The land campaign progressed slowly and predictably last week, the most significant action taking place in the political arena. Russia working hard to organise support from North Korea while the G20 met and discussed the war and how to get Ukrainian grain flowing to the world’s poorest nations again by re-instating the Black Sea grain deal. Both initiatives are important and provide insight into the strategic situation. Additionally, there are rumours that Russia is planning another mass mobilisation. Already, a law change is being debated that will allow the Russian army to conscript men directly from prisons and commentators are discussing whether Russia’s army will grow again; or if the political cost would be too high for Putin. All while counting down to the rasputitsa, Ukraine’s ‘mud season,’ when the autumn rain turns the ground into a bog and freezes military activity.
Last week it was reported that Russia and North Korea’s leaders are planning to meet. It is common knowledge that North Korea and Russia’s relationship has become increasingly close during the war in Ukraine. North Korea being one of the few nations isolated enough to openly support Putin’s war in Ukraine. However, last week’s report indicated a subtle change in the relationship. Kim Il Jong, North Korea’s isolated leader is famous for being paranoid and not travelling internationally. So, when it became public early last week that an in-person meeting, in Vladivostok, was planned by the two leaders the international community took notice. Some commentators assessing that details of the meeting were leaked by United States intelligence sources specifically to stop it happening, the leak intended to fuel Kim Il Jong’s paranoia and encourage him to stay home.
Regardless, the meeting is important for a range of reasons. The first, is that it indicates Russia’s desperate supply situation. North Korea is one of the few countries willing to openly deal with Russia and with its pool of Soviet era military hardware can provide ammunition and equipment useful to Moscow. The meeting’s organisation tallies with reporting from the frontline indicating Russia is losing the artillery battle. Its extensive use of artillery; and Ukraine’s attacks on Russia’s supply lines reducing its ammunition reserves. Further, Ukraine is currently winning the counter battery battle, destroying roughly five times the number of artillery systems it is losing. This meeting provides evidence the Russia is worried about its supply of ammunition and military equipment. By meeting with Kim Il Jong, Putin demonstrates that he is at least concerned. The once mighty Russia, one of the most powerful militaries in the world, the fear of NATO and the United States needing to parley with North Korea for support is a huge loss of face for a leader like Putin.
The next question that needs to be asked though is – What does North Korea expect from the deal? North Korea is likely to be looking for a range of support in return, the most dramatic being missile and nuclear weapons technology. North Korea is furiously investing in the development of a nuclear deterrent. Its plan is to develop long-range missiles that can reliably deliver nuclear payloads against South Korea, Japan and especially the United States. Kim Il Jong and those closest to him are desperately afraid of losing power and believe that by being able to attack their potential enemies with nuclear weapons they can deter attempts at regime change.
However, nuclear proliferation is a double-edged sword, a nuclear armed North Korea may one day become a threat to Russian; or Chinese objectives so it seems unlikely that nuclear technology will be provided at this stage. Russia has plenty of other support it can provide for instance, entering military alliances and exercises with North Korea. Already, joint China, Russia and North Korean naval exercises are being discussed. North Korea seeking support from its allies as a counter to Japan and the United States exercising with South Korea. The Ukraine War has destroyed the Russian military’s reputation in the West, however reporting in countries within the ‘Global South’s’ media demonstrates that the same war can be interpreted very differently around the world. North Korea probably still believes that Russia is a credible military power and that its support provides a security guarantee.
North Korea’s most pressing issue though is feeding its people, and Russia can certainly provide food. Therefore, it seems likely that North Korea will support Russia but that Putin will get the most out of the deal. It is unlikely that China or Russia will want a more nuclear capable North Korea so an exchange of this technology is less likely than a package involving military support and food aid. In exchange Russia seems likely to get a lifeline of artillery ammunition and other military equipment.
The second large international event is the G20 meeting in India. The Ukraine War was high on the agenda and the participant’s issued a statement condemning the war but failing to condemn Russia. American ‘think tank’ the Institute for the Study of War describing the statement as follows “The Group of 20 (G20) adopted a standard and boilerplate consensus declaration during the G20 summit on September 9 that called for a “durable peace” in Ukraine without explicitly condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” However true this description is; the G20 conference represents a larger geo-political change. A new multi-polar world order is evolving in which international conflict can no longer be seen in terms of a simple a binary contest between the United States, its liberal democratic allies and the ‘opposition.’ Instead, we are seeing a more complex dynamic evolving as countries like India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and South Africa are now large and powerful enough to confidently ‘opt out’ of the historic binary competition; and pick their own international direction.
In these columns I have discussed the rising power and confidence of the Global South. Recently, in the column ‘Escalation, hybrid war and peace talks – What next?’ I discussed August’s Saudi Arabian led peace talks in Jeddah and how this conference demonstrated a change in political dynamics. This G20 is another example of nations from outside traditional power blocks demonstrating a new sense of confidence and willingness to chart a path independent of either the United States, Europe, Russia or China. And; the G20 has called for the resumption of the Black Sea Grain Deal. A call that coming from a wide range of nations many of whom are not directly taking sides in the war provides a strong political mandate that Russia ignores at it peril because as the Global South becomes more confident and Russia more isolated its requirement for this group’s support will grow.
The third political issue impacting on the war this week is whether Russia will launch a new mass mobilisation. Putin is fast approaching a series of local and national elections, that although controlled, provide opportunities for political protest. Another widespread mobilisation could be the catalyst for political protests during this period putting Putin in a dilemma because if Ukraine breaks through his defences the only way to stop a catastrophic defeat will be to throw ‘bodies’ at it. The same tactic used in September and October 2022 to stop Ukraine’s successful Kharkiv Offensive. This means that Putin needs to weigh the risk of Ukraine’s offensive being successful versus the political risk of mobilisation.
Therefore, Putin will be closely studying the campaign noting that Ukraine’s continues to be slow. On the Ukrainian side, there is progress but is it fast enough? The autumn rains are not far away and Ukraine’s progress last week was slow. Ukraine attacking on three axes shown as blue arrows on the map below:
- The axis that started at Orikhiv, pushing south towards Tokmak and Melitopol.
- The operation to flatten the Velyka Novosilka salient.
- The advance on Bakhmut.
Last week Ukraine managed to break through Russia’s first line of defence on the Orikhiv axis. An important development that may have far-reaching consequences. Russia’s plan for defence is constrained by a range of factors. The first being that Russia is compelled to ‘chase ground’ with its defence because it needs to stop Ukraine’s artillery getting close enough to hit its road and rail lines on the coast. This constrains them tactically, encouraging the deployment of most of their force as far forward as possible. On top of this operational consideration, Russian commanders are also under political pressure not to give up ground, providing more encouragement to push forces forwards. Russia’s defences are marked in black on the map; and it is easy to see that this defensive system is designed to protect the land bridge to Crimea especially the main rail and road routes that run parallel with the coast from Mariupol to Crimea marked in yellow on the map. It is also easy to see how far from the main supply route is from the frontline defences.
Russia’s next tactical constraint is the ability of its forces to fight toe-to-toe with the Ukrainians in battle. Fighting from well-prepared defensive positions is easier than engaging in battles of manoeuvre. Russia’s soldiers are generally poorly equipped, trained and led so fighting a mobile campaign is beyond most units. Therefore, the Russians are encouraged to keep most of their force forward and static, in prepared defensive positions.
And; this is why Ukraine’s breakthrough of the first line of defence is so important, it is highly likely that Russia does not have huge reserves available to counter attack a Ukrainian penetration. The fact elite paratroopers are being pulled out of Bakhmut to fight near Orikhiv indicates that there is not a local force available to do the job.
After their success last week Ukrainian forces continued to pursue the capture of Novopropivka and Verbove aiming to expand the break through. The map below shows their progress to-date, dark blue arrows marking the general direction of their movements last week. The blue highlights and light blue arrows indicate an assessment of their future plans and in summary we can say that:
- The Ukrainians are pushing south towards Novopropivka on the T0408 motorway. It is likely that next week Novopropivka will fall because it is under direct attack from the north and to its immediate east Ukraine is advancing, threatening the defenders with being surrounded.
- This week it seemed likely that Ukraine would advance to the west of Axis A, to take advantage of weaker Russian defences and to threaten Novopropivka’s west flank. This movement would also broaden the base of the salient making it more secure from counter attack. Ukraine made no movement in this area last week; but may this week.
- The Ukrainian’s second area of focus on the Orikhiv axis last week was toward Verbove. An attack that is likely to continue next week. If Ukraine captures Verbove it makes the Russian force north of the town (circled in red on the map) vulnerable to being cut off and capturing an urban area on high ground provides a secure base for the eastern shoulder of the salient that Ukraine is developing. So, expect to see more movement and consolidation of gains in this area.
Around Velyka Novosilka this week there was plenty of fighting but little movement to report. However, near Bakhmut, Ukraine increased its efforts to capture Andrivka and Klishchivka; and made progress. Capturing these small villages would give Ukraine control of a series of ridgelines that run roughly north – south toward Bakhmut; that I have highlighted in grey on the Deep State map below. If Ukraine can capture these villages and the ridgelines then it has a path to advance north with the grain of the land, along the ridgelines towards Bakhmut.
In summary, the campaign is in its last few weeks and both sides will be anxiously waiting for the rain to come. When the rain arrives the land battle will freeze as Ukraine’s rasputitsa starts. Armoured vehicles and trucks will be stuck on roads from then until February 2024 when the ground freezes during winter, effectively stopping the battle.
Therefore, the battle now revolves around Russia’s ability to hold the line and whether Ukraine can break through Russia’s defences. Last week, the United States Defence Intelligence Agency stated that Ukraine has roughly even odds of completely breaking through the Russian defences by the end of the year. Essentially, at this stage the campaign is a 50/50 call; if Ukraine can breakthrough and penetrate far enough that it can target Russia’s main supply line to Crimea then it wins; and Putin is dreadfully exposed. On the other hand, if Putin’s men can hold the line until the rain comes Putin wins. And; the fact that he is not racing to mobilise more soldiers means he is confident. However, Putin’s confidence has not always been justified and Ukraine is definitely still in the battle.
Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger