Russo-Ukrainian War 4/21/22

Putin speaks with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu regarding the siege of Mariupol, 21st April 2022 (Image via Kremlin)

Putin has ordered Russian troops to cease their assault on Azovstal, setting the conditions for a long siege or a potential escalation using WMDs. Azovstal’s tunnel system is built to withstand the Cold War, including nuclear weapons. He did so during a conversation with Russia’s Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, perhaps highlighting a level of distrust or dissatisfaction with his underling’s lack of progress.

Putin’s decision to siege the complex instead of storming it could have several reasons; British intelligence supports Russia’s need to deploy forces from Mariupol into the broader Donbas offensive. It is believed that as initially intended, Mariupol was meant to fall before the Donbas offensive began. Yet given its continued resistance, and despite the Donbas offensive starting (albeit in a sluggish manner), Russia’s forces may bypass it, leaving a handful of troops to apply pressure to the starved defense. Yet Azovstal’s continued resistance leading up to May 9th could pose problems. Hence there is a chance for an escalation with chemical or nuclear agents. Already, DPR officials have called for the use of chemical weapons, and a tactical nuclear strike could have the effects needed to shatter morale or eliminate Mariupol’s defenders. Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, has recently asserted that Russia would not use nuclear weapons. Yet such an assertion made by him or any Russian official should be taken as a serious risk, particularly given his earlier promises that Russia would not invade Ukraine.

Russia still seeks to achieve some major success before May 9th, during which it can either conclude the special operation with victory or rally support for a more prolonged struggle. But Russia’s inability to translate deployment to success on the battlefield is becoming a serious issue, particularly as Ukraine receives even more materiel support. It is now believed that Ukraine has more tanks than Russia within the region, per U.S. intelligence. Many of these tanks were provided by NATO allies, though a small but not insignificant number are Russian tanks captured since the February invasion.

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