An attempt to explain how and why things have developed in the Russian invasion of Ukraine
Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso)
Cross-posted from Counterpunch
Photograph Source: ZomBear – CC BY-SA 4.0
As the Russian Defence Ministry warned people in Kyiv that it was about to strike targets in the city, the country’s targeting of government, security and communications facilities is likely to be expanded and to produce a mass exodus of refugees from Kyiv.
The Russian statement said that it would target the Security Service of Ukraine building and a government information facility “in order to suppress information attacks against Russia” using high precision weapons – shortly before it attacked the capital’s main television tower.
“We call,” the statement read, “on Ukrainian citizens attracted by Ukrainian nationalists to carry out provocations against Russia, as well as residents of Kyiv living near relay nodes [communications towers] to leave their homes.”
Russia had hitherto made only limited use of its heavy artillery and air force to eliminate centres of resistance in the cities, a tactic that is the usual method by which the Russian military, along with other modern armies, seek to capture besieged cities, with low casualties among their own forces.
Some 660,000 Ukrainians have already become refugees outside the country, but this number is soon likely to exceed several millions as the Russian army prepares a full-scale military assault on the Ukrainian capital.
A huge Russian convoy of armoured vehicles 40 miles long was on Tuesday approaching Kyiv from the north, according to satellite images, in an additional sign that Russia was intending to storm Kyiv as soon as these units were deployed.
In this assault, Russia is likely to make full use of its firepower in the shape of heavy artillery bombardments and airstrikes which will cause civilian casualties. The Russians claimed earlier that they had left one road out of Kyiv open so non-combatants can leave.
The Ukrainian army surprised the Russian generals commanding the invasion by the strength of its resistance, but its military successes were aided by the Russian expectation that they would have a military walkover. They sent penny-packets of troops into the cities, soft-skinned military vehicles without accompanying infantry, and single tanks – all of which could be easily ambushed.
The Russian air force and heavy artillery was scarcely used, despite traditional Russian reliance on overwhelming firepower. Since the days of Peter the Great in the early 18th century, the Russian army has been famous for its artillery.
There are already signs of missiles being used with greater frequency – notably in the centre of Kharkiv on Tuesday morning when a rocket killed seven people and injured 24. But this type of sporadic bombardment is likely to be dwarfed if the Russian army advances with tanks and infantry, capturing the city block by block and blasting any centres of resistance.
Going by Russian tactics in Syria and American tactics in Iraq, the use of mass firepower against urban areas is usually preceded by a warning to civilians to flee or be treated as combatants. This approach ignores the fact that civilians may be unable to escape because they are too sick, too old or too poor to find somewhere else to live. In the siege of Mosul in 2016/17, no escape route was provided because the Iraqi army wanted to trap and kill Islamic State fighters inside the city.
Without the use of conventional artillery and airstrikes, it is very difficult for a modern army to capture built-up areas without suffering heavy losses among its soldiers. This is not only true of the Russians: during the second battle of Fallujah in Iraq in 2004, British officers were shocked by the willingness of the US forces to use heavy artillery against civilian districts.
Twenty years earlier, after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, it was American officers who complained in 1983 that the Israeli army was endangering civilian lives by carrying out what it called “reconnaissance by fire”.
The Ukrainian army may have fought heroically, but President Vladimir Putin cannot afford to let his “special military operation” be regarded as a fiasco. He still has many military resources since between a quarter and a third of the 190,000 Russian soldiers surrounding Ukraine may still not have crossed the frontier.
But even those units which have advanced into Ukraine have not necessarily been used. The 1st Guards Tank Army and the 20th Army were waiting outside Kharkiv on Tuesday, but were not yet attacking it. The Russian air force was described by one expert on the Russian armed forces as “missing in action”.
The only credible explanation for the repeated tactical and strategic missteps of the Russian army is that Putin had genuinely convinced himself that he was not launching a real war but a low intensity policing operation. As a result of this extraordinary piece of wishful thinking on Putin’s part, the Russian units which moved into Ukraine on 24 February acted as if they were on peace time manoeuvres.
No attempt had been made to prepare the Russian soldiers for the fighting, which the Kremlin continues to soft pedal and claim that western accounts are exaggerated.
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