A Fire Plan Does Not Lie
The Battle of Kherson as a PSYOP
During the second day of a long-awaited counteroffensive in the south of Ukraine, artillery of all description hit “more than 220” different Russian targets across the northern portion of Kherson Oblast, according to official sources. Reports from within the battlezone and NASA fire detection satellites confirm that an artillery plan consistent with a major operation is underway.
The detailed care of this fire plan is evident even in the sketchy information that comes through open sources. The usual targets, such as ammunition dumps, headquarters, and the Dnipro bridges are getting hit as before, but harder. A new set of tactical fire targets has been added besides. These are the preparatory bombardments for Ukrainian advances in force. The symphony of destruction is several times louder now than it was last week, and it makes use of the entire orchestra.
But don’t be fooled by the volume of fire. While there is too much dying and plenty of fighting still going on, the fire plan is the truest indicator of success when the fog of war is thickest. So far, things seem to be going according to plan. That speaks to success. We will see whether the fires shift again.
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On the first day of the battle, there was talk of “shaping operations.” The “shape” of the Kherson fire sack is flexible, like a canvas duffel bag with a VDV paratrooper stuffed inside it, and the idea is to beat him with a stick until he stops struggling.
Rather than incur high casualties by frontal assaults on prepared defenses, or lay waste to Kherson City in order to save it, Ukraine is giving Russians an opportunity to walk away. As per the photo above, this may already be happening.
Civilian vehicles are reportedly getting confiscated within occupied Kherson. This is not just the usual looting, which has been underway for weeks. It is the desperate act of soldiers finding a gas tank that isn’t empty yet in a landscape where fuels have become very precious. Russian units have suffered three weeks of diminished supply and they cannot fight in tanks that lack fuel or ammunition.
As we have seen since February, whenever Russian tank crews run out of gas, they just walk away, or hitch a ride, and leave their tanks behind. It’s how we got those iconic memes of farm tractors towing T-72s around. Today, the right bank of the Dnipro is basically that tank, and Ukrainians aim to tow off as many prizes as possible with the least amount of fuss.
Pressure on the ground shrinks the space in which Russian formations can operate in the open, yes. This will be relentless, but it does not have to be hasty. In fact, the slow, strangulating death-by-siege of a Russian army is preferable. Whether the enemy are individually killed, wounded, captured, or escape by swimming the backstroke does not matter. A day, a week, a month — this takes as long as it takes.
Russian soldiers clearly sense the danger they are in. Telegram commentary by Russian milbloggers ranges from stoic resignation, to doom-laden reports of disintegration, to sudden renewed interest in e-coins.
Defeat is a process, a kind of trauma processed in stages. It is not a single moment. Russia is losing now, the Russians know they are losing, and they know why and how they are losing. Vladimir Putin has been too insecure in his own rule to animate Russian society for wartime mobilization. They are just not allowed to blame him out loud, yet. He has to die first. Some day, Russians will revile him as the posthumous scapegoat for everything they are losing in Ukraine, and convince themselves that they could have done better without him in the way.
No matter what happens now, it is not the end of things. Pervasive magical thinking and reactionary militarism within Russia will be a global security threat long after Putin is gone.
Truth being the first casualty in war, the details of Ukrainian progress so far remain secret. Expectations are being managed rather than inflated. The enemy always gets a vote, so rather than present the world with an artificial deadline and then perhaps fall short of that goal, the plan is to defeat the largest single concentration of Russian combat power in occupied Ukraine and present the world with a finished victory.
To make claims about fluid matters on the ground is a risk. Instead, the message is stick to the plan. “Calm down, comrades, if you're nervous. Combat work in progress,” tweets Oleksiy Arestovych, a key advisor to President Zelenskyy. “It is neither quick nor easy — with such a balance of forces and means of the parties. Our people know what they are doing and consistently implement their plan.”
Air superiority is essential to success. Strikes on Ukrainian radars in Crimea are a sign that Ukraine plans to repeat this strategy on the left bank of the Dnipro all the way to Sevastopol. Doubts remain about their material capacity to carry out that kind of offensive, especially a contested bridging operation over the river, but Kyiv seems determined.
And maybe that’s the story here. Maybe the Battle of Kherson is about seeming. Perhaps by defeating a Russian army in detail and reaching the gates of Crimea, Ukraine seems more and more the winner of this war, not just to the world and even to Russians, but to Vladimir Putin, who would rather break his army than break his grip.
A theater of war with an intended audience of one, with a performance aimed at inspiring another series of “goodwill gestures” to forestall even greater embarrassments? That sounds like a feasible plan, and I won’t be a bit surprised if it works as intended.
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