The second phase in Russia's war against Ukraine opens, and the symbolic importance of two dates may be influencing Russian commanders.
Ukraine at D+54: Timing as influence.
The British Ministry of Defense situation map this morning shows continued fighting in the Donbas and around the Sea of Azov, with long-range strikes hitting cities throughout Ukraine. (At least seven civilians died in a strike against the western city of Lviv.) The MoD's most recent situation report draws attention to the pressure Russian commanders will be under to make progress in the southern areas of operation, and that they will respond to that pressure with heavy fire directed at civilian populations. "Russian commanders will be concerned by the time it is taking to subdue Mariupol. Concerted Ukrainian resistance has severely tested Russian forces and diverted men and materiel, slowing Russia’s advance elsewhere. The effort to capture Mariupol has come at significant cost to its residents. Large areas of infrastructure have been destroyed whilst the population has suffered significant casualties. The targeting of populated areas within Mariupol aligns with Russia’s approach to Chechnya in 1999 and Syria in 2016. This is despite the 24 February 2022 claims of Russia’s Defence Ministry that Russia would neither strike cities nor threaten the Ukrainian population."
The initial phases of the renewed Russian offensive have begun, and done so with a formal announcement by Foreign Minister Lavrov: “Another phase of this operation is starting now.” That new phase is heavy with the indiscriminate fire and brutal reduction of cities that characterized Russian operations in Chechnya and Syria. That brutality is expected and commended was seen in Russian President Putin's commendation of the unit Kyiv accuses of the atrocities in Bucha. Mr. Putin designated the 64th Motorized Rifle a Guards unit, an honor roughly equivalent to an American Presidential Unit Citation (if anything, it's a higher, better known, and more publicly enduring honorific). Ukrainian President Zelenskyy says "We can now confirm that Russian troops have begun the battle for the Donbas, which they have been preparing for a long time. A large part of the Russian army is now dedicated to this offensive. No matter how many Russian soldiers are brought here, we will fight. We will defend ourselves."
Timing can be operational, or it can be informational. In this case, it's informational.
There are two dates coming up that may figure in the Russian timetable. One of these, as we've seen, is May 9th, Victory Day, the anniversary of the German surrender at the end of the Second World War, and a date that occupies a large place in the Russian national mythos. The other date may be less obvious, particularly to Westerners. It's Easter, the central Christian holy day that the Russian Orthodox Church, using the Julian calendar, celebrates a week later than do Western churches. Easter will be observed in Russia this Sunday, April 24th, and Ukrainian military intelligence says it believes Russian commanders are being pressed to deliver something that can be represented as victory by Sunday. "The Russians are preparing for a decisive battle, they are in a hurry because they are very limited in time, they really want to gain at least some advantage and real tactical achievements that they would be able to present as some kind of win for Russia in their ‘operation.’ They are in a rush to make it happen by Easter,” intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov said. The choice of Easter as an operational deadline may strike one as blasphemous, but it seems to fit with the controversial but full-throated strong support Russia's war has received from Patriarch Kyril of Moscow.
Where's the cyber in all of this?
Nothing new on the Ukrainian Front: presumably nuisance-level doxing and DDoS continue, but no major new cyberattacks are being reported. For all that, Western governments are not disposed to drop their guard. NATO's Locked Shields, a defensive cyber "live fire" exercise, is now under way in Tallinn. The scenario is said to be heavily shaped by events in Ukraine, as indeed it should be.