World

Stalled Russian convoy becomes a symbol of campaign flaws in Ukraine. Putin silences independent media and blocks access to social media. The US bans imports of Russian oil and gas. By Jonathan Pearlman.

US fears invasion setback may make Putin ‘double down’

A resident stands near a burning house after heavy shelling along the escape route out of the town of Irpin, 24 kilometres from Kyiv, Ukraine.
A resident stands near a burning house after heavy shelling along the escape route out of the town of Irpin, 24 kilometres from Kyiv, Ukraine.
Credit: Reuters / Carlos Barria

Russia’s campaign flaws

Shortly after invading Ukraine, the Russian military dispatched a massive force of armoured vehicles, tanks and towed artillery that rushed towards Kyiv, the capital, apparently to launch a swift takeover and topple the government. But this convoy – which stalled near Hostomel Airport, about 30 kilometres from the offices of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – has since become a symbol of Russia’s ailing war effort.

Military experts have proposed various theories to explain the convoy’s mysterious standstill, including unexpected Ukrainian resistance, low Russian morale, a lack of food and fuel supplies, communication difficulties, and mechanical problems caused by muddy roads and poor tyres. Some believe the problem is simpler, and that Russia’s 15,000-troop convoy became stuck in a traffic jam that it could not untangle.

Ukrainian troops have attacked parts of the convoy, but Russian air-defence and electronic-warfare systems are believed to have protected it from air strikes. Ukraine may be protecting its drones for future battles or may fear that destroying the convoy could trigger a fierce retaliation.

United States intelligence chiefs said on Tuesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin had hoped to seize Kyiv within two days. The officials, appearing before the house intelligence committee, said Putin was now likely to intensify the campaign, increasing the risk of civilian casualties.

“Our analysts assess that Putin is unlikely to be deterred by such setbacks and instead may escalate, essentially doubling down,” said the US director of national intelligence, Avril Haines.

In Kyiv, remaining residents have been stocking up on food and medicine as they prepare for a prolonged siege and potential shelling and air raids.

Russian forces have been more successful in the south, advancing from Crimea to seize a swath of territory that has connected with eastern regions occupied by Russian-backed separatists.

On Wednesday, retired Australian major-general Mick Ryan said Russia’s decision to attack from multiple fronts had given Ukraine the advantage of defending “interior lines”, allowing for quicker and easier reinforcements of troops and equipment.

“[Russia] has concurrent offensives in different, disconnected parts of Ukraine,” he wrote on Twitter. “There is little prospect of a quick resolution, so fighting [will] continue for at least weeks and perhaps months.”

Ceasefires fail

The United Nations this week said more than two million people had fled Ukraine, amounting to one of the biggest mass exoduses in history. But officials warned that further fighting could soon lead to a second evacuation including more vulnerable people with no resources or connections outside Ukraine.

“There will need to be even more solidarity by everybody in Europe and beyond,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Fighting across Ukraine has increasingly affected residential areas, prompting more people to evacuate. Despite both sides agreeing to a ceasefire last week to allow residents to escape, Ukraine accused Russia of blocking and attacking evacuation routes.

The Red Cross said this week the situation for residents in Mariupol, a port city that has had no water, power or heating since last week despite the freezing temperatures, was “apocalyptic”.

In an online post on Tuesday, the mayor of Mariupol, Vadym Boichenko, said a six-year-old girl – named only as Tanya – had died alone from dehydration in the ruins of her home. “In the last minutes of her life she was alone, exhausted, frightened, terribly thirsty,” he wrote. “This is just one of many stories from Mariupol.”

Further efforts to reach a ceasefire this week faltered. Ukraine rejected Russia’s offer of escape routes leading to either Russia or its ally Belarus, describing them as “completely immoral”. Russia said Ukraine had accepted just one of 10 evacuation routes it proposed.

The UN said on Tuesday it had verified 474 civilian deaths and 861 injuries but noted the toll was likely to be much higher.

Russia silences media

Vladimir Putin this week silenced the final remaining outposts of independent media, which have been under attack throughout his two decades in power.

When the invasion began on February 24, Russian authorities ordered media outlets to use only government sources and to avoid describing the “special operation” as an invasion or war.

But the parliament has since gone further, passing a law that imposes prison sentences of up to 15 years on outlets or journalists who do not convey the official account of the war. This led prominent independent outlets the Ekho Moskvy radio station and the Dozhd TV channel to stop operating. The newspaper Novaya Gazeta announced it would remain open but would no longer report on the war, saying it did not want to endanger its staff.

The BBC, The New York Times and CNN have suspended broadcasting or news gathering. Authorities in Russia have also blocked or restricted access to Twitter, Facebook and TikTok. The curbs mean many Russians have access only to state media.

Jeanne Cavelier, from Reporters Without Borders, said Russian media were being “silenced to death”. In the organisation’s most recent World Press Freedom Index, released before the latest restrictions, Russia was ranked 150th out of 180 countries.

Oil shocks

US President Joe Biden has refused to deploy American troops to defend Ukraine or to impose a no-fly zone that would risk engagement with Russian aircraft. Instead, he has promised tougher sanctions than “anything we’ve ever done”.

But these sanctions did not initially extend to Russia’s vast global exports of energy – a move that could lead to shortages in Europe and international price spikes.

This week, however, Biden, who is facing pressure to act from Democrats and Republicans in congress, announced a US ban on purchases of Russian oil and gas. “The United States is targeting the main artery of Russia’s economy,” he said. “We [understand] that many of our European allies and partners may not be in a position to join us.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced plans to ban Russian oil imports by the end of the year. But Germany, which is heavily reliant on Russian fuel, has resisted any immediate moves to block imports, saying this would lead to a lack of electricity, heat generation and transportation across Europe. The German government has already begun seeking new sources of energy, including plans to build liquefied natural gas terminals.

Russia, the world’s second-largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia, produces about 10 per cent of global supplies.

As countries and firms moved to curb purchases of Russian supplies, petrol prices in the US and Britain this week reached record highs. Gas prices also reached record highs.

Russia has been offloading oil at discounted prices, including a massive shipment to Shell, which defied a ban imposed by major global firms.

Responding to the purchase, Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a tweet: “Doesn’t Russian oil smell of Ukrainian blood for you?”

On Tuesday, Shell apologised, saying it was ending oil and gas purchases from Russia, closing its Russian service stations and committing the profits from its Russian oil purchases to humanitarian aid in Ukraine. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 12, 2022 as "US fears invasion setback may make Putin ‘double down’".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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