Good afternoon. At this moment, events and actions taking place in Ukraine continue to be at least partially blanketed by the fog of war. This has been the case since the first shots were fired early Thursday morning and will likely continue for some time. However, the fog is gradually starting to lift, and at this point the amount of hard information available will allow some conclusions to be reached and questions answered….
-Russia’s offensive is behind schedule and continues to face significant delays. Whether this is because of Ukrainian resistance or the fact that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, is unclear. It could be a combination of the two factors that have slowed the Russians down. On social media there have been a number of videos posted purportedly showing Russian supply convoys destroyed on roadways, victims of Ukrainian ambushes or air attack. Russia’s overall progress on the battlefield over the first two days of the war has been marked by success in some sectors and a lack thereof in others. It’s overall success, though, will be measured by how quickly it can capture Kiev.
-US DoD officials are estimating half of the Russian forces that had been massed alongside the Ukrainian border have entered the country. This leaves a considerable number of troops, vehicles and equipment uncommitted and available as reinforcements or replacements if required.
-Turkey does not intend to close the Bosphorus off to Russian warships, despite the flurry of claims that followed a tweet by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy this morning. Ankara is bound by the Montreaux Treaty to allow Russian warships access to their Black Sea homeports.
-Ground based Ukrainian air defenses appear to be active still, if reports about the destruction of two Russian Il-78 cargo planes south of Kiev are accurate. The air picture remains convoluted, to say the least. Many reports and claims are going around, with little substantial information to back them up.
Next update will come in the early evening and with luck, I’ll focus it on preparations in Kiev for another upcoming night of heavy fighting.
The British evacuation operations at Kabul Airport have come to a close today with the final departure of a flight carrying Afghan civilians. On the ground at the airport, the US is entering the final phase of its own operations before the 31 August withdrawal date. US commanders continue to stress that the probability of another attack on the airport remains considerable following a limited number of US drone strikes that have killed a handful of high-profile ISIS-K members. As of 1430 hours, Eastern time today, over 117,000 people have been evacuated from the country. Of this number, 5,400 are American citizens. The number of US troops currently deployed to the airport is declining as well. There are now 4,000 troops on the ground there, down from a highwater mark of 5,800 reached earlier in the week.
Recent reports from Kabul seem to suggest the Taliban and Turkey are close to reaching an agreement on Kabul airport. Under the proposed agreement, Turkey and Qatar will operate Kabul Airport, with Turkey expected to provide security through a private firm employing mostly ex-Turkish troops. This move is similar to one Turkey executed during the Azerbaijan-Armenia war last year. In exchange for permission to assume responsibility for airport operations, Turkey is expected to formally recognize the Taliban government. This will make Turkey the first nation to extend diplomatic recognition to the Taliban.
In Afghanistan, the Afghan State Bank has ordered all banks to open under an emergency framework intended to solve the liquidity crisis. The long term fate of Afghani banks remains up in the air, however. The Taliban is unlikely to allow interest-based banks to operate as they have been doing for some time. A Sharia-compliant banking system will have to be designed to replace the traditional banking system now in place. The Taliban government has made it clear it wants monetary affairs to be governed by the Sharia laws.
After yesterday’s twin suicide bombings that killed 90+ people including 13 US troops, air operations have resumed, and the evacuation is again underway. The operation has reached its final phase with the United States planning to remain until 31 August if necessary. Many other Western nations have brought their operations to a close or will do so by the weekend. Canada, Spain and Germany have both ended evacuation flights. France will halt its operation today. As many nations wind down their respective operations, Turkey is in discussions with the Taliban over the future of Kabul airport once international forces depart. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said his government’s talks have centered on Turkey running the airport. For the short term at least, Kabul’s airport needs to remain operational if Afghanistan’s new leaders are to have a functional relationship with the outside world. Turkish troops and equipment have been a part of NATO’s commitment.
In the United States, the Biden administration is contending with heavy blowback after yesterday’s suicide bombings. President Biden’s handling of the Afghan crisis has come under close scrutiny and received significant criticism from the US public. Last night after Biden addressed the nation he followed up by taking questions from the reporters on hand. Unfortunately, the president started off with a shocking admission: “Ladies and gentlemen, they gave me a list here. The first person I was instructed to call on was Kelly O’Donnell from NBC.” That statement ignited a firestorm on social media with many people wanting to know just who is calling the shots at the White House. Biden has long relied on a list of pre-selected reporters, however, yesterday’s admission, coming hours after the deaths of 13 US soldiers struck a decidedly sour note with some. Biden did state last night that the US is committed to completing the evacuation and promised ISIS-K will be targeted in the future.
Concerns of a new refugee crisis are rising in Europe after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. Six years after the 2015 migrant crisis that came dangerously close to splintering the EU, the continent is faced with the prospect of another one not far off. European leaders are keen to avoid a repeat of 2015, although the stars appear to be lining up in a similar fashion now. The Syrian Civil War was the impetus for the large influx of asylum-seeking refugees to Europe. With Taliban control of Afghanistan now complete and atrocities already beginning there, anxiety is growing on the continent. The message European governments want to convey to fleeing Afghans who have Europe in mind is: if you are determined to leave, go to neighboring countries, don’t attempt to come here. This applies to all Afghans except for those who helped Western military forces during the 20-year war.
Earlier this week, as Afghanistan descended into deeper chaos, European Union officials told interior ministers that the key to avoiding a new refugee crisis is to prevent a humanitarian disaster from occurring. Without a large amount of humanitarian aid, Afghans will start moving in large numbers. Meanwhile, Austria has suggested setting up deportation centers in the nations neighboring Afghanistan to speed up the deportation process for those who are denied asylum.
In Southern Europe, Greece has made it very clear it does not want to see a repeat of the 2015 crisis that saw a number of its islands in the Aegean Sea become the entry point to Europe for hundreds of thousands of Syrian and other Arab refugees. Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi has said Greece won’t accept being the “gateway for irregular flows into the EU,” and that the Greek government considers Turkey to be a safe place for Afghans. Ankara has differing thoughts on that, not surprisingly. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned in a speech Thursday that “Turkey has no duty, responsibility or obligation to be Europe’s refugee warehouse.”
As European Union nations bicker and Brussels attempts to organize itself, Great Britain has declared it will welcome 5,000 Afghan refugees by the end of the year and has plans to resettle 20,000 more over the next three years.
The burgeoning crisis in eastern Ukraine will not be restricted to the air and land should Russia’s intentions prove hostile and the balloon goes up. A potential conflict will also include a sea element as well. Today, the Russian government announced its intention to move over 10 naval vessels from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea ostensibly to take part in upcoming military exercises. The vessels will include landing craft and support ships, according to Russian media reports. No mention was made regarding the inclusion of major warships. However, given that the Russian Black Sea Fleet is nearby, Russia has a host of frigates, destroyers, submarines and other warships already in close proximity. This gives Russia additional options both operationally and in the political realm.
According to media reports, as well as personal sources, the US is considering sending warships to the Black Sea too, as a show of support for Ukraine. Deploying US Navy vessels to the Black Sea will also serve as a warning to Moscow that the US is closely monitoring the buildup of Russian forces in the region. Moving warships into the Black Sea area requires some preparation. Under the terms of the Montreaux Convention, Turkey has control of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles connecting the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea. The US will have to give Turkey 14 days notice of its intent to send warships through the passages and into the Black Sea.
Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, surface elements of the US Sixth Fleet, as well as surface ships from various NATO allies, have operated in the Black Sea on a regular basis. There has been no indication of what size naval force the US might be considering, but given how steady the crisis between Russia and Ukraine seems to be moving, it is safe to assume that it would include multiple warships with various capabilities and weapons systems onboard.