Russo-Ukrainian war, day 61: Russians continue dropping bombs on civilians in Mariupol.
- Blinken, Austin pledge return of US diplomats, more security assistance on Kyiv visit, the Reuters reports. “Washington’s top diplomat and defense secretary both visited Kyiv on Sunday, and used the first official US visit to Ukraine since Russia invaded two months ago to announce a gradual return of US diplomats to the country and the nomination of a new ambassador, officials said. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Poland on Saturday then overland into Ukraine on Sunday, where they met President Zelenskyy and other top Ukrainian officials, a senior State Department official said, declining to discuss in detail their travel or security arrangements.”
- Zelenskyy spoke with Erdogan before his conversation with Putin, Ukrayinska Pravda reports. The President of Ukraine Zelenskyy and the President of Turkey Recep Erdogan discussed by phone possible guarantees of Ukraine’s security, the resumption of talks with Russia, and the evacuation of wounded soldiers and civilians from Mariupol.
- Instead of negotiations, Putin plans to seize as many territories of Ukraine as possible, the Ukrayinska Pravda reports citing Financial Times. According to sources, in March, Putin seriously considered signing a truce with Ukraine after the failures of the Russian army. However, now he wants to seize as much territory as possible because he does not see how to end this war otherwise. After the destruction of the cruiser “Moskva”, the Russian president, according to sources, was allegedly so enraged that he rejected the idea of reaching an agreement. One of the officials with whom the journalists spoke told that Putin believes in all the disinformation that is reported on Russian television and is ready to go to the “great victory”. They say the generals are reporting to Putin what he wants to hear. Allegedly, some Russian officials fear that Putin is ready to use tactical nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory if his troops fail in a further offensive.
- Talks have reached a stalemate, Putin says. During a telephone conversation with European Council President Charles Michel, who was trying to persuade Putin to meet with Zelenskyy, Putin allegedly told him that the talks had reached a stalemate because Ukraine had “built a wall” and therefore it was not time for such a meeting. He tells a similar story to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ukrayinska Pravda reports.
- Russia is blocking economic data, hiding the impact of Western sanctions, Economic Truth reports. The Russian government has begun to close information on key economic indicators in order to hide the problems that Russia is facing due to sanctions, The Wall Street Journal writes. In recent days, the Russian government has stopped publishing data on public debt, trade statistics, and oil production. The central bank has limited the amount of financial information that local banks must publish regularly. The restrictions are expected to prevent Washington and Brussels from seeing how their sanctions affect the Russian economy, as well as make it harder to find new targets and fine-tune future rounds of sanctions.
On the War
The Institute for the Study of War has made the following assessment as of Sunday 24 April:“Russian offensive operations in eastern Ukraine made minor advances around Severodonetsk on April 24, seizing several small towns and establishing a pontoon bridge across the Krasna River west of Severodonetsk. Russia’s offensive in eastern Ukraine continues to follow the pattern of its operations throughout the war, using small units to conduct dispersed attacks along multiple axes rather than taking the pauses necessary to prepare for decisive operations. … The military situation in southern Ukraine did not change in the last 24 hours.
Russian forces continued to bombard Ukrainian defenders in the Azovstal Steel Plant with artillery and airstrikes and may be preparing for renewed assaults on the facility. The deputy commander of the Azov Regiment stated on April 24 that the Russian Naval Infantry is preparing to launch an assault on Azovstal, and Ukrainian Presidential Adviser Oleksiy Arestovych similarly stated that Russian forces are concentrating around Azovstal for an assault. ISW cannot independently confirm Russian preparations for renewed assaults against Azovstal, which would likely sustain high casualties. Russian commanders likely still seek to starve out the remaining Ukrainian defenders but may be compelled to launch a hasty assault on the facility to meet a Kremlin-imposed deadline to fully clear Mariupol. Pro-Russian telegram channels released footage of Pacific Fleet Naval Infantry troops and armor reportedly leaving Mariupol to “go further for new victories,” though ISW cannot confirm details on the specific composition and destination of Russian forces departing Mariupol.
Russian forces conducted several attacks around Severodonetsk, Popasna, and Marinka on April 24, securing limited gains. Russian forces made small advances around Severodonetsk, including establishing a pontoon crossing across the Krasna River west of Severodonetsk and capturing the towns of Popivka, Pischane, Zhytlivka, and Kreminna northwest of Rubizhne (confirmed by footage of LNR servicemen posing by village entrance signs) on April 24. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces primarily focused on securing their current positions around Popasna and prepared for further assaults. Ukrainian Presidential Advisor Oleksiy Arestovcyh stated that Russian forces are conducting assaults north from Melitopol toward Hulyaipole, 80km east of Zaporizhia, and have advanced 10km in the past week. Russian forces, including units from Mariupol, likely seek to drive north into Dnipropetrovsk Oblast to encircle Ukrainian forces in Donetsk Oblast but are unlikely to successfully complete this deep encirclement.
Ukrainian forces repelled limited Russian attacks from Izyum toward Sloviansk and Kramatorsk in the past 24 hours. Russian forces maintained their positions around Kharkiv city and continued to shell the surrounding area on April 24 and conducted remote mining in Korotichi (a western suburb of Kharkiv) to disrupt Ukrainian movements.
- Russian forces continued to pressure Ukrainian defenders in the Azovstal facility in Mariupol.
- Ukrainian sources report that Russian troops are preparing to conduct renewed assaults on Azovstal that would likely prove costly—possibly to meet a Kremlin-imposed deadline to clear Mariupol—but ISW cannot independently confirm these reports.
- Russian forces secured limited gains northwest of Severodonetsk but remain unlikely to be able to launch massed offensive operations.
- Additional Russian forces are deploying to reinforce unsuccessful attacks on the Izyum front.
- Ukrainian civilians in occupied Kharkiv Oblast are reportedly organizing volunteer movements to resist Russian occupation measures, similar to previously documented actions in southern Ukraine.“
Consequences and what to do?
In an article published by The Economist on 23 April, Rob Lee explains “why attrition will be a critical factor in the battle for Donbas”. The expert on Russia’s armed forces says Vladimir Putin will struggle to achieve his goals
“… Russia’s new focus on south-eastern Ukraine ought to play to its strengths and ameliorate some of these problems. The terrain in Donbas, with fewer large urban areas, is better suited to an offensive, allowing Russia’s army to make better use of its advantages in armor and artillery. …
But is it all too late for Russia? Ultimately, that will depend on which side is more affected by attrition. Relatively little is known about the scale of Ukrainian losses. What is clear is that Russia has lost a large amount of equipment, including helicopters and tanks. Of the six battalions in the Russian 4th Tank Division’s two tank regiments, two battalions’ worth of T-80U tanks have been destroyed or captured (more than 62 in total).
Russian personnel losses are an even greater problem. A NATO official put the figure as high as 40,000 killed, wounded, and captured a month ago. Russia’s initial invasion force of approximately 125 battalion tactical groups (BTGs) added up to fewer than 100,000 troops in total. Importantly, not all of those were combat forces. That figure includes those responsible for air defense, electronic warfare, and other support functions.
Compared with the armies of many NATO members, Russian ground forces have a higher ratio of artillery and other supporting arms to what are known as maneuver units, such as tank and motorized rifle units. Maneuver units, as well as elite Spetsnaz (special forces) and airborne forces, will be vital to a new offensive in Donbas. But these are precisely the ones who have borne the brunt of Russian casualties. Russia’s lack of light infantry has been a clear weakness, and there are indications that many Russian BTGs invaded Ukraine at only partial strength.
Now there is little left in reserve. Russia committed 75% of its permanent-readiness BTGs—those staffed with professional soldiers and officers—to the invasion. That already stretched its forces thinly, with a sizeable share of units deployed from all five of its military districts, as well as national guard troops and even conscripts.
That Russia has chosen to send more units, possibly more than ten BTGs, since the war began from critical garrisons such as Kaliningrad, Tajikistan and the breakaway region of South Ossetia in Georgia underscores the extent of its problems. The Russian military is already ill-prepared to handle another crisis—like the unrest in Kazakhstan in January—as long as the majority of its permanent-readiness ground units and rapid reaction forces are committed to Ukraine. Unless it mobilizes conscripts—which would possibly require reframing the “special military operation” as a war—Russia will struggle to generate additional ground forces.
What does this mean for the forthcoming battles in Donbas? An attacking force typically seeks a three-to-one numerical advantage over the defender, if not more.
That degree of superiority is now probably beyond Russia, except at the tactical level in some locations. It will probably try to compensate for this lack of manpower in maneuver units with airstrikes and artillery. Russia may also rely more heavily on less well-trained militia forces from Donetsk and Luhansk. But this isn’t a recipe for a rapid breakthrough, and the Ukrainian military has demonstrated it is capable, creative, and well-led. More likely, any Russian advances will be slow and costly.
Russia faces other problems, too. Its objectives are obvious, robbing it of the element of surprise. That means Ukraine has the opportunity to disrupt those plans and can seize the initiative. …
Ukraine’s advantage is that it enjoys what is called interior lines, allowing it to move forces and supplies over its territory more quickly than Russia can. It has also mobilized its territorial defense units, which have now gained combat experience. Russia, meanwhile, having failed to degrade Ukraine’s air defenses or eliminate its air force, is still struggling to interdict Ukrainian reinforcements and supplies—a task that was crucial to Azerbaijan’s successful ground offensive in its war in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020. Indeed, the threat posed by Ukrainian air defenses is limiting the effectiveness of Russian airstrikes in the Donbas region, by forcing Russian helicopters to fire their rockets at longer ranges with less accuracy.
As long as Ukraine can prevent Russia from encircling a large share of its forces, Russian tactical or operational successes will probably fail to add up to strategic gains. Ukraine can afford to trade space for time, pulling back to more defensible terrain, or even cities, if necessary. If Ukraine loses territory but can nevertheless inflict greater losses on Russia than it sustains, this could be considered a success.
Russia, after all, needs sufficient forces not only to conduct an offensive but also to hold ground and rotate units off the frontlines for recovery. Continued attrition could make this unsustainable.
As long as the war continues, there will be some domestic support for it in Russia. But once it eventually ends, Russian citizens will weigh its costs and benefits, and many will question whether expanding Russian control over south-eastern Ukraine was worth the heavy military losses and international isolation.
The approval ratings of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, will suffer. Therefore as long as Mr. Putin believes his armed forces have a chance of advancing, thus improving Russia’s hand in diplomatic negotiations, he has an incentive to continue this war. However, the extent of the Russian ground forces’ manpower problems coupled with high attrition suggests Russia’s offensive in the Donbas is likely to achieve only partial success.”
Assessment by Hans Petter Midttun
Democracies cannot and should not be forced to act in conflict with their national interests. But they should be held accountable for the consequences of their democratic decisions.
When Austria opposes Ukrainian EU membership, Bulgaria rejects Ukraine’s request for weapons, Hungary will not allow transit of weapons to Ukraine through its territory, or Germany does not support sanctions against the Russian Federation on oil and gas and is bitterly divided over what kind of military support it should give Kyiv, or Norway has still not decided to block Russian vessels from using its ports, or more crucially, when the Western countries do not ask the UN to mandate a humanitarian intervention and a No-Fly Zone over Ukraine and NATO is unwilling to enforce it, this is all a part of democracy and democratic choices.
The costs of war – from human suffering, atrocities, and war crimes to food and energy crisis, financial instability, “stagnation”, poverty, and increasing costs of living, are not.
It is, therefore, rather frustrating to watch democratic nations choose division over unity, national over common interests, attrition over maneuver warfare, long-term costs over values and principles, and political weakness over courage, resolve, and European security.
As previously stated, the longer we allow the war to last, the higher the costs for both Ukraine and the international community.I remain convinced that the engagement of a “coalition of the willing” consisting of the major NATO member states would change and improve the dynamic of the war. It would even be concluded in weeks instead of months and years. More importantly, it would help avoid further Russian miscalculations.