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Sensemaker: The attack on Kyiv

Sensemaker: The attack on Kyiv

What just happened

Long stories short

  • China abstained rather than supporting Russia in a UN vote condemning its invasion of Ukraine.
  • The ICC’s chief prosecutor said he has opened an investigation of alleged war crimes by Putin.
  • Roman Abramovich put Chelsea Football Club up for sale.
  • Congressional documents filed in a federal court in California accused Trump of “criminal conspiracy” to block the transfer of power in the US in January 2021. 

“It’s a really strange feeling waking up in the war…because while you were sleeping things might have happened. So when you wake up you feel danger in all your body, that it finally happened… the people I love – they are dead and my city is completely destroyed and I won’t have a future.” Listen to Mariia and others today and every day in Invaded – Voicemails from Ukraine

The attack on Kyiv

The fate of Kyiv, Ukraine and European security rests on a 40-mile column of Russian trucks and armour that has scarcely moved in four days and on this eighth day of the war is still 30 km from the capital’s northern suburbs. Does it ultimately spell doom for the Ukrainian resistance, or for Putin?

Russian advances in the past 36 hours in the south and east, and especially the reported capture of Kherson on the Black Sea, have been brutally won and will be hard to reverse. But Putin can’t claim victory without Kyiv, so it’s worth a closer look at the sledgehammer he hopes will take it.

How it grew

  • When first seen by western satellites the column advancing from Belarus was 3.5 miles long. Images from Maxar, a US imagery firm, showed it growing rapidly, to 17 miles by 26 February and 40 now.
  • Initially a single row of vehicles, it thickened to three and sometimes four parallel columns, including in one widely published image taken in woods 60 km northwest of Kyiv on 28 March. The vehicles are on route P02, which approaches the city close to the west bank of the Dnieper.
  • The column consists mainly of tanks, towed artillery, Grad multiple rocket launchers, fuel tankers, logistics trucks including medical units and perhaps 5,000 troops. Initial reports suggested its growth was part of a plan based on tried and tested Soviet tactics, but this may overstate Russian organisation (see below).

Why it stopped

  • Resistance. Today’s UK Defence Intelligence update credits “staunch Ukrainian resistance, mechanical breakdown and congestion”. Few if any verified clips of burnt out Russian hardware on social media can be definitively linked to the convoy on route P02, but it’s known that Russia’s failure to gain air supremacy has meant Ukrainian forces have been able to use Turkish Bayraktar TB2 attack drones and home-made UAVs to attack the advancing column. Ukraine began the war with about 20 TB2s; more were due to be delivered yesterday. 
  • Logistics. As soon as Russia’s initial plan to take Kyiv quickly failed, supply lines became vulnerable and dysfunctional. “If you’ve got enough rations for two days and it takes you six, you’ve suddenly got a problem,” Ben Wallace, the UK defence secretary, told Sky. A more charitable view is that having met stiffer-than-expected resistance Russian commanders paused to resupply their forward units. 
  • Screw-up. The big column as remorseless battering ram is, in this case, a myth, says Professor Lawrence Freedman of King’s College, London: “In practice it turned out to be a series of smaller convoys, jammed together because the road is blocked by vehicles that have broken down or run out of fuel. The Ukrainians do not need to go to great lengths to interdict this offensive force: it has stopped itself.” In some cases it did so literally – there are credible reports of Russian units draining their own tanks.

What it means. Hope and experience lead to radically different forecasts.

  • The hope is that Ukraine has been able to use the four days the convoy has been stopped to prepare for its destruction with drones, Javelin anti-tank weapons (mainly from the UK), Panzerfaust and other anti-tank weapons from the Netherlands and Germany, and lighter weapons and molotov cocktails deployed by a Ukrainian army and citizenry that have now practically merged. 
  • Experience suggests the Russian army still has time to learn from its mistakes, regroup, encircle Kyiv and pound it into submission as it did Grozny and Aleppo. This army “is not the same as in the year 2000,” Mark Galeotti, the security analyst, tells the Moscow Times. “But it is going back to basics.”

To note: a battle for hearts and minds that Putin hoped not to have to fight is underway in Russia. On one side state media has acknowledged losses for the first time (469 dead and 1597 wounded, compared with claims of up to 9,000 Russian dead from President Zelensky) but persists with the myth of a special operation to demilitarise Ukraine. On the other, news of the dead, direct from the front to their families, goes viral. One voicemail reportedly from central Siberia laments the loss of almost an entire 150-strong unit. 

It sounds genuine, but in the information war it doesn’t even have to be to be effective. 

“World War Three is already here” – says the woman who confronted Johnson

Paul Caruana Galizia 

On Tuesday Daria Kaleniuk stood up at a press conference with Boris Johnson in Poland and demanded to know why he did not support a no-fly zone over her native Ukraine. Her day job is to run the Anti-corruption Action Centre, a non-governmental organisation based in Kyiv that she now leads from an apartment in Warsaw.

She fled here last week with her two young children, and told me why: “I understood that I’m most likely on an assassination list and I simply could not stay,” she said. “We immediately started to look for helmets, vests and medication in order to send to Ukraine because we have team members who are in Kyiv and under bombardment.”

One of her colleagues messaged as we were speaking. She told Kaleniuk she had just endured 20 minutes of Russian shelling during which she was afraid even to breathe. Read more.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

EU gas plan 
The EU plans to require member states to store more gas in time for next winter, buy more of it from suppliers other than Russia, and loosen the permitting process for new wind and solar projects. That is the gist of a document being prepared for publication next week in response to the long-run emergency of rising gas prices, and the immediate one of war. Something about it doesn’t quite match the urgency of the moment. It aims, for example, to cut the bloc’s reliance on gas by 23 per cent by 2030. The real challenge is to do without Russian gas right now. The EU currently imports 90 per cent of its gas and 40 per cent of that from Russia. Germany depends on Russia for 50-75 per cent of its gas; Italy for an even larger share. A data point to watch: Europe’s liquified natural gas storage levels. They are currently at 23 per cent of capacity. Brussels wants them at 80 per cent by late September. This is a good time to be Qatar, Turkmenistan, or a fracker anywhere. 

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperitY

Peskov blinks
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, has admitted Russia’s economy “is experiencing serious blows”. This is not about the confiscation of oligarchs’ yachts, although that is happening. It’s about strategic reserves being frozen, the ruble losing a third of its value, interest rates doubling and myriad Russian businesses – not just those owned by elites – finding they cannot buy or sell abroad because their banks have been shut out of the SWIFT payment system. Peskov claimed in a call with journalists yesterday Russia had “a certain margin of safety”, but it’s not clear how or how wide. A reasonable bet is that the question of how long Putin can afford to prosecute this war will be answered sooner rather than later, by China. 

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Jo Cope goes to Poland
At 4am last Friday morning Jo Cope, who works at a veterinary clinic outside London, got a text from a friend in a village in northern Ukraine: “If anything bad happens, can you come and take the children?” Cope is not Ukrainian but she made friends years ago through a local charity with a family from a village near Chernobyl. Their children have visited each others’ homes. She packed some clothes, bought a ticket and flew at once to Lublin in southern Poland. Despite being “on the breadline financially”, she took an Uber 125 miles to the border and waited all night and most of the next day in snow and sub-zero temperatures for her friends’ two children and a cousin to get there from the other side. Police helped her. Eventually “some random guy” showed up with the kids. And they flew home via Warsaw – and Lisbon. The Telegraph has the story, and it’s a keeper. 

New things technology, science, engineering

Ghost of Kyiv
Russia has more advanced fighter planes than Ukraine, but not necessarily the skills to prevail in the air. The Times reports on a cold war-vintage dog fight that reportedly took place in the Kyiv region in which – Ukraine claims – two Russian Sukhoi Su35s were shot down and one of two technically inferior Ukrainian MiG-29s survived. It’s not clear from the account whether the Russian planes were brought down by the MiGs or surface-to-air missiles; nor if the event took place at all. Myths about hero pilots are some of the most seductive of all, and Ukraine has produced one about the “Ghost of Kyiv”, claimed to have shot down six Russian planes on day one of the invasion. The ghost is real and alive, a Ukrainian source insists. This much is known: Russian jet fighters outnumber Ukraine’s by about ten to one.

covid by numbers

3.5 million – doses of unused Covid vaccines which are currently sitting close to expiry in UK fridges.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Covid anti-virals 
Efforts to distribute anti-viral pills to combat Covid symptoms are ramping up. Designed to be taken to prevent hospitalisation and death, Merck’s molnupiravir has been approved by the WHO for patients with non-severe disease and higher risk. To note: Merck’s pill has been effective in clinical trials (30 per cent prevention), but that’s considerably less effective than Pfizer’s paxlovid (90 per cent). Pfizer has already signed contracts for 30 million courses of paxlovid, mostly to high-income countries, and expects to make $22 billion this year from those contracts alone. The real challenge is to get anti-virals to where they are needed in low-income countries with low vaccination rates. Pfizer has now said it will provide 10 millon courses to low and middle income countries, but activists say that’s no-where near enough. No one seems to have worked out who will be paying for them either. 

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

With additional reporting by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images

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