If you remember, I did this post about the Ukrainian military and the battle for Kherson a while back. And now they’ve up and done it. Kherson fell with comparatively little fighting.
Along the way, there was a little thing that I hadn’t predicted, where they retook the occupied parts of Kharkiv province. LOL!
The lightning attack – which will go down in military history books for its brilliance and audacity – stunned the Russians and they scrambled backward for a new defensive line. First, the Ukrainians had to cross the Sieviero-Donetsk river in the south, which the Russians had made numerous efforts to cross and were devastated each time. They also had to cross the Oskill River. That was easier because the Russians had fled so fast that the bridges were still intact. Russia left more armored vehicles and artillery behind than all the western aid combined had delivered. Ukraine only stopped where it did because of stretched supply lines.
Now the combat rages back and forth between the Oskill and the Krasna Rivers. The next prize is Svatove and the roads south to Kremina. But the reason why they were able to do all this was Kherson.
But before we go on to our next act, there were other important incidents.
Ukraine hyped the assault on Kherson. Any commander worth the powder to blow them to hell could see it was an untenable position. It did not matter how many troops they ferried across. But Putin had dreams of still taking Odesa and linking up with Transnistria to consolidate his hold over the Black Sea all the way to the Romanian border. Hey! The Kharkiv front has been silent for quite a while and is protected by a river. Let’s send some of those guys to Kherson where things are starting to heat up.
This is what happens to authoritarian dictators. They become convinced of their brilliance. Their ego becomes a factor in the war. If nobody can tell the boss that he’s wrong, he’ll make bad decisions, and they will meekly go along with it. When a political leader starts making military decisions things always go wrong. And when even the brightest military leader starts making decisions based on ego and not the cold hard logic of war, things go wrong.
A smart opponent can play that ego like a piano. Putin got played.
But this time Putin didn’t decide to go full Hitler. He finally got around to appointing a new commander for the war, General Sergei Surovikin, who had some balls. He made it clear to Putin that the right side of the river could not be supplied adequately and a retreat was in order. But it is a painful retreat. Ukraine isn’t planning on letting the Russians walk away without a beating. The barges and ferries aren’t capable of carrying heavy tanks and the largest artillery, so those are lost.
Now, Surovikin is a real monster. His nickname is General Armageddon, and he has served in every war from Afghanistan to Syria where he is credited with turning the tide of war in favor of the Assad government. He is hard-core enough to inform Putin of the real situation on the ground in Kherson. This is good in that Kherson was taken with a minimum of casualties. This isn’t good in that Ukraine will have a competent general to go up against. He is also Putin’s protection against Prigozhin of the Wagner Group and Kadyrov of the Chechen army who have been gaining strength with the ultranationalists.
It has not been a bed of roses for the Ukrainians. Russia has fired hundreds of drones, mostly purchased from Iran, at power stations, water works, sewage facilities, and assorted residential civilian targets. As a result, many areas are experiencing blackouts for up to 12 hours a day, and water/sewage infrastructure is iffy.
This makes civil life miserable. The remaining electricity will be prioritized for emergency civil and military applications. This doesn’t affect the Ukrainian’s ability to prosecute that war. Portable electrical generators are being brought in for critical applications. The west has many of those, ordinarily earmarked for natural disasters and civil defense. The damaged equipment is being repaired as quickly as possible. But the prospect of winter in Ukraine without electricity had led to another wave of refugees to less damaged areas.
Support from the west has shifted to SHORAD (Short Range Air Defense) systems like Vampire and Avenger and Gepard that are more suitable for shooting cheap drones in addition to the more sophisticated NASAMS and IRIS-T. (Vampire hasn’t even been manufactured yet.) We are even sending Hawk missiles which is a cold war anti-air and anti-missile system. Most of it is still future tense. It takes weeks to pull gear from mothballs, prep the equipment for combat, and ship it. Then it takes weeks more to train Ukrainians to use it.
As a side note… much has been made of how the US is “running out” of systems to send. Additionally much is made of how much it is costing us. Both claims are nonsense.
The truth is that the US built up an immense arsenal of weapons and ammunition in the Cold War for the express purpose of fighting the Soviet Union at the peak of its power. Russia today does not hold a candle to the millions of men and tens of thousands of tanks that would have flooded across the Northern European plain and the Fulda Gap. Some of those weapons have been sold, scrapped or given in foreign aid, but an awful lot are just sitting in warehouses gathering dust. Some systems were specifically built for Desert Storm, Iraq 2.0, and Afghanistan (MRAPs are an example) and unless we plan on occupying another hostile country soon, they have no purpose. The Hawk has been out of service for decades, and Stinger will soon be replaced.
We have sent some modern stuff. NASAMS, HIMARS, Javelins, M777 howitzers. The numbers sent are still quite small when compared to what is available. We’ve sent 16 HIMARS, but we have hundreds in inventory. No US units are losing their guns. There is no reason not to send equipment we don’t need. And while the replacement value of those systems is what is quoted in the cost of aid, that’s not a practical cost if we don’t need to replace it. We don’t need to replace it if there’s no land-based superpower to fight with it. If push comes to shove, China is a naval and air battle. Having millions of 155mm artillery rounds won’t help much.
At this time we have sent $18.5 billion in aid to Ukraine, spread over 10 months. Some of that is humanitarian aid. Most of it is the cash equivalent of older and surplus weapons we don’t need. OTOH, California wants to build a $100 billion bullet train from LA to Frisco. DoD’s annual budget is $750 billion of actual money. We dropped a cool $4 trillion on COVID. This is not going to break the bank.
In the very unlikely event we really needed to, US industry go BRRRRR, and in a couple of years we double the stockpiles.
There remain areas of the front lines where fighting is still desperate. Around Bakhmut in particular where the Wanger Group has slowly inched closer to the city. It has been inching forward for three months now, fighting an attrition battle with massive artillery barrages followed each time by a minute infantry advance. It is how they took Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. Ukraine only gets to attack in one region at a time. Everywhere else has to hold, whatever the cost.
The Dnipro is a mighty river, a mile wide with a fast current. Even though the bridges were damaged beyond use, Russia decided to destroy them totally. They do not plan to return. Not many troops will be needed to man its banks. There will be nothing but minor artillery duels, no unexpected cross-channel assaults. The front has now been shortened by 300 miles. Russia has maybe 20-30,000 demoralized troops (who have lost much of their armor and artillery) to relocate somewhere else. Ukraine probably has double that and is relatively unbloodied. Ukraine gets the strategic win, and their high morale has been boosted further yet.
It will be interesting to see where they go next.
There are still grim times ahead, and Russia is still a formidable opponent. But for now, Ukraine celebrates.