Ukraine VI: Putin the Ploughman

The Ukraine situation, sixth observation

It looks like any one of a hundred semi-rural towns scattered throughout the Pacific Northwest. Modest, single-family homes lining quiet streets, damp with rain. Unpretentious barns and outbuildings are scattered behind and adjacent to many houses, marking some plots as small farms. The skies are grey with mist and the trees are bare of leaves, awaiting spring growth.

The corpses lying in the street ruin any sense of Northwest idyll. Over these scenes of death in Bucha, the leaden skies assume an air of menace.

In one month, the earth trembled, bringing despair to the continent. Led by a despot, one of the great nations sacrificed decades of difficult and complex work — it had scrubbed much of the grime of its Soviet past, repackaging itself as a modern and productive state. It had been so successful that an inattentive Western Europe had ignored the decade it had to wean itself of cheap-and-dirty Russian energy. It almost seemed as if Russia had come of age, presenting itself with a countenance of trustworthy reliability to carry it forward. Western Europe wasn’t too worried about a little dirty oil.

Except that it was a lot of dirty oil and, in just 45 days, Russia regressed to a belligerent state the world hadn’t seen for nearly 50 years. Russia shed its bright progress as if its success was nothing more than one of those brooding, brutalist likenesses of Stalin that once littered the land. It lost its place among the civilized nations, overnight becoming a terrorist state, guilty of scores of atrocities, its leaders war criminals.

What a colossal waste.

Russia’s target, of course, was Ukraine. Russians like President Vladimir Putin believe the common roots of the Ukrainian and Russian peoples cement them as one. Ukrainians disagree vehemently with this perspective. Ukraine is no vassal of Russia — and Ukrainians will fight fiercely to preserve the separation.

The Churchillian Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of the imperiled state of Ukraine, thumbed his nose at Putin, declaring defiantly, “Russian troops failed… in the first days of the invasion. They thought Ukrainians would be frightened. They thought Ukrainians would not fight. They were wrong.”

Boy, were they wrong.

PUBLIC DOMAIN, Yan Boechat, Voice of America via Wiki

A spoiled child, Dictator Putin is accustomed to getting what he wants — a very dangerous bully child who will take what he wants by force. Like Russia’s cloak of respectability, Putin’s decades-long predictability fell by the wayside as he sought to salvage the legacy he’d envisioned for himself, rebuilding the Imperial Russian Empire.

When he failed immediately and spectacularly, Putin was angered by such humiliation. The fallen tsar tightened his grip on his long-suffering proletariat and sent his drunken soldiers on an orgy of destruction to raze the prize he’d sought. For one who came of age with the threat of the Soviet bear looming over world peace, it was almost painful to see how low the once-mighty Red Army had sunk.

Putin believed he would crush Ukraine but he was wrong.

Putin thought he’d split U.S. determination but he was wrong.

He was convinced he’d scatter NATO but he united the alliance arguably better than it has ever been.

Putin believed he would destabilize Europe and he was wrong — so far.

It’s crucial the world isn’t distracted at this moment. The Russian military may have lost its luster but it remains capable of reducing Ukraine to a wasteland and the far-ranging fallout such action would cause.

The U.N. estimates 10 million Ukrainians have fled their homes. Of those, 4.3 million have left the country. About 2.5 million evacuees remain in Poland.

These are staggering numbers. And they’re not the only shocking figures.

NATO estimates up to 40,000 Russian troops are out of commission through death, injury, capture or desertion. Up to 15,000 of them may be dead. Compare this to the 2,000-to-4,000 range of Ukrainian fighters killed. The vaunted Russian army is being humiliated by a ragtag force wearing sneakers and homemade body armor.

Two weeks ago, the Russian newspaper Pravda accidentally posted Ministry of Defense figures listing 9,861 Russian fatalities and 16,153 injured. The post was quickly removed.

Last Tuesday, the U.K. Ministry of Defence reported: “Ukrainian forces are carrying out successful counterattacks against Russian positions in towns on the outskirts of the capital, and have probably retaken Makariv and Moschun. There is a realistic possibility that Ukrainian forces are now able to encircle Russian units in Bucha and Irpin.”

As of Friday, the U.S. Department of Defense reports Russian commanders have fallen back to regroup, shifting nearly 25,000 troops east, away from Kyiv. Heavy fighting has resumed in the east.

According to the Global Firepower Index (GFI), Russia’s military strength is ranked second out of 142 rated countries. Ukraine is ranked 22nd. Russia maintains a fleet of over 4,000 military aircraft to Ukraine’s 318. In tanks, Russia ranks third with nearly 12,500 compared to Ukraine’s 2,596. Russia ranks first in all modes of artillery with 17,536 pieces while Ukraine lags between sixth and twelfth positions with 3,597 pieces. Ukraine’s naval power is almost nonexistent next to Russia’s second ranking.

But figures like this are deceiving when the Goliath is an ill-prepared, badly led, poorly supplied mess of troops with inadequate training and bad morale facing a lithe, quick and very angry David.

Russia’s losses are shameful — they are not the losses of a superpower’s world-class military. For Vladimir Putin, these slovenly yields must be embarrassing. To the West, the losses are telling.

On the optimistic side, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine claims Russia has lost 722 tanks and 1,911 armored personnel carriers. It claims the Russian air forces have lost 152 fixed-wing aircraft and 137 helicopters. Further, the General Staff claims Russian losses of 342 artillery systems, 108 multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), 55 anti-aircraft warfare systems, 1,384 military vehicles, 112 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) of operational and tactical level, 25 special equipment units and four mobile short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) systems.

On the conservative side, independent military analysts Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans posit somewhat lower totals via their Oryx organization. Oryx is respected for its painstaking documentation of materiél losses — its numbers are lower because each loss is confirmed, nothing is estimated. Oryx notes Russia has lost 446 tanks and 824 armored personnel carriers. It states the Russian air forces have lost 20 fixed-wing aircraft and 32 helicopters. Further, Oryx claims Russian losses of 158 artillery systems, 49 MLRS, 69 anti-aircraft warfare systems, 787 military vehicles, 27 UAVs of operational and tactical level and 16 special equipment units. Oryx data on SRBMs was unavailable.

Oryx requires photographic or videographic evidence for each item in its tally. Thus, the organization is careful to note actual numbers of destroyed materiél will be “significantly higher” than Oryx figures.

Whether you use estimates from the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine or verified losses from the Oryx organization, Russian losses are staggering — and far worse when compared to Oryx accounting of Ukrainian losses.

For comparison, Oryx lists Ukraine’s losses at 94 tanks and 171 armored personnel carriers. It claims the Ukrainian air forces have lost 15 fixed-wing aircraft and three helicopters. Further, Oryx claims Ukrainian losses of 45 artillery systems, 15 MLRS, 44 anti-aircraft warfare systems, 223 military vehicles, 12 UAVs of operational and tactical level and 17 special equipment units. Oryx data on Ukrainian SRBMs was unavailable.

Russia has lost several small coastal naval vessels. A week ago, Ukrainian fighters attacked three Russian warships at the quay in Berdyansk, a Ukrainian port occupied by Russian forces. A 370-foot Alligator-class landing vessel called Orsk was destroyed and at least one other damaged. A Russian state television report revealed the location of the moored vessels to Ukrainian intelligence personnel.

Ukraine has lost around 15 small coastal vessels.

© OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine via Wiki

With his army busy drinking, looting, raping and deserting, Comrade Putin had no choice but to weaponize a commodity he created in enormous numbers: refugees. Where he failed to destabilize Europe with decisive military action, Putin will now try to destabilize from within. The 2.5 million displaced Ukrainians currently in Poland require massive resources as the hospitable Poles treat them to benefits: housing, food, medical care, schools and transportation. Western Europe and North America need to step up with aid for Poland and generous refugee resettlement — short term and long term — for displaced Ukrainians.

When Putin fires rockets into civilians, mothers with children, entire families, it’s no random mistake. The scorched-earth destruction Putin is inflicting on certain cities and his repeated attacks on innocents are designed specifically to herd Ukrainians from one place to another. The more he can displace, the more havoc he can wreak, the more upheaval he can induce throughout Europe and beyond. He also hopes he’s a step closer to breaking the Ukrainian spirit.

Hundreds of Russian atrocities have been documented by Ukrainians and international media covering the war. At some point, whether a nation is a signatory on any accord or agreement is irrelevant. When crimes against humanity are committed on a large scale, a Nuremburg-style tribunal is in order. President Vladimir Putin along with Russian political and military leaders, field officers and conscripted personnel accused of war crimes can be tried in absentia, if necessary. Such an action transcends the limited jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown proposes a joint operation of the ICC and the U.N.’s highest court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. Brown wants to charge Putin with aggression. A model indictment has been crafted, using the definition of aggression under international criminal law set forth in Article 8 bis of the Rome Statute of the ICC.

Brown said, “A group of American lawyers has already done impressive work documenting what they consider to be acts of aggression committed by Putin, starting with his 2014 decisions to seize Crimea and to deploy troops in Ukraine’s Donbas region.”

The ICJ was to hear arguments from both Russia and Ukraine over the 1948 treaty to prevent genocide. Russia boycotted and its French attorney, Alain Pellet, resigned, writing, “Enough is enough. It’s become impossible for me to represent a country that so cynically despises the law.”

At least 136 Ukrainian children have been slain. At least 73 Ukrainian schools have been destroyed. At least 64 hospitals have been bombed.

Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko said 90 percent of his city is destroyed and 40 percent of its infrastructure is unrecoverable.

Every bit of this Russian violence is coldly intentional and it all leads back to one man.

Putin has destroyed his own credibility and severely damaged his country’s standing in the world order. Putin has brought shame to his people.

“Russian troops destroy our cities. Kill civilians indiscriminately. Rape women. Abduct children. Shoot at refugees. Capture humanitarian convoys. They are… looting,” declared Zelenskyy. “They burn museums, blow up schools and hospitals. The target for them is universities, residential neighborhoods… Anything! Russian troops do not know the limits of evil.”

While some labeled it a gaffe, U.S. President Joe Biden may have said it best when he spoke in Warsaw, Poland on March 26.

“A dictator bent on rebuilding an empire will never erase a people’s love for liberty,” said Biden. Then, unscripted, he emphatically echoed the thoughts of every sane person on the planet. “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power!”

Later, CNN host Pamela Brown asked Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, whether Biden’s remark should be taken literally. Cynically but totally accurately, Moulton replied that every American with the possible exception of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Geo.) wanted to see Putin ousted.

The war in Eastern Europe is real and ghastly — the war possesses an urgency that takes precedence over many of our current domestic issues. We mustn’t forget Ukraine.

Economic sanctions take time to work and too often penalize a population who had little to do with the initial beef. Sometimes, sanctions don’t work at all.

Even when sanctions do work, they’re ponderously slow. That the West only last week pursued oligarchs’ adult children and families was a blunder with predictable consequences.

We must consider that what restraint Putin has shown to this point is almost certainly a result of his fear of Western retaliation — and I don’t mean sanctions. With a 20th century-style belligerent on a rampage, it may well be time to up the ante and examine military solutions. Or consider more creative solutions usually only proposed in whispers.

Sensibly, Western restraint wants no chance of Putin deploying nuclear weapons, an option Putin mentioned right up front as both a threat and a bargaining chip.

Block after block of burnt-out apartment shells stand like charred urban forests in cities across Ukraine. A thriving and vibrant nation is being destroyed in body, if not in spirit. Putin considers himself exempt from rules of civilization. And he has the resources to see this nightmare through to the bitter end, wherever and whenever that may be.

Unless somebody makes him stop.

Photograph © Taine Noble via Unsplash

This is part 6 of a 6-part series. Click here for part 1. Click here for part 2. Click here for part 3. Click here for part 4. Click here for part 5.

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