Russian dictator Vladimir Putin shocked and angered the world last week by resisting all efforts to dissuade him from launching an all-out invasion of Ukraine using tens of thousands of Russian troops with which he surrounded the country on three sides.
But the Ukrainian military defied widespread initial predictions of a quick collapse in the face of overwhelming Russian military power, and the rapid decapitation of the democratic, pro-Western government in Kyiv. Two out of the three Russian troop columns which initially invaded the country were stalled by the unexpectedly fierce and effective response put up by the outgunned and outnumbered Ukrainian forces on the approaches to the capital city of Kyiv, and inside Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
The Ukrainian military issued a defiant statement accusing the Russian forces of targeting civilian airfields and other critical infrastructure in violation of international humanitarian law. “At the same time, all attempts by the Russian invaders to achieve the goal of the military operation failed,” the statement added.
With each passing day of successful resistance to the Russian attacks, Ukrainian leaders projected growing confidence, crediting Ukraine’s citizens for fighting to thwart Putin’s plan of overthrowing Ukraine’s government and destroying its military command-and-control capabilities in a lightning strike.
“These three days have forever changed our country and the world,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Sunday morning. “These will be trying times ahead. But now we are no longer the only ones to believe in our victory. And that is why we are receiving the aid that was unthinkable three days ago.”
A member of the Ukrainian parliament told CNN on Monday that by the fifth day of fighting, the Russian invasion force had already suffered 5,000 dead soldiers and was not even stopping to pick up their bodies.
That claim was verified by video news reports from the battlefield by CNN and other news channels showing the aftermath of some of the bitter fighting during the first days of the invasion. One CNN report showed the smoking ruins of a convoy of Russian military vehicles destroyed by Ukrainian soldiers firing Western-supplied Javelin anti-tank missiles on a bridge in northern Ukraine. The bodies of two dead Russian soldiers abandoned by their comrades were visible lying on the ground near the burned vehicles.
Video footage broadcast by Ukrainian news channels Tuesday showed about a dozen smoldering Russian military vehicles with “Z” identifying signs in the town of Borodyanka, the result of a Ukrainian strike on the long column headed towards Kyiv.
PUTIN IGNORES HISTORY AND REFUSES TO TURN BACK
One of the ironies of Putin’s miscalculation of the willingness of Ukrainian soldiers to fight back against the invaders was that he had ignored one of the greatest chapters in Russian military history. That was the gallant defense of the cities of Leningrad and Stalingrad during World War II by the Soviet Red Army and local civilians, ultimately defeating the invading German army.
The siege of Stalingrad lasted for six months, and the ultimate victory of the Red Army is widely considered to be one of the turning points of the war. The siege of Leningrad, which also resulted in a Russian victory over the Germans, lasted for more than two years. It was therefore naive for Putin to believe that his army could crush the determined defenders of Kyiv, who had been battling Russian forces in eastern Ukraine over the previous eight years, within a few days.
However, instead of pulling his military forces back in the face of unexpectedly stiff Ukrainian resistance, Putin doubled down, sending in reserves of armor and fresh troops which he had been massing on Ukraine’s borders for almost a year. Ukrainian officials also expected that up to 50,000 troops from neighboring Belarus, a Russian puppet state, would also cross Ukraine’s northern border, near Kyiv, in support of the Russian invasion.
Satellite photographs revealed Monday that a 40-mile-long armored column consisting of Russian tanks, troop carriers, mobile artillery, and logistical supplies, was approaching Kyiv from the north, and was only 15 miles from the city, prompting fears that an intense street battle for control of the city would begin as soon as it arrived.
However, the column was moving slowly, covering only three miles over Sunday night, due to stubborn Ukrainian resistance and problems of the Russian military’s own making. Reportedly, the column had gotten bogged down because many of its vehicles had run out of fuel, suggesting a surprising lack of proper planning and execution by Russian commanders.
After Ukraine’s successes in halting the initial Russian advances and promises of large new weapons deliveries from the US and its European allies, morale was high among Ukrainian soldiers and ordinary citizens that the Russians would ultimately be defeated.
UKRAINIAN CIVILIANS RESPOND TO A CALL TO ARMS
Ukraine, which has standing armed forces of about 200,000 service members, said Sunday it had mobilized an additional 100,000 troops in the past 48 hours. Russia had massed some 190,000 on Ukrainian borders on the eve of the invasion, according to US estimates.
President Volodymyr Zelensky called on Ukrainians to take up arms and defend the country, and many military age-men — and women — responded by volunteering to stay and fight the Russian invaders as members of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense force.
On Shabbos, before a government curfew was imposed in Kyiv, the biggest lines were at volunteer recruitment centers for the Territorial Defense force. Outside one sports facility converted for the purpose, hundreds of recruits waited in a line that snaked around the building.
“I never expected so many would turn up. The whole city has risen up now,” one of the Ukrainian officers at the site said. “A bit too late, but better late than never.”
Ukrainian women are also volunteering to help in the home defense effort. News channels featured videos of women preparing home-made gasoline bombs (Molotov cocktails) for use by Ukrainian soldiers and volunteer militia members against Russian military vehicles.
The volunteers said they had no choice but to fight now that Russian forces were on Kyiv’s doorstep. “A Russian rocket hit a building near my home this morning,” said one of the new recruits, a 35-year-old IT specialist. “This was the last straw for me, and now it’s time to take up arms. Everyone in this city who wanted to escape has already fled.”
UKRAINE INVITES INTERNATIONAL VOLUNTEERS
President Zelensky also announced the creation of a new International Legion of the Ukrainian Army, along the lines of the international brigades that fought during the Spanish Civil War, from 1936-1939, on behalf of the Soviet-supported Spanish republic against the fascist-supported forces led by General Francisco Franco. More than 1,000 American leftists had volunteered to go to Spain to join the Abraham Lincoln brigade fighting alongside the Republican forces. The Spanish Civil War was a prelude to World War II in Europe, in which Nazi Germany and fascist Italy testing their new weapons against the Soviet-supplied weapons used by the Republican forces. Franco and his fascist forces ultimately won the civil war, but Spain remained a neutral country during World War II.
Zelensky urged potential volunteers in foreign countries to contact military attachés in Ukraine’s embassies abroad. “It’s not just a Russian invasion of Ukraine, it’s the beginning of a war against Europe,” he said. “Against the unity of Europe. Against basic human rights in Europe.” He also promised that Ukraine would waive its usual visa requirements for the volunteers so that they could be granted entry immediately.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told the BBC on Sunday she would welcome British citizens enrolling in the volunteer force, saying it was a battle for freedom “not just for Ukraine, but for the whole of Europe.”
A LOOMING REFUGEE CRISIS
Meanwhile, the United Nations warned that around four million of Ukraine’s 44 million people could become refugees fleeing from the Russian bombardments while the fighting continues. Because all males from the ages 18 to 60 are now barred from leaving the country, the refugees are almost all women, children, and the elderly.
American news outlets featured interviews with many Ukrainian women who have had to say goodbye — perhaps forever — to their husbands, who bravely answered their country’s call to fight the invading Russian soldiers. Meanwhile, the wives are left to care for their children while hiding out in Ukraine’s vulnerable cities under murderous Russian artillery attacks, or to make the long and difficult trek with their children as refugees seeking asylum in one of the friendly countries along Ukraine’s western border.
In one particularly moving interview, a middle-aged Ukrainian woman said that she wept not only for Ukrainian mothers like herself whose sons were fighting and dying on the battlefield, but also for the Russian mothers whose sons were also being needlessly sacrificed to satisfy Vladimir Putin’s insatiable lust for power.
The hundreds of thousands of refugees trying to flee to neighboring countries created huge traffic jams on the roads leading to Ukraine’s western border crossings and overcrowded its train stations. The UN’s refugee agency said that more than half a million people had fled from Ukraine to its neighboring countries during the first five days of fighting.
Poland has seen the biggest influx of Ukrainian refugees, and has set up reception centers along its 300-mile border to offer food, medical care, and other resources. Thousands of soldiers from the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division deployed in the area have also been helping with the preparations to care for the flood of refugees.
Polish activist Marta Lempart reported “a huge response from regular citizens” to the plight of the newly arrived Ukrainians. “We have calls [for donations] from all over Europe and the world,” she said. “We have to do this. Ukrainians fight for us and they fight for European human values.”
On Tuesday, Polish deputy interior minister Maciej Wasik said in a radio interview that, “Over the last 24 hours, 100,000 people crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border. In total, since [last] Thursday, there have already been 350,000 refugees.”
That same day, Russian forces had cut off the main westbound highway leading from Kyiv to Lviv, a big city near Ukraine’s western border, and were threatening to close the main highway leading south to the port city Odessa. Connections between Kyiv and Lviv remained open to fleeing civilian refugees via a detour on that highway to Odessa and by train.
INVASION SPARKS WORLDWIDE ANTI-WAR PROTEST
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has sparked public antiwar protests against Vladimir Putin in cities around the world, including inside Russia itself. Russian police detained at least 411 people in 13 cities on Monday, and an activist group called OVD-Info said there had been at least 6,435 arrests in Russia since the invasion of Ukraine began on February 24.
The most notable Russian protesters were oligarch billionaires Mikhail Fridman and Oleg Deripaska, who endangered their personal safety in breaking ranks with Putin by publicly calling for an end to Russia’s war in Ukraine. They were reacting to the latest round of Western financial sanctions on Russia, which also apply personally to all the rich Russian oligarchs who have supported Putin’s rule, denying them access to their personal funds deposited in banks outside of Russia and the luxurious properties which they have purchased in countries around the world.
Fridman is chairman of Alfa Bank, Russia’s fourth biggest financial services firm and its largest private bank. The latest sanctions will prevent Alfa Bank from raising money through the US market.
Deripaska is a Russian billionaire who made his fortune in the aluminum business. In 2008, Forbes estimates his wealth at $28 billion. He has been under US sanctions for his close ties to Putin since 2018.
ZELENSKY ASKS FOR IMMEDIATE EU MEMBERSHIP
On Monday, President Zelensky called upon the European Union to grant Ukraine immediate membership. “Our goal is to be together with all Europeans and, most importantly, to be on an equal footing,” he said in a video address. “I’m sure it’s fair. I’m sure it’s possible.”
Zelensky has become the international symbol of Ukraine’s heroic resistance to the vastly superior Russian forces. As a result, his latest request for immediate EU membership for Ukraine was received much more sympathetically by many European leaders than similar requests he had made been before last week’s Russian invasion. The heads of state of Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic all called for the immediately admission of Ukraine, but other EU members whose agreement is necessary did not commit themselves on the issue.
However, the EU did pledge to quickly deliver 500 million euros worth of military aid to Ukraine, including lethal weaponry, marking the first time the EU has ever bought and sent weapons to a non-member country under attack. Energy ministers from the EU countries also agreed to connect Ukraine to their electrical energy grid after Ukraine disconnected itself from the Russian system last week.
GERMANY AND OTHERS NOW SENDING UKRAINE HELP
Since the Russians launched their full-scale invasion last week, international aid for Ukraine’s defense has been multiplying, ranging from private financial donations to government pledges to send arms.
Several countries that had previously declined to supply Ukraine with sophisticated weapons to help offset Russia’s military advantage have how changed their minds. Germany, which had blocked shipments of armaments to Ukraine from other European countries through its territory or airspace before the Russian invasion, reversed course over the weekend and said it would deliver 1,000 antitank and 500 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine. Germany also released the hold it put on the Cold War-era heavy artillery pieces which it had previously transferred to the Baltic states and which those states had wanted to send to Ukraine during the weeks before the Russian invasion.
Modern antitank and antiaircraft missiles supplied to Ukraine by the US, UK, Poland and Baltic states before the invasion had already helped to redress the initial Russian military advantage, Ukrainian officials said.
The US said it would go forward with its plans to send Ukraine another $350 million worth of lethal defensive assistance, including Javelin antitank weapons, ammunition, and other materiel. American officials also said that the most recently announced US and European weapons shipments were already reaching Ukrainian forces battling Russian troops on the frontlines.
EUROPEAN COUNTRIES BEEFING UP THEIR DEFENSES
The massive Russian invasion has also forced NATO allies and other European countries to beef up and modernize their own long-neglected defenses. They realized that the “soft power” they enjoyed due to their economic prosperity and membership in the community of civilized nations were not adequate protection against the threat posed by a powerful, well-equipped army under the orders of a power-hungry evil dictator like Vladimir Putin.
Last week, the German army’s chief of staff, General Alfons Mais, admitted that “the army that I am allowed to lead is more or less powerless” against Russia, but that apparently is about to change. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said it was time to “invest significantly more” in security and protecting democracy.
On Sunday, the German government announced a shake-up of its defense and security policies, including heavy new investments to modernize and reequip its long-underfunded military and to create strategic energy reserves, making Germany less dependent on natural gas imported from Russia.
The German military will receive a one-time additional appropriation of over $110 billion, about twice the amount of Germany’s defense budget last year.
“Better and more modern equipment, more staff, that costs a lot of money,” Scholz told a special session of the Bundestag, the German parliament. He also committed to exceeding the NATO defense spending target of 2% of GDP “from now on, every year.” That was actually one of the main goals of former President Trump, who repeatedly complained that Germany, Europe’s most prosperous country, was failing to pay its fair share of the NATO alliance’s defense costs.
“We are not only striving for this goal because we have promised our friends and allies that we will increase our defense spending to 2% of our economic output by 2024, but we do this for ourselves, too, for our own safety,” Scholz said.
Germany also took the lead in initiating a ban on all Russian commercial aircraft flying into and over its airspace, which was quickly joined by all the other members of the European Union, as well as Canada and several countries around the world.
EUROPEAN NEUTRALS NOW FORCED TO TAKE SIDES
By Monday, Europe’s historically neutral countries, including Sweden and even Switzerland, which maintained their neutrality during the Second World War, broke precedent by pledging their support for Ukraine in resisting the Russian invasion.
Switzerland’s Federal Council said it would adopt sanctions against Russia and target various Russian companies and individuals, immediately freezing the personal assets of President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
The council said it would also close its airspace to all flights from Russia, bar people close to Putin from entering Switzerland, and send relief supplies to Poland to help a rising tide of arriving Ukrainian refugees. “Switzerland reaffirms its solidarity with Ukraine and its people,” the statement said.
Swiss President Ignazio Cassis told reporters, “The attack of Russia against an independent, European country — Ukraine — is an attack on sovereignty, freedom, democracy, the civil population, and the institutions of a free country.”
Switzerland is Europe’s most defiantly independent country. Not only did it remain neutral throughout World War II, but after the war, it never sought to join NATO and waited until 2002 before joining the UN.
Meanwhile, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told reporters that it was sending Ukraine military aid, including anti-tank weapons. The last time Sweden sent weapons to countries engaged in an armed conflict was in 1939, when the Soviet Union invaded Finland. Sweden pledged to ship 5,000 anti-tank weapons, 5,000 helmets, 5,000 units of body armor, and 135,000 field rations in support of Ukraine’s military.
Finland, which has maintained an uneasy armed neutrality with its Russian neighbor since the end of World War II, said that it would send 2,000 helmets, 2,000 bulletproof vests, 100 stretchers, and equipment for two emergency medical care stations as aid to Ukraine as well.
There were also reports that the heads of Sweden and Finland, which are both members of the EU, are now seriously considering applying for NATO membership to come under the alliance’s Chapter V treaty protection against an attack by any foreign nation.
ISRAEL’S CAUTIOUS REACTION
The Israeli government is cautiously supporting Ukraine by providing humanitarian aid for refugees fleeing Ukraine, while avoiding any public condemnation of Putin, in light of Russia’s significant naval and air power presence in Syria in support of dictator Bashar Assad, as well as the large number of Jews still living in Russia.
On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftoli Bennett issued a statement saying, “We are praying for the wellbeing of the citizens of Ukraine and hope that additional bloodshed will be avoided. We are conducting a measured and responsible policy.”
He said that Israel will send 100 tons of water purification kits, medical drugs, tents, blankets, and other humanitarian equipment for civilians in the combat zones in Ukraine and to Ukrainians attempting to flee.
On the ground, Israeli medics are offering services to refugees who have crossed the Ukrainian border into neighboring countries, Israeli phone companies are providing free credits to Ukrainian citizens to get in touch with their family, and Israeli tech companies are assisting with evacuating Ukrainian employees.
Bennett spoke with Putin during his visit to Russia last October, and offered to serve as a mediator in his dispute with the Ukrainian government, but the offer was declined.
Last week, Ukrainian President Zelensky, the only other Jewish head of state in the world, asked Bennett to host negotiations between Ukraine and Russia in Yerushalayim, but again, the request went nowhere. Zelensky has traveled to Israel several times to visit friends and family who are now Israeli citizens.
When Russia invaded, there were roughly 6,000 Israeli citizens living in Ukraine. Several of them have told Israeli reporters that they intend to remain there to help fight the invading Russian forces. Many arrived to the country in the years following the 2014 Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, according to Ukrainian-Israelis who are familiar with their presence but unable to talk about them publicly.
OTHER INTERNATIONAL REACTIONS
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose friendship Putin has cultivated in recent years, was forced to condemn Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and agree to the EU sanctions against Russia, and the EU’s purchase of weapons for Ukraine’s military. But Orbán insisted that Hungary must “stay out” of the conflict, and announced that Hungary will not supply Ukraine with weapons, nor will it allow other European countries to send weapons to Ukraine through Hungarian territory.
Japan will join Western allies in imposing stricter sanctions on Russian financial institutions, including the removal of certain Russian banks’ access to SWIFT, in a dramatic ramp-up of Japanese sanctions in response to Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced a fresh round of harsher sanctions on Russia, including freezing the assets of Russian government officials, including Putin. Kishida also announced Japan will provide $100 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine in addition to its previous pledge of $100 million in emergency loans by Japan for Ukraine.
After years of trying to avoid antagonizing Putin, in recent days, Japan has taken adopted a much harsher rhetoric and economic measures to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi labeling Russia’s actions as “aggression.”
“We will show that there is a high price to pay for violence,” Prime Minister Kishida said. “Following Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, it is no longer possible to continue relations with Russia as it has been. Japan, along with G-7 countries and the international community, will take stricter sanctions.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his country will work with the US and NATO partners in Europe to help fund the supply of lethal weapons to Kyiv. After attending a vigil at a Ukrainian church in Sydney, Morrison told reporters that Australia will step up its humanitarian support for Ukrainians fleeing the conflict by giving the processing of entry visas for Ukrainian refugees top priority, as well as allocating more immigration slots for them.
China has been watching developments carefully, taking note of the US and NATO reaction to the Russian invasion. The Communist country continues to weigh the possibility of launching its own invasion to take over the island of Taiwan, whose independence from China has been under US military protection since 1949.
China had agreed to serve as an economic lifeline for Russia in the face of the sanctions that Putin had anticipated would results from his invasion of Ukraine. Since the invasion, China has been carefully noncommittal in its public statements, merely expressing regret over the fighting without assigning blame to either side.
SWIFT SANCTIONS INTENDED TO CRIPPLE RUSSIA’S BANKS
After several days of delay, the US and its European allies announced that they would cut off most of the largest Russian banks from the SWIFT network, an international payment system that facilitates cross-border transactions.
SWIFT is a Belgian-based global messaging network that enables banks to conduct their financial transactions in a secure manner. It is run by officials from its member banks, including the National Bank of Belgium, the US Federal Reserve System, the Bank of England, the European Central Bank, and the Bank of Japan. The consortium links more than 11,000 financial institutions operating in more than 200 countries and territories and is the primary system enabling international payments.
The only major exceptions to the Russian cutoff from SWIFT were those necessary to allow Western European countries continued access to deliveries of Russian natural gas, which currently provide 30% of their energy needs.
Some conservative American commentators complained that the SWIFT cutoff loophole for European energy purchases from Russia will be large enough to provide Putin with a substantial economic cushion to ride out the sanctions. They strongly urged the Biden administration to step up domestic energy production sufficiently for the US to take over the role of Europe’s chief foreign energy supplier. That would enable the SWIFT loophole in the Russian sanctions to then be closed without damaging the economies of NATO allies.
FREEZING RUSSIA’S FOREIGN CURRENCY RESERVES
The US, EU, UK, and Canada also said they would take measures to prevent Russia’s central bank from deploying its foreign reserves to support Russia’s currency and economy.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was the first Western leader to announce over the weekend that the EU “will paralyze the assets of Russia’s central bank. This will freeze its transactions. It will make it impossible for the central bank to liquidate assets.”
The United States was quick to join in the effort to deny Putin access to the substantial monetary reserves which he had set aside to sustain the Russian economy in anticipation of international sanctions following his planned invasion of Ukraine.
Early Monday morning, before the financial markets opened, the US Treasury announced that the sanctions against Russia’s central bank would be effective immediately, blocking any last-minute efforts by Russia to move its foreign reserves before they were frozen.
A Biden administration official told Reuters, “Putin’s war chest of $630 billion of reserves only matters if he can use it to defend his currency, specifically by selling those reserves in exchange for buying the ruble. After today’s action, that will no longer be possible and ‘Fortress Russia’ will be exposed as a myth.”
The foreign exchange reserves accumulated by Russia’s central bank are mostly held in the computer accounts of banks in the financial centers of New York, London, and Frankfurt. Freezing or quarantining the reserves will put tremendous pressure on Russia’s economy, possibly leading to domestic turmoil, triggering bank runs, and causing businesses and investors to panic.
EARLY ECONOMIC IMPACT
The value of the Russian ruble had already fallen by more than 30% even before the joint international action against Russia’s central bank was announced.
The Russian central bank’s first reaction to the international sanctions was to raise its key rate to 20% from 9.5% as it scrambled to contain the damage. In light of the devastating the impact of the sanctions on the Russian economy, the financial markets in Moscow were closed on Monday for fear of an investor panic.
The New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ market site have both halted trading in their listed Russian securities.
The British government has also banned its country’s financial institutions from conducting transactions with the Russian central bank, as well as with its foreign ministry and sovereign wealth fund. In a tweet, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the measures were intended to further isolate Russia from the international financial system, adding, “Putin must fail.”
The European subsidiary of one of Russia’s biggest banks was on the verge of collapse Monday due to a run on its deposit by investors who had been spooked by the sanctions. Sberbank Europe AG, domiciled in Austria, as well as its subsidiaries in Croatia and Slovenia, “experienced significant outflows of deposits due to the impact of geopolitical tensions on their reputation,” and were “failing or likely to fail,” the European Central Bank said.
BIDEN ADMITS SANCTIONS WILL TAKE TIME TO WORK
In reaction to questions from reporters last week, President Biden acknowledged that the threat of economic sanctions had not succeeded in persuading Putin to call off the invasion of Ukraine, and that it would take at least a month for their full impact to be felt. But Biden predicted that eventually they will have a crippling effect upon the Russian economy.
Several large Western corporations have announced they will no longer do business with Russia or Russian firms in response to the new sanctions and as a protest against the invasion of Ukraine.
Multinational energy companies Shell and BP are cutting their financial ties and participation in joint oil and gas development projects with Russian energy firms. BP is also divesting itself from its 20% ownership share in Rosneft, the Russian-based oil company, which could result in as much as a $25 billion writedown for BP. General Motors announced that it was suspending vehicle exports to Russia until further notice. German manufacturer Daimler Truck announced that it is cutting off the supply of components to its Russian partner Kamaz, with which it has a joint venture making Mercedes-Benz trucks.
Social media companies including YouTube, Facebook, and TikTok have moved to ban Russian state media outlets in Europe. The move will block social media access in Europe to Russian state-owned news channels RT and Sputnik, which have been distributing fake news reports backing Putin’s claims that Ukrainian armed forces attacked civilians or tried to destroy critical infrastructure in separatist-controlled regions of eastern Ukraine or in Russia.
ZELENSKY WANTS PUTIN TRIED AS A WAR CRIMINAL
On Sunday, looking tired and unshaven, President Zelensky angrily condemned Putin for launching indiscriminate attacks on Ukraine’s cities of a kind that had not been seen since World War II. “The night was hard. What they are doing to us is revenge. It is terrorism,” Zelensky said. “They have consciously chosen to hit civilians and everything that renders life normal. Power stations, hospitals, kindergartens, housing blocks — they are all targeted daily.”
“There is not a single object in the country today that the [Russian] occupiers would not consider a permissible target,” the Ukrainian president said. “They are fighting against everybody, they are fighting against everything alive: against kindergartens, against residential houses, and even against ambulances. They use rocket artillery, rockets against entire urban areas where there is no military infrastructure and never has been.”
He declared that “Russia’s criminal actions against Ukraine amount to genocide, [and] would lead to an international tribunal,” warning that Ukraine was collecting evidence to present at a future war crimes trial.
“Russia is on the path of evil,” he added, and called for Russia to be stripped of its UN Security Council veto which effectively shields it from punitive UN actions. Any state that has committed war crimes should not be allowed to be a permanent member of the Security Council, Zelensky said.
On Monday, Zelensky said that an increasingly impatient Putin had shifted tactics. He was foregoing attacks on military targets to deliberately launch deadly artillery barrages aimed at causing maximum casualties and destruction on Ukraine’s civilian population centers. These are the same tactics that Russian forces under Putin had been using since 2015 on rebel-held areas of Syria on behalf of dictator Bashar Assad. Putin had also ordered the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas to brutally crush the rebellion in the Russian province of Chechnya during 1999-2000.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch confirmed a claim by Ukrainian officials that the Russians had committed a war crime by firing rockets at residential areas with warheads containing cluster munitions. The weapons scatter small but deadly bomblets upon detonation designed to kill or maim anyone in the immediate vicinity. Amnesty International also accused the Russians of knowingly attacking a preschool in northeastern Ukraine while civilians took shelter inside, which is also considered to be a war crime.
Ukraine’s Ambassador to the US, Oksana Markarova, accused Russian forces of using an illegal hyperbaric weapon, also known as a vacuum bomb, against Ukraine, in violation of the Geneva convention. The weapon uses oxygen from the air to generate a high-temperature explosion producing a much more powerful shock wave than conventional explosives.
Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said that heavy artillery, multi-launch rocket systems, and airstrikes are responsible for most of the civilian casualties since Russia invaded Ukraine. By Sunday night, her office had recorded 102 civilian deaths, including seven children, and more than 300 people injured. “The real figures are, I fear, considerably higher,” Bachelet told the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The council has brushed aside Russian objections and accepted a request from Ukraine for an urgent debate on Russia’s invasion, where Ukraine is expected to call for a team of human rights experts to monitor and report on abuses and war crimes. The council’s 47 members voted 29 to 5 in favor of holding the session, with 13 abstentions. China joined Russia in voting against the session, along with Cuba, Venezuela, and Eritrea.
In response to these accusations, officials of the International Criminal Court, based in the Hague, said they might investigate any war crimes committed in Ukraine.
US AND BRITAIN REJECT ZELESKY’S CALL FOR A NO-FLY ZONE
President Zelensky also issued a public appeal to the US and its NATO allies on Monday to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, to prevent Russian aircraft from attacking both military and civilian targets across the country.
But the Biden White House was quick to reject the request, noting that any effort to enforce such a no-fly zone would risk a dangerous armed confrontation between Russian and American pilots, which could quickly escalate into a direct conflict between the two nuclear powers.
The US and its NATO allies did enforce such a no-fly zone over northern Iraq following the end of the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, to prevent Saddam Hussein from using his military helicopters from attacking pro-US Iraqi Kurds living in northern Iraq.
When British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace was asked last week about enforcing a no-fly zone in Ukraine, he rejected the idea, because it would mean putting British pilots in the line of fire and would be tantamount to a declaration of war.
THE AIR WAR OVER UKRAINE
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has asked the European Union for fighter jets, and some EU countries have agreed to supply them. According to EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell, the request was for planes that Ukrainian Air Force pilots already know how to fly.
Ukraine began the war with about 90 jet fighters, a mix of old Soviet-built MiG and Sukhoi models dating back to the Cold War era, as well as 47 Czechoslovakian-made jet trainers which can be modified for combat use. Some current EU members that were once part of the USSR-led Warsaw Pact, including Poland and the Baltic states, still fly such planes or have old ones parked. They would be crucial as replacements for the Ukrainian Air Force planes that the Russians shot down in the first days of the war.
Pentagon officials said Monday that after five days of fighting, Russia still did not enjoy total air superiority over Ukraine, and that some Ukrainian military aircraft were still operational. This has forced the Russian military force in Ukraine to begin engaging in night-time operations for which it is not well-equipped, to avoid daylight attacks by Ukrainian aircraft.
In addition, Ukrainian forces have been making highly effective use of their Turkish-made armed drones and Western-supplied man-portable Javelin anti-tank missiles to attack Russian military convoys and armored vehicles, The Ukrainians have also been using Western-supplied Stinger shoulder-launched missiles to shoot down low-flying Russian aircraft and helicopters.
The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a stern warning to the 17 mostly European countries which have pledged to send more such arms to help Ukrainian forces defend themselves, saying that Russia would hold them responsible for any casualties that they may inflict on Russian troops.
REPORTS ON THE FIRST DAYS OF FIGHTING
On Sunday night, Russian forces carried out missile strikes across Ukraine, including the cities of Kyiv, Zhytomyr, Zaporizhzhia, and Chernihiv, according to an adviser to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Oleksandr Markushin, mayor of Irpen, a town northwest of Kyiv, said battles on Sunday resulted in the defeat of a Russian tank unit there. Video posted by local Ukrainian officials showed smoldering Russian armored vehicles and corpses in Russian uniforms. Other videos, from the nearby town of Bucha, showed charred and smoking remains of an even larger Russian column which had been hit hard by Ukrainian artillery, aviation, and mechanized units, prompting other Russian forces advancing on Kyiv to make a tactical retreat.
Meanwhile, the thud of explosions from Russian airstrikes and artillery continued to be heard across Kyiv. A black plume rose on the city’s horizon from the fuel depot in the town of Vasylkiv, south of the capital, that caught fire after it was hit on Sunday. Residents of areas northwest of Kyiv, near the Chernobyl nuclear-disaster exclusion zone, said Russian armor continued to pour across the border with Belarus, headed toward the Ukrainian capital.
Early on Sunday, Russian forces pushed into Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city with a population of 1.5 million, located only 25 miles from the Russian border. Even though Kharkiv’s population is predominantly Russian-speaking, most of its residents deeply resent Putin’s invasion and are remaining loyal to the Zelensky government. A few hours later, many of the Russian troops were ambushed and killed or captured by Ukrainian forces.
Video released by Ukrainian forces Sunday morning showed five Tigr-M armored vehicles with Russian markings destroyed on a Kharkiv street, with Ukrainian soldiers helping themselves to Russian ammunition and equipment, including several antitank rockets. A Tigr-M was also seen burning at another Kharkiv intersection. Residents said the city appeared to be under firm Ukrainian control by the afternoon. “We are finishing up cleansing the city from the enemy,” said Kharkiv Governor Oleh Synehubov on social media, adding that groups of Russian troops had surrendered.
Social media channels asked citizens to take photos and videos of the Russian troops so that civilian defense forces would know where they are. Police asked residents not to go outside and warned that they were searching for “saboteurs,” so they might open fire. Synyehubov told residents to “stay at home and hide during the complete destruction of the Russian enemy in the city.” That followed an earlier message from Synyehubov that Russian forces had blown up a gas pipeline in the area.
According to a British intelligence report Monday night, a second column of Russian forces 40 miles long identified by commercial satellite photography appeared to be stalled 15 miles north of Kyiv, due to continuing logistical problems, as the Ukrainian army put up a fierce defense of the nearby Hostomel airfield, a key Russian strategic objective.
“Russian forces have increased their use of artillery north of Kyiv and in vicinities of Kharkiv and Chernihiv. The use of heavy artillery in densely populated urban areas greatly increases the risk of civilian casualties,” the British report said. “Russia has failed to gain control of the airspace over Ukraine, prompting a shift to night operations in an attempt to reduce their losses.”
More than 70 Ukrainian servicemen were reported killed Monday when Russian troops shelled a military base in the town of Okhtyrka in Ukraine’s northeastern Sumy region, according to the regional governor.
Two residential neighborhoods in Kharkiv came under heavy shelling Monday from multiple rocket launchers using Grad-style medium-range rockets designed to inflict widespread and indiscriminate damage. The bombardment killed at least 10 civilians and injured at least 40. Mayor Ihor Terekhov said the fatalities included four residents who had left a shelter to get water and a family of two parents and three children who were incinerated when a Russian rocket hit their car. “It’s not just a war, it’s murder,” he said. He also told Ukrainian TV that 87 apartment buildings in Kharkiv have been damaged, and several parts of Kharkiv no longer have water, electricity, or heat.
Live video from Kharkiv’s central Freedom Square Tuesday showed a missile exploding just outside the Regional State Administrative government’s headquarters, with a huge fireball engulfing nearby buildings and cars. Video of the aftermath showed a large crater in the middle of the cobble-stoned central square. It also showed the large building still standing, but with its windows and those of several adjacent structures blown out by the explosion.
Vadym Boichenko, the mayor of the large southern port town of Mariupol, said Tuesday in a live broadcast on Ukrainian TV that his city was under constant shelling that had killed civilians and damaged infrastructure. “We have had residential quarters shelled for five days. They are pounding us with artillery, they are shelling us with Grad rockets, they are hitting us with air forces. We have civilian infrastructure damaged — schools, houses. There are many injured. There are women and children killed.”
Mariupol was nearly entirely encircled by Russian troops, and most neighborhoods were without power or heat after Russian shells knocked out the city’s electrical substations.
HOW LONG WILL THE FIGHTING LAST?
According to British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, the conflict in Ukraine could last a number of years. “This is not going to be, I fear, over quickly,” Truss said in an interview with Sky News Monday. “We need to be prepared for a very long haul.”
Truss praised the bravery of Ukrainian civilians and armed forces, saying, “They’re determined to stand up for their sovereignty and territorial integrity, and they’re determined to fight.”
A five-hour initial meeting Monday between a Ukrainian delegation and representatives of Putin at the border between Belarus and Ukraine made no progress on the issues between the two countries. President Zelensky said in a statement before the meeting that Ukraine would push for “an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of troops,” while Russia was still demanding that Ukraine turn away from the EU and abandon its hopes of joining NATO.
The delegation from Kyiv included the minister of defense and the deputy foreign minister of Ukraine. Russia’s delegation was led by Vladimir Medinsky, an adviser to President Putin, and included Leonid Slutsky, the head of the International Committee of Russia’s State Duma, and Russia’s ambassador to Belarus, Boris Gryzlov.
“I don’t really have much faith in the outcome of this meeting, but let’s try, so that no citizen of Ukraine would think that I, as a president, didn’t try to stop the war when there was a chance, no matter how small,” Zelensky said in announcing his government’s willingness to meet with the Russian delegation.
Putin refused to take a call from Zelensky on the eve of last Thursday’s invasion. Russian officials said shortly after the war began that they would talk to Kyiv only once Ukrainian troops laid down their arms. Putin later urged the Ukrainian army to stage a coup against the country’s democratically-elected president.
The fact that Putin changed course and agreed to the unconditional talks Monday was celebrated in Kyiv as a tribute to the success of Ukraine’s armed forces in holding off the initial Russian invasion. “The enemy is losing steam,” said Zelensky adviser Oleksiy Arestovych.
PUTIN’S IMPLIED NUCLEAR THREAT
But Putin was still ratcheting up the stakes of his confrontation with the West. In a televised meeting at the Kremlin Sunday with his defense minister and chief of the general staff, Putin ordered them “to transfer the Russian army’s deterrence [nuclear] forces to a special mode of combat duty.”
Putin’s move put Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal on a heightened state of alert, increasing the risk of a nuclear confrontation if the fighting in Ukraine continues to escalate. Biden press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that the implied threat that Russia could employ its nuclear weapons was inherently “dangerous” and could lead to a disastrous “miscalculation.”
Some Western officials were concerned that if things continue to go badly for the invading Russian forces in Ukraine, Putin could up the ante by using one of the tactical nuclear weapons in the Russian arsenal to wipe out the Ukrainian resistance, risking a nuclear war with the West. Putin had issued a thinly-veiled threat to do that in a speech he made just prior to the invasion, in which he warned that “any potential aggressor will face defeat and ominous consequences should it directly attack our country.”
However, other analysts are convinced that Putin was bluffing and engaging in a form of nuclear blackmail, as he has done before when confronted by determined opposition from Western leaders. They discount suggestions by some, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, that Putin may has changed in recent years, and may no longer be acting rationally. They believe that Putin is evil, not crazy, and that the Russian leader will eventually be forced to back down if the West stands firm and enables a free Ukraine to keep up its heroic resistance.