Russia’s war against Ukraine: observations from Kyiv

22 March, 02:03 PM

Since Feb. 24, the Russian army has done its best to conquer and enslave Ukraine, the biggest eastern European democracy.

Russian invasion, Russian war, Russian special operation – these are the words that Ukrainian media use for describing what’s going on in Ukraine.

It’s a real war with real battles taking place in Ukrainian villages, towns, cities, including Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.

By its nature, Russia’s war is a preplanned set of special operations. This plan was prepared by the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation and edited by the ministry chief Sergei Shoigu, the No. 2 person in Russian politics and an expert on Yugoslavian war in the 1990s.

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Shoigu had access to NATO data up until 2003, as Russia was conducting joint exercises with the Western army groups.

Originally, the Russians planned three special operations: occupying Kyiv, pressure from the north-east and pressure from the south. An additional operation was taking place in the Donbas, eastern Ukraine, part of which have been controlled by Moscow since 2014-2015. Meanwhile, southern operation has been backed by Russian troops stationed in Crimea that Russia annexed in 2014.

The Kyiv operation is the most complicated one. Ukraine’s capital city has been pressured from the north, west and north-east, with relatively less intense fighting 100-200 kilometers to the south, in Cherkasy region.

Among that subset of operations, the western direction was the most planned one and most resourceful. That’s the Hostomel operation.

Hostomel is a town to the west from Kyiv with mostly private houses, up to 20,000 residents and no multistoried buildings. However, it’s a home to a state-owned airport which can be used for both – cargo and military missions.

Russian Defense Ministry planned to occupy this airport in order to get an asset that would provide a base for their own aircraft, enabling them to launch a further expansion of operational activity to the areas nearby. Therefore, Russian helicopters with paratroopers and some fighter aircraft have been trying to invade Hostomel and take control over it. Russian tanks (T-90, T-72) were there as well. This has been happening since day one of the war – Feb. 24.

The Russians did a lot of preparation for this operation. They trained it during their exercises, including in Belarus, and even tried it out in Syria, capturing a local airport.

On the Ukrainian side, there were National Guard troops present in and around Hostomel, artillery and local territorial defense who managed to shoot down most of the Russian helicopters and kill the Russian troops who managed to rappel from the helicopters.

Right now the Hostomel operation is continuing. The Russians made some progress here and advanced with moving their troops delivered by aircraft to the north so they could get access to logistical line coming from Belarus and join the Kyiv operation from that direction.

As of now, Russian infantry units are preparing trenches all the way from Hostomel to Chornobyl for strengthening their position around Kyiv. The capital is constantly invaded by rather small groups of Russian operatives, most of whom don’t even wear any camouflage with official Russian insignia.

Going back to three other Russian operations – the special ones in the north-east, south and the instability regime in the Donbas – these are the major source of killed and wounded during this war. Ukraine’s Armed Forces General Staff reports 15,000+ dead among Russian military personnel. However, Center for European Policy Analysis (expert estimate by Alina Polyakova and others) gives a different figure.

After the initial plan focused on occupying Kyiv and hanging the flag of the Russian Federation on one of the city’s main squares failed, the Russians increased their pressure. They started bombing western Ukraine (Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv), they expanded the Hostomel operation to Zhytomyr, they almost took over Kherson in southern Ukraine, and they destroyed much of the downtown area in Chernigiv, north-eastern Ukraine.

Russia’s war has three more layers of operational activity: cyber warfare, informational warfare and political component.

Cyber warfare includes GRU-orchestrated hacking attacks on Ukrainian news websites, the banking system and digital infrastructure. Given the austerity regime and cost-cutting that most of the Ukrainian media has been going through for decades, cyber protection of Ukrainian websites is of critically low-quality.

The information war is a battle of pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian narratives on the internet (including social media – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Telegram) and television, as well as in the articles and Op Eds. Of course, possible Russian agents in the Ukrainian media (some names have been previously reported by Detector Media, a Ukrainian website) don’t straightforwardly say: “Alright, we’re Putin’s people, we’re going to conquer you.” Sometimes they even take a pro-Ukrainian stance in discussions to gain more trust with the local audience. Their goal is to spread chaos and fake news, and undermine confidence of Ukrainian citizens in their government led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, Prime Minister Denys Shmygal and Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov.

But it’s the political component that’s the most dangerous one. The Russians initially planned to install a Kremlin-backed government in Kyiv or Kharkiv, Ukraine’s capital city in the 1920-30s. The short list of this government leaders included Victor Yanukovych, Ukrainian president in 2010-2014, and Evgen Murayev, a pro-Russian politician in Kyiv and former owner of several TV channels. Murayev said he was surprised to be on such a list, made public by the U.K. Defense Ministry press service, and denied having anything to do with the plot.

The political component of the war is based on Russian experience with the unrecognized republic of Transnistria (Moldova, 1992-), the unrecognized republic of Donetsk (Ukraine, 2014-), the unrecognized republic of Luhansk (Ukraine, 2014-), and the annexed Crimea (Ukraine, 2014-), which the Russian parliament voted should join the Russian Federation.

The logic behind all these pseudo-formations is quite simple: create a local governing institution and install a loyal leader. These formations need financial and military support from Russia in order to keep functioning.

Russia is now trying to do the same thing in Ukraine, focusing on creating more unrecognized republics in Kherson, Kharkiv, Odesa and other places. Russia is seeking for international recognition of so called Donetsk and Luhansk republics, while later it might do the same thing, for instance, for the so-called Kherson republic. This recognition might come from unrecognized republic of Transnistria as well as countries like North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Syria, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, maybe even Mongolia and some African countries (Somalia, South Sudan, Central African Republic).

It could be potentially possible that Russian leader Vladimir Putin expected Victor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, to be supportive for Kremlin’s operations on the global diplomatic scene, but that has clearly not worked out. Besides, Hungary is having parliamentary elections in April and Orban might lose his job.

It’s not that Orban and his Foreign Ministry could possibly recognize, say, Donetsk pseudo-republic, but he could block Ukraine’s membership bid to join the European Union and maybe even the euro area. However, Hungary is not a member of the euro area itself and can’t have a say over decisions by the European Central Bank. Hungary could block Ukraine’s aspiration to join the NATO, but that’s a much more complicated political process than joining the EU. The key element giving Putin influence over Orban’s decision making is the gas supplies by Gazprom, Russian state-owned gas monopoly.

However, Kremlin Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov seems to be ineffective in working to the extent that he won’t be able to find common language with, for example, leaders of Venezuela and North Korea.

North Korea – that’s exactly what Russian Federation might become if it doesn’t stop the war against Ukraine. A package of economic sanctions passed by the United States, the UK, EU, Japan, Canada and other countries will devastate the Russian economy, and in one year’s time Russia could become North Korea Mark II. That’s the major factor behind Ukraine’s chances to push Russian invaders back to where they came from. But, of course, a lot depends on Ukraine’s armed forces, military support from the Western democracies, and solidarity within Ukrainian society.

Another package of sanctions could include sanctioning Russian Orthodox Church leaders, including patriarch Kirill Gundyaev, his right hand men Hillarion Alfeyev, Cyril Hovorun, Andrey Tkachov, Vladimir Vorobyov and others – for promoting so called “Russian world” and “orthodox nationalism” which are an ideological basis for Russian soldiers’ morale.

Besides this, other sanctions might be to terminate all the academia posts and all the degrees obtained in the Western universities by Russian citizens, especially in such areas as economics, finance, cyber technologies, space technologies, nuclear technologies, artificial intelligence, neural networks, machine learning, physics, chemistry, biological technologies etc. Canceling Russian citizens’ degrees from institutions like the CFA (Chartered financial analyst), which is issuing those for investment professionals, would also be helpful.

Ukrainian society has quite a high degree of solidarity and trust in President Volodymyr Zelensky. But war fatigue, panic, emotions, stress and fake news push Ukrainians to make mistakes in their assessments of the current risks to their security.

People have very different feelings about this war. Some are happy to be fighters for Ukraine’s armed forces. Some are really sad about losing a good corporate job, as the Ukrainian economy is going through really hard times. Some are just trying to hide away from war in a remote village, not even having the courage to read the news.

U.S. army general (retired) Ben Hodges, whom I interviewed for NV website, said he’s pretty sure that Ukrainian army, by the end of the day, will push away Russian invaders. This interview was read by approximately 2 million people in the Russian and Ukrainian languages. That’s the forecast that really matters for the Ukrainian society.

But, obviously, life isn’t easy during a war. Shortages of food and healthcare opportunities, emotional stress and other things undermine Ukraine’s ability to conduct its defensive operation against the Russian forces. It’s really helpful that foreign veterans are joining the territorial defense, an officially legislated unit within the country’s armed forces. Their experience is crucial for winning those battles in which the Russians are trying to be creative.

Let me go back to what I wrote in the beginning. Russian invasion, Russian war, Russian special operation. The philology of war – the words you use to describe the ongoing developments in Ukraine – leave you only so much space to express what you know and what you think.

That is important. War has a lot of personal stories and personal experience that can only be felt from the inside. War is a tragedy. A real human tragedy. Though the Western intelligence kept warning Ukraine about the day of Russian invasion, the war still came unexpected. But now we’re learning how to live through this. And that experience is unique.

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