September 26, 2022

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Researcher Olivier Kempf answers your questions about the war in Ukraine

Six months after the start of the war in Ukraine, a resolution to the conflict is still far from over. The rapid advance of Russian troops in the first weeks has led to a stalemate, and the expected Ukrainian counteroffensive has been slow to materialize.

>> War in Ukraine: Follow our lives six months into the conflict

Where are the conflicts on the ground? How might the conflict develop in the coming months? What are the ways to recover from the crisis? asked franceinfo readers Olivier Kempf, director of strategy firm La Vigie and associate researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research. Here are his answers.

About the situation ahead

@cyclo_ecolo: Currently, what percentage of the Donbas region is controlled by separatists and the Russian military? Is this lead stalled or is one side winning?

Oliver Kemp: The Russians captured 100% of Luhansk Oblast and 66-68% of Donetsk Oblast. This lead has been stalled for nearly three weeks. Since the fall of Severodonetsk and Lyssychansk there has been very little development. Regional gains have been very weak and have been concentrated around Bakumud or at the level of the Donetsk suburbs. There were some very weak Russian advances, a few villages at most.

@Maximouton: What do you think of the concept of “itching strategy” used by some experts to describe Ukraine’s action, especially in the Kherson region? Is this a suitable concept for you? Is there any chance of success?

Oliver Kemp: The “erosion strategy” is ultimately the Ukrainian version of the Ukrainian war: it consists of pressing fire on the first line of contact, but above all trying to break the entire Russian supply line: depots (fuel, ammunition, equipment), command posts and logistics axes, especially bridges. This is particularly relevant in the Kherson region: the right bank of the Dnieper is connected to the left bank only by two bridges that Ukraine bombards. This hampers Russian efforts in this area.

This maneuver started five or six weeks ago. There has been a lot of talk about a Ukrainian counter-offensive towards Kherson, but so far it has been about strikes aimed at weakening the Russian logistical apparatus, and preparations could be made here to launch this offensive maneuver for a few weeks.

@Marie: Is the threat surrounding the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant real? After the direct effects of Chernobyl, Mr. Is it really reasonable to think that Putin or another warlord would go that far? Aren’t we in the process of disinformation and nuclear threats like during the Cold War?

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Oliver Kemp: As for the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, it is a civilian nuclear power plant, not a military nuclear power plant. Therefore, there is a risk of an incident like what happened at Chernobyl or a civilian radiological accident. If the heart of a nuclear reactor appears to be highly protected, all the equipment and accessories that run the plant are less so: this can cause catastrophic failures.

At the junction between Ukrainian territories controlled by Russians and those controlled by Kyiv, the plant is on the front lines, so there is an obvious danger. The Russians apparently stationed themselves inside central munitions and material depots, thinking these depots would not be attacked by Ukraine. Bombs hit the plant, and the Russians and Ukrainians blame each other. The issue turned political and entered the realm of international diplomacy. The Russians have more or less entered into these negotiations. In conclusion, there is a radioactive hazard that seems to be under control despite everything.

Ukraine’s electricity supply is also a challenge. Saporigia Power Station supplied a quarter of the country’s electricity before the war. I don’t know if it’s disconnected, but it’s a major source of electricity for the now Russian-controlled Ukraine. This is one of the basic problems of this plant.

Regarding the present state of the army

@Jean “Polo” says: Do the Russians still have a lot of weapons in stock, and for how long, at the rate they use them? Do they have the means to manufacture them according to their needs?

Oliver Kemp: The Russians have scrapped a lot of old weapons, old guns and old tanks from the Soviet Union, giving it a depth of resources. Of course, these are old and inaccurate weapons, but they allow the Russians to animate the front and take offensive artillery action. There were also ammunition stocks, the production plants of which were mostly located in Russia. As for mass munitions that are not technologically advanced, the Russians may have the ability to produce them over time.

The question, then, is where they move forward. Ukraine attacked Russian ammunition depots along western lines and succeeded in reducing Russian fire pressure. But Moscow has the means to maintain persistence and adequate pressure along the entire front. So we rebalanced the two forces.

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@Karine: Do we know anything about the number of Russian deaths in this conflict? How do Russians feel about it?

Oliver Kemp: The data from the Russian Ministry of Defense is very weak: they will officially say that less than 10,000 people died. Western estimates put 15,000, 20,000 Russian soldiers dead. There could be at least tens of thousands of deaths, but we have to be careful because this is not based on objective data.

How does Russian society accept this? We have some traces, but we don’t have as many echoes of the movements of mothers of Russian soldiers as there were during other conflicts. Russia largely controls information: dissenting voices do not appear in the mass media.

@Tintin: Do you know how much total US military aid has been given to Ukraine since the conflict began?

Oliver Kemp: It is very difficult to give an exact figure, especially since there is a difference between declarations and actual transfers. All European and North American countries first provided equipment of different types and quality and then paid. They also welcomed Ukrainian refugees. There is also less visible but important assistance to Ukrainian fighters, such as training and education to handle or more generally handle the material sent to them. Finally, support is based on intelligence, battlefield surveillance, and Internet and satellite support.

on the evolution of the conflict in the coming months

@M: As winter approaches, will Russia be in a strong position?

Oliver Kemp: From this fall, prevent bad weather maneuvers, know that there are already not many movements in the summer, and they will freeze even more in the winter. It may be necessary to wait for the end of the bank before reviewing the movements. Both parties will take advantage of this to reorganize their forces: manpower and military, tested in quantity and quality, with weapons and ammunition. They will think of new tactics, new staffs and command structures. Russians will rely on themselves, Ukrainians will rely on Western help.

So we’re moving towards a frozen conflict, but a frozen conflict won’t be a conflict: there will be gunfights, artillery barrages. There will still be dead and wounded, but probably fewer in number than we’ve seen in the last six months. This represents a situation comparable to what we experienced between 2015 and 2022 in the Donbass.

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@CBO78: What would be “acceptable” exit doors to end Vladimir Putin’s offensive? Victory for Donbass? Total control of Ukrainian waters? Falling power at Q? Objectives become very blurry (until they were clear…)

Oliver Kemp: Vladimir Putin first wanted to cut power in Kiev. He did not succeed. He wanted to control a large part of Ukraine, but he only controlled a part of it. The goal of controlling Luhansk region has been achieved, but not yet in Donetsk region. It also does not include parts of Kherson province. Vladimir Putin would probably like to go all the way to Odessa, but he doesn’t seem to have the means. He probably won’t declare because it seems unattainable.

That is, Moscow needs to present a positive balance sheet for its operation, and compared to the initial objectives, this is not really the case. Nevertheless, the Kremlin has gone too far to turn back. It is inconceivable that Moscow would agree to return what was taken on the scale of Kherson and Zaporizhya, and it would push for more. So the situation is very constrained.

@Philippe: Did the Ukrainian people declare in their presidential speech that they are ready to do anything to defend their country? Are there any signs of fatigue?

Oliver Kemp: For Ukraine, this is an all-out, existential war. President Volodymyr Zelensky is in a very awkward position because he has three objectives at once: first, the success of military operations; Then, to maintain the sacred fire of the population, and at the same time, to maintain the flame of Western interest, because it allows Ukraine to seize. He must do these three things at once, which explains his text: “We will fight until we win”. This, on the ground, seems difficult.

As for the Ukrainian population, it consists of six to seven million internally displaced persons and six to seven million refugees. In other words, between a third and 40% of the Ukrainian population is homeless. It is the most affected community by war. So far, she’s stuck together and shows no sign of fatigue. However, winter is coming. This support is present, but it may be weak.