Russia expected to escalate violence in Ukraine

The Russian military is ratcheting up its attacks on Ukraine, targeting hospitals and civilian centers in a sign its war is likely to intensify in the coming days in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance.

U.S. officials and individuals on the ground in Ukraine reported Russian forces targeting hospital buildings, broadcasting towers and critical infrastructure. Video went viral of a missile landing in Freedom Square in Kharkiv, one of the largest city centers in Ukraine.

“Reports of Russia's human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law are mounting by the hour,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday in a speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

“Russian strikes are hitting schools, hospitals, residential buildings, are destroying critical infrastructure, which provides millions of people across Ukraine with drinking water [and] gas to keep them from freezing to death,” he added.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday said more than a dozen children had been killed, underscoring how the attacks have largely been indiscriminately targeting civilians.

“We are fighting just for our land and our freedom,” Zelensky said in an address on Tuesday that caused the European Union translator on the video feed to become audibly emotional. “We desire to see our children alive. I think it's a fair one.”

Lawmakers emerged from a closed-door classified briefing Monday night concerned that Putin is likely to escalate the violence against Ukraine but emboldened by the resistance of the Ukrainian army. The briefers were said to include senior officials in the departments of State, Homeland Security, Treasury, Energy, USAID and Intelligence.

“I think the Ukrainian people are willing to fight a long guerilla war,” Rep Brad. Sherman (D-Calif.) said after coming out of the briefing. “And I hope and expect that the United States will take this opportunity to provide them with the weapons they need.”

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a former CIA analyst, said the briefing gave “color” to the seriousness of the situation but that she was heartened by the bipartisan support in Congress for Ukraine. 

Slotkin said the briefers talked about the U.S. plans to resupply the Ukrainian army and that there was “a lot of interest” in Congress “in making sure those logistical networks can continue, even when communities are surrounded.”

But it’s unclear how long the Ukrainian army can protect supply routes to allow military armaments and other necessary logistics such as food and water into the country under assault from the Russian army.  

“We continue to have the capacity to get armament and nourishment to the fighters in Ukraine,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters after the briefing. “How long that will last depends on how successful the Ukrainian military is and the Ukrainian people are in keeping open those corridors of transport.” 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) issued a blunt warning that “the worst is yet to come militarily.”

“I think there’s a commitment by the Ukrainian people to fight to the death, so the idea of Russia using overwhelming military power against innocent civilians is more likely today than it was yesterday,” he told reporters. 

“We need a Berlin airlift-type support for the Ukrainian economy and pour weapons into the country. But do not be fooled. The Ukrainians have fought bravely. They’re freedom fighters of the 21st century. But the Russian military capability that is unused is pretty massive, and I expect a scorched-earth policy to unfold here in the coming days regarding Ukraine. I expect wholesale slaughter of Ukrainian citizens by the Russian military,” he added.  

Experts and analysts say that Putin’s military assault has been hampered by the fierce resistance from Ukrainians but also a logistics and supply chain issue that has slowed the Russian advance. 

Vladislav Davidzon, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center who is on the ground in Ukraine, said that the “logistical and communication issues that they are experiencing are illuminating how badly their army is still functioning despite the attempts to modernize and reform. They are still an artillery army first and foremost.”

Still, Davidzon raised the risk that Putin could “level the country.” 

“The Russians have achieved none of their objectives. I don’t know what they’re doing here. I don’t know what their exit plan is. They could either level this country and blow it up and leave it in dust and ruins, or they could withdraw with some sort of face-saving measures. But they cannot achieve any of their serious military objectives,” he said.

Michael Kofman, director of Russia Studies at CNA, a think tank in Virginia, echoed the assessment that Putin was hampered by logistics.

“Looking at the Russian operation so far, they're having tremendous problems with logistics and communications,” he tweeted Tuesday morning. “The whole effort seems shambolic. Some structural, some probably more specific to this operation, but will be doing a separate thread on those problems later.”

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, pointed out that the Russians have yet to deploy devastating cyberattacks to take out Ukraine’s electric grid, water and internet. 

“It’s something I’ve asked time and again,” Warner said as to why he has yet to see cyberattacks carried out.

“He [Putin] may have been saving some of those cyber tools to launch against NATO and America, in terms of — because once you use that tool, sometimes it’s hard to use it again. But I think it’s mostly a reflection of arrogance on his part that he thought he could roll [over Ukraine]. It’s probably one of the questions we’re asking the most often and still don’t know if we have a full report.”

Warner further raised alarm that Russian military strategy is to “escalate before they de-escalate, and they still have the tools to do that,” but he warned that “Vladimir Putin will lose this battle. He will lose this war. He will be a pariah amongst not only NATO and America but amongst all civilized nations. That will be his legacy out of this.” 

Russia appeared to target key communication infrastructure on Tuesday, with the Ukrainian Defense Ministry tweeting that the Russians had attacked a broadcasting tower in Kyiv. 

Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov warned on Tuesday that Moscow was preparing to launch a disinformation and psychological operation to demoralize the Ukrainian people, sow confusion and fear.

The conflict has so far defied the predictions of intelligence experts who felt the capital city of Kyiv could fall within a few days of Russia invading. But experts warn the setbacks Russian forces have faced so far could only embolden Putin and military leaders to further escalate in the coming days.

“I think it’s about to get uglier and worse unless there’s some kind of diplomatic breakthrough that passes,” said Ben Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities.

“Wars tend to escalate and tend to get more violent as they go on, and it's certainly possible in frustration with not achieving its objectives Russia might change its tactics and level parts of Ukraine,” he added.

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