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 European Union has been active in the past eighteen hours preparing additional actions to be launched at Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Russian domestic airlines and private aircraft registered to Russia will be barred from the airspace of all EU member-states. Many pro-Russia media outlets are also facing suspensions and bans. These moves, according to the EU, will be put into effect ‘within hours’ and mark an increasingly stringent posture now being adopted by Brussels. Earlier today, the EU also announced some of its nations will be supplying fighter aircraft to Ukraine following a request by the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. The EU will not supply the planes directly but intends to provide the financing needed for its member states to expedite the transfer of planes. These jets will be surplus MiGs and Sukhoi aircraft from the Cold War years. Germany, Poland and many other former Soviet-bloc nations still have these types of aircraft in storage.
Comments made by Kiev’s mayor earlier today are being disputed and walked back. Vitali Klitchko, the city’s executive and former heavyweight boxer claims Kiev is not under siege and Russian disinformation is responsible for the rumor. However, some Western and Ukrainian sources still claim the Ukrainian capital city is under siege at the present time. From all indications, it seems clear to me that even if Kiev is not currently surrounded, it will be in the coming hours. The noose around the city continues to tighten and convoys of additional Russian troops are reportedly approaching the city from the east and north.
I deliberately waited for President Biden to make his comments on the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine before posting the afternoon update. Biden’s remarks were largely a rehashing the threat of ‘devastating’ sanctions being prepared for implementation and painting Vladimir Putin’s actions in a decidedly dark light, and rightfully so. He believes Putin intends to reclaim through conquest what the Soviet Union ceded in 1991 upon its collapse. Biden also made it a point to explain that sanctions will not damage Russian economy immediately upon being unleashed. It will take some time for the effects to be felt. The rest of the comments and subsequent press conference centered around details of the sanctions as well as requests for clarification of the role of the United States military in the fighting thus far. Biden was clear to point out the purpose of US troop movements into Eastern Europe is to strengthen NATO’s Eastern Flank against possible Russian action in the future. There will be no direct military assistance provided to Ukraine by the US or NATO.
Also this afternoon, the Department of Defense announced the deployment of an additional 7,000 troops to Europe to help strengthen NATO defenses. This force will include an armored brigade, though it was unknown if the brigade will take its equipment from prepositioned war stocks in Europe or if its equipment and vehicles will need to be transported to Europe by ship.
-On the ground in Ukraine this afternoon, fighting continues to rage. As far as determining how much ground the Russian offensive has gained, that remains hidden by the fog of war for now. Fighting west of Kiev at the airport is still taking place. The Russian air mobile force that secured the airport early in the morning has been counterattacked by Ukrainian forces. It’s unclear which side now has control of the airport.
-Mariupol appears to now be in Russian control, or at least parts of the city are in Russian hands. Video obtained from there earlier today showed Russian troops setting up a checkpoint on a road with two armored vehicles in the background. Whether or not this scene occurred inside of Mariupol proper has not been confirmed. However, given that web camera streams from there are now out and communication severely degraded, I’ll assume Russia controls Mariupol unless independent sources confirm otherwise.
With the official response to Russia’s security demands having been delivered yesterday, the West is now forced to watch and wait. Russia holds the initiative at present and Moscow is aware of the advantage it holds. The United States, EU and NATO are restricted in what actions they can take now to influence the situation. Everything is dependent on Russia’s next move. Vladimir Putin has before him a wide variety of options to choose from.
On one end of the spectrum there is the option of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This is the most disquieting option of all those available to Putin. The prospect of an overt Russian military operation against Ukraine has captured the imagination and fears of the world. Yet an invasion may not be the most auspicious move for Russia to make at the moment. Although Ukraine’s military is in no condition to halt a combined arms thrust by the Russian military, and the chances of NATO intervening militarily on the side of Ukraine are low, bringing Ukraine back into the fold is not Russia’s primary objective. Putin’s ambitions go far beyond simply reacquiring one former piece of the USSR puzzle. The saber rattling and deliberate rise of tensions are parts of a greater strategy designed to redress and eventually roll back the ramifications of NATO’s eastward expansion. This will not occur overnight or through military action alone and Putin understands this.
Vladimir Putin and his advisers also realize the most expedient way for Russia to achieve its goals is by undermining NATO and exploiting a handful of key alliance vulnerabilities. Such as Germany and its reliance on Russia for natural gas. The benefits of Germany’s awkward position are already becoming evident with Berlin’s reluctance to openly support Ukraine on the same level of its NATO partners. Russia could attempt to exploit this growing rift by increasing the economic pressure on Germany. This is nothing short of blackmail, but it is an effective tool, nevertheless.
There are other effective options Russia could decide to utilize. Unfortunately, my time is short at the moment so I will discuss those on Saturday in Part II. For tomorrow, expect another Ukraine update and perhaps a quick look at the rest of the world.
With the migrant situation on its eastern border showing no signs of easing, the Polish government is looking for NATO to play a more prominent role in the crisis. Today, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki let it be known that Poland, Latvia and Lithuania are considering placing a request for consultations under Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Article 4 allows member-nations to request a consultation when their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened. Invoking this particular article does not signal that an escalation is imminent, though it does indicate how critical the three nations consider the situation on their borders to be. NATO involvement in the crisis has so far been minimal. The security threat to Poland and the Baltic States, stemming from thousands of migrants pressed up against their frontiers, is not yet evident. The European Union has been the primary supra-national body involved in the dispute.
The EU is set to expand the sanctions against Belarus on Monday to include airlines and private businesses involved in bringing migrants to the Poland-Belarus border. Sanctions against the Minsk National Airport are also under consideration, according to a number of sources in Brussels. Tomorrow, EU foreign ministers are scheduled to meet and finalize the new sanctions.