Military Briefing: Ukraine holds out against Russian advance but fears mount over Moscow tactics

Russian troops are facing stiff Ukrainian resistance around Kyiv and civilian protests in towns captured in the south, raising the stakes for the Kremlin and increasing fears about the repressive tactics Moscow might use to achieve its objectives.

As the invasion entered its 12th day on Monday, Ukrainian forces stood their ground around Kyiv and launched counter-attacks, frustrating Russian attempts to encircle the capital.

“We have been very impressed with the courage and the capability of the Ukrainian armed forces and the people, to be honest, and the extent to which they have, for more than a week now, halted what is a far superior military machine,” said a senior European defence official.

To the south, where Russia has nearly completed a land bridge to Crimea, large and unarmed crowds of civilians confronted troops over the weekend in Kherson, the largest city Russia has captured.

Yet how long Ukrainians can resist is the big question, analysts and western defence officials said. Russian forces are switching to a siege strategy that seeks to demolish civilian infrastructure such as power stations and punish Ukrainians for their defiance.

“Whatever problems you are hearing about [the Russian military], we should be very clear how the numerical and capability advantage Russia has is huge,” the European defence official added.

The Pentagon said Russia had fired 600 missiles during the invasion, an increase from 500 as of Friday, suggesting an acceleration from the roughly 20 launches a day that were detected at the end of last week.

A senior US defence official said Russia had moved 95 per cent of the forces that had been positioned on the border before the invasion have moved into Ukraine. He said there were only “limited changes on the ground” over the past 24 hours.

Video: Russian rockets hit regional police station in Kharkiv

The official added that Ukrainian air space remained contested. “Both sides have taken losses to both aircraft and missile defence inventories,” the official said. “We assess that both sides still possess a majority of their air defence systems and capabilities.”

In a recent poll, 82 per cent of Ukrainians said they were confident in their ability to repel Russia’s offensive. On Sunday, President Volodymyr Zelensky urged Ukrainians to “drive the Russians out”.

But the apparently stalled invasion has raised concerns about the tactics Moscow might use, including repressive methods to deter insurgents and control civilian populations after capturing urban centres.

According to European intelligence officials, Russia’s FSB, the successor to the KGB, has been charged with maintaining political order in captured towns.

“Russian officials have been considering aggressive measures to suppress likely protest and resistance . . .[including] violent crowd control, repressive detention of protest organisers and possibly public executions to deter Ukrainian protesters,” a European official told the Financial Times.

The use of terror to subjugate belligerent populations is a well-worn tactic, analysts said. It is inexpensive, which is a potentially important consideration for the Kremlin as western sanctions hit the economy and the financial costs of the invasion mount.

It also requires fewer troops. Occupying an entire country typically requires 20 soldiers per 1,000 people, although Russia committed more than 150 troops per 1,000 residents in Chechnya in 2003, according to a US Army War College study. In Ukraine, that would equate to a force of more than 6mn Russian soldiers.

“The temptation in Moscow to turn to terror in the vast expanses of Ukraine will be great. It is also a cheap and tested method when you don’t have enough men,” said Sergio Jaramillo, senior adviser at the European Institute of Peace in Brussels and a former Colombian defence official who designed the country’s peace process.

“In Colombia, paramilitary militias used a series of savage massacres to break the will of locals. If anything like that happened in Ukraine, what would the west do?”

In February, Washington claimed in a letter sent to the UN that the US had “credible information” that Russian forces “will probably use lethal measures to disperse peaceful protests or otherwise counter peaceful exercises of perceived resistance”.

The letter also alleged that Russia had identified Ukrainians to “be killed or sent to camps following a military occupation”. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the letter’s claims “were an absolute canard, a lie . . . absolute fiction. There is no such list. It’s a fake.”

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