September 4, 2022
As I wrote in my recent war update, it is very unlikely that Ukraine will undertake a massive counter-attack to liberate Kherson. A few days ago, ZSU launched a series of attacks along the entire Southern front, and broke through the first line of Russian defenses in several places. However, they did not even attempt to exploit these breaks, and allowed the VSRF to plug most holes by rushing reinforcements. There have been little change since, with the pro-Russian media trumpeting untold victories, multiples HIMARS destroyed, thousands of Ukrainians killed or captured, entire formations encircled, and all sorts of wild fantasies. The reality is much less salutary for the Russians, who failed to provide adequate air cover for their troops, and whose chaotic response exposed the weakness of their defenses. So what is going on?
The Ukrainians are totally mum, of course, so I can only speculate a bit. The respected Institute for the Study of War is talking about a ZSU counter-offensive but I beg to disagree. There is very little evidence of focused attempts to liberate and hold territory. Instead, we see a lot of hit and runs, and a huge focus on whittling down VSRF’s ability to maintain themselves on the right bank of the Dnipro River. It is no secret that the Russians have been preparing for another massive push in the South. They have been stockpiling forces and supplies there for nearly two months, and the Russian doctrine has always hewn very closely to “the best defense is a massive offense”. Here’s what the Red Army infantry manual had to say about this in 1942:
“Combat is the only means for attainment of victory. Annihilation of the enemy manpower and materials is achieved in combat. It is in combat that the enemy’s resistance is suppressed. There are two types of Infantry combat: offensive and defensive. The aim of every combat consists in defeating the enemy but it is the resolute offensive or counter-attack with a subsequent encirclement of the enemy or unrelenting pursuit that bring about the final crush of the enemy. The offensive combat is the basic type of combat of the Red Army.”
Given how VSRF have been operating in Ukraine so far, not much has changed since this was written. (This includes the limited role of unit commanders as well.) As rumors about an impending ZSU counter-offensive in the South have been swirling since April, the Russians responded in the only way possible: with preparations for their own offensive there, and for months it looked like a race for initiative — which side will get ready for their massive push first. The Russians have amassed anywhere between 25,000 and 30,000 troops around Kherson, and this is not a force to be trifled with even if you do blow up many of their ammo and supply dumps. The estimates for the ZSU suggest that it has anywhere between 80,000 and 100,000 men for an assault. And now it looks the ZSU went first. But to what end?
Politically, Kherson seems crucial. The Ukrainians are under pressure to deliver some tangible victories with territorial gains or the encirclement/destruction of significant Russian forces instead of slow, but ongoing, retreats and containment of Russian advances. Liberating Kherson would be an absolute stunner, making a massive offense in the South a very tempting option. Conversely, the Russians must hold Kherson at almost any cost. It is the only regional center that they’ve conquered since the war began (even though this, as well as most of the Zaporizhzhia conquest came from treason in the political and security ranks of the Ukrainians). They have invested quite a bit of effort to de-Ukrainize it, going so far as to import teachers to start indoctrinating schoolchildren in love for Putin and “Kherson is Russian” type nonsense. They are preparing to run a sham referendum to have it incorporated into Russia. That is, it’s a straightforward war of territorial aggrandizement at this point for the Kremlin. The slow tempo of operations and relative lack of success (the only places where VSRF have been able to make incremental gains against Ukrainian resistance have been fronts where it could bring 4 or 5 times the artillery the Ukrainians had and grind down the defenders), however, have exposed Putin to criticism from the more aggressive wings in the military and security. The only “defense” to this criticism is success. Failure is going to empower the imperialist voices in Moscow as well as the ones who are calling for some sort of negotiated peace now (not many of those, actually). At any rate, Putin can ill afford a glaring flop that no amount of propaganda would be able to camouflage. And so, the orders are to take Donetsk Oblast and hold Kherson at any cost.
If the ZSU were following the Red Army manual, they would attempt to fight their way through this 25,000-strong Russian defense. But the cost would be enormous — even with their supplies disrupted, the Russians can still fight back because they have moved a lot to the front — and the ZSU itself probably does not have enough for more than 3-4 weeks of operations. Experience so far has shown, however, the ZSU is not following the Red Army manual, and that both the military and political command is very sensitive to not sacrifice soldiers in crazy attacks, Russian-style. (This has had a salutary effect on morale — it really helps when you know that your commanders are not going to order you on suicide missions just because some guy in a bunker has demanded it.) Moreover, launching a counter-offensive in the way everyone expects you to seems, well, not the smartest military strategy.
This leads me to believe that whatever the ZSU is doing right now, it is not a counter-offensive aiming to take Kherson anytime soon. Rather, it is an operation designed to disrupt the Russian forces in the South, and deny them the initiative in launching their own offensive. The Russians have amassed forces in Belarus (with Lukashenko helpfully supplying them to the detriment of his own army), and the menace to the West and Center of Ukraine is unmistakable. As the probability of direct involvement of Belarus has receded, the likelihood that the Russians would use Belarus to launch another assault on Ukraine from the North has increased. If I had to guess, the plan would be to attack the Ukrainian positions in the South, pushing them away from Kherson, advancing on Zaporizhzhia and Krivoi Roh. As this develops, attack from the North and from the frontier regions in Russia, forcing the ZSU to split its forces to deal with multiple problems. This should give the VSRF a good chance of solidifying the defenses of Kherson, conquer the rest of Zaporizhzhia, and finally finish the conquest of Donetsk. The ZSU absolutely cannot allow this to happen, and so the “early” attacks in the South appear to have as their main goal the disruption of the Russian operation.
Thing is, the attacks appear to have succeeded better than the Ukrainians expected them to. The Russian channels initially only parroted the Kremlin line that the ZSU had failed everywhere, but over the past few days more information and videos have trickled in, and now pro-Russian bloggers have begun to admit that things are going badly for the VSRF. Predictably, Moscow has reacted with another round of threats and insane demands: Kremlin spokesman Peskov insisted that the Russians are ready to negotiate — but then listed the same demands as they originally had (he also managed to complain about Germany giving weapons to the Ukrainians who are then using them — gasp! — to kill the Russian invades… unbelievable! the Russians peacefully invade Ukraine and the mean Ukrainians are treacherously shooting at them!) — and Gazprom has indefinitely suspended gas supplies to Europe through Nord Stream I. (They even released a hilarious video showing Europe plunging into a new Ice Age after the gas shut off –do not take your geology lessons from gas terrorists, people!) And while Putin has no shortage of people willing to go and try their luck in Ukraine for a handful of rubles, popular support for the “special operation” in Russia is falling (now at 55%, down from 63% just a couple of months ago): surveys show that many Russians are planning on using private gardens and fishing to make ends meet, and most expect prices to continue to rise. The ratings of the main TV channels have dropped by 25% — there’s only so much hateful propaganda people can stomach — and as a result they are going to bring back entertainment between political/news shows. Ironically, the negative attitude of the Russians toward Western sanctions has also decreased, most likely due to the government’s constant harping about how they are not hurting the country but are making for a very cold winter in Europe.
I do not understand the Kremlin’s thinking here — it’s one thing to pretend Russia is so awesome that the sanctions cannot possibly do damage to it, but it’s quite another to deal with the boomerang effect — who are the citizens going to blame for the high prices and the empty stores? That this is a difficult choice for any government is clear: you either have to admit the West has a lot of influence on the economy and them blame them for everything, or else you can pretend you are not affected but then you will have to take the lumps from the results. The Kremlin seems to be banking on the Russian’s sense of superiority and greatness — after all, it would be difficult to make the case that after Putin has been “lifting Russia from its knees” (where the disintegration of the USSR had left it, apparently) for two decades, the “greatest and richest country in the world” (yep, that’s what Russians think — and it’s true when it comes to natural resources, just not the reality of the wealth this potential has produced) is still mired in Western dependence. It just won’t work. So the Kremlin has to hew to “everything is great” story, and will then have to find scapegoats to blame for any untoward developments. Modern Russia is just like any run of the mill European kingdom in the middle ages: the King is good, the barons are bad — so all troubles of the peasants are due to bad ministers and local elites. Just watch some of the myriad pathetic YouTube videos recorded by hapless Russians from smaller towns and villages, pleading with Putin to help them correct local injustices.
Internationally, Russia is also getting snubbed by the most important “partners” it had counted on for circumventing the sanctions. While surveys show that Russians have overwhelmingly positive attitudes to China (88%, which exceeds the corresponding number for Belarus!), Beijing has been pouring sand in the Russian military engine nearly nonstop. Recently, the Chinese payment system UnionPay curtailed the use of its cards in Russia out of fear of secondary sanctions. Then, the $100 billion worth of yuan that Moscow invested in back in January in preparation for inevitable Western sanctions, turned out to be inaccessible. Moving the money out of Chinese assets impossible without a special agreement with Beijing, which has remained elusive so far. The alternatives might be the Turkish lira (whose value, however, has been dropping, making it unattractive) and the UAE dirham (although Dubai seems to be cooperating more with the USA, making this risky).
The other “partner,” India, has also stabbed the Russians in the back: after the G7 agreed to implement an oil price ceiling, which the Russians promptly blasted as impermissible interference in markets, speculation turned to whether India would help Russia evade this. It looks like India will do no such thing. It announced that it will side with the Europeans if it can secure an alternative source of oil (and Iran has been waiting in the wings for just this opportunity). In other words, China and India see which side their toast is buttered on, and will now allow themselves to be dragged into an economic confrontation with the West because of the delusions in the Kremlin. Interestingly, the Iranians, who seem to have sold Russia a bunch of defective drones (probably not by design but due to their low technological base, which does not even allow them to build the drones they reverse-engineered), will have no compunction to stab Putin in the back if opportunity presented itself.
In other words, while the Kremlin and useful idiots in the West are peddling narratives about “war weariness” and “cold winters”, the reality is that Russia is being squeezed very badly from without and, increasingly, from within. Hence, a desperate stand to hold the gains the South and the East is all but inevitable. Meanwhile, Moscow is hoping that if VSRF withstand the Ukrainian counter-offensive, take Donbas (the September 15 deadline will definitely need to be postponed, yet again), and continue to pound Ukrainian cities and infrastructure, the Ukrainians will fall apart through an internal political crisis, and the West will force them to negotiate.
I happen to think that the Kremlin must be smoking some really potent drugs to believe that this strategy can work. The notion that the West is “war weary” exists only in Moscow and in publications financed by the Kremlin. If anything, the West has become increasingly willing to support Kyiv in the face of repeated Russian threats, including gas/oil blackmail, nuclear “accidents”, and even nuclear weapons. Everyone seems to have finally understood that the only way to deal with Putin is from a position of strength, and that not using the overwhelming economic and military superiority of the West is just plain dumb. “Not provoking” Putin is a mantra that only feeble academics and Western politicians who want to retire on the board of Gasprom are still repeating. The rest of the political elite has moved on, and this is good news for Ukraine, which is finally getting the weapons that it needs to kick out the Russian invaders.
The idea that Ukrainians will split internally is even more ludicrous. Over what, exactly? Make peace with the people who have been murdering them and their families for seven months? By giving them a quarter of the country? To what end? Surveys show that fewer than 5% of Ukrainians are willing to even contemplate this possibility. There will be no internal split unless Kyiv tries to negotiate before a clear victory on the ground. And then the split will be because the Ukrainians would want to keep going until the Russians are removed from their country, not vice versa.
So if the ZSU needs a clear victory on the ground (territory or wholesale destruction of a large Russian grouping) but if Kherson is the obvious target, where would it strike? I think many of the attacks are diversionary, keeping the Russians off balance and in dire need of having to plug gaps in their defenses. The least expected direction of attack is Crimea, which is why the Russians have sent most of their numerous forces there to Kherson, leaving a force of fewer than 15,000 to defend it. The Russians believe that Crimea is impregnable (certainly the propagandists are constantly talking about that), but the spate of successes with attacks on targets there suggests that the Ukrainians have penetrated deep into the peninsula and have sustained partisan operations there. If the VSRF launch a counter-attack in the belief that the ZSU has reached its offensive potential now, their rear would be badly exposed and ZSU could strike toward Melitopol, and then Crimea. Thus far, the Ukrainians have taken out all the bridges over the Dnipro River as well as over Inhulets River, making some of them unusable even for pedestrians. The deeper the Russians push toward Mikolayv, the more susceptible to encirclement their grouping in Kherson becomes.
In other words, if the ZSU has managed to throw the Russians off balance and lure them into launching counter-attacks on their preferred directions, it could be that a main ZSU strike toward Crimea would encircle the Russian forces on the right bank, and neutralize them there. Destroying the Russian groupings in Zaporizhzhia and perhaps Crimea would isolate the forces in Kherson, which will have to seriously contemplate surrender or face withering bombardment (most likely, both).
I will stop here because this post involves too much speculation for my taste, and because a lot of it is in an area where I have no expertise. It’s just that to my militarily untrained eye, the politics of the war are such that both sides are in dire need of something that looks like victory, and that attacking in the most predictable direction is rarely the best idea. Couple this with neither side being able to afford a massive offensive over the entire frontline, and you get fertile grounds for speculating where each might attempt a breakthrough. Given the Russian objective of conquering Donbas and holding Kherson, their options are limited. The Ukrainians “just” need to figure out where to bring their local superiority to bear. And that’s what is keeping the Russians up at night as well, I am sure.