With a tight-fitting executioner that only exposes his nose and eyes and a rifle on his shoulder, officer Sergei points to a modest building riddled with holes by bombing: “Do you come to our house and expect us to thank you? We made them pay and we will continue to do so,” he says. “This is our land.” In the first week of March, Russian tanks and armored vehicles entered Kulbakino, a small town next to Mikolaiv (in the south of the country), a city known for its shipyards that has become one of the symbols of the Ukrainian resistance against the Kremlin forces. Vladimir Putin’s soldiers, with their gloomy white Z’s painted on their armored vehicles, had already taken Kherson, on the Black Sea, which has been their biggest capture, and were advancing on the southern flank, longing to reach Odessa, the main port of Ukraine. In a first attack, they managed to control the Kulbakino military airfield, a factory and some strategic parts of the small town. The fighting was fierce, but in a fierce counteroffensive, the Ukrainian troops eliminated most of the Russian battalion and drove back the Kremlin forces.
Even on the southern front, where they were making their greatest advances, Putin’s forces are not only bogged down a month after launching the invasion, they are running into stiff resistance from troops that President Vladimir Putin underestimated and is forcing them to to go back on some points. In the Kulbakino factory where the Russian soldiers became strong there are still remains of the bloody battle. The Ukrainian Army is still cleaning it up. The “landscape,” notes the officer Sergei with a shrug, “is not pleasing to the eye.” The kyiv troops neutralized “90%” of the “between 250 and 300” uniformed Kremlin soldiers who launched the operation against Kulbakino and also managed to capture a string of cannons and some charred armor. “Now they are ours,” says Sergei as he shows a video recorded after the combat that shows the weapons, the scorched earth and the remains of the battle.
On Friday, amid a lack of substantial progress in the conquest, with significant losses of weapons and personnel and enormous difficulties in managing the population in the conquered cities and maintaining its gains, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that it had fulfilled the objectives of the “first stage of the operation” and that it would focus on securing the Donbas area, where the war between the troops of kyiv and the pro-Russian separatists supported and controlled by Moscow and who are serving as a screen has been waged for eight years for the conflict that began on February 24.
That statement allows the Kremlin to maintain the oft-repeated rhetoric to its audience that everything is going according to plan, and may suggest that Putin is recalibrating his intentions in Ukraine. However, in a scenario flooded from the beginning with statements contrary to reality by the Russian authorities – the announcement of the withdrawal of troops at the beginning of February, that they had no intention of invading Ukraine – which have already shown their taste for distracting maneuvers for its tactical operations, the announcement sows serious doubts. Moscow also assured that although “it does not exclude” that its forces assault the main Ukrainian cities – such as kyiv, Kharkov, Chernigov or Mikolaiv – taking them was not the main objective.
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And in yet another contradiction, the Kremlin once again waved on Saturday the threat of the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Former President Dmitri Medvedev, who now holds the vice presidency of the Russian Security Council, assured that the Eurasian country “has the right” to use nuclear weapons against a state that “endangers the existence” of Russia, even if that state has used weapons conventional.
In addition, after the announcement that they would focus on the Donbas region in the east, Russian forces have continued to forcefully punish Chernigov, in the northeast of the country, very close to the border with Belarus and a city now practically surrounded after that Putin’s troops bombed the bridge through which a trapped and terrified citizenry was leaving the city; especially after an attack on a bread queue killed 10 people last week. Also Járkov, the second city of the country, where they have continued with their attacks on residential areas. On Saturday, in another order, Moscow launched missiles against the surroundings of Lviv, in the west of the country, a city that serves as an escape to Poland for refugees. An attack, moreover, on the day that US President Joe Biden was visiting Warsaw.
The US president commented on Saturday that the Russian announcement is not to be believed. Western espionage services also doubt Putin’s true intentions. And kyiv has reacted with great skepticism. Mijailo Podoliak, adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky and one of the main negotiators in the talks with Moscow, warns that the Kremlin has not abandoned its true intentions of taking large cities, on which it is applying bloody and attrition attacks due to the lack of achievements. “They will take advantage of the announcement to regroup,” says Podoliak. An intelligence official from a Central European country, who speaks on condition of anonymity, believes that the announcement is a tactical maneuver that Moscow will take advantage of to rearm, analyze its positions and interests and prepare a second phase of the conflict. Meanwhile, Putin needs something to sell as a victory between now and May 9, when the day of the Red Army’s Victory over Nazi Germany is commemorated and the day that is unofficially the Russian national holiday, with a huge military parade on the Red square of moscu.
The creation of a land corridor between Crimea – which Russia invaded and illegally annexed in 2014 – and the Donbas territories that it controls through pro-Russian separatists, added to the conquest of Mariupol, the port city reduced to rubble by attacks and which has become a symbol of civil suffering, could bring him that victory. With an added ingredient: the town, which is in the southern area of Donbas, is the main headquarters of the Azov Battalion, founded in 2014 by ultra-nationalist volunteers (now recycled and converted into another arm of the Ukrainian National Guard). This, faced with the reality of a city almost wiped out to the ground, with indiscriminate attacks on civilians, schools, hospitals, shelters, bread queues, could marry his adulterated rhetoric about his “denazification” and liberation operation.
An in-depth report by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War also warns that Russia’s announcement is actually aimed at Russian citizens. It is “likely an attempt to gloss over the Russian military’s failures for a national audience and focus attention on the only part of the scenario where Russian troops are making any progress at this point,” they note. For now, the main Russian achievements have been in some areas of the east and south. The Ukrainian military warned on Saturday that Kremlin forces are regrouping for what could be a new offensive in the Lugansk region, where they have been attacking residential buildings and food warehouses.
With the new moves, the Kremlin may try to surround the Ukrainian forces deployed on the front line of Donbas – already highly militarized by the eight years of war and which kyiv reinforced a couple of days before the invasion for fear that the attacks came from there, which revealed other areas—from the north and from the south.
The Kremlin has managed to gain control of the Sea of Azov and, in the absence of the total subjugation of Mariupol, where thousands of people are still trapped under bombs in a catastrophic situation, it has also created the long-awaited land corridor. However, despite the initial victory on that flank, the advance along the Black Sea coast has been complicated for Putin. After the Battle of Kulbakino and other strategic battles in surrounding cities, Ukrainian troops are already fighting the Russians in Kherson, the only occupied regional capital. With the Ukrainian counteroffensive in full swing, the Pentagon considers Kherson to be “disputed territory.”
With the forced withdrawal of Russian troops, a relative calm has come to Mikolaiv, a city that has become a shield for Odessa and has paid a very high human cost for its resistance. On Friday, President Zelensky named it a heroic city, a Soviet-era accolade for cities that resisted Nazism and that the Ukrainian leader has rescued in this war.
As they fell back and seeing that they were losing control of the town, Russian soldiers shelled four humble apartment buildings in Kulbakino. There, Mijaíl fears that this relative calm – shelling can be heard in the distance – will not last. He has filled his shabby Lada car and is going to the dacha (country house) with his wife. He says that he was lucky: one of the attacks was directed at his building, but the bombs fell on another portal. The fourth and fifth floor apartments are littered with rubble and rubble. There were no deaths. Its inhabitants were in the shelter during the bombardment. A deep, dark and humid shelter in which Galina and Ludmila, 63, have been sleeping since the beginning of the invasion: 30 nights on a mattress.
Mikolaiv remains a priority target for the Kremlin and remains within range of Russian artillery. On Monday, a bombardment aimed at the Administration building ended up hitting a hotel. Another, in a psychiatric hospital that was under renovation and against a few houses next to the health center. It was noon and Valentina was sitting up in bed peeling potatoes for lunch when she felt the huge explosion that shattered the windows below her in a single room and took a piece of the ceiling with it. She still shakes like a pudding when she remembers the rumble. Her husband, Boris, who at 69 still works as a builder to complete the meager pension of 180 euros a month, puts his head in his hands. “And meanwhile, Putin’s fascist in his bunker.” Valentina corrects him: “Putler [una adaptación del nombre del líder ruso y el de Adolf Hiltler]now we call him Putler.”
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