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Tuesday 28 March 2023 Dublin: 10°C
Raphael Lafargue Fighters of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces, the military reserve of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, stands guard at anti-tank construction, Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 2, 2022
VOICES
Tom Clonan The Kremlin’s war aims are slowly revealing themselves - here's what we know
The security analyst says that it would appear at this point that the Russians are seeking to cut Ukraine in two.

AS THE RUSSIAN invasion of Ukraine enters its second week, the Kremlin’s war aims are slowly revealing themselves.

The Russians are moving on three main axes of advance (an axis of advance is a road, group of roads, or designated location extending in the direction of the enemy). From Belarus in the north, a massive armoured column is now just 30km from the centre of Kyiv. At this point, Putin is now poised to launch a final assault on the capital city.

Commanders on the ground will be finalising their start-lines, and carving up the city in a series of pre-ordained and carefully planned thrusts.

Russian units will now shake out from the massive column and form up into discrete Battalion Tactical Groups (BTG). Each BTG will be assigned a form-up point and a series of objectives and targets in the city. The assault will consist of a massed mechanised assault supported by infantry.

To the rear of this Russian bridgehead (a strategic area of ground near a bridge or body of water), Russian troops are securing their supply and logistics lines back to Belarus. Troops have occupied the Chernobyl region and have attacked Chernihiv, the district capital of the Chernihiv Oblast. Chernihiv sits on the River Desna – a tributary of the Dnieper River.

Further south along the Dnieper River, Russian troops are fighting to enter and take Kharkiv. At the southern end of the Dnieper, Russian troops have succeeded in capturing the city Kherson.

It would appear at this point that the Russians are seeking to cut Ukraine in two – north to south, along the Dnieper River. This would be an echo of the Battle of the Dnieper in World War Two, 80 years ago.

Battle of the Dnieper

The Battle of the Dnieper has huge symbolic significance for the Russian military and for Putin. Along with approximately 4 million troops, iconic Soviet Generals, Zhukov, Vasilevskiy, Konev and Rokossovsky smashed the Nazi armies of Generals Von Manstein, Von Kluge and Von Kleist. Once the Soviets had driven the Germans west of the Dnieper, they then commenced the Battle of Kyiv.

Putin’s military aggression in Ukraine appears to be an attempt to re-create history and to reclaim some of Russia’s former glory – extending her borders westwards towards those of the old Soviet Union.

International observers claim that Putin has a grandiose and narcissistic desire to accrue to himself the status of the former Soviet leaders, such as Stalin – or even a Tsar.

Russia’s advance from the south in Crimea has succeeded in taking Kherson and is making steady, if slow, progress in linking the Crimean Peninsula to Donbass. This is creating a land corridor between Russia itself, through Luhansk and Donetsk to the annexed Crimean territory.

Russia’s eastern front is consolidating its hold in Donbass and, in time, will move westward toward Kharkiv, Dnipro and other towns and cities east of the Dnieper. The Russians may hope to surround the bulk of the Ukrainian military in this eastern sector – depriving them of supply lines from Europe in the west.

After a week of air strikes, missile attacks and shelling of cities and towns, the Russians have not yet announced safe evacuation corridors for civilians trapped in the fighting. This is an explicit obligation placed upon them by the Geneva Conventions. 

Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 17, an invading army must ‘secure the removal from besieged or encircled areas of wounded, sick, infirm and aged persons, children and maternity cases’. Russian forces and the Kremlin have not created such evacuation corridors. Nor have they created places of safety for Ukrainian civilians. However, there could be news on humanitarian corridors after today’s talks between Ukraine and Russia in Belarus.

Under Article 15, they are obliged to provide ‘neutralised zones’ to which civilians can evacuate safely. To not supply such a zone is a clear and explicit breach of the Geneva Conventions.

Reports and footage from Ukraine also show that the Russian military have been targeting cities and towns with missile attacks, cluster munitions and indiscriminate shelling. There have been horrific civilian casualties – including the killing of children.

Protocol 1, Article 51, Sections 4 and 5 of the Geneva Conventions forbid the use of weapon systems or “any method of attack that cannot be directed at a limited or specific military objective … or where there is a concentration of civilians or civilian objects”.

By attacking Kyiv, Kharkiv, Kherson, Mariupol and Chernihiv – heavily populated civilian centres – the Russians are in breach of the international laws of armed conflict.

Specifically, in relation to civilians, the Geneva Conventions prohibit the waging of war in the urban environment, stating “when an attack could cause incidental loss of civilian life or damage to civilian objects, then the attack must be called off”.

The international criminal court (ICC) has said it is to investigate Russia to look for possible crimes against humanity or genocide during this war. 

Ukraine – and the world – is now bracing itself for a brutal assault on Kyiv, with fears that Putin’s aim is capture or even kill Zelenskyy and his cabinet of ministers. In this vindictive attempt at regime change, there are also fears for civilians if the country sees the type of street-by-street, house-by-house urban combat necessary to take a capital city and to neutralise its defences.

Uphill battle

The Ukrainian military face an uphill battle. Their desperate resistance east of the Dnieper will become increasingly difficult as Russian reinforcements pour in through the Donbass. Up to 20 European nations are sending weapons – principally Stinger surface to air, anti-aircraft missiles and Javelin anti-tank missiles. Even neutral states such as Sweden and Finland are sending thousands of such weapon systems.

The EU military staffs at Brussels are attempting to coordinate this supply of weapons and ammunition, along with battlefield medical kits, rations, fuel and water. The US and UK authorities have established an ‘International Donors Coordination Centre’ – outside of NATO’s structures to assist in this effort.

With Ukrainian airspace now effectively controlled by the Russians, these supplies of weapons and other war materials will have to enter Ukraine across land borders – most likely from Poland.

The area around Lviv will become the major reception and distribution centre for such materials to what will become a Ukrainian resistance movement west of the Dnieper River. This would draw Russian forces into a war of attrition in Ukraine – not unlike the experience of the Soviets in Afghanistan.

As these weapons enter Ukraine, the Kremlin may well begin to target Lviv and border crossings along the Polish, Slovakian and Baltic frontiers. Such actions might well inflict casualties on NATO troops or EU border forces. This would lead to a de-facto escalation of the war in Ukraine to a wider European war with Russia.

Russia’s original strategic objective of securing the Donbass region as a ‘buffer zone’ against NATO’s encroachment on Russia’s borders appears to have been superseded by a grand design to restore Russia’s borders.

Putin’s grandiose designs, fuelled by fragile ego and brittle ambition, is placing all of us – Ukrainians, Russians and all of Europe – in grave danger of a major regional war with all of the catastrophic consequences that that would entail.

Putin’s behaviour in the first week of this conflict and his confrontational rhetoric on the mobilisation of his nuclear forces speaks of a grave threat to the collective values, peace and security of the whole of Europe.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter. 

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