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Stakes rise as Putin says his war in Ukraine will continue

Local residents help Igor Majayev, right, after home destroyed by Russian airstrike that killed at least 6 people, including Majayev's family members in Markhalivka, Ukraine, on March 5, 2022. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
March 06, 2022

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine heads toward the two-week mark, the stakes for both sides in the ground war look set to rise, with potentially catastrophic implications for Ukrainian civilians and greater challenges for the country’s so far remarkably successful defense.

President Vladimir Putin said again on Sunday the war will continue until Ukraine accepts his demands and halts resistance, dimming hopes for a negotiated settlement. Putin says Ukraine must “demilitarize” and he has made clear his goal is to remove the current government.

In a call with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Putin also repeated his assertion that the “special military operation” he launched in Ukraine on Feb. 24 is going to plan, according to a Kremlin statement.

A second failed attempt to create safe passage for some 200,000 civilians trapped in the besieged eastern port city of Mariupol only underscored the humanitarian disaster that’s unfolding in Ukraine. The United Nations said on Sunday that more than 1.5 million people have already fled the country since hostilities began.

Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke with Putin in Moscow on Saturday, then flew onto Berlin to see German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Bennett spoke again with Putin on Sunday amid a flurry of phone calls by leaders to Putin and to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the effort to de-escalate a conflict that promises to exact heavy costs for Europe and the global economy, as well as for Ukraine and Russia.

French President Emmanuel Macron also spoke with the Russian leader on Sunday to discuss the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants.

While Russia has committed almost all of the ground forces it assembled for the attack on Ukraine, it has been hobbled by poor planning and logistics. Still, it has yet to bring a fraction of its artillery, electronic warfare, drone and combat aircraft capabilities to bear.

During a pause to regroup, Russian forces launched no new major offensives for much of the weekend, while Ukraine’s military launched a counter attack near the northern city of Kharkiv, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based non-profit.

Its daily report said major Russian assaults on Kyiv and Kharkiv, as well as Mykolayiv and possibly Odesa in the south, were likely to resume within 48 hours.

On Sunday, Ukraine’s defense ministry reported that eight cruise missiles hit Vinnytsia, about 250 km (155 miles) south west of the capital. Residents also fled Irpin, a Kyiv suburb, as it came under ground attack.

After a week in which Putin raised the alert status of his nuclear forces and his troops showed a willingness to risk radiation spillage by seizing nuclear power stations in live firefights, the stakes in the conflict only appear to be rising for both sides.

Russia has increasingly brought indiscriminate weaponry to bear in its attempts to capture Kharkiv and Mariupol, in what some military analysts see as a likely warning to other cities not to resist. The widespread use of artillery and multiple launch rockets by an army that has the world’s most fearsome arsenal of such weapons would see civilian casualties soar. There has also been evidence of cluster bomb use, banned by most countries in civilian environments. Moscow says it is only targeting military assets.

Putin warned over the weekend that any attempt to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine — as Zelenskiy has asked of the U.S. and Europe — would be seen as joining the conflict. He described Western sanctions as “akin to a declaration of war,” while adding “but thank God it has not come to that.”

NATO has repeatedly ruled out a no-fly zone despite the Ukrainian pleas, saying it risked bringing the alliance’s aircraft into direct confrontation with Russian planes, and thus setting off a broader war in Europe.

Still, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said America was looking at whether Poland could supply Ukraine with more combat aircraft.

A Polish official with direct knowledge of the matter said this could only potentially happen in the event the U.S. expedited replacement fighter jets to Warsaw, adding the government was also cautious of any action that could draw it into direct conflict with Moscow. Sending U.S.-made fighters to other countries is a process that can take years. It would require planes to be retrofitted for Poland and its pilots trained in flying them.

Blinken also said the U.S. was discussing with allies ways to impose an embargo on the purchase of Russian oil — a major component of Russian budget revenues — without disrupting global oil markets.

For Russia, its campaign faces growing risks should Ukrainian resistance continue. Logistical and operational “exhaustion” is likely to set in within three weeks, demanding a major resupply of Russian units, Michael Kofman, a specialist on the Russian armed forces at the Washington security think tank CNA, said in a Twitter thread.

Speaking on a West Point Modern War Institute webinar, Kofman also said the initial Russian operation had been “shambolic.” Rather than follow doctrine and training, Russian commanders had broken up their forces into small detachments “to do thunder runs” into towns and cities that were expected to fall without a fight.

As a result, they had little artillery, no air cover and overran the ability of logistics chains to resupply themselves. Putting all that back together to maximize Russian military power will take time, Kofman said.

Still, he cautioned against dismissing the Russian campaign as a failure. “It’s clear that this war will get a lot uglier and that the worst is yet to come,” Kofman said.

Russia has deployed 90% of its available ground forces, according to the U.S., but has taken only a small part of Ukrainian territory.

“This suggests there is not much spare capacity for the western parts of the country, which is where Ukrainian forces, commanded from Lviv, could regroup with supplies coming in from Poland, Slovakia and possibly Hungary, if Kyiv were to fall,” Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, wrote in a blog post on Sunday.

In a further challenge, emerging videos of protests in the few cities Russian troops have captured so far, such as Kherson in the south and Konotop in the north, suggest holding territory will demand resources that Russia may struggle to find, according to Freedman.

Given the initial logistical and operational failures the Russian military is now having to untangle, plus an estimated $1 billion per day spent on pursuing the war and with an economy under attack from unprecedented sanctions, “the Kremlin should be worried,” Freedman wrote.

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