A War Putin Cannot Win.
Early Bird News Items Ukraine Edition
(Editor’s Note to subscribers: This is an early bird edition of New Items, devoted entirely to the war in Ukraine and its consequences. A “regular edition” of News Items will be distributed later today, at around 1pm ET, give or take.)
As the Russo-Ukrainian War takes a darker turn it is important to emphasize this essential point. This is a war that Vladimir Putin cannot win, however long it lasts and however cruel his methods.
From the start the Russian campaign has been hampered by political objectives that cannot be translated into meaningful military objectives. Putin has described a mythical Ukraine, a product of a fevered imagination stimulated by cockeyed historical musings. His Ukraine appears as a wayward sibling to be rescued from the ‘drug addicts and Nazis’ (his phrase) that have led it astray. It is not a fantasy that Ukrainians recognize. They see it as an excuse to turn their country into a passive colony and this they will not allow. No Russian-backed government would have legitimacy and Russia lacks the capacity for an indefinite occupation to keep such a government in place.
This underlying strategic folly has been reinforced by the tactical ineptitude with which the campaign has been prosecuted. A quick and relatively painless victory, with Kyiv in Russian hands and President Zelensky nowhere to be seen, might have allowed Putin to impose a victor’s peace of some sort, whether in promises of neutrality and demilitarization, new constitutional arrangements, or even territorial concessions.
Instead, the Russian generals chose to show how smart they were by relying on speed and surprise to take key cities, using only a fraction of the assembled force, and not even bothering to gain control of the skies. The arrogance of the plan was shown in the move against the capital. This involved flying in regular units to the outskirts of the capital to meet up with special forces and sundry saboteurs already in its precincts. This ended as an operational shamble.
This is the best essay I’ve read (so far) about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Mr. Freedman is an influential strategic analyst and historian of military affairs. His essay will be widely read, and not just in Washington and London. (Source: kcl.ac.uk, samf.substack.com)
2. Ukraine War “Live” Update:
Russian forces yesterday seized the first major Ukrainian city in their onslaught, the strategic southern port of Kherson, as they stepped up bombardment of civilian targets across the country, laid siege to other cities — including Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city — and pushed to encircle and cut off the capital, Kyiv. A huge convoy of Russian military vehicles continued to stand ominously to the capital’s north.
Russian artillery and rocket fire have cut off essentials like electricity, medicine, water and heat to many Ukrainian communities, and turned a growing number of offices, homes, businesses and vehicles to crumpled, burning hulks. Counts of civilian deaths are rising, and around the country, people are sheltering in basements and tunnels as explosions shake the ground above them. In Kyiv alone, some 15,000 people are sleeping in the subways. (Source: nytimes.com)
Russian forces shelled schools, hospitals and homes across Ukraine yesterday as President Putin’s invasion threatened to escalate into a long war of attrition.
Moscow inflicted sustained rocket attacks on the city of Kharkiv after Ukrainian forces halted the advance of troops in a sign of what awaits other cities that defy the invasion. The port city of Mariupol came under heavy and indiscriminate shelling, with hospitals overflowing with dead and wounded.
“Kharkiv today is the Stalingrad of the 21st century,” said Oleksiy Arestovich, an adviser to President Zelensky, who remained in the capital, Kyiv, to lead his country’s defense.
The sustained bombardment of cities recalls Russia’s campaign in Syria in support of the Assad regime and, before that, the destruction of the Chechen capital, Grozny, in 2000. (Source: thetimes.co.uk)
The reality of war is dawning across Russia.
On Wednesday, the Russian Defense Ministry for the first time announced a death toll for Russian servicemen in the conflict. While casualty figures in wartime are notoriously unreliable — and Ukraine has put the total of Russian dead in the thousands — the 498 Moscow acknowledged in the seven days of fighting is the largest in any of its military operations since the war in Chechnya, which marked the beginning of President Vladimir V. Putin’s tenure in 1999.
Russians who long avoided engaging with politics are now realizing that their country is fighting a deadly conflict, even as the Kremlin gets ever more aggressive in trying to shape the narrative. Its slow-motion crackdown on freedoms has become a whirlwind of repression of late, as the last vestiges of a free press faced extinction.
This week, lawmakers proposed a 15-year prison sentence for people who post “fakes” about the war, and rumors are swirling about soon-to-be-closed borders or martial law. The Education Ministry scheduled a video lesson to be shown in schools nationwide on Thursday that described the war against Ukraine as a “liberation mission.”
And in Moscow, the regional office of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia has been fielding 2,000 calls a day since last Thursday. “The parents’ first question is: What happened to my child?” said Aleksandr Latynin, a senior committee official. “Is he alive?” (Source: nytimes.com)
— Russian tank on fire, dead body on the street. Kharkiv, Ukraine. 2/27/22. (via Getty Images)
5. On the Brink of Collapse:
Russia’s financial services are defying reality, teetering on the brink of collapse just one week into warfare.
Moscow’s stock exchange is closed, and when it reopens a plunge is likely inevitable.
In a sign of what might be ahead for Russian markets, London-traded depository receipts of Sberbank, the country’s biggest bank, have already plunged 99.7pc. The bank said it is pulling out of Europe following a run on deposits.
State-owned oil giant Gazprom’s London listings, meanwhile, have fallen as much as 97.5pc to two cents - to a valuation of $250m, having once dreamed of reaching $1 trillion.
The pair are a demonstration of the potency of sanctions fast imposed by the western world on Russia, its financial institutions and wealthy individuals in the first few days of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The Russian financial sector was resilient. The current stance is unknown,” says a former central bank official. (Source: telegraph.co.uk)
6. The Specter of Default:
The international financial sanctions against Russia are driving the country toward a credit crisis, as restrictions on Moscow's access to foreign currency stoke concerns about defaults on external debt.
Group of Seven finance ministers and central bankers agreed in a virtual meeting Tuesday to take further action swiftly in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But Japanese Finance Minister Shunichi Suzuki declined to comment on the specifics of their discussion.
The officials affirmed that the sanctions already in place, including cutting off Russia's central bank from foreign-currency reserves, have produced an economic impact, and they stressed the importance of coordinated action. Ukrainian Finance Minister Sergii Marchenko joined the G-7 meeting for the first 40 minutes, and thanked the bloc for the sanctions and economic support.
The Western-led measures to punish Russia for the invasion have reverberated through financial markets. (via asia.nikkei.com)
7. Humanitarian crisis:
Nearly 1 million refugees have left Ukraine, according to data from UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency. The exodus is set to become Europe’s worst humanitarian crisis in this century, already on par with the number of refugees who were displaced from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan in 2015.
If fighting continues, as many as 4 million — roughly 10 percent of the Ukrainian population — could be displaced in the coming weeks, Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said Monday.
Photos and videos from the past week show packed train stations and traffic jams snaking through border towns. Crowds of refugees huddle in groups to fight the cold, sleep on cots in churches and gymnasiums and sort through boxes of donations from around the world. Many of them are women and children; Ukrainian authorities have forced men ages 18 to 60 to stay in the country to fight the invasion.
More than half of the refugees have gone to Poland, and people are also streaming into Moldova, Slovakia, Romania and Hungary. A large number of people are expected to continue onto other European countries in the coming months. (Sources: unhcr.org, washingtonpost.com)
8. The Monastery of the Caves.
Launched by President Vladimir V. Putin to reassert Russian influence in the region, the war in Ukraine is also a contest for the future of the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches.
The Russian church — of which Archbishop Yefrem is a part — has made no secret of its desire to unite the branches under a single patriarch in Moscow, which would allow it to control the holiest sites of Orthodoxy in the Slavic world and millions of believers in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, for its part, has been slowly asserting itself under its own patriarch, reviving a separate and independent branch of Eastern Orthodoxy, after the independence of Ukraine in 1991.
If Ukraine prevails against the Russian invasion, the Moscow church will all but certainly be ejected. If Russia wins, the Ukrainian church is unlikely to survive inside Ukraine.
Prizes in the struggle include holy sites such as the Monastery of the Caves, a sprawling complex of churches in Kyiv overlooking the Dnieper River, whose golden onion domes were glistening in the sun on a recent afternoon as artillery shells exploded across the capital. In the caves, in grottos, lie the remains of the earliest saints of Slavic Orthodoxy, control over which would symbolize pre-eminence in this branch of Christianity.
After Ukraine’s independence, the Moscow patriarchy retained access to the site, while the Ukrainian government formally owned it as a museum.
The branch of the church in Ukraine subordinate to Moscow also enjoys the loyalty of a majority of city, town and village churches in Ukraine, though the newly independent Ukrainian church has had success encouraging parishes to switch allegiance. Those efforts so angered Mr. Putin that he warned in 2018 that it could “turn into a heavy dispute, if not bloodshed.” (Source: nytimes.com)
9. Sounding The Alarm.
Eastern European countries fear a catastrophe of their own could be in the making, as Mr. Putin seeks to turn back the clock and reclaim Russia’s lost sphere of influence, perilously close to their frontiers. Even leaders in the region who have long supported Mr. Putin are sounding the alarm.
Warnings about Moscow’s intentions, often dismissed until last Thursday’s invasion of Ukraine as “Russophobia” by those without experience of living in proximity to Russia, are now widely accepted as prescient. And while there has been debate about whether efforts to expand NATO into the former Soviet bloc were a provocation to Mr. Putin, his assault on Ukraine has left countries that joined the American-led military alliance convinced they made the right decision.
A Russian attack on Poland or other former members of the defunct Warsaw Pact that now belong to NATO is still highly unlikely but Mr. Putin has “made the unthinkable possible,” warned Gabrielius Landsbergis, the foreign minister of Lithuania, Poland’s neighbor to the north.
“We live in a new reality. If Putin is not stopped he will go further,” Mr. Landsbergis said in an interview. His country, bordering both Russia and its ally Belarus, has declared a state of emergency. (Source: nytimes.com)
10. ICBM test postponed:
The Pentagon has postponed a scheduled intercontinental ballistic missile test, in an effort to reduce the chances that it would be “misconstrued” by Moscow just days after Russia’s President Vladimir Putin raised the alert level for his nuclear forces.
Highlight text Lloyd Austin, the US defense secretary, ordered the delay of a long-planned test of a Minuteman III ICBM to demonstrate that the American military had “no intention in engaging in any actions that can be misunderstood or misconstrued,” John Kirby, Pentagon spokesperson, said on Wednesday.
“We did not take this decision lightly but instead to demonstrate that we are a responsible nuclear power,” he added.
Earlier this week, the US accused Putin of taking a dangerous step when Russia’s leader responded to the imposition of western sanctions by raising the alert of Moscow’s nuclear forces.
While some experts said Putin was bluffing in an effort to regain some leverage as his military campaign in Ukraine was faring worse than Moscow had expected, others said the nuclear move was a dangerous development that the west should take very seriously.
Earlier on Wednesday, a senior US defense official said the Pentagon had not detected any change in Russia’s nuclear force posture, suggesting Putin had not followed up his order with any weapons movement in Russia. (Source: ft.com)
11. Sending “ammunition.”
The Dutch are sending rocket launchers for air defense. The Estonians are sending Javelin antitank missiles. The Poles and the Latvians are sending Stinger surface-to-air missiles. The Czechs are sending machine guns, sniper rifles, pistols and ammunition.
Even formerly neutral countries like Sweden and Finland are sending weapons. And Germany, long allergic to sending weapons into conflict zones, is sending Stingers as well as other shoulder-launched rockets.
In all, about 20 countries — most members of NATO and the European Union, but not all — are funneling arms into Ukraine to fight off Russian invaders and arm an insurgency, if the war comes to that.
At the same time, NATO is moving military equipment and as many as 22,000 more troops into member states bordering Russia and Belarus, to reassure them and enhance deterrence.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought European countries together, minds concentrated by the larger threat to European security presented by the Russia of President Vladimir V. Putin.
“European security and defense has evolved more in the last six days than in the last two decades,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Union’s executive arm, asserted in a speech to the European Parliament on Tuesday. Brussels has moved to “Europeanize” the efforts of member states to aid Ukraine with weapons and money and put down a marker for the bloc as a significant military actor. (Source: nytimes.com)
12. Gerald Seib:
Graham Allison, a Harvard professor, longtime national-security adviser to presidents of both parties and author of perhaps the most influential book on U.S.-China relations of the last decade, is clear on how he thinks Mr. Xi will play his hand: “Will Xi have Putin’s back? The answer is yes,” Mr. Allison says.
Mr. Allison argues that the Chinese leader has “defied political gravity” by building a strong bond with the leader of Russia, with which relations had previously been tense and even confrontational. “This has been done largely by the art of Xi, and by us demonizing both of them,” he says. China and Russia, Mr. Allison says, are constructing what the late strategic thinker Zbigniew Brzezinski feared they might: a coalition in which they are united by shared grievances against the U.S…..
Robert Gates, former CIA director and defense secretary, isn’t so sure. He thinks Mr. Xi may have been unpleasantly surprised by how far Mr. Putin has gone in Ukraine, and is unhappy about that. “He wanted a calm 2022” for his Olympics and a coming Communist Party congress where he will win another term, says Mr. Gates. “I think this is a disruption and a unification of the West that he didn’t want.”
Indeed, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, told CNN that his Chinese counterpart said in a phone call that Beijing “is ready to seek a peaceful solution to this conflict through diplomacy.”
More than that, Mr. Gates adds, Mr. Xi will be loath to get trapped in the economic backlash against Russia by too openly defying the West: “Given the magnitude of the sanctions against Russia, the last thing he’s going to want to do is get caught up in those sanctions.” One benefit China may reap, in Mr. Gates’s view: It’s learning lessons on using less brutal means if and when it seeks to take over Taiwan. (Source: wsj.com)
13. The Return of Collective Leadership in China?
For around a week in February, China's top leadership disappeared from the news cycle.
As Chinese people basked in their Winter Olympic teams' nine gold medal performances, the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee were considering every angle of the then simmering Ukrainian situation and discussing how Beijing might respond.
They understood how the issue could affect their country, if they played it wrong.
The marathon discussions concluded, but the arguments continued as Russian President Vladimir Putin kept ratcheting up tensions.
Naturally, what was said is confidential and will never be disclosed. But there are whispers about the atmosphere of the discussions, and they are noteworthy.
"Collective leadership may be making a comeback due to the Ukraine issue," a Chinese source said.
Since becoming China's top leader in 2012, Xi Jinping has been gradually dismantling a collective leadership system that was put in place by former leader Deng Xiaoping to prevent another one-man rule like under Mao Zedong.
It is safe to assume that a diversity of opinion remains among China's top leaders over Ukraine. It is even likely that some standing committee members are questioning whether it is wise to stick to the current position of siding with Putin.
One such signal was a comment made by U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun during the General Assembly's emergency session that opened Monday to deal with Ukraine.
"The situation has evolved to a point which China does not wish to see," Zhang told the session. "It is not in the interest of any party."
His remarks went further than the official government line, albeit only slightly. He was likely reflecting objections within the top echelons of China's communist regime. (Source: asia.nikkei.com)
14. After the Olympics:
A Western intelligence report said senior Chinese officials told senior Russian officials in early February not to invade Ukraine before the end of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, according to senior Biden administration officials and a European official.
The report indicates that senior Chinese officials had some level of direct knowledge about Russia’s war plans or intentions before the invasion started last week. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia met with President Xi Jinping of China in Beijing on Feb. 4 before the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Moscow and Beijing issued a 5,000-word statement at the time declaring that their partnership had “no limits,” denouncing NATO enlargement and asserting that they would establish a new global order with true “democracy.”
The intelligence on the exchange between the Chinese and Russian officials was classified. It was collected by a Western intelligence service and considered credible by officials. Senior officials in the United States and allied governments passed it around as they discussed when Mr. Putin might attack Ukraine.
However, different intelligence services had varying interpretations, and it is not clear how widely the information was shared. (Source: nytimes.com)
(Thanks to subscriber J.L., News Items subscribers knew about this back in late January. Here’s the link.)