Last week the land campaign paused, and Ukraine escalated its rhetoric President Zelensky announcing on Sunday that ‘war was coming to Russia’ as Ukrainian drones hit Moscow damaging buildings and temporarily, suspending flights at Vnukovo airport. The remainder of the week was characterised by an operational pause in the land battle as Ukrainian drones damaged targets in Moscow, Crimea and other parts of Russian. At sea Ukraine’s drones tracked down and sank Russian ships.
A maritime drone attack seriously damaged the large amphibious warfare ship, Olenegorsky Gornyak. An important operation because the ship was attacked in its home port of Novorossiysk. This city is about 120km south of the Kerch Bridge, so a long way from the frontline; or about 700km by sea from Ukraine’s main port Odessa. Later, a Russian oil tanker was struck by similar drones near the Kerch Bridge. Both attacks are important because they demonstrate a high level of capability and more importantly that Ukraine is willing to attack previously safe locations. Essentially, the whole eastern coast of Russia’s Black Sea territories is firmly in the ‘cross hairs.’ Like the drone attacks on Moscow these operations are not focussed purely on military outcomes. Russia’s Black Sea coast is a popular holiday destination and every ship sunk or tank farm set on fire tell holiday makers that Russia is losing the war.
My assessment is that this activity also has a wider military purpose, aiming to deny the Black Sea to Russia’s navy in order to protect grain ships. Last week, six civilian ships hugged the Turkish, Bulgarian and Romanian coastline carefully staying in these countries home waters, protected by NATO fighters as they travelled to Ukraine’s Danubian ports; Orivka, Izmail and Reni. Ports that although small; and already subject to Russian attack may provide a route for Ukrainian grain to get to the world. The development of a ‘safe’ (or rather insurable) civilian route for maritime trade with Ukraine is essential both for sustaining Ukraine’s economy and for feeding the large numbers of people around the world that rely on Ukrainian grain. If Ukraine can destroy Russia’s Black Sea Fleet or make it too risky to operate in the area this goal is more achievable providing the military reason for the increased focus on naval operations this week.
Last week it seemed that Ukraine was starting to transition from reconnaissance and shaping operations into a new phase of the campaign. There were reports of units from Ukraine’s 9th and 10th Corps, their strategic reserve being deployed and we could identify minor ‘break in’ points through which Ukraine may be able to attack. However, this week we are witnessing an operational pause with no significant progress report on any Ukraine’s three main axes of advance:
- The area around Bakhmut.
- Ukraine’s advance from near Orikhiv towards Tokmak; and perhaps further toward Melitopol.
- The Velyka Novosilka salient.
On each of these axes Ukraine’s forces appear to have paused and are probably taking stock of the situation. Russian offensives in the north-east near Svatove appear to have been stopped. However, across the campaign fighting is hard and Ukraine is having a tough time. Russia’s defence is very strong blunting even advanced NATO equipment. Defence is a mechanical phase of war in that it relies on systems and engineering that in this case are more developed than expected. Russian incompetence and poor training mitigated by kilometres of anti-tank ditches, Dragon’s Teeth and minefields. Tanks cannot cross steep sided ditches more that about three metres wide, and Russia has dug hundreds of kilometres of these ditches. The only ways over them are using tightly bound bundles of plastic pipes called ‘fascines’ that are dropped into the ditch, using assault bridges or bulldozer tanks to carve paths through the ditches.
Integrated with the anti-tank ditches are Dragon’s Teeth, large concrete tetrahedrons that tanks cannot easily climb over without either getting stuck or exposing their weak belly armour. And; concentrated minefields of a density and size that dwarf anything seen since World War Two. Further, Russia is making extensive use of artillery fired mines, that can be fired immediately into any area an enemy force is moving through; slowing down or stopping their movement.
Russian infantry is also well dug-in and heavily protected, even with Ukraine using cluster munitions they seem to be able to soak up considerable punishment. And; this is a key point to understand about the defence. When soldiers are in a well-prepared defensive position, they look out at the narrow arc of ground they must cover from under overhead protection and protective cover all around them. It would be a very stupid or scared soldier to run away during an artillery barrage and if their heavy weapons and mines are stopping the enemy’s vehicles then they will stand and fight. The United States or NATO with enormous air-superiority would simply use heavy aircraft bombs to blow holes in the defences. A direct hit from a 500lb or 2000lb bomb would blow most dug-in positions to pieces. An option that Ukraine does not have at this stage.
And; combined with this heavy engineering, the Russians have developed comprehensive reinforcement and counter attack plans that are currently working well. Beating Russia’s defensive system is not impossible but it is hard work. Last week, the United Kingdom’s Chief of Defence Force, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin described Ukraine’s strategy as being to ‘‘starve, stretch and strike’’ speaking to a British Parliamentary hearing. A description that is apt and has been used a lot this week. Essentially, this phrase encapsulates the Manoeuverist doctrine that Ukraine has been employing to solve the problem of not having airpower.
Ukraine’s long-range precision weapons like HIMARs, drones and Storm Shadow cruise missiles ‘starving’ Russia’s frontline by attacking lines of supply, ammunition dumps, roads, bridges and rail lines. Small attacks across a wide front ‘stretch’ Russia’s forces forcing them to use reserve artillery and troops that can be destroyed slowly, attriting the defence to a point at which Ukraine can ‘strike.’ This strategy will take time to work, United States Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley is already on record stating that his expectation was 8-10 weeks of ‘shaping’ before Ukraine commits its full force.
Ukraine’s offensive is not over yet, and there are a couple of key points to consider before we can firmly state that the offensive has culminated. First, although there has been limited progress this week, throughout the offensive we have witnessed consistent and progressive gains on three widely distributed axes. Secondly, the forces deployed to date are not large and do not appear to be from 9th and 10th Corps. Instead throughout the offensive we have seen relatively small commitments, normally combat teams (about 100 soldiers and a dozen vehicles based on a ‘company’) or at the most battle groups (about 400 soldiers and 50-80 vehicles based on a ‘battalion’). Each of Ukraine’s corps has 4-5 brigades each with 2-3 battle groups meaning that an attack on Ukraine’s ‘main effort’ axis, aiming to achieve a break through is likely to be at least brigade strength. The initial break through being follow by a couple of depth brigades able to push through the assault brigade and exploit.
To-date we have not seen a commitment of force on this scale by Ukraine so we can assess that the offensive has not yet culminated. Unfortunately, Ukraine does not have long to deliver results because in October the autumn rain will arrive and Ukraine will become a muddy bog unsuitable for armoured warfare. Ukraine will then have to wait until winter in January or February for its next opportunity, all the time counting down to the 2024 United States election that may result in Donald Trump being re-elected. A result that would probably finish the war because he is unlikely to provide the current level of support to Ukraine. A situation that Putin is probably holding out for.
Professor Michael Clarke, ex-director of the Royal United Services Institute recently raised another concern while being interviewed on Times Radio. He said that within the Ukrainian military there is growing concern about using modern NATO tactics instead of the older Soviet style tactics that many senior officers are more familiar with. This concern could lead to an internal struggle within the Ukrainian army and a poorly thought-out change in tactics. If Professor Clarke is correct and there is a sudden change in tactics it is likely to be detrimental to Ukraine’s combat effectiveness, the current strategy is slow but is gaining ground and minimising casualties. This is unlikely to be the case if there is a sudden transition back to Soviet-era tactics.
Many commentators and the mainstream media are discussing stories of Wagner Group soldiers massing near the Polish border and possibly threatening the Suwalki Gap. A narrow corridor that runs along the Polish-Lithuanian border and links Russia with Kaliningrad, a small territory on the Baltic Coast that the Soviet Union retained after World War Two. The gap is narrow and provides space for road and rail connectivity with Kaliningrad.
Another option discussed is that Wagner Group soldiers could attack Poland from Belarus. Belarusian military helicopters briefly crossed the Polish border last week. Some media discuss the idea that Russia is planning a Wagner Group attack on Poland or Lithuania, one able to be denied by the claim that the soldiers are ‘volunteers’ rather than Russian soldiers. Commentators citing Putin’s use of this tactic in Crimea in 2014 and further claiming that there is a logic to this plan in that NATO would be distracted by this activity; or possibly that attacks of this nature would dissuade further support for Ukraine.
In my opinion all these theories should be disregarded. The chances of Wagner Group soldiers or Belarus mounting any sort of operation like this are zero. Hybrid war’s military tactics rely on uncertainty and capitalising on the ‘grey zone’ between inter-state war, insurgency, private military operations and terrorism. In this case there is no uncertainty, Poland has already reinforced its border and if Wagner Group (or similar) volunteers cross the border they are likely to be quickly destroyed. Russian planners understand this fact but probably enjoy seeing the media discussing the possibility.
However, the facts are pretty simple NATO currently has approximately 340,000 professional soldiers on alert. Anyone stupid enough to cross a NATO border will be quickly defeated, then Russia will be at war with NATO. Putin does not want a war with NATO and Wagner Group soldiers do not want to die. So, it is highly unlikely that any of these scenarios will eventuate
This weekend, Saudi brokered peace talks started in Jeddah. The talks bring together 40 countries including China, India and the United States but not Russia. President Zelensky has developed and will present a peace plan and at this stage, the main objective is to develop a set of principles for future negotiations. Essentially, many nations from across a range of political perspectives and areas are represented and aiming to develop a plan that can be used to bring the war to an end. It is worth keeping a close watch on this process next week because if China, India and the United States can work together Putin’s Russia, suddenly becomes very isolated. Further, collective security activities of this nature build relationships and trust hopefully providing a basis for defusing other issues like Sino-American tensions in the Pacific.
In summary, Ukraine is still in the war even though it has not made much progress this week. In coming weeks, it is likely that the Black Sea Fleet and Russian shipping will continue to be attacked. Probably to keep a safe corridor for shipping in the western Black Sea. On the ground, keep an eye on Vuledhar, last week Ukrainian forces pushed south there possibly indicating another line of potential attack. And; as we count towards General Milley’s ten weeks keep watching for a large commitment of Ukrainian forces.
Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger