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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #383

What you read in the news need not always be true, and Kramatorsk yesterday felt remarkably different to how it was when I was last here just a few weeks ago. While air raid sirens were relentlessly wailing during the day, including when we stepped off the train, nonetheless there was no constant pounding of the artillery guns or whistles of mortars. Rather the skies were noticeable today by being clear, and people were out on the streets. I noticed children playing as we took a walk through the city centre after our gruelling 20-hour epic journey across Ukraine by train. Kramatorsk, if not a pinnacle of normality, feels calmer than it did. This stands in sharp contradistinction to the official news we hear coming from the front line to the effect that the Russians are about to effect a strong push forward into Ukrainian held Donbas territory. If that is really right and it is to take place imminently, we have not seen any evidence of it so far.

The soldiers that populate Kramatorsk’s streets for the most part remain casually milling around but less tense than they were before. We went to a local “pub” - although there is no alcohol and not many customers - and most of the shops and restaurants are boarded up, so Kramatorsk is far from the military social centre it once was. Nevertheless there is a prevailing sense of peace and calm in the city. The railway station seemed relaxed, cars drift down the main street, most of the hotels are closed, but there is an eery calm to the city as though nobody quite knows what is happening next. The checkpoints are relaxed and there is certainly no sense that the city is on high alert.

One of the reasons that Kramatorsk may be quiet at the moment is that the International Legion is not strong in the Sloviansk region and because there have been a number of strategic withdrawals from the Avdiivka area to the south of here. In Kramatorsk itself the prospect of an imminent Russian advance does not seem anticipated. People are still going about their business in a nonchalant kind of a way, although I noticed that the huge Ukrainian flag in the city’s central park has been taken down. But the imagined Russian push is not obviously imminent. Maybe people are just waiting for something to happen; maybe there have been rumours. Or maybe nothing is happening much at all. Maybe Donbas is quieter than we’ve been reading in the newspapers.

One important factor to consider in all of this is why the Russians might adopt a strategy now to renew vigorously a spring offensive in Donbas, knowing that this would generate stiff opposition, outcries in the West and a surfeit of Ukrainian soldiers rushing into the Donbas. Is there real value in escalating the Donbas theatre to crisis point right now? Arguably not; Russian strategic interests are served just be waiting rather than precipitating a new inflection point. Russia has established long-term strategic supply lines to the region that are sufficient to hold their current positions and the next steps, Russia imagines, will be political, depending on the outcome of the elections in November in the United States of America. There is no particular need or urgency to act to create a crisis before then by pushing forward in the Donbas, and therefore the anticipated spring offensive by Russia in the Donbas may just fall away. Russia is more likely to reinforce her current positions than dramatically act to seize new territory that would surely be resisted intensively with massive losses of life on the Russian side. Moreover these is nothing of strategic value in the Donbas towns on the Ukrainian side; the steel works and other heavy industry have long stopped working, shells and hulks of their former selves. These would be hollow victories at tremendous cost.

Hence I have concluded that the authorities are not preparing Kramatorsk for some imminent crisis. Although it is increasingly difficult to find a place to stay and so much of the town is boarded up, that is not really any different from over the previous months. The sleepy pace of the city indicates a lethargy in the war in which the Ukrainian Armed Forces are not much expecting anything to happen soon. Russia’s strategic game in the Donbas is long-term; the current front line has been in place for ten years and the next push for territory will probably not be until a few years after a faux peace deal has been put in place in which Russia’s principal strategic objective is that Ukraine stays out of NATO. Any dramatic steps that might increase the prospect of a substantial NATO intervention in Ukrainian theatre at the current juncture are surely not in Russia’s interests. That is why we find Kramatorsk so quite, lazy and slovenly.

As I write these words early in the morning, listening to the first air raid siren of the day just after 5am, I can’t help thinking that 2024 is going to be a very similar year to 2023 in terms of the war: lots of offensives and counter-offensive announced and declared amidst fighting in remote and previously unheard-of villages; but very little actual change in terms of the territory occupied by the parties. In other words huge resources will be spent by both sides achieving very little. It all seems rather pointless, and renders me ever clearer in my conclusion that this is now a stale war in which nothing is happening except a few isolated incidents blown out of proportion by media outlets eager for news about something. 2024 is not the year in which anything drastic is going to change in Ukrainian theatre that will determine the course of the war, because it is not the year in which NATO will step in. Russia is planning for the long term now her economy has been substantially more militarised, and it is in her best interests to wait rather than to provoke the NATO beast that so far still slumbers.


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