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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #336

I knew there was something bad going on today as I was served up giant bowls of soup from an enormous cauldron of borscht, all filled with dollops of smetana (a sort of light cream) and served with cold cheesy bread. As the group of old ladies sat round stripping, cleaning and chopping French onions, I felt like a sore thumb. I am useless at French onions. I tried my best at it, but I’m just no good at them and I left after a couple of hours. Actually I am so bad that my efforts were deemed to fall below the standards of a control that might take place at any moment, because I can’t chop them small enough and I can’t do it on autopilot. I like my manual labour to be done on and French onions are too fiddly for that. So I left having achieved not very much, taking Friday afternoon off to attend to miscellaneous paperwork and survey the increasingly grim and horrific news.

It is not just that Alexei Navalny, Russia’s western-supported opposition leader, has been murdered in the Polar Wolf penal colony IK-3 in Kharp, a small settlement in the Yamalo-Nenets region of Russia well north of the Arctic Circle. This was the site of Stalin’s Gulag Number 501, a notorious gulag prison from which very few people ever emerged alive. Mr Navalny seems to have fallen into this tradition, dying from falling over while going for a walk this morning. Presumably he was just casually beaten to death by a prison guard. Mr Navalny was serving an inordinate prison sentence after having been poisoned with nerve agent and then permitted to leave the country for hospital treatment in Germany. Instead of claiming asylum in the West, as a known western agent he returned to Russia and that inevitably meant that he was going to die. He must have known this when he flew back to Russia after recovering from his nerve toxin poisoning; in returning to Russia he was signing his own death warrant. There can be no doubt that after all the obtuse and obscure Russian legal procedures that led to Navalny’s transfer to penal colony IK-3, he was personally murdered on Mr Putin’s orders. That’s how it goes in Russia. Mr Putin is making an example to the world: if your security and intelligence services fund democracy activists in Russia, I will murder them. And Mr Navalny has been murdered, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

In other grim and ghastly news, the western Donetsk suburb of Avdiivka is about to fall. This Ukrainian hold-out, just seven kilometres from Donetsk city centre, has been bravely held by the Ukrainian Armed Forces for the past decade since Russian-backed separatists overran Donetsk in March 2014 and it is a miracle that the Ukrainians have held it for as long as they did but by all accounts the situation in recent weeks was becoming increasingly dire, with a typical mortality survival rate of two days for any soldier posted there. First the International Legion (the foreign soldiers serving with the Ukrainian Armed Forces) withdrew, in early December; then domestic troops started withdrawing from city centre positions because Russian artillery was incoming from three out of four sides. Now we learn of further tactical withdrawals from the forest positions surrounding Avdiivka which means that the Ukrainian Armed Forces cannot even rely upon the cover afforded by the forests to shield themselves sufficiently from the relentless Russian onslaught.

What has changed in recent weeks and months in comparison to the last ten years in which Ukrainian troops have managed to hold onto Avdiivka? In large part it has been a slow process of strangulation of the Avdiivka enclave, reducing the road in and out to free Ukrainian territory to a single corridor of light rural roads heading west and north. This corridor itself became extremely dangerous to drive, the roads also being of the most primitive kinds within the basic network of Ukrainian rural roads and vehicles using these roads to supply the Avdiivka enclave inevitably took a heavy toll. By contrast Russia was constantly fortifying the logistics and supply chain positions in western Donetsk suburbs and through attrition the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ threats to those suburbs were being undermined, enabling western Donetsk ever increasingly to represent an armed camp. While at one point the concentration of Ukrainian troops and heavy armour in Avdiivka was significant, the Russians simply overcame it in numbers and firepower gradually over a period of time. The net result is that western Donetsk city is heavily fortified by the Russians who after all have tripled their military budget from 2023 to 2024 and have massively increased their military logistics capacity.

Therefore it was only a matter of time before Avdiivka, isolated, fell, and today marks the day of final strategic withdrawal from Avdiivka that will now be absorbed into the Donetsk metropolis. Nothing is left of Avdiivka itself; it has been smashed to smithereens by relentless Russian shelling. However there is a moral victory for the Russians in seizing this Ukrainian outpost held for a decade. There is also the very real danger that total control over the western Donetsk metropolis can now be used as a bridgehead for the Russians to push north and west from Donetsk to occupy greater chunks of free Donetsk Oblast and to fortify their positions in neighbouring occupied Zaporizhzhia Oblast. The Ukrainian Armed Forces had been attempting to create another bridgehead south of the settlement of Orikhiv east of the city of Zaporizhzhia, around the village of Robotyne; but this bridgehead, designed to cut Russian supply lines in the region of Melitopol to occupied Kherson Oblast to the west, failed and now Ukraine will face a counter-offensive in the region spearheaded by renewed Russian control of Avdiivka.

The net result is that the Russians have obtained the most significant tactical victory on the battlefield today since they occupied Enerhodar and Kherson in the early days of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. The fall of Avdiivka spells big trouble for the Ukrainians in maintaining their front line in the region and presumably the Ukrainians are trying desperately to dig in trench positions in the region to prevent the impending Russian advance into Avdiivka to become a rout leading to further Russian domination of southeastern free Ukraine. If ever heavy and determined outside help were needed to support the Ukrainian Armed Forces, it is right now.


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