22 May 2023
by Ilya Shablinsky
The drawn-out and exhausting war of attrition in Ukraine continues. The main theatre of military action remains Bakhmut in the Donetsk region. For a long time now there has been not a single intact house left in the town. Both the state of this town and the months-long battle for it illustrate the absurdity of this war initiated by the Russian dictator in the best possible way. The residents of this region, who the dictator was concerned about protecting, have seen only grief and death, and the territories for which the world’s largest country in terms of area is fighting are scorched earth. Moreover, the capture of Bakhmut is of no strategic significance for the Russian forces. No one is denying this fact.
Once again, analysts are trying to figure out how many hundreds of metres the soldiers of the Russian PMC have advanced, and what actions the Ukrainian armed forces are taking on the flanks of this battle. Judging by the statements by Prigozhin, the head of the PMC, who once again berated the regular Russian army units (who retreated from their positions), the Ukrainian forces’ actions on the flanks were not unsuccessful. But the same Prigozhin maintains that by the evening of 20 May the territory of the city was completely under the control of his group. And how are the flanks?
Prigozhin still attracts intense attention on the part of both well-wishers and detractors. Some of the z-patriots literally pray for him, seeing him as a real warrior, battling in the field and capable of telling the ‘truth’ – mainly about other generals and superiors.True, the head of the PMC recently allowed himself something more, complaining about the behaviour of a certain ‘lucky grandfather.’ For that reason, another part of the same audience and its other idols do not consider Prigozhin their own. For example, Mr. Girkin, who became famous in 2014 for his attack on Slavyansk, reminded Prigozhin of his ‘background as a criminal and servant,’ pointing out that a person with such a past should not be allowed in the public sphere. And what is more, Girkin alluded to Prigozhin’s ‘non-Russian’ (in the lexicon of this community the term usually means ‘Jewish’) origin, which puts him completely beyond the limits of being trusted. Again – within the bounds of this particular community.
Ukrainian intelligence agencies appear to be ready to take advantage of this conflict among z-fanatics and make efforts to increase mutual suspicion. This probably explains the dissemination of information about Prigozhin’s contacts with the Ukrainian special services. It is difficult to make a serious analysis of this curious news, but, at any rate, it is easy to understand that it is extremely disadvantageous for the head of the PMC in the current situation. Such news could also destroy him. In fact, Prigozhin, who managed to make a lot of enemies at the top of the army, in any case, in recent months is taking huge risks. He may be a talented organizer, but he is certainly no a politician.
Meanwhile, the fighting in Bakhmut continues. And, to all appearances, it suits the Ukrainian military command that significant Russian forces have been pulled into this area. As before, it is difficult to judge the strategic plans of the Ukrainian military.
In the meantime, the Russian army continues to methodically fire missiles at Ukrainian cities. In recent days, the question of damaged or disabled U.S. Patriot missile defence systems protecting Kiev has been the subject of indirect debates between the Russian media and the rest of the world’s media. The Russian side claimed it had destroyed both the radar and the launchers of a Patriot system with Kinzhal missiles. The Ukrainian side, on the other hand, reported that all the ‘hypersonic’ missiles in question were shot down, while the Patriot system was damaged, but has already been repaired and returned to its positions.
We cannot identify here the accuracy of this or that piece of information coming from the front, but we must see from this example the main thing: the fate of the war will largely depend on the technological advantage of one or the other side, on its ability to introduce into battle the most modern and technologically sophisticated weapons or means of defence. We are really seeing a duel of Kinzhal vs Patriot. And the results of this duel are, judging by all appearances, too early to sum up. However, we can say that the Russian missiles definitely could neither destroy the energy system of Ukraine nor disorganize the country’s economic life.
It should be recalled that on these same days, there were strikes on Lviv, Mykolaiv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and other cities. In part of this rocket terror is undoubtedly intended to put moral and psychological pressure on the population. But it would seem that it is already obvious to the initiators of these strikes that the intended effect has clearly not been achieved.
The arrest of the chair of the Supreme Court of Ukraine on charges of systematically taking bribes caused far more resonance in Ukraine than the constant shelling. The amount of U.S. cash that was taken from the judge’s sofa is indeed impressive. But the judge has already appealed to the Supreme Anti-Corruption Court of Ukraine, counting, and probably not without reason, on an objective examination of all the circumstances. What really matters here is that over the last seven years the Ukrainians have created a system of state bodies fighting corruption and, if I may say so, insuring each other. And the work of the Supreme Anti-Corruption Court is based on the assessments of foreign experts who are wholly independent of the executive branch and powerful tycoons.
Meanwhile, in the Russian Federation, the main component of domestic political life remains the constant assignment of the status of ‘foreign agent,’ administrative prosecutions, jailings, and trials of regime critics. An administrative charge for the offence of ‘discrediting the army’ was brought against Boris Grebenshchikov, the leader of the legendary band Aquarium for something he once said somewhere in an interview. All this is reminiscent of a bad dream, but it is not a dream. Mikhail Kriger was sentenced to a term of seven years for two posts on social networks. He was uncommonly brave during the trial. And after the announcement of the verdict, he sang ‘Oy luzi chervona kalina’ [Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow (Ukrainian: Ой у лузі червона калина). He sang it well. Does anyone find it funny? Let them try it themselves.
Evgeny Roizman has been sentenced. But against the background of what is happening in other courts, this was a rather mild sentence: a 260,000 rouble fine. Why? For starters, we have to understand that in the Russian Federation, it’s not the prosecutor’s office or the courts that decide about such sentences, but the president’s office, in Moscow. In such cases, specific senior officials weigh the necessary intimidating effect against some of the other consequences – in particular, irritation that may be felt by some of the general public. Evgeny Vadimovich Roizman is a special case. He is truly popular in Ekaterinburg and the Sverdlovsk region. Some see him as an uncompromising fighter against the drug trade, others as the founder of the Nevyanskaya Icon museum, still others as a champion off-road rally driver, still others as a cool, clever guy, and everyone as the ex-mayor of the main city of the Urals. And he is also someone of national prominence. The fact that Alla Pugacheva and Naina Yeltsin were among Evgeny Roizman’s bail guarantors is also no coincidence.
It would seem that after considering all these factors, Moscow decided not to imprison Roizman just yet. After all, it can always be done later. But a prison term for such a popular man would have a negative effect in any case. Supporters of the ex-mayor may not have taken to the streets, but they would have certainly have harboured resentment.
Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky has been continuing his foreign tour. On Saturday, he arrived in Saudi Arabia, where the Arab League summit opens. The main goal, diplomatic niceties aside, has been arms supplies, which could complement those from Europe and the United States. The Ukrainian president has a special set of arguments for the Saudi princes and other summit participants: after the Russian occupation of Crimea, the main victims of the occupation have been Muslims – activists of Crimean Tatar organizations and these organizations themselves, in particular the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people.
But, of course, the European part of Zelensky’s tour was especially important. During his meetings with politicians from Italy, Germany, France and Great Britain, the Ukrainian president seems to have managed to agree on the most important thing: deliveries of the latest F-16 fighters to Ukraine and the training of Ukrainian pilots. This will no doubt take a considerable time, but such deliveries could, under certain conditions, be decisive. They will enable the Ukrainians to dominate their country’s skies. So far they have managed to establish an air defence system: Russian combat planes and helicopters have long hesitated to fly deep into Ukrainian territory. Russia prefers to launch missiles from Russian territory, trying not to take risks. That, however, does not save them from losses. Recently, as we know, a Russian air group of two helicopters and two bomber planes was liquidated in the Bryansk region.
Zelensky, as was reported, also managed to attend the G7 summit in Hiroshima. And there he sought to solve the same problem – if we put aside the solemn phrases and all diplomacy – this time in the presence of the President of the United States. Namely: If the Ukrainians manage to get enough F-16s and the appropriate training, the military situation could change dramatically. These fighting machines are superior in almost all parameters to the Russian MiG-31 and Su-27 fighters and are quite easy to maintain. Control of the airspace and dominance of the skies are a necessary condition for the success of operations to squeeze Russian troops out of the south and east of Ukraine. So far, the Russian army retains an advantage in the skies, although this advantage has become quite shaky.
In short, everyone is waiting for the newest aircraft with Ukrainian pilots. A great deal depends on this.
In Moscow, mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced he will be a candidate in the next mayoral elections. This time he has been nominated by the United Russia party – in previous elections he was considered an independent candidate. Now he is apparently demonstrating his willingness to observe party discipline in the new circumstances. One day soon, the current Russian dictator will announce his intention to run for president. These elections are in the full sense a fiction, but the Russian political regime is still working with this fiction, most likely in an attempt to maintain a sense of normality in public life and preserve some of its customary parameters. Elections will also be held in a number of other Russian regions. This is not a question of any real political competition, but rather of the performance of a ritual. But this time the ritual is taking place in conditions of war.
It is the war and some of what goes with it – news from the fronts, regular reports of the deaths of those mobilized, their funerals, etc. – that should become something of a normal part of life for Russians. We know from Orwell’s famous novel that this circumstance can be used – and has been used – to the regime’s advantage. War can justify everything.
The unnamed, but in fact the only real, goal of the war at its current stage, is the retention by the Russian military of the occupied territories in the south and east of Ukraine. Putin, who has already come to terms with this new reality, is ready to throw all resources at achieving this goal – for which the Russian Federation, its economy, still has enough. And the pessimists argue that Putin can still manage to just about win the war. They have reason to do so. But it is extremely difficult to judge with sufficient certainty the ratio of the most important factors of this war of exhaustion – the real state of the Russian army, now consisting mainly of mobilized men, the motivation of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers, the significance of the growing deficit of the Russian budget, the potential impact of new weapons supplied to Ukraine, the willingness of Ukraine’s European elites to continue to act decisively and consistently. It is indeed very difficult to judge these things. But here it needs to be remembered that in the summer of 1942, the Wehrmacht’s victory still looked highly likely, despite the entry of the United States into the war. Not a very pleasant analogy for Russians, my compatriots. But, unfortunately, we have to accept this and similar analogies. And draw conclusions.
Translated by Rights in Russia