There is depressing news on the eastern front. Rumours abound that Avdiivka is about to fall. The International Legion (the foreign volunteer soldiers in Ukraine) have withdrawn from Avdiivka, and I am told that Avdiivka, held tenuously by the Ukrainian Armed Forces surrounded by Russian troops on three sides, came under over 600 artillery bombardments in the past 24 hours. Presumably the members of the International Legion have withdrawn for their own safety, leaving the remaining Ukrainian soldiers there to their fate. It’s all pretty grizzly, so I’m going to explain again why Avdiivka is so important in this war. I’m going to use a couple of maps, and here they are.
While these maps are not ideal - the second one, showing the front line in Donetsk Oblast is over a year old, but the front line has not really moved in Donetsk Oblast in that time - they give an approximate view of the situation. Avdiivka is essentially a suburb of Donetsk, which for all intents and purposes is the capital of the Russian-occupied region of Ukraine and has been since 2014. Avdiivka is a major railhead for Donetsk, and before the occupation in 2014 the greater majority of trains to and from Donetsk to the rest of Ukraine would go through Avdiivka. Now that Russia is trying to cement her control of occupied Ukrainian territory, she really needs control of military-grade railway lines to supply her armed forces as far west as the south bank of the Dnieper River opposite the city of Kherson, and as far south as Crimea; and the principal military-grade railway lines go through Avdiivka. That is why the conflict has been raging so heavily over Avdiivka not just recently but in fact intermittently since 2014. Avdiivka is critical for Russian logistics, and hence continued Ukrainian control of the town, now totally destroyed, is essential to frustrate Russian ambitions and to force them to build a new railway line to serve the occupied territories that they have apparently begun but it will take them years to complete even without sabotage attempts which are sure to take place.
There is only one road in and out of Avdiivka at the current time, and although you can barely see it on these maps the route is Avdiivka-Lastochkyne-Orlivka-Berdyche-Ocheretyne. A better road, the T0511, then runs west to the city of Myrnohrad. By all accounts the road in and out of Avdiivka is extremely dangerous and there is a high risk of shelling or other aerial attack for vehicles. I understand that all foreigners are excluded from travelling to Avdiivka at the current time, including foreign soldiers and members of the press corps, by reason of the very high danger and the propaganda value to the Russians of the deaths of foreigners in this area.
The reason the Russians are currently pounding Avdiivka may not be to take the suburb but to place pressure on the Ukrainian Armed Forces by reason of the bridgehead on the south / west bank of the Dnieper River to the west of Nova Kakhovka which the Ukrainian Armed Forces are using to try to drive a wedge through the Russian Armed Forces’ supply lines to Crimea and to the westernmost areas of occupied Ukrainian territory south of Kherson which the Russians evacuated in early November 2022. So a lot of the current exceptional winter military activity may have a “tit for tat” element to it.
On the advice of a friend and colleague, I’ve decided to rename Mano’s Bar Mos Eisley Space Port. The cast of hoary characters there is so extraordinary and bizarre that it seems appropriate. The live music on Sunday and Monday evenings even bears a passing resemblance to the music in the bar in Mos Eisley Space port, the infamous town in the original Star Wars movie described by Jedi Knight Obe Wan Kenobi in the following terms: “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.” That might be a bit strong to describe Mano’s Bar, but it is certainly packed with the most extraordinary collection of people and now I hear it has many reviews and it has been viewed 2,000 times on Google or one of these site viewing statistics I don’t really understand. On Sunday evening the band was playing a series of songs all of which seemed to have the same lyrics, namely “f@ck Putin”. These series of melodies was extremely popular and the whole long space swayed and swung to these simple rhythms and we all roared along with the lyrics. Mos Eisley turns out to be a small island of hope and pleasure and fun and defiance amidst all the doom and gloom of this crazy war. By the way, I have discovered that there’s also a Mano’s Bar in Magaluf, the Spanish beach resort on the Balearic island of Majorca notorious for British bad behaviour. Maybe I will visit it one day, and see how the two compare.
Do you ever feel lost in all the complexity of this modern technology? I certainly do. I know what’s possible, but I can’t quite work out how to do it myself. I’ve been fiddling around trying to get lipreading software to work out what Ukrainian President Zelenskiy and Hungarian President Orban were saying to one-another in the Argentine Senate on 10 December 2023, caught on camera. Mr Orban is threatening to veto moves to commence Ukraine’s accession process, and he maintains cordial relations with Mr Putin by all accounts, presumably because Russia is building a new set of light water nuclear reactors in Paks, about 100 kilometres south of Budapest. Hungary negotiated a specific carve-out from EU sanctions against Russia so that this project could continue, and last year I observed vessels laden with cargoes consistent with the construction of nuclear reactor facilities sail up the Danube at its confluence with the River Sava from a notorious Belgrade nightclub that was open until dawn, when the vessels would sail past. This is good old-fashioned intelligence collection: with a pair of binoculars and a zoom lens, beer in hand, half-dressed girls on drugs flopping around you in every direction. Those girls wouldn’t be out of place in Mos Eisley, although thank God drugs are one thing that hasn’t yet infected frozen Saigon. That’s one problem we don’t need in the middle of a war.
The best footage of the interaction between Zelenskiy and Orban appears here, courtesy of The Guardian newspaper’s very excellent website:
I know it’s possible to lipread conversations caught on CCTV, and of course governments can get access to all CCTV cameras, even privately installed ones, typically because the recordings they capture aren’t adequate encrypted. That’s why some people consider CCTV such an infringement of civil liberties, and why whenever I have my most sensitive conversations in Mos Eisley I turn to look at the lavatory at the end of the bar. The CCTV camera is just above the door, in case you hadn’t noticed. Nevertheless I have never actually seen lipreading software at work. The best commercially available product - and commercial products are typically up to speed with whatever governments are using - is called SRAVI, but apparently it only works from a mobile phone. I’m going to keep fiddling around with it to try to assess what Presidents Zelenskiy and Orban were actually saying to one another, because President Zelenskiy’s official account of their discussion was rather vague. However if anyone else with superior IT skills to me can get this to work, I would love to hear from you. I think we all would.
The best news in an otherwise depressing time is that the IMF has unbuckled US$900 million in structural adjustment funds to keep the Ukrainian economy afloat while the US Congress continues to negotiate improved border security in exchange for the Ukrainian continued financial assistance package being passed in the Senate. This no doubt took place on the personal request of US President Biden to the Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva, herself Bulgarian and who is well aware of the threats of Russian imperialism as her own country suffered from it. Bulgaria is a member of NATO and like all countries bordering the former Soviet Union, Bulgarians are watching events anxiously in Ukraine. They all know that Ukraine cannot fall or the Russian threat to Eastern Europe will be unrelenting and then NATO will be engaged to defend a swathe of its member states. It is far better that Russian imperial aggression is stopped now, in Ukraine, than that it is permitted to continue whereupon the costs of resisting it will become existentially higher. I think everyone in the US Congress, and Mr Orban, understand that, which is why I remain relatively hopeful that a political consensus to provide maximum financial and military support to Ukraine will prevail.