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Melkulangara Bhadrakumar

Russian regrouping in Kharkov will speed up Battle of Donbass

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The New York Times has disclosed that the US shared vital intelligence with the Ukrainian military and took part in the preparation of the latter’s current “counteroffensive” near Kharkov. No matter the Biden Administration’s motivations in publicising its role in what western media is celebrating as a success story — presumably, with an eye on domestic politics in America — it could be factually correct. The media leak puts the dramatic happenings in the past 3-4 days in proper perspective. 

There are two ways of looking at the surge by the Ukrainian military: one, Kiev has inflicted a heavy defeat on the Russians and forced them to retreat, or, the American intelligence finally got wind of the unobtrusive thinning out of the Russian frontline in Kharkov that had been going on in the recent weeks as part of a larger re-deployment of military formations, and shared the intelligence with Kiev, who of course gleefully acted on it. 

The New York Times report effectively confirms the latter reading of the situation, which has been the stuff of hearsay and whispers so far. 

Indeed, there has been hardly any fighting as such in Kharkov region during this Ukrainian surge, and the Russian focus was, unsurprisingly, to pull out the residual forces in the frontline under the cover of heavy artillery fire. The Russian operation ensured that there was no significant casualty. The new frontline that was being steadily put together in the recent weeks (or months) along the Oskol River has crystallised.
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US Taunts Russia to Escalate in Ukraine

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In military terms, the crude, locally assembled drone dropping a country-made bomb or two on unguarded sites in Crimea are at best pin pricks in the big picture of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine. But it can be profoundly consequential in certain other ways. 

For a start, this escalation has Washington’s approval. A senior Biden administration official told NatSec Daily the US supports strikes on Crimea if Kiev deems them necessary. “We don’t select targets, of course, and everything we’ve provided is for self-defence purposes. Any target they choose to pursue on sovereign Ukrainian soil is by definition self defense,” this person said.

But Washington knows — and Moscow knows — that like any sophistry, this one too is a clever argument but inherently fallacious and deceptive. The New York Times has interpreted the drone attack on Crimea as a challenge to the leadership of President Vladimir Putin. The Times wrote that the Crimea attacks “put domestic political pressure on the Kremlin, with criticism and debate about the war increasingly being unleashed on social media and underscoring that even what the Russian government considers to be Russian territory is not safe.” 

Times claimed that “as images of antiaircraft fire streaking through the blue Crimean sky ricocheted through social media, the visceral reality of war was becoming more and more apparent to Russians — many of whom have rallied behind the Kremlin’s line, hammered home in state media, that the “special military operation” to save Ukraine from Nazi domination is going smoothly and according to plan.”
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Ukraine war of Attrition at Inflection Point

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The great beauty about the war of attrition is that the military strategy of belligerent attempts to win a war by wearing down the enemy may not necessarily achieve the intended strategic success. Worse still, it may remain inconclusive and it becomes difficult to distinguish between the winner and the vanquished. 

The best example in modern times has been the War of Attrition that Egypt launched in March 1969 to wear down Israel by means of a long engagement and so provide Egypt with the opportunity to dislodge Israeli forces from the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had seized from Egypt in the Six-Day War of 1967. 

That War of Attrition turned out to be inconclusive. No territory was exchanged, and there was no obvious victor. Opinions vary as to whether either side had achieved a strategic success. Arguably, Egypt’s failure to make any territorial gains was tantamount to an Israeli victory; but then, the shift in psychological balance resulted in Egyptian favour, which ultimately led to the 1979 peace treaty that followed the Camp David Accords. 

But for such peaceful negotiated endings, leadership is needed. Henry Kissinger in his new book Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy devotes a chapter to Anwar Sadat as one of six world leaders he knew, who possessed such strategies of statecraft necessary to bring Egypt’s War of Attrition to a close. Kissinger calls it Sadat’s ‘strategy of transcendence.’
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Lavrov is on Blinken’s List of People to Call

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The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a press availability at the State Department on Wednesday made the dramatic announcement that he intends to speak to his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov “in the coming days … for the first time since the war began” in Ukraine on February 24.

Interestingly, he gave an alibi that harks back to the Soviet era — prisoner exchange.

The US is offering a swap of a Russian entrepreneur Viktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 on a US warrant and later convicted to 25 years in prison on charges of weapons trafficking, in exchange for Brittney Griner, a basketball star who has been detained at Moscow airport on drug charges and, importantly, Paul Whelan, an ex-US Marine, who was arrested in Russia in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison two years later on charges of espionage.

Whelan surely was a prize catch for the Russians. The American ambassador in Moscow had been visiting him in prison.
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Ukraine Grain Deal is a Feel-Good Event. But Road to Peace is Long and Winding

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The agreements signed in Istanbul on Friday regarding the export of grain out of Ukraine and Russia catch the headlines as a major development from the angle of global food security, which it surely is. Between around 22 million tonnes of grain from last year’s harvest now trapped inside Ukraine due to the war, and an estimated 41 million tonnes from Russia’s 2022/23 wheat exports, around 60 million tonnes, are reaching the world grain market.

A conservative estimate is that Russia’s 2022 wheat crop will reach 85 million tonnes and if the weather holds good, it may go up to 90 million tonnes, a record harvest. Suffice to say, Russia’s importance to the global wheat balance in the new season is likely to be unprecedented. Supplies from Russia will account for more than 20 percent of the 2022/23 global wheat trade, consolidating its position as the world’s number one wheat exporting country. 

Thus, two sets of agreements were signed in Istanbul, one relating to the modalities of transportation of the Ukrainian grain from three designated ports on the Black Sea — Odessa, Chornomorsk and Yuzhne — via a “grain corridor” to Turkey and a second one between Russia and the United Nations relating to the lifting of western sanctions on Russia’s exports of wheat and fertiliser.
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A Pivotal Moment in Eastern Ukraine

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The retreat of Ukrainian troops from Severodonetsk city in the Luhansk Oblast of the country is a pivotal moment in the ongoing conflict. The Russian forces are now almost in total control over the Luhansk region. The latest reports from front lines say Russian forces entered the last remaining city of Lysychansk in Luhansk on June 25.

In a briefing today, Russian Ministry of Defence announced in Moscow: “On June 25, the cities of Severodonetsk and Borovskoye, the settlements of Voronovo and Sirotino passed under control of the Lugansk People’s Republic. The localities liberated… are inhabited by about 108,000 people. Total area of the liberated territory is about 145 square kilometres.

“Success of the Russian army… considerably diminishes the morale and psychological condition of the Ukrainian army personnel. In 30th Mechanised Brigade deployed near Artyomovsk, there are mass cases of alcohol abuse, drug use and unauthorised abandonment of combat positions.”

However, peace is a long way off — several months away, perhaps. In the speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin last week at the SPIEF in St. Petersburg, he made no references to peace negotiations. Putin hardly referred to the fighting.
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Next 100 Days of Ukraine War

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The New York-based Council on Foreign Relations held a videoconference on May 31 titled Russia’s War in Ukraine: How does it end? The president of the think tank Richard Haas chaired the panel of distinguished participants — Stephen Hadley, Prof. Charles Kupchan, Alina Polyakova and Lt. Gen. (Retd) Stephen Twitty. It was a great discussion dominated by the liberal internationalist stream that has so far guided President Biden’s national security team, which wants to help Ukraine fight a long war against Russia. 

The striking thing about the discussion was the acknowledgement candidly articulated by an ex-general who had actually fought in wars that there is no way Russia can be defeated in Ukraine, and, therefore, there has to be some clarity as to the stated endgame to “weaken” Russia. The gloomy prognosis was that European unity apropos the war is no longer holding. 

Third, one plausible scenario would be that Russia turns Ukraine into a “frozen conflict” once the current phase of the war reaches the administrative boundaries of Donbass, connects Donbas to Crimea and incorporates Kherson and a “strategic pause and a stalemate in the not-too-distant future” may open the door for diplomacy. 

Conceivably, a cold air of realism is blowing across the Washington establishment that Russia is winning the Battle of Donbass and an ultimate Russian military victory over Ukraine is even within the realms of possibility.
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Creating Cold War Conditions in Asia Isn’t Easy

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Only three weeks remain for the summit meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in Madrid, which is expected to unveil a new Strategic Concept aimed at redefining “the security challenges facing the Alliance and outline the political and military tasks that NATO will carry out to address them.”

The NATO and the European Union are in unison that the world has fundamentally changed in the past decade and strategic competition is rising, and security threats in Europe and Asia are now so deeply connected that the two continents become a “single operating system”. 

The past week saw some “finishing touches” to the new cold war agenda — the US President Joe Biden hosting Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand; three tiny NATO countries in the Balkans blocking their air space to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to visit Serbia; and, Japan hosting the NATO Military Committee chief Rob Bauer. 

The first one was about Washington stepping in to draw New Zealand, the reluctant Pacific partner standing in the shade, towards the Indo-Pacific centre stage. (Biden actually invoked memories of the landing of US troops in World War II in New Zealand.) The second was an unprecedented act of diplomatic taboo, like dogs marking territory — “Serbia belongs to the West.” And Japan and NATO have messaged a new level of cooperation. 
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