Ukraine roundup: February 26 2022
As the title says, this is just about Ukraine
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Typically Foreign Exchanges takes Saturday evenings off, but given the volume of news from Ukraine I feel like skipping tonight could make tomorrow’s newsletter an incoherent mess. We won’t be doing a whole world thing here so if you’re curious what happened anywhere other than Ukraine today you’ll have to wait for tomorrow’s newsletter.
The good people at Wikipedia are maintaining a map of the conflict, so here’s roughly where things stand as of Saturday:
Hopefully this will be helpful in terms of providing some context. Any map like this is of course only going to be a snapshot of a given moment in the conflict, so if you’re looking for something that’s updated more frequently I’d try this.
I’m still hesitant to talk about casualties or other numbers because it’s unlikely anybody has a full picture of the conflict at this stage and any numbers I list here are going to be outdated by the time anybody sees them, but I don’t see how to avoid them either. So let’s start with Ukrainian Health Minister Viktor Lyashko’s Saturday claim that 198 Ukrainian civilians had been killed and some 1115 wounded to that point. It’s nearly certain that those figures undercount the actual numbers, but again under the circumstances that’s inevitable. At least 19 civilians were reportedly killed by Russian shelling in Donetsk on Saturday, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency, and I don’t know if they’re included in that 198 figure. The Greek Foreign Ministry summoned Russia’s ambassador in Athens on Sunday to issue a formal complaint over the deaths of at least ten Greek nationals in fighting near the city of Mariupol.
I have not seen reliable figures on combatant deaths. As of late Friday the British government was citing figures of around 450 Russians killed and 194 Ukrainians killed. Ukrainian officials continue to bandy about numbers that seem outrageous, with an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claiming on Saturday that 3500 Russian soldiers had been killed so far. That would mean the Russians are losing around 1000 soldiers per day, which seems absurd though I guess we can’t definitively rule it out. Estimating Ukrainian combatant deaths is likely to be particularly difficult as people take up arms to defend their homes and the line between “combatant” and “civilian” blurs.
Estimating the number of displaced is also difficult, though the United Nations says it’s registered 150,000 Ukrainian refugees thus far. Those are only people who have been displaced to other countries (mostly Poland but also Hungary, Moldova, and Romania). I’ve seen no attempts to estimate the number of internally displaced Ukrainians as yet.
WHAT’S HAPPENING ON THE GROUND?
Most of the attention is unsurprisingly focused on Kyiv, which survived what sounds like a sustained Russian assault overnight and will presumably face a similar or perhaps larger assault tonight. Some fighting continued throughout the day on Saturday, particularly in the form of Russian air and missile strikes, but it appears the Russians are making their big ground pushes at night. Authorities have imposed a curfew in Kyiv through Monday morning in an effort to suss out possible Russian infiltrators/saboteurs, but they’ve also armed civilians with firearms and Molotov cocktails in preparation for a mass resistance.
In addition to Kyiv, Russian forces are also advancing on or have advanced to the cities of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine and Kherson in southern Ukraine. Both at this point remain in Ukrainian control but the Russian assault is expected to continue. There are reports of fighting near the southern city of Mariupol, another Russian target, and other southern cities. Additionally, it sounds like the Russians have captured the smaller southern city of Melitopol, though there’s been some pushback to that claim and there may still be active fighting going on there. The capture of Melitopol and Mariupol would bring the Russians close to securing a land bridge connecting Crimea, which they seized in 2014, with the Donbas, the separatist region over which this current conflict is ostensibly being fought.
Russian forces are also reportedly approaching a Ukrainian nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, so if you were worried about a nuclear catastrophe when you heard they were advancing on Chernobyl please feel free to go back to worrying about that again.
If you’ve been following this story at all today you’ve probably seen some arguments that this invasion isn’t going Russia’s way. Anonymous US officials have suggested, for example, that the Russians were surprised by the level of resistance they’ve encountered and that they’re at risk of getting bogged down and overwhelmed logistically. I want to be careful about this because I think it’s more complicated than saying the Russians are or are not in trouble. But my sense, and I’ve spent too much time on Twitter today so that sense may be somewhat warped, is that people are taking a realistic assessment, which is that the Russian advance has likely been slower and harder than they expected, and exaggerating it out of proportion with claims that the Russians are being defeated. Those exaggerations are being pumped up by some extremely sketchy “reports” of supply shortages and discontent within the Russian military, which I think it’s best to ignore without some kind of substantiation, along with outright cheerleading, which is also frequently rooted in misinformation.
I have no insight into Russian battle plans but from the way they’ve moved quickly toward major Ukrainian cities I think it is reasonable to conclude that they’d planned to have at least one of them under Russian control by now. They may have expected to take Kharkiv, which before 2014 was arguably the most Russo-philic city in Ukraine, and then start a chain reaction that would send people fleeing west and maybe even chased Zelensky out of Kyiv. They would have quickly moved into the capital and set up a puppet government and gone from there, either standing off and isolating western Ukraine or taking their time to roll through that region. They at least surely figured they’d have wiped out Ukraine’s air power and air defense capabilities by now, and they haven’t even completely done that.
None of that has happened…yet. It has only been three days. It took the US military and its allies over a month to take Kabul in 2001 and about three weeks to take Baghdad in 2003, and it would have been daft to declare either of those invasions over after three days. The Russians may be a little frustrated by how things have gone so far and may even start to have some serious logistical issues, especially if these cities hold out for another few nights. But they have yet to commit their entire invasion force to this operation and it is extremely premature to start making any pronouncements. There’s something else to consider here. If these early setbacks—assuming they really have been setbacks—cause the Russians to dig in for a longer and more violent offensive, they could wind up contributing to higher casualty levels.
I will say that the difficulties the Russians appear to be having now don’t bode well for an extended occupation, if that’s what they’re planning. If this war goes the way Iraq and Afghanistan went, this is the easy part from Russia’s perspective, and things will probably never be this easy again.
WHAT ELSE HAPPENED ON SATURDAY?
I’m glad you asked, because there are a few things to note:
Likely the biggest thing to happen off the battlefield on Saturday was the announcement that Western governments have decided to pull the trigger on a couple of major economic sanctions. To wit, they’re cutting Russian financial institutions off from the SWIFT banking network. Well, some Russian financial institutions. In a concession mostly to European squeamishness, the measure will only target specific Russian banks, starting with those that are already under Western sanctions and going from there, rather than the blanket ban that had been under discussion. Cutting these banks off from the network will limit if not outright block their ability to conduct transactions internationally.
The other major financial sanction announced on Saturday concerns Russia’s central bank and the $640 billion or so it has in foreign currency reserves—or at least whatever portion of that amount it has stashed in US and European banks. In a joint statement, Western governments said that they were “imposing restrictive measures that will prevent the Russian Central Bank from deploying its international reserves in ways that undermine the impact of our sanctions.” I’m not entirely clear as to whether that means they’re freezing those assets in full or just restricting how the bank can access them, but either way this is a pretty big deal that could not only weaken the Russian economy overall but directly impact Russia’s ability to pay for its military operations. It could even potentially cause a bank run in Russia.
Notably, from what they’ve seen so far US officials appear to believe that China is honoring Western sanctions against Russia rather than helping Moscow cope with or even circumvent them. China could to some extent be a safety valve for a heavily sanctioned Russian economy, but that it hasn’t taken steps in that direction yet is interesting.
The Kremlin pulled former Russian president and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev out of cold storage on Saturday to respond to all of this sanctions activity. Medvedev, who is still the deputy chair of Russia’s national security council, announced plans to seize the assets of foreign individuals and entities in Russia and suggested that Moscow might just sever all of its diplomatic ties with the West, up to and including abandonment of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the only active treaty governing the disposition of the US and Russian nuclear arsenals. He even suggested that Russia might bring back capital punishment now that its membership in the Council of Europe has been suspended.
Several countries have closed their airspace to Russian aircraft. Germany became the latest country to do so on Saturday, joining Estonia, Latvia, Romania, and Slovenia. Prior to that, the governments of Bulgaria, Czechia, and Poland had announced similar bans, which Moscow has already reciprocated.
Kyiv is continuing to ask the Turkish government to close the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits to Russian warships, using its wartime authority as stipulated by the 1936 Montreux Convention. Ankara, which has good relations with both Ukraine and Russia, has condemned the Russian invasion but so far has refused to classify it as a “war” precisely to avoid having to make a decision on the straits and risk angering Moscow. They’ve also left themselves a backup out by arguing that while they can close the straits to warships in general during wartime, they can’t close the straits to Russian warships that are “returning to port.” So they could technically close the straits while functionally leaving them open to Russian naval traffic.
Shifting policy rather abruptly, the German government announced on Saturday that it will provide weapons to Ukraine, starting with an initial shipment of some 1000 anti-tank missiles and 500 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. It’s also now allowing third countries to ship German-made weapons to Ukraine. Berlin had been the only major Western country not arming Ukraine. The Biden administration, meanwhile, announced a new $350 million arms package for Ukraine featuring small arms, anti-tank weapons, and body armor. Arms shipments are the definition of a double-edged sword—they’ll be of use to Ukrainian forces, but they could also extend the conflict and make it bloodier.
There appears to be no momentum behind any sort of peace talks, after preliminary discussions in that regard fell apart on Friday over a disagreement about the venue. Russian officials proposed Minsk as the site for talks, even though the Belarusian government is allowing Russian forces to invade Ukraine from its territory and has thus made itself a belligerent in this conflict. Any Ukrainian representative that stepped foot on Belarusian soil would be even money to be taken prisoner, or worse. Ukrainian officials proposed Warsaw, which was equally unacceptable to Russia for similar reasons. The Russians on Saturday accused Kyiv of “prolonging” the war by “refusing” to talk, a charge Ukrainian officials rejected.
The website kremlin.ru was apparently hit with a Distributed Denial of Service attack on Saturday. I mention this because earlier in the day Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov announced the formation of an “IT army” to carry out cyber operations on Kyiv’s behalf. Coincidence? Hard to know. The “Anonymous” hacker collective has also announced that it will undertake cyber operations against Russia, for whatever that’s worth.
The UN Security Council is likely to vote on Sunday to hold an emergency session of the UN General Assembly, which would then vote on a resolution decrying the Russian invasion. As a procedural vote this isn’t something that Russia or any other council member could veto, so if it gets nine “yes” votes then the UNGA session will happen. UNGA resolutions are the definition of purely symbolic but that vote could highlight just how much (or more to the point, how little) international support Russia has for what it’s doing.
More antiwar protests broke out across Russia on Saturday for the third straight day. The size of the protests is difficult to estimate but it’s believed that around 460 people were arrested, which is about the same number arrested the previous day. There have been other signs of antiwar feeling, including a number of open letters being circulated by various Russian professional communities as well as an online petition condemning the war that’s garnered some 780,000 signatures. None of these is likely to matter very much to Vladimir Putin.
Of course that leads to the question of what does matter or would matter to Putin, which is where I think the rest of the world is at a loss as it tries to calibrate a response to the Russian invasion. Personally sanctioning Putin, as Western governments did on Friday, would probably get his attention if it weren’t for the fact that his allegedly vast assets (estimated at $100 billion or more) can’t legally be tied back to him. This is where we start to get into the realm of armchair psychoanalysis—Putin is unwell, he’s unhinged, he’s isolated, he’s experiencing some sort of COVID- or COVID isolation-related psychosis, he’s on the outs with his inner circle, etc.—that always causes me to recoil on some level. Any or all of these various diagnoses could be true, but I have no idea how anyone in the US would be able to determine that.