|   Insights & Views


  |   Insights & Views


Ukraine recap: Putin on top as Kyiv scrambles to play catch-up on the battlefield

EPA-EFE/Alexander Ryumin/Sputnik/Kremlin pool

Vladimir Putin has been looking pretty chipper of late. Two weeks ago saw him wearing his trademark vulpine smile as he presided over the Victory Day commemorations in Moscow. It was a rather more upbeat occasion than in the two years previously, given recent Russian successes on the battlefield. Then, pausing briefly to unleash a fresh offensive against the Kharkiv region in northeastern Ukraine, he was off to Beijing where he and the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, agreed on closer ties and deeper military cooperation, “to counter Washington’s destructive and hostile course”.

In the interim, Putin has rearranged Russia’s military establishment, shifting several key players including erstwhile defence minister Sergei Shoigu, who has become national security minister. Shoigu’s replacement is deputy prime minister, Andrei Belousov, an economist. The rationale behind this manoeuvre is to hasten the transition of Russia’s economy fully on to a war footing. But it must be added that the Russian leader also likes to keep his subordinates on their toes and encourage rivalries.

It’s a far cry from this time last year, writes Stefan Wolff of the University of Birmingham. Since them, Putin has faced down a mutiny from his old crony, the late Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin – whose aircraft subsequently and conveniently fell out of the sky not long afterwards. His most credible political foe, the opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny, died suddenly in prison of mysterious circumstances (a medical condition that appears to be on the rise in Putin’s Russia). And his alliances with North Korea and Iran have ensured a steady supply of weaponry, while his own planners worked to transform Russia’s economy on to a war footing.

Meanwhile, as Wolff notes here, Russian battlefield successes have all but rolled back the Ukrainian gains from the autumn of 2022. And, while Ukraine is still struggling to regroup and integrate fresh supplies of western armaments into its war planning, Russia has captured some 500 square kilometres of Ukrainian territory over recent months.

Meanwhile military experts are pointing to a mounting problem for Kyiv: Russian attacks on the Kharkiv oblast from the “sanctuary” of its own soil. The region, which is close to Ukraine’s north-eastern border with Russia, holds Ukraine’s second city: Kharkiv. The local population of about 1.5 million people has been augmented by more than 200,000 refugees from the Russian offensive, but has been bombarded constantly from inside Russia since the start of the full-blown conflict.

Ukraine is constrained from using western weapons which have been provided on the strict understanding that they can’t be used to attack targets outside Ukraine. This has effectively allowed Moscow to place supply depots and airfields just across the border in the Belgorod province, from which it has been operating with virtual impunity.

But there are signs that Kyiv’s western allies may be rethinking this prohibition, writes Chris Morris, a military strategist at the University of Portsmouth. The rapid success of Putin’s Kharkiv offensive has concentrated minds somewhat. The UK foreign secretary, David Cameron, told Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky on a recent trip to Kyiv that Ukraine should “absolutely has the right to strike back at Russia”. It appears that France is thinking along the same lines.

The big sticking point, though, has been the US – by far the biggest provider of military aid to Kyiv. But from remarks made by the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, when he was in Kyiv on May 15, it appears that this may well change as well. As Morris notes, this could be a significant moment. Being able to hit at Russia’s rear, even Russian territory, would severely disrupt the momentum of the latest offensive and force Moscow to move units away from the front lines.

While Zelensky cajoles his western allies to do more and faster, Putin and Xi have been exploring ever-closer ties as the Russian president visited Beijing recently. But an itinerary chock full of photo opportunities designed to portray Putin as equal partner to the Chinese president cannot disguise the fact that Beijing is playing a cagey game when it comes to backing Moscow against the west, write Marcin Kaczmarski of the University of Glasgow and Natasha Kuhrt of King’s College London.

Kaczmarski and Kuhrt, both experts in international security, note that while Moscow has become increasingly reliant on Beijing because of increasingly harsh western sanctions since the war began, China is being careful not to completely burn all bridges with the west as it needs the export trade, particularly in the automotive sector.

Nonetheless, they write, there were plenty of signs that a “no-limits friendship” between Beijing and Moscow could pose problems for the west, and not just in terms of the war in Ukraine, but in the wider game of geopolitics.

Blame game

Meanwhile Russian troops push on day by day, gradually consolidating their gains, despite reported heavy losses. James Horncastle, professor in international relations at Simon Fraser University in Canada, believes much of Ukraine’s recent travails can be laid firmly at the door of Kyiv’s western partners, whose hesitancy in providing military aid left Ukraine’s troops desperately short of firepower when and where it was most needed.

It could have been so different. Had Kyiv received the full amount of aid pledged by the west when Ukraine was on the front foot in the autumn of 2022, the stalemate that settled over the battlefield in 2023 may have been avoided. The sad irony is that this aid finally arrived in Ukraine a year later, but the moment had passed. Russia had dug in, it was on its way to reshaping its economy and had secured a steady supply of arms and ammunition from its allies in North Korea and Iran while ramping up its own military industrial sector.

Horncastle thinks that some, particularly in the Trump wing of the US Republican party, bought too readily into Russian propaganda and disinformation – and Ukraine has paid the price.

Rebuilding Ukraine

Part of that price has been the devastation of so much of Ukraine. Pictures from Kharkiv show the desperate state of Ukraine’s second city after two years of bombardment. Like Mariupol before it, Kharkiv is being slowly destroyed, building by building. Its energy infrastructure has been wrecked and its citizens terrorised by glide bombs coming in from across the Russian border.

The damage from this war has been enormous across Ukraine. The World Bank has estimated the cost of rebuilding Ukraine at more than US$480 billion (£377 billion) already, with plenty more to come. Half of the country’s energy grid and one-third of its transportation infrastructure has reportedly been damaged by Russian attacks. The United Nations estimates that about 40% of the population needs urgent humanitarian support.

It’s going to be a big bill and, if Ukraine is to prevail in this struggle, it will need deep pockets in the west to help out. As Jeffrey Kucik of the University of Alabama stresses, we live in an interconnected world where “instability somewhere can hurt countries everywhere”, the west can’t afford to abandon Ukraine, which prior to the conflict supplied 10% of the world’s grain.

‘Dits’ and ‘dahs’

🇷🇺Russian Navy Baltic Fleet HQ Kaliningrad [RMP] sending Morse code weather conditions to REO. REO is a collective callsign meaning “To all Russian ships in Baltic Sea”.
Received in 🇮🇹Milan Italy 8417KHz April 15 2024 at 1801z

— Shortwave78 (@shortwave78) April 15, 2024

With all the state of the art military tech on display in Ukraine, it may come as a surprise to read that Russian forces are still using an century-old communications system in the field. Morse code, developed by Samuel of the same name in the 1880s, may be a very simple affair of dots and dashes (few people won’t know the code for SOS, for example) it can have its advantages over even the most modern telecommunications.

It is reportedly being used to send messages from Russian bombers to their control centres, or from ships of the Baltic Fleet to their shore-based headquarters.

The key, writes Tony Ingesson of Sweden’s Lund University, is its simplicity. Anyone can learn to use it, it is very good when signal quality is poor and it takes very little power. It’s also very simple to encrypt. Cutting edge may be the watchword in war fighting, but as anyone with a bayonet will tell you, the old tech still has its place on the battlefield.

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