Explaining the Fog of War in Ukraine

From politico.com:

The Fog of War

As we approach the six-month mark of Russia’s invasion, the war is entering a new phase. There’s widespread confusion about the state of the fight, and competing information continues to pour in from all directions.

This week alone, while satellite images showed several Russian military planes destroyed and three large blast craters — suggesting a serious blow to the country’s military — Moscow downplayed the strikes and said the blasts were caused by ammunition accidentally detonating. There’s also great uncertainty about casualty numbers, clouding assessments about how long Russia can keep this up. The Pentagon estimated this week that 80,000 Russian troops have died or been injured so far; Moscow hasn’t updated its March total of 1,351 dead. The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces put the number of dead at 42,200 on social media over the weekend.

In the interest of shedding light on the current situation, Nightly’s Myah Ward checked in with POLITICO’s national security correspondent Christopher Miller, who’s on the ground in Ukraine.

How would you describe this phase of the war?

We’re entering what I’d call the third phase of Russia’s latest invasion. First, in late February through March, Russia tried and failed a blitzkrieg approach to capture Kyiv and Kharkiv and decapitate Ukraine’s government. Ukrainian forces repelled the assault and forced Russian forces to retreat. In April, we saw the second phase, when Russia redeployed forces to the eastern Donbas region and Vladimir Putin reverted to his originally stated goal of capturing all of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. There, Russian forces haven’t been entirely successful; they haven’t made much progress in the eastern Donbas region since the battles for Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, from which Ukraine made tactical retreats in June and July, respectively. But they have destroyed a lot of cities and towns there. This third phase sees Ukraine going on its own offensive — to recapture territory in the southern Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions that were occupied by Russian forces in the first days and weeks of the invasion.

Can you talk about what’s happening in Crimea this week, and why it’s significant?

A Russian military airfield in western Crimea was hit with a series of explosions. Moscow claims it was an accident; Ukraine is being coy about what it thinks happened. I was told by two Ukrainian officials — who were careful not to explicitly confirm that Ukraine was behind the blasts — that we should consider it the start of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the south. Kyiv said Russia was keeping attack aircraft at the base that it deployed to attack targets inside Ukraine. Whatever happened, it’s a big deal. It’s likely to damage the morale of Russian forces who have until recently felt like they were out of reach of Ukrainian weapons, and will certainly infuriate Putin, who is likely to view it as an escalation.

There’s been a round of fresh aid this week from the U.S. to Ukraine, but what more do Ukrainian officials want from the U.S. and allies right now?

I met with several of President Zelensky’s advisers this week and last week. They were very clear: They want a lot more ammunition so they can keep fighting. They want long-range ammunition for the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System that the U.S. has supplied so they can keep hitting Russian command and control center and ammunition depots far beyond Russian lines and further disrupt the enemy’s logistics. And they want security guarantees. They dream of something like a NATO-style Article 5 that would see the U.S. and NATO countries coming to its aid if Russia were to escalate in a more significant way. But there is some talk of those guarantees being something along the lines of the West explicitly laying out the costs for Russia if it escalates. Some examples might be severe sanctions, coupled with Western guarantees to supply Ukraine with X weaponry and financing for X number of years, and/or provide Ukraine with weaponry that the West has so far been more cautious about supplying, such as air defense systems and those long-range shells for HIMARS.

The grain deal seemed like somewhat of a breakthrough, but did you see it that way, and is there room for any other progress on negotiations at this point?

The grain deal is viewed by Ukraine as a good deal in the short term. But there is a lot of concern about how long it will last. Some officials here in Kyiv believe Putin will try to use it to strong arm the West into getting Ukraine to make concessions. As for further negotiations, the answer is no. The Ukrainians see no reason for talks at the moment.

It feels like there’s been a drop off in public interest here in the U.S. How would you describe the attitudes of Ukrainians right now, particularly in parts of the country where there isn’t active fighting? 

Ukrainians are determined, stoic. I’m constantly impressed by Ukrainians and their ability to rally and unite for a common cause. I saw it during the revolution in 2014, and in their response to Russia’s first invasion later that year. They are worried that the world will forget them; the waning interest really frustrates them. Ukrainians truly believe they are on the front line not of a war against Ukraine only — but a great war against the West and democratic values.

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