The Russo-Ukrainian war has become a game of “artillery ping-pong”

The Russo-Ukrainian war has become a game of “artillery ping-pong”

CIUS weekly report on media coverage of Ukrainian affairs, 0612 June 2022

Three North American magazines (The New Yorker, Atlantic Council, and Wall Street Journal) were selected to prepare this report on how the situation in Ukraine has been portrayed in media outlets during the past week (06–12 June 2022). The sample of magazines was created based on their impact on public opinion, as well as their professional reputation, popularity among the readership, and topical relevance. The three magazines represent the centrist and liberal political spectrum.

This report covers only the most-read articles about Ukraine, as ranked by the respective magazines themselves in the past week. It also covers promoted texts on home pages, texts from special sections on Ukraine, texts from paper versions of the magazines, and texts about Ukraine from opinion columns and editorials.

  • Ukraine at war: containing Russian neo-imperialism, the role of servicewomen and female volunteers in defence, depopulation of the war-torn cities, the toll of war on Ukrainian citizens with disabilities
  • The world and Ukraine: failure to deblocade the Black Sea through negotiations, Western heavy weaponry as the key to victory in the Donbas
  • Russia at war: aiming to restore a new Russian Empire through destruction of Ukraine’s statehood, warmongering spirit of ordinary Russians, global businesses’ flight from Russia.

The most common arguments:

Ukraine must uproot Russia’s imperial paradigm through victory on the battlefield. Dennis Soltys (Atlantic Council) argues that the Ukrainian army has proven to be capable of defeating the Russian invaders with the help of Western weaponry. Ukraine’s victory, which Soltys defines as the liberation of all occupied territories, will have repercussions on many levels. Primarily, millions of Ukrainians who live in occupation will avoid oppression and return to safety. Secondly, the supremacy of international law will be restored. Thirdly, the Kremlin’s narrative of glorifying the USSR and blaming the Pentagon for its collapse will be discredited; a genuine de-imperialization will commence. Fourthly, the politics of selected Western states to appease Russia will come to an end. Soltys concludes that “a Ukrainian victory would send shock waves through Russian society and force Russians to engage in a long overdue exploration of the country’s imperial identity…Anything less [than a painful defeat] will merely serve as a temporary pause before the next Russian invasion.”

Ukrainian women’s contribution to the war effort against Russia is unprecedented. Iryna Slavinska (Atlantic Council) highlights the surprise for international audiences to see tens of thousands of servicewomen in Ukraine’s armed forces in the last weeks. No less surprising was to observe how actively Ukraine’s non-combatant women are engaged in supplying troops with food and equipment, coordinating relief for displaced people, promoting Ukraine’s interests at intergovernmental levels, and assisting foreign media in Ukraine. Slavinska argues that “the prominent role being played by Ukrainian women in the current war effort reflects longstanding traditions of feminism and notions of gender equality that have deep roots in Ukrainian society.” Slavinska describes the development of women’s rights activism from the second half of the 19th century and emphasises the roles played by Natalia Kobrynska, Olena Pchilka, and Milena Rudnytska in steering this activism. Slavinska concludes that “a rich feminist tradition…continues to play a vital role in Ukraine’s nation-building journey.” 

Ukraine needs a victory in the Donbas to obtain further Western support. Daniel Michaels (Wall Street Journal) builds his article on the strategic dichotomy of interests for the belligerents: “Russian success could validate for President Vladimir Putin a shift in tactics from the war’s early days…and embolden him to continue advancing…back toward the capital. Ukrainian success stymieing the Russians…could convince some wary Western leaders that Kyiv has a chance of prevailing against bigger Russian forces and eventually give Ukraine a better bargaining position with Moscow.” Proof of Ukraine’s military prowess in the Donbas is crucial to influencing Western attitudes—especially as voices started being raised in Europe that Russia “should not be humiliated” to avoid unnecessary complications in postwar diplomacy. Michaels argues that Ukraine’s successful defence of Siverodonetsk against a massive artillery-centred Russian offence will build up Western confidence and reinforce its support for Ukraine; instead, defeat will increase the West’s cautiousness and limit heavy weaponry supplies. 

Ukraine’s front-line cities have become ghost towns. Matthew Luxmoore (Wall Street Journal) argues that the massive population flight from the Donbas makes once-vibrant cities look sinister and abandoned. However, this flight also “offers an advantage to both sides: Russia can step up its scorched-earth strategy while denying that its troops target civilians, and Ukraine can engage it in pitched urban battles using residential areas.” To illustrate the scale of the Donbas depopulation, Luxmoore provides the case of Sloviansk, where 75% of its pre-invasion population of 100,000 left their homes. By speaking to the mayor, military command, and ordinary people of Sloviansk, Luxmoore portrays a gloomy picture of a city under constant shelling that is being gradually cut off from Ukraine’s mainland. The medical staff of Kramatorsk, a city neighbouring Sloviansk, confesses that the post-shelling injuries are not something one finds in a textbook and that doctors are “forced to learn on the job.” The risk of getting injured from the shelling is also motivating people to flee. This said, as Luxmoore illustrates, the growing proximity to the battlefield makes those who decided to stay “more determined to stand firm.”

Ukraine’s Chornobyl employees say the facility was ransacked by the Russians. Vivian Salama and Maksym Golubenko (Wall Street Journal) offer an insight into how the Chornobyl NPP operated during and after the occupation. When the invasion started, Ukraine’s defending troops retreated, given the risk of heavy fighting against prevailing Russians in the exclusion zone. For their part, the Russians seemed not to know where they had arrived–they dug ditches in contaminated land and hunted for members of Ukraine’s far-right groups in nearby villages. At a certain moment, Russians prevented the employees at Chornobyl from operating the facility and disconnected its safety systems from Ukraine’s power grid, which could have led to disastrous outcomes. Upon their withdrawal, the Russians ripped television monitors off the wall, broke doors, destroyed equipment, spray-painted rooms, and left a pile of excrement. Salama and Golubenko recite Ukrainian officials who assumed that similar destructive processes may be taking place today at the occupied Zaporizhia NPP, Europe’s largest facility of its kind. 

Ukrainians with intellectual and developmental disabilities are especially traumatized by this war. Maryna Dubyna and Alistair MacDonald (Wall Street Journal) present the story of Misha Rohozhyn, a Ukrainian teenager with Down syndrome, who managed to escape besieged Mariupol with his mother. Dubyna and MacDonald argue that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities overcome extra challenges to reach safety: “For some with these conditions, changed routines can provoke extreme stress. Those with sensory hypersensitivity find explosions, sirens, and raised voices particularly jarring. Physical disabilities make escape harder.” Furthermore, people with Down syndrome and autism often do not have a place to turn to in Ukraine. The support centres for such people were often bombarded and looted by the Russians. In the case of Misha Rogozhyn, the only thing motivating him to endure all challenges was a dream to meet the pro wrestler John Cena. His dream came true. 

Turkey’s talks with Russia on lifting the Black Sea blockade for grain exports failed. Jared Malsin (Wall Street Journal) writes that “the Russian attack on Ukraine has blocked much of the smaller country’s massive grain exports since February and driven up food prices worldwide, heaping pressure on poorer nations, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, that rely on imported wheat.” To mitigate the food crisis, the government of Turkey took an initiative and discussed with Russia the possibility of deblocading the Black Sea, demining Ukrainian ports, and securing a safe passage for merchant ships. Ukraine remains sceptical about the outcome of such talks, particularly given that it has been excluded from them; as well, it perceives that they may pose more risks to its security, with demining potentially used by Russia to attack Ukrainian seacoast cities. On the other hand, the Russian side will not agree to any solution to the food crisis unless Ukraine accepts its conditions. 

Western efforts to force Russia to pay reparations are far from successful. Courtney McBride (Wall Street Journal) argues that while the US remains the major supporter of Ukraine in its war with Russia, multilateral consent would be needed to redirect Russia’s seized assets for Ukraine’s reconstruction as reparations. Kyiv claims that Russian troops caused more than $600 billion in damage to national infrastructure as of early May. Russia will not pay war reparations on its own volition. In turn, the US has neither the authority nor the political will to redirect Russian-seized assets back to Ukraine. However, it could do so with the backing of the 141 out of 193 UN members who condemned the Russian invasion. Moreover, recent developments in international law pave the way for this—such as the 2005 UN General Assembly resolution on reparations, which allows the enforcement of international judgements against an aggressor, the March 2022 decision of the International Court of Justice granting provisional relief to Ukraine, and the March 2022 UN General Assembly resolution demanding the complete and unconditional withdrawal of Russian forces. That being said, the coordination and implementation of multilateral decisions against such a state as Russia may require much effort. 

Western supply of artillery has become crucial in Ukraine’s defence of its eastern regions. Two magazines, The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker, dedicated expanded articles to this topic last week.

James Hookway (Wall Street Journal) states that “Russia’s forces have turned to heavy artillery barrages in recent weeks to clear the way for infantry advances. This has led to gradual gains across the Donbas, where much of Ukraine’s heavy industry is concentrated, including rich coal fields.” Five types of artillery systems supplied by members of NATO are being used by Ukraine on the front lines, but their quantity is insufficient. Due to the disproportion in heavy weaponry, 50–200 Ukrainian soldiers are dying each day. Also, Ukraine cannot counter-attack in full strength due to the risk of being exposed to intensive shelling.

Matthew Luxmoore (Wall Street Journal) also claims that Russia’s artillery advantage is the major reason behind its creeping advancement. He provides a quick overview of other war-related events in the Donbas: growing shortages of ammunition for Ukraine’s defenders, Russia’s attempts to occupy Siverodonetsk and Sloviansk, distribution of Russian passports on occupied territories, the possibility of a cholera outbreak in Mariupol, and others.

Joshua Yaffa (The New Yorker) quotes a Ukrainian soldier who believes that the war in the Donbas has become a game of “artillery ping-pong.” Yaffa highlights that the current stage of the war is very different from the one waged in February–March: Russians prefer targeted attacks, well-supported by artillery and aviation, to marching in large columns on three fronts simultaneously. Ukrainian soldiers are very rarely entering into skirmishes with enemy soldiers, as the latter are hiding between the artillery lines. Based on his conversation with Ukraine’s command, Yaffa concludes that “in areas where battles have been the most intense, Russia has had…a five-to-one manpower advantage. [Also] Russia has an advantage of up to seven to one in artillery batteries and a similarly large stockpile of munitions.” This encourages the Russians to level any village or town prior to entering it with no resistance. 

Russia’s goal remains the destruction of Ukraine’s statehood. Melinda Haring (Atlantic Council) argues that as a result of Putin’s decision to start the war, “one-third of Ukrainians have fled their homes. Russian soldiers have committed unspeakable war crimes and crimes against humanity. Moscow has blocked all of Ukraine’s ports, choking Ukraine’s economy and putting millions of people across the globe at risk of starvation.” These factors, alongside increased budgets for defence and arms purchases, Russia’s physical elimination of Ukraine’s middle class, the complicated process of Ukraine’s EU accession, and colossal investment requirements for postwar reconstruction demonstrate that the Kremlin has not abandoned its objective to crush Ukrainian statehood. To do so, it will employ all the military, economic, and diplomatic tools in its possession. Haring concludes that the Kremlin’s success directly depends on how quickly and thoroughly the West and Ukraine respond to these challenges.

The Kremlin admits that the war in Ukraine is for imperial reconstruction. Peter Dickinson (Atlantic Council) writes that “Putin has launched the largest European conflict since WWII for the simple reason that he wants to conquer Ukraine. Inspired by the czars of old, Putin aims to crush his neighbour and incorporate it into a new Russian Empire.” In his recent speech, Putin declared that it was his generation’s responsibility to “return Russian lands.” This declaration puts both the system of international law and today’s European security architecture to a vital test. Moreover, with an ambition to restore the empire, Putin will not limit his expansionism to Ukraine only—all of Central and Eastern Europe may follow. Dickinson argues that to solve the biggest challenge to contemporary European security, Russia will have to reject its imperial identity. Ukraine’s victory would speed up the Russian de-imperialization processes.

In the third month of the invasion, Russians’ support for it remains overwhelming. Peter Dickinson (Atlantic Council) writes that 77% of Russians supported the invasion of Ukraine as of May 2022, according to Levada Center surveys. This percentage is bad news for everyone who expected the invasion to challenge the Kremlin’s legitimacy or even provoke acts of domestic disobedience. Quite the opposite–Russians learned to live with war and accept the limitations it imposes on them. Dickinson also observes that “while any attempt to accurately gauge opinion in a dictatorship is notoriously difficult, the Levada Center’s recent data is likely to be the most legitimate available indication of public feeling toward the war.” The only social group of Russians where the war is starting to lose its appeal is the military. Some soldiers are refusing to sign contracts for deployment in Ukraine; and on the battlefield many soldiers attempt to abandon their units and desert.

The Kremlin wants to win the war without escalating Russian political activism. Isaac Chotiner (The New Yorker) interviews Masha Lipman, a Russian political scientist and contributor to Foreign Affairs, on the issues of “how Putin has tried to depoliticize Russian society, how Russian propaganda has evolved alongside the war, and why Putin fears Russian nationalism spiralling out of control.” Lipman argues the following: First, since the outbreak of the invasion the Kremlin has felt no pressure from civil society to withdraw its troops, even after documented atrocities. Second, “disengagement from politics remains an important [feature], an important basis of state-society relations in Russia” that leads to a “passive loyalty” phenomenon. Third, massive mobilization for war is risky in Russia, as this may unnecessarily politicize the population and undermine the Kremlin’s control over society, media, and elites. Fourth, the Kremlin’s winning objectives in the war are unclear and may change to reflect the situation; at the same time, losing the war has never been an option. Fifth, the Kremlin presents the war in Ukraine to Russians as a war against the West. Finally, the Russian diaspora has very few tools to influence the Kremlin’s policies. 

Nearly 1,000 global companies have planned to leave Russia since its escalated invasion and war against Ukraine. Jean Eaglesham (Wall Street Journal) starts by declaring that “global companies have racked up more than $59 billion in losses from their Russian operations, with more financial pain to come as sanctions hit the economy and sales and shutdowns continue.” These losses, alongside the unpredictability of war-time operations, are prompting global companies either to leave the Russian market or limit their presence there. Both choices come at a relatively low cost, due to the moderate size of the global companies’ branches in Russia: “McDonald’s, for example, said its Russia and Ukraine businesses represented less than 3% of its operating income last year.”

Ostap Kushnir

Ostap Kushnir

Ostap Kushnir is an assistant professor at Lazarski University in Warsaw. He holds an MA in Journalism from Odesa Mechnikov National University, an MA in International Relations from the University of Wales, and a PhD from Nicolaus Copernicus University (Toruń, Poland). His academic interests include geopolitical and boundary-forming processes in Central and Eastern Europe, specifically in the Black Sea region. Dr. Kushnir is the author of the book Ukraine and Russian Neo-Imperialism: The Divergent Break (2018). He is also a member of the editorial board of the Central European Journal of International and Security Studies (Czechia).

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