War and Resistance Report No. 7

To paraphrase Vladimir Putin, just who is ready to fight this war “to the last Ukrainian”? Ahil Rustamzade, the respected military analyst, recounts in an interview for Kyiv’s Zerkalo tyzhnia on 10 June how Moscow ordered the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics to conscript and send  their subject residents, still untrained, into battle against Ukrainian front line  positions in the Donbas. Russian intelligence knew these positions were defended by experienced, well trained soldiers.  Rustamzade says that twenty thousand of these raw conscripts died in the fighting. These Ukrainians were sacrificed as cannon fodder to soften up the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ defences before the Russians sent their own contract soldiers and mercenaries into the battle.

Lysychansk, a city with 99,000 inhabitants before the invasion, fell to Russian forces on 3 July. It was the last major urban centre in Luhansk oblast to fall. Relentless  artillery shelling killed many inhabitants, destroyed their homes, schools and hospital facilities, their cultural heritage in monuments, museums and centres of learning.  Surviving civilians were evacuated by the Ukrainian army before its  forces withdrew in order to spare what was left of the city.

Russian forces can now take control of all Luhansk blast and move northward to try to seize the larger part of Donetsk oblast that still remains in Ukrainian hands. Were they to succeed they will be in a stronger position to aim for a land corridor westward from Donbas to Odesa, possibly even to Moldova. They could cut the Ukrainian land mass off from the Black Sea, all its warm water ports, its maritime grain export routes through to the Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Ukraine’s independence would be gravely compromised, if not worse.

Predictions on the war’s end

Ahil Rustamzade was optimistic when this war began that Ukraine could inflict a decisive defeat rather quickly on the Russian invaders. Its soldiers and volunteers were in the defensive position, they had a stronger motivation to fight and they were proving more innovative in battlefield tactics. They fought with inferior weapons and far smaller numbers to repel a more powerful, but less agile and less motivated adversary. In the long run, however, Russia’s far greater numbers and more lethal firepower would give it the advantage. Unless, as Rustamzade assumed, the Western powers would help Ukraine to match the Russians’ firepower, especially their long range artillery, missiles and rockets.

Once it was clear that Ukraine was determined to resist, Western powers declared their full and unwavering support. But the Ukrainians did not receive the weapons they needed or in sufficient time. They could not stop the aerial attacks on the cities and towns, or to halt the Russian counteroffensive in the east and south. Four months later and the Ukrainians are still waiting for these weapons. Russian forces have set their sights on taking all of the Donbas.

Rustamadze has altered his initial prediction that the invasion will be blocked when the Western powers’ match Russian firepower. He now believes that the  Russians will run out of arms and have to withdraw from Ukraine. Their rockets and missiles require technologically advanced components to guide them to target. These components were exported to Russia by firms operating in the EU and USA, but they are now prohibited by Western imposed sanctions. Russia built up reserves of these components well before the war started. It was relying on Chinese manufactured replacements if their reserves ran out. But China has drastically reduced its exports of electronic goods to Russia , especially those that have potential military use. The Chinese government and its biggest corporations are worried about even harsher sanctions on their exports if they keep sending dual use technologies to Russia.

Similarly, the government of Kazakhstan is treading a fine line to avoid sanctions against its own exports. On the one hand the government is permitting Russian firms to reregister as Kazakh national firms and continue to trade internationally under its cover. On the other hand it refuses publicly to support Russia’s war aims or to recognise Crimea, the DNR [Donestk Peoples Republic] and LNR[Luhansk Peoples Republic]  as legitimate state entities. Now, western banks and corporations are major foreign investors in the Kazakh economy and they don’t want their investments jeopardised by Western sanctions. So it is not only the government and corporations of Kazakhstan but also Western governments and corporations that are turning a blind eye, for the moment, to Russian firms busting the sanctions regime via Kazakhstan.

Are Chinese firms, or indeed Western firms, exporting dual use electronic  components secretly to Russia? That is an important issue for Ukraine solidarity campaigners to pursue.

A lower grade of technology of war

Russian representatives at the May 16 Collective Security Treaty Organisation meeting in Moscow and at the Caspian Summit on 29 June in Ashgabat were pressing on their Central Asian allies to help them restock their armouries. Russia wants them to hand over Soviet era weapons and munitions that they hold in storage. The Russians expect soon to run short of some offensive weapons and ammunition they have been using and losing over these past four months. The Russians appear to have resigned themselves to fighting a Soviet-era type of war, relying on less sophisticated and less reliable weapons but requiring larger numbers of conscripted troops. They are returning to a technologically lower echelon war fighting strategy because their attempt to apply a more sophisticated concept based on the tactical battalion groups failed (see my War and Resistance Report No. 6). The alternative is the “meat grinder” strategy. is brutal and slow, but it is grinding down the Ukrainian resistance.

Russia is also widening the war to its allies

Russia is widening the war to involve its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. As noted above it is looking for arms from them. Belarus is the first among them to place its own troops on the border of Ukraine, ordering seven of its battalions into Homel oblast. Aleksandr Lukashenko also threatened to bomb any decision making centres in Ukraine that are guiding the Ukrainian military campaign against Russia. This new move has forced the Ukrainian army, security and intelligence to devote additional resources to this border region, thus drawing them away from the front line in the Donbas.

Bringing Belarusian soldiers into the war is a doubled edged sword for Lukashenko and for Putin. Lukashenko suppressed his country’s democratic movement with vicious persecutions, imprisonment and driving its  leading activists into exile. However, Lukashenko’s grip on power is brittle and his ever closer identification with Putin’s regime is more a sign of weakness for both of them. It shows that Putin cannot suborn Ukraine without involving other states. For Lukashenko the price of staying in power is accepting Russian suzerainty.

NATO military support to Ukraine

Almost all the countries that have openly sided with Ukraine -25 out of 28- are members of NATO. They have committed considerable military equipment and training to the Ukrainian army. The USA leads with about $4.5 bn worth of military equipment, followed by the United Kingdom and Turkey. NATO has also increased the number of its troops stationed in its Central European and Baltic member states. But NATO has not sent any troops into the war in Ukraine.

Just as the Russians tread carefully in the neighbouring precincts of their NATO adversary, not firing into its territory or allowing its troops to go there,  so too does NATO stay away from the territory of Russia, Belarus and the other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation..  A certain kind of temporary balance is established around the country, as its territory continues to wither around the edges as it falls into Russian hands. NATO will not deliver long range artillery to Ukraine that can match or exceed the range of Russian artillery. It does so presumably so that Ukrainian forces cannot hit Russian positions inside Russia itself with NATO munitions.

But this deliberate limitation by NATO also means that the Ukrainians cannot repel Russian forces advancing over Ukrainian territory, let alone expel them altogether. Rather, they must concede repeatedly to the superior range and firepower of Russian heavy weapons. So the Ukrainian defenses keep withdrawing from around their towns and cities. Slowly they are ceding territory in the Donbas, where Russia has concentrated its big guns. Where will the Russians redeploy their guns if they manage to take the Donbas – north to Kharkiv or west to Odesa?

How will the Russian side keep up its troop numbers?

The Russian state does not want to declare a general mobilisation.  It has not called for a conscription drive across the Russian Federation for several reasons. At the beginning of its invasion its military commanders did not think they needed that many troops. But casualties and desertions mounted, and considerable numbers of contract soldiers refused to renew their contracts after suffering defeat during their first tour of duty.   Russian supply lines grew longer and the front lines needed repeated replenishment of of soldiers, Fuel, food and war fighting materiel.

Still, Putin’s regime resists calling a general mobilisation and conscription drive because it would amount to a public admission of failure of its so-called “limited military operation”. A general mobilisation for war would jeopardise popular support for the Russian aggression and for Vladimir Putin, its architect. He already has reliable information that many young, educated men are leaving the country: their support for Putin does not extend to laying down their life for him.

Instead, the Russian army js conducting a concealed campaign to enlist contracted soldiers from the southern and eastern autonomous rrpublics and districts of the Russian Federation. Here live significant numbers of non-Russian nationalities. The authorities have traditionally recruited from among them for its frontier guards, interior police and army regulars. Much as the English once relied on the Scots and Irish to secure their Empire. Today the Kremlin still looks to these long oppressed and impoverished nations for mercenaries in domestic, frontier and foreign wars.

For how long more can it do so?  The Russian Federation now represents the remaining inner core of the empire which has been shedding its layers like an onion for a hundred years. The present war, which marks Ukraine’s contested departure from the empire is also a sign to the nations inside the Russian Federation that their time has also come.  Reliance on these communities to fight this war is a dangerous gamble for Putin. Channel Four television in the UK broadcast a newsreel of the kadyrovtsi,  Chechen fighters ostensibly loyal to the Kremlin, celebrating their capture of Lysychank in the first week of July. They stood on Jeeps firing off rounds of ammunition and shouting ”Allahu akbar!”

To the very last Ukrainian

Vladimir Putin used his address on 7 July to the leaders of Russia’s party fractions to deliver an ultimatum to Ukraine and its allies.

“Today we are hearing they want to defeat us on the field of battle. What can I say, just let them try. We have heard it said many times how the West wants to fight against us to the very last Ukrainian. This is a tragedy for the Ukrainian people, and unfortunately it is all heading that way. But everyone should understand that we have yet to get really serious. At the same time haven’t ruled out peace talks. Those who reject talks should also be aware that the longer it takes the more difficult it will be for them to come to a settlement with us”.

Putin’s threat that Russia will become even more aggressive and recalcitrant is laced with irritation that the West has not pressed for peace talks. Yet he knows full well that Ukraine has called daily for peace talks. since the Russians seized Crimea in 2014. But Putin does not want to hold talks with Ukraine’s leaders. He wants Ukraine to surrender unconditionally and for Russia to sit down with NATO to redraw their respective spheres of influence in Eurasia. Ukraine is admitted only as an object, not a subject of any deliberations. That is precisely why it will refuse to surrender and why we must uphold its right to national self determination. At the very least, that means Ukraine speaks for itself at any peace talks and that they are conducted without any preconditions.