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Countdown begins for Russia’s Ukraine offensive

Presaging the tides on the battlefield in Ukraine where Moscow is focusing, the Russian defence ministry announced on Wednesday military gains in the Kharkov Region.

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A serviceman from the Baltic Fleet's loads a quasi-ballistic missile into the transport-loading vehicle during electronic launch drills of the 9K720 Iskander-M ballistic missile system, in the Kaliningrad Region, Russia. [Photo: Vitaly Nevar/Sputnik]

A study by the Harvard Business School in experimental psychology relating to people’s tendency to “shoot the messenger” came up with a startling finding that such human behaviour stems in part from a desire to make sense of chance processes.

Simply put, receiving bad news activates the desire to sense-make, and in turn, activating this desire enhances the tendency to dislike bearers of bad news.

In the current churning around the Ukraine war, French President Emmanuel Macron and the UK foreign Secretary David Cameron fit the description of messengers with malevolent motives — Macron keeps repeating his pet idea of combat deployment by European countries in Ukraine and Cameron arguing for the escalation of the war theatre to Russian territory.

Moscow disliked them both as bearers of bad news. But if further evidence was needed, the US national security advisor Jake Sullivan provided the “big picture” at the FT Weekend Festival in Washington last Saturday when he expressed the hope that Kiev would have the capacity to “hold the line” over the course of this year, and expects Ukrainian military to mount a new counteroffensive in 2025.

Sullivan will not rule out “Russian advances in the coming period” on the battlefield, because “you can’t instantly flip the switch,” but insisted that Ukraine intended to “to move forward to recapture the territory that the Russians have taken from them.”

FT added a nice little caveat “His [Sullivan’s] comments about a potential counteroffensive by Ukraine represent the White House’s clearest articulation of how it views the conflict evolving if president Joe Biden wins re-election in November.” Now, as things stand, that’s a big “if”, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reported on May 3 that the US “is leading talks among the G7 nations to develop a military aid package to Ukraine worth up to $50 billion, which would be “funded by the profits generated by accrued interest on frozen Russian assets.”

The US calculates that the Russian assets estimated to be around $400 billion, including assets of oligarchs, predominantly held by the EU countries, will generate windfall profits annually, which would allow for repayment as Western allies provide additional aid funding for Ukraine.

The US Congress last month passed legislation known as the REPO Act that would allow the administration to seize Russian assets held at American banks and funnel them to Ukraine. Moscow has repeatedly warned that it could lower the level of diplomatic relations with the US if Washington seized Russian assets.

Taking all these hostile western moves into account, the upcoming Russian military exercise held to practice the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons is anything but a knee-jerk reaction to some inflammatory remarks by Macron and Cameron.

The Russian ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov called the training activity “a forced measure in response to the arrogant and aggressive policy of the ‘collective West’… unhinged strategists in Washington and their satellites in Europe must understand that in the escalation of stakes they are spurring, Russia will use all means to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The West will not be able to play a game of unilateral escalation.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry statement on May 6 in this regard focused on the US’ intention to inflict a “strategic defeat” on Russia and announced an appropriate response in terms of stepping up the upgrade and manufacturing of intermediate-and shorter-range missiles and termination of Moscow’s “unilateral moratorium” on the deployment of these weapon systems as well as the future deployment of these weapon systems “at our discretion.” The statement viewed the transfer of F-16 to Ukraine as a deliberate provocation, as it is a “dual-capable” aircraft that can carry both conventional and nuclear weapons.

It highlighted that Moscow has taken “special note of the models of US-made ATACMS missiles, which have been recently sent to Ukraine and are capable of reaching targets inside Russia.”

The statement concluded that the upcoming training exercise will convey “a sobering signal” — to the US and its allies that their hostile moves are “pushing the situation ever closer towards the explosive tipping point.”

The heart of the matter is that the US and its G7 partners are in panic mode. They lack conviction about Ukraine’s capability to disrupt the momentum of a major Russian offensive that is widely expected in summer. There is even a sense of dark foreboding that the Ukrainian military may simply pack up in the coming months.

Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said last week that Russian forces are in full control of the battlefield situation and are steadily advancing along the frontline. In Shoigu’s estimation, Kiev’s military losses stood at 111,000 during the first four months of this year.

In reality, therefore, the facts on the ground suggest that Macron and Cameron’s remarks fall more in the realm of hyperbole by two beleaguered governments staring at the impending defeat of their Ukraine policy.

In a reality check, the prominent Swiss military analyst, Colonel Alexander Votraver who is also Deputy Chief of Staff to the Chief of the Swiss Armed Forces’ Military-Strategic Staff and editor-in-chief of the prestigious Swiss Military Review (RMS+), put matters in perspective while speaking on the French TV channel, “The question must be asked: is the French army sufficiently equipped in terms of training and with modern weapons to contribute to offensive operations against a superior enemy?

“The forces we could move are two brigades of 5,000-6,000 soldiers, with a deployment duration of 1-3 months at most. But if we are talking about a longer term, as obviously in the case of Ukraine, it is only 2 battalions, which today are in the Baltic States and in Romania. The bad news is that these forces are absolutely insufficient to confront a half-million-strong Russian army.”

Doesn’t Moscow know already what the Swiss colonel laid bare with brutal frankness? As for Cameron, his uncharacteristically belligerent remark about carrying the war into Russia was apparently some publicity stunt choreographed by 10 Downing Street, Foreign Office and Reuters in the run up to Putin’s inaugural ceremony in the Kremlin on May 7 and even as results were pouring in from the local elections in Britain that dealt a historic defeat for the Conservative party, which, with a general election looming, is being viewed through a national prism.

After Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman in Moscow Maria Zakharova told Tass that Russia has the right to strike British facilities in Ukraine or elsewhere if London’s threats about Ukrainian attacks with British weapons on Russian territory materialised, HMG reacted by expelling Russia’s defence attache, imposing new restrictions on Russian diplomatic visas and removing diplomatic status from some Russian properties!

But Home Secretary James Cleverly announced in parliament that the UK sought to “make sure that we protect our ability to have lines of communication with Russia, even during these most challenging of times, routes for de-escalation, of error avoidance and the avoidance of miscalculations are really important.” What a humiliating retreat!

Presaging the tides on the battlefield in Ukraine where Moscow is focusing, the Russian defence ministry announced on Wednesday military gains in the Kharkov Region.

RT commented that “The development apparently signals an intensification of combat on the Kharkov axis, where the front line… has remained largely static for months.” The final countdown for Russia’s summer offensive seems to have begun.

M. K. Bhadrakumar

M. K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat by profession. Roughly half of the 3 decades of his diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. He writes mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

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