A winter war may not necessarily develop in Russia's favor.
Ukraine at D+308: Diplomacy and a winter war.
The southern Ukrainian city of Kherson has come under artillery fire again, with some thirty Russian rockets hitting the town yesterday. The Telegraph also notes that the Russian Army has moved more armor into its positions opposite Kherson. There's some speculation that an attempt to recapture the city may be in the offing, but this seems unlikely, given that a ground attack would involve an assault river crossing. Such an attempt seems unrealistic.
Russian missiles continue to target Ukrainian infrastructure, against which by the AP's tally sixty-nine missiles were fired today. (Ukraine claims to have shot down fifty-four of these.)
A long essay in Foreign Affairs argues that this time winter favors not Russia, but Russia's enemy. Ukrainian troops are better equipped for cold weather, and the Russian forces remain poorly supplied and indifferently led.
Ukraine makes a slow advance in Luhansk; Russia fails to take Bakhmut.
Russian commanders are concerned about the Ukrainian threat to retake occupied Kreminna, a city important to Russia's continued hold on Luhansk. The UK's Ministry of Defense (MoD) on Wednesday morning offered an assessment: "In recent days, Russia has likely reinforced the Kremina sector of its frontline in Luhansk Oblast, as it comes under continued pressure from Ukrainian operations. Kremina has been relatively vulnerable since Ukrainian forces advanced through the town of Lyman, to the west, in October. Russia has constructed extensive new defences in the area and will likely prioritise holding the line here. The area is logistically important for Russia’s Donbas front and it is also a significant town in Luhansk Oblast; the Kremlin claims that the ‘liberation’ of this area is a core justification for the war." The New York Times reports that Ukrainian forces are making slow progress toward Kreminna, and are also threatening two other key towns, Svatove and, more remotely, Starobilsk.
In a related story, the Telegraph reports that British military intelligence has concluded that the Russian attempt to take Bakhmut has failed, although heavy, ruinous shelling continues. Western intelligence services have assessed Russian ammunition stocks as dwindling, but Lithuanian officials point out that Russia continues to receive ammunition from its Belarusian ally.
Russia has made much of its deployment of hypersonic missiles, but these are unlikely to reverse Moscow's fortunes on the battlefield, Military.com argues. Such missiles offer little advantage in land combat, and they're unlikely to prove war-winning wonder weapons.
Ukraine again strikes Engels Air Base well inside Russia.
On Thursday morning the MoD's situation report drew attention to renewed Ukrainian drone strikes against Russian military air bases. "In the early hours of 26 December 2022, Russia’s Engels Air Base was attacked for the second time in three weeks. Russian media reported that uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) were responsible for the strike on the facility, one of the main operating bases of Russia’s strategic bomber fleet." The strike is seen as forcing redeployment of Russian air defense systems, placing further stress on taxed defenses. "Russia has long given a very high priority to maintaining advanced ground based air defences, but it is increasingly clear that it is struggling to counter air threats deep inside Russia. One challenge for Russia is probably the exceptional demand on its fleet of modern, medium-range air defence systems, such as SA-22 Pantsir, which would typically be expected to take a major role in countering UAVs. As well as providing point defence for strategic sites such as Engels, these systems are currently required in large number to protect field headquarters near the front line in Ukraine."
Ukrainian and Russian negotiating positions.
The New York Times characterizes both the Russian and Ukrainian negotiating positions as "hard line," and concludes that there's little prospect for peace talks, at least in the near term. Al Jazeera summarizes the Ukrainian position; its characterization is worth quoting in full:
- "Radiation and nuclear safety, focusing on restoring security around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine, which is now Russian-occupied."
- "Food security, including protecting and ensuring Ukraine’s grain exports to the world’s poorest nations."
- "Energy security, with a focus on price restrictions on Russian energy resources, as well as aiding Ukraine with restoring its power infrastructure, half of which has been damaged by Russian attacks."
- "Release of all prisoners and deportees, including war prisoners and children deported to Russia."
- "Restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity and Russia reaffirming it according to the UN Charter, which Zelenskyy said is 'not up to negotiations'."
- "Withdrawal of Russian troops and the cessation of hostilities, the restoration of Ukraine’s state borders with Russia."
- "Justice, including the establishment of a special tribunal to prosecute Russian war crimes."
- "The prevention of ecocide, and the protection of the environment, with a focus on demining and restoring water treatment facilities."
- "Prevention of an escalation of conflict and building security architecture in the Euro-Atlantic space, including guarantees for Ukraine."
- "Confirmation of the war’s end, including a document signed by the involved parties."
The Russian position has shown little change over the past few months. "The enemy is well aware of our proposals on the demilitarization and denazification of the [Kiev] regime’s controlled territories, the elimination of threats to Russia’s security that come from there and it includes our new territories [DPR, LPR, Kherson and Zaporozhye Regions]," TASS quoted Foreign Minister Lavrov as saying earlier this week. "There is a little left to do - to accept these proposals in an amicable way. Otherwise," he added with an expression of confidence probably not fully shared on the battlefield, "the Russian Army will deal with this issue. As for the possible continuance of the conflict, then the ball is on the court’s side of the [Kiev] regime and Washington, which stands behind it. They can put an end at any time to this senseless resistance." Thus resistance, and not the special military operation itself, is senseless.
Ukraine is recalcitrant, Mr. Lavrov explained (as reported by RT), because President Zelenskyy is under the thumb of the Anglo-Saxons, which is Moscow's view is always a bad thing. “Immediately after the start of the special military operation, Vladimir Zelensky proposed sitting down at the negotiating table. We did not turn it down and agreed to a meeting with his representatives,” he said, adding that the failure of such talks to materialize “demonstrated Zelensky’s complete lack of independence in making important decisions. Already in April, at the behest of the Anglo-Saxons, who were interested in continuing the hostilities, he swiftly wrapped up negotiations and sharply toughened his position.”
Dealing with an issue, Russian Army style.
Russia's Ministry of Health has agreed to a new health benefit for the troops: they can now have their sperm frozen for eventual in vitro fertilization, probably post mortem. It's a death benefit: should they be killed in action or by accident, should they suffer an incapacitating wound, they'll still be able to sire children. So the newly mobilized at least have that going for them.
Complaining about the Ukrainian cyber threat, and of Western "Russophobia."
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov said on Wednesday, as the Russian state news outlet RT reports, that Russia is the victim of “unprecedented external aggression in the information space,” and that Ukraine, backed by the US and the EU, is behind a proliferation and escalation of cyber warfare. He warned that this amounts to a global threat. “Today, it is Russia which is in the crosshairs, and tomorrow it may be any other state that Washington dislikes,” he said.
It's not just Washington, either. France is spreading "Russophobia" and attempting to censor Russian media (like RT, for example). "Moscow is outraged by the new steps taken by Paris aimed at introducing more and more broadcasting bans on Russian media, both on its territory and in the EU as a whole,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said. And Finland, which RT feels should have been a better neighbor, has in RT's (and the Kremlin's) view betrayed itself by applying for NATO membership.
There's more than a little special pleading and mendacity at work here, given the decades-long record of Russian security and intelligence services fostering and protecting cyber criminals. Mr. Syromolotov might also read up on the Russian doctrine of deniable hybrid war. Sure, it hasn't worked out well during the present special military operation, but that doesn't change the view that animates his government's statecraft. If Clausewitz famously said that war is the continuation of politics by other means, what's generally been called the Gerasimov Doctrine stands this on its head: politics is the continuation of war by other means. Two essays from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace offer a useful appreciation. If anything, they make Russian policy sound more restrained and cautious than it has been. The invasion of Ukraine would seem to have put paid to the notion of Moscow's restraint.