Ukraine escalation

Ahmed Eleiba , Friday 6 Jan 2023

As 2022 neared its end, statements by leaders in Moscow, Kyiv and Washington raised hopes of an initiative to end ten months of hostilities in Ukraine.

Ukraine escalation
photo: AFP

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin said that a war can only end with a diplomatic settlement, while US President Joe Biden said that he was ready to talk with Putin about peace. For his part Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, during his visit to Washington in December, proposed a UN platform for a peace conference.

Sadly, such hopes were dashed before the year was out as fighting escalated, heralding a fiercer winter than expected for the Ukrainian people.

Russia intensified its missile and drone strikes against energy infrastructure throughout Ukraine, including the vicinity of Kyiv, while Belarus has been included in Russian plans in some capacity.

During his visit to Minsk in late December, Putin discussed strategic arrangements with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko that could lead to a military merger between the two countries or perhaps even Belarus joining the Russian Federation. If so, this would offer Russia the advantage of southern Belarus as another strategic point from which to pressure Ukraine.

The intensive Russian strikes against northwestern Ukraine may be intended to prepare the ground for an offensive from that direction. The arrangements are also intended to reassure Minsk in view of the NATO buildup in the Baltic States while offering Moscow a larger window on that potential theatre. Until this point, it only had Kaliningrad for that purpose. A mutual security pact of some sort with Minsk would also give Russia access to Belarus’s large military stockpiles which might help compensate for the depletion of its military hardware and equipment during ten months of fighting.

If a closer strategic relationship between Russia and Belarus put paid to talk of dialogue, calls from Washington for a “decapitation blow” to the Kremlin did not help. Russia interpreted such statements as a “threat to physically eliminate the head of the Russian state,” as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview with Russian media in late December. But even before this, all sides were quick to denounce what they claimed were impossible to meet conditions of the other sides’ initiatives.

Ukraine adhered to its maximalist position demanding Russia’s withdrawal not just to the pre-24 February lines but from all of what it claims is Ukrainian territory, including Crimea. Kyiv also held that Russia should not be invited to the table of proposed UN peace talks until after Russian leaders were brought before a special war crimes tribunal. Moscow, for its part, insisted on recognition of the four regions it has annexed, namely the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk republics and the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts. Clearly the political will to stop fighting and head to the negotiating table is lacking in Moscow, Kyiv, Washington and Brussels.

As Russia escalated strikes against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, Ukraine escalated missile attacks deep into the Russian interior, striking the Diaghilev air base in the Ryazan Oblast and the Engels air base in the Saratov Oblast. The strikes exposed weaknesses in the Russian air defence systems. More recently, Ukraine claimed it struck five Russian camps in Donetsk and Russian command acknowledged that more than 60 soldiers had been killed in Makiivka, which is an assembly point for the soldiers recently recruited in the partial mobilisation in Russia last autumn. The two attacks delivered a double blow to Russian troop morale before the new recruits had been fully deployed. This is supposed to be the highest toll Ukrainian forces have inflicted on Russian forces in a single day since the beginning of the war.

The escalation in missile strikes appears to be reciprocal. According to official Russian sources, 500 crews of Russian strategic missile forces were on duty on New Year’s Eve and Russian fighter planes were brought in again to deliver strikes deep into western Ukraine. Ukraine does not have air power, but it does possess some qualitative missile systems. For example, it used the HIMARS missile defence batteries to target the Makiivka base, again exposing weaknesses in Russian air defences. According to some reports, Ukrainian forces were able to pinpoint the location of the Russian camps because of the failure to control soldiers’ use of their mobile phones and the lack of other precautionary measures.

Ukrainian forces have also enhanced their defences against drones, at least according to Ukrainian reports that claim an 85 to 90 per cent success rate at downing incoming drones. Russia also lacks the types of drones that can operate effectively in Ukraine as the Iranian designed Shahed 136 drones do not function well in Ukraine’s freezing winter temperatures. Russia has launched plans to manufacture drones locally. But it will take time before production operations come on line, especially given that Western sanctions impede access to certain high-tech components, such as the microchips needed for the guidance systems.

The Russian escalation in air strikes is a response to difficulties in gaining territory on the ground. Russian forces are still unable to take full control of the strategic town of Bakhmut and they have yet to fully secure their front lines across eastern Ukraine. Some observers maintain that Western and primarily US military support for Ukraine has sapped Russian strength and reinforced Ukraine’s ability to halt Russian advances. Therefore, Russia will probably continue to increase its air strikes across western Ukraine as a response to Ukrainian resistance on the ground in the Donbas and to compensate for large losses in Russian ranks.

The strikes will increasingly focus on the vicinity of the Kyiv with the aim of demoralising the Ukrainian leadership and as a means to circumvent obstacles on the ground. Possibly, the reduction in Russian offences around the cities of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson may be intended to reduce Ukrainian pressure to the southeast where Russia needs to reinforce defences in order to fend off a possible Ukrainian offensive towards the Crimean Peninsula and to protect the Russian bases it has built in the western region.

 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

 

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