More than 900 dead civilians, according to the United Nations, a figure that the organization itself assumes is underestimated. Three and a half million refugees, six and a half million internally displaced persons. A constant exodus of people fleeing the attacks. Bombed hospitals. Destroyed schools. Cities swept almost to the ground. Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine completes a month with all its destructive potential, in the midst of a fierce counteroffensive by the Ukrainian forces, who resist —like a citizenry that has learned to live under the bombs—, but at a very high cost.
The Kremlin did not get the easy ride to invade Ukraine that it expected. With negotiations to end the war all but deadlocked and a heavy barrage of Western sanctions that have hit the Russian economy’s waterline, Putin is on the offensive. With hardly any progress for days and without having obtained major victories in the invasion, the Russian leader has gone on to apply a scorched earth policy to subjugate kyiv in his “special military operation” to “denazify”, “demilitarize” and protect the Russian-speaking people of a country that seems to want to strike down.
Like Mariupol, the port city on the Sea of Azov, a symbol of Putin’s war against Ukraine and where 100,000 people are still trapped under the brutal attacks against a devastated city, where there has been no water, electricity, heating and almost no food for weeks and street-to-street fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russian soldiers is continuous. Or Chernihiv, in the northeast of the country, a city near the border with Belarus – a country that Putin used as a springboard for the invasion – subjected to constant bombing and practically besieged by Russian forces for 12 days. The defender of Human Rights of Ukraine, Ludmila Denisova, has denounced this Wednesday that the Kremlin troops have dynamited the bridge over the Desna river, the only way left for the evacuation of the civilian population and to bring humanitarian aid and that they thus maintain the inhabitants of Chernihiv as hostages of their military aggression.
Cutting basic supplies, communications and any umbilical cord of the cities with the rest of the country is the first step of the Russian siege. It also tries to force its strategy of suffocating the population in Kharkiv, the country’s second largest city, with a majority Russian-speaking population and only about 40 kilometers from the Russian border. Russian forces are trying to surround her and she is under constant fire.
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The cruelty and devastation are motivated by the lack of momentum of the Russian forces. With major logistical, morale and movement problems, the troops sent by Putin are stuck on the Ukrainian scene. The battlefield in the north of the country has remained virtually static for days. Although such paralysis likely means Russia is reorganizing before launching large-scale offensive operations, Britain’s spy service has warned.
The Kremlin, which denies attacks on civilians, has made its greatest advances on the southern flank, where it already controls the Sea of Azov and almost all the cities on the coast – Mariupol is holding out, but military analysts doubt for how long; he has also captured Kherson, a port city of about 290,000 people, his most important achievement. Now Putin’s forces are trying to push east toward Odessa, Ukraine’s main port and a city long coveted by the Kremlin chief and Russian nationalism.
the battle of kyiv
kyiv, one of the main military targets and a major political target for Putin, remains almost intact despite the bombings that shake it daily. With all the symbolism that the city has for the leader of the Kremlin, who assures that Russians and Ukrainians are “the same people” and “descendants” of the first Slavic state, Kievan Rus, a medieval empire founded by Vikings in the 9th century and whose heart was kyiv, a city that Ukrainians and Russians claim as the cradle of their cultures, religion and language.
“Each city has a role, but Russia’s first mission is to control kyiv. The rest of the operations are aimed at supporting that,” says John Spencer, a retired US military officer and recognized expert in urban combat. So far, the clashes have not approached the center of the city and remain in towns north of the capital, a few dozen kilometers from the center. The Russian Army arrived in just a couple of days in towns such as Bucha, Irpin or the Hostomel airfield, but throughout March it has not managed to gain more ground to the south.
“The Russians underestimated the resources and the number of troops that they would need to take kyiv and when they tried to attack it they were unable to penetrate beyond the periphery of the city,” agrees military analyst Jesús Román from Kent (United Kingdom). The video recorded by a neighbor on a street in Bucha on Sunday, February 27, where a column of burned-out Russian tanks appears, was one of the first surprises of the war. The recording of several minutes went viral and served to raise the morale of the Ukrainians. “Russia has not mobilized enough forces to control all those smaller towns,” Spencer understands.
The threat of Russia deploying its air force potential, however, is on the table. It would be even more brutal. Hence the intense requests from the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, for NATO to impose a no-fly zone; something NATO has already rejected. For now, Putin has not been able to impose himself from the air because the Ukrainian air force, its anti-aircraft weapons and manpads (man-portable air-defense system, portable anti-aircraft systems) provided by their allies have won the game from the ground. But with its constant attacks on basic military and civil infrastructure, such as airports, bridges, warehouses, train stations, the Kremlin also wants to take away from kyiv a logistical advantage that has allowed it to hold out for a month.
“Putin has underestimated the potential of the Ukrainian troops and the desire to fight of the population,” says analyst Spencer. “It has been a great mistake for the Russians to continue moving tanks without infantry support and a great success for the Ukrainians to have destroyed so many tanks” without which it is almost impossible to take cities, adds the American expert. However, the fight for cities, with a few exceptions, are usually campaigns of attrition and a very high level of destruction. “If Moscow tries to take kyiv, we will see a lot of destruction,” predicts Jesús Román.
For Román, “slowing down the advance of the Russian troops as much as possible, creating insecurity in its logistics lines and occupying troops in other parts of the theater of operations means forcing Russia to use more resources than they would like, disseminating their efforts and wearing down his will to fight. Every day that Ukraine does not lose, Russia does not win, and a political solution is closer and closer.”
For now, Russia’s losses are heavy. This week, the pro-Kremlin daily Komsomolskaya Pravda published an information in which he estimated at “9,861 soldiers killed in action, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense.” Hours later, the news had completely disappeared from the newspaper’s website and its managers claimed that they had been victims of a computer attack. In Russia it is forbidden to call Putin’s “special military operation” a war and also to give other data that is not government officials.
The United States has also raised the warning that Russia may be preparing attacks with chemical weapons. Ukraine claims that white phosphorus, capable of causing very serious burns, has already been used, and that it has information that Moscow is moving to expand the use of other chemical or biological weapons. kyiv has also sounded the alarm that Putin is trying to drag Belarus into the war, Ukraine’s northern neighbor and that the Kremlin has already used as a springboard for the invasion, with the Belarusian authoritarian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko totally dependent. from Moscow.
The Kremlin troops have not been able to break through the Ukrainian defense lines, the invading Army has suffered significant human and material casualties and the government led by Zelensky has seen its popular support strengthened after deciding to stay in the country and maintain frenetic activity both in the international scene and towards its own citizens. The Ukrainian leader, who has become a symbol for many, has been crucial to the resistance. Now, when talks with Russia to achieve a ceasefire are barely moving, Zelenski maintains a very tight agenda to obtain international support and has made appeals – personalizing his message in each country – in the Parliaments of the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel , Japan, Italy and France. This Tuesday he spoke with Pope Francis.
When the US president, Joe Biden – who, despite the disbelief of many, warned about the invasion – is traveling to Europe to talk with his allies about the war and is preparing to apply new sanctions to Russia, NATO has announced that it will reinforce its presence on its eastern flank, doubling troops in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia.
In the last four weeks, the landscape of Ukraine has completely changed. The cities are armored with hundreds of barriers of concrete, metal, sandbags. Trenches have been dug and even at the most strategic points there are tanks posted and snipers in position. Thousands of armed civilians, the citizen militias, form a dense belt that awaits the Russian troops and protects civilian infrastructure. Most of those who have stayed have set themselves the goal of resisting and fighting: from the volunteers who distribute food and essential goods or dig trenches to the people who manage the shelters or the partisans of cyberspace. Civil resistance has been shown to be key to stopping the invasion.
“All soldiers fear urban warfare. The Ukrainians have done a great job of preparing their cities to make the Russians pay a high price if they enter,” says John Spencer, head of Urban Warfare at the Madison Policy Forum in New York.
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