Short update today because it’s a holiday and I still haven’t recovered from yesterday’s monster update. If you haven’t seen it, it’s still a current representation of public information on the ground situation in Ukraine. In short, I went out on a (short) limb to declare Russia’s offensive culmination, with a clear shift to defensive ops as their war machine runs out of steam.
No new liberations were announced today in Kherson, so this is still the official map:
However, Ukraine did claim that three more unnamed settlements, around Vysokopillya, at that northern tip, had been liberated. We also have video of Ukrainian forces walking casually through an empty and peaceful Arkhanhel's'ke. The town was declared captured by CNN on Day 1 of the Kherson counteroffensive, but that’s the first confirmed video of liberation, and the lack of any obvious signs of war suggests the front lines have moved well past the town. (The map above still lists Arkhanhel's'ke as contested, on the edge of the front lines.)
Another sign of liberated territory—videos of Ukraine towing away captured Russian equipment (like here, here, and here).
The action in Kherson has led Russia to formally postpone its sham referendum to annex to oblast. Ukraine also claimed it destroyed the warehouse with the paper ballots.
This is the umpteenth time Russia has postponed this referendum, and I wish I had written the piece I had on tap last week about how there would never be a Kherson referendum. Russia’s problem is that it’s not confident in its security situation in the region. What would happen if Russia annexed Kherson, then Ukraine liberated it? Russia would have to admit an inability to protect its own territorial integrity. It would be an internal PR and propaganda catastrophe.
So as long as there was war, there would never be annexation. Russia can blame it on the “security situation” (which is not totally inaccurate), Ukraine can claim it destroyed the ballots. But in the end, this referendum was never happening while overall hostilities continued.
Meanwhile, while most observers dismissed Russia’s new overtures for peace negotiations as nothing new and a cynical effort to freeze the conflict, I have a different view on it.
In short, Putin’s press spokesperson said Russia new negotiations were “possible,’ but that they would focus on “the fulfillment of the conditions set by Russia.” That was taken by the pro-Ukrainian side as a fake offer, based on unrealistic and ridiculous conditions that have already been summarily rejected by Ukraine:
- Neutrality agreement barring NATO membership
- Crimea is Russia
- Luhansk and Donetsk (Donbas) are independent
- Demilitarization of Ukraine
- “Denazification,” whatever that means
While Ukraine had once considered the neutrality component, that seems off the table. The others are definitely off the table, particularly since Russia defines “Nazi” as anything or anyone that opposes Russian imperialism.
Those conditions haven’t changed with this new overture. But Russia’s statement includes this: “Any crisis situations eventually ends at the negotiation table.” That is, Russia isn’t demanding unconditional surrender, it is signaling some level of flexibility—something it hadn’t really bothered doing before with a “take it or die” approach during early talks. Problem for Russia, Ukraine has refused to die. In fact, it is Russia that is doing much of the dying.
And while Putin may not care about his cannon fodder in Ukraine, his nation’s economy is a different matter. Bloomberg got its hands on an internal Russian report that despite rosy public proclamations, Russia is facing a deep and long-lasting recession.
Two of the three scenarios in the report show the contraction accelerating next year, with the economy returning to the prewar level only at the end of the decade or later. The “inertial” one sees the economy bottoming out next year 8.3% below the 2021 level, while the “stress” scenario puts the low in 2024 at 11.9% under last year’s level.
All the scenarios see the pressure of sanctions intensifying, with more countries likely to join them. Europe’s sharp turn away from Russian oil and gas may also hit the Kremlin’s ability to supply its own market, the report said.
This explains why Russia suddenly cut off all gas supplies to Europe, holding them hostage in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. Putin may brag publicly about the failure of sanctions to bring down the Russian economy, yet this move says otherwise. While cutting off that gas may cause short-term pain in Europe, it will accelerate the continent’s shift away from Russian energy supplies. And even more worrying for Moscow, this action may very well accelerate efforts by China (and maybe India) toward energy independence. No one wants to be held hostage by energy terrorists.
So put it all together: Russia’s offensive operations culminate, their forces spent and no longer able to push forward. Ukraine begins taking back territory on all fronts. The Kherson sham referendum is officially cancelled. Russia cuts off European energy supplies, demanding an end to sanctions. And Russia suddenly wants to restart negotiations for an end to hostilities.
Seems obvious to everyone that there’s no reason for Ukraine to agree to any of the previous Russian demands. Russia has very little leverage at the moment. But what seems obvious to the rest of us—like Kherson was a transparent trap—seems to somehow elude Russian policy makers. What matters here is that Russia can’t accomplish its goals on the battlefield, so it is trying to get concessions it hasn’t earned at the negotiating table.
Put another way, a strong Russia wouldn’t be begging for sanctions to be lifted, it would sell all that gas and use it to fund its war machine, it would stage a real referendum in Kherson, it would smash Ukrainian defenses, and it would get what it wanted by force.
Ukraine is in the driver’s seat.
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