Russian and Ukrainian forces fought vicious battles in Ukraine’s east without significant territorial changes over the past week, the 41st of the war, with neither side showing any willingness for immediate negotiations to put an end to the fighting.
Meanwhile, Ukraine scored its deepest strikes in Russian territory yet and its allies squeezed Russia further on the economic front.
Ukraine’s long-range drones
On Monday morning, as it has frequently done in recent weeks, Russia fired some 70 missiles into Ukrainian cities such as Kyiv, Vinnytsia and Odesa. The attacks damaged energy infrastructure, which in some cases had just been fixed after being previously struck. Although Ukrainian officials said the country’s air defences had shot down more than 60 of these missiles, the successful strikes killed four people and plunged parts of the capital back into cold and darkness.
Russia said the strikes were in retaliation for Ukraine using drones to strike two military bases, the Engels airfield on the Volga River and the Dyagilevo base near Ryazan. The two bases are 700km (435 miles) and 600km (373 miles) from the Russian-Ukrainian border, respectively, and represent Ukraine’s deepest strikes into Russia yet.
Photos posted on social media suggested Ukraine had used Soviet-era Tu-141 reconnaissance drones, which fly at high speed, have a range of 1,000km (621 miles) and could have bypassed Russian defences.
“The Ukrainians have decided to change the calculus of Russian [commander of Ukraine forces Sergei] Surovikin. The strikes against the Russian air bases is Ukraine’s way of saying that the Russians don’t have the asymmetric advantage with their long range missiles that they think they have,” wrote retired Australian army officer, Major-General Mick Ryan.
In an hourlong phone call on December 2, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had told Russian President Vladimir Putin that attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure must stop, only to be told they were “an inevitable” response to Ukraine’s “provocative attacks”.
Bakhmut and the long, static war
Elsewhere, Russia maintained pressure on Bakhmut, a key city in the eastern Donetsk region that it has been trying to capture since the Ukrainian summer months with daily bombardments and ground assaults.
Ukrainian military spokesman Serhiy Cherevaty said Russia was sacrificing 50-100 soldiers a day in the effort, while President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called Bakhmut and neighbouring Soledar the most difficult fronts of the war.
The leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Denys Pushilin, said although Russian forces had “liberated” 338 settlements in the Donbas, Ukraine was also bringing up reserves and mounting counterattacks.
It was not possible to independently verify the figures cited by both sides.
Russia’s defence ministry said its forces quashed one counterattack on December 7 near the settlements of Pershe Travnya, Kurdyumovka, Klescheevka and Mayorsk in Donetsk. It also said it foiled Ukrainian counterattacks on the settlements of Chernopopovska and Zhytlovka in the neighbouring Luhansk region. But if nothing else, these showed that Ukraine has not given up on the two eastern regions whose large parts are under Russian control.
Pushilin also told Russia 24 TV station that Russian troops were advancing on Avdiivka and Pervomaiskoye in Zaporizhia region, just south of Donetsk.
Meanwhile, US national intelligence chief Avril Haines said on Saturday Ukraine was in for months of slow-paced war.
“We’re seeing a kind of a reduced tempo already of the conflict … and we expect that’s likely to be what we see in the coming months,” Haines told the annual Reagan National Defence Forum in California. “I do think [Putin] is becoming more informed of the challenges that the military faces in Russia,” she said.
Putin admitted to the slowness of the campaign on Wednesday, when he said, “As for the duration of the special military operation, well, of course this can be a long process.”
With battlefronts static, Ukraine’s Western allies moved to tighten the economic noose around Russia.
The G7, Australia and the European Union on December 2 agreed on a $60 per barrel price cap on Russian crude oil shipped to third parties.
The cap took effect on December 5, the same day as an EU ban on Russian crude oil imports.
“It is no secret that we wanted the price to be lower,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas wrote on Twitter. The Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – and Poland had insisted on a cap equalling roughly the cost of extraction.
“A price between 30-40 dollars is what would substantially hurt Russia,” Kallas said.
Zelenskyy, too, expressed disappointment, calling it “quite comfortable for the budget of a terrorist state” and “a weak position” for Europe.
“It’s only a matter of time [before] stronger tools have to be used anyway. It is a pity this time will be lost,” he said.
While the move applies to EU operators that insure and finance ships carrying Russian crude oil worldwide, it does not apply to Russian oil imports coming into the 27-member bloc through pipelines. Member countries such as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia are heavily dependent on Russian pipeline oil and will be allowed to continue imports temporarily until they develop alternative supplies.
But the compromise included a sweetener. The EU will immediately move to a ninth package of sanctions targeting “the military and defence sector, companies producing military equipment, or those who are planning the missile strikes”, foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said.
Russia already discounts its oil to $60, well below the Brent crude benchmark of $87, and the EU cap did nothing to upset that.
“We will not recognise any ceilings,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, adding that “the adoption of these decisions is a step towards the destabilisation of world energy markets”.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, in an interview with India’s NDTV, questioned the Indian government’s neutrality and continued purchases of Russian oil.
“If you benefit because of our suffering, it would be good to see more of your help addressed to us,” he said.
Ukraine’s deputy military intelligence head Vadym Skibitskyi said some missiles raining down on Ukraine were manufactured during the summer, by which time Western sanctions were supposed to have choked off Russia’s ability to acquire vital components for them, such as computer chips.
“Unfortunately, the Russian Federation, due to the fact that it circumvents economic sanctions, is still able to produce a certain number of cruise missiles and other weapons,” said Skibitskyi. He also said Russia was talking to Iran about replenishing its stocks of ballistic missiles.
Peskov said problems caused by sanctions against Russia were “of a non-critical nature”.
“The economy of the Russian Federation has the necessary potential to fully meet all needs and requirements within the framework of a special military operation,” he said.
Released figures suggested that Russia has suffered, with its economy reducing in the third quarter of this year by 7.1 percent compared with before sanctions in the fourth quarter of last year.
Talks with preconditions
No party to the conflict seemed prepared for negotiations at this stage.
US President Joe Biden, whose mantra has been that Ukraine must decide when to come to the negotiating table, said on December 1 he was prepared to talk if there was an earnest desire for peace.
Ukraine places massive preconditions on talks, including a complete Russian withdrawal and reparations payments, which Moscow rejects, while placing its own conditions.
“If now there will be a serious proposal on how to stop this conflict while fulfilling our absolutely legal demands, of course, we will be ready to talk,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on December 7.
James Cleverly, Britain’s foreign secretary, told The Telegraph newspaper that a ceasefire would be disingenuous. “A ceasefire is actually just used by Putin to train up more troops and to produce more ammunition and to refit his damaged armed forces and to rearm his armed forces,” he said.
The human toll
Ukraine for the first time revealed estimates of its military deaths at 10,000 to 13,000.
The United Nations counted Ukrainian civilian deaths at 17,000, a figure believed to be an underestimation.
Ukraine estimated the number of Russian dead soldiers stood at more than 90,000. NATO has in the past said Ukraine’s figure is a realistic one for dead, wounded and missing Russian soldiers.
The UN said 14 million Ukrainians, about a third of the population, remained displaced as a result of the war: 6.5 million inside Ukraine and more than 7.8 million in the rest of Europe.