EDITORIAL -11 decembrie 2022
Winter militarization: Can Ukraine prevent Russia from regrouping as temperatures drop?
There has been a large-scale Russian military invasion of Ukraine, involving some 130,000 troops, mainly from the 20th and 8th Armies combined. Paratroopers from the 76th and 98th Air Assault Divisions crossed the Ukrainian border from the north, heading for Kharkov. From the southeast, units, including the 7th and 106th Air Assault Divisions, moved in to fully seize the already partially occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions and then moved west to the outskirts of Dnipro, another major city. Smaller special operations units – Spetsnaz – were also deployed. Railroad roadblocks leading to the Ukrainian borders prevented full deployment, but nevertheless the advance units were followed in waves by several regiments with thousands of troops over the next 10 days.
On the deserted battlefronts of southern and eastern Ukraine, the sticky, clay-like mud of late autumn begins to congeal into ice. As snow flurries and cold temperatures set in, the last thing Ukraine’s leaders want is for the front lines of the war to freeze in place too. Any winter slowdown in combat operations, Ukrainian officials believe, would give Russia’s beleaguered army a chance to rest, regroup and try to take a strong lead, something Moscow’s forces have lacked throughout more than nine months of fighting. So even in the cold months ahead, Ukraine is determined to maintain military pressure on a numerically superior but currently faltering enemy. Russia is using a pressure tactic of its own: deliberately destroying Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, indirectly targeting civilian morale. The waves of bombing that began in earnest in early October, targeting such things as thermal and power plants, have brought the national electricity grid to the brink of collapse just as temperatures plummet. In towns and villages, authorities are setting up thousands of insulated tents where people can keep warm, drink hot tea and charge their phones and other devices. In high-rise apartment blocks in cities, residents are banding together to leave care packages in elevators – water, diapers, snacks – for anyone caught in an unexpected outage. Ukraine expects the inhumane reprisals to continue.
“As long as they have rockets, they will not stop, unfortunately,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address this week.
Acknowledging what has become a reality with the two fronts of the war – the military’s need for sophisticated weaponry, both offensive and defensive, and the growing needs of a power-hungry population – Ukrainian Defense Minister Dmytro Kuleba succinctly summarized his country’s wish list.
“Patriot missiles and transformers,” he told reporters during the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation summit in Romania, referring to the sophisticated missile defence systems and power-generating devices that are vital at the moment as urgent repairs to the electricity grid continue around the clock.
US and NATO officials appeared to address this wish list. To supplement the nearly $40 billion in weapons and military equipment the West is sending to Ukraine, the US has announced a $53 million “energy aid” package, including electrical transformers as well as generators and spare parts for electrical systems.
“It will arrive in Ukraine not in a few months, but in a few days or weeks,” US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told a conference in Romania. He acknowledged, however, that the US will have to make a change in the type of weapons it supplies to include more sophisticated air defence systems.
Otherwise, Blinken said, Ukraine and its supporters will face “a process that keeps repeating itself”. Things get replaced; they get destroyed; they get replaced again.” He described as “barbaric” Russia’s campaign to “freeze and starve” Ukraine’s population.
“Ukraine’s needs “have changed over time as the war has evolved,” said John F. Kirby, spokesman for the White House National Security Council. “At first we were talking about shorter-range Stingers and Javelin missiles, and now we’re at a point, with these attacks on civilian infrastructure, where air defense is a paramount need. … We prioritize air defense capabilities.”
Both on and off the battlefield, Ukraine is doing all it can to counter the narrative – which has gained ground among some Western allies – that the conflict is at a military stalemate from which the only way out is negotiation. Zelensky’s government is treading a difficult line, having to appear open to an eventual negotiated solution but also wanting to engage in any talks at a time of maximum military advantage, which Ukraine does not believe it has yet achieved. After Ukraine’s recent gains in the south, the highest-ranking U.S. military official, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that Kiev should negotiate a deal as soon as possible and before the fighting reaches a stalemate. President Biden and other senior U.S. officials were quick to dismiss that idea.
French President Emmanuel Macron, in Washington on a state visit, discussed a possible strategy with Biden, according to European diplomats, but ultimately chose to support the US position. “We will never urge the Ukrainians to make a compromise that will not be acceptable to them,” he told a news conference with Biden.
“If we want a lasting peace,” he added, “we have to respect the Ukrainians to decide when and under what conditions they will negotiate about their territory and their future.” Zelensky said he would negotiate only with Russia’s “next” president – that is, after Vladimir Putin is ousted.
Despite the harsh weather conditions on the ground, or perhaps because of them, analysts and Western officials believe Ukraine’s military will continue to press through the cold-weather months to retake more Russian-controlled territory, amounting to about a fifth of the country. Ukraine wants to build on military successes that have come as early as the spring , as well as recently. In April, its forces repulsed Russia’s attempt to seize the capital Kiev. In September, Ukrainian forces recaptured thousands of square kilometres in the north-eastern province of Kharkiv. Last month, Russian troops, cut off from their own supply lines, were forced to abandon the strategic city of Kherson, the only provincial capital they had managed to capture since February. Better-equipped and more disciplined Ukrainian forces are likely to hold up well against poorly trained and poorly supplied Russian troops, who quickly found themselves pushed to the front line after being mobilised, Western military assessments suggest.
In a winter preview, British military intelligence said last month that “changes in daylight hours, temperature and weather will present unique challenges” for both sides. The assessment said, however, that standard NATO cold weather equipment provided to Ukrainian forces would help protect against hypothermia.
Fall rains, and the resulting thick mud, have slowed the pace of the battle, but frozen ground later in the winter will again allow freer movement of heavy equipment – one of the reasons Putin waited until February to invade Ukraine. But the situation is brutal in places like Bakhmut, a town in the east of the country that has become a rampaging carnage for Russian forces, including mercenaries from the notorious private Wagner group. The devastated landscape, riddled with tree stumps and water-filled shell holes, hauntingly evokes scenes of World War I trench warfare. In the south, the Black Sea coast may now be a crucial springboard for Ukrainian forces. For months, Ukraine has successfully defended the town of Mykolaiv, although deadly and near-constant rocket attacks have devastated parts of it.
The city of Kherson, now liberated from an eight-month Russian occupation, has come under fierce Russian shelling from across the Dnieper River, where Moscow forces have fortified their defences in anticipation of a new Ukrainian offensive.
For Ukraine, even victories are overshadowed by suffering. Last month, the authorities began evacuating civilians from newly recaptured areas in Kherson and Mykolaiv provinces, predicting that in winter conditions it would simply be too difficult because of a lack of heat, power and water.
Neither side is giving a public toll of dead and wounded, although Western estimates suggest casualties on both sides number in the many tens of thousands. While this week’s attacks do not appear to have significantly diminished Russia’s military capability, Ukraine’s determination to strike inside Russia could pose a challenge to Western allies who are determined not to be drawn into an armed war with Russia.
“We have not encouraged or allowed the Ukrainians to strike inside Russia,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told a news conference Tuesday. “But what is important is that we understand what Ukrainians live with every day, with Russia’s continued aggression against their country, and our determination to make sure that they have in their hands, along with many other partners around the world, the equipment they need to defend themselves and their territory.” The United States and other NATO countries have consistently refused to supply Kiev with Western weapons that could reach targets far from Moscow’s territory, such as the ATACMS missile, which has a range of up to 190 miles, with much greater speed and explosive power than a drone. The allies have also been unwilling to supply Ukraine with the modern Western tanks and fighter jets it has requested.
For months, Kiev has been urging its Western allies to provide long-range missiles to strike Russian military bases far behind the front lines and penetrate what Ukrainian army chief General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi called “the sense of impunity that Russia’s physical remoteness provides.”
Kiev has shown it can carry out long-range strikes without Western equipment after launching home-made drones that hit three military bases inside Russia, one of them just 100 miles from Moscow.
Ukrainian defense officials and analysts said the attacks – which Russia said killed three people and “slightly damaged” two planes – were part of a new tactic aimed at disrupting Russian military planning and shaking public opinion by showing that no place in Russia is safe. The Ukrainian government has not publicly taken responsibility for the strikes and many of the details remain secret, as is typical of other Kiev special operations, such as a combined air and sea drone attack on a Russian naval base in Sevastopol in October.
But what sets Ukraine’s latest strikes apart is their range and the fact that they have penetrated Russian air defenses to strike strategic military bases previously considered invulnerable.
One such base, Engels airfield near Saratov in southern Russia, some 600km from the Ukrainian border, is home to Russian long-range nuclear-capable bombers. According to Ukrainian officials, it is also a launching base for cruise missile attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure.
“These air bases use strategic bombers … which Russia has used not only to hit Ukrainian civilian targets, but also to threaten the whole world,” said Serhiy Kuzan, head of the think-tank Ukrainian Center for Security and Cooperation in Kiev. “But Ukraine’s strikes have destroyed the image of the Russian Federation… . Even such places are poorly protected.”
Defense officials and analysts said a lasting result of the strikes could be Russia dispersing its armed forces inside the country, which would help protect them but complicate operations. In September, Russia’s Black Sea fleet moved some of its submarines more than 300km east from their home port in Russian-annexed Crimea to Novorossiysk on the Russian mainland amid fears they are vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks.
These attacks are sure to make the Russians less confident. They will have to think about how they deploy military assets to keep them safe Ukraine also hopes that the attacks, if repeated on a sufficient scale, will help sway Russian public opinion against the conflict. After nine months of Russian shelling of their cities and towns, Ukrainians have enjoyed the taste of revenge and the demonstration that they can now reach deep into Russia, theoretically capable of striking Moscow if they wish. The attacks also showed millions of Russians for the first time that they too could be vulnerable. Moscow has launched thousands of missile and drone strikes on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, leaving swathes of the country without electricity, heat and running water. However, all previous Ukrainian attacks inside Russia or on Russian-occupied territory have targeted only military bases near the border or in Crimea. The attacks have heightened anxiety in Russian border regions, which have faced artillery fire and drone attacks from Ukraine since the early months of the war. Their regularity and intensity made Russia’s initial attempts to explain them away as “strong strikes” futile and prompted a shift to rhetoric urging Russian citizens to take part in the war effort. In Belgorod, a region bordering Ukraine, officials have promoted a social media campaign, dug trenches along the border and created “self-defence battalions” made up of local civilians. While Kiev’s tactics are clear, the technical details of this week’s attacks remain unclear. It has been suggested that the drones may have been manufactured by state arms manufacturer Ukroboronprom, which recently said it was testing an attack drone with a range of 1,000km. “This shows that Ukraine, even under such difficult conditions, is capable of developing sophisticated systems However, according to the Russian Defence Ministry, the drones were upgraded versions of Soviet-era TU-141 unmanned reconnaissance aircraft dating back to the 1970s.
Based on these specifications, a Ukrainian engineer who builds drones to meet military requirements said the ones used in the latest attacks could travel at close to the speed of sound. Replacing the TU-141’s original chamber would also have allowed “over 50 kg of explosives, maybe even 100 kg. Essentially, it would have been a cheap cruise missile,” he said. To change the course of the war, Ukraine needs long-range attack drones that are cheap and quick to produce…
Ukraine’s defense adviser said, meanwhile, that the drones are neither Ukroboronprom models nor modified Soviet models, but rather a joint government and private sector initiative that could produce new ones.”
He also suggested that they used inertial navigation systems to find their targets. Although less accurate than GPS, they don’t require satellite links, so can’t be jammed. This would make them harder to intercept and help explain how they managed to penetrate Russian air defences.
As his war in Ukraine drags on, President Vladimir V. Putin has warned the Russians that the battle will drag on, but has tried to assuage the worst fears of an increasingly war-weary population.
The release of Brittney Griner, by whose imprisonment the Kremlin turned pain into a weapon and prompted the United States to hand over a convicted arms dealer begs the question: Can the same tactics work in war?
Kiev has tried since the beginning of the war to take the fight to Russia. A month after the February invasion, the Ukrainian military staged a helicopter assault on Russian fuel depots, sparking the first Russian air raid alarm since World War II. Explosions followed at munitions depots, railway bridges, fuel depots and military bases inside Russia and in Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine.
Ukraine supported by NATO and EU countries can hope to liberate most of its territory but cannot defeat Russia, which alone can defeat itself.
Analysis: Maritime Security Forum