In Ukraine the most reliable source of information is photographic, especially commercial satellite photos. These photos don’t reveal everything because both sides present mostly identical (from the air) combat vehicles, uniforms and other equipment. Ukraine allows foreign reporters access to the combat zones while Russia does not. The best sources of information about conditions in Russian occupied territory comes from those who risked escape. The front lines are over a thousand kilometers long and many areas are lightly controlled and guarded. This often consists of checkpoints on main roads that cross the “front line.” The Russian occupation is brutal by any standard, especially in areas taken during the first weeks of the invasion. These are mainly in the south and east. Areas Russia took in the north were retaken after about a month. This left behind very visible evidence of Russian looting, murder, wanton destruction and a hasty retreat that left behind many dead Russians. There were also a lot of captured (or surrendering) Russian soldiers who were willing to provide video testimony of what it was like from the invader’s perspective.
This forced the Russians to fall back on disinformation. This is something Russia has used successfully for centuries. This has become more difficult in the age of cellphones and commercial satellite images. Russia earlier developed an Internet based disinformation capability that can plant fake news all over the Internet where journalists outside Russia look for newsworthy (contrarian) items they use for an essentially pro-Russia article. Get enough of these online or in print and the authors can cite each other if sources are demanded. This disinformation effort is mainly about Ukrainians actually losing the war and suffering large but unverifiable, losses.
The verifiable facts are that the major Russian offensives in the south and east have failed and in some cases Ukrainian counter-attacks have regained ground. Russian forces have made some gains and held onto them, but at great cost. Russia is running out of troops and officers willing and able to fight effectively. This is something Russia officially denies. There is plenty of proof from Russians back home and troops in combat units. Ukrainians getting out of occupied territory bring with them videos documenting the armed resistance against the Russians and their inability to provide food, medical care or repairs to infrastructure that Russian firepower destroyed. This has caused cholera outbreaks in some areas. Russia gives their troops priority when it comes to supplies and other resources that get past the guerillas or Ukrainian artillery in occupied areas.
Russia has also learned from Israeli tactics used in Syria. There Israel has eliminated the risk of losing warplanes during airstrikes on Syrian targets by using cruise and ballistic missiles launched from aircraft over Lebanese, Jordanian or Israeli airspace. Russia uses its bombers as well as some fighter-bombers to do this and reduce its aircraft losses. This means the only losses are among ground attack aircraft (the Su-25), helicopters and UAVs. Russia also has lots of artillery, especially long-range guided and unguided rockets that can fire from the Russian side of the border. Many of the guided rockets are used against Ukrainian weapons storage sites or convoys/freight trains making deliveries from NATO countries. Russia still has a network of paid informers inside Ukraine who now concentrate on locating such targets. The number of such agents has declined since February, mainly because many agents disagreed with the invasion and quit or defected. Russia also has access to satellite photos, both commercial and from their own photo satellites and those of China.
Ukraine admits that it needs more artillery ammo well as guided rockets. Russia pretends that such shortages do not exist with their troops. The ones that end up in Ukrainian custody tell another story, as do Ukrainian civilians who get out of Russian occupied territory alive. When Ukrainian troops do withdraw from territory, most Ukrainian civilians go with them. Living under Russian occupation is seen as a potentially fatal decision.
Ukrainian commanders also discovered that offensive warfare is more costly in terms of casualties and morale than they expected. Armored vehicles, especially tanks as well as ammo along with more rocket launchers and big guns promised by NATO have been slow in arriving. The major suppliers, like the U.S. and Germany, don’t seem to appreciate the need for speedy delivery. The Americans are again suggesting a negotiated peace. Ukraine points out that such an approach failed several times because Russia always comes up with an excuse for ignoring their promises, and this is making East European nations nervous. Russians are now openly discussing canceling the agreements that made it possible for East European NATO members to leave the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991 without a civil war.
Americans underestimate the degree of fear East European nations have of more Russian invasions. The sanctions are hurting Russia but not discouraging the Russians from seeking to get their empire back. American leaders don’t believe Putin could be another homicidal maniac like Stalin, Hitler, Mao or Pol Pot who collectively killed over a hundred million people in the last century. Most of this carnage took place in eastern Europe where these catastrophes are still vivid local history. It’s not paranoia if someone is really after you. That’s why Poland, Belarus, the Baltic States and Ukraine are collectively and unofficially known as the Bloodlands because millions were killed there by Hitler and Stalin.
Russian leaders, especially president-for-life Vladimir Putin, make matters worse by insisting that fighting in Ukraine is not an invasion but liberation of territory unfairly taken from Russia in the past. Recently Putin put these claims in context by saying he was emulating 18th century tsar Peter the Great who conquered large parts of the empire the communists inherited a century ago. The communists were unable to hold onto it and lost control of the government and then, in 1991, half the population of the empire and over a third of the territory to defections by portions of the empire that had lost their independence to Russia invaders, often several times, over the last few centuries. Many of the new nations founded by former members of the empire joined NATO as an additional defense against the next Russian conqueror.
Putin claims to be the next conqueror and uses that to call for more sacrifice from Russians to support continued fighting. Putin believes the threat of nuclear war, to halt a “NATO invasion” will keep aid to Ukraine limited or slow enough to demoralize Ukrainians and at least cause a stalemate and time to turn occupied Ukrainian territory into submissive subjects of the empire. This is a brutal process that kills a lot of Ukrainians and destroys the local economy.
While the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 united NATO in ways few NATO members, many Ukrainians or the Russians, expected, it did expose divisions within NATO on how to end the fighting and the war. There were some exceptions initially. Hungary had elected a pro-Russian president who was reluctant to get involved with what could become outright war between NATO and Russia. France and to a lesser extent Italy, urged Ukraine to negotiate a peace deal with Russia, even if it meant ceding some territory to Russia. The Russian invasion was justified by Russian using claims that Ukraine wanted to join NATO and become part of the NATO effort to destroy Russia. This was an absurd concept to any Russian who had visited NATO countries or did business with them. What Hitler and Stalin did was seen as impossible until the evidence was revealed during and after World War II.
Support for Ukraine was always strongest in nations that lived closest to Russia suffered because of that over the last century. That included the nations that freed themselves from Russian domination between 1989 and 1991. The new eastern members kept reminding the older NATO members that Russia could not be trusted and would eventually go after their lost territories. And it came to pass even though not everyone in Western Europe appreciated the seriousness of the threat.
A major difference between the present and past Russian efforts is that Russians in general are less willing to go along and resisting in ways not possible during the Soviet period. There were exceptions. During the 1980s war in Afghanistan there were lots of complaints and some open protests by families that had lost conscript sons in Afghanistan. Most of the 15,000 Russians who died in Afghanistan were conscripts or reservists called up for a very unpopular war. As a result, the new democratic Russian government formed after 1991 had to reduce the size of the Soviet-era military by 80 percent in terms of personnel and pass laws limiting, to one year, the time a conscript served. Later laws prohibited the use of conscripts in any combat outside Russia. The memories of a large and expensive military Russia could not afford, and its onerous conscription laws that mandated three years of service, have not been forgotten. That did not stop Russian leaders from invading Ukraine with a poorly armed, led and supplied force that included conscripts who were told they were still in Russia until it was obvious that they were in Ukraine and the Ukrainians were not welcoming them. There is violent resistance to conscription in Crimea and the portions of Donbas Russia has occupied since 2014 and now considers part of Russia.
Ukrainians are realizing that they might be better off emulating an ancient tactic made famous over 2,000 years ago by Roman general Fabius the Delayer, who defeated a larger Carthaginian force commanded by Hannibal. The Carthaginians had inflicted several massive defeats on Roman forces during their invasion of Italy and appeared unstoppable. Fabius believed his less effective Roman and Allied forces could defeat Hannibal by attacking supply lines and fighting only when a portion of Hannibal’s forces attacked Romans who were in good defensive terrain and likely to win. Over a decade of Fabian tactics eventually forced Hannibal to leave Italy.
Using the Fabian approach in Ukraine won’t take that long because 2,000 years later bad news travels faster and in more vivid detail. Ukraine has already used Fabian tactics successfully during the first month of the invasion where Russia lost more troops than they had in nearly a decade of Afghanistan operations. In Russia these losses were declared a state secret. That simply slowed down the bad news reaching most Russians. Fabian tactics work if consciously adopted. The U.S. won its independence because George Washington, the rebel commander, was aware of the Fabian approach and used it throughout the war. That lesson is more vivid to Ukrainians than the Americans who are an ocean away from the bloodlands.
June 8, 2022: In eastern Ukraine two more Russian generals were killed in combat over the weekend, pushing the total since February to twelve. Russia admits these losses, if only to honor the loss of a senior military commander. At the same time Russia insists it has lost only 1,600 troops in Ukraine. The Ukrainians maintain better documented and unclassified data on Russian dead and currently report that total is 31,000. Ukrainian military losses are lower than that but when you add civilians killed the Ukrainians are losing about 30 percent more than the Russians. Far more Russian generals have retired or been fired for opposing the Ukraine operations. These losses are given little notice on the state-controlled media.
June 7, 2022: In central Africa, Mali is paying for about a thousand Russian mercenaries (Wagner Group military contractors) as well as buying weapons from Russia, which is banned from selling weapons to foreign nations. Russia is under severe economic sanctions because of its recent Ukraine invasion but Mali gets around that by paying Russia in gold. Mali is a major producer of gold and Russia has a large gold stockpile for emergencies. Russia will accept gold for the weapons and Wagner Group contractors. Russia also supplies pilots and maintainers for the eight Russian helicopters Mali has received since 2017. Most of the helicopters are flown by Russian pilots with a Mali co-pilot who is learning how to operate the new helicopters.
Wagner Group operations use Russian methods, which involve terrorizing civilians believed cooperating with Islamic terrorists. Wagner Group operates mainly in central Mali, where, Wagner Group men accompany Mali troops on surprise attacks, often in towns where Islamic terrorists are known to be active. The Russian transport helicopters are often used to carry the ground assault force. The Mali troops speak the local languages and are better able to spot known or suspected Islamic terrorists. The Wagner Group men, most of them veterans of Russian special operations or airborne units, have combat experience and pass that on to the Malian forces. This produces thousands of civilian casualties.
Wagner Group uses kinder and gentler tactics elsewhere in Africa where Wagner is an investor in local raw materials extracting operations as well as providing the security.
June 6, 2022: In the last 48 hours two Ukrainian jet fighters crashed in Donbas. Russia now keeps its jet fighters out of Ukrainian airspace because both countries still have effective air defense systems.
June 4, 2022: Russian car manufacturers report that sales are down 80 percent in the last two months compared to sales before the Ukraine invasion. Russians have less money to spend on new cars. Because of new sanctions on exports of most electronic components to Russia, new cars are now sold without airbags, pollution controls and other amenities. This has hurt sales as well.
June 2, 2022: In southeastern Ukraine, Russia and Ukraine exchanged the bodies of dead soldiers, 160 dead Russians from Ukraine and an equal number of dead Ukrainian troops. The Russians were forced to do this by growing public outcry in Russia from families who have lost contact with sons or siblings in the army. Some bodies have been sent home but many others have not. Video and photos from Ukraine showing Russian dead abandoned on the battlefield explains what happened and the Ukrainians proved that they buried some of the Russian dead because Russia was not willing to accept them.
May 27, 2022: The remaining faction of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that still recognized the spiritual leadership of Patriarch Kirill, the head of Russian Orthodox Christians, declared its independence from Russia. When the Soviet Union collapsed, religious freedom returned for all former subjects of the Soviet empire. This meant the few surviving clergy were free to rebuild and recruit. Churches seized by the communists and put to other uses were returned and government funds were spent to rebuild historically significant churches that had been destroyed. Because of this, most Orthodox Christians in the breakaway states, like Ukraine, continued to recognize the Patriarch of Moscow as the spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox. While most Catholics today recognize the Pope in Rome as their spiritual leaders, 1100 years ago nearly all Christians recognized the Pope as their spiritual leader. Disagreements over dogma, including the primacy of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) led to the schism, and the creation of Orthodox Christianity as a separate branch. Most Orthodox Christian churches became politically independent but still recognized the Patriarch (bishop) of Constantinople (the capital of the surviving Roman Empire) as a spiritual leader. The last Rome-based emperor was deposed by Germanic invaders by 476 AD. The empire had already established a secondary capital in Constantinople (Istanbul) as a result of disagreements on how to deal with the growing losses of territory in the western (original) portions of the empire/republic that had survived for nearly a thousand years. After the fall of Rome, the empire survived, and often thrives, for another thousand years under largely Greek management. Over a century before Rome fell, Christianity was recognized by the empire as the official religion. The Roman church bureaucracy survived the barbarian invasions and eventually converted most of their pagan enemies to Christianity. In the east, the same thing happened but after the schism, new converts in the east recognized the Patriarch of Constantinople as their spiritual leaders. This included most of the newly converted Russians, and Slavs in general. The eastern empire eventually fell to the Moslem Turks. Earlier the empire had fought off the new Arab Moslems and got little help from Roman Catholics. The Orthodox church survived the fall of the empire and Orthodox Christians gradually turned to the Patriarch of Moscow as their spiritual leaders. That allegiance declined after the anti-religion communists took control of Russia a few years after World War I (1914-18) and another civil war. With the end of communist rule, and the Soviet Union in 1991 the new Russian government made an effort to restore the primacy of the senior Russian Patriarch as the main spiritual leader for all orthodox. That was no longer possible but most Orthodox in the former Soviet Union/Tsarist empire went along. That unity was shaken when Russia seized Crimea and half of Donbas in 2014. The Russian Patriarch declared the seizure justified, something most Ukrainians disagreed with. By 2018 this led to a schism in Ukraine where most Ukrainian Orthodox believers renounced their allegiance to the Patriarch of Russia. Since the 2022 invasion the remaining Russian Patriarch loyalists, mainly from eastern Ukraine, where there were always more Russian speakers, were appalled at the Russian Patriarch continuing to support the Russian government description of the invasion as a liberation of Ukrainians from fascists and foreign (NATO) threats. Western religious leaders, including the Pope in Rome, were disappointed that the Russian Patriarch would not recognize reality, many Russian Orthodox Christians had done, with many of them suffering government retribution. For Russian leader Putin, this is a domestic and international defeat that encourages more opposition within Russia and encourages Ukrainians to continue the fight.
May 28, 2022: In Tajikistan, national security officials from Russia India, China, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan met to discuss the terrorism situation in Afghanistan. All agreed that the terrorism threat from Afghanistan was growing despite the IEA (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) government insisting they have it under control. There was also agreement that diplomatic recognition and financial aid or investment was on hold until the IEA got serious about the terrorism threat. A senior IEA official recently said that all were welcome in Afghanistan, including known Islamic terror groups. The one exception is ISK (Islamic State Khorasan), the local ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) group that regularly kills non-Moslems or non-Sunni Moslems, especially Shia. This causes major problems with Shia-majority Iran, which considers itself the protector of Shia everywhere. The security officials agreed that the Pakistan-backed Taliban dominate the IEA government and seem unable to control what they have created. That includes the sanctuary the TTP enjoys in Afghanistan. TTP wants to impose an IEA-like government on Pakistan. Tajikistan also noted that a similar Tajik group had received sanctuary in Afghanistan just across the Tajik border.
A further complication is the war in Ukraine, which has disrupted Ukrainian and Russian grain exports, which normally comprise about 30 percent of world grain exports. Russia started this war and refuses to end it. That means grain supplies are lower and prices higher. That means even less potential food aid for Afghanistan and more incentive for the IEA to mismanage food aid.
May 20, 2022: Iran announced they had designed and built a new twin-engine military transport aircraft called Simorgh. As with most Iranian announcements like this, the reality of the situation is somewhat different. Simorgh is actually a rebuilt Russian-designed An-140 transport. Because of its undeclared war with Ukraine in 2014 Russia was forced to halt manufacture of its new An-140 twin turboprop military transports. This is because essential components are made in Ukraine and now, because of the war, unavailable. Before 2014 Russia granted Iran a license to build An-140s, which they did. But three of them crashed before the rest were withdrawn from service. Iranian engineers kept working on the An-140 defects and finding alternate sources of components. Export sales are unlikely and getting Iranian airlines to use them will require some government coercion. Since Russia went to war with Ukraine in early 2014 a growing number of Russian manufacturing operations have had to shut down because they can no longer import components from Ukraine. This is an aftereffect of the 70 years of communist rule in Russia and Ukraine. During this time the economies of Ukraine and Russia became closely intertwined. Russia seized control of Ukraine in the 17th century and Ukrainians considered that conquest, not a merger.
May 18, 2022: In Syria the Russia backed Assad government is now willing and able to fight to subdue the Idlib Islamic terrorists, the Kurds, and ISIL. Iran is backing the Assads as part of their efforts to establish a military presence on the Israeli border and replace Russian and Arab influence over Assad. The Russians have long tried to play peacemaker to preserve their relationships with the Assads, other Arab states and even Israel. The Islamic terrorist rebels in Idlib would prefer to be anywhere but Syria, No one wants them. The Kurds are willing to make peace with the Assads in return for an autonomy deal similar to what the Iraqi Kurds have had for over two decades. The Assads are willing to make a deal but Turkey and Iran oppose that because of problems with their own Kurds. The war in Ukraine has forced Russia to withdraw much of its military forces from Syria and the distraction of fighting a losing war in Ukraine has made Syria a much lower priority.
May 17, 2022: In southeast Ukraine, the last defenders of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol agreed to surrender. The Russians were frustrated by their inability to take the last Ukrainian position, a steel plant on the coast. Russia sent in a lot of their best troops to take the plant but were repulsed for three months before the several hundred surviving Ukrainian troops negotiated a surrender that included being registered by the Red Cross according to the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war. Russia had agreed to let the Red Cross register the steel plant prisoners and claimed they had captured 1,700 troops. That is more than three times as many as the Red Cross registered. Ukraine and Russia have both generally observed the Geneva Convention and have even carried out some prisoner exchanges early on. As the number of captured Russians increased much more rapidly than the number of Ukrainian troops captured, Russia lost interest in exchanges or even admitting how many Russian POWs the Ukrainians helped. Russia wanted to limit the number of confirmed Russian dead and captured, even though the Ukrainians published the data. Most Russian believed the Ukrainian claims because the Russian government had declared such information a military secret in an effort to conceal the extent of their losses. By May senior Russian officials, most of them retired, openly criticized the government treatment of families seeking information on their sons. Some officials still employed by the government began complaining as well, and then resigned.
May 11, 2022: a Russian bulk-cargo ship arrived in Syria carrying 27,000 tons that was stolen from Ukraine during the Russian offensive against southern Ukraine. The Ukrainians are demanding that such shipments be seized rather than used by Russia to support Syria. Russia has also assisted Iran in smuggling oil to Syria.