Well, the Ukrainians pulled it off and just before winter for the people living in Kherson and along the west ( right-hand ) bank of the River Dnipro. Personally I never doubted that they would succeed and furthermore avoid heavy casualties. There was very little they could do to stop the departing Russians vandalising the city without, themselves, taking heavy casualties. This victory is even more praiseworthy than their earlier rout of the Russian Army occupying Kharkiv and its surrounding countryside.
Unlike the Russian army around Kharkiv, the Ukrainians liberating Kherson faced some of Russia’s remaining experienced, disciplined troops – special forces, airborne and marines – defeating them through clever and skilful use of the longer range rocket artillery provided by America and Britain. These are called High Mobility Rocket Artillery System – in US Army jargon HIMARS – or Multiple Launch Rocket System, MLRS in British Army jargon. Both armies are talking about the same mobile launcher made by Lockheed.
HIMARS has given the Ukrainians a long range tactical reach which swiftly played a strategic role by forcing the Russians onto the defensive. The launcher carries a dozen missiles but they are not powerful enough to destroy a big bridge. So the Ukrainians decided to ‘ dent ‘ the big bridges over the Dnipro which is over a mile wide in places. They fired their HIMARS rockets to break up the road surface over the bridges until driving any kind of vehicle became difficult and slow enough to make vehicles easy targets. While the Ukrainians could fire their rockets from random positions – no doubt tipped off by brave informers whenever there were targets on the bridges or ferries – the Russians could not hide the bridges and seem to have docked their ferries close alongside the main bridge at Kherson. Eventually the Russians were forced to supply their troops on the west bank via ferries and barges. European rivers, large ones, have thousands of barges as an easy and surprisingly fast way of moving goods. But the Russians may have faced a dilemma as river worthy barges ran out. Unable to supply his troops on the West bank, the new Russian commander, General Sergey Surovikin, somehow managed to persuade Putin that unless the troops on the west bank moved to the east bank, pretty soon they would have a choice between starvation or surrender.
The Russians claim their evacuation lasted three days and that 20,000 troops with 3500 vehicles and pieces of equipment were moved across the Dnipro to the east bank. The Institute for the Study of War in Washington DC ( ISW ) says that the satellite photographs confirm the claims of both Russians and Ukrainians. President Zelensky visited the city of Kherson where before leaving the Russians destroyed as much as they could. The city has no water, electricity or communications. The hydro-electric turbines on the Dnipro dam have been sabotaged along with the bridge and the big telephone tower lies in a Kherson park after demolition. Generators and mobile wifi masts have been rushed to Kherson – fortunately Elon Musk’s satellites remain overhead! Already the people of Kherson are recounting the same kind of violence, looting, torture and threats, drunkenness and vandalism, described by many other liberated Ukrainians. One person said the Russian occupation reminded of Stalin’s time because people ceased to trust one another. Large amounts of ammunition have been discovered in the city and the Ukrainians are searching for booby traps and numerous Russians still hiding. One suspects the sheer scale of mess to clear up is matched only by the task of finding who is missing after months of Russian occupation. Some reports claim that as many as 150,000 children have been abducted from the Dombas region for adoption – kidnapping for brainwashing in plain English.
For many months now the Ukrainians have held the initiative and recovered a lot of territory. They should keep it that way. Controlling the momentum throws your opponent off balance. I doubt if the Ukrainians will attempt a replay of the Rhine Crossing across the Dnipro. Even the Allies had to go through the frustration of Market Garden in 1944: after capturing two great bridges across the Rhine delta and despite holding the third bridge at Arnhem for four days – the lightly armed First Airborne Division landed on top of the 10th SS Panzer Division – after another week of house to house fighting the survivors made it back across the river. Not until the following spring was a second, more massive operation successful.
The Russians are building a mini-Maginot Line some distance east from the Dnipro. My hunch is that the Ukrainians will ignore this fortification and aim for an imaginative hook. However, while deciding their tactics they will employ their new rocket artillery skills. There are few good roads and railways in southern Ukraine thus some obvious logistic bottlenecks. I suspect they will repeat the tactics used to make it impossible to supply the Russian occupation army in Kherson. They’ll have to exercise some care around that nuclear power station but otherwise it may prove open season on trucks and trains.
Nor should they allow themselves to be distracted by any further sacrifices of cannon fodder along the main front south and east of Kharkiv. Those poor devils may simply be the victims of a deal between Putin and his general for saving the lives of Russian troops who were on the west side of the Dnipro. Nor should the Ukrainians allow themselves to be distracted by Russian incompetence and spite, such as firing missiles at civilians – deliberately rather than accidentally as the Ukrainian SAM that landed in Poland.
Ukraine needs to recover a lot more ground along the Black Sea to restore a sound national security posture from which to rebuild their country’s economy and infra-structure. The good news is that the liberation of Kherson and the west bank of the Dnipro brings those twin ambitions within reach.
If you put this question to a US staff college or one of ours, I suspect the answers would look remarkably similar. Ukraine cannot survive for long with a large strategic chunk of its territory occupied by a hostile neighbour as a potential launching pad for another invasion. This particular strategic chunk encompasses the whole region inland from the Black Sea coast to the Russian occupied region of Donetsk and along the Sea of Azov. I would maintain the vital chunk includes Crimea occupied by Russia in 2014. Any peace deal would have to restore the whole lot to Ukraine and include Russian acceptance that Ukraine, should they so wish, would become a member of NATO.
Allowing the Russians to hold the eastern shore of the Dnipro estuary – combined with a handy naval base at Sevastopol in the Crimea – actually gives Russia control of Ukraine’s grain exports which are vital for countries in Africa and the Middle East. Putin has tried to manipulate the grain supply in the same way that he has cut off the gas supply to Germany and its EU satellites.
Russian warships have launched missiles at Ukraine from the Black Sea. By restoring Crimea to Ukraine it makes it possible to lock the Russian fleet in the Sea of Azov. That might not stop missile attacks but it narrows down the hunt for launch vessels. Turkey invoked the Montreaux Convention and stopped Russian warships from passing through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. This added to the difficulties of Russia’s navy, complicating repairs and replacing ships in other parts of the world.
Over the 15 and 16 November the Russians fired 90 cruise missiles and 11 drones at civilian targets in Ukraine. Of these 75 cruise missiles and 10 Shahad-136 drones were shot down. The US Defence Secretary that the NASAMS air defence system had recorded 100% success against Russian missiles. A Ukrainian SAM (made in the Soviet Union in 1978 ) overshot its target and hit a Polish farm, killing two people. Fortunately everyone (or nearly everyone ) kept their heads and we did not wake up to world war three!
Another chinese whisper at the G20 was started by remarks from General Mark Milley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who suggested that a victory in Ukraine would resemble other victories and inadvertently gave the impression he was suggesting the Ukrainians negotiate. It took National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, to bring the media line back on course.
Citing a position that is “shared across the US government” Sullivan said that the US will continue to do everything possible to put Ukraine in the “best possible position on the battlefield so that when they make their determination to proceed, they’re in the best possible position at the negotiating table.”
Sullivan also publicly cited Biden’s remarks last week that it is up to Ukraine to decide “when and how they want to negotiate.” Biden also reiterated that the US will not be negotiating anything related to the ongoing war without Ukraine during a G20 press conference on Monday. “I’ve been very clear that we’re going to continue to provide the capability for the Ukrainian people to defend themselves. And we are not going to engage in any negotiation,” Biden said. “Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine. This is a decision Ukraine has to make.”
Where Does All This Leave Nato?
Whether the government in Kiev wants to pacify the eastern end of the country is a choice they must make. Should they decide it’s not worth the trouble, allowing Putin to keep the breakaway republics must involve complete removal of all military forces and weapons including those of the break away republics. The last thing President Zelensky needs is a launch pad or several for another Russian invasion. Welcoming Ukraine as a member of NATO would place the country under the protection of the United States and its strategic deterrent. It’s a great pity this wasn’t done when the Cold War was closed down. However, timing is everything, and the NATO card should only be played when all the advantages rest with Ukraine. Having so far avoided direct confrontation between NATO and Russia, let’s not use any future peace talks as a way to start World War Three. Especially when Xi looks as though he is trying to distance himself from Putin.
The Ukrainians have several military options. If you look at a large scale map of the countryside between the Dnipro estuary and the River Don’s it’s not hard to fathom where those chinagraph blue arrows might streak across southern Ukraine!
We know from NATO members’ track records during this year that the Americans give the most help, Britain is second, Poland is third, Germany fourth, followed by Canada then five other NATO countries. France and Italy give less than Norway, Estonia and Latvia. Britain gives more than the whole EU added together. Add to this picture the prospect of a Republican controlled House of Representatives (confirmed by the mid-term results ) influenced by a Donald Trump making a run for a second term as President of the United States. To me that means Ukraine with its allies have until 2024 to win the war before the risk of an isolationist Trump administration taking over in Washington. Trump thinks that if America does less, the Germans, French and Italians will do more. They won’t, they’ll do even less, making Trump their excuse.
That risk also means that Britain must stand ready to pick up part of the burden and needs its industry to possess the capacity for making everything from pure research to special steels to special materials and smart chips. Our armed forces should not shrink but grow. Ukraine shows that Britain does not need another Rhine Army (Poland has nearly 1000 tanks and 600 self-propelled guns on order from South Korea) but urgently needs a much larger navy and air force. We cannot close the Greenland Iceland Gap, we lack any air defence against the kind of ballistic missiles Iran is exporting to Russia. The navy would have to patrol the Thames Estuary with Daring class destroyers to defend London. The order for F 35s ought be at least 200 aircraft.
As for relying on the Germans and their new EU empire to defend Europe, Rishi and his Chancellor should read this week’s edition of Der Spiegel: the Inspector-General of the German Army gave an interview where he explained that the EU, not just Germany, was in no position to fight Russia and then explained why!