Good evening. It has been a busy Ash Wednesday for me, and I apologize for not putting together an update earlier in the day. I am trying to maintain at least two updates per 24 hours. For the most part I have. Today was an exception, unfortunately.
-After two Chinese banks restricted financing for Russian commodity purchases last week, there was a sense of optimism in the West that China might condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and apply sanctions. Today, China drew a line in the sand and made it clear it will not condemn Russia or apply severe sanctions. ‘Normal trade cooperation’ between the two countries will continue, according to the Chinese government. Clearly, there will be no condemnation of Russian actions in Ukraine either.
“China firmly opposes all illegal unilateral sanctions, and believes that sanctions are never fundamentally effective means to solve problems,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Webin said Wednesday. “They will only create serious difficulties to the economy and livelihood of relevant countries and further intensify division and confrontation.”
-Separate estimates of Russia’s battlefield casualties have been released by the governments in Kiev and Moscow today and they are as different as night and day. The Russian Defense Ministry claimed 500 KIAs and about 1500 casualties so far in the conflict. The Ukrainian government, on the other hand, puts the number of Russian casualties at around 7,000. Russia’s military has dismissed this number and declared it to be Ukrainian disinformation. As for its own estimate of Ukrainian casualties, Moscow claims 2,870 Ukrainian troops have been killed and some 3,700 more sustained injuries. 572 others have become prisoners of war. The dueling casualty claims will continue on for the length of the conflict and probably beyond. Common occurrence in times of war, especially in this age of digital rumors and disinformation.
-There have been violations of Swedish airspace made by Russian combat aircraft today, 48 hours after Sweden banned Russian aviation from its airspace. The incidents took place east of the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. Swedish fighters intercepted two Russian Su-27 Flanker fighters and a pair of Su-24 Fencer fighter-bombers and escorted them out of the area. The Swedish Air Force General Carl-Johan Edström criticized the Russian move. “In light of the current situation, we take the incident very seriously. It is an unprofessional and irresponsible action on the part of Russia.”
The weekend is ending and the week ahead promises to be active and eventful. Once the West’s official response to Russia’s security proposals and demands is presented, the ball will be entirely in Vladimir Putin’s possession. The Kremlin, as well as the rest of the world, is well aware the West’s response will be a firm ‘NO.’ Odds are, Russia has been banking on a full rejection of its unrealistic redrawing of the post-Cold War boundaries and the numerous security concerns attached to it. A negative reply has been factored into its planned justification of hostility and will be used accordingly.
Late last week and over the weekend, Russia has been busy on a number of fronts. On Friday, increased Russian military activity in the Baltic led to the Swedish government’s decision to send troops to the Swedish island of Gotland. Officially, it was the failure of NATO-Russia talks and the movement of three amphibious assault ships into the Baltic that brought on the Swedish action. There have also been reports of unmarked drones flying over Stockholm, Gotland and around some Swedish nuclear reactors. Between the lines though, Russia’s actions are pure intimidation tactics intended to help keep Stockholm on the sidelines and mute as the crisis with Ukraine intensifies. Sweden has been vocal when it comes to calling out Russia’s aggressive moves and behavior in the Baltic as well as Ukraine. Moscow’s response has not been limited. Operating amphibious assault ships in close proximity to Gotland is sending a message that will be difficult for Sweden to misinterpret.
Microsoft revealed early on Sunday morning that computer systems at Ukrainian government agencies have been subjected to a malware attack. In a blog post earlier, Microsoft said it detected the Malware on Thursday, not long after the final round of talks between NATO, the US and Russia came to an end with no agreements made. The detection of malware also came around the same time a cyberattack took 70 government websites temporarily offline. Cyber attacks are almost certain to play a major role in any Russian plan for offensive operations against Ukraine. They are a large part of the ‘Military-Technical Response’ Vladimir Putin has been threatening and talking about for weeks now.
Wary of what the Swedish Armed Forces’ Commander of Joint Operations referred to as ‘extensive military activity in the Baltic Sea’ at present Sweden is moving to raise its military readiness. Both Russia, and NATO have been holding sizeable exercises, and running patrol operations in the Baltic region of late. The scale of activity has been on a level not seen since the Cold War. This, coupled with the uncertainty of the ongoing global pandemic, and disputed election in Belarus is creating a heightened security situation in the Baltic. The Swedes are rightfully growing concerned and this latest move is intended to send a signal to friend and foe alike that Sweden stands prepared to defend its sovereignty.
It goes without saying, however, that the signal is intended more for Moscow’s benefit rather than Washington’s, or London’s.
Sweden has not been shy about publicizing its deployments. On Tuesday, Swedish television broadcast video footage of armored vehicles arriving on Gotland amid vacationing families, and other tourists. In Stockholm, the Swedish government has been careful not to connect its military moves with the unrest taking place in Belarus. It has admitted the ongoing Russian military exercises are what finally moved Sweden to take action. Along with the armored vehicles, a number of Gripen fighter planes have also been deployed to Gotland. In the Baltic Sea, four Swedish corvettes are presently exercising with the Finnish Navy. Other nations are also moving military pieces around the Scandinavian chessboard. Over the weekend a US special operations aircraft landed on Gotland for a period of time, and farther north Norwegian F-16s, and US Air Force B-52s exercised together over the Arctic.
After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Sweden became concerned about Russia’s intentions in the Baltic, and Europe. Following years of declining defense budgets, Sweden reversed course and started to spend more money on defense. Since 2014 the size and capabilities of the Swedish armed forces have increased with Russia now seen as an unfriendly, potentially hostile Baltic neighbor. Sweden remains unaligned, and neutral in most regards but that has not prevented Swedish forces from taking part in exercises and engaging in closer military relations with a number of NATO nations.