What a crazy week! Russian Victory Day is fast approaching and this week we saw clear signs of the strain the Ukraine War is putting on Putin’s kleptocracy. The first big news item this week was the Kremlin drone attack. This attack happened on 3 May and the attack is most likely to be either:
- A ‘false flag’ attack, committed by Russia against Russians to engender support for the war; or
- An attack carried out by Russians opposed to Putin. Most likely ultra-nationalists concerned about the conduct of the war and Russia’s impending defeat.
The evidence clearly points to one or other of these options. A drone launched from Ukraine penetrating Moscow’s air-defences is highly unlikely. The fact that the drone attack happened to be captured on camera is more likely, but the graphic and dramatic footage raises a red flag. Compare this footage to the video that we see of any drone or missile attacks Ukraine executes in Crimea. Shaky blurry footage consistent with being filmed at short-notice or captured by accident. This attack’s footage on the other hand is relatively clear and makes dramatic viewing.
Another red flag is the drone’s small size, the people on the roof of the Kremlin providing a good indication that this was not a long-range drone. A drone able to fly long distances for instance from either Ukraine; or from a base area safely outside Moscow needs fuel. Carrying fuel requires size and the drone in the footage is not a long-range aircraft. In fact, it appears to be a relatively small drone.
Finally, the explosive charge is small and either the drone’s fuel tank was full; or the explosive was doctored to contain incendiaries because the flash and flame captured on the film is not consistent with a simple high-explosive device. Real-life high-explosive detonations are underwhelming to watch after years of movie special effects explosions. The flash of a high explosive device is instantaneous and relatively small. The long, slow burn shown is not consistent with a damaging charge. Put simply, it looks like a special effects explosion.
Russia has already blamed Ukraine and the United States. A predictable statement. Consideration of the factors above makes it unlikely that it was an attack launched from Ukraine. It is possible that Ukraine has supported; or encouraged local Russian dissidents but there does not seem to be much to gain from an attack as small as the one shown. And; if the attack was initiated by or on behalf of the United States it is more likely that it would have hit the right place with sufficient force to have produced a meaningful result. Instead, the Kremlin drone attack reeks of a staged attack carried out by Russian actors. The question is why?
Although it is possible that the attack is orchestrated by Russian dissidents, this theory seems unlikely. Moscow air-space is some of the most heavily defended in the world so it is unlikely that a drone was flown into the area from the surrounding countryside. Further, the area around the Kremlin is under constant security surveillance meaning that finding a launch point nearby is difficult. So, although Russian dissidents cannot be ruled out it seems more likely that the attack is a false flag attack.
If the attack is a ‘false flag’ operation then its motivation is probably twofold. The first possible motivation being that the attack provides a reason to scale down Victory Day celebrations. In a couple of days on 9 May, Russia celebrates its victory over Nazi Germany. A significant date in the Russian calendar generally celebrated with massive parades of soldiers and military hardware. Unfortunately for Putin, most of his soldiers and military hardware are in Ukraine. If Victory Day parades happen and cannot demonstrate the power and might that Russians are used too; the parades could demonstrate the cost of the war to ordinary Russians. Something we can be sure that Putin does not want to happen. A convenient terrorist threat could provide a reason to cancel all or some of the planned parades.
The second and more obvious motivation for a false flag attack may be a desire to escalate the war. Or as the Institute for the Study of War assessed the situation on 3 May, ‘Russia likely staged this attack in an attempt to bring the war home to a Russian domestic audience and set conditions for a wider societal mobilization.’ That the attack is propaganda aimed at convincing the Russian people that there are good reasons to suffer the effects of mobilising not only more manpower but also the domestic economy for war. Both actions that will impact heavily on ordinary Russians. The attack on the Kremlin could also be used to justify direct attacks on President Zelenskyy or for further more brutal bombing attacks on Ukraine’s cities.
The second big issue this week is Yevgeny Prigozhin’s meltdown in Bakhmut. Prigozhin, the founder of Russian mercenary company Wagner Group on 5 May released a video stating that he intended to pull his Wagner Group soldiers out of the battle for Bakhmut. A couple of days later he released an even more powerful video full of swearing and personal attacks on Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov blaming them personally for his failure.
Tension between Wagner Group and the Russian military is not new and has been rising for months. Prigozhin using the Battle of Bakhmut as an opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of his mercenaries. The Wagner Group entered the battle with a big reputation built on their activity in Africa, Syria and other Russian areas of interest. Unfortunately, for Russia Wagner Group failed to live up to Prigozhin’s hype or Putin’s expectations.
This is not a surprise to military observers, for all their brutality and macho posturing Wagner Group soldiers have proved no match for trained American soldiers on the occasions there has been direct contact. In Syria during the Battle of Khasham, in February 2018, 40 American special forces soldiers fought off an attack by 4-500 local forces allegedly led by many Wagner Group mercenaries assaulting an outpost protecting a Conoco gas plant near a city called Deir al-Zour. Further, Wagner Group soldiers have not performed well in combat taking heavy casualties in several of their African operations, especially in Mozambique where anecdotal information from experienced African private military contractors suggests that they have a low level of capability.
The reality is that Wagner Group’s soldiers are not the ‘supermen’ of Cold War tropes, instead they are relatively poorly trained and led thugs that have developed a reputation of being effective based on propaganda and fighting poorly trained opponents. When confronted by competent and trained soldiers they are found lacking. That is why they have not captured Bakhmut.
Prigozhin is not; and never was a soldier. He bought the Wagner hype and thought that his soldiers could deliver Bakhmut for Putin. He was wrong and is smart enough to know that he needs to blame someone else quickly; and for months has been loudly complaining on social media about the Russian Army not providing enough support and ammunition. The Institute for the Study of War, on 5 May assessing that the Russian Army is deprioritising Bakhmut and brigading ammunition and logistics support elsewhere as they prepare for Ukraine’s attack. A situation that is dangerous for Prigozhin who has risked his political future on taking the city.
And; this week Prigozhin’s claims escalated into a full-scale, social media tantrum. Prigozhin blaming Shoigu and Gerasimov for the failure to take Bakhmut; and stating that he will withdraw his forces from the battle. This type of public infighting demonstrates the weakness of Russia’s kleptocracy. If ‘Team Putin’ are fighting like this in public imagine what is happening behind closed doors. A year ago, I would have assessed this display of dysfunctional leadership as being a maskirovka or Russian strategic propaganda designed to deceive Ukraine and its allies, enticing them to take greater risks by providing a perception of weakness. After more than a year of studying the Russians, it is most likely that this behaviour can be explained by the politicking and in-fighting that a dictator’s henchmen all too often fall prey too, it is not unusual but the lack of unity undermines Russia’s ability to face the coming Ukrainian offensive.
Further, the tension is reaching a point at which Putin will need to take action and his options are limited. He can mediate the situation, weakening the Russian army’s ability to manage its resources in the campaign; or he can withdraw his patronage of Prigozhin. Unfortunately, trying to speculate on why this situation exists and about how it will resolve is impossible. Instead, it is better to consider the effects of Putin’s options. If Putin mediates it will weaken the already weak Russian command chain and further dissipate Gerasimov’s ability to create unity of effort in his force. If Putin withdraws Prigozhin’s patronage, we can expect that he will soon be ‘accidently’ falling out of a hotel window.
Mainstream media’s commentators continue to downplay expectations of the Ukrainian offensive. This seems wrong, in my opinion the evidence points to a strong likelihood of a major Ukrainian success. Ukraine’s forces are as ready as they will ever be, trained and well-equipped. Already, we can see that Ukraine is making preparatory moves. This week Ukrainian HIMARS strikes have been reported along the length of the Zaporizhian frontline in the south and along the Svatove-Kremina line in the north. In Russia’s depth, we are seeing burning fuel facilities and logistic infrastructure. Further, Ukrainian forces are slowly probing forwards and ‘closing the gaps’ along the entire frontline. Examples include at Vuledhar and Aviidivka where local Ukrainian advances have taken place in recent days. Essentially, Ukraine is isolating front-line Russian units from the fuel, ammunition and support then ‘closing up’ trying to pick where the Russians are weakest.
And; the Ukrainians are likely to be spoilt for choice. Avril Haines, the United States Director of National Intelligence stated on 4 May at the Senate Armed Service Committee that Russia would be unable to conduct even modest offensives in 2023 without receiving third party ammunition and starting mandatory mobilisation.
The facts are that Russia has approximately 370-400,000 soldiers in Ukraine. Most are not frontline combat soldiers, probably only a third are frontline combat soldiers. Perhaps 120-130,000 actual fighting soldiers; or around 100 – 120 Battalion Tactical Groups (BTG). Covering a frontline measuring about 500-600km excluding the section that is on the Dnipro River. Along the front any defence requires ‘depth;’ or local forces behind the frontline able to make local counter attacks. And; at operational level (i.e. within the Russian army in Ukraine) there should be larger reserves ready to counter attack. An operational reserve is often a third to a fifth of a force’s total strength. During the Cold War, a third of the 1st British Corps was held to the rear ready to counter attack. Across the Northern Army Group’s area of operations, that 1st British Corps was part of, a large United States corps provided depth and a reserve for the four NATO corps on the frontline.
We can speculate that Russia will retain 30-40 BTGs in depth, or behind the frontline out of immediate contact but ready to counter attack a Ukrainian breakthrough. Therefore about 80-90 BTGs covering their 5-600km frontline or at least 6 km of frontage per BTG, about double Russia’s normal aim for a BTG’s defensive frontage. This correlates with the Institute for the Study of War’s assessment of the Russian order of battle published on 23 April that described Russia’s army as ‘degraded and decentralised’ and stated in part that “It is highly likely that the majority of Russian elements throughout Ukraine are substantially below full strength due to losses taken during previous phases of the war.” The Russians have too few soldiers, spread to far and without a large counter attack force.
Even if Russia has a large reserve getting it to the battle will be very difficult. Tanks and other tracked vehicles have very limited ‘track life’ meaning they can only travel short distances (about 500km) before needing major maintenance so they are normally moved long-distances by truck or train. Russia has a very limited fleet of tactical trucks and we can see that Ukraine is currently using HIMARS to batter rail lines and other infrastructure used to move forces around. Essentially, Russia’s problem is that they need to have their reserves nearby or it is unlikely they will get them to the decisive point of the battle in time to stop a large Ukrainian break out.
The Russians are mitigating this problem by digging trenches and fortifying areas. Aiming to either defeat the initial assault; or to slow it down enough that reserves can be brought forwards. Unfortunately, Russia’s key issue is that these defences are held by very poor-quality soldiers. A group of people that have been idle for months on most sections of the front, sitting out a cold and wet winter in trenches waiting for Ukraine’s offensive. Thinking about what summer has in store for them. It seems unlikely that this force will be able to put up much of a fight; and NATO engineering tanks and precision guided artillery is a factor provides Ukraine with the capability to defeat prepared defences. I am reminded of Iraq’s defensive lines in the 1993 Gulf War, easily defeated by the coalition’s modern engineering and artillery and think observers will be surprised by Ukraine’s ability to breach Russia’s defences.
In summary, the Ukrainian offensive is coming, as inevitably as the ground is drying out. We do not know where the offensive will develop, but my money is still on it finishing on the coast of the Sea of Azov severing the Crimean Land Bridge and isolating Crimea. However, the more I study the situation and put myself in the average Russian soldier’s shoes and observe the fractured nature of their leadership the more optimistic I am that Ukraine’s offensive will defy expectations and produce a war winning result.
Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger