A day after Ukraine’s armed forces announced that they were withdrawing their remaining troops from the mostly destroyed town of Severodonetsk, one of their last strongholds in the Luhansk province of the Donbas, long-range Russian missiles attacked a shopping mall in the central city of Kremenchuk while more than 1,000 civilians were inside at the time, killing at least 15 people and wounding 59 others. Earlier, another Russian missile hit and badly damaged an apartment building in the capital city of Kyiv, which had been largely free from Russian attacks since Ukrainian forces drove Russian troops from the area in April.
At the same time, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky was addressing via video the leaders of the G7 nations who were gathered in Munich, Germany. He reportedly requested more advanced Western anti-aircraft systems to better protect against Russian missile attacks on civilian areas, which is now clearly a deliberate tactic by the Russian military. Zelensky again pleaded for the accelerated delivery of the tanks, artillery, long-range rocket systems, and other weapons he has requested from the US and other Western countries to enable the Ukrainian military to go on the offensive and bring the war with Russia to a close before the weather turns cold again at the end of this year.
In response, the G7 leaders, representing Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Great Britain, and the US, promised to continue to support Ukraine in its war against Russia for “as long as it takes.” In a separate joint statement, the G7 leaders also condemned the Russian missile strike on the Ukrainian mall, declaring, “We stand united with Ukraine in mourning the innocent victims of this brutal attack. Indiscriminate attacks on innocent civilians constitute a war crime.”
RUSSIA USING FOOD AS A WEAPON
The G7 leaders also demanded that Russian President Vladimir Putin allow Ukraine’s grain grown for export to leave Ukraine’s ports on the Black Sea. The continuing Russian blockade now threatens to create a global food shortage impacting in particular poorer countries around the world.
“We urgently call on Russia to cease, without condition, its attacks on agricultural and transport infrastructure and enable free passage of agricultural shipping from Ukrainian ports,” a G7 statement said.
There is also evidence that Russian forces occupying areas of Ukraine have been systematically stealing grain and other produce from local farmers for resale on the global market.
President Biden attended the G7 meetings in Munich and called upon the European leaders to make up for the loss of oil and natural gas by accelerating their economies’ conversion to green energy sources, including solar panels and wind turbines, rather than restarting their shuttered coal and nuclear energy plants.
Meanwhile, the Biden White House announced separately that it would be supplying Ukraine with the same advanced portable anti-aircraft system currently deployed by the US military to protect the airspace over Washington, DC.
Russia has one of the world’s largest and most modern air forces. However, its ability to use its warplanes to attack targets deep inside Ukraine has been limited by the fact that about 75% of Ukraine’s radar-guided air defense systems are still operational. As a result, most of the Russian attacks on ground targets far behind the lines in Ukraine have been carried out using long-range guided missiles fired by aircraft flying in Russian airspace, beyond the range of Ukrainian anti-aircraft systems.
THE US ANSWER TO RUSSIAN ARTILLERY
US officials also reported that Ukrainian forces have begun using the first four MLRS rocket systems that recently arrived in the country, and that more were on the way from the US and its NATO partners.
In the ongoing artillery war of attrition in the eastern Donbas region, Ukrainian forces have been heavily outgunned by Russian forces, who have a vast inventory of vintage Cold War artillery pieces and shells. Ukraine’s forces, meanwhile, report that they are encountering ammunition resupply problems for their Cold War-era Soviet artillery pieces and complain that the replacement modern Western artillery pieces they have requested have been slow to arrive.
The US is apparently supplying Ukraine with the smaller, shorter-range versions of the rocket systems specifically designed during the Cold War to counter heavy Russian artillery fire. Also known as High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, the truck-mounted systems being delivered to Ukraine can fire up to six 220-millimeter diameter rockers simultaneously. The rockets have an effective range of about 44 miles, considerably further than that of the Russian artillery, and carry a warhead with up to 200 pounds of explosives.
The MLRS systems also proved to be highly effective in combat against Saddam Hussein’s Soviet-equipped Iraqi army during the First Persian Gulf War. Ukraine has now requested 300 of the MLRS systems from the US and its allies to silence the Russian artillery barrages.
UKRAINE IN RETREAT IN THE DONBAS
After almost two months of intense fighting, the badly outgunned Ukrainian defenders were forced to retreat from the strategically important town of Severodonetsk a few days after the Russians destroyed all three main bridges crossing the Siverskyui Donets River that connect the city, which has been 80% destroyed by the Russian artillery bombardment, to the nearby city of Lysychansk and Ukrainian-held territory to the West.
Ukrainian defenders had been holed up in the large Azov industrial plant on the northern bank of the river, which served as their base of operations during weeks of brutal street battles and artillery exchanges with Russian troops. Hundreds of local civilians were killed during the intense fighting.
The defenders were redeployed to the nearby city of Lysychansk, on the west bank of the Donets River, to avoid them being surrounded and captured by the advancing Russian troops. Lysychansk now appears to be the next target of the Russian advance.
However, unlike the destroyed nearby Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, most of the civilian residents of Severodonetsk were able to evacuate to areas of relative safety in western Ukraine before the Russians surrounded the city. Most of those who voluntarily stayed behind apparently looked forward to the city’s occupation by Russian forces.
PUTIN’S NEW OFFENSIVE IS MORE EFFECTIVE
After Russian troops were forced to withdraw in April from their stalled multi-pronged assault on Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv, Putin repositioned them to the east in a renewed effort to conquer the rest of the industrial Donbas region, with its large population of native Russian speakers.
In February, on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine, Putin formally recognized the independence of the two proxy states he had carved out of parts of Donbas in 2014. They were called the Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics, and controlled only about one-third of the Donbas at the time.
While Ukraine still retains more than a third of the Donetsk region, including the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, if the Russian could now capture Lysychansk in addition to Severodonetsk, Putin could claim that he has fully “liberated” at least one of these two predominantly Russian-speaking people’s republics.
Russian forces have been advancing in areas south and southwest of Lysychansk in recent days to surround and cut off the city, but the main road connecting it to the rest of Ukraine still remains passable for the moment, enabling the continued resupply or evacuation, if necessary, of the city’s Ukrainian defenders.
In the areas of the Donbas they already control, the Russians have installed new civilian local officials, distributed Russian passports to the residents, and substituted the Russian ruble for Ukrainian currency. Once the remaining Ukrainian troops have been totally cleared from Donetsk and Luhansk, Putin apparently intends to annex the entire Donbas region to Russia, as he did with the Crimean Peninsula after it was conquered by invading Russian troops in 2014.
Putin has now declared the “liberation of Donbas” to be the principal aim of his war in Ukraine. His troops also continue to occupy most of the southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, which provide a land bridge between mainland Russia and the annexed Crimean Peninsula. However, there are reports that Ukrainian fighters have used a series of car bomb and land mine attacks to target the new Russian-appointed officials in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
UKRAINE FIGHTING BACK EFFECTIVELY
Unlike 2014, the Ukrainian defenders have also fought back effectively in the Donbas, slowing the Russian advances there to a crawl. At the current slow pace, it could take Russian troops several months to seize the remaining parts of Donbas, military analysts say.
Ukrainian forces have suffered heavy casualties of up to 400 fighters being killed every day by the intense Russian artillery fire during the fighting in the Donbas. The Russian troop and equipment losses have also been very heavy, including an estimated 35,000 men killed, 1,500 tanks destroyed, as well as the loss of hundreds of artillery pieces, aircraft, and helicopters since the war started on February 24. But since the Russian army has much larger reserves of men and armaments than Ukraine, Putin apparently doesn’t care how many of them are lost in the process of completing his conquest of the Donbas region.
As an indication of the importance to Putin of conquering the remaining sliver of Luhansk province not yet under Russian control, his Defense Ministry announced that its Group Center, under the direct command of Col. Gen. Alexander Lapin, the head of Russia’s Central Military District, is leading the assault on Lysychansk, while Group South, under the command of the head of the Russian Aerospace Forces, Army Gen. Sergei Surovikin, is leading the effort to capture several villages south of the city.
ZELENSKY’S SHOPPING LIST
President Zelensky has said that his forces cannot continue to sustain their current rate of losses, and has pleaded for the accelerated delivery of a wide variety of advanced Western weapons, in addition to the MLRS, to halt the Russian advances in the Donbas.
On June 13, Zelensky’s military advisor, Mykhailo Podolsk, published a list of the weapons Ukraine is currently requesting from the US and its Western allies. The list includes 1,000 155 mm US-style howitzer artillery pieces; 500 additional tanks, which will mostly be Cold War-era Soviet models still in use by some NATO countries in Eastern Europe; 2,000 armored personnel carriers; 1,000 drones, including reconnaissance and attack versions; and 20 launchers for anti-ship missiles to help break the Russian blockade in the Black Sea of cargo ships carrying grains and other essential goods now trapped in the primary Ukrainian port of Odessa.
The weapons are needed to replace the arms that Ukraine’s forces have lost over the last four months of combat, and to enable them to go on the offensive during the summer and fall months, in an effort to drive out the Russian invaders before the winter weather returns.
Many of those advanced systems are now beginning to reach Ukrainian forces on the battlefield, although their lack of adequate training in the proper use of the Western weapons remains an ongoing problem. The US is also withholding the longer-range version of the MLRS system, with a range of up to 180 miles, to prevent Ukraine from using it to launch missile strikes on targets deep inside sovereign Russian territory, for fear of provoking a more intense Russian retaliation.
Ukraine’s top military commander, General Valeriy Zaluzhny, in a recent conversation with the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, stressed “the necessity to attain firepower parity with the enemy, which would allow us to stabilize the situation on the most dangerous axis, Luhansk.”
PUTIN’S VICTORY LAP
Meanwhile, on Friday, June 17, Putin delivered his first major speech since ordering the invasion of Ukraine on February 24. In a 73-minute address to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum — Russia’s answer to the annual world economic conference in Davos, Switzerland — Putin delivered a scathing critique blaming the United States, rather than his invasion of Ukraine, for fostering the current simultaneous crises in global relations, food security, inflation, and trade.
However, because of the negative reaction to the invasion of Ukraine, the annual Russian economic showcase event was held this year with virtually no participation from Western countries.
He also claimed, with some justification, that the “blitzkrieg” of punitive Western economic sanctions had failed in its aim to cripple Russia’s economy, and had backfired instead, causing runaway inflation and soaring energy prices in both Europe and the United States.
HOW SANCTIONS ON RUSSIAN OIL BOOMERANGED
When they moved to curtail purchases of Russian fossil fuels, the US and its European allies had hoped to make the invasion of Ukraine so economically ruinous that Putin would be forced to abandon it. But that has not happened.
Instead, energy-hungry China and India swooped in to buy roughly the same volume of Russian oil that would have gone to the West. Russia has been forced to sell its oil at steep discounts to the world market price, but that is now so high that Russia is making even more money now from its sales, even at a discount, than it did before the war began.
In May, China’s imports of Russian oil rose 28% from the previous month, hitting a record high and helping Russia overtake Saudi Arabia as China’s largest supplier.
India, which had been purchasing very little Russian oil before the invasion of Ukraine, is now bringing in more than 760,000 barrels a day. Adding insult to injury, the combination of discounted Russian crude and higher prices at the pump means that Indian refineries are profiting handsomely by exporting the some of the products they have refined from Russian oil to the United States, Britain, France, and Italy.
Russian crude sales to Europe dropped by 554,000 barrels a day from March to May, but Asian refiners increased their take by 503,000 barrels a day — nearly a one-for-one replacement.
As a result, the Russian ruble, which seemed to be on the verge of collapse when the war started, has recently recovered its value and is now surging against the US dollar.
The real victims of the sanctions on Russian oil have turned out to be American and European car owners and consumers forced to pay for the sky-high cost of gasoline and diesel fuel through the prices being passed along at the pump and at the checkout counters in supermarkets and department stores.
PUTIN SAYS EUROPE IS COMMITTING “ECONOMIC SUICIDE”
In his St. Petersburg speech, Putin noted that the European Union in particular was committing “economic suicide” by cutting back on Russian natural gas and oil imports that much of the EU still heavily relies upon as its primary source of energy.
Putin also claimed that Russia is part of a new global order that is successfully challenging America’s efforts to cling to its post-Cold War status as the world’s lone superpower.
“Nothing lasts forever,” Putin said. “Only strong and sovereign governments [like Russia and China] can speak their minds in this newborn world order — either that or they’re destined to remain colonies” of the US, which treats all other countries in the world as “second class,” he added.
On the same day that the European Commission recommended that Ukraine be granted EU membership, Putin insisted that he had no objection, since “the EU isn’t a military organization, so Russia is not against Ukraine joining the EU.”
But Putin also declared that, “The European Union has fully lost its sovereignty. Its elites are dancing to someone else’s tune, harming their own population. Europeans’ and European businesses’ real interests are being totally ignored and swept aside.”
Putin did admit that Western sanctions had presented Russian consumers with a sudden lack of popular goods, but argued that Russia would come out stronger in the long run by asserting its economic independence from foreign suppliers.
PUTIN REDEFINES VICTORY AS CONTROL OF DONBAS
Putin also insisted Russia would meet “all its goals” in Ukraine — which he defined as “freedom for the Donbas.”
Putin called the invasion of Ukraine “the decision of a sovereign country that has an unconditional right … to defend its security… A decision aimed at protecting our citizens, residents of the People’s Republic of Donbas, who for eight years were subjected to genocide by the Kyiv regime and neo-Nazis who received the full protection of the West.”
In a question-and-answer session after his speech, Putin drew a parallel between the destruction in Ukraine and the legendary World War II battle of Stalingrad, where the Red Army finally halted the advance of the invading Nazis during a bloody six-month long siege that ended in February 1943 with a Soviet victory that turned the tide in the war.
“We must not turn those cities and towns that we liberate [in Ukraine] into a semblance of Stalingrad,” Putin said. “This is a natural thing that our military thinks about when organizing hostilities.”
EUROPEAN LEADERS GETTING COLD FEET
Meanwhile, the New York Times recently reported that during a recent visit to Kyiv by the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, and Romania, they delivered a troubling dual message to President Zelensky. In their public comments, while offering Ukraine a path to European Union membership, they “did not promise the country additional heavy weapons on the scale it says it needs to repel a bloody Russian advance in the East.” They also carefully adhered to the Biden administration’s policy by insisting “they were not pressing Mr. Zelensky to accept a peace deal with Moscow,” according to the Times report.
But in private conversations, they made it clear to a disappointed Zelensky that there are limits to the amount of support that they and the US are willing to deliver to Ukraine if the war with Russia drags on indefinitely. In particular, the US is now pulling back from its previous boasts that it intended to “drive Putin from power, destroy Russia’s capacity to make war, and halve the size of Russia’s economy.”
It also appears that America’s European allies are now applying increasing pressure on President Biden to retreat from his earlier demands for the full restoration of Ukraine’s pre-2014 borders, requiring Putin to give up both the Crimean territory he annexed and control of the Donbas.
WHAT WILL THE END GAME BE?
The Europeans are also asking for a prompt ceasefire to set the stage for negotiations over a permanent peace agreement to settle the disputes between Russia and Ukraine. But the history of such ceasefires in Korea and the Middle East suggests that any temporary lines drawn to reflect the current disposition of forces in Ukraine are likely to evolve into new, de facto borders, with Crimea, most of the Donbas, as well as much of Ukraine’s southern border areas remaining under Russian control.
Such an outcome would be disastrous for Zelensky’s government, yet another public embarrassment for the Biden administration, and an open invitation for Putin to renew his efforts to destroy what’s left of an independent Ukraine at the first convenient opportunity.
It also now appears that the economic sanctions on Russia that Biden and his European allies hoped would quickly bring Putin to his knees are likely to have the same effect upon Biden and his Democrat allies once American voters express their growing anger and frustration over inflation and high gas prices in the November midterm elections. A continuation of the war into the winter months would be even more disastrous for the Europeans, who have no viable substitute source of energy if Putin decides to take his revenge by simply shutting down the flow of Russian natural gas to Western Europe.
The Biden administration had thought it could bleed Russia economically through sanctions and continued military support for Ukraine’s uphill war for survival as an independent state against one of the most militarily powerful countries in the world. But that strategy, like so many others, has not worked out as Biden had hoped. Putin’s superior ability to tolerate indefinitely the military economic pain being generated by the war in Ukraine has now given him the upper hand.
Biden is also now running a significant risk that his government, rather than Putin’s, is more likely to be destabilized by the political and economic consequences if the fighting in Ukraine drags on without an acceptable resolution.
BIDEN’S FOOLISH AND DANGEROUS STRATEGY
In retrospect, it was both foolish and dangerous for the Biden administration to suggest that the US could stymie Putin’s ambitions and ultimately humiliate him when Biden remained unwilling, at every stage, to give Zelensky and Ukraine the weapons they needed to actually win the war on the ground against Russia. The tragic result was to prolong the military stalemate indefinitely, at a horrendous humanitarian cost to the people of Ukraine.
Over the past four months, both the US and Russian have shown that they can inflict an unacceptable level of pain on one another by continuing the current standoff in Ukraine. The appropriate goal now is to find a diplomatic formula for an outcome that is at least minimally acceptable to both sides. It would include a neutral but still independent Ukraine, but most likely without Crimea and at least some of the Donbas, as well as, ideally, an agreement by Russia and NATO to stand down militarily on both sides of Russia’s western border to try to prevent a recurrence of this avoidable tragedy in the future.