After the Ukrainian armed forces defeated Russian troops, forcing them to retreat from their assault on Kyiv and northern Ukraine, Russia has concentrated its forces on eastern and southeastern Ukraine, with a notoriously brutal general now in command. These changes open a new chapter in Vladimir Putin’s assault that will be unpredictable and potentially more destructive. The humanitarian cost, notably in the besieged port of Mariupol, has grown only more calamitous. This new chapter will heighten the stakes both for aggressors and defenders — and the imperative for democracies to sustain support for Ukraine, including with longer-range weapons for its defense.

A March 21 photo shows damage and fires from Russian shelling of a residential area in Mariupol. Ukrainian officials say at least 80 percent of buildings have been hit in Russian attacks. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via The New York Times)
A March 21 photo shows damage and fires from Russian shelling of a residential area in Mariupol. Ukrainian officials say at least 80 percent of buildings have been hit in Russian attacks. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via The New York Times)

Ukraine’s resistance forced Putin to abandon, at least for now, the maximalist goals with which he began the war — a seizure of Kyiv that would have allowed him to install a Ukrainian puppet government. Instead, Russia has gathered its ground forces, now seriously damaged by seven weeks of Ukrainians’ defense, to concentrate on a smaller goal: seizing eastern and southeastern Ukraine from the city of Kharkiv to the Sea of Azov coastline. This would give Russia control over Ukraine’s entire Donbas region and would offer it a land route to resupply and reinforce its illegal occupation of Crimea.

Ominous Fighting and Losses Loom

Russia announced its launch this morning of this uncertain next battle. It will be fought largely with tanks, artillery and air power across open steppes and farmland — a change from the fighting in the more heavily forested north of Ukraine. For this new offensive, Russia has assembled units that have lost vehicles, weapons and other equipment, as well as thousands of soldiers killed or wounded. The damage to these forces, and the demonstrably low morale of Russian troops, leave their combat readiness uncertain. In a thrust south and west through Donbas, analysts note that they may benefit logistically from access to railroad lines that are more numerous than in the north.

This damaged but dangerous Russian force faces Ukrainian troops who have been defending the northern two-thirds of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces for eight years. Many are well dug in to defensive positions, the Ukrainians know the terrain intimately and their morale and determination to resist Russia’s attack are high. Russian troops, having largely destroyed the small city of Izium with weeks of shelling, are poised to attack southward, toward Sloviansk and nearby Kramatorsk, where an April 9 Russian missile strike on the train station killed more than 50 people among the civilians fleeing the city. Such a Russian movement will be vulnerable to attack by the Ukrainians from both east and west.

While the Russian ground forces are weakened, they retain a superiority in numbers and massive destructive power, notably through long-range artillery and combat aircraft. Thus, this new battle could follow a sobering historical pattern: Especially when desperate, Russian armies have shown a reflex of destroying anything and killing anyone within reach. This reflex — seen notably in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Chechnya in the 1990s and Syria more recently — puts millions more Ukrainians at risk of suffering the war crimes already visible, prima facie, across dozens of Ukrainian towns and cities.

The next round of fighting “will remind you of [the] Second World War, with … thousands of tanks” and other heavy weapons, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, told listeners at NATO headquarters this month.

Civilian Losses — and Mariupol’s Agony

The continuing risk of atrocities against civilians includes Russia’s appointment last week of a new commander for the overall war. General Alexander Dvornikov became known internationally as the first commander of Russia’s military intervention in Syria, including Russia’s heavy bombing of Aleppo, with the consequent civilian casualties. Before last week, Dvornikov commanded Russia’s attacks only in the south and east of Ukraine, notably in the city of Mariupol, where the mayor estimated last week that 10,000 to 20,000 civilians had been killed.

A central goal for Russian forces now is to fully subdue the extraordinary resistance of Mariupol, an industrial port city that was home to nearly a half-million before Russia’s assault. The city has become an icon of Ukrainians’ suffering in this war. Russian troops surrounded the city weeks ago and, as Ukrainian forces have fought back fiercely against the siege, Russian attacks have targeted civilians in what the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reports are serial crimes against international humanitarian law. Reported atrocities include:

  • The destruction or damage by Russian bombing or shelling of what Ukrainian officials say is 80 to 90 percent of Mariupol’s buildings. Photographs and video show that the city has been reduced to an urban moonscape of burnt out buildings rising above bodies in the streets.
  • The deadly March 9 bombing of Mariupol’s maternity and children’s hospital, an incident that Russia said had been faked — and that OSCE judged a deliberate Russian war crime.
  • Russia’s March 16 bombing of Mariupol’s drama theatre, which had clearly been marked as a civilian shelter for 1,300 people, many of them children. Russia accused Ukrainians of bombing the shelter to discredit Russia.
  • Russia’s illegal imprisonment of civilians in “filtration camps” from which as many as 33,000 Mariupol residents have been deported to Russia, and others sent to improvised prisons, according to reports from Ukrainian officials and OSCE.
  • Russia’s blocking of humanitarian convoys and food supplies into Mariupol, which has left an estimated 120,000 people in extreme need of food and water, Mayor Vadym Boychenko told the Associated Press last week.
  • Russia’s use of mobile crematoriums for a mass disposal of the bodies of Mariupol civilians killed in the siege, according to Boychenko, Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko and others.

Imperatives of Defense and Peace

These atrocities and mass civilian casualties, in a Russian assault that President Biden and others have labeled an act of genocide, only heighten the question for democracies of how to respond. Accountability will be vital. But an immediate imperative is to stop this aggression by defeating Putin and supporting Ukrainians’ battle to preserve their own freedom. That battle is crucial to the protection of international rule of law — and, given Putin’s implacability, to any hope for peace. Putin’s declaration last week that peace efforts with Ukraine are “at a dead end,” and his vow to pursue his assault, makes this clear. The only way that Putin leaves open to a peace process is through continued Ukrainian success in defeating his assault.

International military support for Ukrainians will need to be adjusted for the needs of this new battle in eastern and southern Ukraine. For example, the prospect of a heavy Russian tank assault across open terrain increases Ukraine’s need for longer-range anti-tank defenses. Ukrainians have been using Javelin missiles, which can operate at ranges to about 1.5 miles.  But to protect Ukrainian towns and army units in the wide-open steppe of Donbas, Ukrainians will need longer-range systems such as main battle tanks and heavy artillery, which can defend at a range of 20 miles or more.

In the face of implacable brutality, self-defense is critical to peacemaking — and Ukraine has shown that it is ready for both. As gut-wrenching as it would now be for Ukrainians to negotiate with a Russian dictatorship that has attacked them unprovoked, littering their towns with destruction and the bodies of innocents, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has unfailingly expressed his readiness for talks. That readiness is more than the world has a right to ask of Ukrainians. Yet bloodied, they are offering peace. The Russians have shown that they will negotiate only when they face defeat on the battlefield. The world’s democracies have a moral and strategic obligation to do everything in their power to help the Ukrainians bring about that defeat.

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