SEOUL – United States allies in Asia have rallied to the anti-Russian cause, but as the global democratic bloc fumbles its response to the assault on Ukraine, there is no indication that Moscow’s military timetables are being thrown off.
The contours of a fast-moving battle are emergent, if not fully clear. Though extensive footage of the Kremlin’s air offensive has leaked out, details of its ground component are scanty.
Nascent indications are that armored columns are striking deep into the country along three different axes, possibly with the aim of slicing Ukraine in half along a roughly north-south line.
News reports say that 60 Russian battalion groups have been identified. These units, of 800-1,000 men, are the equivalent of Western battle groups, fielding a flexible mix of infantry, armor, artillery and drones.
On Friday, the BBC reported Russian claims that 80 Ukrainian military facilities had been hit. The same source reported British intelligence saying that 450 of Moscow’s troops had been killed. Meanwhile, the UN estimates that 100,000 Ukrainians have already been displaced and are heading west.
TV news has been reporting Russian armored columns and airborne troops bearing down on Kiev, with the likely intent of storming or laying siege to the city. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is believed to be holding out in the capital.
In the face of this multi-dimensional blitzkrieg, it is unclear how long, or how fiercely, a lonely Ukraine can resist.
This uncertainly is particularly acute given that the shock and awe deployed by the Russian military in what President Vladimir Putin has called a “peacekeeping” operation has not been reciprocated with a similarly sharp-edged asymmetric response by the US and its allies, west or east.
How viable is Ukraine’s defense?
It is not known if the Kremlin’s aims include seizing Kiev, with a population of 2.8 million, or the key communications center of Kharkiv, with a population of 1.4 million. Kharkiv was the site of multiple battles during World War II.
It is tactically difficult to deploy high-tech, stand-off firepower in street combat, meaning that the Russian army, which retains dire memories of the carnage its armored forces incurred at close range during its storming of Grozny during the First Chechen War in 1994, could feasibly bypass, cut off and besiege both cities.
But if Russian forces storm Ukraine’s representative urban center and become embroiled in street combat, the tempo of the fighting will almost certainly rise and the casualties will soar. Wild cards are an implosion in Ukrainian resistance or the declaration of an open city.
An influx of bloody body bags will not be welcomed in Russia. More than 1,000 people in Moscow and over 400 in St Petersburg have reportedly been detained for demonstrating against the war.
But questions hover over the solidity of Ukraine’s defenses and the morale of its defenders.
Ukraine’s air-defense system appears to have been disabled by cyber strikes, ineffective against the Russian missile barrage, or both. While the main Russian targets appear to be military infrastructure, plentiful footage shows explosive damage to civilian homes.
TV news reports have covered the defiance of the defenders of an island off the Black Sea port of Odessa against a Russian warship, while a Russian heliborne assault on an airstrip outside Kiev has reportedly been repulsed and Ukrainian armor is deployed in the capital city.
But news has also reported a Ukrainian military jet that escaped the war by landing in Romania and Ukrainian troops have been captured on camera burning stacks of documents in Kiev.
While the government has imposed martial law and ordered males of military age to remain in-country, footage shows large numbers of young Ukrainian men of that age in the crowds seeking sanctuary across borders to the west.
Deep in the fog of war, Zelensky, widely seen as the likely target of a Russian “decapitation” attack, has sounded a somber but defiant note.
“Ukrainians have demonstrated real heroism,” he said in televised news comments, dressed in khaki. “Fierce fighting is going on.”
Zelensky also thanked Russian protesters for their actions, yet notes of frustration and dismay also crept into his address.
“The world’s most powerful forces are watching from afar … we are alone in defending our nation. Who is ready to fight with us?” the Ukrainian leader asked. “I don’t see anybody. Who is ready to give us a guarantee to join NATO? Everyone is afraid.”
Japan and South Korea sign on
Seoul and Tokyo, which both rely heavily for their security on bilateral alliances with the US, separately announced they were joining Australia, the EU, the UK and the US in placing sanctions on Moscow.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Friday announced a new package of sanctions including export controls on high-tech products such as semiconductors, a freeze on assets held by Russian financial institutions and a suspension of visa issuances for certain Russian individuals and entities, Kyodo News Agency reported from Tokyo.
The day prior, Japan had fired off its first sanction salvo against Russia, banning the trading of sovereign bonds issued by Russia and two breakaway, pro-Russian republics in the disputed Donbas region in Ukraine’s east.
“It is an extremely serious situation with ramifications for the international order, not just in Europe but Asia and beyond,” Kishida said. “Japan needs to show its resolve not to allow any change to the status quo by force.”
In an issue that dates back to the end of World War II, Japan is engaged in a long-term territorial dispute with Russia – albeit one that has not gone kinetic. It also has territorial disputes with South Korea and China.
The day prior, South Korean President Moon Jae-in had announced his nation would join global sanctions.
“Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence must be guaranteed,” Moon said, according to Yonhap news agency. “As a responsible member of the international community, [South Korea] expresses support for international efforts, including economic sanctions, aimed at curbing armed invasion and resolving the situation peacefully, and will take part in them.”
South Korean Trade Minister Yeo Han-koo, speaking to foreign reporters in Seoul on Friday, said specifics had not yet been agreed upon.
“Korea will join the international community in putting sanctions upon Russia against this inhumane act of violence and war,” Yeo said. “We are in the process of close consultation with our allies in designing our sanctions, so we are not in a position to explain in detail.”
Yeo made clear that the crisis would not have a major impact upon the lifeblood of the Korean economy – trade.
“Our exposure to Russia and Ukraine is 2.2% and 0.1%, respectively,” he said. He admitted that while Seoul was in consultations, “… we are not discussing any sanctions on energy products yet.”
Seoul, a net energy importer that is vulnerable to fluctuations in global prices of oil and gas, is not alone in being reluctant to hit energy exports – the cornerstone of the Russian economy.
A flailing response
US President Joe Biden and other leaders, including UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have stated clearly that NATO troops will not intervene militarily to assist alliance non-member Ukraine.
Given that constraint, the Western response was widely expected to be asymmetric.
The EU, UK and US have announced the freezing of Russian assets, the sanctioning of specific individuals and limiting trade. US moves include cutting off the supply of high-tech products including semiconductors and blocking major Russian banks from the US financial system.
But the application of these sanctions hardly appears likely to change the game on the ground in the short term, if at all. Russia has been strategizing sanctions resistance since 2014, when it seized Crimea and extended support to breakaway republics in Donbas.
Notably, the key pressure points in the Russian economy remain untouched.
These include exports of aluminum, a critical metal of which up to 4% of global supply is sourced from Russia. More notably, the buying and selling of oil and gas products of global top-three energy producer Russia have not been sanctioned by the US. And Russian financial institutions retain their access to the SWIFT global transactions system.
A failure to achieve sanctions consensus is becoming apparent.
Shoving Russia out of SWIFT “… is always an option, but is not a position that the rest of Europe wishes to take,” US President Joe Biden said in televised comments.
One military analyst who spoke to Asia Times said he was underwhelmed by the wider world’s pushback against Russia’s actions.
“The statements by Biden appear lackluster, the response has been sort of tepid and it is really odd that the US is not stopping Russia’s energy trade,” Alex Neill, a Singapore-based security expert, told Asia Times.
“You have a UN Security Council member, China, that says it does not believe in sanctions, so I am not convinced that these will totally isolate Russia.”
Neill admitted he was surprised by the scale of the Russian operation.
“It looks like Ukraine is being cut in half along the line of the Dniepr River, with Kiev at the northern end of it, to maybe create a buffer zone [for Russia] of the eastern portion of the country,” he said. “But it also looks like it could be a pincer movement to take over the whole place.”
And he warned the fighting could become far bloodier.
“It looks like Russia is using precision strikes initially,” he said while noting that the price and supply of such munitions could soon limit their use. “You have to look at how it attacked Syrian targets with dumb bombs.”