By Dmitriy Kovalevich, New Cold War, 5/27/22
In this month’s update, New Cold War’s regular contributor and analyst Dmitriy Kovalevich describes what has been happening on the ground in Ukraine throughout May. In his comprehensive account, based on reports including those from the Ukrainian media, Kovalevich clearly demonstrates how the western establishment’s narrative differs strikingly from the reality and why Zelensky is now saying that, despite bellicose statements from countries like Great Britain and Canada, the conflict can only end through diplomacy.
By the end of May, Ukraine had already experienced three months of hostilities, and had lost a total of 21% of its territory[i] since the beginning of the Russian operation. In the Russian-controlled territories of the Kherson and Zaporozhye regions, the Russian authorities appointed a temporary local administration, introduced a dual-currency zone (Ukrainian and Russian currencies), and began to pay pensions and salaries.[ii] At the end of May, the Russian authorities also decided to issue Russian passports to the residents of these regions, in addition to the people of Donbass.[iii] According to their estimates, about 70% of the inhabitants of the regions want to adopt Russian citizenship.[iv]
A landmark moment was the surrender of the Ukrainian military at the Azovstal plant in Mariupol, which is already completely controlled by the military of the DPR and the Russian Federation. According to preliminary estimates, about 200,000 inhabitants, or half of the population, remained in the city. During April and May, neo-Nazis from the Azov regiment recorded tearful appeals to the Pope, Elon Musk, Western leaders, Xi Jinping and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, demanding an “extraction” procedure, evacuation with weapons and banners instead of surrender, but this did not help them.
Calling the surrender an “evacuation”
Until the end, the authorities of Ukraine refused to call the surrender of the Azovstal garrison “a surrender.” President Zelensky, followed by the Western media, called it an “evacuation” to a safe place, allegedly supervised by Ukrainian intelligence.[v] Even so, the “evacuation” was in fact a normal surrender when the Ukrainian military, including hundreds of neo-Nazis from the Azov Battalion, laid down their weapons on camera and went through a search procedure, after which they were taken as prisoners of war to Donetsk. The DPR authorities promise a tribunal[vi] over the Ukrainian military for many years of crimes against the republic, recognized only in February by the Russian Federation. Russian media showed prisoners with tattoos of swastikas, portraits of Hitler and Nazi slogans in German.[vii] A red flag[viii] was symbolically raised over Azovstal, taken there by the DPR forces, and the Donetsk militia posed for photographs with a red flag bearing the inscription “In defense of Marxism-Leninism.”[ix]
According to the Ukrainian media, the prisoners, totaling 2,439 people from Azovstal and another 1,630 from the plant named after Ilyich in the same city, are being kept in normal conditions, and no violence has been used against them. This is reported by the relatives of the prisoners, who were given the opportunity to communicate with the captives.[x] Donetsk militias call on their comrades to be extremely tolerant, humane and respectful towards POWs, including neo-Nazis, as this will encourage other Ukrainian servicemen to surrender, thereby saving more lives on both sides.
The news about the surrender was a serious blow to the hubris and belligerent rhetoric of the Ukrainian authorities. Only after it became clear that captivity and the subsequent tribunal was not an evacuation, did the Ukrainian authorities and Azov commanders begin to make adamant demands that commenting on the event should stop, while at the same time trying to divert the public’s attention.[xi]
The fall of Svetlodarsk
The next informational setback was the fall of the city of Svetlodarsk in the Luhansk region and the tactical encirclement of the Ukrainian military group in the Severodonetsk, to which, after the separation of Luhansk, the Lugansk regional administration was transferred, which had at the beginning of May controlled only 25% of the region. It is also forbidden to call the retreat by Ukrainian troops “a retreat.” Officially, this is being called a “defensive maneuver,”[xii] after which Russian troops appear in Ukrainian cities.
The Ukrainian authorities are still trying to reassure the population with weekly forecasts of an “imminent counteroffensive” and the collapse of Russia “as early as this year.” In this regard, they refer to the data of the British media and intelligence, which are trying to keep the Ukrainian authorities’ morale in good shape with such promises.
However, the Ukrainian military, who are directly involved in the hostilities, are much less optimistic. In May, a wave of protests began in Ukraine among the military, who are refusing to obey orders, as well as among their relatives, who are protesting against sending their husbands and sons to the frontline. Mostly, they complain that armed only with machine guns and without training they are immediately being dispatched to trenches on the front line, where many of them do not survive for even a day. Particular dissatisfaction is being shown by the so-called territorial defense, paramilitaries, originally formed to defend their settlements. These are mostly non-professional military; however, due to the losses of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, it is these paramilitaries who are plugging the holes in the defense and being forced into going to the front line.
“We do not want to be cannon fodder”
Members of the battalion of the Cherkasy territorial defense refused to fight and recorded a video message to that effect. They say that on May 22 they were sent to the front line to carry out a combat mission but they were not provided with heavy weapons.[xiii] For this reason, they refused to carry out the assigned task, after which the authorities took away their light weapons and protective equipment, threatening them with arrest and prosecution. They complain that many of them died or were wounded in the first battle, for which they are not receiving medical care. They consider their presence on the front line illegal. “We do not want to be cannon fodder,” sums up the mutinying members of the territorial defense.
Earlier in May, the military of the 115th brigade of Ukraine’s armed forces, who refused to follow orders in Severodonetsk, also recorded a video about poor service conditions. They were sent to a pre-trial detention center as deserters. They said they were refusing to carry out combat missions due to lack of reinforcements. The combatants also blamed the incompetence of their command.[xiv]
In early May, in the Transcarpathian region’s city of Khust, local women stormed the military registration and enlistment office, protesting against sending their husbands from the territorial defense to the front. When the head of the military office did not go out to meet the women, they began to smash the windows and broke into the building.[xv]
Russian forces change tactics amid uncertainty over number of Ukraine combatants
In May, the Russian army altered its tactics. Now, instead of raids comprising tank columns going deep into Ukraine, it uses the tactics of slowly grinding down the Ukrainian armed forces with long-range artillery, “dismantling” the fortified areas into ruins and dust. With countless shell craters, the fields of southeastern Ukraine now resemble those of Belgium during the First World War.[xvi]
Volodymyr Zelensky claims that 700,000 Ukrainian servicemen are now taking part in the fighting.[xvii] In May, he extended martial law and new waves of conscription for the next three months. According to Ukrainian media reports, young people who are being seized from the streets of Kharkov and Odessa are being conscripted into the army.[xviii] Unwilling to fight, Ukrainian men launched a petition in May, demanding that they be allowed to leave or be evacuated overseas (which has been banned since February). In the first three days, the petition gained the necessary 25,000 signatures, after which, by law, the president must consider it. However, Vladimir Zelensky has refused to do so, instead drawing attention to the military personnel who are in the trenches.[xix] Zelensky’s adviser Alexei Arestovich promises to put under arms not 700,000, but a million people.[xx]
This declared number of Ukrainian military deployed against the Russians’ offensive is at odds with that of Western intelligence data, while Ukraine’s Defense minister says that the number of Russians involved in Ukraine is about 167,000.[xxi] Whatever the case, even with a threefold superiority in manpower and the weapons supplied by NATO countries, the Ukrainian army is losing territories and cities every week.
Russian blogger German Kulikovsky, the author of the telegram channel ‘Older Edda,’ based in the Kharkiv region, describes the tactics of the Russian army in May as follows:
“Russian troops are advancing slowly but surely. They take care of the personnel and try to destroy the enemy with artillery, missiles and aircraft. In general, our offensive in this direction is similar to the movement of a road roller, which, although not fast, reliably rolls the roadway […]. The Russian army is grinding [down] the enemy, the losses of the Armed Forces of Ukraine are growing exponentially, and Ukraine is trying to close the holes on the front line with fresh reinforcements, throwing them into battle right after their arrival, which certainly increases the number of killed and wounded in the ranks of the Ukrainian army even more.”[xxii]
“A war to the last Ukrainian”
Against this background, in May Zelensky’s party deputies attempted to propose a bill that gave the right to shoot Ukrainian servicemen on the spot if they refuse to fight, tried to desert or surrender,[xxiii] although the bill was withdrawn after a public outcry. In the same month, the same fate befell a bill that proposed to deprive Ukrainian men of their citizenship if they illegally left the country. And the number of this latter group is growing every week, as are the prices being charged by smugglers for their services, due to the many young males who have been seized on the street and immediately sent to the front.
The war “to the last Ukrainian” thus becomes a reality. Judging by the rhetoric of Western politicians, even against the wishes of many Ukrainians, the authorities of Great Britain and Canada are inciting that the war continues, in contrast to the statements calling for compromise that are being heard in Paris, Berlin and Vienna.