The Russian Winter Offensive: Steamroller or Blitzkreig
Russia’s late winter offensive is under way. Seemingly unnoticeable, Russia’s forces in Donbass have been gaining steam over the last month and are now moving into high gear. The lack of visibility is relative. Expectations of a Nazi-like blitzkrieg have blinded eyes to the slowly moving steamroller that is now being unleashed. One need only compare a map of the disposition of Russian forces and the front along the Donbass front to see what is happening.
MAP of Luhansk-Donetsk Front on Christmas Day, 2022
MAP of Luhansk-Donetsk Front, 6 March 2023
In this two month period, Russian forces have taken Soledar and Bakhmut, while deterring a Ukrainian offensive in the north around Kupyansk and advancing on Kupyansk themselves. They have made gains in the battle around Serebranka Forest as well. Russian forces also deterred Ukrainian offensives in the south in Zaporozhe and Kherson. In the latter, Russian forces are inflicting heavily casualties in positional artillery battles across the Dnepr River and may force the Ukrainianians to abandon Kherson city. While advancing on Vugledar (Ugledar) in the southeast, however, their storm of the city failed, and they have been forced to step back and regroup. Ukrainian forces have been successful in blocking Russian advances on the Liman front as well as in Vugledar, inflicting higher numbers of Russian casualties than is usual. The most important of Russian successes is the encirclement and the inevitable and imminent seizure of Bakhmut/Artyomevsk. There and in the battles surrounding Serebryanka Forest and Kherson in recent weeks, Ukrainian forces have been taking unprecedented casualties and equipment losses, far outstripping those suffered by the Russians. In the wake of the fall of Bakhmut, Avdiivka will fall and, as we speak, is on the verge of encirclement.
Bakhmut/Artyomevsk Encirclement: Strategically Insignificant Bakhmut or Artyomevsk Transport Hub?
As the Russian steamroller muscled forward to Bakhmut – a city Russians call ‘Artyomevsk’ – the former’s power was revealed in the preemptive propaganda campaign initiated in Ukraine and parts of the West asserting that Balhmut is of no strategic importance. The campaign revealed not only the propaganda value of any Russian seizure of Bakhmut would have for Moscow, reversing false image of ‘Ukraine is winning’ created by the propaganda victories for Kiev that the Russian withdrawals from – not routs at the hands of Ukrainian forces as the West/Ukraine propaganda claimed or implied – Kharkov (Kharkiv) in the northeast and Kherson in the south. But whereas Kharkov and Kherson have not proved to be strategic victories, Bakhmut’s fall will be. First, Russia’s taking of Bakhmut/Artyomovsk changes the logistical calculus strategically across the entire eastern front at the very least. A Russian-controlled Artyomevsk establishes a direct railroad route from Moscow to the Donbass and creates a supply hub at the center of the Donbass that joins together a rail connection stretching all along Russia’s six fronts from near Kharkov in the north at Kupyansk to the south through Donbass and then west through Zaporozhe to Kherson and Crimea. This will make the logistics resupply and troop redeployments for Russian forces much easier and more rapid, imparting a new energy to the steamroller.
With the taking of Bakhmut/Artyomevsk, Ukrainian forces will set up a last line of defense along the Slovyansk-Kramatorsk line after which there are no urban strongholds where Ukrainian forces will be able to dig in, with open steppe lying before Russian forces. Thus, it is possible that by the end of the year, Russian forces will be in a position to force the Dnepr river, probably increasing the chances of ceasefire, peace, or surrender talks. This, along with any Ukrainian offensive on Crimea or Russian offensive in Zaporozhe and/or Kherson will define the war throughout 2023.
China’s recent peace proposal for the Ukraine conflict is simply too general and lacking in firm commitment by Beijing to get intimately involved in the proposed peace process. If China is to be serious about becoming an intermediary in some sort of peace process its should either work aggressively behind the scenes at diplomacy or make a public call for a peace conference to be held under Chinese or joint auspices (perhaps China and Turkey or Israel) in Beijing, Istanbul, Tel Aviv, or some alternative, neutral site. Nevertheless, these may simply be a first probe to check the reaction of the parties, and further initiatives from the Chinese are likely.
New Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s recent warning that conflict is on the verge of raging out of control with “catastrophic consequences” for the international community and that a “hidden hand’ stands behind the escalation of the NATO-Russian Ukraine war is a clear warning to the US that China continues to hold Washington responsible for the conflict: “If the United States does not hit the brake, but continues to speed down the wrong path, no amount of guardrails can prevent derailing and there will surely be conflict and confrontation. Qin made it clear again which side China sees as responsible for sparking the NATO-Russia Ukrainian war while adopting the standard Russian policy line regarding Europe’s lack of autonomy vis-a-vis Washington: “We hope that Europe, having gone through the ordeal of the war in Ukraine, will learn from its pain and truly achieve strategic autonomy and long-term stability.” “President Xi Jin Pin chimed in the same day: “Western countries led by the United States have carried out all-round containment, encirclement, and suppression of China, which has brought unprecedented severe challenges to China’s development.” (https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/china-warns-us-of-catastrophic-consequences-in-ominous-address/ar-AA18jAUo?li=BBnb7Kz). The war already, without further escalation, is undermining Chinese efforts to develop its One Belt One Road project and other initiatives not to mention weakening Beijing’s closest ally, Russia, which the PRC, in my view, will not allow to be defeated in Ukraine, not least of all because it would leave China to face the newly confident West alone.
War and Authoritarianization
The war is instigating authoritarianization around the world. In Ukraine, President Volodomyr Zelenskiy has banned all non-nationalist, non-ultranationalist, and non-neofascist opposition political parties. The government has taken over mass media, instituting a de facto censorship regime. More recently, the government has instituted an online monitoring system that will track the websites citizens visit, and should they visit banned Russian and ‘pro-Russian’ sites, they will be arrested and can face imprisonment. Vigilante groups are allowed to roam the streets in Kiev and all cities, making citizens’ arrests of sorts for alleged crimes and tying the alleged perpetrators to telephone and street light poles and leaving them there for hours in rain and snow, sometimes beating them. Children are being recruited into the army, which is a violation of international law. Oddly, the Western press, academia, and think tank milieu ignores or whitewashes all this. The DC apparat’s think tanks produce tripe for an already reality-challenged Washington swamp: “Ukraine provides a unique example of a modern state waging a cruel war but retaining much of its peace-time practices and habits (this differs from the common notion that war causes unavoidable turmoil in both the economic and social life of the affected nation)” (www.memri.org/reports/prospects-russias-war-ukraine-2023?fbclid=IwAR1zSuYlnnTA_ovsIoZRgGdAZaZyIKetOoIJkIfAiNb2okZAJ_jCwAUgJ0Q).
This reflects just one way in which the West is further dismantling its liberal republicanism in a misguided effort to lie in order to maintain public support for Ukraine. American media has banned almost all alternative views on the war other than ‘Ukraine is winning’ and Russian and Putin are evil, incompetent losers, deliberately murdering civilians in mass and otherwise committing war crimes as a matter of routine practice and policy. A virtual gag order has been implemented in the case of the Nord Stream pipeline terrorist attack and other issues. US intelligence is helping Ukraine target attacks on civilian areas in Donbass using American-supplied HIMARS and assisting Ukrainian and Russian anti-Russian terrorists to carry out terrorist attacks and guerrilla activity in Russia. Soviet emigre’ political scientist, advisor to US President Richard Nixon, and Director of the Center for the National Interest )formerly the Nixon Center) Dmitrii Simes has been targeted for investigation by the FBI for sympathy he has expressed for the Russian side in the Ukrainian conflict. More generally, the US government (and Ukraine’s government) has proven to be no slacker relative to Russia in making false claims and issuing false propaganda. (Similar patterns are evident in Europe.) One particular trend is the mainstreaming of neofascism across the West, especially in the US and the Baltic states, with Ukraine’s Azov and other neofascist groups and individuals being given positive news coverage, national awards, and visits with the Pope. But the most deleterious development in American republicanism is the Soviet-like politicization of the law enforcement and intelligence departments. US intelligence and the FBI colludes with High Tech social network sites, like Facebook and Twitter, to censor Americans. While the FBI arrests and the Justice Department prosecutes a Christian anti-abortion picketer, who pushes away a counter-demonstrator screaming in his young son’s face, hundreds of criminal and terrorist acts — including the destruction of police department headquarters, federal court buildings, and anti-abortion information centers — committed by BLM, Antifa, and pro-abortionists go unpunished. The new America’s commitment to democracy and civilization is reflected well in Biden’s nomination of candidates to the federal judiciary who cannot tell you to what the US Constitution’s most important articles relate but do represent ‘historically oppressed communities’ (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z_EFrLn0XLk&ab_channel=K1andDad, at the 32:30 mark).
In Russia, an already authoritarian system is becoming more so, with state media monopoly, censorship, and punishments for various oppositional articulations on the Internet and society at large being intensified. There is a deepening of the militarization of Russian society, the glorification of war, and mystification of Russia’s military, the State, and national culture, and a growing number of intensely anti-Western expressions, including overstating negative trends in the West such as transgenderism, gay and transgender propaganda to children, and pro-Satanist manifestations. This demonization of Western culture mirrors a corresponding demonization of Russian culture in the West, including calls, such as that by former US ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul’s call for collective punishment of the Russian people because of their general support for the war. Finally, although dubious, it cannot be excluded entirely that Putin will choose to cancel upcoming elections in Russia, including the 2024 presidential election.
We can say now without exaggeration that we — at least those of us in the northern hemisphere — are all authoritarians now.
Did the US Bait Putin Into War?
It appears increasingly likely that the US baited Putin to invade after he embarked on his strategy of coercive diplomacy by massing troops not far from the Ukrainian border in 2021. Washington ignored the Minsk process, built up the Ukrainian military to NATO level, did nothing to deter the strengthening of neo-fascism in Ukraine or Kiev’s plans to undertake a counteroffensive in Ukraine and Donbass rather than focus on the Minsk process. Then we have recent revelations over the past year that not only did the US never engage the Minsk process but als the Western parties faked their engagement and the US foiled a ceasefire plan readied by Moscow, Kiev, and Tel Aviv in the first weeks of the war. Zelensky followed similar admissions by former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and for French President Francois Hollande to this effect. As the Ukrainian paper Ukrainskaya pravda noted: “Zelenskiy remarked that he treated Minsk agreements only as the official avenue for negotiations where it was possible to ‘solve at least some problems’, so he started using it for prisoner of war swaps.” Zelenskiy acknowledged: “(C)oncerning Minsk agreements in general, I told Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel that we cannot fulfil them in this way.” At the Normandy meeting that included Vladimir Putin in 2019, Zelenskiy announced his intention not to fulfill the agreements. He said to all the participants of the meeting, that “the agreement, as it stands, cannot be fulfilled” (www.pravda.com.ua/eng/news/2023/02/9/7388717/). Clearly without Washington’s and NATO’s proactive support of Minsk, not to mention Kiev’s, the peace process was doomed to failure. Former Israeli PM Naftali Bennet’s recent claims suggest that this was precisely the intent. He revealed that he had all but secured a truce in March 2022, but the US stepped in to block it (https://contra.substack.com/p/us-led-west-opposed-peace-deal-in and https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1623684447823618048.html).
On this background, it is clear that the West and Ukraine itself — adding in earlier drivers of Putin’s invasion decision such. as NATO expansion, color revolutionism, Maidan and Western support for it, and so on –played a role at least equal and most likely greater than that played by Russia in the making of the NATO-Russia Ukrainian war. On this informational background as well, it is worth considering whether or not Beijing’s overall support for Moscow’s position — with some caveats — will play into the hands of the Sino-Russian front’s efforts to recruit ‘Third World’ and other parties to its side in the emerging global schism between the West and the ‘rest’ (Rest).
EUROPE BOOKS, 2022
MCFARLAND BOOKS, 2021
MCFARLAND BOOKS, 2018
About the Author –
Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, www.canalyt.com. Websites: Russian and Eurasian Politics, gordonhahn.com and gordonhahn.academia.edu
Dr. Hahn is the author of the new book: Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Thought, Culture, History, and Politics (Europe Books, 2022). He has authored five previous, well-received books: The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021); Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and was a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group.