Two items lie on the long wooden table inside the headquarters of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine: a map showing the latest Russian attacks on this country, and a chessboard. On the latter, only one piece has been moved: a black pawn.
That is, of course, against the most basic rule of chess – white is always supposed to move first. The board is left that way to remind Oleksiy Danilov, head of the NSDC, of the kind of war Ukraine has been fighting since Russia invaded on Feb. 24.
“A lot of rules are being broken right now,” Mr. Danilov said in an interview Friday. “This is a constant reminder that there are no rules in the world. That is a very important part of our reality.”
The laws of war – particularly those that prohibit the targeting of civilians – have been repeatedly broken during the 114-day old conflict, which has seen Ukrainian cities devastated by seemingly indiscriminate Russian bombardment. Evidence from towns and villages that fell under Russian occupation at the start of the war points to a campaign of extrajudicial executions and sanctioned rapes in those areas.
With Russian forces now making slow progress in the east – and Russian President Vladimir Putin still intent on conquering more Ukrainian territory – Mr. Danilov said Ukraine was preparing for more rules to be broken, including the biggest taboos: the use of chemical, biological or even tactical nuclear weapons. “We are ready for any scenario,” he said, after pausing to read messages on his constantly vibrating smartphone.
He said it is crucial that the West not become numb to the war in Ukraine or pressure Kyiv into a peace deal that benefits Moscow – even to preserve the global economy. Energy prices have skyrocketed worldwide as the European Union tries to wean itself off Russian oil and gas, and food has become more expensive as Ukraine struggles to export its grains and other crops with the Russian fleet blockading its Black Sea ports.
“Obviously, [rising prices] are important, but is any country allowed to attack any other country in the 21st century? And we’ll just calmly watch? I can remind you that this happened in the 1930s. And how did that end? We all know,” Mr. Danilov said.
The top-secret map laid out beside the chessboard outlined a war that has changed dramatically since the early weeks, when Russian troops advanced into the outskirts of Kyiv in an attempt to swiftly capture the capital. They withdrew from the capital region at the start of April, and now almost all of Russia’s deployed military might is concentrated in the southeastern Donbas region, where it is making incremental but steady advances.
“The situation on the front line is tense, complicated, and I’m not from the camp that believes the Russian army is weak. They have very big resources and they have brought them here,” Mr. Danilov said. “They have an advantage in artillery and heavy equipment. That doesn’t scare our warriors. We are holding our positions. From time to time we are delivering counterattacks. But the war is still ongoing, and we are far from its end.”
He refused to say how many soldiers Ukraine had lost since the start of the war, though officials recently acknowledged that hundreds of soldiers were dying each day. Mr. Danilov said only that Ukraine’s casualty figures were “far less than the enemy’s.”
An intense battle is currently being fought for Sieverodonetsk, an industrial city in the Donbas region that had a pre-war population of 100,000. Mr. Danilov said that both Russian and Ukrainian troops were in the city as of Friday and that “heavy fighting” was continuing.
Serhiy Haidai, the Governor of the Luhansk region, which includes Sieverodonetsk, said in a video message Friday that heavy Russian attacks were preventing the evacuation of 568 people who had taken refuge in the city’s Azot chemical factory.
“The Russians are pouring fire on the city,” Mr. Haidai said, adding that 38 of those trapped were children. “It’s getting harder and harder for us to fight in Sieverodonetsk because the Russians outnumber us in artillery and manpower and it’s very difficult for us to resist this barrage.”
While the war’s main front is currently Donbas, Mr. Danilov believes Mr. Putin’s aims remain the same as they were at the start of the invasion. “They definitely have not changed their plan to conquer all the country. They declare that publicly. They have pulled all of their masks off.”
On Friday, Mr. Putin used a speech to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum – once a showcase event that this year had members of Afghanistan’s Taliban leadership as its most notable foreign attendees – to repeat his false claim that Russia had been forced to intervene in Ukraine to defend the country’s Russian speakers from Ukrainian nationalists.
In fact, Ukraine’s predominantly Russian-speaking east has borne the brunt of the Russian assault so far.
Mr. Danilov told The Globe and Mail that Russia’s attack on Ukraine included five separate attempts to kill Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, all of them in late February and early March.
Mr. Danilov didn’t reveal details of the attacks, though early in the war he spoke publicly about a unit of Chechen fighters who had been assigned to kill Mr. Zelensky but had been “completely destroyed.”
The fastest way to end the conflict, he said, would be for Ukraine’s partners to give it the weaponry it needs to defeat the Russian army in the field. Earlier this week, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky’s chief of staff, said Moscow had a 10-to-1 artillery advantage along the 1,000-kilometre front line in eastern and southern Ukraine. He called for Ukraine’s allies to provide it with an additional 1,000 155-millimetre howitzers, as well as 500 tanks and 300 multiple-launch rocket systems.
So far Ukraine’s allies have delivered about 100 of the requested howitzers, including four from Canada. Several Eastern European members of NATO have donated an unknown number of Soviet-era tanks, with the United States promising to replenish the arsenals of those countries with modern armour. The U.S. and Germany have said they will provide Ukraine with the sophisticated rocket systems it seeks, though it’s unclear if any have been delivered so far.
Mr. Danilov said the war will only be over when the last Russian troops have left Ukrainian soil – including both Donbas and the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow seized and illegally annexed in 2014. However, he held out the possibility of a negotiated interim settlement. “The end of the war for us is getting back all our territories. Is a stop in this war possible? It might be an option. But this stop must be accepted by our society. If it’s not accepted, the society will go to war without the government.”
There are no significant peace talks taking place at the moment. Asked how long the war would go on – whether the conflict would end up being measured in months or years – Mr. Danilov said this was “the question nobody can answer.”
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