Ukraine: Brutal game of cat and mouse being played - Patrick Mercer

There’s a brutal game of cat and mouse being played in eastern Ukraine at the moment.

Undoubtedly, Russia’s attacking whilst Ukraine’s defending, but that’s all we can know for certain about what’s really happening because truth has all but disappeared.

First, Russia knocked out Ukrainian air defence systems, then bombarded dumps of Western weapons and material, hit supply routes and railway hubs before starting intense shelling of defensive positions in the Donbas.

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Then Ukraine’s only working port – Odessa – was hit from the Black Sea, but the Russian flagship was sunk in the process.

A Ukranian soldier looks into a crater left by a Russian bomb strike in the village of Yatskivka, eastern Ukraine; Russia’s focus now seems to be on the Donbas region. Picture: RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty.

Many have said this debacle meant that an outright assault on the city was postponed, but I don’t think that’s Russia’s intention.

No, Moscow hasn’t fielded the resources to seize Odessa yet.

The Kremlin doesn’t want a repeat of the bloodiness in Kyiv, but menacing the port and giving the impression that it can be taken at any time is a useful bargaining chip in peace negotiations.

Hand-in-hand with this came the Kremlin’s announcement on April 19 that operations to seize the Donbas and consolidate the corridor that links it to the Crimea and beyond had begun.

Certainly, President Zelensky confirmed that and told civilians to flee westward whilst, all the time, everyone’s eyes are fixed on the brutality in Mariupol.

I believe Russia is cynically using the fall of Mariupol to cloak a number of things.

First, no great land assault has yet begun in the Donbas.

There’s skirmishing and some limited advances, for sure, but all that’s doing is binding Kyiv’s forces to their trenches and bunkers.

The pincer movement, probably from Izyum near Kharkiv, has yet to start; if it does, its intention will be to destroy the heart of Ukraine’s army.

Meanwhile, the attention-grabbing horror of Mariupol suits Moscow fine. Whatever the ghastliness, the West is trying hard to convince itself that the gallantry of a small number of defenders of the metalworks is crippling Russia’s plans. It’s not; convoys and aircraft have been grinding southwest past Mariupol since early March with the garrison powerless to stop them, but Russia continues to pretend that the port’s capture is vital.

Once Orthodox Easter celebrations are properly over, I suspect that the ground offensive in Donbas will begin in earnest and by early May Moscow will announce the final fall of Mariupol and the triumphant consolidation of the Crimean Corridor.

It’s all propaganda, but President Putin has got to have a solid ‘win’ to proclaim on Victory Day, May 9, in Red Square.

The Ukrainian reaction is also fascinating.

Every civilian death is highlighted, every hospital, train station and nursery that is damaged is being used to hammer home to the West that help is needed if Russia is to be stopped. On top of this, though, the commitment of Ukraine’s armoured reserves is being openly discussed.

Now, the movement of reserves is exactly what Russia needs to know, especially if the Kremlin has yet fully to show her hand. I think it’s a bluff, though.

Whilst President Zelensky is no soldier, he is well advised and is proving more than a match for Moscow at maskirovka – the Soviet doctrine of political and military deceit.

However, many commentators are sneering at Russia’s apparent lack of determination in the Donbas, citing poor morale, dreadful tactics that have led to needless casualties and not enough troops.

But, if I’m right and the main assault has yet to start, President Putin will be on tenterhooks over its success. Will it work, though?

Well, perhaps we’re now seeing all that General Dvornikov, the new commander, has got to offer: missile attacks on Lviv, battleships off Odessa and lots of shellfire but no blitzkreig in Donbas.

Maybe his lads are too tired, too bloodied and too few for the fray; maybe the political imperative for triumph by early May has meant that he’s punched without power; maybe he’ll be get another, bloody nose. Maybe – the next few days will tell.

Meanwhile, the overall situation is escalating terribly dangerously.

Whilst Nato is sending heavier tanks, artillery and other material to Ukraine, everyone must be acutely aware that unless it reaches the front lines very shortly it will probably be too late.

But suddenly it’s not just about armoured vehicles and guns, there’s blunt talk of nuclear weapons as well.

Retired General Philip Breedlove, Supreme Allied Commander Europe until 2016, was used to sabre rattle in a way that serving generals and Ministers should not.

In an article carefully timed to coincide with the recent Nato leaders’ meeting he said: “We must respect the fact that Putin might use nukes but we shouldn’t be paralysed by it… We have nukes and… enough is enough.”

Menacingly, he went on to say that a Nato force “for military and humanitarian supplies” should immediately be deployed into Western Ukraine.

The riposte came swiftly from Mr Putin: “If someone intends to interfere in what is going on from the outside they must know that constitutes an unacceptable strategic threat to Russia…

Our response to counter strikes will be lightning fast.”

And this, of course, came hard on the heels of the well publicised test launches of Russia’s new, hypersonic, Sarmat nuclear missile.

So, there we have it. The bomb’s fuse has been lit in far-off Donbas; we’ll soon discover if it will it sputter out or explode in our faces.

Patrick Mercer is a former Conservative MP for Newark and Army colonel.