Russian tactics point to a grim strategy of creating catastrophes

Firefighters extinguish a blaze in homes ignited by a Russian GRAD multi-launch missile system near Kyiv, March 23, 2023.

Over the last four weeks, Russia has achieved a few of the goals it set for itself in Ukraine. It’s clear, from articles circulating in Russia weeks before the invasion, that Putin was told to expect an easy victory. Some of those in the army knew better, but the intelligence reaching the Kremlin was full of glowing expectations of Zelenskyy fleeing the country hours after Russian troops entered, of Kyiv falling with no more than token resistance, and of crowds rushing out to welcome Russian forces , especially in Russian-speaking areas of the east and south. Putin expected to have his puppet government installed within days of launching his invasion, and to be well into the part now where Ukraine changed its name to Nova Russia and declared its undying love.

But within days of the start of the war, as the reality of Ukrainian resistance became clear, Russia began repositioning its army for the same old strategy it had used in Georgie, Chechnya, and Syria — pulverize cities until the number of dead civilians and lack of human necessities made surrender of local forces the only option.

That plan has been most evident in Mariupol, where much of the city has been reduced to rubble, and much of the rubble has been turned into ashes. As of Wednesday morning, Russia still doesn’t completely control Mariupol. Even after weeks of continuous shelling, missiles, and bombs; even after Russia deliberately targeted children sheltering in the theater, and an art school; even after the burning of food depots, the bombing of bread lines, the destruction of the water plant, the cutting off of the electrical supply; even after the kidnapping of thousands of citizens and hundreds of children to be hauled away to an unknown fate in Russia; Even after armored vehicles crashed into the city center and began shooting down running civilians… After all that, Russia still has not taken Mariupol.

But indications are that Mariupol is now considered a success by Russia. As street by street fighting continues, Russia is on the brink of finally achieving one of its strategic — objectives complete control of the Sea of ​​Azov coastline and a land bridge between Donbas and Crimea. As objectives go in a war that has already cost Russia billions in equipment and over 10,000 lives, that accomplishment is simply pitiful. However, Russia is now taking actions that indicate it means to replicate Mariupol in other locations.

In Chernihiv, northeast of Kyiv, Russia has cut the bridge leading out of the city to the south. That bridge was the route that was used to evacuate civilians from the heavily shelled city that’s just 40 miles from both Russia and Belarus, and Kyiv. It’s also the route that was used for bringing food, medicine, and other humanitarian aid into the city. By cutting the bridges, Russia is isolating Chernihiv, trapping what remains of its 286,000 population inside Russian lines, and breaking off any ability to provide them with resources.


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Also within the last two days, the Russian Air Force has actually stepped up the number of sorties it is flying over Ukraine. That number had declined precipitously after Ukraine showed consistent success in taking down planes using mobile air defenses and human-portable missiles. Now Russia is avoiding that issue by keeping planes away from Kyiv and other cities where air defenses are operational. Russia also doesn’t seem to be using its planes to provide air support to Russian troops engaged in battles with advancing Ukrainian forces near Kherson. In fact, on Wednesday Russia removed all its planes from the airport at Kherson — a move that seems to signal they believe the city could be retaken by Ukraine, and don’t want to risk those planes being captured.

Russia seems to be limiting attacks on Kyiv and other defended locations to missiles, of which they have now fired over 1,100. Planes and UAVs are being saved for attacks on undefended civilian populations in places like Mariupol, where they can use high altitude unguided weapons to blast away blocks with impunity. They are, in short, treating their Air Force as an extension of their artillery. All of their forces are concentrated, not on battlefield advances, but on accelerating destruction of cities.

On making more Mariupols.

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