With the war in Ukraine entering its seventh month, the fighting has suddenly escalated. In August, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced a counteroffensive to regain territory lost in the east and the south of Ukraine. The Ukrainian military made little progress for almost a month, but suddenly in the second week of September, it made an important breakthrough, recapturing Izium, a small but strategically located city in Kharkiv province in the north-east.
The Russian forces used it as a command and supply centre after they captured it in April. Izium is connected to the Donbas region by a rail and road network. After his troops captured Izium, Zelensky said that the path for the reunification of his country “is becoming clearer” but admitted that the “fighting in the next 90 days will be crucial”. Once winter sets in, ground operations will be extremely arduous for both sides.
The Russian military was quick to acknowledge that its forces had withdrawn from Izium and, in a statement, praised the “professionalism” and the “bravery” of the troops, describing their withdrawal as part of “regrouping operations” in keeping with the military goals of the “special operations”. According to reports, the Russian defenders were outnumbered 8 to 1 by the Ukrainian forces and abandoned their positions to avoid encirclement.
Chechen fighters in Ukraine
Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader and a close ally of the Kremlin, criticised the Russian army’s performance after its retreat from Izium. According to reports, more than 10,000 Chechen fighters are deployed in Ukraine to help the Russian army. “If today or tomorrow changes are not made in the conduct of the special military operations, I will be forced to go to the country’s leadership to explain to them the situation on the ground,” Kadyrov said in a voice message posted on the Telegram messaging app. “I am not a strategist like those in the Defence Ministry. But it is clear that mistakes were made.”
The military setback in Izium has been described as the worst since the withdrawal of Russian troops from Kyiv soon after the conflict began. Nationalist politicians who are critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s handling of the conflict are now calling for a nationwide mobilisation, saying that it is the only way to defeat the West in Ukraine. Russian military planners, according to reports, were expecting the Ukrainian forces to focus more on regaining territory in the south, and thousands of troops were moved from the east to the south. The lightning advance of the Ukrainian Army evidently took the thinly deployed Russian forces in the east by surprise. Ukraine and the US claim the capture of Izium to be the most important gain made by the Kyiv forces since the conflict began on February 24.
Ukraine’s recent gains on the battlefield were of course facilitated by the tons of sophisticated weaponry and the armour worn by Ukrainian soldiers that the US and its NATO allies provided. Even more decisive are the intelligence inputs the US provides. If reports in the American media are to be believed, the Pentagon virtually drew up the strategy for the Ukrainian Army’s recent counteroffensive. The New York Times reported that the West has a “stealthy network of commandos and spies” on the ground in Ukraine.
Attacks on Russian bases
In recent weeks, there have been attacks on Russian Air Force and naval bases in the Crimean Peninsula. The HIMARS guided missile system, the M777 long-range howitzer, the HARM anti-radar missiles, and the Harpoon anti-ship missiles provided by the West have given the Ukrainian forces the capacity to target the Russian military many kilometres beyond their front lines.
Ukrainian troops are also protected by the NASAMS anti-aircraft system, the same system that protects the Pentagon and the White House. “Over time, the administration has recognised that they can provide larger, more capable, longer distance heavier weapons to the Ukrainians and the Russians have not reacted,” said William Taylor, a former US ambassador to Moscow. In the first few months of the conflict, top Russian army officers were successfully targeted for assassination by the Ukrainian forces on the basis of intelligence supplied by the Pentagon. The decision by the Ukrainian government to highlight its offensive in the south when its real focus was on the north-east was taken from the US military’s playbook. A report in The New York Times said that it “is a standard technique for misdirection used by American Special Operation troops who have been training the Ukrainian army since the installation of a pro-western regime in Kyiv in 2014”. All the same the loss of Izium can be attributed to the tactical failure of Russian intelligence to monitor the movement of Ukrainian special forces
Senior US military officials admit that it is too early to predict whether the Ukrainian forces will be able to sustain the gains they have made on the battlefield. Moscow, on its part, evidently miscalculated and thought that Kyiv would capitulate within a week of its forces entering Ukraine. The Russians had underestimated both the will of Ukrainian nationalists to resist and the willingness of the West to fight a proxy war.
In retaliation, Russia could escalate its military actions by targeting civilian infrastructure and Ukraine’s industrial capacity. The Ukrainian Army chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, warned that Russia might now be tempted to deploy tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield. After the setback in Izium, Russian forces retaliated with long-range missile strikes and air raids on Ukrainian cities. Ukrainian officials claim that Russia specifically targeted the country’s energy and water infrastructure throughout eastern Ukraine. There have been power outages in the cities and towns of Kharkiv region, north-eastern Ukraine, and parts of the Donetsk. This was the Russian forces’ first simultaneous attacks on Ukrainian cities.
The head of the German armed forces, Gen. Eberhard Zorn, told the media in early September that Russia had not yet used its full naval and air potential in the conflict. For that matter, Russia has not yet fully targeted Ukraine’s electricity grid. Doing so would do enormous damage to the country. The Kremlin is reluctant so far to expand the size of its force in Ukraine by resorting to mass conscription. Putin warned in July that Russia could intervene more forcefully if the military situation deteriorated. “We haven’t started anything in earnest,” he said at the time.
A prolonged stalemate
According to John J. Mearsheimer, one of the US’ leading experts on the region, Western policymakers have reached the consensus that the conflict will settle into a prolonged stalemate and that Russia will eventually have to accept a peace agreement that will favour the US and Ukraine. Writing in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Professor Mearsheimer, who teaches at the University of Chicago, said that the US and its allies “are much too cavalier” in their view that “dangerous escalation” could be averted in Ukraine. Since the conflict began, Mearsheimer wrote, both Russia and the US have scaled up their ambitions in achieving their political and strategic goals in Ukraine.
“In practice, this means that the United States might join the fighting either if it is desperate to win or to prevent Ukraine from losing, while Russia may use nuclear weapons if it is desperate to win or faces imminent defeat, which would be likely if US forces are drawn into the fighting,” he wrote. As it is, there is a serious threat of a Chernobyl-like incident occurring once again in Ukraine. The Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in southern Ukraine, which came under Russian control soon after the conflict began, was subjected to constant shelling by the Ukrainian side. At Moscow’s request, a team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) finally reached the site in early September to inspect the damage to the plant and submit a report.
Game of brinkmanship
The IAEA team chose not to apportion blame for the dangerous game of brinkmanship that is going on around the plant and instead called for an immediate stop to the shelling and the establishment of a demilitarised zone. Russia rejected calls to demilitarise the area around the nuclear plant saying that it would make it more vulnerable. As the fighting rages on, the threat to the biggest nuclear plant in the region has only increased.
Mearsheimer pointed out that the statements by US President Joseph Biden and his top officials on the conflict had not helped matters. Biden has on various occasions described Putin as “a war criminal” who should face trial in the International Criminal Court. US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin said that the US goal was to ensure that Russia would in the future not have the capacity to threaten other countries. After the military setback, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia was not against a negotiated settlement in Ukraine but the longer they took “the more difficult it is to agree on anything”. The US’ endgame in Ukraine according to Mearsheimer is “to permanently cripple Russian power”.
Russia on its part flexed its own economic power by announcing an indefinite suspension of gas supplies to Germany, France, and other EU countries that have imposed sanctions on it. The move came after the group of seven nations (G7) Finance Ministers announced that they had agreed to impose a price cap mechanism on gas imports from Russia in a bid to severely curtail its oil revenues. The Russians and the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries are planning to cut output to bolster global oil prices. Russia is showing the West that it has many cards still left to play as the war drags on inexorably. Energy prices for consumers in Europe are soaring as a result of the draconian sanctions imposed on Russia and the war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russian oil and gas have found ready markets in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Speaking at a meeting of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, in the first week of September, Putin said: “In terms of what we have gained, I can say that the main gain has been the strengthening of our sovereignty, and this is the inevitable result of what is happening now.” He dared the US to try and defeat Russia. “I am speaking of the West’s sanctions fever, with its brazen aggressive attempts to impose models of behaviour on other countries, to deprive them of their sovereignty, and subordinate them to their will”.
- Ukrainian forces retake the small but strategically located city of Izium in Kharkiv province in the north-east of the country. Russian forces captured it in April.
- The Russians were taken completely by surprise; their forces were concentrated in the east and south of Ukraine.
- Ukraine’s recent gains on the battlefield have been facilitated by the help it is receiving from the US and its NATO allies in the form of sophisticated weaponry, armour, intelligence inputs, and military strategy.
- The real fear now is that Russia may retaliate by using tactical nuclear weapons and by attacking Ukraine’s civilian and industrial infrastructure, including its electricity grid.
- Russian has announced an indefinite suspension of gas supplies to Germany, France, and other EU countries that have imposed sanctions on it.