WILLIAM M. ARKIN 3/30/22 newsweek – Russia’s armed forces are reaching a state of exhaustion, stalemated on the battlefield and unable to make additional gains, while Ukraine is slowly pushing them back, continuing to inflict destruction on the invaders.
After a month of intense fighting, the stalemate has forced the Kremlin to consider a Ukrainian proposal that ends the fighting short of annihilation, opening up the way for a rapid cessation of hostilities. And it has pledged to pull back its forces threatening Kyiv.
“The war in Ukraine is over,” a high-level officer of the Defense Intelligence Agency tells Newsweek. (The officer, who was not authorized to speak on the record, requested anonymity.) But that’s not how the Biden administration sees it. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Morocco on Tuesday, “There is what Russia says, and there is what Russia does. We’re focused on the latter.”Blinken dismisses negotiated moves forward, calling instead for Russia to “end the aggression now, stop firing, [and] pull its forces back.”
The Ukraine war is over but the Joe Biden administration doesn’t seem to have noticed. Rescue workers look at the rubble of government building hit by Russian rockets in Mykolaiv on March 29, 2022.BULENT KILIC/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
The Biden administration has never shown much interest in negotiations, insisting from the beginning of the war that Russia be punished, then that war crimes charges be pursued and even suggesting regime change, a Joe Biden ad-lib this week that the White House (and NATO allies) quickly walked back. Experts say that though Washington is no longer in a position to broker negotiations, it could speak to Russia via a backchannel and it could use the intelligence it possesses, beyond tactical information, to arm Ukraine with assessments of Putin’s mindset. It is doing neither of those things.
The combatants are moving forward without U.S. help. Russia and Ukraine held more than three hours of talks at the Turkish presidential offices in Istanbul Tuesday, both sides describing a potential path towards ending the war. Ukraine abandoned membership in NATO and offered a security guarantee for Russia.
“Ukraine agrees to consolidate its neutral status and to refuse to deploy foreign military bases, provided that it receives security guarantees [from its allies] similar to the Article 5 of the NATO treaty,” said Alexander Chaly, a member of the Ukrainian delegation. Article 5 is a provision that states that an attack on one is an attack on all.
Chaly said such a negotiated solution would allow “clear legally binding guarantees of Ukraine’s security,” allowing his country to become “a non-aligned and nuclear-free state in the form of permanent neutrality.”
Russia for its part said that it would scale down its activities in Kyiv and Chernihiv, a city 150 km (90 miles) northeast of the capital. A military town that houses the headquarters of Operational Command North, it has been one of the scenes of the most intense fighting. Local officials say that more than half the population has fled as military installations and Ukrainian forces have been attacked daily.
Russia, nevertheless, has been unable to take that city of 300,000, nor has it been successful in penetrating the urban megalopolis of Kyiv. In the east, Ukraine’s second largest city Kharkiv holds off Russian forces, and in the south, Ukraine’s fourth largest city, Odesa, remains free. Other major cities – Sumy, Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia, and Mykolaiiv – also remain in Ukrainian hands, while battered Mariupol, the scene of the most intense fighting, holds on.
“While Russian forces reorganize and try to resupply, Ukrainian forces are mounting successful counterattacks and pushing the Russians back,” says the DIA officer. The officer refers to actions to the north and east of Kyiv, as well as in the south. At the Chornobayivka airbase northwest of Kherson, where Russia attempted to set up a command post to consolidate the hold on the south, Ukrainian forces have wreaked havoc, the officer says, thwarting Russian plans to move further.
Speaking to the Ukrainian people on Tuesday, President Zelensky offered cautious optimism, applauding the liberation of the two of Irpin outside Kyiv. “The situation must now be perceived in a balanced, wise way,” he said, “without excessive euphoria from success. … We still have to fight … We can’t burn emotions right now. We can’t set expectations too high.”
President Zelensky offered cautious optimism. “The situation must now be perceived in a balanced, wise way,” he said, “without excessive euphoria from success… We can’t set expectations too high.”
In Istanbul, the head of the Russian delegation, Presidential Aide Vladimir Medinsky, said after the talks that he was relieved that Ukraine offered a “clearly formulated position … that will be studied and brought to the leadership of the country.”
“We will provide our reciprocal proposals,” he later told RT.
Medinsky said that Russia was taking “two huge steps” in northern Ukraine, saying as well that a meeting between Zelensky and President Vladimir Putin would need to be organized earlier than planned.
He pointed out that an agreement does not include Russian occupied Crimea or the “separate districts of Donetsk and Luhansk.” But he did say that their status might be discussed bilaterally “through negotiations, diplomatically.”
“We are making a step towards Ukraine,” he said. “This is not a ceasefire.”
Speaking to reporters at the White House, President Biden said he’s waiting to see how Russia adjusts its forces in Ukraine before assessing the intent behind its pledge to scale down action.
“We’ll see,” he said. “I don’t read anything into it until I see what their actions are.”
Blinken cautioned that Russia might be trading Kyiv as “a means by which Russia once again is trying to deflect and deceive people into thinking it’s not doing what it is doing,” suggesting that it will be able to capitalize by focusing more on the south.
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Russian setbacks and Ukrainian resistance since Russia invaded on February 24 have surprised military and intelligence experts.
Gen. Tod Wolters, Supreme NATO commander and head of U.S. European Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that the failure to understand Russia’s intent and assess its capabilities was an “intel gap” that needed to be examined more closely.
He affirmed that Russia was in trouble militarily, despite its supposed overwhelming numbers and that some 70 to 75 percent of Putin’s armed forces were already “devoted” to Ukraine. This leaves little reserve for Putin. U.S. intelligence says that Russian forces are already depleting their supply of precision-guided munitions, and as reinforcements move from Russia to Ukraine, it has been reluctant to place its newest tanks and some other equipment in the fight.
Asked about Russia’s use of hypersonic cruise missiles, which some saw as an escalation, Wolters said he thought it “was to demonstrate the capability” of a new weapon—using Ukraine as a military laboratory. “I don’t think they were successful.”
Ukrainian forces have shown “a very, very positive learning curve,” Wolters said, leading him to be “optimistic” about their ability to hold Russia off.
For two weeks, Ukraine’s General Staff has been saying that Russian forces were abandoning their goals of taking the big cities; that is “exactly what we see,” Wolters says.
U.S. intelligence watchers point to other signs of Russia’s exhaustion and collapse. “From food to fuel to overall morale, Russia has never been able to turn its horde into a fighting army,” a retired U.S. Air Force officer, now a defense contractor, tells Newsweek.
Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 29, 2022. The Kremlin has played down hopes on March 30, 2022 of a diplomatic breakthrough to end its invasion of Ukraine.
He says that Russian forces have not just made more use of “dumb” bombs and long-range missiles to preserve its battered ground forces, but it has also reduced the intensity of each of its artillery and multiple-rocket launcher strikes. “He is preserving ammunition,” the officer says.
Other signs of a shift in Russian strategy has been the fact that Belarusian troops have been detected returning to their home bases. “For weeks, Ukrainian authorities have been speculating about Belarus joining in the war, but now that seems remote,” says the DIA officer.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his “special military operation” in Ukraine on February 24, he said he was aiming to defend the Russian majority in the southeastern Donbas region, along the Russian border. He also said the operation was “aimed at demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.”
“The purpose of this operation is to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kiev regime” Putin said.
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In recent days, western observers have speculated that a gradual shift in emphasis away from further conquest to consolidating gains in the south, in Donbas, has had the purpose of permanently dividing the country in a way similar to North and South Korea.
The DIA officer isn’t so sure. “Putin can now declare victory in achieving his reason for going to war, ignoring his earlier bluster about demilitarization and denazification. Focusing in this way on a more limited objective could be a graceful way to abandon regime change in Kyiv and frame conquest of Ukraine as a western figment, one he was never considering.”
Speaking on Tuesday, Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu, whose scarce public appearances in the past two weeks raised questions about his whereabouts, says that “liberating” Donbas has always been the main goal. “Overall, the main tasks of the first stage of the operation have been completed,” he says. The “combat potential of the Ukrainian armed forces has been significantly reduced,” he says, suggesting that that may be enough for Moscow to claim that it has also achieved its goal of demilitarization.
“If they somehow believe that an effort to subjugate ‘only,’ in quotation marks, the eastern part of Ukraine and the southern part of Ukraine” [Donbas] Blinken said, “then once again they are profoundly fooling themselves.” He dismissed Russia’s backpedaling: “I’ve not seen anything to suggest that this is moving forward … because we have not seen signs of real seriousness” from Russia.
Like the United States, the United Kingdom downplays the current negotiations. “Ukraine should not be sold in peace talks with Russia, and Putin should not benefit from the invasion,” said Minister of Foreign Affairs Liz Truss. “We must ensure that any future negotiations with Russia do not end in the sale of Ukraine or the repetition of past mistakes,” said Truss.
So it’s all or nothing? “We already see some serious infighting in Moscow over who is going to be blamed for the disaster,” the DIA officer says, suggesting that the Russian leadership sees an end in sight. “Putin is weakened by all of this and Russia is on the ropes in terms of its economic survival. Nothing will ever be the same. But as for an end to active fighting, all signs point in the right direction.”
The officer says that while Putin can declare his victory, Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukraine can do the same: in holding off the Russians, in creating a sense of nationhood that is now undeniable and unshakeable, and in setting itself up as the model of a small country standing up to a larger one.
Russian forces failed to “put fear in the hearts” of Ukrainians, General Wolters told Congress. And indeed, the DIA officer says, though Ukraine might be able to hold off the Russians from further encroachment being the south, “as good as they are, they won’t be able to reverse the Russian hold on Luhansk and Donetsk [Donbas].”
“The killing this week has felt particularly mindless in a war where now there can be no winners,” says the DIA officer. “Yes, one side gains inches here and the other does the same, taking inches away. But no one is positioned to find a checkmate. There’s nothing left; it’s just innocent civilians caught in the middle.”
“Of course, we see all the risks. Of course, we don’t have a reason to trust the words of representatives of a country that wages war against us,” President Zelensky said in a second message on Telegram.
It is the Ukrainian president’s version of “trust but verify.”
“I’ve seen nothing to indicate that the administration has any war termination policies,” the DIA analyst says. “War crimes? Sure. Russian withdrawal? Okay. But something short of this fantasy view? We just aren’t being helpful in terms of encouraging an end to hostilities. And there’s a lot we could be doing to spur negotiations along.”