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NATO’S Compass Bearing

Written by Adrian Hill

At the NATO summit Joe Biden and the Germans set the rules though may not realise they also set NATO’s compass bearing for many years to come. Meanwhile, Ukraine is amassing more modern weaponry and is strengthening its counter-offensive position while cracks are showing in the Russian command structure

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The Poles are not hanging around, nor hoping that America and the EU will stay the course. I suspect some in Warsaw foresee a NATO break-up which spreads to the EU. Where the former Soviet empire stays in NATO but quits the EU. They’ve doubled their order for tanks from South Korea. For all its bluff and bluster, the Poles see every day that the EU talks a lot but delivers far less than pledged. They also saw the fuss Scholz made while dithering over sending tanks to Ukraine. By ordering from South Korea the Poles keep the supply chain under their control. A thousand tanks make quite a good deterrent.

For this roundup I have drawn from that steady spring of reliable information and shrewd assessment, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in Washington DC.

Cluster Munitions

The United States announced a new military aid package for Ukraine that includes cluster munitions on the 7 July. The $800 billion aid package includes dual-purpose improved conventional munitions (DPICMs), and more ammunition for Patriot air defence systems and HIMARS MLRS systems.

There has been a great deal of debate and much criticism. I think the Americans are still gearing up their production lines for ammunition but suspect that the sheer size of the Russian minefields makes cluster munitions tempting for Ukraine. And indeed, F16s and A 10 Warthogs to deliver them. Such a combination provides a very speedy way to clear a wide path through any minefield. Small infantry positions face wipe out. Dug-in armour would suffer tracks blown off and other damage that compromises their mobility and fighting power.

The Americans are supplying 155mm DPICM artillery rounds which contain 72 bomblets. DPICM rounds were used in Vietnam and the statistics show that thirteen and a half ordinary rounds were required to kill a single NVA Bo Doi but only one and a half cluster rounds to do the same job. This is important, for barrel wear. A 155mm gun barrel wears out after around 1800 rounds. According to RUSI nobody makes 155mm barrels in the UK any longer. No wonder Ben Wallace told the Ukrainians he’s not Amazon for military hardware!

A coalition of 11 states signed a memorandum with Ukraine outlining the terms for training Ukrainian pilots on the F-16 aircraft at the 2023 NATO Summit in Vilnius on 11 July. Training programme may include other fighter aircraft types.  Denmark and the Netherlands earned praise for their ”outstanding leadership” in the process. Ukraine has trained enough pilots on their simulators to form a pair of squadrons of A 10 ground attack aircraft.

Bakhmut 

Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister, Hanna Malyar, stated on 10 July that Ukrainian forces have taken control of unspecified heights around Bakhmut, allowing Ukrainian forces to establish fire control over Bakhmut itself. Ukrainian officials have recently signalled that Ukraine seeks to trap Russian forces within the city, and it appears that Ukrainian operations in the Bakhmut area in recent days have been intended to slowly envelope Russian troops in Bakhmut and on its flanks. ISW was previously conservative when assessing claims of Russian fire control and general interdiction of Ukrainian lines of communication in and around Bakhmut as Russian forces gradually took control of the settlement, but Ukrainian claims of establishing fire control may be more credible. Both Ukrainian and Russian sources have indicated in recent days that Ukraine is gaining ground in the Bakhmut area and on its south-western flanks including specific terrain features that can give Ukrainian forces fire advantage. Ukrainian counteroffensive actions may be credibly threatening the Russian hold on Bakhmut, although it is far too early to forecast the liberation of the city.

G7, NATO and South Korea

The Group of Seven (G7) Coalition and NATO signed agreements to offer Ukraine long-term security commitments during the NATO Summit at Vilnius on the 12 July. President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea attended and signed an agreement with NATO to work together on security, Ukraine and the threat from North Korea.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced that NATO has agreed on a three-part package that will give Ukraine a multi-year program of practical assistance, create a NATO-Ukrainian coordination council, and commits NATO to allow Ukraine to join the alliance without going through a Membership Action Plan (MAP). G7 members Germany, Japan, France, Canada, Italy, Britain, and the United States signed a general framework document called the “Joint Declaration of Support for Ukraine” aimed at offering the Ukraine military, financial, and intelligence support and stated that each member of the G7 will enter into bilateral security negotiations with Ukraine regarding the document. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida stated that other countries would have the opportunity to join the declaration at a later stage. The general framework document also reportedly promises immediate steps to swiftly provide Ukraine with all necessary support in the event of a new attack but did not specify precisely what form of support. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that the agreements reached at the NATO summit mean that Ukraine would receive formal security guarantees, although neither the NATO nor the G7 agreements currently provide such guarantees. Ukraine did secure notable agreements that will strengthen long-term Western support at the NATO summit and these agreements will likely serve as the framework for potential increases in Western security assistance to Ukraine.

Ukraine secured additional bilateral security and defence agreements during the second day of the NATO summit on 12 July. Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov signed agreements with Swedish Defence Minister Paul Jonsson on cooperation in the field of defence procurement and with the French Defence Ministry on increasing French military assistance to Ukraine by 170 million euros. (France has given less assistance than Estonia). The Ukrainian Presidential Office announced that Australia will send an additional 30 Bushmaster armoured vehicles to Ukraine. The UK government stated that the UK will provide Ukraine with an additional 50 million pounds in security assistance, including additional ammunition for Challenger tanks. Norwegian Defence Minister Bjorn Arild Gram stated that Norway will provide an additional NASAM (Norwegian Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System) support package, including two additional fire control centres, two launch units, and spare parts. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida noted that Japan will provide Ukraine with $30 million in non-lethal equipment including drone detection systems.

President Zelensky made no secret of his disappointment that NATO seemed so wary of announcing an agreed pathway to membership. Nobody expected Ukraine to become a member while still at war with Russia. That would start a third world war. But for the Ukrainians, Vilnius doesn’t bring them any closer to NATO membership than that previous conference in Bucharest. They worry that Putin will see Vilnius as an amber traffic light.

That Counter-Offensive

The team at the ISW assess that Ukrainian forces appear to be focusing on steady attrition of Russia’s ground force that conserves Ukrainian manpower at the cost of a slower rate of territorial gains, though gradually wears down Russian manpower and equipment. Their main tasks are to destroy Russian manpower, equipment, fuel depots, artillery, and air defences and that a “war of destruction is equal to a war of kilometres.” The priority is to ‘attrit’ Russian manpower and assets before attempting massive sweeping mechanised manoeuvres to regain large swaths of territory. NATO Military Committee Chairman, Admiral Bob Bauer, reported on 3 July that Ukrainian forces are wise to proceed cautiously and avoid high casualties in the counteroffensive and acknowledged that the counteroffensive is difficult due to landmines and other obstacles up to 30km deep into Russian-occupied territory. Bauer stated that Ukrainian forces should not face criticism or pressure for moving slowly.

Ukrainian forces have liberated territory in multiple areas of the front since the start of the counteroffensive in early June. Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister, Hanna Malyar, reported on the 3 June that Ukrainian forces had liberated a total of 37.4 square kilometres in eastern and southern Ukraine that week.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that Ukrainian forces are attempting to soften Russian defences before liberating territory, accepting a slower pace of advance. Lack of air cover, no fighters or ground attack aircraft overhead, must slow down the counter offensive. Russia’s helicopter gunships are a significant threat to Ukraine’s armour. Ukrainians also say the Russians very quickly bring in replacements even if Ukrainian forces destroy entire units. ISW has assessed that Russian forces lack operational reserves. The Ukrainian observation likely refers to locally available tactical reserves. Another unit commander in the same Territorial Defence Brigade said that the shortage of armoured vehicles makes it difficult for Ukrainian forces to advance on well-prepared positions. Wall Street Journal sources also cited the lack of Ukrainian air superiority as one of the factors slowing down Ukrainian counteroffensives.

Putins’s Prospects

Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin claimed that certain members of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle may push Putin to end the war in order to depose him. Girkin claimed that Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion succeeded, resulting in a power redistribution according to the plans of Prigozhin’s patrons. Girkin warned that the “Ozero Cooperative” members, including Putin insiders from Leningrad Oblast, will target the Ministry of Defence, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), and other structures outside the control of the presidential administration.

Putin confirmed to Russian news outlet Kommersant in an interview published on July 13 that he met with Prigozhin and thirty-five Wagner commanders on 29 June. Putin claimed that he offered Wagner fighters the option to serve under a Wagner commander (callsign “Seda”) who has commanded Wagner forces for the last sixteen months, further confirming ISW’s previous assessment that the Kremlin seeks to retain Wagner as a cohesive fighting force while separating it from Prigozhin. Putin claimed that “many [Wagner commanders] nodded” in response to his offer, but that Prigozhin, “who was sitting in front…did not see them nodding,” said that the Wagner commanders did not agree with the decision. Putin likely emphasized Prigozhin’s differing response to frame Prigozhin as a problem in contrast to loyal Wagner commanders. Girkin noted that Putin’s retelling of the meeting portrays Putin as succumbing to Prigozhin’s demands, but the final outcome of the meeting is unclear. When asked directly by Kommersant about Wagner’s future as a combat unit, Putin continued to maintain the absurd notion that private military companies (PMCs) do not exist in Russia. Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder stated on 14 July that Wagner forces are not participating in military operations in Ukraine in any significant support or combat roles. ISW has previously observed Russian sources reporting that Wagner forces are not involved in combat operations in Ukraine.

Belarusian government and independent sources confirmed on  14 July that Wagner Group instructors previously deployed in Africa previously arrived at training grounds in Belarus.

Major-General Popov

Former Commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army (CAA) Major General Ivan Popov claimed in a cleverly leaked audio that Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu dismissed him for making persistent complaints about problems on the western Zaporizhia Oblast frontline to senior commanders. Within a day Popov had become a global media star.

ISW say that Popov’s dismissal continues to generate pronounced ire against the Russian military command and the Russian civilian leadership. Russian milbloggers argued that Popov’s dismissal shows that the Russian military command is suppressing the opinions of commanders about the situation at the front and that the Russian command has forgotten that their main priority is preserving their personnel. A Russian military correspondent argued that Popov’s dismissal illustrates a dire issue with both the Russian military leadership as well as Russia’s civilian leadership. The military correspondent accused the civilian leadership of routinely suppressing and ignoring reports from the frontline and of failing to properly mobilize Russia’s defence industrial base for the war effort. The military correspondent claimed that Russian elites and businessmen have agreements with the Russian military command constraining Russian military action on the ground to avoid damaging economic interests – providing the hypothetical example of Russian forces being denied permission to attack a town to preserve an industrial plant owned by a Russian businessman. Prigozhin previously accused Russia’s oligarchs of deceiving Putin and the Russian public to launch the invasion of Ukraine in order to divide the assets of occupied Ukrainian territories between themselves. Popov’s dismissal has exposed a new level of concern about factional dynamics and degraded command structures in the Russian military following Prigozhin’s 24 June rebellion. Watch this space.

 

 

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About the author

Adrian Hill