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The Pendulum Swings

Written by Adrian Hill

Ukraine’s counter offensive has been underway for two months. Reports about slow progress flow from a media and officials, who mostly have never worn a uniform let alone experienced combat. So don’t take too much notice of comment in the media. The Ukrainians have been active and effective in several areas.

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One of the huge changes in British society over the last half-century is that few people have experienced combat. We have politicians and officials taking decisions in complete ignorance. Thank God for Ben Wallace! We shall miss him. Don’t go far away, Ben, we may need you urgently.

The same applies to most of the media, other than the excellent reporting in The Times and other heavyweight papers from their teams on the spot. The Times edition of Saturday 5 June carries just such a report, from Maxim Tucker, relaying what the Ukrainians have done to defend themselves from air attacks and who helps them.

Necessity Is the Mother of Invention

Some comment has suggested that this counter offensive resembles D Day and the Battle of Normandy that followed and brought Germany’s third great defeat with the loss of a quarter of a million soldiers killed or taken prisoner. The Allies did not take the shortest Channel crossing but the less obvious one where they stood the best chance of getting ashore and staying ashore.

The Ukrainians don’t have enough shipping, or air supremacy, otherwise they might well have decided to land at the top north-east corner of the Black Sea and tackle those Russian defence lines from the rear. Russia grabbed 80% of their fleet when Crimea was invaded. Mind, if the Ukrainians manage to break through from the north – they’re only sixty kilometres from Melitopol – there will be a lot of stranded Russians.

If Putin tries to rescue them with a Black Sea version of Dunkirk, I foresee disaster. Why not surrender now, Russians, and get it over with? At least you’ll still be alive to go home. Putin has your corpses burned so the smell doesn’t upset the cannon fodder who are still alive. Ukraine has developed its naval drones since the Russians invaded. They are mounting a drone war against Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and scored direct hits on some of its major units.

On the Ground

Since last week, probing attacks along the line of contact across south – western Ukraine gave way to a determined assault on the first of Russia’s three defence layers stretching from the River Dnipro to the Crimea.

This move was encouraged by Igor Prizoghin’s march on Moscow because that stunt revealed how thin on the ground is the Russian Army. There were very few troops between Bakhmut and Moscow if Wagner Group’s token force was able to advance to within 120 miles of the Kremlin with barely a shot fired. Prizoghin also showed that Putin dared not fall back on more conscription to replace battle losses and strengthen his own bodyguard and internal security forces. He appears to be buying friends by nationalizing foreign companies – France’s Danone, largest milk producer in Russia, Carlsberg from Denmark with a third of the beer market in Russia. As Ben Marlow pointed out in the Daily Telegraph, every western company still in Russia is complicit in Putin’s cruelty and they shouldn’t be surprised how he says thank you for keeping the tills open.

Putin remains Ukraine’s best General. He removed Popov, one of his few good generals, for speaking up on behalf his troops, thereby triggering Prizoghin’s march on Moscow. The Russians defending against a fresh and newly equipped Ukrainian brigade have been in the line for months and lack everything from ammunition and food to heavy weapons and clothing. While the present state of the country side – no farming has given way to thick bushes – favours the defence, neither side has any real air power. Eventually the Ukrainians will open a gap and find no one barring their path.

For both sides, this is grinding, dangerous work. Russia has laid as many as five mines per square meter in some places. On the plus side it very soon became clear that American and British armoured personnel carriers are far better built than their Russian counterparts. Soldiers walked away from damaged and even knocked-out vehicles – they would have been killed in a Russian one. The Ukrainians are taking casualties but so are the Russians and the former only have to open a hole the latter cannot fill.

Experience suggests that they will commit just enough of their British and NATO trained force to find a breach in the Russian defences while keeping back as much as possible, ready and fresh to exploit that breach.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in Washington DC reports that Ukrainian forces struck two key road bridges connecting occupied Crimea and occupied Kherson Oblast on the 6 August, as part of a larger effort to disrupt the Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs). Both military and civilian traffic are forced to make long detours. British made Storm Shadow missiles took out the southern bridge at Chonhar and the northern bridge at Henichesk. Now traffic has to drive all the way to the Black Sea coast. How long it will take until the Ukrainians hit the bridges beside the Black Sea? Or do they want to use them eventually?

The importance of these bridges may be judged from the speed at which the Russians threw a pontoon bridge over the inlet. Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces used Storm Shadow cruise missiles to conduct both strikes, although ISW has yet to observe confirmation of Russian forces intercepting Storm Shadow cruise missiles. 

Naval Drones versus Russia’s Black Sea Fleet

The first attack on the 3 August left a large landing ship – presently deployed to carry military and civilian traffic between Crimea and the mainland – listing 40 degrees on her port side. Repairs may take a long time and most likely the ship will not be available should the Russians need to evacuate their army. Ukrainian forces struck a Russian oil tanker on the 4 August with a naval drone, the second attack on Russian ships in the Black Sea on two consecutive days.

ISW report that the Moscow Times identified the tanker as the chemical tanker SIG, which is currently under US sanctions for supplying jet fuel to Russian forces in Syria. Sources within the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) confirmed to the Ukrainian outlet Suspilne that the SBU and the Ukrainian Navy struck the ship near the Kerch Strait Bridge using a naval drone. The Russian Federal Agency for Sea and Inland Water Transport (Rosmorrechflot) reported that the strike on the SIG occurred 27 kilometres south of the Kerch Strait Bridge, and Russian milbloggers claimed the attack caused Russian authorities to suspend traffic on the bridge. Russian news aggregator Baza reported that the naval drone punched a two-by-one meter hole in the SIG’s engine room, and Russian state outlets claimed that the incident did not result in an oil spill. A Russian milblogger claimed that the Ukrainian naval drone intentionally targeted the SIG’s engine room because targeting the stern creates the least likelihood of an oil spill and where the most expensive and difficult-to-repair equipment is located.  The nature and location on the ship of the attack suggest that Ukrainian forces intended to disable the ship without generating significant ecological consequences. Ukrainian forces have long targeted the Kerch Strait Bridge in order to degrade Russian military logistics in southern Ukraine, and the attack on the SIG is likely part of a wider effort to disable ships involved in supplying Russian military forces and the location of the attack near the bridge suggests that it was part of a larger effort to disrupt Russian logistics along a key Russian ground line of communication (GLOC).

These tactics of attacking the Russian logistics are very similar to those employed before the liberation of Kharkiv. The Ukrainians developed their naval drone force after they were invaded.  Ukrainian officials issued a notice to mariners that Ukraine may mount naval operations in that region, possibly as a reply to the Russian warning to shipping about mines off the Dnipro mouth a few days earlier.

Ukraine’s Hidden Front

Russians have been largely shielded from Putin’s war but Ukraine has a volunteer IT Army some ten thousand strong who launch cyber attacks on anything from military logistics to the banking system. They just want the Russians to know what it feels like to live with constant uncertainty. Add to this recent drone attacks on Moscow and sabotage by the native Crimean Tartars who never accepted Russia’s invasion and annexation of their homeland, hardly a surprise given the Russian’s treatment of them. Perhaps the worst war crime committed by Russia is the mass abduction of children. The silence of NATO and China is frankly incredible. I have yet to hear Rishi or Biden or Xi tell Putin and all involved that they are war criminals – though one expects continued deafening silence from the EU as a bloc.

Of the larger EU countries France has given the least help save for Italy. At one point during last winter, Kiev was nearly evacuated. The French actually asked them, ‘Why don’t you surrender, why don’t you give up?’ There are various breeds of armchair generals among the EU establishment whose political leaders desperately wish the Ukrainians defeated so they can resume business as usual with Russia. Always remember that the three largest countries in the EU were defeated by the Americans, the British Commonwealth and the Russians between 1943 and 1945. Most of them surrendered to us and the Americans. Only the unlucky Poles and eastern Europeans found themselves occupied by the Russians. They understand why the Ukrainians don’t trust Russia.

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About the author

Adrian Hill