The present status of Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine is very fluid, violent, and frequently startling. NPI will try to err on the side of caution when evidence behind claims or statements are lacking.
Neither Russian nor Ukrainian military forces have been able to achieve decisive victories in their most recent combat against one another, but patterns are emerging that could reach decisive moments within the next two weeks or less.
In the greater Kyiv metropolitan area, Ukrainian forces are attempting to translate the retaking of the towns of Markariv and Kukharska into attacks beyond them, accompanied by attacks on the opposite side of the tip of the Russian salient northwest of Kyiv and just north of Bucha and Hostomel.
The likely objective is to force the Russians to withdraw or lose artillery and ground-to-ground missile units and thus minimize their ability to successfully bombard Kyiv, but apparently the Russian defense has been soft enough that the Ukrainian military is talking about the possibility of isolating and surrounding a portion of Russian military forces within the salient.
(This hasn’t stopped Russian forces from bombarding a neighborhood nearby the center of Kyiv on Wednesday, March 23rd.)
Regardless of whether or not such a possibility exists, it has been confirmed that Russian units are adopting defensive positions in most of the salient northwest of Kyiv and immediately surrounding the besieged town of Chernihiv.
More importantly, it appears that recent fighting immediately to the south and southeast of Chernihiv has resulted not only in reopened supply lines to the city, which had been momentarily closed, but also may have created an isolated Russian pocket between Kozelets and Bohdanivka and another around the town of Nova Basan. Further east, though Russian bombardment has continued in Sumy, the Sumy-through-Okhtyrkra area has been largely quiet since a recent failed Russian assault on Okhtyrkra.
Further south, the Russians have largely continued their slow but steady progress. Within the Lunansk and Donetsk oblasts of the Donbas region, the Russians are fighting hard to turn the flanks of the extensive defensive lines both sides have created since the 2014 invasion, specifically at Marinka to the south and an area between the towns of Yampil, Sievierodonetsk and Lystchansk to the north.
The Russians are also taking cues from the Ukrainians: they’ve been bombing key rail junctions behind the lines to minimize access to supplies and munitions and have been using drones more often to find and follow single or small groups of mobile Ukrainian units to destroy larger concentrations in the process.
And when that hasn’t worked, they’ve been willing to be worse.
There have been grumblings that Russian forces have used white phosphorus in nighttime attacks around Kyiv and the Donbas for the last week, and this has finally led to formal accusations of such use around the town of Kramatorsk.
Another apparent Russian effort has been to detect Aeroscope signaling on drones manufactured by Chinese firm DJI, which exists to determine when such drones enter restricted airspace in peacetime, to track and kill their operators.
The problem is that while most DJI drones in Ukraine are being used by its military, the drones are inexpensive enough that civilians have them in significant numbers as well. The Ukrainian military is appealing to DJI to turn off Aeroscope signals within Ukraine, as it may have led to the deaths of over one hundred Ukrainian children playing with something they consider a hobby.
Toward the southwest, Mariupol is slowly being reduced to rubble and ash by Russian forces. While apparently around 190,000 civilians have been able to withdraw from the city to areas behind the front lines within Ukraine, there are still at least two hundred thousand civilians thought to be in the city, which has no electricity, natural gas or potable water available.
The Russians have forced the evacuation of over seven thousand civilians in the city into either the occupied Lunansk and Donetsk oblasts of the Donbas region, or to within Russia itself.
In either case, this latter group of civilians have not contacted relatives or friends since their removal from Mariupol, and no aid agency has been able to confirm where they are in order to provide for their needs.
In addition to attempts to create humanitarian corridors out of Mariupol, with mixed results, there are seven attempting to come into being and successfully used as of Sunday, March 20th.
The Russians have been ruthless in taking Mariupol, with prime examples from the media being the destruction of both the Mariupol Drama School with a bomb shelter housing between a thousand and twelve hundred women, children and the elderly, and later an art school with over four hundred residents, many huddled in its basement.
But for all this, even within this area the lines of battle are still porous.
On Tuesday, March 24th, apparently one Russian warship was sunk and two more damaged at the port of Berdyansk, some fifty miles southwest of Mariupol.
This was a force that dispersed Russian naval infantry, munitions and supplies toward Mariupol, and which would have been used later in any amphibious attack on Odesa.
There is some question as to how much Ukrainian supplies and war materiel were pre-positioned within the city, as given its location on the Sea of Azov, which in turn makes it crucial for control of the Black Sea, the Ukrainian military likely saw it as a prime target in the event of an invasion. Most military observers have been surprised by the extent to which the city has held out so far. This matters because the more Russian casualties there are in taking Mariupol, the less forces are available for reinforcing attacks toward Marinka or points further west.
Further southwest, Ukrainian counterattacks have been made toward Kherson, initially through bombardment and/or missile attacks on the nearby airfield at Chornobayivka on March 15th and 18th — this may have led to the withdrawal of Russian military helicopters at the airfield.
On Wednesday, March 16th, there was an attempt to force local notables from Kherson, through a group called the “Kherson Rescue Committee for Peace and Order,” to create a new collaborationist authority that would eventually lead to the creation of a new breakaway republic.
The effort failed, however, and later that same evening, Ukrainian special forces units freed Melitopol’s elected Mayor, Ivan Fyodorov, from his Russian captors.
On March 20th, Pavel Slobodchikov, an assistant to Russian collaborationist Kherson City Council member Volodymyr Saldo, was, with his wife, assassinated.
Demonstrations against Russian occupying forces by the citizens of Kherson have been ongoing since its surrender by the Ukrainian military, but they were fired upon for the first time on Monday, March 21st, resulting in at least two wounded.
Ukrainian forces have been able to successfully push back Russian forces near Mykolaiv, with successful attempts toward the east at taking the nearby towns of Khrystoforivka, Hreihove, Kyselivka and Pervomaiske, possibly through the Ukrainian 79th Air Assault Brigade. Meanwhile, Russian forces have been making exploratory attacks to the northeast of Kherson.
One is toward the city of Kryvyi Riv, which would place them another step closer to pocketing Ukrainian forces in both the Donbas and possibly the Sumy-through-Okhtyrkra area.
The second is toward the city of Nikopol, across the Dnipro River from the occupied town of Enerhodar and its adjacent Zaporizhzhia commercial nuclear power facility. This would also be a means of further ensuring that Dnipro River water can’t be blocked from access to the Crimean peninsula, which relies almost entirely on the river for its supply.
(A dam built by the Ukrainians after the 2014 invasion to block access was blown up by the Russians early in the 2022 invasion.)
The fighting at this point has clarified each side’s weaknesses and strengths.
Russian combat effectiveness and coordination have been severely dissipated through having six axes of attack against Ukraine.
At this point, beyond exploratory attacks outside of the Donbas, the focus now appears to be on ensuring a supply line from Kherson to the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, in preparation for a future push toward Odesa, and attempting to break the Ukrainian forces in the Donbas with an effort toward pocketing forces there and to the immediate north before they can escape the net and cross the southern approaches of the Dnipro River.
The Russians have been fighting somewhat more intelligently lately, but can they afford to continue to sustain such heavy losses? The Syrian mercenaries may not be coming. Even if the military of Belarus wants to assist, the ongoing “railway war” could wreak havoc with that plan, and if they attack the northwest portion of Ukraine without significant Russian fire support, they will be slaughtered.
Calling up conscripts throughout Russia to replace losses may harm the image within Russia that this conflict is both limited and under control.
The Ukrainian military, with an extraordinary level of of signals intelligence, supplies and munitions provided by NATO, has fought a resilient and adaptable defense against a huge but largely incompetent Russian military that has relied too much on shock and awe, mass and firepower to ensure a quick victory.
The first problem is how to create a more flexible defense in the Donbas.
The Russians are trying to starve the Ukrainians of future munitions there and grind away at their positions, and if they lose key points along their defensive lines, the geography behind them will be very difficult to defend until they reach the Dnipro River. That in turn could unravel the defense of Kharkov to Sumy, and cause Chernihiv to be at risk of being surrounded again.
The other problem is that while the Ukrainian military has been very effective as a defensive force, at some point they will have to be able to commit to significant offensive operations. And that means artillery or its equivalent in greater numbers than they have presently. They are carefully using what they have in their approach toward Kherson, the Chernihv area and northwest of Kyiv, but they will need much more offensive firepower to eventually break the Russian army.
This may be where the new American Switchblade weapons system proves effective, but for the immediate future, the difficulty will be how to get enough artillery from NATO to Ukrainian units without running into a dilemma similar to that of the Polish Mig-29 aircraft potentially available to Ukraine.
There has been no word of the status regarding the Zaporizhzhia commercial nuclear power facility or the status of its operations and maintenance staff since shortly after its takeover by Russian military forces on March 4th.
Only a portion of the Ukrainian staff at the Chernobyl commercial nuclear power facility in the north of Ukraine, occupied by Russian military forces since February 24th, were rotated out of maintenance and replaced with fresh staff on March 20th. This was immediately followed on Tuesday, March 22nd, by a series of forest fires within the Exclusion Zone of the facility, which suffered a reactor breach, explosion and widespread dispersal of radiation in 1986.
Monitoring of both facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency has essentially been unavailable since their occupation by the Russian military.
Over three and a half million people have fled Ukraine, and over six and a half million people within Ukraine are internally displaced.
Over sixty percent of those that have left Ukraine now reside in Poland, which had over three hundred thousand Ukrainians working there with temporary residence permits before the war. There are concerns that appropriate levels of funding aren’t yet in place to accommodate such large numbers of refugees, especially with respect to health concerns in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There is also the issue of whether refugees want to, and the extent to which they will be, accepted by other countries within NATO. The United States is expected to immediately take in around 100,000 refugees, though details are not yet final.
General Magomed Tushaev’s passing may not be accurate, though it’s still open to question. There is allegedly a video from Monday, March 21st, that shows him active with Russian-supporting Chechen forces within the Donbas region, but the situation is murky at best.
Regardless, the number of Russian officers dying in Ukraine keeps rising, one of the newest and highest ranked being Lieutenant General Andrei Mordvichev, who died during one of the two attacks on Chornobayivka airfield.
Here is a helpful explainer of the process and obstacles involved in successfully prosecuting President Putin of Russia (or any high ranking officer of the Russian military, for that matter), which Putin has been declared by President Biden.
President Biden will also, likely this week, extend personal sanctions against the leadership of Russia and its oligarchs to include members of the Russian Duma.
Cargill has decided to trim existing operations and not invest in new plans as well, but that isn’t entirely sitting well with the state where its global headquarters is based. Cummins has suspended all existing operations within Russia as of March 15th.
Nestle, which had been adamant about maintaining all operations within Russia, on March 23rd declared that it would only maintain operations for baby food and “essential nutrition.” Renault, of a similar frame of mind, has on the same day decided to suspend operations at its Moscow plant and is reviewing its options. One company that has refused to leave Russia is Koch Industries, which has led to distancing by American elected officials it has financially supported in the past.
Haliburton has decided to end current operations and future plans within Russia, while its primary competitors have decided to continue existing work but not commit to any future efforts for the time being.
British Petroleum gave up its $25 billion investment in Russian oil company Rosenfelt on February 28th. ExxonMobil backed out of an offshore project near Sakhalin Island and decided to halt all future investments in Russia as of March 1st. French oil producer TotalEnergies, the fifth largest oil company in the world, decided to stop purchasing Russian oil before the end of 2022.
(Remaining silent so far have been the second and third largest oil companies in the world, PetroChina and China Petroleum & Chemical, who are apparently trying to decide how best to take advantage of suddenly open possibilities.)
While these might seem like weak responses, Russia relies on sales of petrol to remain financially viable and over time this will mean less revenue as no new wells are quickly developed and existing wells continue to decline in output.
Putin has responded to all of this with a decision to require all Russian oil sold to “unfriendly countries” be traded in rubles.
His hope is to stabilize the ruble versus other currencies due to demand for the ruble to purchase contracts, and highlights the key means of hurting Russia that hasn’t happened yet — a ban on imports of Russian energy.
The United States is moving forward with a ban, but the European Union has not.
Germany, which gets 55% of its natural gas, 35% of its petroleum and 35% of its coal from Russia, fears a deep and lasting recession if an immediate ban takes effect. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary, which relies on Russia for almost all of its energy requirements, has flat out rejected this option.
Bulgaria, which relies on Russia for 70% of its energy requirements, won’t try to stop a ban but would require an exception for itself. There’s talk of potentially reducing reliance on Russian energy sources significantly within the European Union by the end of this year and full independence “before 2030,” but it’s a safe bet that one of President Biden’s goals while visiting NATO, EU and G‑7 leaders in Luxembourg, Brussels and Poland is to make this a reality much sooner than later.