Putin’s War, Week 18. Snake Island, Prisoner Exchanges, Calculated Terror, and the War in Donbas – Opinion


We are glad to have you back.


Let’s do a roundup of what the situation looks like 128 days into Vladimir Putin’s 72-hour Special Military Operation against Ukraine.


Strategy Level

The NATO Summit: Major Takeaways


NATO members have agreed that they will begin to provide offensive weapons for Ukraine. This marked a departure from current practice. When NATO agreed to send HIMARS and MLRS to Ukraine, they also agreed to equip them with rockets that couldn’t directly threaten Russian population centers. I predict that there will be several hundred German Leopard 2A4 tankers in physical form. These tanks are obsolete by the standards of Leopard 2A7 and Challenger 2 but will still be competitive against the Russian tanks which crossed the frontier in February. They also have the advantage over the T-62s that were beginning to replace tanks in Russian units. It is possible to predict that the Ukrainian MiG and Sukhoi fighters will soon be transferred.


NATO/EU is working to establish transit routes for Ukrainian grain via Poland to avoid Russia’s blockade in the Black Sea. Although it won’t be an immediate process, this could prove to be as permanent as Western Europe searching for new supplies of oil and gas.


The big news, of course, is that Sweden and Finland will join NATO–there is a rumor that Bulgarian might object because it gets 70+% of its natural gas from Russia. Should the Bulgarian government choose to make this move, it will be very risky.


Joe Biden, the UK’s Johnson, France’s Macron, and Germany’s Scholz have all said: 1) the war is going to be long, 2)  it is vital that Russia not gain territory from the war, and 3) they will do what it takes to ensure Ukraine retains he capability to liberate its territory from the invading Russians. It is easy to talk, but convincing economically challenged voters can be quite another.


People who believe that Russia is aggrieved and must be made to agree with Ukraine are now only allowed to talk about forcing them into accepting a less favorable peace agreement.


Russia’s actions and rhetoric both indicate that it is in trouble and could be defeated.


Notably, the Russian government–this does not include members of the Russian Duma/Federal Assembly who can say stuff at least as exotic as anything Maxine Waters can come up with–has dialed back threats of nuclear Armageddon. Putin threatened Belarus with nuclear-capable missiles. This is a weapon that Russia had to surrender when it signed the INF Treaty. Belarus President Lukashenko requested nuclear weapons from Russia. This needs to be monitored, but it doesn’t seem all that probable. I’m sure that Putin and Lukashenko would not like Poland to get nuclear-capable missiles.


Operational level

It’s always good to remind ourselves of the situation on the ground. Here’s the footage from the initial 90 days.

Even though there has been a lot more breathless reporting about it, the situation is still largely stable. This map is courtesy of the Institute for the Study of War. The front line appears static. There are changes; we’ll hit the Russian operation in Donbas in a moment, but not significant changes.

The latest weapons are in action

US authorization was given for the shipment of Harpoon missiles from trucks to Ukraine. The US authorized the transfer of Harpoon missiles from trucks to Ukraine. Vasily Bekh.



HIMARS makes its debut.



Ukraine receives a large infusion both of rocket and top-of-the line NATO tube artillery. Some of these systems include the Panzerhaubitze 2000 in Germany, the French CAESAR and M-109, as well as the M777 and M777 from the United States. It can be difficult to maintain a group of polyglot weapons. It is possible that foreign civil contractors are performing higher-echelon maintenance thanks to the millions of dollars flowing into war.


A number of hundred Ukrainians are now trained in Germany, the UK and other artillery techniques.


The exchange of the first Mariupol prisoners has been completed.


Around 1,700 Ukrainian soldiers were taken into Russian custody after the fall of Mariupol in May. Most of those were members of the Azov battalion that the Russians and their fellow travelers derided as “Nazis.” The negotiated surrender agreement said they would be exchanged. They are currently back in Ukraine with the first group.



Terror is now an instrument of war.


Russian cruise missile destroyed a Kremenchuk mall last week. This suggests the mall was targeted by the missile.




It isn’t a rare event. Russian missiles strike civilian targets a number of times per week. It seems pretty clear that terror has become one of Russia’s standard tactics.


Russian generals are still being fired.


In Ukraine, the turmoil persists in Russia’s chain of command.



Without knowing what the context is, it is difficult to understand how things are happening. Is this a “give me results, now!” situation? Is it the political connections and incompetent generals that are being removed? This is the German Army of 1945. Or is it the American Army following Kasserine It is my opinion.


Thrown into this mix is the arrival of HIMARS is giving the Ukrainians the ability to target headquarters out of range of tube artillery and the high mortality rate of senior Russian officers because of the peculiarities of that army’s organization.


Ukrainian prisoner sentenced by Donetsk court to death


There are as many as 30.000 foreigners in Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Forces. This is a branch within the Ukrainian military. All of them have taken an oath, and they all met the UN Convention regarding the use of foreign mercenaries. They are among the best in the Ukrainian Army. The two Britons and the Moroccans were both captured. Russia has no death penalty, so they were turned over to a Donetsk “Republic” kangaroo court.



Two Americans were captured and they are likely to face the same fate.



Snake Island


Snake Island was rendered inoperable by the arrival of Harpoon anti ship missiles and modern artillery. Today, the Russians announced they had abandoned the island as a “goodwill gesture” to open a shipping lane for Ukrainian grain. Why Snake Island would have to be abandoned to accomplish this–not shooting at civilian ships would achieve the same purpose–is anyone’s guess.



As I pointed out in an earlier post on the subject, anti-ship missiles on Snake Island, assuming they are deployed in tandem with credible air defense systems, puts Ukraine’s remaining Black Sea frontage, particularly Odesa and the Danube estuary, off-limits to the Russian navy.


Kherson


Significant activity has taken place on the south front. These maps demonstrate that the Ukrainian Army is making steady and small gains. This map was again courtesy of the Institute for the Study of War.


image
Kherson City is now located less than six miles away from the Ukrainians. Assassinations by Russian collaborators have been common in Kherson City. Because this is an expensive and dangerous operation that requires a lot of manpower, I don’t think Ukraine would attempt to attack the city. Instead, I would look for a Ukrainian offensive somewhere to the north aimed at the line of communication between Kherson and  Melitopol. Nove Kharkova, which is positioned astride the line of communication and controls most of Crimea’s potable water aqueduct, seems to be the obvious target.


Kharkiv


Kharkiv seems to be static. Although both sides may make modest gains, none of them seem sustainable. Ukraine’s primary objective here is to push Russian artillery out of range of Kharkiv and to bleed off forces that could be used in Donetsk to defend this area in an economy of force operation.


image
This will likely remain a backwater, according to my prediction.


Donetsk


Because the Russians have some success in this theater of operation, it has received the greatest coverage. Media need a narrative about horses for their stories. The Putin fans want to point to it as a sign of Russia’s inevitable victory. So let’s look at how the front lines have changed in Donetsk over the last 60 days. This animation was created by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Following a few high-profile tragedies, Russia seems to have moved on to massive artillery strike supported dismounted operations. Although the Ukrainians have been a forceful defense, they now trade terrain in exchange for preservation of their forces. Australian General Mick Ryan’s take is, I think, the correct one.



It is clear that both sides suffered high casualties. The Ukrainians do not seem to have the combat power to stop the Russian advance, and the Russians don’t have the logistics system to support a rapid offensive or the troops to execute it. This is not an existential battle for either side…unless one side or the other breaks. Is the Russian advance Rommel’s panzers in France in 1940? Oder is it the Battle of the Bulge


Prognosis

For the moment, this war seems to be in a deadlock. I haven’t written about the war because I haven’t seen much change in the underlying dynamics. Predicting daily combat operations is similar to political analysts making new predictions on the basis of each poll.


However, the true struggle continues beyond sight. Conscription was declared by the Ukrainians in March. These units should appear soon due to the compressed training program. Manpower problems are another problem for the Russians. According to the UK Defence Ministry’s daily bulletin, desertions and refusals of combat are common. However, these seem to be based upon intercepted telephone calls. According to some reports, Russian veterans have been offered contracts for three months to fight in Ukraine. At this point, I’m skeptical.


The key factor to my understanding is the fact that modern equipment is being replaced by Ukrainian ones. Russians continue to dig into their war supplies. These will become decisive during a prolonged conflict.


No evidence suggests that Ukraine may be at risk of political, moral, and military collapse.


But, there is evidence to suggest that Russia wants an exit. Russia may be focusing its attention on Donetsk to secure their territorial gains. There could be political issues within NATO/EU, if Ukraine decides to keep the war going.


My best guess is that we’ll see more of this until about August, and then the new round will open with different armies than started the war.