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Written by Adrian Hill

Former paratrooper and diplomat, Adrian Hill monitors the latest military and diplomatic moves in Ukraine. Ground movements are limited but Putin continues a bombardment with cruise missiles and drones but over two-thirds of his stock of the former have now been used.

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Over the second half of October the fog of war cleared a bit. The Institute for the Study of War in Washington DC (ISW) has a very experienced team including former senior officers and Russian language experts. All their material is drawn from public sources. Having worked in Washington DC as a diplomat, I can well conceive the kind of network enjoyed by the ISW.  Their assessment is that Putin intends to carry on conventional warfare in Ukraine over the winter into 2023. While he may talk about nuclear weapons and his generals have discussed using tactical nuclear weapons – more below – his tactics will be rather traditional. Putin’s theories of war rely on General Winter to break the will of the Ukrainian and European Union populations. He believes a hard winter would put enough pressure on the EU – meaning Herr Scholtz and Ursula von der Leyen – to stop weapons supplies to Ukraine and perhaps even lift some EU sanctions.

The trouble with this plan even if it works – and it’s not impossible although very dependent on what kind of winter the Almighty bestows on KGB atheists – is that stopping Herr Scholz and some EU satrap states from supplying weapons still leaves the US and UK supplying plenty. Brexit Britain supplies more weapons and aid than the whole EU put together. That was a British political decision. And I’d put money on the Poles and Baltic states sticking with the Americans and Brits. The ISW judgement also reveals how Putin has less and less elbow room. He can’t win but he dares not seek a way out. That leaves only a single exit, one he wants to avoid at all costs! We’re learning how many Russians have to die before someone in that unhappy country says enough.

On the Ground in Ukraine

Over the second half of October there has been no dramatic movement on the battlefields. Ukraine continues to make small gains around Kharkiv. The Russians may have won a marginal amount of ground – perhaps a village or two – on the Donetsk front but for a high price. ISW say they have no independent evidence for the Russian claims. Far more pivotal is the situation around Kherson where the Russians are slowly withdrawing from the city on the west bank of the Dnipro River. Over the last few days they have been observed building a defensive position just a kilometre north of the city limits. Their present front line is twenty kilometres further north. They are relying on ferries and barges as well as the remaining bridges to withdraw artillery and stores.

However, they are still none-the-less reinforcing the west bank with veteran troops from the airborne and special forces, thus may fight until the city is rubble. Whether the Ukrainians will fall for this ploy is another matter. Their advances north-east and south-west of the city have been cautious but relentless. I understand the ground is not easy, cut by flood water ditches which make very good trench lines. No doubt there are widespread minefields and booby traps to clear as well. Putin has threatened to demolish the Dnipro dam and let its huge lake to flood Kherson. I don’t buy that threat. One of the reasons for his invasion was that Crimea depends on the Dnipro dam for its water. Nor would the Ukrainians do it. Why would the Ukrainians make advancing to the west bank of the Dnipro more difficult for themselves, destroy valuable land and endanger the nuclear power station that needs the lake water? I can see why the Russians want a good story to justify their withdrawal from Kherson.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the opening moves before an inevitable offensive is Russian abductions from Kherson, first hundreds of children and then thousands of residents from the city.  Russian warnings that Ukraine may demolish the Dnipro dam are also for causing enough panic to make the civilian population of Kherson flee to Russian held ground.

Missile Bombardment

After the Ukrainians disabled the Kerch bridge from the Russian mainland to the Crimea, the Russians began almost daily attacks on civilian targets with cruise missiles and later on with Iranian supplied drones. Their first attacks were on the 17 October. The following day ten large urban areas throughout Ukraine were attacked with nineteen cruise-missile strikes, sixty-eight airstrikes and forty-three drones. Thirty-eight of the latter were shot down. This combination of bomber launched attacks from long range and ship launched attacks from the Black Sea was accurate enough to damage and disable some thirty per cent of Ukraine’s power stations. Attacks will continue. They did the night before Halloween, this time particularly damaging to Kiev where water was cut off to 80% of the population and hundreds of thousands lost electric power. The following night Russia launched fifty large missiles from bombers over the Caspian Sea and from eastern Donetsk, aimed at power supply targets. Forty-four missiles were shot down. Russia’s target remains the civil supply of light, heat and water during the coming winter.

Do these attacks make military sense? Russia started the war with an arsenal of just over 1800 large cruise missiles. At the beginning of October this arsenal had shrunk to just over 600 missiles. Since the latest attacks it’s shrunk further. Russia has expended costly precision weapons by bombarding ordinary people’s homes and local power stations. These attacks have almost no impact on the fighting powers of Ukraine’s armed forces. The pile of missiles is a little smaller on the 1 November.

Because of sanctions Russia has difficulty obtaining micro-electronics and key component parts for replacing cruise missiles and other smart weapons. To get around sanctions the Russians went to Iran for a supply of cheap drones – Shahad 136 and Arash 2. Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard personnel have been spotted in Crimea where they are most probably training Russian how to operate the drones supplied by Iran.

Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate ( GUR ) reported on 1 November that Iran plans to send a further 200 Shahad-136 drones for the Russians to assemble and paint on Russian markings. Iran intends to send a thousand weapons to Russia by the end of the year, including short range surface to surface ballistic missiles. GUR also said that Ukraine’s air defences had shot down more than 300 Shad-136 drones since Russia started using them on 13 September.

To give an idea of the cost of drone warfare, one Shahad 136 carries a warhead with about three times the explosive power of a 155mm medium round. This is a very expensive and wasteful way to attack residential zones in towns and cities, leaving aside the moral questions! Yes, the range far exceeds a medium gun, but Putin is – dare I suggest – burning through his German gas profits at reckless speed.

Dirty Phone Calls

Perhaps the oddest moment over the last half of October was Russia’s defence minister, Sergie Shoigu, making phone-calls to his fellow defence ministers in France, Turkey, the UK and USA, warning them about a Ukrainian false flag dirty bomb. I find it curious that he didn’t phone the Germans. His purpose was to split NATO and reduce military and financial aid to Ukraine. Lloyd Austen, Ben Wallace and their Ukrainian counterpart all denied Shoigu’s accusations.

US intelligence reports that Russia’s generals have discussed the use of tactical nuclear weapons when mulling over their frustrations on the conventional battlefields. Their leader’s propaganda machinery churns out nuclear nonsense. ISW says there is ample evidence that the partial mobilisation has resulted in poorly equipped, barely trained or untrained soldiers being thrown onto the battlefields in penny packets. The most recent call ups are being armed with weapons held in storage since the 1950s which require large calibre ammunition than modern weapons. These recruits have very low chances of survival. About a third of the reservists who were called up are now in Ukraine. They appear to have made very little difference to the military situation. Civilians in newly liberated villages and towns describe a mob addicted to drunkenness and looting combined with rape and murder. How anyone can imagine such a rabble exploiting a nuclear weapon – even given a following wind – without swiftly succumbing to radiation sickness and death themselves, defies belief. Russia’s remaining effective troops are clinging to the west bank of the west bank of the Dnipro River at Kherson. Again, where is the logic in letting off a nuclear weapon? A small change of wind would wipe them out. Have they even been supplied with NCB warfare protective clothing and breathing apparatus? More than doubtful. NCB warfare requires highly trained and disciplined troops skilled at combined arms tactics.

I feel very sorry for those families who have lost sons or fathers for the sake of Putin’s ego. President Zelensky calls them a ghost army. Partial mobilisation has ended so that the training machine can cope with November’s ordinary draft. One wonders if this was a small victory for the Russian generals in that the next intake may actually have some training.

Western media experts and some EU diplomats urge that Putin must be given a face-saving escape route. But a three hours rant called Putin’s annual lecture on the 27 October to the Valdai Discussion Club left no doubt he regards himself as some form of modern Tzar, one who wants to restore Russia’s 1914 frontiers. Ukraine as a separate people did not feature. They are Russians held as vassals of NATO without which their fake state could not exist. No mention of the Bucharest Memorandum that Russia signed. Never mind 1997, Putin lives in the world before August 1914 and Tannenberg. No wonder the Finns and Swedes want to join NATO. The Poles and Baltic states are already members and prove that we should have let Ukraine join when they wanted to separate from Russia.

A Lesson on How to Deploy Drones

On the 29 October the Ukrainians attacked the Russian Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol with a combination of submerged and aerial drones. This is the opposite way to Russia’s for using smart weapons. Three large frigates, about 400 feet long and weighing 4,000 tons, have been used to fire the largest cruise missiles at civilian targets in Ukraine. Thus a counter attack was a perfectly justified reaction under the rules of war. Russia described the surprise attack as terrorism, claiming that one minesweeper had been slightly damaged. However, the ISW observed that although the Ukraine has not made any claim as yet, judging from the smoke column in videos on social media, it is quite likely that at least one large frigate was hit. This vessel may have been the replacement flagship, Admiral Markova, and very likely suffered severe damage. Footage shows one semi-submerged drone dodging machine gun fire from a helicopter. The previous flag ship was hit by missiles earlier in the year. Russia’s immediate move was to withdraw from the UN agreed settlement that made grain exports possible to avoid starvation in the Middle East and Africa – before making a skid U turn and rejoining.

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About the author

Adrian Hill