Ukraine: the Fight Moves West

Article published in The Daily Express, 14 March 2022. © Richard Kemp

The Yavoriv military complex near Lviv, close to the border with Poland, was an inevitable target for Putin’s forces which need to interdict troop reinforcements and combat supplies — especially anti tank and air defence missiles — coming from outside the country. The base is a logistics hub and assembly centre for foreign volunteers travelling to join the fight for Ukraine.

This attack serves two other purposes. First, it is a message to NATO to cease sending in weapons. On Saturday Russia’s deputy foreign minister warned that convoys shipping munitions from the west are legitimate targets for attack. The Yavoriv strike fits with Putin’s nuclear threats, aimed to deter NATO leaders from direct military intervention in the conflict. The proximity to Poland underlines that warning. Putin already considers NATO’s supply of weapons as well as economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia as acts of war. Putin does not believe that NATO will deploy troops or air power. Counter-intuitively however, it is possible he is trying to provoke some form of limited Western engagement against Russia as a means of shoring up support at home.

Second, Putin knows that expanding the war westward, even if only from the air at the moment, will further terrorise the Ukrainian population. Lviv has been a place of refuge and a staging point for civilians fleeing the country. In line with his original strategy, he still hopes that intensifying fear will pressure the government to capitulate to his demands. President Zelenskiy’s comments five days ago that Ukraine is no longer pressing for NATO membership and that he is prepared to compromise on the status of the two Donbas breakaway territories will have encouraged him.

Russian forces continue to close on Kiev, with progress impeded by fierce Ukrainian resistance as well as hard-going terrain and logistic challenges, including supply of fuel, ammunition and rations, that prevent rapid movement over long distances. There is no doubt Putin does not want a street by street fight through the capital that would result in severe losses of armour and fighting troops. He will hope that the destruction of the small town of Volnovakha in the east, which the governor of Donetsk says ‘no longer exists’, contributes to a collapse in Ukrainian morale.

Further south, Putin continues to wreak destruction on the port city of Mariupol. His actions there and in Volnovakha reflect the brutal tactics his forces used in Syria and Chechnya. To the west, Russian forces continue to prepare an assault by land, sea and air on the strategically vital city of Odessa. If Odessa and Mariupol fall, Putin will control Ukraine’s coast in its entirety. That would be a major achievement, potentially enough for him to declare victory if he eventually decides Kiev is too tough a nut to crack.