Featured image: Ukrainian flag raised over the newly liberated village of Vysokopillya
More than 6 months into the latest invasion, Ukraine has launched its first counter-offensive. It was made possible by Russian overreach. During the original assault, Russian troops poured out of occupied Crimea. Many of them headed east, ultimately hoping to link up with Russian forces in Transnistria, home to another astroturf rebellion stirred up by the Russians in Moldova. Russia would control the entire Black Sea coast to the Romanian border.
The Ukrainian military had a traitor in its midst. He did not blow the various bridges across the Dnipro River. He surrendered Kherson without a fight. Russians poured across the Antonovsky bridge and surged upward to Mykolaiv, hoping to seize yet another bridge and be on their way to Odesa. They also poured north along the river to the dam at Nova Kahovka.
The commander of the forces at Mykolaiv was made of sterner stuff. The Russian forces were stopped and driven back. This was early in the war and the Russians made the same mistakes here as they did around Kyiv. Soon it was a stalemate with the Russians holding a roughly 40 km. wide band along the river.
When the West realized that the Ukrainians could fight, we started pouring in weapons of a defensive nature. Javelins, NLAWS, Stingers, drones. Russia tried repeatedly to break Ukrainian lines. The Ukrainian soldiers would fight, kill a lot of Russians, and retreat. Rinse and repeat. One bloody kilometer and one devastated village at a time. It became a war of attrition and the Russians were taking by far the worst of it. Taking a few hundred hectares a day while the Ukrainians nibbled a little something back somewhere else. At that rate, I’d die from old age before just eastern Ukraine would be subdued.
The Russian Air Force was less than sterling in its performance. The 3rd largest Air Force in the world never came close to air superiority. Half the Russian Black Sea Fleet is sunk and the other half is in hiding.
One of the interesting aspects of the war is that there is a thousand-mile-long battlefront but the very highest estimate of Russian forces was only 280K. (Russian army, Russian marine corps, Rovsgardia, (civil enforcement troops) Donbas militia, Wagner Group mercenaries, and a hand-full of Chechens and Syrians.) Probably 80,000 of them are seriously wounded, dead, captured, and missing in action. That means less than 2 Russian soldiers per square kilometer of occupied territory. The front was very porous.
Old Soviet-era equipment the Ukrainian troops already understood how to use flowed in. The former Soviet satelite states were glad to be rid of it since the West would replace it with better.
Finally the West realized Ukraine might just win. Or at least improve its position greatly for negotiations. The US and NATO started sending towed artillery like the M-777 and top-end self-propelled artillery like the Polish Krab, French Ceasar, US Palladin, and German Panzerhaubitze 2000, far superior to anything the Russians had. Then HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) and long-range artillery rounds (Excalibur) that could reach out and touch Russian rear areas with extreme accuracy. Ukraine now has 16 HIMARS units and another half-dozen units of other types firing the same high-accuracy missile. We sent Harpoon anti-ship missiles and HARMs (High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles). The Ukrainians fire the HARMs from Soviet-era planes (MIG-29s) and used Harpoons in land attack mode.
Ukraine was trading little snippets of land for time. Every day they fought and didn’t break, more gear showed up. But it wasn’t just the gear. You can’t operate modern systems with precision-guided munitions without a month of training. Ukraine also had 700K volunteers for the military but it takes several months to train infantry properly. Poorly trained infantry are just cannon fodder. That’s part of the Russian playbook but not Ukraine’s. They have to be trained in another country because otherwise, training camps are just targets.
Almost 6 months went by with little change in position. Except for the small cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, (which took 4 months to fall) the Russians remained stalled.
In the meantime, Russia bragged about firing 40,000 artillery rounds a day at the Ukrainians. Now, American artillery needs to the examined after firing 1500 rounds (at full charge) and has to be replaced at 2000 rounds. More rounds risk having the tube blow up. If we give a 2500 rounds lifetime to Russian artillery because they don’t care about accuracy or the crew’s safety, that’s 16 artillery tube equivalents lost a day. Artillery barrels are not cheap nor easy to ship nor easily swapped.
After most of the commentators chimed in about how a few smart weapons were nice but were not game changers, they changed the game. They didn’t consider that Ukraine had a godlike vision of the battlefield. The occupied territories are full of civilians with smartphones happily reporting on Russian movements. (I am stunned that the cell system has not been taken out.) I also suspect there are a few Starlink stations behind enemy lines. (Thank you, Elon Musk.)
Russian anti-aircraft systems were no match for cheap hobbyist drones that went wherever they wanted. The sky was full of satellites, some having an optical resolution equal to the Hubble Space Telescope. Just outside Ukraine and Russian borders, there was a fleet of RC-135 NATO “Rivet Joint” aircraft with side-looking radar and the world’s best signals intelligence capacity. High-value targets could be identified with sub-meter location accuracy and Russian movements predicted.
The Russians have spotty satellite coverage and the Ukrainians know when they are overhead. They lack anything like the RC-135. The Ukrainian civilians are totally uncooperative.
The Russians even helped with unencoded radio transmissions, using the Ukrainian cell system for communications and posting selfies from critical facilities online to be geolocated and attacked.
So HIMARS did what HIMARS does best. With amazing precision, one by one supply depots and command and control bunkers start getting taken out. You set up well behind the lines so as to be out of range of Russian artillery. Then you “shoot and scoot” – with the unique Ukrainian twist of leaving a wooden decoy behind for the Russians to waste an expensive precision-guided munition on.
Almost immediately the thunder of Russian artillery faded. You don’t need to destroy every tube individually if you can deprive them of ammunition. And something with a very long range started hitting Crimea, letting the Russians know that nowhere was safe. Local agents followed up with drone attacks.
A lot of those new systems being sent to Ukraine quietly disappeared. Of course, people started screaming “Corruption!” A lot of new trainees disappeared too. What really caught my eye was when 240 Polish T-72s were given to Ukraine and never showed up at the front. Now I’m confident I know why. The key is the Dnipro river.
Ukraine was quietly massing for an attack. They have incredible operational and ELINT security.
I mentioned that after they overran Kherson, the Russians took a swath of land on the northwestern side. For a few weeks now, Kyiv has been announcing a counterattack to take back the territory around Kherson. It was so convincing that Russia pushed an estimated 10,000 extra troops to the area. There are 4 bridges the Russians can use to supply. One is the Antonovsky Bridge, a massive 4-lane structure of steel and concrete. Another is the Pridnypovski rail bridge. Farther up the river is the Nova Kahovka dam with a two-lane vehicle bridge next to a rail bridge.
Thanks to its extreme precision, HIMARS did the impossible. The Antonovsky Bridge is now poked so full of holes as to be impassible to anything but foot traffic. They target the same section of the bridge over and over. Ukraine may not want it to collapse completely in order to give the Russians a way to retreat. The Russians tried to build a pontoon bridge next to it. That’s gone too. The rail bridge at Pridnypovsky is gone but the real miracle is the bridge over the dam.
Ukraine is unwilling to bomb the dam directly. Should it be breached, Kherson would be flushed out to the sea. But there is a very short rail and vehicle bridge on the approach to the dam. Very short. HIMARS was able to take out this twenty-meter span without damaging the dam at all. We know where the barges that were set up to try to ferry supplies across are located. Kiss them goodbye. There is yet another important bridge across the Inhuits River that essentially bisects the Russian-occupied territory. it is gone too.
You’d think they’d just repair the bridges but any attempt results in another barrage of HIMARS. The West is watching the bridges and Russia’s improvised barges very closely.
Now we have a large Russian force out of supply and split down the middle so they can’t shift forces. Ammunitions dumps have been blown. Air defenses mostly destroyed. The regional command moved out of the city before the bridges were taken out. All Ukraine has to do is get the enemy to burn up its remaining ammo and Kherson Oblast is ripe for the picking. Kherson City will be besieged. Alternately they could take the dam at Nova Kahovka. By doing that they can cut off the water supply to Crimea. Or maybe some other tactical decisions will be made. My understanding is that the Ukrainians did extensive war gaming on this with the US and we urged them not to overreach.
My own opinion is that Ukraine may take most of this land but the city of Kherson will not fall. City fighting is the bloodiest. Best to leave them to wither away. Nor will the city of Nova Kahovka, which controls the water supply to the Crimean peninsula. Ukraine will be much more interested in saving lives than digging the Russians out. Or maybe, if we are lucky, the whole Russian force will panic and flee. That’s best case scenario.
The Russians are trying to sign up another 137K volunteers for this farce. I don’t see it happening. Anyone who was willing to fight is fighting already. The Kremlin doesn’t dare go to general mobilization or the people will rebel. The prisons have already been emptied. They don’t dare send more regular troops or their borders will be bare. They don’t have the economy for this nor the population base even if they did mobilize. A half million people have fled Russia already, most of them young and educated.
For a while energy revenues were great but oil prices have dropped. The drizzle of oil they are selling to China and India at a steep discount does not pay for the trillion-dollar (US equivalent) cost of the war so far. Most of Russia’s oil and gas infrastructure is directed at Europe and cannot be directed elsewhere.
Russia’s hopes of crushing Ukraine ride on breaking the will of Europe to support them. At the moment it looks like Europe (Germany in particular) is willing to endure a miserable winter to stop them. But Germany’s gas storage is nearly topped off and by Christmas, they will have two of five floating LNG terminals installed. France is spooling up 34 (!!!) closed nuclear reactors to send electricity.
They’ll make it.
I’m not sure it would matter that much if Germany caved. The US and Poland are the primary supporters in terms of $$$ value of weapons. Neither is energy vulnerable. OTOH I am pretty sure 2023 is the end for Russian energy in Europe regardless of what happens. Wealthy and technically sophisticated countries will find ways to improvise and adapt. Europe is more united now than ever before.
Even Kazakhstan is moving away from Russia and getting cozy with China. Russian needs to rethink its policies or they are screwed.