Having made less progress than expected after five days of war, the Russian army, which is trying to operate a junction in southern Ukraine, is simultaneously preparing to “hit hard” the capital Kiev and other urban centers, raising fears of heavy civilian casualties, experts told AFP.
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According to two sources interviewed by AFP, one diplomatic and the other security, Moscow is preparing to launch a new military push imminently. “They are preparing something really massive”, according to one of the sources, while the second said that a “second wave” of war was going to hit Ukraine “imminently”, the Russians having made their logistical arrangements for launch it.
The progress of the Russian military is much slower than expected and Russia is “frustrated” by the firm resistance of Kiev, said Sunday the Pentagon, for which more than 50% of the forces that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin massed against Ukraine (…) are engaged” in this country.
If Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on Russian soldiers on Monday to “lay down (their) weapons” to “save (their) lives”, the stalemate of the army sent by Moscow sometimes mentioned among Westerners is far from being a reality, note several experts.
“It’s only in video games that you conquer a country in two days,” said Olivier Kempf, director of the strategic cabinet La Vigie, interviewed by AFP.
“There is no stalemate. Let there be difficulties, yes, it is war. They may have logistical problems, but whatever we’re told, they’re making progress. It’s just that it doesn’t go as fast as in Hollywood movies,” he continues.
Vastly superior militarily, especially in the air, Russian forces have “great freedom of movement” across Ukraine and satellite images show “long columns of vehicles in the open”, suggesting that “they remain confident in their own positions and in the incapacity of Ukraine” to face them, observes Nick Brown, of Janes, a British research center on defense.
Fighting is raging in southern Ukraine, which borders the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Arriving via Crimea, a territory located almost in the middle of the Ukrainian coast, the Russian troops are gradually deploying towards the west, notably in Odessa, and the east, where Mariupol is of strategic importance.
A few tens of kilometers, fiercely contested by the Ukrainian forces, thus separate the southwestern flank from the southeastern flank of the Russian army. In the middle, Mariupol, a port city still controlled by Kiev although bordering Donbass, where since 2014 two separatist territories coexist whose independence Moscow recognized a week ago, and where violence is at its height.
Taking Mariupol would pave the way for a junction of Russian forces which “would change everything”, in particular for their logistics and their supply, observes a French military source.
“It would make it possible to have territorial continuity between the (Russian) region of Rostov-on-the-Don (border with Ukraine) and Crimea”, which would give Moscow the possibility of “absorbing” or ” annex” all of eastern Ukraine, she continues.
Russian troops would also flirt with Ukrainian forces fighting in the Donbass. But the Russians should then “hold and dominate” this territory to “ensure their own security”, warns Nick Brown.
Civilian losses, a few hundred dead on the Ukrainian side, are for the moment moderate while Kiev and Western countries accuse the Russian forces of barbarism and Ukraine claims to have killed at least 4,500 Russian soldiers. Moscow told the people of Kiev that they could leave it “freely” from the south.
“Ukraine, for Russians, is not like Syria. It is much more complicated for them to make carpet bombs”, observes a European diplomat interviewed by AFP.
“These are people who are close to them, some have relatives (in Ukraine). This is also why Putin calls them Nazis, because the Russians do not initially perceive the Ukrainians as enemies, ”continues this source.
But the invitation to leave Kiev, the number 1 objective of the Russian army, because it would thus seize the “center of Ukrainian power”, makes one imagine “a preparatory phase for an intensification of the strikes on the city”, considers the military source.
And to add: in Kharkiv, the second city of Ukraine, in the northeast, “there is heavy fighting, with the use of multiple rocket launchers, which means that the Russians are hitting very hard and more and more blindly. We see that they engage much heavier means. The next few days are going to be much harder.”