east in response, providing Russian forces with a window to concentrate effort in a new offensive.
Nevertheless, the revelations of apparent war crimes in Bucha will likely have a detrimental impact on peace negotiations in the coming weeks. President Zelensky stated today, 4 April, that it has become harder to negotiate with Russian since the scale of Russian war crimes had come to light, which Zelensky has described as “genocide”. Negotiations between Ukrainian and Russian delegations are scheduled to continue over video link today, and Kyiv is still reportedly yet to receive a formal response to its peace proposals issued last week. As such, negotiations are set to remain extremely fraught, with Russia’s withdrawal from Kyiv oblast likely to harden Zelensky’s negotiating position.
- The largest development of the weekend has been the Russian withdrawal from much of the north and northeast of Ukraine. This was conducted comparatively skilfully, with artillery and obstacles used to cover the withdrawal of ground forces, albeit some are reported to have been left behind. At the time of writing, it therefore remains unclear which areas are still held by Russian forces. All of Kyiv oblast is declared to have been cleared, with Ukrainian forces taking back Chernobyl. Chernihiv and Sumy still certainly have some Russian presence, but this has largely pulled back and at present some assessments put Russian armoured forces formerly near Kyiv over halfway back to the border.
- A withdrawal in contact/break clean manoeuvre like this is one of the hardest military operations, and this appears to have been achieved with comparatively insignificant Russian loss. Ironically, this has therefore been one of the best executed operations by Moscow since the war started.
- However, the damage left behind from fighting and pillaging by Russian forces is severe, especially outside Kyiv. There will be long term problems due to mines and unexploded ordnance, which will take many years to clear. The most serious legacy though is the mistreatment of civilians. Systematic executions of men between 18-60 appear to have taken place in captured villages, presumably due to them having a legacy for conscription. Evidence has appeared of the families of local politicians being killed, presumably in reprisals. Allegations are also circling of rape and sexual assault being used as a tool of control, even against minors.
- These appear to be credible accusations and are in line with a Russian policy of using aggression to maintain control. There is increasing condemnation of these actions, although Russian disinformation campaigns continue to allege that all evidence is staged by “crisis actors”. Increasing pressure is being put on leaders to cut any remaining ties with Russia and introduce harsher sanctions, alongside giving Ukraine more advanced military equipment. This would also include European countries refusing to purchase Russian oil and gas, which is possible, although the political costs are large given the economic hardship that will result. This pressure is also being applied to countries such as India and China that have so far at least tacitly supported Russian actions, although it is likely to be less effective than in Europe, where memories of watching a disaster unfold in Bosnia remain strong.
- The forces freed up from Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy so far would constitute around 18 BTGs. VDV (airborne) forces that pulled back from northwest of Kyiv a few days ago have already been committed to action around Donbas. While some BTGs will take more work to reconstitute, we assess that Russia will seek to put these forces into action as soon as possible, with minimal time to reconstitute.
- This is not only in line with Russian doctrine, and demonstrated speed of rail deployment from Belarus, but also reflects the imperative for Moscow to reinforce in Donbas more quickly than Ukraine can move forces to the region. The lack of pursuit against Russian forces withdrawing in the north shows that Ukrainian forces continue to be hampered by a lack of mobility, and this is doubtless a factor in Russian planning.
- This also underscores continued Russian operations to reduce Ukraine’s fuel supplies, with attacks over the weekend complete destroying the country’s main refinery in Kremenchuk. This is part Russian state owned (the government of Tartarstan is a 30% shareholder), which may explain why this hugely important asset has not previously been struck. Missiles were also used to attack other fuel facilities and depots, most notably in Odesa, where four missiles successfully destroyed their targets. This campaign will continue with Russian planers identifying fuel and mobility as a key Ukrainian weakness which will hinder them bringing forces to Donbas from defensive positions in the west and north.
- At present, Russian forces in Donbas are comparatively limited. To give just one example, only seven BTGs are covering over 160km of frontage from Donetsk to just south of Zaporizhzhia. With at least five in Mariupol alongside Donetsk Republic Forces, this demonstrates how Russia has lacked the combat power to make significant progress. The commitment of 18+ more BTGs should therefore alter the balance in Russia’s favour, with the Ukrainian general staff expecting a more significant set of attacks to begin today. At present, the main Russian objectives appear to be Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, adjacent cities that saw fighting in 2014. These are the regional supply hub for up to 60,000 Ukrainian regular troops in Donbas and a vital axis for supplies to Severodonetsk, at the eastern end of the salient held by Kyiv’s forces. Steady pressure is being maintained on the town around Severodonetsk, which is held by several Ukrainian brigades.
- In a drive to Kramatorsk, Russia will likely push forward today from new bridgeheads south of Izyum, with the local Mayor alleging that these were seized due to “traitors” in the council who “gave away the weaknesses in [Ukrainian] positions” (a claim also made around Russian advances near Severodonetsk, where local leaders are alleged to have changed sides). These have allowed Russian forces to overcome obstacles including significant flooding caused by the opening of the Oskil dam. Russian and separatist forces are also making greater progress north of Donetsk, around the town of Niu York; this could become the southern part of the advance on Kramatorsk, although multiple axes are likely to be pursued.
- Elsewhere in the south, there is evidence of further Russian forces moving to Kherson. Limited action is continuing south of Kryvyi Rih between weak forces. The missile attacks on Odesa will continue to focus attention there, although reports from the UK-led donor conference last Friday indicate that coastal defence weapons will be provided to Kyiv. Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship launchers have so far not appeared in the conflict, and may have been destroyed or neutralised early on. This new promise has raised hopes that the blockade of the coast near Odesa can be lifted to allow merchandise and aid in and out, although Russian dominance of the Black Sea remains significant.
- The focus on the maritime conflict reflects the significant rises in food prices and the lack of sunflower oil in particular, given that Ukraine and Russia produce almost half and a quarter of the world’s supply respectively, and Ukraine cannot currently export. Aside from the direct consequences of war, lack of fuel is reportedly stopping farmers from being able to plant and this is leading to forecasts of a worsening problem later this year.
- Overall, we are now in a position where Russia will try to commit around 60-80,000 additional troops in the south in the next few days, but Russian forces are in a race with Ukrainian forces being redeployed from other parts of the country, and the flow of NATO supplies. We believe that Putin still ideally aims to have his “special military operation” completed by 9 May, so he has five weeks to achieve his aims. This is possible, but will require a very hard offensive which is likely to be costly. Meanwhile, extensive use will be made of weapons to engage strategic targets elsewhere in the country, although these will not suffice to contain Ukrainian forces; and feint threats may be made to keep Kyiv off balance.
Latvia: Natural gas operator announces Baltic states ‘no longer import’ Russian gas, in policy shift heralding move toward energy independence. The CEO of Latvia’s natural gas storage operator, Conexus Baltic Grid, announced on Saturday 2 April that Russian gas ‘is no longer flowing to Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania’, with the Baltic market currently being supported by gas reserves in Latvia. The news will expose firms operating in the Baltics to some policy risk, although gas reserves are thought to be adequate to provide self-sufficiency for several months. The move follows Lithuania’s decision on 1 April to completely halt Russian gas imports. Both Latvian and Lithuanian representatives have called upon the rest of the European Union to follow their example in halting Russian gas imports, a move which remains unlikely at the EU-wide level due to inertia and intransigence among, primarily, German and Italian governments. However, the move is likely to signal further decoupling from Russian energy imports in more overtly anti-Putin countries, potentially heralding increased policy risk in coming weeks.
Hungary: ‘Supermajority’ win for incumbent Prime Minister will sustain regional tensions with Brussels. Incumbent Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party won a ‘supermajority’ of votes in Hungary’s national elections on 3 April. Fidesz won 135 of the 199 seats in the national assembly, against an opposition coalition securing 35% of the remaining votes. In his victory speech, Orbán named the European institutions in Brussels, the liberal billionaire George Soros, international mainstream media and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as ‘opponents’ during his campaign. The ongoing invasion of Ukraine remains a highly fraught point in Hungarian politics, with substantial opposition criticism over Orbán’s stated pro-Putin stance. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE ODIHR) has released preliminary warnings that the elections did not meet ‘fair’ standards, but did remain ‘relatively free’, meaning that the election’s result reflects growing state control in Hungary of media and public messaging. In the short term, Fidesz’s win will ensure regional tensions with Brussels remain very high, and increase the likelihood of more existential confrontations between Budapest and Brussels over divergent policies toward Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Source: Sibylline)
Russia-Central Asia: Reversal of grain EAEU export ban likely to stabilise prices amid further export ban threats. Russia has reversed its 10 March decision to temporarily ban the export of grains and sugar to other members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) between 1 April and 31 August to safeguard domestic supplies. The initial decision sparked panic-buying and price hikes on flour and sugar in countries such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, despite Moscow’s claims that EAEU countries had already purchased their required supplies, free of duty. As such, the reversal is likely to stabilise prices in the coming weeks, while tempering calls from EAEU members to withdraw from the bloc amid concerns over the wider economic fallout of sanctions on Russia. Meanwhile, Moscow is considering banning uranium exports in retaliation for the US ban on Russian oil imports. As the US’ third-largest external uranium provider, the Russian ban is likely to drive uranium spot prices beyond their current record highs, consequently increasing nuclear power costs for producers and consumers. (Source: Sibylline)
04 Apr 22. Biden calls for war crimes trial after Bucha images surface. President Joe Biden on Monday called the atrocities allegedly committed by Russian forces in Bucha, Ukraine, a “war crime” and called for a trial to take place against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The US President did not, however, label the killings a “genocide” but said he was looking into additional sanctions against Russia.
Biden said the images coming from Bucha warranted calling Putin a “war criminal,” adding, “but we have to gather the information. We have to continue to provide Ukraine with the weapons they need to continue the fight and we have to get all the details so this can be an actual — have a war crime trial.”
Biden’s assessment that the killings did not amount to a genocide puts him at odds with that of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who used the term during an interview with CBS on Sunday.
“This guy (Putin) is brutal and what’s happening in Bucha is outrageous and everyone’s seen it,” Biden said.
Images released this weekend show civilian bodies strewn across a street following the withdrawal of Russian forces, and CNN reporters observed a mass grave in the town, with residents saying they believe at least 150 people are buried there.
The scenes out of the Kyiv suburb of Bucha have drawn international outrage, with Western leaders calling for war crimes investigations and fresh sanctions against Russia.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that the State Department would help document any attacks by Russian troops against Ukrainian civilians. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called the deaths of civilians in Bucha a “brutality” and said “I strongly welcome” an investigation by International Criminal Court, which has opened an investigation into war crimes in Ukraine.
The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed the extensive footage of dead civilians in Bucha was “fake” and that “not a single local resident suffered from any violent actions” during Russia’s occupation of the town. “In the settlements of the Kiev region, Russian military personnel delivered and issued 452 tons of humanitarian aid to civilians,” the ministry said in a statement. (Source: CNN)
04 Apr 22. Ukraine conflict: Russia records first combat loss of Su-35. Russia has lost its first Sukhoi Su-35 ‘Flanker-E’ multirole fighter on combat operations over Ukraine, imagery posted online on 3 April reveal. The premier operational combat aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) reportedly came down in the Kharkiv region of eastern Ukraine, near the town of Izyum. Although no information relating to how the aircraft came down has been revealed, the imagery released shows it to have come to rest largely intact, before being consumed by fire. The aircraft is identifiable as being an Su-35 by it being a single-seat ‘Flanker’ variant without canards, and equipped with the combination missile rails and wingtip-mounted electronic countermeasures systems in place of the missile rails of the baseline Su-27/30 versions. (Source: Janes)
04 Apr 22. Macron calls for ban on Russian oil and coal imports over ‘war crimes’ near Kyiv. EU says bloc is working on urgent new sanctions after reports of atrocities in Bucha. French president Emmanuel Macron said he was in favour of banning imports of Russian oil and coal as part of a new round of sanctions against Russia over signs its forces had committed war crimes on the outskirts of Kyiv. Macron on Monday joined a chorus of western condemnation after reports of atrocities and mass graves emerged over the weekend from Bucha, a city about 25km north-west of Kyiv, and other areas that were until recently under Russian occupation. “There are very clear indications of war crimes,” the French president said in an interview on France Inter radio on Monday. “What happened in Bucha demands a new round of sanctions and very clear measures, so we will co-ordinate with our European partners, especially with Germany.” He added: “I think that on oil and coal we must be able to move forward. We should certainly advance on sanctions . . . We can’t accept this.” He did not call for a ban on imports of Russian gas, which remains a crucial fuel source for Germany, Italy and some eastern European countries. Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, said the bloc would hold Russia and its government accountable for “war crimes” in Ukraine and would work on new sanctions against Moscow “as a matter of urgency”. (Source: FT.com)
04 Apr 22. Vladimir Putin – Russia’s greatest existential threat?
“Putin remaining in power, or even a managed handover, would lead Russia into a form of Cold War-style isolation. For the Russian people there is a real danger that the country becomes a larger version of North Korea. It has become increasingly apparent that Vladimir Putin has become Russia’s greatest existential threat.”
- John R. Bryson, Professor of Enterprise and Economic Geography, Birmingham Business School.
There are multiple competing narratives regarding Russia’s Ukrainian war. On the one hand, Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, keeps repeating the mantra that Russia would consider using nuclear weapons against what Moscow would define as an “existential threat”.
On the other hand, President Joe Biden has stated that Putin “cannot remain in power”. Biden’s statement expressed his “moral outrage” for Putin’s actions in Ukraine. There is no question that Putin’s popularity in Russia cannot last and that eventually there will be a successor who might emerge through a Maidan-style popular revolution which is unlikely, a palace coup which is increasingly becoming more of a possibility given Putin’s continued failure in Ukraine or via a managed handover.
Putin remaining in power, or even a managed handover, would lead Russia into a form of Cold War-style isolation. For the Russian people there is a real danger that the country becomes a larger version of North Korea. It has become increasingly apparent that Vladimir Putin has become Russia’s greatest existential threat and that Joe Biden was correct in assuming that Putin cannot remain in power for the greater good of the Russian people. There are four points to consider here.
First, Putin has lost all credibility and has suffered major reputational damage given the humanitarian crisis that he has created in Ukraine. This reputational damage comes from the failure of the Russian military highlighting major problems with equipment, training, leadership, and strategy. All this highlights major weakness rather than the projection of strength. There is no question that Putin has failed and the extent of this failure questions his ability to continue to make informed decisions that reflect the interests of the Russian people.
Second, the first duty of government is to keep citizens safe and the country secure including military and economic security. There was no military or economic threat to Russia from Ukraine. All Putin’s special operation has done is undermine the military and economic security of the Russian people. This undermining is having a detrimental impact on everyday living in Russia, and this will continue to intensify. Sanctions imposed on Russia in response to Putin’s Ukrainian operations are a direct result of Putin’s failure to represent the long-term interests of the Russian people. No benefits will accrue to the Russian people from capturing Ukrainian territory. Thus, Putin has instigated an unnecessary act of military aggression that has undermined Russia’s standing in international affairs and is destroying the everyday life chances of Russian citizens.
Third, one outcome of Putin’s Ukrainian conflict is that it has destroyed any trust that had developed between Russian business interests and the global financial system. One consequence has been that Western business interests are walking away from any involvement in the Russian economy. A critical issue is Putin’s decision to pass a law allowing the country’s airlines to place airplanes leased from foreign companies on Russia’s aircraft register. Russian airlines had leased 515 aircraft from abroad. Putin’s new law enabled these aircraft to continue to fly within Russia but will result in major contractual disputes. The aircraft owners continue to try to repossess their aircraft and engines. Nevertheless, Putin’s illegal action will result in $10 billion of insurance claims by the leasing companies with Russia excluded from the global aircraft leasing industry.
Fourth, the Kremlin has developed a proven reputation for saying one thing and acting quite differently. Any statement made by the Kremlin must come with a bucket rather than a pinch of salt. In January 1994, for example, Russia signed a Tripartite Agreement with Ukraine and the US in which Ukraine agreed to ship its nuclear warheads to Russia for dismantling in exchange for Russian commitment to respecting existing borders. This agreement was worthless.
Any outcome to the Ukrainian conflict will result in long-term damage to Russia that will continue to undermine the military and economic security of the Russian people. A key issue concerns the reduction or removal of sanctions. The most important question is ‘how will trust return to underpin any business, economic or political transactions involving Russia?’ Putin is unable to repair the reputational damage he has self-inflicted on himself and the Russian people. The paradox is that Putin has become Russia’s greatest existential threat.
Putin has different pathways open to him. He could stop all military action in Ukraine and withdraw from the territory respecting the border that existed prior to his special operation. This is unlikely. He could continue to fight and might even eventually deploy chemical and nuclear weapons, and this is more likely, Alternatively, he could recognise that he has become a major liability for Russia and begin to facilitate a managed handover, but this is also unlikely.
The problem for the Russian people is that it is much easier to deploy nuclear weapons against some perceived existential threat to the Russian nation, but impossible to develop a rapid and effective solution to Russia’s greatest existential threat – Vladimir Putin. The key challenge facing the Russian people is “how do you solve a problem like Putin?” For most Russian people Putin is a hero rather than a threat. Nevertheless, the first step towards developing a solution to the Putin problem is for the Russian people to recognise that his continued leadership represents an existential threat to the Russian nation. (Source: The University of Birmingham)
04 Apr 22. Conscripts sent to fight by pro-Russia Donbas get little training, old rifles, poor supplies. Military conscripts in the Russian-backed Donbas region have been sent into front-line combat against Ukrainian troops with no training, little food and water, and inadequate weapons, six people in the separatist province told Reuters.
The new accounts of untrained and ill-equipped conscripts being deployed are a fresh indication of how stretched the military resources at the Kremlin’s disposal are, over a month into a war that has seen Moscow’s forces hobbled by logistical problems and held up by fierce Ukrainian resistance.
One of the people, a student conscripted in late February, said a fellow fighter told him to prepare to repel a close-quarter attack by Ukrainian forces in southwest Donbas but “I don’t even know how to fire an automatic weapon.”
The student and his unit fired back and evaded capture, but he was injured in a later battle. He did not say when the fighting took place.
While some information indicating poor conditions and morale among Donbas conscripts has emerged in social media and some local media outlets, Reuters was able to assemble one of the most comprehensive pictures to date.
Besides the student draftee, Reuters spoke to three wives of conscripts who have mobile phone contact with their partners, one acquaintance of a draftee, and one source close to the pro-Russian separatist leadership who is helping to organize supplies for the Donbas armed forces.
Reuters verified the identity of the student, as well as the other sources and the draftees they are associated with. The news agency was unable to confirm independently the accounts of what happened to the men once they were drafted.
The six sources all asked that their full names not be published, saying that they feared reprisals for speaking to foreign media.
The Donbas armed forces are fighting alongside Russian soldiers but are not part of the Russian armed forces, which have different rules about which troops they send into combat.
Several Donbas draftees have been issued with a rifle called a Mosin, which was developed in the late 19th century and went out of production decades ago, according to three people who saw conscripts from the separatist region using the weapon. Images shared on social media, that Reuters has not been able to verify independently, also showed Donbas fighters with Mosin rifles.
The student said he was forced to drink water from a fetid pond because of lack of supplies. Two other sources in contact with draftees also told Reuters the men had to drink untreated water.
Some Donbas conscripts were given the highly dangerous mission of drawing enemy fire onto themselves so other units could identify the Ukrainian positions and bomb them, according to one of the sources and video testimony from a prisoner of war published by Ukrainian forces.
Asked to comment about the treatment and low morale of the Donbass draftees, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was a question for the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), the self-proclaimed separatist entity in Donbas. The Russian defence ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokeswoman for the DNR administration, after viewing Reuters questions, said there would be no response on Friday. She did not say when the administration would reply. Messages left with a spokesman for the separatist military went unanswered.
After being pushed to the front line near the port of Mariupol — scene of the heaviest fighting in the war — a group of about 135 Donbas conscripts laid down their arms and refused to fight on, according to Veronika, the partner of a conscript, who said her husband was among them. Marina, partner of another conscript, said she had been in contact with a friend who was part of the same group.
“We’re refusing (to fight),” the friend wrote in a text message to Marina, seen by Reuters.
The men were kept in a basement by military commanders as punishment, Veronika and Marina said. Commanders verbally threatened them with reprisals but subsequently allowed the group out of the basement, pulled them back from the front line and billeted them in abandoned homes, Veronika said.
Neither the Kremlin nor separatist authorities answered Reuters questions about the incident.
All sides in the Ukraine war have systems of conscription, where young men are required by law to do military service.
Ukraine’s government has declared a general mobilisation, meaning that conscripts and reservists have been deployed to fight.
Russia says it is not deploying conscripts in Ukraine, though it has acknowledged a small number were mistakenly sent to fight. read more
The Donetsk separatist authorities announced in late February they were drafting all fighting age men for immediate deployment.
Military recruitment officers appeared at workplaces around the Donetsk region and told employees to report for duty, while police ordered people in the streets to report to their local draft office, according to a Reuters reporter who was there in late February. Anyone not complying risks prosecution.
Reuters could not determine how many people have been called up, nor what proportion of Donbas forces is comprised of draftees.
None of the five draftees had prior military experience or training, and four of the five were given no training before they were sent into combat, according to the injured draftee, the three wives of conscripted men, and the acquaintance.
“He never served in the army,” said one of the partners, who gave her name as Olga and lives in the town of Makeevka. “He doesn’t even really know how to hold an automatic weapon.”
Two of the wives said their partners were deployed to the front line, where they saw heavy fighting.
“I’m in the war,” read a text message, seen by Reuters, that Marina, also from Makeevka, said came from her drafted husband.
Marina said she learned from messages from her husband that his unit, fighting in the Donbas region, was ordered to draw enemy fire on to themselves.
Ukrainian forces on March 12 published a video showing a prisoner of war. He said his name was Ruslan Khalilov, that he was a civil servant from Donbas and that he was sent with zero training to Mariupol where his role was to draw enemy fire to facilitate the bombing of Ukrainian targets.
A person in Donbas who knows Khalilov confirmed to Reuters his identity, that he was drafted and has no military training. Reuters established that the person knows Khalilov.
The student draftee who spoke to Reuters said that a day after reporting for duty he was put in a mortar unit then sent towards the fighting. “We were taught nothing,” he wrote to Reuters via messenger app.
“Up to that point I had only seen mortars in movies. Obviously, I didn’t know how to do anything with them.”
He said that before he left, his unit had been under repeated attack by Ukrainian troops. “There were lots of casualties,” he wrote. “I hate the war. I don’t want it, curse it. Why are they sending me into a slaughterhouse?”
All the accounts gathered by Reuters mentioned an acute shortage of supplies. The sources described little or no safe drinking water, field rations for one man being shared among several, and units having to scavenge food.
“We drank water with dead frogs in it,” said the student conscript.
“Supplies for the soldiers right now are a disaster,” said the source close to the Donetsk separatist leadership, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Neither the Kremlin nor the separatist authorities replied to Reuters’ questions about supplies and equipment for the draftees from Donbas.
WORLD WAR TWO RIFLE
The same source said some conscripts were issued with the Mosin rifle from reserve stocks that date back to the Second World War.
The student conscript said he has seen fellow fighters using the rifle: “It’s like we’re fighting with World War Two muskets.”
A soldier in the Russian armed forces who is fighting near Mariupol told Reuters he had seen soldiers from the Donetsk separatist military carrying Mosin rifles.
A video posted on social media on Tuesday by Russian military journalist Semyon Pegov showed a man who said he was a Donbas draftee brandishing a Mosin rifle.
Soon after the men were drafted in late February, many of their wives, mothers, and sisters started writing petitions to the separatist leadership, to Donbas draft offices, and to the Kremlin, describing their treatment and seeking help.
“Bring us back our men,” said one petition addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin, seen by Reuters.
The three wives of draftees who spoke to Reuters said they received no definitive answers.
On March 11, about 100 women gathered outside the separatist administration’s offices in Donetsk to demand answers, in a rare public show of dissent.
Two women who took part in the gathering said Alexander Malkovsky, the head of the DNR draft office, came out and told them that men aged 18 to 27 would be exempted from the draft. Reuters couldn’t determine if this has been implemented, and was unable to reach Malkovsky.
Two of the conscripts’ wives said that since the gathering they learned from their partners that conditions had improved: some units were pulled back from the front line and allowed to sleep in abandoned homes, instead of in trenches. (Source: Defense News Early Bird/Reuters)
02 Apr 22. Turkish drones won’t give Ukraine the edge it needs. In addition to the ground invasion and airstrikes by Russia that are straining both the Ukrainian and Russian militaries in and around Kyiv, there is another layer of combat occurring in the air, an unmanned form of combat that is proving to be lethal. Drones have become a tool of both the invaders and the resistance in Ukraine, for both intelligence collection and attacks. In the run up to the invasion, Ukraine allegedly sent hand-launched reconnaissance UAVs into Belarus to gather information on the preparations and movements of Russian troops staged there. While this is better than no information at all, its usefulness was limited because reconnaissance alone could not analyze the patterns of troop movements to create an understanding of how Russia’s plans were developing. Before the invasion, Russian-backed separatists reportedly used drones to conduct “military deception” operations intended to make the world believe that Ukraine was the aggressor. Russia allegedly staged several drone attacks using unmanned quadcopters that they alleged were carried out by Ukraine. These drones were almost always marked with Nazi symbols to bolster Russia’s messaging about the fascist threat emanating from Ukraine.
Ukraine has claimed its drones have destroyed several hundred Russian armored vehicles. That number seems high, given the limited size of Ukraine’s drone arsenal prior to the invasion. If Ukraine possessed a large and formidable drone force, it is unlikely that the Russians would send in a 40-mile-long armored convoy.
Ukraine has had success against Russian troops inside its border using the 20 or so Turkish Bayraktar drones it purchased several years ago. But this is partially due to the inability of Russian tanks to move quickly through mud. In a few weeks, when the weather changes and the ground hardens in Ukraine, we may see a more mobile Russian advance. Russia will no doubt continue to aim airstrikes at airfields used by Ukrainian forces to launch drones.
U.S. President Joe Biden recently approved American funding to beef up Ukraine’s arsenal of armed drones. This is an indication of the significance of the unmanned war that is outpacing the conventional war. In fact, we may not see tanks in combat anywhere in the world again following this war, now that is it evident that they can so easily be disabled or destroyed by comparatively inexpensive drones.
Ironically, the West has done a lot to stop Turkey from manufacturing Bayraktar drones, specifically by banning exports of the Wescam CMX-15D electro-optical cameras made in Canada and the Rotax 912 engines made in Austria that Turkey preferred to use to build them.
Why is Russia not dominating this unmanned war? Russia does not have an effective air-to-ground drone. The Orion unmanned combat aerial vehicle, produced by the company Kronshtadt and used by the Russian military, is not comparable to the Turkish Bayraktar, which is produced by the company Baykar. Although the Orion was expected to compete with the Bayraktar when offered for sale to other countries.
What Russia does have is tactical air superiority using fighter jets, which helps keeps the skies clear of Bayraktar drones.
One limitation that may impact the war is Turkey’s production timeline for the Bayraktar. A slow production cycle has been a problem from the start. Resupplying the Ukrainian military will take time that may not keep pace with events on the ground.
The Bayraktar was used two years ago in Libya by the Government of National Accord in the west and proved successful in conducting precision strikes, but unsuccessful when providing close-air support for ground movements, as the system was susceptible to air defense. It’s likely the effectiveness of Bayraktar drones will decrease if Russian troops push further forward in Ukraine and take more ground, making the UAVs similarly susceptible to Russian air defenses, such as the Pantsir.
Worth noting, the operational range of the Bayraktar drones is limited. They are controlled by a ground station instead of satellite communications. This means they likely launch within range of Russian artillery and most certainly within reach of Russian cruise missiles. The U.S. flies Shadow drones from Poland, but these have not been offered to assist Ukraine because using them would constitute an American entry into the war — a line President Biden is not willing to cross.
The U.S. is sending small Switchblade loitering UAVs to Ukraine, but these are likely to have a marginal impact. The Switchblade 300 has a small payload and was designed as an antipersonnel weapon. The latest version, the Switchblade 600, holds a small anti-armor munition. Given its size and firepower, it will have limited effectiveness against armored vehicles.
At present, Russia appears to be consolidating its gains in the east of Ukraine. As this happens, it will give Russia time to assess its positions, introduce additional drones it owns to the battlefield and bring in anti-aircraft systems to defend itself against drones, as we saw was successful in countering the Bayraktar in Libya.
For Ukraine, its drone arsenal will likely continue to be effective in protecting its forward line of troops, but ineffective over territory Russia grabs. If Ukraine is put into a position of having to take back territory, it will need longer-range attack drones with satellite communications.
In addition to the U.S. and NATO countries, Israel produces such drones. Israel will have to balance its relationships with the U.S. and Russia in determining whether to make these available.
Due to the challenges this unmanned war is posing to both sides of the fight, it is likely that we will see additional UAV models with expanded and decisive capabilities enter the battlefield in short order. The question is: Will Russia or Ukraine be able to source them first? (Source: C4ISR & Networks)