More possible war crimes uncovered as Kyiv forces liberate additional territory
KYIV – Russia’s debacle to conquer Ukraine after almost seven months of war has prompted Kremlin autocrat Vladimir Putin to push through legislative changes and announce a troop call-up of 300,000 reservists in what is seen as an embarrassment to his military.
On the morning of September 22, Mr. Putin gave a postponed 14-minute live television announcement from the previous day during which he tried to justify the draft while issuing a veiled nuclear threat toward Ukraine and the West.
It is the country’s largest troop call up since World War II in what is the biggest armed conflict since that time on the European continent.
Citing his country’s military doctrine, the Kremlin dictator said “it’s not a bluff” with regard to using all the means at his disposal, including nuclear weapons.
His defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, confirmed that up to 300,000 reservists would be called up to “hold the line at the front” while the recent legislative amendments loosely allow Moscow to draft as many people as needed.
Moscow’s mobilization is estimated to be “50 percent higher than Russia’s estimated invasion force” when it first launched its full-scale war on February 24, according to the Kyiv-based Dragon Capital investment bank.
Meanwhile, “Ukraine’s current mobilized force is estimated at circa 700,000, split between regular troops, territorial defense units and police forces,” Dragon Capital wrote.
Occupying less than 20 percent of Ukraine’s territory, Russia has struggled to replenish its manpower, which has been depleted due to heavy battlefield losses. It has also lost significant weaponry and has struggled to replenish its military arms amid punishing Western, Japanese and Australian sanctions.
In the first 200 days of the renewed invasion, Ukrainian forces have liberated more than 60,000 square kilometers of territory since April, as mapped by Critical Threats and the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).
The Washington-based ISW said that the Kremlin’s mobilization drive “will not generate significant usable Russian combat power for months. It may suffice to sustain the current levels of Russian military manpower in 2023 by offsetting Russian casualties, although even that is not yet clear.”
Overnight on September 22, Ukraine’s military estimated that 400 Russian servicemen were killed. A pilot of Russia’s latest assault helicopter, a Ka-52 “Alligator,” Lt. Col. Aleksandr Asksyonov and his crewman, were shot down in the southern skies of southern Ukraine, where there is an ongoing counteroffensive, according to Russian military bloggers.
Mr. Putin’s announcement came after Kyiv forces kicked Russian troops out of the Kharkiv region earlier this month in a stunning counteroffensive that involved a simultaneous thrust in the south toward the occupied parts of Kherson and Zaporizhia.
Illegal annexation referendums are planned there for September 23-27.
“The Ukrainian offensive in the northeast is continuing to exploit a bumbling and incoherent Russian defensive scheme to the east of Kharkiv,” said Mick Ryan, a retired Australian major general. “Thousands of square kilometers of Ukrainian territory have been recaptured, and many towns and their inhabitants have been liberated.”
The momentum after liberating the Kharkiv regional city of Izium, which is situated at the border of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, led to the sizable settlements like Bilohorivka and several villages in Luhansk region being retaken by Ukrainian troops during the week.
Russia rejoiced at having fully taken over the Luhansk region in early July, but that boast is no longer valid, and Moscow cannot lay claim to the entire region any longer.
Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said Kyiv’s military were in “complete control” of Biloho-rivka, which is a suburb of Lysychansk.
“Step by step, centimeter by centimeter, we will liberate our entire land from the invaders,” he said.
Ukrainian officials say that Russia is still incrementally advancing toward the Donetsk regional towns of Bakhmut and Slovyansk, but that claim could not be independently confirmed by The Ukrainian Weekly.
“The Ukrainian counteroffensive in the east continues to remain on the offensive whilst consolidating new defenses,” the Australian Cavell Group said of Russia’s steep battlefield losses.
Speaking by video at the United Nations General Assembly on September 21, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his forces “can return the Ukrainian flag to our territory. We can do it with the force of arms. But we need time.”
Summarizing the Kremlin’s recent moves, the British defense secretary said that “President [Vladimir] Putin’s breaking of his own promises not to mobilize parts of his population and the illegal annexation of parts of Ukraine are an admission that his invasion is failing. No amount of threats and propaganda can hide the fact that Ukraine is winning the war.”
The announcement of a military draft in Russia coincided with an announcement by Moscow-installed proxies in four occupied regions this week of referendums annex Ukrainian land. The same happened in 2014 when Russia forcibly seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in a vote that has not been recognized by any democratic country.
Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted that “’sham’ referendums will not change anything.”
“Russia has been and remains an aggressor illegally occupying parts of Ukrainian land. Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say,” Mr. Kuleba said.
Russian nuclear threat
While speaking at the U.N. General Assembly on September 22, President Joe Biden said that “Russia has shamelessly violated the core tenets of the United Nations charter” by invading Ukraine. “Putin claims he had to act because Russia was threatened,” the U.S. president said. “No one threatened Russia. And no one other than Russia sought conflict.”
In turn, Mr. Zelenskyy said by video that a special U.N. tribunal should be established to punish Russia for its actions while calling on measures to be taken to strip Moscow of its veto power on the international body’s Security Council.
The largest prisoner swap since Feb-ruary 24 between the warring sides took place early on September 22 in Ankara. Turkey brokered the swap together with Saudi Arabia.
Most of the 215 Ukrainians released from Russian captivity were members of the National Guard Azov Regiment that helped defend the Azov port city of Mariupol in Donetsk Oblast. Among them were five commanding officers who are to remain in Turkey for the duration of the war.
Kyiv released 55 unidentified people, most of them Russians, except for Viktor Medvedchuk, a close confidante of Mr. Putin and convicted traitor, Mr. Zelenskyy said during his nightly address on September 22.
Ten foreigners, believed to be part of the nation’s International Legion of Territorial Defense, were also released, as were five Britons and two U.S. citizens.
More war crimes alleged
As more territory has been liberated, the tally of alleged war crimes is being added up, especially in the newly liberated areas of Kharkiv Oblast.
Severed genitalia among alleged war crime victims have been uncovered, said Yevhen Yenin, Ukraine’s first deputy minister of interior affairs.
“We continue to find bodies with signs of violent death; there are many of them,” he said on national television on September 18. “There are broken ribs and broken heads, men with tied hands, broken jaws and cut off genitalia.”
Authorities have so far discovered 10 “torture chambers” operated by formerly occupying Russian forces in Kharkiv Oblast, according to National Police chief Ihor Klymenko.
A disaster was averted on September 19 when Russian projectiles narrowly missed a nucleaer reactor by 300 meters at the Pivdennoukrainsk plant in Mykolayiv Obast. The blast came about 200 kilometers north of the southern front line, the Financial Times reported.
“At night, a missile fell 300 meters from the Pivdennoukrainsk nuclear power plant,” Mr. Zelenskyy said in a Telegram post that included video footage purporting to show the strike and subsequent explosion. “Russia endangers the whole world. We have to stop it before it’s too late,” he added.