May 19, 2022


Maritime Executive

On Feb. 28, Turkey triggered the Montreux Convention, not used since World War II, and closed the Turkish Straits to military ships. This one move interrupted Russia’s maritime logistical supply line to Syria, interfered with its ability to rotate naval assets in the Mediterranean, and prevented Moscow from bringing additional warships to the Black Sea.

Russia can no longer supply its Syria operation or deliver defense exports to its customers using navy ships. However, close observation of traffic through the Turkish Straits reveals that Russia is continuing its naval operations in the Mediterranean and Black seas.

The current closure of the Turkish Straits under Montreux applies only to naval vessels. Free transit through the Straits for commercial purposes continues. Russia is abusing this distinction by using civilian merchant vessels as naval auxiliaries to supply logistics to its military operations in Syria and Ukraine.

This is not the first time Moscow has done this, either. At the height of its Syria campaign, the war effort required more supplies than the Russian Navy, or Voyenno-Morskoy Flot, could carry. Russia bought old civilian cargo ships from Turkey, reflagged them, and began using them for its war. And now, Russia is once again using civilian ships to supply its military campaigns in Syria and Libya, and to fulfill existing contracts, such as Rosatom’s nuclear power plant construction in El Dabaa, Egypt or exporting defense products to Algeria.

Russia is also plundering commodities from occupied territories in Ukraine, especially from the port of Sevastopol’s Avlita grain terminal. It is absurd that Russia has been allowed to weaponize commercial trade by illegally blockading the Odesa and Chornomorsk harbors, while also profiting from the sale of stolen Ukrainian grain, exported from an occupied Ukrainian port.

Currently, Russia is using five types of civilian merchant ships for war:

1) Cargo vessels owned by logistics company Oboronlogistika, part of the Russian Ministry of Defense. These purportedly civilian ships, such as Pizhma, Sparta, Sparta II, Ursa Major (ex-Sparta III), and Sparta IV, regularly carry military cargo from Novorossiysk to Syria and from Baltic ports like Ust-Luga and Kaliningrad to Novorossiysk.

2) Russian-flag roll-on/roll-off cargo ships (ro-ros) of “private” Russian companies like Moscow-based M Leasing, which are owned by or working on behalf of the Russian government, such as Adler, Angara, and Lady Mariia, carry defense exports and transport weapons. For example, Russian-flag Lady Mariia carried arms from Kaliningrad to

Novorossiysk. The same ship very recently carried weapons from Novorossiysk all the way to Myanmar, another conflict zone.

3) Older, non-Russian-flag ro-ros not seen in this region before but brought back into service and flying flags of convenience. These ships, such as Kocatepe (ex-Varyag), Barbaros, and Trabzonspor, now frequent Novorossiysk harbor, and are likely working as contractors for the Russian government. These ships, which carried military cargo in the past, are now prolonging the war in Ukraine by providing revenue and even transporting weapons for Russia’s use.

4) Russian-flag tankers regularly carry jet fuel to Hemeimeem Air Base in Syria. Several smaller tankers, especially Russian-flag Sig and Yaz, have been documented transporting aviation jet fuel to Baniyas, Syria for years. They are clearly not functioning as civilian ships and should be treated as Russian Navy auxiliary vessels. Preventing them from transiting the Turkish Straits would immediately ground the Russian Air Force in the Syrian theater. As Hemeimeem is also a refueling stop for flights to Russian military operations in the Central African Republic, Mali, and Venezuela, stopping these two ships would immediately disrupt Russian military operations globally.

5) Russian- or Syrian-flag bulk carriers that transport commodities like wheat, barley, or corn, such as Mikhail Nenashev, Matros Pozynich, Laodicea, Souria, and Finikia.

Russia has found a way to work around the current closure of the Turkish Straits by supplying logistics to its military operations in Syria or Ukraine using supposedly private companies and civilian ships. The use of civilian merchant vessels for war violates the spirit of the Montreux mechanism that was used to close the Turkish Straits. Even if it is legal, it is not acceptable and should not be allowed.

When Ukraine wins the war, the balance of power in the Black Sea region will change fundamentally. Having exposed its own profound operational problems, Russia will no longer enjoy the perception of superiority. Expect more challenges, especially from Black Sea countries. Ukraine will emerge from the war stronger, with an experienced army and coastal defenses strengthened by new Western anti-ship weapons that will further reduce Russia’s ability to patrol coastal waters. Both Romania and Georgia are interested in a greater U.S. and NATO presence in the Black Sea.

Turkey’s approach to Russia will change too. Its navy is already the strongest in the Black Sea, powered by new frigates armed with new indigenous technologies, and a growing submarine fleet that already outnumbers Russia’s Black Sea Fleet three to one. It also has new gas fields in the Black Sea to protect. These changes are likely to affect implementation of the Montreux Convention. When Montreux was written, the Black Sea was understood to be under the control of the Soviet Union and Turkey, with the Soviet Union superior. Everything has changed now. Ukraine, Romania, and Georgia will want to review the limitations that Montreux currently imposes on ships from non-Black Sea countries in its waters.

For now, Turkey must use all its means to end the war sooner by choking off Russia’s illegal activity and revenues. Closer inspection is required of vessels transiting the Turkish Straits. NATO should be more vigilant about inspecting ships possibly carrying arms. Ro-ros bound for the Black Sea that are likely carrying suspicious cargo should be boarded and inspected in the international waters of the Mediterranean. Closure of the Turkish Straits to merchant ships working for the Russian war effort should be considered. Turkey should prevent civilian merchant vessels from supplying Russia’s wars by carrying military cargo.

Action must also be taken to re-establish global food security. Russia is stealing Ukrainian commodities on an industrial scale and selling them; profits from these illegitimate sales extend the war. Great amounts of stolen commodities end up in Turkey, some even carried inexplicably by the Syrian government shipping company SYRIAMAR. Buyers, including companies in Turkey, are wrong to get involved in this illegal trade. Turkey should instead focus on rebuilding Ukraine. While Russia continues to blockade Ukraine’s most essential ports at Odesa and Chornomorsk, its ships should be denied commercial access to the Turkish Straits.


Yörük Isik is a geopolitical analyst based in Istanbul, where he runs the Bosphorus Observer, a consultancy analyzing maritime activity on the Turkish Straits. He is also a non-resident scholar with MEI’s Turkey Program.


 Top presidential aide calls for ‘complete restoration of territorial integrity’ as Polish president backs stance during Kyiv visit

Lorenzo Tondo

22 May 2022

The Guardian

Ukraine has said it will not agree to any ceasefire deal that would involve handing over territory to Russia, as Moscow intensified its attack in the eastern Donbas region on Sunday.  “The war must end with the complete restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty,” said Ukraine’s presidential chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, in a Twitter post.

The Polish president, Andrzej Duda, offered Warsaw’s backing, telling politicians in Kyiv that the international community had to demand Russia’s complete withdrawal and that sacrificing any of Ukraine’s territory would be a “huge blow” to the west. “Worrying voices have appeared, saying that Ukraine should give in to Putin’s demands,” Duda said, in the first in-person address to the Ukrainian parliament by a foreign leader since Russia’s invasion on 24 February. “Only Ukraine has the right to decide about its future,” he said.

On Saturday, Ukraine’s lead negotiator in the stalled peace talks, Mykhailo Podolyak, said: “Any concession to Russia is not a path to peace, but a war postponed for several years. Ukraine trades neither its sovereignty, nor territories and Ukrainians living on them.”

A few hours before, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, had suggested that his government was willing to resume talks with Russia as long as Moscow did not kill Ukrainian troops who had been defending the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol.

Following calls for an immediate ceasefire from the US defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, and the Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, Podolyak made clear that Ukraine would not accept any deal with Russia that involved ceding territory, and that agreeing to a ceasefire now while making concessions to Russia would backfire on Ukraine because “Moscow would hit back harder after any break in fighting”.

Meanwhile on Sunday, Russian forces continued their bombardment of frontline Ukrainian cities, waging a major offensive in Luhansk, one of the two provinces that make up the Donbas. Moscow’s goal – having taken full control of the port city of Mariupol, in what is perhaps Moscow’s biggest capture of the nearly three-month war – is to seize the remaining Ukrainian-held territory in the region and gain military momentum.

Controlling Mariupol gives Russia command of a land route linking the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014, with mainland Russia and parts of eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russia separatists.

Shelling and missile strikes hit Kharkiv in northern Ukraine, and Mykolaiv and Zaporizhzhia in the south, while eight civilians were killed on the eastern front in the Donbas, Ukrainian officials said.

Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov, spokesperson for Ukraine’s defence ministry, said Russian rockets struck a mobile anti-drone system near the settlement of Hannivka, about 60 miles (100km) north-east of the city of Mykolaiv.

On the Donetsk frontline, Russian forces were trying to break through Ukrainian defences to reach the administrative borders of the Luhansk region, while further north they continued heavy shelling of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, according to Ukraine’s general staff.

Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, its twin city on the other side of the Siverskiy Donets River, form the eastern part of a Ukrainian-held pocket that Russia has been trying to overrun since mid-April after failing to capture Kyiv and shifting its focus to the east and south of the country.

Serhiy Haidai, the governor of the Luhansk region, said that although Severodonetsk had been attacked from “four separate directions”, the Russian forces had not succeeded in breaking into the city.

The Russian army has flattened the Black Sea port of Mariupol during its siege and subjected Ukrainian troops and towns in the east to relentless ground and artillery attacks. “There is no work, no food, no water,” said Angela Kopytsa, 52, breaking into tears as she spoke to AFP reporters on a Russian-organised tour of Mariupol.  Kopytsa said her home and her life had been destroyed during the fighting and that “children at maternity wards were dying of hunger”.




May 21, 2022

by Illia Ponomarenko

Kyiv Independent

A New York Times editorial article titled “The War in Ukraine Is Getting Complicated, and America Isn’t Ready,” published on May 19, immediately triggered a stir in Ukraine and beyond.

Coming from a media outlet that has the reputation of being supportive of U.S. assistance to Ukraine against Russia’s invasion, it has surprised many.

The New York Times, following the U.S. Senate’s historic approval of $40 billion in assistance for Kyiv, said it was not “in America’s best interest to plunge into an all-out war with Russia.”

Even though Russia’s attack, the biggest in Europe since World War II, has been “surprisingly sloppy,” the board said, Russia remains too strong, and Ukraine’s decisive victory is not a realistic plan.

The assumption came even though over the previous two months of the war, Russia had sustained a range of serious defeats, having to completely withdraw from northern Ukraine and concentrate its active campaign in the eastern region of Donbas, where the Russian offensive has also ended up being extremely costly and slow.

The article criticized the U.S. and NATO for being involved in helping Ukraine’s “unrealistic expectations” of defending itself against foreign aggression that could draw the West “ever deeper into a costly, drawn-out war.”

Therefore, according to the New York Times, Ukraine “will have to make the painful territorial decisions that any compromise (with Russia) will demand.”

Moreover, the newspaper insisted that its suggestion to bow down to a foreign aggressor’s gargantuan claims against Ukraine’s integrity, security, democracy, and independence, is not an act of appeasement.

The editorial partly echoed the position of the Russian leadership, which has repeatedly demanded that the West immediately stop providing assistance to Ukraine, which plays an important role in Russia’s military failures.

In the wake of all the backlash about the editorial, the Kyiv Independent asked Ukraine’s former defense minister, director of the Kyiv-based Center for Defense Strategies, Andriy Zagorodnyuk, whether Ukraine really can’t prevail over Russia.

The Kyiv Independent: What is your general reaction to the New York Times editorial?

Andriy Zagorodnyuk: In the American community, there’s still a lack of understanding of what (Russia’s war) might end up being and where it’s going. The most informed part, working with the military, has a clearer vision. They have a clear understanding of the fact that, despite all of Russia’s effort and investment, the result is far less effective than what was expected.

American and British defense secretaries say Ukraine is going to win; the same goes for military generals and U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark Miley. In general, it is their policy to make everything possible so that Ukraine can win.

At the same time, unfortunately, certain intellectuals and authors publish rather strange and ill-timed articles. Most likely, they are just describing the situation as they see it. Their vision is very wrong, but they write it, and we have to respond.

The Kyiv Independent: What exactly do you think is wrong here?

Andriy Zagorodnyuk: The key wrong assumption is that Ukraine can’t win, therefore, it has to make a deal. We believe it’s a weak argument for two reasons.

First — Ukraine can win, and this, in many ways, depends on how our partners, including the U.S., are going to be sending weapons, hardware, and munitions. And second — we see absolutely no chances for a negotiation process. Russia has not demonstrated the slightest signs of altering its strategic goals regarding Ukraine. They keep pushing for their narratives; they keep waging war and going on the offensive. There’s no point talking about any sort of compromise and negotiations.

A lot of things have been done and can’t be undone now — the war crimes, the things that we can surely identify as acts of state terrorism. We will always be saying that (Vladimir) Putin and his military are war criminals, and they have to leave our territory. If they end up being ready to talk, there can potentially be talks. But right now they aren’t, so we have nothing to talk about.

When some foreign journalists or observers try to tell us we have to talk anyway, it means they don’t understand the situation.

The Kyiv Independent: So you think Russia can be defeated?

Andriy Zagorodnyuk: The situation is changing rapidly, and it seems that many people can’t catch up with what’s happening. And they have already started giving advice and voicing their opinions on what should be done. There’s a psychological barrier that is blocking them from believing that Russia can be severely defeated. It is built on the long-lasting assumption that Russia is a military superpower, an undefeated force.

This thought is so deeply ingrained that they can’t believe Russia’s “super military” is fake. Even the Russian leadership doesn’t understand this because of the lack of democratic, civilian control over the military.

We must explain to them that Russia can be defeated. The very way (Saddam Hussein’s) Iraqi military was defeated, along with others. Russians can and may be defeated because they are

weak. It’s clear that they have a lot of vehicles and a lot of people. But the hardware is wacky, people are poorly trained, and all they are doing is rendering pressure upon us with their mass.

The Kyiv Independent: And why do you think many in the West insist on saying that Ukraine can’t win?

Andriy Zagorodnyuk: In America, for a long time, there has been an idea that NATO should not enter a fight against Russia to avoid escalating the situation into a world war. Also, there is this word “escalation” they fear. There is the term World War III. We are absolutely sure that, at this point, the word “escalation” has completely sputtered out. Just because we see it very clearly that Russia has already reached the limits of its capabilities. They can’t do anything drastically worse.

They’re already drawing on their last reserves. There’s an interesting thing now — they’re mobilizing untrained reserves. They are forming some company and battalion tactical groups without any collective training. And they send them into battle. Of course, their combat effectiveness is non-existent. And it demonstrates that they are out of options.

Of course, they have reserves at home, but they can’t just send them all to Ukraine, as they will end up having no military at all. Amid all their losses, they are not even close to having the results they expected, even in Donbas. In fact, they are collapsing, and they understand they can’t wage war against Ukraine. Now imagine what’s going to happen if NATO joins. What sort of escalation are we talking about? The only person not interested in this escalation is Putin. Because if NATO joins, he’s got no chances.

Foreign analysts have had a rather twisted understanding of Russian capabilities. They used to estimate it mechanically, based on the quantities of vehicles, potential, available manpower, and budget. $60 billion a year must be a very serious defense budget. But now, they see things clearly.

Defense think tanks see this paradox — in spite of all those numbers voiced and money spent, Russian capabilities are actually very limited. But many, including political analysts, still exist within the paradigm they were in at the beginning of the (full-out) war three months ago. They thought Russia is a superpower.

They’re still living in the past. Back in the day, the official opinion did not give Ukraine many chances. There has been a big change of heart. But now, someone like the New York Times editorial board seems to have this outdated understanding of who we are facing. There won’t be a nuclear war, no conflict acceleration, or escalation because Russia has no strength for that.

We’d recommend that the New York Times editorial board actually read the New York Times newspaper. The famous Tymothy Snyder recently had an article comparing (Putin’s Russia) to fascism. He has strong evidence saying that modern Russian ideology is very similar to the fascist ideology.

And now tell me — if in the editorial we change “Putin” for “Hitler,” what would it sound like? What would their suggestions for reaching compromises and making agreements sound like?

How do they suggest that we make agreements with fascism? It’s not possible, because our positions are in absolute opposition.

The Kyiv Independent: So why is this idea of “ceasefire at any price” dangerous?

Andriy Zagorodnyuk: This idea makes no sense. Any sort of armistice would entail two threats.

First, Putin can just make use of it to recover. They would just be recovering and preparing for a new stage of the war. They would manipulate this idea of “putting an end to the bloodshed.”

Unfortunately, many foreign observers, journalists, and politicians say all the time that there needs to be a ceasefire. An armistice doesn’t stop the war at all. All it will do is give Putin a chance to exhale and re-launch a military campaign with a fresh start.

Besides, they will launch the full force of their disinformation machine to accuse us of violating this ceasefire.

The Kyiv Independent: Is Ukraine’s ultimate goal to take all its territories back, including Donbas and Crimea?

Andriy Zagorodnyuk: Our country has carefully explained this. (The U.S. administration) understands that our ultimate goal is to reinstate control of all territories as of 1991, hold those responsible for war crimes accountable, and get reparations. But the first goal is to kick Russians back to where they were before Feb. 24. The U.S. administration sees and understands this as well.

There’s a window of opportunity now as Russia is in its weakest condition in its history. We need to take this chance and not miss it. You can’t fight a war always looking back and being afraid of making an extra step. One can’t support us and be always restraining oneself. This self-restraint, if there is still any left, is something that our Western partners should change.

During the Ramstein conference, there were correct statements, and we definitely support them. (U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin) said they were ready to move heaven and earth to let Ukraine win. Resolve has been indicated. So let’s get this implemented without looking back and restraining ourselves all the time.

There’s also the notion of “critical mass.”

Imagine you have a bucket of water. You can pour the whole bucket onto the fire and put it out at once. But you can also get a glass and try to choke the fire with small sips of water. The same amount of water, different results. We need to avoid a situation where we get assistance in small sips. It’s a critical challenge to us now — a lot of money has been allocated, and over 40 nations have joined. Now, it’s important that we, as a coalition, are not afraid of winning.

Nothing is going to happen if Putin loses. He might retire, or die, or whatever. In this situation, it’s important to collect this critical mass of weaponry and capabilities. Immediately after that, we’ll be able to launch a large-scale counter-offensive.

Some in the U.S. were unhappy about the $40 billion allocated to help Ukraine in wartime, saying that what happens to Ukraine is none of America’s business.

In all wars, including World War II, some politicians are afraid of making concrete steps. Even when WWII was in full swing, there were journalists, observers, and politicians, in Britain, America, in Europe, saying that there had to be a compromise and de-escalation. And the political wisdom of public figures making historic decisions was always about the fact that half-heartedness is a deathly matter. It’s a disaster.

Those complaining about the 40 billion for Ukraine are demonstrating a short-sighted approach. It’s like, let’s save money now, but we’ll have to spend ten times that later. The rest, namely infrastructure support, training, personnel, maintenance, transportation, and logistics, is what Ukraine is undertaking. We cover this by ourselves. What we want from them are weapons and munitions. If U.S. military personnel were involved in such things, there would be far larger budgets.

The problem is that many people thought China, rather than Russia, was the main issue. But now we see a fully established fascist ideology that is investing a lot of resources into its expansion. If someone thinks this is only between Ukraine and Russia, it’s a very short-sighted approach.

But thank God the U.S. administration says it understands that this case is crucial for the future, it’s not just a regional conflict, and if Russia succeeds, at least partly, it will be a big go for China. Those saying that Russia doesn’t need to be deterred fall short of a strategic vision. How can educated, trained, informed specialists not see such obvious things?

The Kyiv Independent: And what do U.S. authorities think about it?

Andriy Zagorodnyuk: They do have a strategic vision of this situation. They do understand why it’s important. They do understand that it’s a precedent and that the democratic world can’t let such wars happen, otherwise the world will fall apart. That’s why they’re allocating money.

And there’s vast popular support for Ukraine, and the U.S. Congress is united in support. What is still being formed now is the understanding of how exactly this assistance must be allocated. The situation is pretty good.

There can’t be any compromises regarding a Ukrainian victory. There needs to be quick and resolute action to win.

Otherwise, it’s not going to happen.


Illia Ponomarenko is the defense and security reporter at the Kyiv Independent. He has reported about the war in eastern Ukraine since the conflict’s earliest days. He covers national security issues, as well as military technologies, production, and defense reforms in Ukraine. Besides, he gets deployed to the war zone of Donbas with Ukrainian combat formations. He has also had deployments to Palestine and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as an embedded reporter with UN peacekeeping forces. Illia won the Alfred Friendly Press Partners fellowship and was selected to work as USA Today’s guest reporter at the U.S. Department of Defense.


by Janusz Bugajski

May 20, 2022

Washington Examiner

A key reason for Western policy failures toward Russia is not Russophobia but a narrow-minded Russophilia that views Europe’s East through Moscow’s prism. Officials and advisers dealing with Russia are invariably schooled in Russian history, language, and literature. Russia’s neighbors are largely seen as secondary actors rather than geopolitical players in their own right. Hence, even in the midst of a brutal war of conquest against Ukraine, the idea of not “provoking” Russia or “humiliating” its leaders continues to prevail.

A conciliatory approach toward Russia is also undergirded by two fears: nuclear war and Russia’s instability. The specter of nuclear annihilation is spread by Moscow whenever it is in danger of losing a war or another country decides to join NATO. Western policymakers invariably play into the Kremlin’s hands by giving the threat credibility. A more effective response would be to point out that Russia will become extinct in the event of nuclear war, and its leaders will not commit collective suicide, as they are opportunists who only fight weaker opponents.

Second, and more importantly, Western governments uphold a status quo mentality and have not yet realized that the world has fundamentally changed during the past three months. Russia’s failures and frailties have been glaringly exposed. Its military muscle is flabby, its economy rests on weak foundations, and its political structure is untenable. The Russian state could not survive in its current form even if President Vladimir Putin were ousted, as liberals have limited influence and Putin’s successors will confront immense centrifugal pressures.

Instead of preparing responses to Russia’s domestic instabilities, Western policymakers continue to believe they can squeeze the genie back into the bottle. They operate on the assumption that another modus vivendi can be forged, and cooperation with Moscow resumed, even as it continues to occupy neighboring states. Although the French and German governments are the most grievous offenders, the Biden administration also proposes “cease-fires” that would involve Ukraine’s territorial concessions.

The notion that the Kremlin is seeking diplomatic off-ramps or exit strategies in Ukraine is based on a delusion. After staking so much on victory, any retreat from captured territories is a defeat for Putin that will hasten regime collapse. Conversely, any settlement that leaves Putin in possession of territories gained through aggression is a defeat for the West, as it will encourage future assaults and military rebuilding once sanctions are eased. The surrender of territory in

Donbas would also capsize Biden’s democracy agenda, as it would effectively give the green light to carving out autocratic entities from democratic states.

A comprehensive Ukrainian military victory would send a powerful signal that attacks on independent states end in failure, that NATO is united in confronting aggressors, and that the West is prepared for Russia’s implosion. Ukraine must be supplied with every effective weapon that will hasten its victory, including long-range artillery and mobile rocket launchers. Ukraine’s triumph would constitute a strategic victory for the West as it would help demolish the last empire that threatens European security.

New thinking is urgently needed in Washington and Europe on how to deal with a failed power that borders 16 states and whose internal turmoil will affect all of them. Security partnerships must be pursued in handling conflicts that may spill over Russia’s current borders. This new thinking must also escape traditional Moscow-centrism by focusing on the diverse regions and nations occupied by the Russian Federation that will increasingly move toward independence as the Kremlin’s military and economic defeats become starker.

Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. He is the co-author of Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks with Margarita Assenova. His new book, Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture, will be published in June.


Uncategorized Uncategorized Uncategorized Uncategorized Uncategorized Uncategorized Uncategorized Uncategorized Uncategorized Uncategorized


By Jason Horowitz

May 21, 2022

The New York Times

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unfolded, Patriarch Kirill I, the leader of the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church, had an awkward Zoom meeting with Pope Francis.

The two religious leaders had previously worked together to bridge a 1,000-year-old schism between the Christian churches of the East and West. But the meeting, in March, found them on opposing sides of a chasm. Kirill spent 20 minutes reading prepared remarks, echoing the arguments of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia that the war in Ukraine was necessary to purge Nazis and oppose NATO expansion.

Francis was evidently flummoxed. “Brother, we are not clerics of the state,” the pontiff told Kirill, he later recounted to the Corriere della Sera newspaper, adding that “the patriarch cannot transform himself into Putin’s altar boy.”

Today, Kirill stands apart not merely from Francis, but from much of the world. The leader of about 100 million faithful, Kirill, 75, has staked the fortunes of his branch of Orthodox Christianity on a close and mutually beneficial alliance with Mr. Putin, offering him spiritual cover while his church — and possibly he himself — receives vast resources in return from the Kremlin, allowing him to extend his influence in the Orthodox world.

To his critics, the arrangement has made Kirill far more than another apparatchik, oligarch or enabler of Mr. Putin, but an essential part of the nationalist ideology at the heart of the Kremlin’s expansionist designs.

Kirill has called Mr. Putin’s long tenure “a miracle of God,” and has characterized the war as a just defense against liberal conspiracies to infiltrate Ukraine with “gay parades.” “All of our people today must wake up — wake up — understand that a special time has come on which the historical fate of our people may depend,” he said in one April sermon. “We have been raised throughout our history to love our fatherland, and we will be ready to protect it, as only Russians can defend their country,” he said to soldiers in another.

Kirill’s role is so important that European officials have included him on a list of individuals they plan to target in an upcoming — and still in flux — round of sanctions against Russia, according to people who have seen the list. Such a censure would be an extraordinary measure against a religious leader, its closest antecedent perhaps being the sanctions the United States leveled against Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

For more than a decade, Kirill’s critics have argued that his formative experience of religious repression during the Soviet era had tragically led him into Mr. Putin’s empowering and ultimately inescapable embrace, turning the Russian Orthodox Church under Kirill’s leadership into a corrupted spiritual branch of an authoritarian state.

Sanctions, while likely to be seen within Russia and its church as merely further evidence of hostility from the Godless West, have the potential to place a finger on the scale of the shifting balance of power within the often bitterly divided Orthodox Church. “This is new,” said Enzo

Bianchi, an Italian Catholic prelate who first met Kirill in the late 1970s at conferences he organized to promote reconciliation with the Orthodox Church.

Father Bianchi worried that imposing sanctions on a religious leader could set a dangerous precedent for “political interference in the church.” Still, he considered Kirill’s alliance with Mr. Putin disastrous. All of which has raised the question of why Kirill has so thoroughly aligned himself with Russia’s dictator.

Part of the answer, close observers and those who have known Kirill say, has to do with Mr. Putin’s success in bringing the patriarch to heel, as he has other important players in the Russian power structure. But it also stems from Kirill’s own ambitions.

Kirill has in recent years aspired to expand his church’s influence, pursuing an ideology consistent with Moscow being a “Third Rome,” a reference to a 15th-century idea of Manifest Destiny for the Orthodox Church, in which Mr. Putin’s Russia would become the spiritual center of the true church after Rome and Constantinople.

It is a grand project that dovetails neatly with — and inspired — Mr. Putin’s mystically tinged imperialism of a “Russkiy Mir,” or a greater Russian world. “He managed to sell the concept of traditional values, the concept of Russkiy Mir, to Putin, who was looking for conservative ideology,” said Sergei Chapnin, a senior fellow in Orthodox Christian studies at Fordham University who worked with Kirill in the Moscow Patriarchate.

Born Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyaev at the end of World War II, Kirill grew up, like Mr. Putin, in a small St. Petersburg apartment during the Soviet era. But while Mr. Putin has painted himself as a brawling urchin, Kirill came from a line of churchmen, including a grandfather who suffered in the gulags for his faith. “When he returned, he told me: ‘Don’t be afraid of anything but God,’” Kirill once said on Russian state television.

Like practically all elite Russian clerics of the era, Kirill is believed to have collaborated with the K.G.B., where Mr. Putin learned his early trade. Kirill quickly became someone to watch in Russian Orthodox circles, representing the church in 1971 at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, which allowed him to reach out to Western clerics from other Christian denominations.  “He was always open to dialogue,” said Father Bianchi, who remembered Kirill as a thin monk attending his conferences.

Traditionalists were initially wary of Kirill’s reformist style — he held megachurch-like events in stadiums and amplified his message, and popularity, on a weekly television show, starting in 1994. But there were also early signs of a deep conservatism. Kirill was at times appalled by Protestant efforts to admit women to the priesthood and by what he depicted as the West’s use of human rights to “dictatorially” force gay rights and other anti-Christian values on traditional societies.

In 2000, the year Mr. Putin took power in Moscow, Kirill published a mostly overlooked article calling the promotion of traditional Christian values in the face of liberalism “a matter of preservation of our national civilization.”

In December 2008, after his predecessor Aleksy II died, Kirill spent two months touring — critics say campaigning — in the Russian monasteries that kept the flame of conservative doctrine. It worked, and in 2009, he inherited a church in the middle of a post-Soviet reawakening. Kirill gave a major speech calling for a “Symphonia” approach to church and state divisions, with the Kremlin looking after earthly concerns and the church interested in the divine.

At the end of 2011, he lent his voice to criticism against fraudulent parliamentary elections by defending the “lawful negative reaction” to corruption and said that it would be “a very bad sign” if the Kremlin did not pay attention. Soon afterward, reports of luxurious apartments owned by Kirill and his family surfaced in the Russian media. Other unconfirmed rumors of billions of dollars in secret bank accounts, Swiss Chalets and yachts began to swirl.

A news website dug up a photograph from 2009 in which Kirill wore a Breguet Réveil du Tsar model watch, worth about $30,000, a marker of membership to the Russian elite.  After his church sought to airbrush the timepiece out of existence, and Kirill denied ever wearing it, its remaining reflection on a polished table prompted an embarrassing apology from the church.

The Rev. Cyril Hovorun, an Orthodox priest who was a personal assistant to Kirill for a decade, said the tarnishing of the patriarch’s reputation was interpreted by Kirill as a message from the Kremlin not to cross the state.  Kirill drastically changed direction, giving full support and ideological shape to Moscow’s ambitions.  “He realized that this is a chance for the church to step in and to provide the Kremlin with ideas,” said Father Hovorun, who resigned in protest at that time. “The Kremlin suddenly adopted the language of Kirill, of the church, and began speaking about traditional values” and how “Russian society needs to rise again to grandeur.”

Father Hovorun, now a professor of ecclesiology, international relations and ecumenism at University College Stockholm, said Kirill took Mr. Putin’s talk of being a believer with a grain of salt.  “For him, the collaboration with the Kremlin is a way to protect some kind of freedom of the church,” he said. “Ironically, however, it seems that under his tenure as the patriarch, the church ended up in a situation of captivity.”

Steadily, the line between church and state blurred.

In 2012, when members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot staged a “Punk Prayer” in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral to protest the entanglement of Mr. Putin and Kirill, Kirill seemed to take the lead in pushing for the group’s jailing. He also explicitly supported Mr. Putin’s presidential bid.

His church reaped tens of millions of dollars to reconstruct churches and state financing for religious schools. The St. Basil the Great Foundation of Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian Orthodox oligarch close to Mr. Putin, paid for the renovation of the Moscow headquarters of the church’s department of external church relations, which Kirill used to run.

Kirill raised taxes significantly, and with no transparency, on his own churches, while his own personal assets remained classified. Mr. Chapnin, who had been personally appointed by Kirill to run the church’s official journal, began criticizing him and was fired in 2015.

Like Mr. Putin’s Kremlin, Kirill’s church flexed its muscles abroad, lavishing funds on the Orthodox Patriarchates of Jerusalem and Antioch, based in Syria. Those investments have paid off.

This month, the Antioch Patriarchate publicly opposed sanctions against Kirill, giving a predicate to Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, arguably the closest European leader to Mr. Putin, to this week vow that he would block any sanctions against Kirill.

But for Kirill, Moscow’s status in the Orthodox world is perhaps of primary importance.

The Great Schism of 1054 split Christianity between the Western church, loyal to the pope in Rome, and the Eastern church in Constantinople. In the ensuing centuries, the Constantinople

patriarch, with his seat in present-day Istanbul, maintained a first among equals status among Eastern Orthodox churches, but others became influential, including Moscow.

Moscow’s invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014 led the already unhappy Ukrainian Orthodox Church to break from centuries of jurisdiction under Moscow, costing it about a third of its parishes. Recognition of the Ukrainian church by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople fueled tensions between Moscow and Constantinople.

The internal church war has also spilled into the military one, with Moscow using the protection of the Orthodox faithful in Ukraine who remain loyal to Kirill as part of the pretext for invasion.

Mr. Putin’s war and Kirill’s support for it now appear to have diminished their shared grand project. Hundreds of priests in Ukraine have accused Kirill of “heresy.” The threat of European Union sanctions loom. Reconciliation with the Western church is off the table.

Yet Kirill has not wavered, calling for public support of the war so that Russia can “repel its enemies, both external and internal.” And he smiled broadly with other loyalists in Mr. Putin’s inner circle on May 9 during the Victory Day parade in Moscow.

Some say he has no choice if he wants to survive.  “It’s a kind of mafia concept,” Mr. Chapnin said. “If you’re in, you’re in. You can’t get out.”


Jason Horowitz is the Rome bureau chief, covering Italy, the Vatican, Greece and other parts of Southern Europe. He previously covered the 2016 presidential campaign, the Obama administration and Congress, with an emphasis on political profiles and features. @jasondhorowitz


A visit to the town of Maryinka brings a rare close-up look at the nature of the war in eastern Ukraine, described by Ukraine’s president as ‘hell’

By Sudarsan Raghavan

May 21, 2022

The Washington Post

MARYINKA, Ukraine — Shortly after the Ukrainian sniper team arrived, a Russian shell slammed close to the operations base, rattling the windows and shaking the earth. A second one crashed moments later, then a third. Two Ukrainian drone operators arrived on yellow bicycles. They, too, had narrowly avoided a mortar attack.

On this volatile morning, the snipers’ mission was to set up a forward position in this war-wrecked front-line town, vital to slowing the Russian advance in eastern Ukraine. It required a risky 300-yard dash across several street blocks, including a main road that the Russians were actively pounding. The unit had to avoid stepping on mines — or revealing themselves to locals who might tip off the Russians.

There was a lull in the artillery barrage. “Let’s go now,” declared Dmytro Pyatnikovskiy, 38, the leader of the five-member team. But then another shell rammed into the ground.

With Russia’s military pushed out of Kyiv and on the retreat in Kharkiv, the war is now being waged largely in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, in and around villages and towns like Maryinka. Russian forces are trying to push south from the town of Izyum and west from Moscow-backed separatist-controlled areas in a bid to fully take over Donbas, to which the Kremlin has laid claim on the grounds of defending its large Russian-speaking population.

But the Ukrainian troops here, a mix of soldiers and volunteers, have resisted stiffly, inflicting heavy casualties under conditions that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has described as “hell.” More than a month after Moscow shifted its focus to seizing the country’s east, the Russians have made limited gains so far; in many areas, their offensive has ground to a stalemate.

A visit to Maryinka brought a rare close-up look at the current nature of the war in eastern Ukraine — fueled now by crushing artillery battles aided by drones and snipers — and showed why Russian forces have failed to break Ukraine’s defensive lines.  “The Russians only fire with artillery and tanks now,” said Curly, 35, a drone operator who gave only his nom de guerre. “They don’t engage in close combat. Because they know they will get kicked by us. There are Russian ground units, but they are afraid to come to Ukrainian positions. We shell them with mortars. “It’s like badminton.” Another lull. Pyatnikovskiy, known to his team as Dima, glanced at his comrades and nodded. This was their window of opportunity.

Carrying their rifles, they moved out of the building and onto a side street. Curly, a welder before the war who has fought in the town since April and knows the terrain, joined them. As they reached an intersection, Curly suggested they go straight across — there had been less shelling up ahead. But Dima disagreed. “Do you want to go through the park?” Dima asked. “There is nowhere to take cover.” “There is,” Curly replied. “There are at least walls here,” said Dima, indicating the road to his left. Everyone followed.

They trotted alongside the walls of abandoned houses, some shattered by artillery, and past fences pocked with shrapnel. Tree-lined sidewalks were strewn with broken glass and torn open by mortar fire. The streets were ghostly. Not a resident was in sight. As they neared the main road, the soldiers started to run.

The day before, the sniper team had set up camp in a village overlooking a lake roughly five miles outside Maryinka. They took food and other supplies, constructed a makeshift shower and dug a pit latrine.

Like many Ukrainian fighters, the five had been civilians before Russia invaded on Feb. 24. All from the southeastern city of Dnipro, they shared a passion for high-powered guns; all were members of a local shooting club called Wild Fields. They joined a volunteer corps and were sent to protect strategic sites. But what they really

wanted was to put their skills to use. Now they were finally getting their chance. For three of them, Maryinka was their first front-line mission.

They were a motley crew. There was Alex, 34, a tall, blond boxing trainer; Andrei Kolupailo, 47, a towering businessman; and Oleksi Shapoval, 33, a wiry construction worker. Dima, also a construction worker, was a sniper trainer at the shooting club. All had purchased their own sniper rifles.

Oksana, 35, the curly-haired mother of a 5-year-old boy, was a former electrical engineer who had spent six years as a fire juggler in a circus that traveled around the world. She was now one of the small group of female snipers in the Ukrainian forces who can hit a target nearly a mile away. “It is frowned upon in our society that a woman is in the military and doing this line of work,” said Oksana, who for this reason declined to give her family name. “I may be judged later for decisions I made here. But it’s not about gender to be patriotic and do your part for your country.”

What team members lacked in front-line experience, they made up in confidence. They were bolstered by Ukrainian counteroffensives around Kharkiv that drove the Russians beyond artillery range and, in some cases, back to their border. Ukrainian aircraft and drones are actively bombing Russian positions in Donbas.

The snipers’ primary mission was reconnaissance. But they also had orders to kill high-value targets, such as commanders or officers, whenever they saw an opportunity. “Finally! I get to kill the occupiers,” Oksana said. “We were trained to be here.”

The Russians “have had losses in Kyiv,” she said. “They have had losses now in Kharkiv. We are more than capable of fighting off the Russians. They will not push through here.” But the snipers also understood the volatility of the landscape, and how swiftly front lines in Donbas can shift. The region is made up of two provinces, Luhansk and Donetsk, portions of which were under Russian control before the war.

Russian forces have seized nearly all of Luhansk and besieged the strategic city of Severodonetsk from three sides. If the city falls, it could open the way for the Russians to push toward major cities such as Kramatorsk and Slovyansk.

The Ukrainians still control much of Donetsk, but after weeks of bombardment, the Russians have taken the port city of Mariupol. Keeping the Russians from seizing Maryinka has grown more urgent.  “It’s very important,” Kolupailo said. “If we lose this location, the Russians can advance in Donetsk.”

This town has been in the crosshairs of war since 2014, when conflict erupted between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces. By the time a cease-fire was signed the following year, Maryinka had been shattered.

The town now is split between Ukrainian and Russian zones, lines that have been static for weeks. The sides are fighting a battle of attrition in which the enemy is rarely seen.  “It’s harder to gain territory here because the Russians have had more time to fortify their positions,” Dima said. “They have the same problem with pushing through the line into the Ukrainian side because the Ukrainian positions are also fortified. “It’s a game of moving backward and forward.”

That hasn’t stopped the Russians from trying. Last month, they reached a bridge roughly a mile from the operations base. The Ukrainians destroyed it, Curly said, but the Russians managed to cross the river and a battle erupted. The Ukrainians pulled back. “There is still a dead soldier from my unit lying there,” Curly said.

But since then, the Russians have not moved. “We have to fall back sometimes from our positions because we are getting shelled, we are getting bombed,” Curly said. “We don’t surrender the territory, but we retreat tactically. “Now, every time the Russians try to advance with their tanks, they get shelled from the Ukrainian side. They cannot move forward from that position.” Each side flies surveillance drones to spy on the other and to identify targets to shell. Curly’s drones have sent back images of Russian positions and tank movements, vital information for the mortar and artillery units. Curly’s younger brother, whose nom de guerre translates roughly to “crappy Ukrainian car,” is an actor and aviation hobbyist. A few weeks ago, he devised tiny homemade bombs to attach to the drones. One night, Curly attached a thermal scope to a drone, spotted a group of Russian soldiers and dropped one of his brother’s bombs on them. When the Ukrainians spot a Russian drone overhead, they prepare for a barrage of artillery.

The Ukrainian forces here have received some U.S. and Western military support, including Javelin and NLAW antitank missiles. But they have far from enough heavy weaponry to launch counteroffensives, soldiers said. “If we have more of these weapons, it will tip the scale against the Russians,” Curly’s brother said.

Behind their own lines, the Ukrainians suspect that a large percentage of the civilians who have remained in Maryinka support Russia and are collaborating with the enemy. Locals accused of tipping off the Russians to Ukrainian positions have been apprehended and jailed. One elderly woman was caught carrying Russian passports and several burner phones, Dima said.  A group of suspected Russian sympathizers is living in a basement of a school. Recently, Ukrainian soldiers found two phones with suspicious numbers. Now it’s a police matter, Curly said. The soldiers saw a benefit to keeping the residents in the school, which was near the operations base. “Their presence actually helps because the Russians are not firing at this position,” Curly said.

For the snipers, there are additional challenges. Their reconnaissance mission means observing Russian forces to understand their number, the timing of their movements and the type and amount of equipment they have. “It’s very important for us to learn about all of the threats so Ukrainians won’t become targets for Russians,” Oksana said. “As snipers, we are trying to minimize the risks for all units on the ground and in the area.”

But getting close enough to surveil the Russians is a risky endeavor. Both sides have planted mines and improvised explosives around the town. “Mines are everywhere,” said Kolupailo. “You have to be very mindful of where you are stepping.”

Another danger is the Russians spotting the snipers and shelling them. “The first obstacle is you have to choose the location wisely, Kolupailo said. “The second one is to sneak into the position quietly, and the third is to leave the location quietly.”

But even the best-laid plans can go awry. Two weeks ago, a different team led by Dima set up position in a building. Other units had said their intelligence indicated there were no Russian positions nearby, said Shapoval (He was with Dima on that mission, too). “A few minutes later, [a rocket-propelled grenade] struck a few meters away from us,” Shapoval said. The intelligence had been wrong. The snipers dismantled their guns and fled before they could be targeted again.

All these risks weighed on Dima, Shapoval and Alex as they ran across the main road. Oksana and Kolupailo remained in their camp, preparing to take the next shift.

The snipers crossed the road and walked swiftly past an abandoned market, its windows blown out, its roof battered by shells. As they turned into a yard with rusting, broken cars, a shell crashed.  “Go, go, go!” Dima yelled, ordering everyone to take cover near a wall.

They opened a red gate into a yard filled with debris to get to a former administrative building, its windows barricaded with sandbags and books. They gingerly climbed stairs littered with bricks and debris toward the top floor. They were wary of mines or other booby traps. With the windows of the building large and open, they walked low to the ground, their backs hunched, to avoid appearing in a Russian sniper’s crosshairs. The Ukrainians’ focus was on an emerald green hilltop nearly a mile away. “The Russian positions are over there,” Dima said, pointing out the window. “The sandbags you see are Ukrainian. Everything beyond that point is Russian.”

In a corner of the room, away from the windows, the snipers set up a high-powered rifle and pointed the long scope at the hilltop. Alex pulled out a pair of binoculars and Dima directed him to observe the Russian position. Shapoval opened a tripod and placed a camera atop it. He looked through the rifle’s scope.

The Russians were launching mortar fire, shells and Grad rockets toward the area. The rifle the snipers had set up could hit a target a mile away. They would be able to kill the Russian troops that were firing on them. “This is going to be our position,” Dima said.


Serhii Korolchuk contributed to this report.

Sudarsan Raghavan is a correspondent at large for the Washington Post. He has reported from more than 65 nations on four continents. He has been based in Baghdad, Kabul, Cairo, Johannesburg, Madrid and Nairobi. He has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the 2011 Arab revolutions, as well as 17 African wars.  Twitter





The strategic port city – synonymous with shattered buildings and thousands of deaths – finally fell under Russian control this week. But that’s not all Mariupol is or was. Former residents reflect on the once-flourishing city, the harrowing tales of escape and everything that was lost

Mark Mackinnon

May 21, 2022

The Globe and Mail

Mariupol is now synonymous with shattered buildings, thousands of deaths and the fierce resistance put up by the last Ukrainian fighters before the strategic port city finally fell under Russian control this week.

But that’s not all that Mariupol is or was. Before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched this war – his troops began their assault on Mariupol in the very first hours of Feb. 24 – the city was emerging from its smoggy industrial past to become one of the cultural capitals of eastern Ukraine. It was a growing high-tech hub, a place of trendy beer bars, feisty independent news media and a proud LGBTQ community. Just prior to the war, a new boardwalk was constructed along the city’s Azov Sea waterfront. A water park was supposed to be next.

A city known for its Soviet-era steel factories was in the midst of getting a European makeover, which is why some believe the Russian army seemed more intent on destroying Mariupol than capturing it.

Residents were proud of what they were building. They saw the modernization of the centuries-old port as a counterpoint to the repressive, backward-looking atmosphere that hung over the Russian-controlled city of Donetsk, roughly 100 kilometres to the north.

Much of Mariupol’s new swagger came from Ukrainians who had moved there to escape life in the “Donetsk People’s Republic” that Moscow-backed militants had proclaimed after seizing the regional capital in 2014.

Today, the Russian flag flies over a destroyed Mariupol. Former residents are left only with memories of the city they knew, and the harrowing tales of how they escaped. “Mariupol was a city with a bad reputation for ecology. It had a bad reputation for factories. But I saw with my own eyes how Mariupol was growing into a cool, cultural place,” said Danil Sidelev, an IT professional who worked for two Ukrainian media outlets in the city. “It’s horrifying what they did to it.”

Like many in Mariupol’s creative class, Mr. Sidelev arrived as a self-exile from Donetsk. His new home was dominated by the pollution-spewing Azovstal and Ilyicha steel factories – and their politically influential owner, oligarch Rinat Akhmetov – but Mariupol was nonetheless a freer place to live in than the neo-USSR that Moscow’s proxies were building in Donetsk.

It was because of his experience living through Russia’s takeover of Donetsk that Mr. Sidelev didn’t flee Mariupol before the outbreak of the wider war. “I thought, I’ve already heard artillery, I can handle it. But this was completely different,” he said. “We knew that if Russia wanted to take Mariupol, they would not be able to. But they made another decision – to completely wipe it out.”

Yuliia Didenko didn’t want to move to Mariupol. The journalist had stayed in Donetsk, reporting on the rise of the “People’s Republic” for as long as she could in 2014. But reporters who weren’t following the new pro-Russian line soon became targets. A car belonging to her editor-in-chief at the Novosti Donbasa website was set on fire outside his apartment. It was time to leave.

When she first arrived in Mariupol in July of that year, Ms. Didenko wasn’t impressed with what she saw. “I had the feeling that I went back 10 years, and not 100 kilometres to the south,” the 33-year-old recalled.

Prewar Donetsk had been moving forward, in large part because of the new international airport and other facilities that had been constructed for the city’s role as a co-host of the Euro 2012 soccer championship. Mariupol, meanwhile, was still the same post-Soviet industrial mess she had visited as a university student. “Before 2014, it was a deeply provincial town in the shadow of Donetsk,” said Kostyantyn Batozsky, a political adviser who was among those who fled the regional capital to Mariupol amid the proxy war that preceded Russia’s wider invasion of Ukraine. “Mariupol was just an industrial appendix to prosperous Donetsk.”

But the city was nonetheless ready for the influx of intellectual capital that came its way. Despite being known as an economic backwater, Mariupol – which was established in 1779 by a colony of Greeks expelled from nearby Crimea by Catherine the Great – always had something of an international feel about it.

The city soon sprouted cheese shops, microbreweries and art performances that changed the face of its downtown, particularly the stretch between the main square, with its elegant Drama Theatre, and the rebuilt waterfront. “We had a favourite little café where my friend and I drank Prosecco and ate delicious camembert burgers,” Ms. Didenko recalled wistfully.

Those who came to Mariupol were in many cases the cultural and intellectual elite of Donetsk. Both cities are populated predominantly by Russian-speaking Ukrainians, but those fleeing Donetsk had first-hand experience with the repression and poverty that came with Mr. Putin’s attempt to build a “Russkiy Mir,” or “Russian world,” by restoring Moscow’s control over some of the territories it lost when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.  “Mariupol had a deep resistance to the Russian narrative. They were not buying this ‘Russkiy Mir,’” Mr. Batozsky said during an interview in Kyiv, where he now helps manage a volunteer centre that collects donations and delivers supplies to the Ukrainian units fighting for Mariupol and other front-line cities.  “We called Mariupol the forward base of Ukraine. But it was more than a military outpost, it was the symbol of modern Ukraine – diverse, global. That’s why Russia literally destroyed it.”

Ms. Didenko, who fled Mariupol on Feb. 23, the day before the larger war began, finds it hard to talk about what happened to the city she slowly grew to love. “The Mariupol which I arrived in eight years ago, and the Mariupol which I had to leave when the full-scale Russian invasion began, are two different cities.”

She has no idea what has happened to the apartment she lived in, or the cafés she used to frequent. She wonders whether the woman who used to cut her hair is alive or dead. “It’s like all your life has been destroyed.”

If one episode in Russia’s lawless war against Ukraine can be called more horrifying then the others, it’s perhaps the March 16 bombing of Mariupol’s Drama Theatre. The centre of cultural life in Mariupol was instantly transformed into a mass tomb and, according to a report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the scene of a war crime.

As fighting raged all around the city, more than 1,000 people took refuge inside the white stone theatre. A week before the attack, the theatre’s set designers used white paint to write “DETI” – Russian for “CHILDREN” – on the pavement outside the building, hoping to deter an attack from above.

It didn’t matter. On the morning of March 16, the theatre sustained a direct hit, causing the roof to collapse on top of the main stage and audience hall. An Associated Press investigation later estimated that close to 600 people died in the attack. The city’s mayor estimated last month that at least 21,000 people had died across Mariupol because of the war. The figure has not been updated since April 12.

When she lived in Mariupol, Diana Berg had a spectacular view of the Drama Theatre, with its pillared façade and eye-catching red roof, from her apartment overlooking Theatre Square.

It was a fitting home for Ms. Berg, a gallerist and the director of the local LGBTQ centre who was one of the best-known figures on Mariupol’s cultural scene.

Now both the apartment and its view are gone. Ms. Berg fled Mariupol on the eighth day of the war, as Russian airstrikes made the city unlivable by knocking out the electricity, water and heating in early March. Worst of all for Ms. Berg was losing the internet and all connection to the world outside Mariupol.

Her apartment on Theatre Square, she believes, has since been taken over by Russian soldiers and used as an observation post. “You always think: What is worse? For your place to be, to be bombed, to be just smashed and you know, burned? Or to be taken by Russians? You always think about it,” she said in an interview in the city of Zaporizhzhia, which is 225 kilometres north of Mariupol and has become a hub for refugees fleeing the ravaged port.  “Most of us, we think that it’s better for your home to be damaged and ruined than for the Russians to come in and touch your things and the things of your kids. … The photos of my child and everything – they are looking at it.”

Ms. Berg uses strong language when she talks about what the Russian army has done to her home and to Mariupol – which the 42-year-old arrived in eight years ago after also fleeing her

native Donetsk. “Last time, they just stole my home and kicked me out. This time, they just raped everything around, you know, and just killed it as a city,” she said, clicking through photos of Mariupol taken before the war. “You feel that everything you were trying to develop, that you were putting your soul into, was just brutally exterminated.”

What Ms. Berg had been putting her soul into was the Tyu art gallery and LGBTQ centre – a hangar-like building that was a unique space in largely conservative eastern Ukraine. Ms. Berg hasn’t seen Tyu since she handed the keys to some of the neighbours in early March. They needed a building with a basement to shelter in as Russia began to shell the city centre.

At the start of April, there were 20 or 30 people hiding in the gallery basement. Ms. Berg assumes they would have burned whatever they found in the gallery – including artwork – to cook and to stay warm through the siege.

By the end of last month, Russian troops had entered Tyu and Kremlin-controlled media were broadcasting pictures of the pamphlets and posters about gay, lesbian and transgender issues that they found inside as proof of the degenerate Western values that Russian troops were “liberating” the citizens of Mariupol from. What happened to the people who had been hiding in the basement is unknown.

Tens of thousands of Mariupol residents who were captured by Russian forces have reportedly been sent to “filtration camps” where they are fingerprinted, photographed and interrogated. Those found with any evidence of pro-Ukrainian sentiment – such as tattoos on their body, or suspicious contacts on their phones – are detained indefinitely.

Not everyone in Mariupol welcomed the city’s new cosmopolitanism. When The Globe and Mail visited the city in 2017, someone had painted a large swastika on the side of the Tyu centre, along with the slogan “Against LGBT.” The previous year, a gang of thugs broke into the centre and assaulted those inside.

Witnesses told reporters that at least two of the 2016 attackers were wearing T-shirts of the Azov Battalion, a unit of volunteer fighters with far-right roots. Though the Azov Battalion had fewer than 2,000 members – and had become increasing depoliticized in recent years after being absorbed into Ukraine’s National Guard – the Kremlin used the existence of Azov to claim that all of Ukraine needed to be “de-Nazified.”

It was ironic to Ms. Berg that those she clashed with most became her city’s last defenders against the Russians. Particularly since Azov had made their last stand in the sky-dirtying Azovstal factory that she also used to complain vociferously about.

Now, like the rest of Ukraine, she views the Azov fighters – who this week were being transported to filtration camps and an unknown fate after more than 80 days of resistance – as heroes. She said she even misses the way the hulking Azovstal factory ruined the city’s waterfront.

Ukraine’s culture war has evaporated, for now, into national unity against the Russian invaders. The country’s LGBTQ community, she said, is also doing its part for the war effort. “I think that

all these fights between the so-called right and so-called left will just be no more,” Ms. Berg said, speaking before the Russian capture of Azovstal. “When Ukraine Pride is funding Azov, you know, and gathering [money] for the armoury – when, and many don’t know this, queer drag persons are carrying guns – it will be very, very hard for them to say, you know, this is right and this is left. I think that in terms of this, we will be much more united.”

For 25 days, Mr. Sidelev the IT professional and his girlfriend, journalist Tania Zhuk, had little idea what was happening to their city as they sheltered in the basement under their apartment building with two dozen other people. They had no mobile signal, and only knew what was happening directly above them.

A Russian tank was in the courtyard of their building, firing at Ukrainian positions a few blocks away. To get food and other supplies for the group – which included four young children, including a seven-month-old girl – the men had to run across an active front line to reach a warehouse that had been abandoned by a humanitarian group early in the fighting. “The first time I was really scared was when the Russian soldiers came to our door, because we didn’t know what they’d do. Will they be good guys or not? Maybe we’ll open the door, and they throw a grenade at us. We didn’t know what to expect. Maybe they even have some kind of list of people that they need to find. I was afraid for my girlfriend, of course, because she’s a journalist.”

But the soldier only told the group to stay inside the basement because it was dangerous on the streets outside. Then he asked for their apartment keys, saying they needed to be checked for Ukrainian snipers. Even with the keys, Mr. Sidelev said, the Russians broke down each door, and looted whatever they wanted from the empty apartments.

After more than three weeks of hiding, Mr. Sidelev and Ms. Zhuk decided in late March that it was time to try to escape Mariupol. The Russians had established a safe corridor to a nearby village, albeit one that was under Russian occupation. But the couple thought if they could get that far, maybe they could arrange a ride further, to Ukrainian-controlled territory.

What they saw when they emerged from their basement shelter shocked them. “The view was insane, completely insane; everything was burned out, probably one in three buildings was destroyed – completely black,” Mr. Sidelev recalled. Barely covered bodies lay strewn in the streets.

They returned to their shelter and decided that anywhere had to be safer than Mariupol. Along with another couple, they made a plan to escape the city by moving slowly from one town to another in Russian-occupied Ukraine until they finally found a driver willing to take them, for the right price, to Zaporizhzhia. But knowing they would have to pass through a thicket of Russian checkpoints before they reached Ukrainian-controlled territory, they first had to burn anything that hinted at what they did, or what they believed in.  “We burned everything that could connect us to journalism, to media, all our notebooks,” Mr. Sidelev said in an interview in the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where the couple now live. “We had to throw out any books that could show our pro-Ukrainian position.”

Unlike most of those who escaped Mariupol, Ms. Berg still has her archive of photos and videos that she took of her city before the war, and during the first days of the siege. In her last footage of Mariupol, there’s the sound of artillery sound in the distance – and Ms. Berg can be heard swearing inventively at the Russian warplanes overhead – but the city centre is still intact. The Drama Theatre still stands.

She wants to turn those videos into part of a documentary about Mariupol, and all that was lost when the Russian army destroyed a city that was just establishing itself as a cultural centre – and a home for all those who wanted a different future than what Mr. Putin had in mind for eastern Ukraine. “We don’t want it to stay just in the memory of the whole world as just, you know, a ruin and a mass grave, because we feel that a small civilization was destroyed actually,” Ms. Berg said, watching the videos she took of the first days of the siege. “We want to show people how it was before.”

Mark Mackinnon is the Senior International Correspondent for Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, and a seven-time winner of the National Newspaper Award, Canada’s top reporting prize.   Author of The New Cold War: Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union (Published 2007 by Random House Canada and Carroll & Graf) and The China Diaries e-book (2013)



19 May 2022

Roman Feshchenko


Olena Bilozerska, a sniper and participant in the Russo-Ukrainian war since 2014, talks about the tactics of the Russians, and the women in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, as well as the turning tide of battle at the front

Russia has been waging war against Ukraine for the ninth year in a row, and, with the exception of a few short breaks, sniper Olena Bilozerska has been defending her homeland all this time. The New Voice of Ukraine asked her what was happening at the front and when the turning point would come.

– What tactics is the enemy employing? How different are they from the ones used in February-March?

– In the first days of the war, it was like a safari: enemy vehicles moving in dense columns were destroyed by ambushes on roads passing through forests. The surviving personnel fled into the woods, where they were caught by the territorial defense or simply local hunters.

Now the enemy primarily resorts to “pressing-out by firing” tactics, using a large number of artillery pieces and a large number of shells. The enemy’s task is to “grind” our positions and then try to occupy them. Nothing new – these are classic tactics since the First World War.

– How many women are currently fighting in the Armed Forces? How comfortable do they feel in such extremely difficult and dangerous conditions?

– A lot. Currently, 17% of Ukrainian service members are women. Of course, the vast majority of them do not fight directly on the front line, but there are more and more girls on the front line too. They feel the same way as guys. Women do not have any specific needs that prevent them from fighting. If some women do have such needs, then the war is no place for them.

– What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Russian army?

– Strength: they have mechanisms to influence personnel to achieve their goals at any cost. Soldiers are simply treated as cannon fodder, and they are forced to accept it as their due.

The weakness is the absolute lack of initiative on the part of sergeants and junior officers. As a result, an inability to make autonomous decisions.

– Has the personnel of the Russian army changed qualitatively in comparison with the offensive in February?

– It has not changed. And why would it change? The same mercenaries, diluted by contractors.

– How do you assess the operation to rescue the fighters from Azovstal, and was it possible to save them earlier by military means?

– Like all normal people, I rejoice in every saved life of the Ukrainian soldier.

It was absolutely impossible to save Azovstal’s defenders by military means from the very beginning. Mariupol can be liberated only as part of a general counteroffensive by the Ukrainian army, which requires lengthy training.

The only chance Azovstal’s defenders had for survival was through diplomacy. At the same time, it is the seriously wounded that are the most likely to be spared, because there is a worldwide practice of exchanging wounded soldiers who will not be able to return to battle.

– What, in your opinion, does the front line lack today, and how important a factor for the war is the signing of the lend-lease for Ukraine?

– Many things are missing because when almost the whole state became an army at once, the bureaucratic army machine does not keep up with these processes. There are problems with not responding quickly to daily challenges, and the rest stems from this.

Lend-lease is very important, it will give the opportunity to replenish the existing military units with the latest weapons, and to arm the newly created ones. With the “full-fledged” arrival of the lend-lease, we can hope for the deployment of military units that will quickly and completely liberate Ukraine.

– And how significant is the volunteer help for the front?

– No less significant than in 2014. The army has long since ceased to be hungry or barefoot, and the front still stood, stands and will stand on the shoulders of volunteers. It goes beyond supplies – it is about the phenomenon of national mindset. For example, only a few of the Russian “experts” have expensive high-quality equipment that helps to identify the enemy in time and hit it well; in this aspect, they are far inferior to us. And it’s all because they do not have a developed volunteer movement.

– What is your most vivid impression of this war?

– My most vivid impression from the previous eight years has nothing to do with fighting or stories like the one where I was blown out of a burning building or hit in the face with a tracer bullet.

It was April 2014, I had just arrived in the sun-drenched, but tense — unlike in peacetime — Dnipro, got out of the car in a military uniform with a machine gun, and walked down the street towards the hotel. I openly, without hiding from anyone, walked through the center of a big city with a machine gun! It was such a surreal feeling for me at the time! And at that moment came the realization that reality had changed, that I was now at war.

And after the start of the full-scale invasion, the most vivid impression was the dawn of Feb. 24, when my husband woke me up and said, “It’s started.” As we were getting ready, I admit that we seemed ready, but my hands were still shaking from the stress.

Because it is one thing to fight in the Donbas, having a strong rear in Kyiv, and quite another – not to have a rear at all and realize that your destiny is somewhere here, not far from your home, to stand to the end, because I cannot be captured, you know.

On the first day, I recruited new fighters and perused Telegram channels every free second, and my partner Nadia, who had two children left at home, told me: “Come on, leave it! Don’t read the bad news.” And then, in a couple of days, there was such relief and such pride for the state and the people that there was nothing to be scared of at all.

– What are your personal conclusions about the 2.5 months of the all-out war in Ukraine?

– The same as everyone else. That the (Russians) turned out to be easier to defeat than we all expected.

– How do you see the prospects of the Russo-Ukrainian war? When to expect the turning point and when do you think this war will end?

– The turning point will come when new units are formed and deployed, armed with the help of our Western allies. In particular, when we get a significant amount of modern aviation.

No one knows when the war will end. In my opinion, it will last at least another year. And it will end, of course, with our victory – the restoration of control over Ukrainian territories within internationally recognized borders, i.e. with Donbas and Crimea.




The Hill

Russian President Vladimir Putin ironically appears to have greatly increased Ukraine’s chances of joining NATO. He has thereby achieved the opposite of what he claimed was his goal: keeping Ukraine out of the alliance.

Before Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, everyone — Americans, Europeans, Ukrainians and Russians — knew that Ukraine had no chance of becoming a NATO member for at least two decades. Putin’s decision to go to war had nothing to do with Moscow’s fear of the supposed threat to Russian security of Ukraine’s theoretical NATO membership. Instead, the aggression was, as Putin admitted in several of his missives, a direct consequence of his imperial ambitions on the one hand and visceral hatred of Ukrainians on the other.

NATO did contribute to the outbreak of the war, but not in the manner that many analysts think. NATO expansion posed no threat to Russian security — even if it entailed broken promises by the West — for three reasons. First, few Europeans would fight to defend Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Second, even if NATO members agreed to fight, the miserable condition of most of their armed forces would do little to push back a possible Russian assault. Third, the famed Article 5 of the NATO Charter does not obligate members to respond militarily. They can, in fact, respond any way they deem necessary — from military assistance to outright intervention to assembling a peace conference to organizing a demonstration.

NATO enlargement contributed to the war by leaving Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine in a precarious no-man’s land between an indifferent Europe and a rapacious Russia. Belarus adapted to these dire circumstances by aligning with Russia; Moldova, by attempting to maintain a balance; and Ukraine, first by balancing and then, after the revolutions of 2004 and 2014, by aligning with the West — which, much to Ukraine’s chagrin, remained more or less indifferent until war broke out in 2022 and Russia’s imperial and genocidal designs became manifestly clear.

In effect, NATO’s mistake was not to have enlarged and thereby threatened Russia, but to not have enlarged enough.

The conditions for Ukraine’s membership have now changed radically, thanks to Putin’s war. The arguments against Ukraine’s membership were severalfold, and none applies today:

  • Ukraine’s population was opposed to membership. That was true until the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. Thereafter, the tide turned toward membership. After Russia’s genocidal war broke out this year, Ukrainians overwhelmingly have supported NATO membership for their country.
  • Ukraine had a long way to go to become a rule-of-law state and democracy. The war has changed that. Despite the enormity of the destruction caused by Russian troops and the mobilization of all Ukraine’s resources, Ukraine’s government has performed democratically, liberally and tolerantly — even though wartime conditions might have justified more severe measures. It’s unclear that all NATO members would have responded similarly. Certainly, Hungary and Turkey would not.
  • Ukraine’s armed forces were not up to NATO standards. Everyone expected Ukraine to suffer defeat within a few days or weeks. Instead, Ukraine’s armed forces have performed heroically and effectively, demonstrating that they are arguably far better than those in many NATO countries. Ukraine used the years since the 2014 revolution to learn from, and ultimately outclass, NATO.
  • Ukraine was unstable. As the war has shown, Ukraine’s political, social and economic institutions have remained remarkably intact. Most of the population supports the government and the war effort. And the number of collaborators and traitors has been remarkably small.
  • Russia would attack and start a war, rather than permit Ukraine to join NATO. Russia already has engaged in a genocidal war against Ukraine. Putin may even decide to use tactical nuclear weapons, but if he does it’ll be because of the animus he bears toward Ukraine, and not because of NATO.
  • NATO members would have to get involved in Ukraine’s conflicts with Russia. They already are involved, adopting painful sanctions against Russia and providing Ukraine with significant financial, humanitarian and military aid. In effect, if not in intent, NATO members are acting according to the mandate given them in Article 5.
  • Countries with territorial disputes are excluded from NATO membership. As a study on NATO enlargement says, “States which have ethnic disputes or external territorial disputes, including irredentist claims, or internal jurisdictional disputes must settle those disputes by peaceful means in accordance with OSCE principles. Resolution of such disputes would be a factor in determining whether to invite a state to join the Alliance.” Ukraine’s dispute over Russian-occupied Crimea and the Donbas would be an obstacle to membership, but not an insurmountable one. After all, resolving the disputes “would be a factor,” but not necessarily the decisive one.

Extending immediate NATO membership to Ukraine would not change the geopolitical status quo. The war will continue. Russia will continue to engage in atrocities. Ukraine will continue to drive out the Russian troops from its territory. True, Russia would now be at war with a NATO member, but NATO’s collective decision not to send troops into Ukraine would remain in force, as would the West’s massive financial and military assistance.

So, why include Ukraine in NATO? Partly because it would be a form of NATO’s atonement for placing Ukraine in an untenable security position two decades ago. But mostly because it would accelerate Ukraine’s integration into the West, promote Ukrainian values in the West, and

provide Ukrainians with an enormous moral boost as they seek to save their country from Putin’s predations.

The West has nothing to lose and a loyal member to gain.


Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.






The Hill

From a Western Clausewitzian standpoint, there is no longer any political justification for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine other than to allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to save face. But from Putin and his supporters’ perspective on Clausewitz, that is more than a sufficient justification for continuing this war.

Putin has long since morphed into a contemporary version of a Shakespearean villain who is in blood so steeped that to go back would be as tiresome as to go o’er. Indeed, Putin and his toadies are busily making reckless nuclear threats in the belief that such threats will frighten the West into stopping the war with Russian troops on Ukrainian soil. In other words, they are exploiting Nixon’s madman theory to terrify Westerners with nuclear threats.

Unfortunately, too many Western experts are arguing that we have to save Russia or Putin’s face lest the humiliation of defeat drive him to escalate. Alternatively, they argue that we must negotiate the future of European security with Russia.

To put it starkly, they are all too willing to sacrifice Ukrainian territory and sovereignty to relieve their anxiety about escalation. Moreover, they also seem to harbor the strange idea that Western and U.S. deterrents are inherently ineffectual and immoral, if not absent, even though they have no proof of these defects in that deterrent. In fact, Putin has no “off-ramp” save victory, which is increasingly unlikely unless fearful Western leaders coerce Ukraine into surrender. That outcome not only undermines Ukraine’s confidence in the West, it also validates Putin’s strategy that the West lacks the nerve to defend its interests and values in the face of his nuclear threats.

Neither would such a program bring about peace — quite the contrary. Putin or his successors could spin that outcome as a victory and use it to provide a basis for renewed campaigns against Ukraine and Europe. After all, he has sought for over 20 years to subvert and now destroy any idea of Ukrainian statehood. Espousing the approach of preventing a decisive Ukrainian victory also makes it impossible to hold any Russians accountable for the economic devastation wreaked on Ukraine or the genocidal crimes committed across Moscow’s orders.

Behind much of this commentary lies the implicit or explicit canards that we have no vital interests at stake in European security in this war or that NATO or Washington is somehow to blame for this war.

These arguments, though dressed up in the clothes of supposed realism, are also utterly groundless. Putin himself has admitted that they are canards. Discussing Finnish and Swedish accession to NATO, he admitted that these moves “do not provide a direct threat.” Nevertheless,

he and his government are planning military moves because they cannot let go of the self-serving narrative that saturates Russian media about the alleged NATO threat.

While we obviously must take nuclear threats seriously, we must, in Voltaire’s words, “cultivate our garden,” i.e. European security. We must remind Putin that we too have a deterrent, both conventional and nuclear, and that if he launches a nuclear attack on Ukraine or Europe to save his power and system, it will be the last thing he ever does.

Moreover, if there is to be genuine security in Europe, including Russia, it is necessary to foreclose Russia’s option of a renewed Russian empire. A Russian empire is sustainable only through an autocracy like Putin’s that is both wholly criminalized and consumed by the ideology of Russia as being under permanent threat from NATO.

Empire intrinsically presupposes an unending state of war across Eurasia since Russia’s neighbors refuse to renounce their sovereignty and territory. And Russia clearly cannot sustain either war or empire.

Therefore, we must reject the advice of those who would gladly sacrifice Ukraine’s vital interests to their anxiety about Putin losing face. A Russian defeat is necessary not just to enhance Ukraine and Europe’s security but also to allow the Russian people to confront, as Germany has done, their history and responsibility for the crimes committed in the past and the present in Russia’s name. Only on that basis will Russia have a chance to reclaim its European vocation and enrich the lives of both its citizens and its neighbors.


Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). He is a former professor of Russian national security studies and national security affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College and a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College. Blank is an independent consultant focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia.