Ukraine update: Zelenskyy visits Bucha; Russian military continues to withdraw northern forces

Ukraine update: Zelenskyy visits Bucha; Russian military continues to withdraw northern forces

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Bucha and Irpin today; Russia retreated from both cities in the face of Ukrainian counterattacks but left behind evidence of horrific war crimes perpetrated during their scant few weeks of occupation. The bodies of civilians are still being collected, some of them with their hands bound behind their backs. The condition of many of the bodies indicates they were killed not in the initial battles for the city, but in the days before Russian troops fled northward.

Again pointedly calling Russian actions war crimes, President Biden has vowed additional sanctions against Russia. The European Union is forming a Joint Investigation Team with Ukraine, sending investigators to assist in collecting evidence. The United States will ask the United Nations to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, a move that appears to have a high chance of succeeding.

Nations that share a border with Russia or Belarus have been particularly aggressive in their calls for further Russian isolation, and Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are now planning to close their Russian and Belarusian borders entirely, further blockading Russia’s access to Europe. Lithuania has announced a downgrading of diplomatic status with Russia, recalling their ambassador and expelling Russia’s. Germany has not gone that far, but is expelling 40 Russian diplomats in response to the Bucha revelations.

Russia’s next moves on the battlefield remain unclear. There are reports of Russian military forces leaving Belarus entirely, with large numbers of troops also leaving the area around Sumy. The most likely Russian strategy will be to move those forces to eastern Ukraine in an attempt to seize as much land as possible, with additional reinforcements sent to the south in an attempt to keep access to land captured between Donbas and Crimea. But that presumes the forces being withdrawn are capable of being redeployed—and only a fraction likely will be.

Ukraine, too, will be free to reposition forces that had been repelling northern Russian attacks. And Ukrainian forces have proved superior to Russian military units throughout the war.

It is somewhat remarkable that Russian military leaders were able to convince Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin to abandon the plan to take Kyiv—not because the plan still had any chance of succeeding, but because Putin is of the murderous mold that responds to failures by arresting or killing perceived critics. The moves frees Russian forces to accomplish the far less implausible goal of annexing large swaths of eastern Ukraine, rather than attempting to subdue the entire country, but the incompetence of Russian military leaders combined with Russian war crimes and the leveling of cities they claim to be subjugating will only make Ukrainian towns even more determined to resist.

The next phase of the war is almost certain to be far more bloody than the current phase. We have seen that Russian forces are effective mostly in terrorizing and murdering unarmed foes; now that their goals have seemingly been reduced to seizing smaller bits of territory, Russian commanders might be even less circumspect about erasing any civilians who appear to be unenthusiastic about their arrival.

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