Of all President Vladimir Putin’s soldiers, the most feared are his tame Chechens, the renegades who betrayed their countrymen’s dream of independence and sided with the Kremlin. The Kadyrovites, loyal to their fascistic leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, have a reputation for merciless slaughter of the Kremlin’s enemies that chills the heart. I saw evidence of their work at first hand in the spring and summer of 2000 in Chechnya – beheadings, disappearances, torture – and when someone who has more or less supported Putin’s war in Syria DM’d me to say that the Chechens were coming to Kyiv, I felt a stab of fear.
So a YouTube video of a slew of burning Russian heavy metal in the streets outside the Antonov airbase near the town of Hostomel, just north of Kyiv, where the Chechens arrived to prosecute Putin’s war is the best proof yet that Putin’s war against Ukraine is going badly, very badly.
The evidence is now overwhelming that Putin has made a miscalculation, that the Kremlin hopelessly underestimated the resilience of the Ukrainian people, underestimated the ferocious courage of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, under planned the logistical nightmare of invading a huge country like Ukraine and never considered that Russian soldiers, ordered to invade Ukraine, might mutiny.
The battle for the Antonov airbase started on Feb. 24th, when video showed the sky full of troop-carrying Russian choppers. Three were shot down; dozens got through to land their troops on the ground. The exact time sequence is hard to follow but at some point CNN filmed Russian soldiers looking relaxed on the ground. By 7p.m. Russian forces controlled the airbase. Two hours later, after nightfall, Ukrainian special forces hit the airport and, they say, took back control. The next day Russian forces, including the Chechens, headed down from Belarus and retook the airport, preparing an air bridge for much larger numbers of Russians to follow through.
When a Chechen armored column left the air base and moved toward Kyiv, the Ukrainians launched a Turkish-made drone, a Bayraktar, that reportedly charred 70 soldiers alive. The burning wreckage is what the video shows. The Ukrainians say that the dead included Gen. Magomed Tushayev, head of the 141st Motorized Brigade. Kadyrov has posted that the general is still with us and it’s impossible at the time of this writing to know who is right. Locals are not reporting any more fighting. One concludes that the two Russian attacks on the Antonov air base failed. The two attacks should have happened at the same time. They didn’t. Lack of organization, planning, did for both.
I can verify simple things with my own eyes and ears. For the fourth day running, the center of Kyiv has been eerily quiet. There is the odd crump of explosives somewhere 15 or 20 miles away but that’s all. Word is the bangs are being made by Russian missiles targeting Kyiv’s main power station, on the east bank across the Dnipro River from the city, being blown out of the sky by the Ukrainian anti-aircraft defense. I have had continuous electricity and internet in my rented apartment for the length of the war and that’s not good for Putin’s self-confidence.
I have yet to see a Russian soldier, nor have any of my Kyiv-based colleagues. No tanks, no Chechens, no sound of artillery. I have yet to meet a single Ukrainian civilian who is angrier with their own government than Putin. Zelenskyy critics still don’t like him because of his closeness to the Ukrainian oligarch, Ihor Kolomoyskyi, but they prefer that their president be from their own country, not Russia. The same goes for my pal, New Lines correspondent Oz Katerji, who gets out more to the front lines than I do. Ukrainian soldiers are with the government, full stop.
Down south, the war is going badly for the Ukrainians, with the Russians punching through the rough cease-fire lines and making a bit of headway. But not much. To the east, the Russians punched through the Ukrainian lines into the streets of Kharkiv only to be knocked back. Britain’s Daily Telegraph reporter Roland Oliphant reported on Twitter today that, having taken a drive around town, Kharkiv was still in Ukrainian hands. Ukrainian social media reported that 5,000 Russian soldiers at a staging post just across the border from Kharkiv refused to invade. If so, this is mutiny. I can’t verify that from Kyiv but, once again, I can verify that there are no Russian troops on my street or anything like it.
So I conclude that Putin has overestimated his military machinery and will to fight. He is working the levers mightily, no doubt, but they are not responding to his actions. So that makes the next astonishing thing more credible, that the Russians have proposed peace talks on the border of Belarus. And the Ukrainians, wary, have accepted.
To invade a country is one thing. Four days later, to start negotiating some kind of peace, is extraordinary. This suggests to me that Putin has miscalculated and his grip on power in the Kremlin is weakening by the hour. I could be utterly wrong about that. But, once again, there are no Russian tanks on my street in Kyiv.
Or nothing like it. And the lights are still on.
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