Ukraine Situation Report: Putin Claims More Of Ukraine, Zelensky Applies To NATO
Putin made bellicose speech announcing the annexation of four Ukrainian regions while Zelensky asked NATO to rush its membership application.
Russia's all-out war on Ukraine became a war of words Friday, with dueling and highly significant messages from Moscow and Kyiv.
In front of hundreds of military and government leaders at the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin demonized the U.S. and the West writ large in his speech announcing the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions.
In contrast, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky held a simple ceremony standing at a table in Kyiv, signing a document seeking expedited membership to NATO.
In 37-minute speech full of alarming acrimony, dubious assertions and demagogic hyperbole, Putin blasted the U.S. for “satanism” and “neocolonial hegemony,” decried the West for “Russophobia” and wanting to turn Russia into a colony and made a chilling comment about the use of nuclear weapons.
"The United States is the only country in history that has used nuclear weapons. Creating, by the way, a precedent."
Putin also urged Kyiv to agree to a ceasefire and come to the negotiating table, but that there would be no room for negotiations over the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions, which held sham referendums leading to the appearance of overwhelming approval to join Russia.
But even as Putin spoke, Mykhailo Podolyak, a top Zelensky advisor, needled the Russian leader, tweeting out that his troops were being surrounded by Ukrainian troops in the key town of Lyman, in Donetsk.
“8 years ago, ru-military surrounded our [forces] near Ilovaisk. Our guys agreed to surrender without weapons. But Russia broke its word. The column was shot. Today RF will have to ask for an exit from Lyman. Only if, of course, those in Kremlin are concerned with their soldiers."
Meanwhile, in Kyiv, Zelensky explained his expedited request to join NATO.
“De facto, we have already completed our path to NATO,” he said. “De facto, we have already proven interoperability with the Alliance’s standards, they are real for Ukraine - real on the battlefield and in all aspects of our interaction. We trust each other, we help each other and we protect each other. This is what the Alliance is. De facto. Today, Ukraine is applying to make it de jure. Under a procedure consistent with our significance for the protection of our entire community. Under an accelerated procedure.”
Zelensky also said that while he could see one day negotiating with Russia, it would not be with Putin as president.
In a press conference later Friday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg danced around the issue when asked about it by a Ukrainian reporter.
“Every democracy in Europe has the right to apply for NATO membership and NATO allies respect that right,” he said. “And we have stated again and again that NATO's door remains open. NATO allies when they met at the NATO summit in Madrid, stated also very clearly, that we support Ukraine's right to choose its own path to decide what kind of security arrangements it wants to be part of.”
Stoltenberg, however, did not directly answer a question about whether NATO would act on Zelensky’s request.
“A decision on membership has to be taken by all 30 allies, and we take these decisions by consensus. Our focus now is on providing immediate support to Ukraine that will help Ukraine defend itself against the Russian brutal invasion. That's the main focus on the main effort of NATO allies.“
By avoiding a direct answer, Stoltenberg sidestepped the thorny issue of the unlikely near-term accession of Ukraine into NATO. Zelensky's request apparently took U.S. officials off-guard, with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan suggesting that now was not the time for such an action.
Stoltenberg addressed other issues as well. When asked by a German reporter if there was a concern over whether Ukrainian attacks on the illegally annexed territory will spur a greater response by Putin, he said Ukraine has a right to defend itself.
“Ukraine has of course the right to retake Ukrainian territory, which is now occupied by Russian forces. That's the reason why we support them. So they can defend themselves but also so they can continue to liberate territory. And as I said the illegal annexation or attempt of annexing Ukrainian territory doesn't change the nature of this conflict. Because if we accepted the annexation by Russia and nuclear saber-rattling …then we accept nuclear blackmailing.”
Still, Stoltenberg raised some hackles in Moscow, with Dmitri Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation and a close Putin ally, issuing a thinly-veiled threat that if Stoltenberg "does not stop, then a significant part of Ukrainians will disappear."
Not surprisingly, Putin's speech was lauded by his supporters and met with widespread derision and scorn by his opponents and enemies.
Alexander Dugin, a Russian political analyst and Putin supporter, whose daughter Darya Dugina was killed in a car bombing last month in Moscow that may have been targeting him, called the speech - which alluded to his daughter - "a fundamental declaration of war against the modern west and modern world in general."
And a huge crowd in Moscow showed thunderous support when Putin made an appearance in Red Square after his speech.
The U.S. was among many nations to swiftly condemn Putin's annexation move. Secretary of State Antony Blinken denounced the move as the U.S. issued a new wave of sanctions on Russia.
Christo Grozev, executive director and lead Russia investigator for Bellingcat, an investigative journalism group that specializes in using open-source intelligence and networks of professional and citizen journalists, called it "one of the craziest batshit speeches Putin has ever made."
Others made fun of the audience's reactions, like Medvedev apparently nodding off.
Someone in the crowd must have had a very urgent call, because he was captured during the speech on the phone.
But apparently, Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, was moved by Putin's words.
Putin's bellicose speech increases concerns that, as Russia continues to lose ground in Ukraine, he might take desperate actions, including the use of nuclear weapons, to stave off a defeat. The War Zone talked to top nuclear experts about the chances of Russia using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, you can read that recent report here.
We will be adding more updates to this post regarding everything else going on in the conflict momentarily.
Despite Putin’s threats and his mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Russians, Ukraine continues to make advances on the ground and may be close to cutting off invading forces in Lyman. That city has been a key logistics hub for Russian forces.
“We have substantial results in the east of our country,” Zelensky said on his Telegram channel late Friday night Kyiv time. “There is already enough public information about this. Everyone has heard what is happening in Lyman, Donetsk region. These are steps that mean a lot to us.”
In his evening video address, Zelensky thanked troops for capturing the village of Yampil, about 7.5 miles southeast of Lyman. And earlier today, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, said that the 81st Airborne Brigade liberated the village of Drobyshe, about six miles northwest of Lyman.
"The collapse of the [Russian] pocket around Lyman may allow - depending on how Ukrainian forces decide to pursue further gains - to unhinge this line and open up potential further advances east,” according to Reuters.
“The capture of the town in the north of Donetsk region could pave the way for Ukraine to make inroads into the adjacent Luhansk province, foiling Putin's goal of seizing all of the industrial Donbas region declared after his forces failed to subdue the entire country in February, military analysts said,” according to Reuters.
In its latest battlefield assessment, the Institute for The Study of War offered several key takeaways.
- The Kremlin continues to violate its stated “partial mobilization” procedures and contradict its own messaging even while recognizing the systematic failures within the Russian bureaucracy just eight days after the declaration of mobilization.
- Belarus may be preparing to accommodate newly-mobilized Russian servicemen but remains unlikely to enter the war in Ukraine on Russia’s behalf.
- Ukrainian troops have likely nearly completed the encirclement of the Russian grouping in Lyman and cut critical ground lines of communication (GLOCS) that support Russian troops in the Drobysheve-Lyman area.
- Ukrainian military officials maintained operational silence regarding Ukrainian ground maneuvers in Kherson Oblast but stated that Russian forces are deploying newly-mobilized troops to reinforce the Kherson Oblast frontline.
- Ukrainian troops continued to target Russian logistics, transportation, and military assets in Kherson Oblast.
- Russian troops continued ground attacks in Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian forces have likely increased the use of Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones in southern Ukraine.
- An independent Russian polling organization, the Levada Center, found that almost half of polled Russians are anxious about mobilization, but that support for Russian military actions declined only slightly to 44%.
- Ukrainian officials reiterated their concerns that the Kremlin will mobilize Ukrainian citizens in occupied oblasts following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation announcement.
With Putin once again raising the specter of nuclear war, ISW said he “would likely need to use multiple tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine to achieve his desired operational effect—freezing the front lines and halting Ukrainian counteroffensives.”
But the operational effect would need to outweigh the potentially very high costs of possible NATO retaliation.
“Putin might try a nuclear terror attack against one or more major Ukrainian population centers or critical infrastructure in hopes of shocking Ukraine into surrender or the West into cutting off aid to Ukraine. Such attacks would be highly unlikely to force Ukraine or the West to surrender, however, and would be tremendous gambles of the sort that Putin has historically refused to take.”
Given Ukraine’s tenacity since Feb. 24, ISW assessed that such a gamble was not likely to pay off and that the U.S. and its allies are unlikely to cave “because of the precedent it would set.”
“We assess Putin has two main tactical nuclear weapon use options: striking key Ukrainian ground lines of communication nodes and command centers to paralyze Ukrainian offensive operations, and/or striking major Ukrainian force concentrations near the line of contact.”
A single nuclear weapon “would not be decisive against either of these target sets. Putin would likely need to use several tactical nuclear weapons across Ukraine to achieve significant effects and disrupt Ukraine’s ability to conduct counteroffensives.”
Such a scale “would raise the risks of Western retaliation, likely increasing the potential costs Putin would have to weigh against the likely temporary benefits the strikes themselves might provide.”
A column of at least six Russian T-90M tanks was apparently spotted near Dubrovka in Russia’s Belgorod Oblast, a few miles from the Ukrainian border.
But in their typical taunting humor, Ukrainian forces don’t seem overly concerned about the movement of Russian tanks in occupied Crimea.
More Western weapons are headed to Ukraine. At the White House, national security adviser Jake Sullivan noted the $1.1 billion arms package announced this week, “and we expect to have another announcement of immediate security assistance to announce next week.”
The package will be worth several hundred million dollars, an administration official confirmed to POLITICO.
As the war drags on, Zelensky continues to troll Russians.
Russians are sending men without dog tags to Ukraine. So Zelensky is asking them to tattoo their names on their bodies “so we know how to find your relatives when you are killed.”
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