Forty-six civilians have been evacuated from the Azovstal steelworks plant in Mariupol, according to Russian news reports. Another report from Ukrainian troops defending the plant tells of twenty civilians who were evacuated during a ceasefire. It remains unclear if these two groups are the same or different. However, The UN confirmed today that an operation to evacuate people from the steel plant in Mariupol is under way. According to estimates, there are 1,000 Ukrainian civilians and several hundred soldiers sheltering in the massive plant. According to news updates at 1540 Eastern Time, the UN has announced an operation to evacuate all civilians inside the city will begin on Monday
In eastern Ukraine, fighting has picked up around Kharkov as Ukrainian forces strive to push Russian troops farther away from the nation’s second-largest city. The battlelines around Kharkov have been static since the early days of the war. Russian troops are entrenched in the city’s northern and eastern suburbs. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, operations carried out by Ukrainian forces have retaken four villages around Kharkov: Verkhnya Rohanka, Ruska Lozova, Slobidske and Prilesne. Those claims have yet to be independently verified.
Germany’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is being criticized (yet again). Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleb told a German newspaper that Berlin’s actions have been hesitant when compared to other European nations. Kuleb said Germany should “take the leading role in Europe, especially in questions of Eastern policy.” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz wasted little time in defending his decisions on Ukraine. “I make my decisions quickly and in coordination with our allies. I am suspicious of hasty action and Germany going it alone.” Scholz has been heavily criticized for not providing weapons and supplies to Ukraine fast enough.
Europe’s reliance on Russian natural gas has slowed efforts to sanction Russian energy and runs the risk of driving a wedge into the trans-Atlantic unified front that has performed impressively in sanctioning Russia and aiding Ukraine. Europe has been trying to wean itself off of Russian energy for years now, but progress have been at a snail’s pace and uncertain. Mostly because Europe has found it next to impossible to locate a replacement source for its blanket energy needs. Today, the German government confirmed it will continue to buy Russian natural gas, oil and coal despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the growing mountain of sanctions on Moscow. In a statement, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said his country and the remainder of Europe are too reliant on Russian energy imports for the continent to cut trade links, even in the short term. This is why Germany made it a point to exempt energy from the sanctions the West has placed on Russia. Natural gas, oil and coal from Russia are the lifeblood of German and European industrial output, heating and electricity output. If Russia chooses to put the screws to European energy exports, Western unity could splinter.
The Pentagon confirmed today something many of us in the fields of geopolitics and defense have noticed over the past few days. With progress slowing to a crawl on the ground, Russia is relying more on long-range fires. These include artillery, multiple-launch rocket fire, cruise missiles, and close air support, which is being used in an effort to weaken Ukrainian defensive positions and strong points of resistance. Other terms used are softening the enemy or preparing the battlefield. The good news is that the reliance on long-range fires signals that Russia is not ready to resume the pushes towards numerous Ukrainian cities and other objectives. The bad news is that at some point, the advances will commence again.
The number of Ukrainian refugees is now approaching 1.8 million at last count and the number is anticipated to exceed 2 million within the next 24 hours. Europe is on the verge of a major refugee crisis, the likes of which have not been seen in decades.
Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin added to the no-fly zone discussion going back and forth over recent days. He stated that Russia will interpret any attempt by nations outside of the conflict to establish a no-fly zone as active “participation in the armed conflict.” With Russia’s position now staked out with certainty, serious talk about whether NATO or the EU should establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine is going to evaporate. Quite honestly, social media furor and politicians and retired general officers looking to create soundbites for the media were the main forces pushing a no-fly narrative forward. It was never a good idea in the first place.
The brief humanitarian ceasefires to allow civilian evacuations around Mariupol and Volnovakha have come to an end. Offensive operations by Russian forces in these areas have resumed.
Israeli Prime Minister Bennett traveled discreetly to Moscow and met with Vladimir Putin earlier today. After a meeting that lasted less than an hour, Bennett is now on his way to Germany where he will meet with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Despite rumors that the Russian government would be moving to impose martial law across the country soon, this does not appear to be in the cards, at least for now. The Kremlin claims there are no plans to impose martial law in response to ‘external aggression.’ Internal disorder is another matter entirely, it would seem.
Whatever hope there was attached to last night’s emergency meeting of the UN Security Council rapidly evaporated as the meeting went on. It was a typical security council meeting punctuated by uniform condemnation of Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government had requested the meeting yesterday after Russia announced its recognition of the Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic, the breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine that are controlled by pro-Russian separatists. It was a purely symbolic gesture though. Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council and holds veto power, guaranteeing no resolution aimed at condemnation of Russia’s actions has even a remote chance of seeing the light of day.
Europe is taking the lead on applying sanctions to Russia for its actions yesterday. Germany has cast aside its reluctance of past weeks and suspended the certification process of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline while Great Britain has targeted five Russian banks for its first round of sanctions. France has not yet taken action, however, the threat of “targeted sanctions” was introduced by Paris minus specifics. The French government has a good amount of egg on its face after working relentlessly to set up a summit between US and Russian leaders this past weekend, only to see it turn to dust following Russia’s recognition of the breakaway republics yesterday. Perhaps this slap to the face will teach French leadership a lesson about trusting Vladimir Putin.
Despite the recognition of the LPR and DPR’s independence, the fact remains that two-thirds of the territory in both breakaway republics is controlled by the Ukrainian military…albeit tacitly in some instances. Russian ‘peacekeeping forces’ are reportedly advancing towards Mariupol, a vital port that sits in Ukrainian controlled territory. There has been contact between government forces and separatists and/or Russian peacekeepers at the Novoazovsk border crossing east of Mariupol. The port city is important to both Ukraine and Russia for a variety of reasons. It’s certainly worth discussing a bit at length later on in the day.
The current crisis in Ukraine has revealed glaring holes in NATO’s readiness and strategic planning, especially with regards to its Eastern Flank. If anything, the events of the last two months should serve as a catalyst for renewed efforts to prepare the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria to be the vanguard against future Russian designs on Eastern Europe. The growing importance of the Eastern Flank is not up for debate. The bone of contention is in the lack of commitment to build the infrastructure for a sizeable and permanent military presence on the Eastern Flank.
Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the alliance realized how exposed it truly was in the east. Plans for a permanent military presence in Poland, the Baltics and Romania were drawn up. The United States developed Atlantic Resolve, a series of military activities aimed at enhancing NATO military capabilities in Europe. NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence was also developed along similar lines and guaranteed a semi-permanent alliance military presence in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. Unfortunately, as time went on, the importance initially attached to the Eastern Flank missions waned. Ukraine cooled down to an extent and Russia’s Crimean Anschluss was tacitly accepted. Although Atlantic Resolve and Enhanced Forward Presence continued on through the years, NATO’s attention turned to other areas.
I believe it is imperative for NATO to begin thinking about what it will take to establish a large and permanent military presence on its Eastern Flank for an extended period of time. During the Cold War, the Inner-German Border served as both the physical and psychological frontier between East and West. Central Europe became an armed camp with hundreds of thousands of troops stationed on either side of the border. When the Cold War ended, there was no need for NATO to sustain such a large force. The Soviet threat was gone and governments from Bonn to Washington were eager to reap the benefits of the peace dividends. Now, NATO finds itself needing to make up for lost time, so to speak. The Eastern Flank now requires the necessary military command structure and framework to sustain a multi-division force on the ground. A structure similar to what NATO had in West Germany through much of the Cold War. Specifically, an army group set up along the lines of NORTHAG and CENTAG back in the 1980s.
This morning, I began writing the first of what will be a series of posts on the strategic considerations NATO is now forced to look at carefully in light of what’s happening in eastern Ukraine. After the events earlier today, I planned to set it aside, but decided to post at least the first entry. Provided things quiet down a bit in Ukraine through the rest of the week, I’ll post the second one around Friday. Between now and then, the focus will be on Russia and Ukraine.