Ukraine War: New Developments

Ukraine war: Nord Stream sabotage, Crimea bridge attack, annexation referendums, LNG tanker (10/2022)

Published: October 2022
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A no-nonsense analysis of recent political and military developments in the Ukraine war.

Overview: Energy situation / Military and political situation / Crimea bridge attack / War crimes and propaganda / Outlook

Energy Situation

In a previous analysis, it was shown that, contrary to widespread media reports, the decision to decouple Europe from Russian energy supplies was an entirely Western geostrategic decision, not a Russian decision or Russian retaliation: while Russia would still like to export oil and gas and receive foreign exchange revenues, NATO countries and especially the US would like to reduce Russian export revenues and Russian economic influence in Europe.

Thus, the Jamal pipeline was closed in May by Poland, the Soyuz pipeline was closed in May by Ukraine, the Nord Stream II pipeline remained closed due to US pressure, and the Nord Stream I pipeline was closed in September by Russia due to Western sanctions that prevented the repair and return of several gas turbines (see the map of pipelines below).

By September, only the Brotherhood pipeline to Ukraine and Western Europe and the TurkStream pipeline to Southeast and Central Europe remained operational, though some countries refused payment in Euro to Gazprom Bank due to EU sanctions against Russian financial institutions. In addition, Russia offered to supply additional gas through the Nord Stream II pipeline, which is maintained by Russia itself, as soon as Germany would open it.

In recent months, however, several new and important developments have taken place concerning Russian energy infrastructure and Russian energy supplies to Europe.

In June, the EU decided to ban Russian seaborne oil supplies by January 2023. In addition, Germany and some other EU countries decided to stop Russian oil supplies via the large Druzhba pipeline. Moreover, the EU and the US announced their intention to impose a global “price cap” on Russian oil exports, likely by sanctioning non-compliant countries or insurance companies. The US hoped that OPEC countries would support the oil price cap, but this was not the case: OPEC in early October sided with Russia and further reduced their oil production.

In August, Ukraine briefly closed the Druzhba oil pipeline to Europe in response to EU financial sanctions against Russia. In September, Ukraine demanded payment of transit fees from Russia for the Soyuz gas pipeline that Ukraine had already closed back in May; if this transit fee dispute escalates, Ukraine or Russia could decide to close the larger Brotherhood gas pipeline to Europe.

On September 22, the Russian security service claimed to have thwarted a Ukrainian sabotage operation against the offshore TurkStream pipeline; Kiev denied this, but had previously launched a successful drone attack against a Russian oil refinery. On October 12, Poland reported a minor leak in the Polish branch of the Druzhba oil pipeline to Europe; it was not immediately clear if this leak was due to an accident or due to sabotage.

Most importantly, on September 26 – four days after the alleged Ukrainian sabotage of the TurkStream pipeline and one day before the opening of the Baltic pipeline connecting Norway via Denmark to Poland – a series of explosions damaged the NordStream I and II offshore pipelines between Russia and Germany. Although nobody claimed responsibility, European experts confirmed that these explosions were almost certainly the result of a sabotage operation.

Interestingly, despite a total of four explosions, one of the two lines of Nord Stream II apparently remained undamaged, and Russia renewed its offer to supply gas through this remaining line. Moreover, Russia emphasized that it is possible to repair the damaged Nord Stream pipelines, especially since spare segments are already being stored in Germany. Yet neither of these offers received an answer; instead, Russia was excluded from the investigation of the explosions.

Thus, the available evidence seems to indicate a NATO-backed sabotage operation against the Nord Stream pipelines, possibly involving the US and the UK (the two countries leading and coordinating the NATO military response against Russia), Denmark and Sweden (the two countries controlling the offshore area of the explosions and the investigation), and perhaps Poland and Ukraine (the two countries most opposed to the Nord Stream pipelines).

Germany, at the top political level, may or may not have been informed about this attack against its energy infrastructure. Prior to the explosions, the German government came under increasing pressure, both from German voters and from German industry, to open the Nord Stream II pipeline to ensure security of supply and affordable energy prices during the upcoming winter season.

It has been noted that in June and again in September, US and NATO military units were conducting naval exercises, including underwater exercises, in the Baltic Sea near the locations of the subsequent pipeline explosions. Such exercises might have served as a cover for the sabotage operation. However, simply lowering a remote-controlled underwater explosive device does not necessarily require advanced submarine technology. Indeed, according to Russian information relayed to Germany by the US CIA, Ukraine tried to rent a boat in Sweden for this very purpose.

Britain, in particular, has been planning sabotage operations against Russian energy and transportation infrastructure since spring, as recently leaked documents revealed (see discussion below). In the aftermath of the explosions, British media, referring to “anonymous military sources”, proposed that Russia itself might have sabotaged its own infrastructure – a classic propaganda narrative that has been used repeatedly since the beginning of the Ukraine war (see below).

Meanwhile, former Polish defense minister Radek Sikorski publicly thanked the US for the sabotage of Nord Stream, and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken described the destruction of the pipelines as a “tremendous strategic opportunity” to reduce Russian influence in Europe. Both US President Biden and US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland (“fuck the EU”), previously vowed to “bring Nord Stream to an end”, in “one way or another”, if Russia should invade Ukraine.

In fact, the destruction of Nord Stream could be seen as the culmination of a 40-year US effort to prevent or reduce Russian energy influence in Europe – or European energy independence from the US – starting with Reagan’s attempt to stop or delay the construction of the West-Siberian gas pipeline (the Brotherhood pipeline) in 1982 through sanctions and possibly sabotage.

In response to the current energy situation, Europe has been trying to access new gas and oil supplies, including from Norway, Algeria, Azerbaijan (which recently invaded Armenia), and especially through American and Arab LNG shipments. Yet the short-term and medium-term impact on security of supply, energy prices, industry and agriculture will likely be significant, which is why Western media and governments have been eager to shift the blame onto Russia.

Figure: Russian gas pipelines to Europe (for oil pipelines, see here).

Russian gas pipelines to Europe (WELT)

Military Developments

In September, Ukraine launched a successful counter-offensive against Russian forces and managed to reconquer significant territories in both the northeast (Kharkiv) and the south (Kherson) of Ukraine. Ukrainian troops made maximum use of their numerical superiority, high-precision long-range artillery provided by NATO countries, and reconnaissance information from both tactical drones and Western satellites.

Although Ukraine did not capture or kill many Russian troops, they forced Russian units to evacuate large areas and retreat or “regroup” to new defensive lines. Moreover, there is a real possibility that the Ukrainian military may try to reconquer or siege the city of Kherson (see map below).

As shown in a previous analysis, the Russian government initially believed or hoped it could achieve its goals in Ukraine by conducting a “Special Military Operation” using only its peace-time professional army (without reserve soldiers or conscripts), Donbas militias, and Wagner mercenaries. This strategy was likely based on domestic political considerations (avoiding conscription, in particular) and an underestimation of NATO military support to Ukraine.

In response to the successful Ukrainian counter-offensive, the Russian government was forced to announce, in late September, a partial mobilization of 300,000 men. There are indications that Russia may in fact be mobilizing even more men, and that Belarus will contribute additional troops. This could indicate that Russia will launch a WWII-style large-scale ground and air offensive with up to half a million men, in an attempt to overcome the current WWI-style stationary trench warfare.

However, one could also argue that Russia has been trying to follow a “legalistic strategy”: first recognize the independence of the Donbas republics and ask Ukraine to stop attacking them; then respond to a “call for help” from the republics by launching a “special military operation”; then organize referendums in pro-Russian territories and declare them Russian; then ask Ukraine to stop attacking Russian territory; and finally mobilize and declare war against Ukraine.

As previously noted, it is still likely that Russia will try to conquer the port city of Odessa in the south (thus cutting off Ukraine from the Black Sea) and advance to the Dnjepr river and possibly to Kiev from the north. However, it will remain very difficult for Russia to conquer major Ukrainian cities without resorting to large-scale destruction, siege warfare, or urban warfare. In addition, at some point NATO may decide to send in troops or planes to create a “safe zone” in western Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the US Pentagon announced the creation of a new command in Germany to coordinate the US/NATO operation in Ukraine. From the perspective of international law, several NATO countries, including the US, the UK, Germany and France, are likely already at war with Russia, since they provide not only weapons, but also strategic intelligence and training of Ukrainian troops.

There is also a Middle Eastern angle to the Ukraine war: While Iran has been supplying kamikaze drones to Russia, Israel, in response, has been supplying satellite intelligence to Ukraine.

In terms of military casualties, by October Ukraine may have lost about 30,000 soldiers (deaths only), Russia about 10,000 soldiers, and the Donbas militias about 5,000 soldiers. In addition, about 5,000 civilians may have died in Western and Eastern Ukraine. If Russia will launch a large-scale ground offensive, both military and civilian casualties could surge dramatically.

Figure: Ukrainian counter-offensive (purple) and Russian airstrikes (red dots).

Ukrainian counter-offensive (purple) and Russian airstrikes (red dots). (BBC/ISW)

Political Developments

At the political level, and as anticipated in a previous analysis, Russia in late September organized referendums on the independence and subsequent incorporation or annexation of four Ukrainian regions currently (partly) controlled by Russian troops: Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region and Kherson and Zaporozhie in southern Ukraine.

Western commentators called these referendums fake and illegal, but the situation is a bit more complicated: Donetsk and Luhansk wanted to join Russia already in 2014 and have since endured eight years of shelling and bombing by Kiev, while Kherson and Zaporozhie used to vote, prior to the 2014 coup, for pro-Russian presidential candidates, though not with over 90% of the votes. Obviously, people not in favor of Russian control may already have fled these regions.

In addition, Russia refers to the independence of Kosovo in 2008 – established after a NATO military campaign against Serbia and backed by the UN International Court of Justice – as a political and legal precedent. Nevertheless, in a recent non-binding vote at the UN General Assembly, only five countries supported the Russian annexation of Ukrainian territories (though 45 abstained).

In response to the Russian annexation, the US and the EU added new sanctions against Russia. While pro-Russian commentators may claim that Russia is hardly affected by these sanctions, this is not the case: Russian oil and gas revenues have started to decline, the Russian federal budget will have to be reduced, and the Russian microelectronics industry has a lag of at least ten years compared to the US and Asia. Moreover, the United States pressured Turkey and other countries to leave the Russian Mir payment system. Nevertheless, according to The Economist, the Russian economy is apparently still performing better than most European economies.

Overall, the American and European strategy against Russia appears to broadly follow the political, economic and military measures proposed in the well-known 2019 RAND strategy paper on “Extending Russia” (see summary below). Although recent US regime change attempts in Venezuela (2019), Belarus (2021), Syria (2011-) and possibly Kazakhstan (2022) and Turkey (2016) failed, the destabilization of the current Russian government remains a possibility and could lead to either a more pro-Western government (similar to the 1990s) or a more nationalist Russian government.

Figure: “Extending Russia”: Summary of 2019 RAND report

“Extending Russia”: Summary of 2019 RAND report (RAND)

Crimea Bridge Explosion

In the early morning of October 8 – a few hours after the birthday of Russian President Putin – a large truck bomb exploded on the Crimea bridge connecting the Russian mainland and the Crimean peninsula. The Russian security service stated that the explosives were disguised in rolls of polyethylene construction film and were sent, in early August, from the Ukrainian port city of Odessa to NATO member state Bulgaria, possibly making use of the grain export deal brokered by the UN in late July. In September, the freight was shipped to Georgia, imported to Russia, and finally transported to Crimea by an unwitting truck driver (see the map below).

According to the Russian investigation, the operation was coordinated by the Ukrainian security service, which based on currently available evidence seems plausible. However, independent US online magazine The Grayzone published phished documents and emails belonging to a senior British military intelligence officer that show how British military intelligence was planning or considering a proxy attack against the Crimea bridge already in April.

Although the leaked British plan considered a missile attack or an underwater attack, it is noteworthy that the truck bomb exploded close to the location recommended in the British document (near the shipping canal). Thus, it seems possible that the attack against the Crimea bridge may have been initiated or supervised by Britain and executed by the Ukrainian security service.

Russia considered the operation against the Crimea bridge a “terrorist attack” and responded with over 200 cruise missile strikes against over 100 military, energy, and railway infrastructure targets in Ukraine. The New York Times noted that the Russian strikes were “wide-ranging but not as deadly as they could have been” (about 20 deaths in total, including military deaths), which supposedly “renewed questions over the quality of Russia’s weapons.”

Figure: Delivery route of the Crimea bridge bomb.

Delivery route of the Crimea bridge bomb (Readovka)

War Crimes and Propaganda

In a previous analysis it was shown that, in stark contrast to Western media reporting, most war crimes in Ukraine up until July were committed not by Russian forces, but by Ukrainian forces – including paramilitary forces – fighting against Russian invaders, (supposed) Ukrainian collaborators, and pro-Russian secessionists.

In this regard, the general reporting strategy of Western media – guided by the three global news agencies, Western intelligence services, and several PR firms – can be described as follows:

  • If possible, war crimes committed by the Ukrainian side are attributed to the Russian side; examples include the theater bombing in Mariupol in March, the Bucha massacre in April, and the missile attack against the Kramatorsk railway station also in April.
  • If this is not possible, Ukrainian war crimes are usually ignored or downplayed; examples include the frequent shelling of the city of Donetsk and the execution of Russian prisoners of war.
  • Additional Russian actions have been made up (such as the supposed “mass rapes”), distorted (such as the fire at the Kremenchuk shopping center), or taken out of context (such as the targeting of schools used as Ukrainian military bases or ammunition depots).

Since July, several additional propaganda campaigns have taken place:

  • In mid-July, Western media reported that Russian missiles struck a cultural center and a medical center in the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia. In reality, the missiles struck a military meeting in the nearby House of Officers, but the blast did cause damage to the surrounding buildings.
  • In late July, Western media reported that Russia struck its own detention center in Elenovka that held Azov soldiers from Mariupol. In reality, Ukraine struck the center using US HIMARS missiles because the captured soldiers started cooperating with Russian authorities. Western media then claimed Russia was preventing UN access to the camp; in reality, Russia invited the UN and the Red Cross, but Ukraine denied transit to the Russian-controlled area.
  • In mid-August, Western media reported that Russian troops were shelling the Zaporozhie nuclear power plant, or that it was not clear who was shelling the nuclear power plant. In reality, Ukrainian forces were shelling the nuclear power plant in order to force Russian troops, who controlled the power plant since March, to abandon it.
  • In late August, Western media reported that Russia struck a civilian passenger train in Chaplino near Dnipro. In reality, it was a military train transporting hundreds of soldiers and vehicles to the front. To hide this, Western media received carefully pre-selected photographs.
  • In mid-September, after Russian forces retreated from the city of Izyum in northeastern Ukraine, Western media reported that there was a mass grave of massacred civilians. In reality, these were graves of soldiers and possibly civilians killed during the initial Russian offensive.
  • In late September, Western media reported that Russia may have sabotaged its own Nord Stream pipelines. In reality, it was almost certainly a NATO-backed sabotage operation.
  • Also in late September, Western media reported Russia struck a refugee convoy leaving the city of Zaporozhie. In reality, Ukraine struck the refugee convoy since the people were leaving for Russian-controlled Kherson (that is, they were deemed collaborators).
  • In early October, Western media reported that Russia was operating a “mini-Auschwitz torture chamber” in the city of Pisky in eastern Ukraine, extracting gold teeth from victims. In reality, the gold teeth belonged to a local dentist.
  • In mid-October, after Ukrainian troops reconquered Kupyansk in northeastern Ukraine, footage emerged of Ukrainian soldiers executing civilians accused of being “collaborators” (similar to the situation in Bucha in April), yet Western media ignored this.
  • Throughout the summer, Ukrainian forces shelled residential areas in the city of Donetsk and fired small “petal mines” into the city, yet Western media ignored this.

Another important propaganda narrative, launched in September, is the claim that Russia has been threatening or planning to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. This story is a combination of war propaganda message #3 (“the enemy leader is a demonic madman”) and #6 (“the enemy is using illegal weapons”). Similar stories were previously shared with regards to chemical weapons. In reality, Russia has never threatened to use chemical or nuclear weapons in Ukraine. The only country that actually does have a nuclear first strike policy is the United States.

Another important propaganda narrative consists of the claim, discussed above, that Russia “used the energy weapon” by “cutting off gas supplies to Europe”. In reality, the renunciation of Russian gas supplies was an entirely Western geostrategic decision, not a Russian decision.

What about actual Russian war crimes in Ukraine? Documented Russian war crimes currently include the killing of civilians that approached Russian checkpoints or military columns (on foot or by car) and several executions of plain-clothed territorial defense forces that were found to be, or suspected to be, partisans, saboteurs, or spotters (to guide Ukrainian artillery fire), especially during the initial Russian invasion north of Kiev. Although plain-clothed combatants are not generally protected by the Geneva Convention, their execution without a fair trial is still a war crime.

In a UN report published in late September, three US-aligned investigators collected additional allegations of several dozen cases of torture, sexual violence and executions by Russian forces, but the report did not yet provide verifiable evidence backing these allegations. More recently, a British UN official claimed Russian soldiers were “supplied Viagra to rape Ukrainian women”, but very similar atrocity propaganda stories were already used against Libyan forces back in 2011.

In early August, a brief report by British-American NGO, Amnesty International, criticized Ukraine for locating military forces in schools and hospitals. The report triggered a widespread backlash by Western media that led Amnesty to apologize for the “distress and anger” it caused.

Overall, it is fair to say that Western media coverage of the Ukraine war consists almost entirely of propaganda and disinformation and provides very little factual reporting, which is not surprising or unusual, though. Independent media provide a counterbalance, but they may have their own blind spots or engage in wishful thinking. In addition, on-the-ground reporters and dedicated online investigators continue to provide important real-time analysis.

Figure: Western propaganda vs. Russian propaganda

Western propaganda vs. Russian propaganda (Lynn PR)

Outlook

Given the current political and military situation and Russian partial mobilization, it appears likely that a large-scale Russian ground and air offensive is imminent. The US and NATO might respond to such an offensive by providing more powerful weapons to Ukraine or by creating a “safe zone” in western Ukraine. Although Ukrainian authorities will try to keep residents in major cities, many people will try to flee to neighboring countries and other European countries.

The economic and energy situation in Europe and elsewhere will also likely continue to deteriorate, especially if the remaining Brotherhood gas pipeline through Ukraine or the Druzhba oil pipeline through Ukraine and Poland should be closed or destroyed.

A Ukrainian peace deal might have been possible on the basis of a bilingual federal state and a neutral foreign policy, but few actors were interested in such a solution. Given Russian annexations and the US/NATO proxy war strategy, a peace deal is probably no longer realistic at this point.

The Ukraine war is a complex war because it is driven by ethnic aspects (“East Slavic war”), historical aspects (the Soviet legacy), geostrategic aspects (NATO expansion), global aspects (US world order vs. multipolar world order), and ideological aspects (Western liberalism vs. Eastern traditionalism).

The overall US geopolitical goal remains the containment or subjugation of both Russia and China, and thus global predominance, as almost achieved in the 1990s. To this end, the US is using both Europe and East Asia as “Eurasian bridgeheads” (Brzezinski). In contrast, Russia and China, while advocating a multipolar world order, may ultimately try to impose a kind of “Eurasian doctrine”, similar to the Monroe doctrine, and confront US forces on the Eurasian continent.

You have been reading: Ukraine War: New Developments.
An analysis by Swiss Policy Research.

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