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Russian forces are close to seizing total control of Luhansk Oblast while Ukrainian sources warn that their troops in the Donbas are outgunned and taking heavy casualties. Here’s everything you need to know:
Was Ukraine expected to hold out for this long in the east?
In the weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the Biden administration warned that Russian forces could capture the capital city of Kyiv within 72 hours, topple the Ukrainian government, and install a puppet regime, setting the stage for a long, bloody insurgency.
Instead, Ukraine stood its ground and bloodied the bully’s nose. Russia made gains in the south and east, capturing Kherson and quickly encircling Mariupol, but the invaders’ setbacks more than outweighed their victories. By early April, Russian forces had been forced to withdraw from around Kyiv. The objective shifted from regime change to capturing the Donbas, in the east. And even that hasn’t gone particularly well. My mid-May, a Ukrainian counteroffensive had pushed Russian troops back from the northern city of Kharkiv.
By the end of May, after failing to achieve a major encirclement in the east, Russia had compromised even further. The invaders are now directing most of their resources toward completing Russia’s conquest of Luhansk, one of the two oblasts that make up the Donbas region, by capturing the city of Sievierodonetsk.
How has the West’s outlook on the war changed?
As Russian ambitions narrowed, confidence in the Ukrainian military soared. Charles Lipson, writing for The Spectator World near the beginning of May, argued that Ukraine “could very well win back most of the territory Russia has occupied since 2014.” Russian forces were low on morale, Ukrainian forces had proven their tactical superiority, and heavy weapons from abroad would soon narrow the firepower gap between the two countries and enable Ukraine to go on the offensive, Lipson claimed.
Other outlets, however, have since offered a more sober appraisal of the situation. The New York Times editorial board wrote in mid-May that a clear victory in which Ukraine reclaims Crimea and the separatist republics is “not a realistic goal.” Despite all the blunders, the board explained, “Russia remains too strong, and [Vladimir] Putin has invested too much personal prestige in the invasion to back down.” A “negotiated peace,” the board admitted, “may require Ukraine to make some hard decisions.”
President Biden concurred earlier this month when he refused to rule out a negotiated settlement that would require Ukraine to cede territory to Russia. French President Emmanuel Macron went so far as to say that any peace deal must be crafted so as not to “humiliate” Russia.
John Ganz wrote on Substack Saturday that “no public intellectual of stature still demands a decisive Russian defeat.” Such a defeat, some analysts warn, could dangerously destabilize Russia or even push President Putin to order the use of nuclear weapons.
Why has there been such a shift in tone?
One reason for this increasingly bleak assessment of Ukraine’s chances is that Russia has an overwhelming advantage when it comes to artillery. “The euphoria that accompanied Ukraine’s unforeseen early victories against bumbling Russian troops is fading as Moscow adapts its tactics, recovers its stride, and asserts its overwhelming firepower,” The Washington Post reported Friday.
Writing for Post on Monday, Max Boot noted that Ukrainian forces are “able to fire only 5,000 to 6,000 artillery rounds a day, compared with 50,000 rounds a day from the Russians.” U.S. officials raised the alarm about Ukraine’s deficient supply of artillery shells as early as mid-April, but despite these warnings, Ukrainian forces are still expending rounds much faster than they can be replenished.
In the open terrain of the Donbas, superior firepower offers Russia a greater advantage than it did in the dense, urban environs of Kyiv. During their approach to Sievierodonetsk, for example, Russian forces didn’t so much assault the city of Rubizhne as raze it to the ground, hitting it with as many as 1,500 artillery rounds per day, according to BBC’s Quentin Sommerville.
Ukraine simply can’t keep up. Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said Wednesday that Ukrainian forces defending Sievierodonetsk might be forced to pull back, while the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War assessed that Ukraine’s high command has likely decided to allow Sievierodonetsk to fall.
Ukraine is nearly out of ammunition for the Soviet-era artillery pieces that made up most of its arsenal, and its Eastern European supporters are running low on surplus shells, said Ukrainian defense adviser Oleksandr Danylyuk, adding that Western guns aren’t arriving fast enough to compensate. “We cannot afford to see Donbas lost for want of artillery shells,” Boot wrote. The 108 howitzers and 220,000 artillery rounds the U.S. had provided so far, he argued, are woefully insufficient. Boot also called for the U.S. to send Ukraine top-of-the-line warplanes and American pilots to fly them — a serious escalation.
But even as Ukrainians and American hawks clamor for more military aid, Andrew Exum warns in The Atlantic that U.S. support for Ukraine is already on the wane. “In the coming months, relations between the Ukrainian leadership and its external supporters will grow strained, and the culprit will be economic pain exacerbated by the war,” he predicted earlier this month.
What are casualties like for Ukraine compared to Russia?
Oleksiy Arestovych, a military adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said Saturday that approximately 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers have died since the invasion began. He also said that between 200 and 300 troops were dying every day — suggesting that the daily number of dead and wounded combined is around 1,000 — a significantly higher casualty rate than Ukraine experienced in the early months of the invasion. By the time Russia attacked, around 4,500 Ukrainian servicemen had already been killed in the conflict against the Donbas separatists, which had been raging since 2014
Russian losses are almost certainly far higher. Figures briefly published in a pro-Kremlin tabloid suggested Russia hit 10,000 military deaths in late March, and could have risen as high as 20,000 by mid-June. But Russia also has far more troops to spare and has “regenerated its forces to a greater extent than anticipated,” the Post reported, citing Danylyuk.
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Russia is making slow, bloody progress in its campaign to capture Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. But Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine was not popular in the country, and even many previously pro-Kremlin Ukrainians are outraged to see Russian forces and their allies flatten entire cities and commit war crimes against other Ukrainians.
In the areas of Ukraine that Russia has captured, violent and nonviolent resistance has blossomed. Here’s what you need to know about Ukraine’s partisan resistance and their guerrilla insurgency:
What is the resistance trying to accomplish?
Ukrainian partisans fill several roles, “from helping direct attacks on enemy forces in coordination with the Ukrainian military to posting leaflets on street corners to demoralize the occupiers,” The New York Times reports. “They can be men pushing potato carts, or farmers, or a grandmother with a cellphone,” along with the former soldiers you might more readily imagine as partisans, but their goal is always the same: “to make sure the enemy never feels safe.”
“The idea is for the occupier to always feel the presence of the partisans and for them never to feel safe,” Serhii Kuzan, head of the Ukrainian Center for Security and Cooperation think tank, tells The Guardian. “Recently, the partisan forces in Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions carried out a coordinated sticker and flyer campaign against the so-called Russian world.”
The support of the scouts, especially, can also “prove crucial, both in southern Ukraine where Russia has captured territory, and in the east where Ukraine finds itself outgunned and fighting to hold onto its land,” the Times adds.
Where is the resistance active?
Melitopol, a strategic railway hub in Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhzhia oblast that Russia captured on its third day of invasion, “is the unofficial capital of Ukraine’s resistance,” and has been since mid-March, The Economist reports. “But it is far from the only place that has seen such operations.” Resistance has spread throughout the Russian-occupied territories.
“In neighboring Kherson, a Russian-controlled airbase has been blown up nearly two dozen times,” The Economist elaborates. “In Enerhodar, Andrii Shevchyk, the collaborationist mayor, was the target of an unsuccessful assassination attempt. In Izyum, hungry Russian soldiers were purportedly given spiked pies by a seemingly friendly old lady, according to a telephone conversation between a Russian soldier and his girlfriend that was intercepted by Ukrainian intelligence; eight of them reportedly ended up dead.”
Have the partisans had any other successes?
Reports of new guerrilla attacks come in daily — a trash can bomb exploded near the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Melitopol on Sunday, for example, injuring four, separatist officials said. And late last week, partisan scouts discovered two Russian military outposts in Kherson region and passed the coordinates on to a nearby Ukrainian artillery unit, which “pulverized” one base, killing about 200 fighters based on observed body bags, then hit a resort complex near the mouth of the Dnipro River, “killing dozens of enemy soldiers, including two generals,” the Times reports, citing senior Ukrainian officials.
And when it comes to the main goal of the resistance, “it’s likely that Ukrainian partisan activity has affected the morale of Russian soldiers, close to 200 of whom have been victims of fatal knifings and shootings,” Alexander Motyl, a historian and Ukraine expert at Rutgers who compiles reports of partisan attacks, writes in the journal 1945. “It’s also likely that several assassinations of pro-Russian Ukrainian civilians have dampened the spirits of actual and potential collaborators.”
Still, “the real impact of the partisan movement will be felt if it spreads to most of southern Ukraine, intensifies its efforts, and — most important — coordinates its activities with the counteroffensive the Ukrainian armed forces, bolstered by deliveries of western heavy weaponry, are expected to launch in late July or August,” Moytl writes. “The Ukrainians expect their counter-offensive to be successful,” and “if the guerrillas can strike the Russian lines from behind, while the army attacks from the front, the effect could be tantamount to an encirclement of the Russian armed forces.”
Why don’t these attacks get more attention?
“The subject is one of the murkiest of the war in Ukraine,” The Guardian reports. “Both sides have an interest in exaggerating its prevalence: the Russians to justify crackdowns in areas they occupy and the Ukrainians to demoralize Russian troops.” But Russia has also tried to downplay the strikes on its military forces. And it is difficult or impossible for Western news organizations to verify attacks by clandestine partisans behind Russian lines.
How big is the partisan resistance?
As might be expected with clandestine resistance, “the exact shape and size of the insurgency in southern Ukraine is unclear,” the Times reports. “Also complicating the issue is assessing the extent to which attacks are being carried out by Ukrainian military sabotage groups or homegrown resistance groups,” The Guardian adds.
But Ukrainian officials and outside analysts say the insurgency is growing. “It is, of course, possible that Ukrainian special forces may have been involved in some of these actions; it is also likely that the data are incomplete,” Moytl writes. “Even so, the number of guerrilla actions is impressive and bespeaks a trend toward ever-greater partisan activity.”
As Russia ramps up “abductions” of civilians to counter the insurgency, loots houses and businesses, and imposes other instruments of occupation on locals, “even those citizens who had a neutral attitude to the invaders in the beginning are starting to show dissatisfaction with the Russian occupation,” Dmytro Orlov, the Ukrainian-recognized mayor of Enerhodar, wrote on Telegram.
And adding to grievances in occupied Ukraine, “Russia seems to be looking to Donetsk and Luhansk conscripts to make up for some of its own personnel limitations,” the Financial Times reports, “with residents saying men with no military experience are regularly plucked from the streets and immediately sent to the front. The escalation, and rising casualty rates, have begun to spark anger even among pro-Russian communities.”
Is the resistance organized?
Yes, it is coordinated by a unit of the Ukrainian armed forces called the Special Operations Forces (SSO), The Economist reports, citing a former operative in the unit. “The division was formed in 2015 after attempts at partisan activity failed disastrously in the early stages of the war in the Donbas,” and “the work is split into three parts: military action, support operations, and psychological warfare.”
“Say the task is to stop the enemy from moving more reserves to Melitopol,” the former operative explains. “The SSO assigns special forces the task of blowing up a bridge, it asks partisans to damage the railway, and it gets psy-ops to print leaflets to say we’re on the watch. So in the end, only half the troops dare to come.”
Vladimir Zhemchugov, a trainer and former partisan organizer in Luhansk in 2014 and 2015, tells The Economist the current resistance is a mix of professional soldiers and volunteers, “60-40, in that order,” with secret arms dumps, safe houses, and potential sympathizers sprinkled across Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities set up the bones of the insurgency in the hectic months before Russia’s invasion, but some officials flipped sides, he added. “The security services and police proved to be our weakest link.”
How has Russia responded?
Soon after the invasion, “Russia’s security services appear to have got their hands on secret military databases,” The Economist reports. “In Kherson, Russian officers are visiting the homes of Ukrainians who served in the army. Those who haven’t managed to switch addresses are detained, beaten, tortured, or worse.”
And “amid continuing attacks by insurgents, witnesses have described increasingly draconian efforts to find possible rebels,” the Times adds. “All traffic in and out of Kherson to Ukrainian-controlled land is now closed, and those who do move around can face a maze of checkpoints, with occupation forces checking cellphones for hints of pro-Ukrainian sympathies.”
“Naturally, the Russian authorities will try to crack down on and neutralize the guerrillas,” writes Motyl, the Rutgers historian. But “inasmuch as the local populations are almost uniformly supportive of the Ukrainian resistance movement, the authorities are unlikely to succeed, certainly in the short term. In any case, whether successful or not, a crackdown will divert needed resources from the front to the rear, thereby aiding the Ukrainian war effort.”
As Russia uses partisan attacks to justify their crackdowns, though, Ukraine’s armed forces have “warned that Russian forces were preparing for a series of false-flag attacks in occupied regions on Russia Day, likely to accuse Ukrainian forces of conducting attacks against civilians, harm public perception of Ukrainian partisan activity, and galvanize pro-Russian sentiments,” the Institute for the Study of War wrote Sunday.
How is Ukraine’s government trying to help?
Along with any covert organizing by the SSO, Ukraine’s government has set up a Center of National Resistance website that gives restive citizens in occupied territory instructions on how to wage guerrilla warfare, including setting up ambushes and how to react if arrested by pro-Russian forces. “In order to become an invisible avenger whom the occupiers will fear, it is necessary to know tactics, medicine, internet security, homemade weapons, and nonviolent actions,” the site says. One example of what you might learn, the Times notes, is how to hot-wire a Soviet-era tank or other armored vehicle, step by step.