Photo by Alexei Druzhinin

Ukraine: where are we?

Once month since the invasion, Moscow’s numbers don’t add up

Artillery Row

After a month of war in Ukraine, it seems like a good moment to pause and take stock. Moscow certainly thought so: On 25 March, it announced of their non-war, “The main tasks of the first stage of the operation have been carried out.” The speaker was Colonel-General Sergei Rudskoy, first deputy chief of staff of the armed forces, an important man in the hierarchy of Russian military power. “The combat capabilities of the Ukrainian armed forces have been substantially reduced. This allows us to concentrate on our main goal: the liberation of the Donbas.”

Perhaps the first deputy chief of staff mistakenly left out a zero

We will momentarily leave aside the thought that it appears to have taken the Kremlin a month to not substantially reduce Ukraine’s combat capabilities. Likewise, having been assured this was all about the Donbas, it is curious how many of General Rudskoy’s men appear to have got lost and strayed far beyond the disputed border region, which was already largely in the hands of Russian-backed separatists. I guess the huge, brand new Retroville shopping centre in Kyiv, some 400 miles from Luhansk by the proverbial crow, targeted by a cruise missile on 20 March, where eight died and scores were wounded, was mistaken by some for the swamp of the Donbas, but needed liberating anyway.

Curiously, the steely-eyed Rudskoy, a former commander in Syria, failed to refer to the other tasks ordered in February by his boss, of the “demilitarisation” and “denazification” of the neo-Nazi junta in Kyiv, who were busy committing a genocide of Russian speakers. Although I do not recall any swastika-emblazoned thugs being paraded as prisoners, or massed graves of ethnic Russians murdered by the Kyiv Nazis (forgive me if I missed them), presumably this is also “mission accomplished”.

The Colonel General’s office bent over backwards to helpfully provide some statistics, admitting the sad loss of 1,351 Russian soldiers killed and 3,825 others wounded since the start of the offensive. Oddly, most other observers, from the UK Ministry of Defence to the Pentagon, reckon that these numbers equate to one tenth of the true figures, or perhaps the first deputy chief of staff mistakenly left out a zero.

General Rudskoy’s minions also kindly furnished details of Ukrainian losses, including 35 out of their 36 Turkish-supplied “Bayraktar” TB2 drones destroyed. As the Ukrainians have only one killer drone left, Russia’s troops must be breathing a huge sigh of relief that there will be no more aerial ambushes, for Rudskoy went on to announce that the Ukrainian air force and air defence systems “are almost completely destroyed”. We will see; meanwhile, keep taking the tablets, Sergei.

Sergei understands that bad news from the front is a big ‘nyet’

Our Sergei understands that bad news from the front is a big “nyet”. He will be a man to watch, as the balalaikas warm up for the ever popular game of Kremlin musical chairs. With an already high number of generals in the field killed (the current estimate is seven and counting), on 26 March came the news that Russia’s Defence Minister, General Sergei Shoigu, had suffered a heart attack and been removed for “rehabilitation at the Main Military Clinical Hospital named after N. N. Burdenko”.

To misquote Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, “To lose one general, Mr Putin, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose eight looks like carelessness”. Whether this Sergei’s affliction involved lead poisoning of the 9mm kind, an overdose of Polonium tea, too many Novichok and cucumber sandwiches, or a touch of terminal vertigo on the eighteenth floor, we are left to speculate. Yet, there is no doubt, in the febrile atmosphere of Kremlinworld, that the thrones and footstools are now in motion to the lilting melodies of the balalaikas.

Colonel General Rudskoy’s primary responsibility, as head of the main operations directorate, also makes him the chief planner of “Operation Denazify Kyiv”. Or rather, it doesn’t, for, curiously, the current skulduggery in Ukraine has no title. Rather a let-down for the boys on so prominent an undertaking. “I’m here on a special military mission” doesn’t really cut the mustard in the way “I’m with Operation Free Ukraine” might. But no matter. The personality of the theatre commander will carry the mission through.

Drumroll, spotlight, enter the 21st century’s Marshal Georgi Zhukov. Or rather, he doesn’t, because there isn’t one. It now seems that four Russian military districts, the Central, Far Eastern, Western and Southern, are involved. At least three of these are deploying a full range of ground, air, helicopter, airborne, missile and special forces, while the Southern is also integrating naval and amphibious troops. Each has differing command styles, levels of logistical support and nuances of doctrine.

When I visited the Combined Arms Military Academy in Moscow, during its brief window of 1990s glasnost, I was impressed to find its student staff officers being taught the core principles of war, basic tenets of operations that armies around the world and from time immemorial, have observed. They include “concentration of force” and “unity of action”, both of which appear to have been overlooked in Moscow’s current disastrous scattergun campaign. Mikhail Frunze, founder of the original academy, whose father was born in now much-battered Kherson, will be turning in his grave.

All previous operations in Chechnya, Georgia, the Crimea and Syria pale in size and complexity

All previous operations in Chechnya, Georgia, the Crimea and Syria pale in size and complexity to the high tempo multiple operations, coordinated across several axes, currently under way in Ukraine. With no one in overall command, besides the man in the Kremlin, it seems “Operation Ukraine Mud” (as we might as well call it) is far beyond anything the Russian armed forces have attempted before, and it shows.

In the south, a Russian naval task group of landing ships, which had been sniffing around Odesa, decided the defenders were too strong and returned to moor up at Berdiansk, where they were promptly attacked by Ukrainian precision guided munitions on 24 March. The 5,000-ton tank landing ship Saratov sank; the fate of two more seen pulling away, engulfed in flames, remains unreported. Expect no more amphibious landings soon. Another Frunze principal of war, “Initiative and dominance over the enemy’s will”, is thrown out of the window, possibly with another general.

As I write, Joe Biden has visited Europe and returned home. Overseas visits for US presidents are rare in themselves, so this one — unscheduled even a month ago — underlines the depth of the current crisis. Make no mistake, the events of this month will reverberate for the rest of the century. Not only will whole libraries be written, but new university departments will be founded due to the overhaul of geopolitics and international relations Putin has caused.

Biden has been busy trying to shrug off the “Sleepy Joe” slurs, but from the moment he set foot in Europe, he grew tall, as EU, NATO and G7 figures accepted his leadership. Biden is as good at collaboration as his predecessor was at confrontation. Like Eisenhower in 1944–45, he is faced with the challenge of forging common purpose among partner nations of divergent aims.

An old Capitol Hill warrior, which is what is needed in moments such as this, he understands that the closer to Russia you are, the more hawkish the nation. Poland, the three Baltics, Romania, Czechia and Slovakia, who between them have taken most of the 3.7 million refugees from Ukraine, are working themselves into states of “armed indignation” and aggressive hostility at Russia’s behaviour. Finland and Sweden, both traditionally neutral, are edging closer to NATO membership than at any time since it was founded in 1949.

Instantly the atmosphere lightened, and the room became selfie-city

Other countries, including Belgium, Holland, Germany and Italy, remain nervous about prodding the bear, for reasons of energy supply, and loss of other exports. They would rather the whole crisis just go away. France’s President Macron is furious with Russia’s duplicity, having hoped to create a “third way” out of Russo-European tensions, in the manner of a latter-day de Gaulle.

Viktor Orban in Hungary has refused to allow the flow of Western arms through his country and is strongly opposed to sanctions, due to Russian energy ties. He has condemned the invasion, but refuses to criticise Putin, a fellow leader who also manages an authoritarian government with a tightly controlled national media. External analysts worry he is more closely aligned to Moscow than Brussels. Cynics observe that Budapest has never quite adjusted to the loss of influence since the demise of Austria-Hungary in 1918.

Somehow, Biden has to unite these disparate nations, thirty of whom share NATO membership, while twenty-seven are in the EU, and weld them into a coalition that will hold for as long as it takes to confront Russia. It is a task that does not require an energetic narcissist, but a quiet negotiator, who is seen as a leader. The leadership element came to the fore when Biden dropped in on the 82nd US Airborne Division at Rzeszow airport, southeast Poland. In the De-Fac (dining facility), Biden found his troops, painfully aware of his presence, yet not sure what to do.

From decades of soldiering and years of briefing public figures, I can state that surprisingly few leaders get these unscripted moments right. Unchaperoned generals and politicians, used to living in the bubble, find being swamped by their troops, employees or the electorate, a challenge. This bubble is the world Vladimir Putin inhabits, with his food-taster and his sycophantic advisors. The quality of their advice, no doubt Sergei Rudskoy’s included, is the reason why Ukraine has failed so catastrophically for the Russian premier.

The difference between an autocracy and a democracy came across loud and clear on 25 March with the 82nd Airborne. “Don’t stop eating because of me,” said the President. “If you’re starting to eat, I’m going to sit down and have something too.” He parked himself between two surprised soldiers and was handed a pre-cooked pizza in a box. As their Commander-in-Chief tucked into pepperoni and jalapeno pepper, instantly the atmosphere lightened, and the room became selfie-city.

Perhaps reliving fond moments with his own soldier son, the late Major Beau Biden, the president lingered with one trooper after another, shaking hands and putting an arm around shoulders. “Thank you for what you’re doing, I mean that from the bottom of my heart.” He grabbed their cell phones to snap selfies, sometimes spurring others to photobomb the images. Spontaneity like that does not take place in autocracies or dictatorships. At that moment, from the trust President Biden put in those around him, it was obvious that democracy would prevail.

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