Ukrainian servicemen pose for a picture near a destroyed bridge as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, in the town of Irpin outside Kyiv April 1, 2022. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY (GLEB GARANICH/)
Irpin, a town northwest of Kyiv, became the most important battleground of this war. It was one of the first villages to be taken over by Russian forces that advanced from Belarus. Nearby is the strategic Hostomel Airport, which was the primary target of Russian special troops to use as a beachhead in the seizure of the Ukrainian capital. There is also one of the main escape routes for civilians fleeing the bombing in the metropolitan area. The image of hundreds of refugees under a bridge destroyed by Ukrainian forces to prevent the passage of Russian tanks is fresh in the memory. They were waiting to cross the Irpin River and continue west, seeking refuge in Poland or further into European territory.
Now, five weeks later, Irpin is the symbol of the counteroffensive launched by the Ukrainian army that regained control of that and other peoples in the area such as Makariv. They carried out a claw movement and locked up the Russian troops leaving only one escape route, on the road to Chernobyl and the Belarusian border. They also resumed Bucha, in the same area and to the east of the city they advanced behind the Russian lines, which, again, were trapped in Brovary. Probably, in the next few hours we will know that the Russians escaped to the north to regroup in the Belarusian rear.
Ukrainians also advanced in other enclaves in the East. They resumed the initiative in the city of Sumy and are already very close to the Russian border. In Kharkiv, the second Ukrainian city, which was constantly bombed for three weeks, Ukrainians managed to build new defenses and pushed Kremlin soldiers into the separatist territory of Luhansk, something they had failed to do in the previous eight years, during the Donbas War, following the Russian invasion of Crimea and the enclaves in 2014. Another important front where the Ukrainians advanced is in the south, in Mykolayiv, very close to Kherson, which is the only large city controlled by the Russians. There they resumed the city and reinstated the mayor deposed by the Russians.
In addition, Ukraine seems to have carried out a successful air raid into enemy territory. Two helicopters flying at very low altitude to avoid detection by radar missiles attacked fuel tanks in the Russian city of Belgorod, 45 kilometers from the border between the two countries. This was confirmed by the Russian governor of the region, Vyacheslav Glsdkov. A video that was uploaded to the site VKontakte shows the ships launching the missiles. The New York Times determined its authenticity and described that two helicopters can be seen firing at the refinery, although their identification was not distinguished. The Ukrainian Foreign Minister said that he could not “confirm or deny” the veracity of the fact “for reasons of military security”.
Most military analysts consulted by CNN and BBC are convinced that it was a risky and very well-executed Ukrainian offensive. And this is a serious blow to the Russian generals who assured last week that the Ukrainian air force was “practically destroyed”. Given this success, it is likely that in the coming days there will be more attacks on strategic targets within Russian territory. They will intensify as U.S. and British weapons reinforcements arrive.
“They thought they were going to take Kyiv in a matter of hours. But they made a serious mistake in not calculating our ability to mobilize rapid action forces and ended up withdrawing with significant casualties of soldiers and weapons,” Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrsky, the head of the defenses of the Ukrainian capital, told a group of correspondents who witnessed the liberation of Irpin.
Of course, what Syrsky now has under his control is nothing like the bucolic grain-producing town of before the Russian invasion. Most of the infrastructure is unusable, 80% of houses and municipal buildings damaged, no livestock in sight, and the few women who remained there during the Russian occupation speak of terrible atrocities. The central street is covered with Russian war scrap: tanks, missile launchers, troop transport trucks. Twisted and burnt irons. Jeremy Bowen, the legendary BBC war correspondent, counted thirteen bodies lying on a block of that same street, ten of them civilians. The Russians provoked a massacre before they retreated.
“There are already some answers for a couple who were killed by the Russians and left to decay on March 7. His rusty and shrapnel-riddled car lies on the road next to one of the gas stations, shredded to a shell by fire. Next to it are the burned and twisted remains of the remains that are barely recognized as those of a man. On the corpse’s finger there is still a wedding ring. Inside his car is what is left of the cremated body of a woman, with her mouth open in what looks like a scream,” Bowen recounted in his office.
The deaths of these people were filmed by a Ukrainian drone on March 7, operated by the Bugatti unit of the Territorial Defense. The unit released the video, which was watched millions of times on social media. It caused enormous indignation. It showed the cold-blooded murder of a man who had raised his arms in the classic gesture of surrender. The bodies are those of Maksim Iowenko and his wife Ksjena. They were in his car and were part of a convoy of 10 civilian vehicles trying to escape from the Russians.
The counterattacks emboldened Ukrainian fighters who were able to exploit Russian vulnerabilities: poor logistics, poor supplies, lack of local knowledge and low morale. All this is seen on the ground, where the unity between the vanguard and the supply chain is permanently cut off and in Russian recruits taken prisoner who claim to have been deceived by their commanders. They say they were told that these were military exercises and they did not know until the last minute that they were going to attack the neighboring country.
The propaganda launched from the Kremlin tells a completely different situation. The Ministry of Defense said yesterday that Russia was entering the “final phase” of operations after “achieving all major objectives” in northern Ukraine. And that the troops will move out of Kiev to “liberate” the Donbas region in the east of the country. None of this is true.
Nor can this counteroffensive be read as an imminent Ukrainian military victory. The government of Volodymyr Zelesnky is a long way from achieving this. Russian forces are still superior by a rank of 10 to 1. “There was no total Russian setback on the ground,” the Institute for the Study of War explained in its analysis. “We are not seeing a change in trend, although there are areas where Ukrainian forces are having some success. It’s a long way to go before this is over.” Zelensky himself acknowledged this week: “The scale of the challenges has not diminished. The Russian army continues to have significant potential to continue the attacks against the Ukrainian state.”
A principle of Russian military doctrine also emphasizes the idea of “offensive defense”, which is based on defeating the adversary by gaining time, conserving strength and using artillery and missiles to degrade the enemy. And that is exactly what is happening in most cities attacked by Kremlin forces. According to intelligence reports from Western agencies, some 10 new tactical groups of Russian battalions, usually with around 700 troops, with armored vehicles and artillery, will arrive at the front line in the next few hours, bound for the Donbas front.
To maintain its counteroffensive, Ukraine will need a continuous flow of heavy weapons. The West has supplied a number of weapons, most notably anti-tank missiles, but Zelensky has repeatedly called for tanks, planes and artillery systems to be sent. For now, the most effective weapon they provide him with is comprehensive information on the movement of Russian troops. It is picked up and sent by US reconnaissance planes that permanently fly over Ukrainian territory.
Ukraine could take advantage of this position of strength that it achieved in recent days through another type of counterattack: the diplomat. The parties’ talks with the Turkish mediation continue in Istanbul. While there is tremendous skepticism about the possibility of reaching a lasting agreement, the Ukrainian delegation can now take a stronger stand to counter Russian claims to territory.
“This is a good time for Ukrainians to set the issues they want while the momentum is there and European unity and support is still maintained,” explained Sergio Jaramillo, the former Colombian official who designed the peace process with the FARC, and who is now an advisor to the European Peace Institute in Brussels. “It is always better to negotiate when you are stronger and for Ukrainians that can be now.”
But the position of advantage of Ukrainian forces clashes against the walls of the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin wants to stay definitively with the Crimean peninsula, which invaded and annexed in 2014, and the two provinces of the Donbas region. In Washington and Brussels, they believe that Russia is simply gaining time from the Turkish-sponsored negotiations and that their goal is to occupy a very large portion or all of Ukraine’s territory by blood and fire before actually sitting down to negotiate. The United States and Europe have already warned that only a complete ceasefire, the withdrawal of troops and the return of captured territory would trigger discussions about the lifting of sanctions on the Russian economy that are already provoking serious dissent within the Kremlin.
Ukraine would have to defeat Russia on several fronts before getting any concessions from Putin. The counteroffensive is a very good first step.
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