"2024 will be a critical moment for the Russia-Ukraine conflict," says historian Guillaume Lasconjarias

A damaged Russian ship in the Black Sea, massive Russian shelling that reminds the inhabitants of several Ukrainian cities rather spared by the conflict in recent months that the country is still at war, the Russian city of Belgorod hit in its center... Since the beginning of the week, there has been a military escalation between Kiev and Moscow. Russia, which is calling for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, vowed on Saturday night to retaliate against the strike on Belgorod. It is the deadliest attack on civilians in Russia since the conflict began in February 2022. Guillaume Lasconjarias is a military historian and associate professor at the University of Paris Sorbonne.

This photograph taken and published by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Service on December 29, 2023, shows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (2nd left) visiting the forward checkpoint of the separate 110th Mechanized Brigade named after the late Ukrainian corporal-general Marko Bezruchko in the city of Avdiivka. AFP - HANDOUT

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RFI: How do you analyse the escalation sequence of the last few days?

Guillaume Lasconjarias: We often have the impression that winter rhymes with a decrease or an end in fighting, but very clearly, this is not the case. There is no pause. First of all, because the cold does not prevent manoeuvring and here we have two points that seem to me to be quite interesting: firstly, the continuation or resumption by the Russians of what they started last year, that is to say a massive campaign of terror with missile and drone strikes that has never really stopped, but which is ongoing and which aims to have an impact on the population. On the other hand, we have the strategic importance of the Black Sea theatre, which is not talked about much and which is central because the presence of the Russian fleet leaves an uncertainty that the Ukrainians want to dismiss, especially since it prevents them from using the maritime corridor to export grain. So, the naval battle that is being played out is important and it shows that the Ukrainians are also capable of repelling and striking, for example the port of Sevastopol. There had already been the Moskva that had been sunk. For their part, the Russians also do not plan to leave the initiative to the Ukrainians. We are therefore in a period that is not a period of pause in which both sides, as we can still see today, are trying to retain a degree of initiative and to do so are using all the means at their disposal.

How do you explain that Friday's Russian airstrike on several cities in Ukraine was particularly deadly, with nearly 40 people killed?

This can be explained in two ways. First, it can be observed that on the Russian side, there is no decrease in strike volume, which means that their replenishment of missile and drone stockpiles is working. For a moment it was thought that the reduction in strikes meant that it no longer had sufficient industrial resources to continue operations. De facto, here we have the demonstration that this war economy into which Russia has entered, works and that it allows the use of these terror strikes. The second point is that we can also imagine that the heart of cities, the urban core, is probably less well protected or less densely protected than strategic locations. Last year, we remember the Russian strikes on the power grid, on power plants, anything that could plunge Ukraine into darkness, as well as on command posts. So there may be new targets, as strikes on strategic locations are intercepted. But, it should also not be ignored that this would not be the first time that the Russians have deliberately attacked population centers to literally create a terror effect and push the Ukrainian population to put pressure on their own government. It is interesting to note that these attacks come at a time when there is a form of discontent among the Ukrainian population and the consensus seems to be crumbling. Last week, we talked about conscription, about the inequality between those who are at the front and those who stay behind. The strikes on the back are a reminder that no one is actually protected.

In retaliation, the Ukrainians targeted the Russian city of Belgorod. Why did you choose this city?

Choosing a city like Belgorod is first of all because it is an oblast that is close to the Ukrainian border. There are about thirty kilometers separating Belgorod from the border with Ukraine. We are very close to Kharkiv, to Sumy. The second point is that Belgorod has been used and is still used by the Russians as a military hub through which Russian military logistics transit via rail. So to strike Belgorod is to show that this city is not safe, it is to show that war can also invite itself into the Russian theater and especially when you have such a rapid retaliatory and retaliatory strike, it has three meanings for three audiences. This is a message that is addressed first and foremost to the Ukrainians themselves, to tell them, the Ukrainian government and army do not let this kind of crime go unpunished and we also have the means to strike. The second audience is the Russians to tell them that nothing goes unpunished. Inevitably, we are in a form of strategic dialogue. Finally, the third audience is us, that is, it is the Western powers that are arming Ukraine at a time when it is becoming more and more critical. However, this is an essential question, to allow Ukraine to be armed and to start 2024 in the best possible condition.

Finally, Russia has called for an emergency meeting of the Security Council. How can we analyse the fact that Moscow wants to add a diplomatic component to the military terrain?

It is a way of putting the other members of the P5, that is to say the United States, France, Great Britain, in front of a form of responsibility by saying to them: "Do you see who you support? They are doing exactly the same thing that you accuse us of doing." It's a kind of reversal of the evidence. It is to use the diplomatic weapon to place the West, whose position has recently become weaker, in a position to explain to public opinion why they continue to support arms deliveries. 2024 will be a critical moment for this Russia-Ukraine conflict. This game by the Russians is rather interesting, especially since they are the specialists in blocking the functioning of the Security Council. So, here again, there is a form of obvious hypocrisy on the part of the Russians.

Read alsoRussia: at least 14 dead in an attack on Belgorod, the day after massive strikes in Ukraine

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