With Military Attacks and Mockery, Ukraine Pokes the Russian Bear

KYIV, Ukraine — It was pure performance art, pointedly aimed at irking the Kremlin: a mock parade staged by Ukraine featuring dozens of captured Russian tanks in Kyiv’s central avenue.

More substantively, Ukraine has delivered strikes into the heart of Russian strongholds once considered untouchable, including an explosion at a base in Crimea that destroyed eight warplanes.

And lest their actions go unnoticed, the Ukrainian government’s social media sites went into high gear after these and other episodes, posting a flurry of taunting one-liners that mocked its adversary.

“An unsuccessful attempt to launch Russian tankers into space,” read one post accompanying a video showing a Russian tank blowing up, the turret soaring into the sky. It was posted on the official Facebook site of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

In ways big and small, Ukraine’s leadership is goading its much more powerful antagonist, driven by deep anger at Russia, a newfound confidence after battlefield victories, the need to rally support at home and abroad, and a large dose of psychological warfare intended to unnerve the enemy.

In doing so, it is upending the longstanding diplomatic maxim about the need to tread carefully in dealings with the Kremlin.

“There is an axiomatic policy — don’t poke the bear — that’s been around for decades,” said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a political risk assessment firm in Washington. “The Ukrainians are turning that policy on its head. And the bear has proven remarkably pokable.”

“The question is, how much is too much, and is there too much?” Mr. Kupchan said. “It’s obviously not a question we want to get answered.”

If Ukraine’s mockery seems uniquely sophisticated, it reflects the finely tuned sensibility for publicity of its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedic actor, and his top advisers, many of whom joined the government after careers in the news media, show business and comedy.

A Ukrainian military performed in a plaza in central Lviv to commemorate the country’s Independence Day.Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

Russia has already devastated much of eastern and southern Ukraine — razing cities, killing civilians, inflicting atrocities. Russia could still inflict further damage — to infrastructure like the power grid, for example — and its proxies in eastern Ukraine have signaled an intention to stage show trials of Ukrainian prisoners of war, possibly leading to death sentences.

Still, Ukrainians appear to believe that Moscow has already done so much damage that its options for further retribution are limited.

“Everything that could happen already happened,” said Serhiy Leshchenko, an adviser to the presidential chief of staff.

The State of the War

  • Defiant Under Attack: Amid the blare of air raid sirens, Ukrainians celebrated their Independence Day with a show of defiance against Russia’s invasion, despite the uncertain course of a war that has so far lasted half a year.
  • Nuclear Plant Standoff: Russian and Ukrainian militaries are continuing to accuse each other of launching missiles and preparing to stage attacks on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. The United Nations issued warnings about the risk of a nuclear disaster and called for a demilitarized zone around the plant.
  • A Brazen Bombing: A car bombing in a Moscow suburb that killed the daughter of a prominent Russian ultranationalist has injected new uncertainty into the war and rattled Russia’s elite.
  • Crimea: With the drumbeat of Ukrainian strikes inside the strategically and symbolically important Kremlin-held territory, the reality of war is becoming increasingly apparent to Russians.

Ukraine, for instance, has overtly crossed Russian red lines in Crimea; the Kremlin had repeatedly warned that strikes on the peninsula, which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, would be viewed as an attack on Russian territory. But the Ukrainian strikes there have so far drawn only a baseline response of Russian long-range fire.

One factor, Mr. Leshchenko said, is that Russia has already been stretched to the limits of its military capabilities, limiting its ability for reprisal.

To be sure, the benefits of poking at President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia are limited. It has not resulted in significant Ukrainian gains on the battlefield, where Russia wields superior numbers and weaponry. And it has not eroded Moscow’s grim determination to push ahead with a war of attrition, which Mr. Putin signaled again on Thursday with the announcement that Russia would sharply increase the size of its armed forces.

But the Ukrainian approach appears to serve several aims. It is, in part, calculated to embolden Western donors of military aid, who have been carefully calibrating contributions to avoid provoking Russia into an escalation.

Ridiculing the enemy also provides a feel-good act of defiance, intended to enhance national unity and bolster the morale of Ukrainians beleaguered by six months of war.

The Ukrainian military hit targets inside Russian territory just over a month after the invasion. The strike, a nighttime helicopter assault on a fuel depot near the city of Belgorod, became the first air attack on Russia since World War II. It was a brazen maneuver, and Russia did not retaliate in any specific manner.

The Ukrainian government has not formally acknowledged strikes inside Russia, maintaining a policy of ambiguity on the issue. But it used the Belgorod strike to tweak its adversary, saying that Russians shouldn’t smoke cigarettes near a fuel site.

A frame from a video released by Russia in April showed a fuel depot on fire in Belgorod, Russia.Credit…Russian Emergencies Ministry, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The more intense flurry of strikes at targets in Russia near the Ukrainian border, and on the Russian-occupied peninsula of Crimea, began last month. It was part of a shift in strategy as Ukraine pivoted to targeting Russian logistical networks deep in the rear of the battlefield, rather than striving for gains in head-to-head fighting on the frontline.

Along with disrupting supply lines, the tactic provided a psychological component: In the Ukrainian view, it signaled to Russians that territory they considered protected was not, in fact, safe. And by bringing the war home to Russia, they hoped to elevate political pressure on the government of Mr. Putin.

In the process, Ukrainians brushed off threats from the Kremlin. After the strikes on Crimea began, Dmitri A. Medvedev, the former Russian president and deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, said of the strikes and taunts, “doomsday will come immediately for all of them, very fast and heavy” if these actions did not cease.

The Ukrainian strikes continued apace. Two munitions dumps near Belgorod exploded within days of Mr. Medvedev’s warning. The governor of the Belgorod region, Vyacheslav Gladkov, blamed the summer heat and sunlight for warming the explosives and sparking fire.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense ridiculed that explanation.

“Another detonation of ammo ‘due to the heat’ in the Belgorod region in Russia,” the ministry wrote on Twitter. “In a few months we will find out whether Russian ammo can explode because of the cold. The five main causes of sudden explosion are: winter, spring, summer, autumn and smoking.”

After a drone strike on the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, Ukrainian officials refrained from any formal claim of responsibility. But Mr. Zelensky noted slyly in his evening video address that “one can literally feel in the air of Crimea that the occupation there is temporary.”

Early in his tenure, Mr. Zelensky had strictly prohibited any aggravating rhetoric directed at Russia, seeking to avoid needlessly elevating tensions.

Flames rising from a Russian air base in Crimea this month. Ukrainian officials said that local partisans had a hand in the strike, which destroyed eight fighter jets.Credit…Reuters

Still, his team has turned to driving home Russia’s vulnerability while appealing to Western governments for more and more lethal weaponry.

The display in central Kyiv last weekend was perhaps Ukraine’s most public and brazen act of mockery. Collected from battlefields in the east and south of the country, the burned tanks and armored vehicles were placed on a broad thoroughfare that leads to Independence Square, the site of the pro-Western uprising in 2014.

The display lampooned what Ukrainian officials say were Russian plans to hold a victory parade had they captured the capital early in the invasion — plans that ended in a humiliating retreat.

Mr. Zelensky’s office declined to discuss internal deliberations about the parade of wrecked tanks, including any risk-benefit analysis. In written answers to questions, a senior adviser, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, responded with another zinger aimed at the Russians.

“Now the world can see the Russians who wanted to march in a victory parade through this street,” he wrote. “They have marched.”

As old as warfare, taunting the enemy has been an element of many conflicts, including the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Ukrainians have refined the art.

The Ministry of Defense recently posted a doctored video of a High Mobility Rocket Artillery System — the American-provided, precision rocket system believed to be responsible for many strikes behind enemy lines — bobbing ridiculously in the waves of the Black Sea on a pink air mattress. In front of the chunky, truck-mounted rocket launcher was the Kerch Strait bridge, a symbol of Mr. Putin’s claim to the Crimean Peninsula. The message was clear: The bridge is, or soon will be, within range.

The government has not been above some self-deprecating humor, too.

On Wednesday, Independence Day in Ukraine, the ministry poked fun at its own penchant for mockery.

“We will not write anything pompous today,” the ministry said. “We will simply say one thing: This is a nation that deserves victory. Happy Independence Day, Ukraine!”

Ukrainian flags in front of a deserted City Council building and town square in Bakhmut on Wednesday.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting from Kyiv.

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