Ukraine battles ‘elaborate’ Russian defences as Putin condemns Israel’s war

Putin says world should try and stop ‘tragedy’ in Gaza as Russian forces reportedly kill civilians in Ukraine’s Kherson.

A man walks near a memorial site for servicemen who lost their lives fighting against the Russian attack on Ukraine, in Independence Square on the first snowy day of the year in Kyiv, Ukraine November 22, 2023. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
A man walks near a memorial site for servicemen who lost their lives fighting against the Russian attack on Ukraine, in Independence Square on the first snowy day of the year in Kyiv [Thomas Peter/Reuters]

Russian President Vladimir Putin reacted to criticism of his war in Ukraine from the world’s wealthiest nations, now in its 91st week, by holding up Israel’s war in Gaza for comparison.

“I understand that this war, and the death of people, cannot but shock,” Putin told the virtual G20 meeting called by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday [November 21].

“And the extermination of the civilian population in Palestine in the Gaza Strip today, is not shocking?” Putin asked.

Russia has leveraged the deaths of more than 14,500 civilians in Gaza to cast its own aggression in Ukraine in a more favourable light.

[Al Jazeera]

Putin’s remarks came after a series of speeches from other leaders expressing shock at Russian aggression.

“Yes, of course, military actions are always a tragedy,” Putin said. “And of course, we should think about how to stop this tragedy.”

Some observers took this remark to be conciliatory, and Putin reminded his colleagues that “Russia has never refused peace talks with Ukraine,” whereas Ukraine refuses peace talks with Russia under the current government.

But only the previous day his ambassador at large, Rodion Miroshnik, told reporters in Moscow that “the current regime [in Kyiv] is absolutely toxic, we do not see any options for co-existence with it at the moment.”

Supermarket sticker protester imprisoned

Putin’s opposition to war was also cast into doubt by domestic developments.

A St Petersburg court sentenced Russian artist Alexandra Skochilenko to seven years’ imprisonment for “spreading false information” on November 17, after she replaced five supermarket price tags with messages against the war.

“The Russian army bombed an arts school in Mariupol. Some 400 people were hiding in it from the shelling,” one read. Another said, “Russian conscripts are being sent to Ukraine. Lives of our children are the price of this war.”

A Russian wartime law criminalises criticism of Putin’s prosecution of the invasion, and any view that deviates from the Kremlin’s position.

Skochilenko wept in the dock as her sentence was read out. The prosecutor had asked for eight years.

“How weak is our prosecutor’s faith in our state and society if he thinks our statehood and public safety can be ruined by five little pieces of paper?” she said in court.

“Everyone sees and knows that you are not judging a terrorist. You’re not trying an extremist. You’re not even trying a political activist. You’re judging a pacifist.”

The ground war

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said troops were still launching counteroffensive actions on the southern front in the 91st week of the war, but had gone on the defensive in the east.

He attributed the defensive posture to winter weather, rather than a series of attacks Russian troops have launched in Avdiivka, Bakhmut, Kupiansk and Mariivka in recent weeks.

“Difficult weather, difficult defence on the Lyman, Bakhmut, Donetsk and Avdiivka fronts. Offensive actions in the south,” Zelenskyy said on Telegram on Wednesday.

Even in the south, however, a Ukrainian counteroffensive that began in June has failed to make territorial gains for the past few weeks.

[Al Jazeera]

There was one bright spot for Ukraine on the front lines.

Ukraine’s general staff said on November 17 their marines had established a bridgehead on the left bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson, killing a battalion’s worth of Russian soldiers – some 1,200 men – and destroying two dozen tanks and four dozen armoured vehicles.

The figures were possibly cumulative for the entire period of this bridgehead action, which started approximately a month ago, when a Russian reporter said Ukrainian reconnaissance units had reached the outskirts of Krynky, 20km (12.4 miles) east of Kherson City on the left bank.

Ukraine general staff said, “One of the main goals of this work is to push the enemy as far as possible from the right bank in order to secure the civilian population from continuous Russian shelling.”

Russian artillery killed two civilians in a parking lot in Kherson City on Monday, Ukrainian authorities said.

Despite Russia’s difficulty in reinforcing its thin defences on this far western corner of the front, Ukraine has had difficulty getting on.

The staff said Russian defences in the area were “fairly elaborate”.

A Ukrainian soldier told the Wall Street Journal they consisted of “elaborate dugouts that [Russian forces] constructed over months”.

The strength of these could weaken over winter, said the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, a think tank.

“Russian forces have not constructed extensive visible defensive fortifications … and appear to have opted for more discrete fortifications set further from the frontline,” the ISW wrote.

“The discrete fortifications located away from the frontline in Kherson Oblast will likely only be fully effective if they remain concealed, however. Fall and winter weather conditions may reveal some concealed positions as foliage and natural ground cover die.”

[Al Jazeera]

Russian sources provided contradictory accounts about this Ukrainian action.

Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu told the Russian Ministry of Defence Collegium on November 21, that “all attempts of the Ukrainian armed forces to conduct an amphibious operation in the Kherson direction were unsuccessful,” while “suffering colossal losses”.

But on the same day, a Russian military reporter contradicted the official version, saying Ukrainian forces gunned down an entire Russian assault group near Krynky.

“If the company craps itself and leaves the village, there is no point in reporting that it is ‘ours’,” wrote the reporter in a diatribe against official reports that gloss over bad news.

The air war

Russia scored more success by intensifying its attacks on the softer target of Ukrainian energy infrastructure – a repeat of last winter’s tactic.

Russia reportedly sent a total of 96 Iranian-designed Shahed drones into Ukrainian civilian territory during the week in attacks almost every night. Some of the attacks were accompanied by missiles.

The worst came on the night of November 17-18, when Ukraine said it downed 29 out of 38 drones. But the rest caused power outages in 400 towns and villages in the south and north of the country.

“Your accuracy, guys, is literally life for Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address to the air force, but warned: “The closer we are to winter, the more Russians will try to make the strikes more powerful.”

Ukrainian authorities said among the drones they shot down on November 21 was an Iranian-built Mohajer-6. Unlike the Shahed, the Mohajer is not a kamikaze drone. It is designed for reconnaissance and attack, and can carry four missiles.

The recurrence of Russia’s winter tactics was likely the motive for Berlin upping the number of IRIS-T air defence systems it promised to supply Ukraine from eight to 12, in a new $1.3bn defence aid package on November 21. But the systems still have to be built, and capacity is low – only three of the eight previously pledged systems have been delivered, and those took a year.

The Finnish border

Separately, a border crisis brewed.

Finland said it was preparing to shut all but one of its eight border crossings with Russia on November 22.

Four were shut on November 17 after a surge of refugee arrivals – more than 600 in November, compared with dozens a month before that.

“Russia is effectively instrumentalising people, not only letting people through to the Finnish border with invalid documents or missing documents, which has not been the case before, but also we have evidence that Russia is effectively bringing those people to the border and organizing transport as well,” foreign minister Elina Valtonen told Reuters on November 21.

She described it as part of Russia’s “hybrid warfare” against Finland.

“At the EU border with Finland, Russian border guards have been letting people through without Schengen visas or EU residence permits. People who are being misled. People who are being used by Russia,” EU commissioner for home affairs Ylva Johansson said on November 21.

In 2021, Russia’s main ally Belarus attempted to instrumentalise refugees, bringing in thousands of Syrians and Iraqis by plane from Istanbul, Amman and elsewhere and ferrying them to the borders with Poland and Lithuania.

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[Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera