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The Turn of The Tide?

Written by Adrian Hill

Ukraine’s President Zelenski has admitted – with understandable vagueness – that a counter offensive is under way for liberating Kherson and perhaps ultimately the Crimea.

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This comes after a July that saw Russian behaviour deteriorate further. The month ended with a suspected atrocity at a pre-trial detention centre where hundreds of prisoners from the Ukrainian Azov regiment were held after the surrender of Mariupol. At least 40 were burnt to death and another 75 injured. Wagner group were implicated with rumours of embezzlement of funds for running the prison. Since the first report the casualty numbers for killed and injured have risen.

Russian and Ukrainian forces accused each other of firing artillery rounds near the Zaporizhia nuclear power station in Ernohodar. This is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe with six reactors spread over quite an extensive area. Although the Institute for the Study of War in Washington DC (ISW) cannot independently determine which party is responsible for such incidents, the evidence from open sources tends to confirm that the Russians are using the danger of a nuclear incident as a means to provide a safe zone for troops and armoured vehicles, ammunition dumps and positions for artillery within the complex to fire on targets across the Dnipro River.

Along with skyrocketing gas prices, Russia hopes that fear of a radioactive wind blowing fallout westward from Zaporizhia may scare the EU members enough to abandon Ukraine to its fate and return to business as usual with Russia. Both the UN Secretary-General and the State Department have called for Russia to hand back the management of nuclear safety at the plant to the Ukrainians, who know what they’re doing.

On the battlefield Russia has made hardly any progress for the last month, advancing a few hundred metres on the eastern front while suffering horrendous casualties. None-the-less, around Kherson, the Russian machinery of political intimidation and dirty work is busy. Roubles are replacing Ukraine’s own money. There is now talk of employing armed troops to call on households and order them at gunpoint to fill in the voting forms for a pseudo-referendum that may decide whether those same households wish to become part of the Russian state. Consequently, the Ukrainians may have concluded that the timetable for liberation needs to speed up.

The Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol in the Zaporizhia Oblast, Ivan Fedorov, reported during the first week of August that resistance among Ukrainian residents has forced the Russians to constantly change their plans for a referendum. A single day of voting may be changed to a week of voting from home with interviews by troops. Fedorov said that only 10% of those remaining in Melitopol support Russia’s occupation – the others will be threatened with shooting if they don’t vote for annexation. Ukrainian Kherson Administration adviser, Sergey Khlan, attributes a three week pause in preparations for a referendum to HIMARS attacks on Russian occupation logistics.

Ukraine has been reticent about its campaign to liberate Kherson. Since receiving advanced rocket artillery from the USA, UK and one or two European countries, Ukraine has been able to attack Russian stock piles of ammunition and stores. The Ukrainians set about this task methodically and thoroughly because it makes sense to destroy the piles of ammunition rather than the guns. Modern long-range strike artillery has allowed them to attack key bridges that link Kherson with both banks of the Dnipro River. Most critical is the damage done to the main Antonivsky Bridge. Russia claims it will launch a pontoon bridge as a replacement but from youthful experience as a sapper officer I can assure readers that’s not the same and won’t provide the equivalent capacity for traffic. There is a possibility that Russian troops, perhaps as many as 10,000 – a Russian division – could be cut off on the western bank of the Dnipro River. Such a reverse might stoke panic among the Russian troops occupying Ukraine’s Black Sea Coast and the Crimean peninsula. Furthermore, an obvious objective for Ukraine is the Nova Khakhovka Dam which supplies Crimea with water.

On the 9 August an on-line media video showed what looked like quite impressive secondary explosions after hitting a fuel store or fully fuelled-up naval fighter aircraft parked in blast pens on Saky airfield on the west coast of the Crimea. Moreover this occurred during broad daylight, complete with families running for their lives from a nearby beach,  At first the Russian defence ministry claimed an accidental fire was the cause while the Ukrainians said very little. After much media speculation, Ben Wallace, our Defence Secretary, made clear that the Americans had not supplied Ukraine with longer range missiles. The airfield is a 225-kilometre flight from the nearest Ukrainian held ground. Today 11 August the Ukrainians are claiming that an airstrike destroyed nine Russian fighters and fourteen helicopters. The satellite photos before and after the attack show at least seven burnt out supersonic fighters occupying scorched blast pens. The attackers might have come by sea during the night and attached EODs (Explosive Ordnance Devices in US Army jargon) to the aircraft and fuel bowsers. Just a thought.

Whatever the mode of travel, the counter-offensive is under way. Which brings me to a very informative article in the Sunday Times last weekend by General Sir Richard Barrows – ‘Would Putin use tactical nuclear weapons as a way of staving off defeat’?

As a former soldier I agree with Sir Richard that Russian officers are taught that tactical nukes are simply a form of escalation. I thought we were daft to scrap our tactical nukes and depth charges. The Americans and French retain theirs.

As a former diplomat I don’t believe that whether to go nuclear is an easy choice for Russia. I would suggest that the crude exploitation of the Zaporizhia nuclear site may provide evidence of this dilemma. Perhaps no one dares tell Putin and his closest chums that Russia doesn’t have a fraction of the manpower needed to hold down the territory they’ve grabbed from Ukraine. Nor are the weapons used by Russia’s forces particularly good. Some sound a liability against the latest weapons. Some Russian helicopters can be shot down with an AK 47.

More to the point, Ukraine had third largest nuclear arsenal on earth. In one of the most remarkable acts of trust the Americans, British, Russians and Ukrainians worked as a team and dismantled this arsenal. This was done so that an independent Ukraine was not a nuclear threat to Russia. Russia’s invasion of Crimea ended that trust. If the Russian ‘ elite ‘ want forty-four million highly capable people to hate them and Russia for even more centuries letting off a tactical nuke is a very quick way. Leaving aside the Ukrainians who will find a way to get their revenge, not to mention the American and British deterrents, most ordinary Russians won’t thank them either.

Adrian Hill, Former Para Engineer. diplomat, Army skydiving instructor, CBI Council Member and only Brit to write part of the Department of State’s history of its role in the Vietnam War.

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Adrian Hill