On Monday, I wrote about the sucker’s bet that Ukraine has set up for Vladimir Putin in Kherson Oblast. By drawing Russian combat power to the northern bank, away from the east of the country, Kyiv has trapped a critical core of the Russian Army within a fire sack, cut off from resupply and reinforcement.
Since Monday, Ukrainian partisans have hit Russian aircraft parked deep inside Crimea, spurring tourist evacuations, while accurate long-range artillery fires have knocked out all the river crossings in Kherson Oblast from the southern bank of the Dnipro into the northern fire sack. President Zelenskyy now says “we will return to Crimea.” He intends to get there through Kherson.
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Yesterday, Novaya Gazata reported the most explicit confirmation to date that the trap has shut.
By the end of the first ten days of August, in the Kherson and Zaporozhye regions, the Russian command concentrated more than 60% of all troops operating in Ukraine, including up to 25 (sometimes even 30) battalion tactical groups with a total strength of 20 to 25 thousand soldiers and officers on the right bank of the Dnieper. There were reports of an impending Russian attack on Nikolaev.
Ukrainian pilots are now equipped with weapons for establishing electromagnetic dominance of the battlefield. I have expected this for some time:
It is worth adding that a few days ago Ukraine received American high-speed HARM missiles, designed to destroy radar stations, primarily air defense radars. This greatly facilitates the actions of Ukrainian aviation, as it paralyzes the work of the Russian air defense.
With Russian air cover and support now interdicted, the skies over the north bank of the Dnipro will rain all sizes of munitions on Russian troops — not a “storm of steel,” but a slow drizzle of improvised bombs from small drones. Russians hiding in concrete bunkers will last the longest, but even they are subject to targeting by heavier weapons in time, and from three sides, as the food and ammunition run out, and the Ukrainian special forces close in, and the partisans fill the radio nets with calls to go home, surrender, or die.
First go the ammunition dumps. Then the headquarters. Then the radars and air defenses. Ukrainian units only move forward when there is opportunity, holding only the ground they need in order to tighten the fire sack. They want prisoners. They want Russian attacks they can hit in the open. No point is being defended in strength and there are no attempted offensive breakthroughs happening.
As you can see in this time-lapse GIF that I made from maps published by the Institute for the Study of War, there was a very patient, incremental rate of progress over the last 100 days. Partisan activity has been highest in the south and it spread into Crimea while this was going on. By now, Russian positions across Kherson Oblast will be GPS’d down to the centimeter and the occupying forces subject to constant surveillance.
This will take as long as it takes for Russians to give up a losing battle, or rather a series of losing battles, possibly with dramatic scenes that shock the Kremlin and unnerve Russian society. The force in Kherson is Russian. In the east of Ukraine, most of the remaining soldiers are actually conscripts from occupied Ukraine, now.
Rapid Ukrainian advances behind a curtain of artillery fire are therefore unlikely. Under these conditions, however, the possibility of sudden local Russian collapses, or units surrendering after days or weeks of hunger, bombardment, disconnection, and psychological pressure, is contrarily high. Civilians in occupied Kherson will suffer accordingly.
Nevertheless, the turning point is past. In an interview Wednesday, one Ukrainian major general indicated that the Kherson “offensive” may last until the end of the year, and furthermore, that it is the decisive front of the war.
(I): What military objectives are achievable for us by the end of this year? I am not in a hurry to say for sure that this will or will not happen – I mean, what territories can we physically de-occupy by the end of the year?
(M): Kherson – 100%. That is the liberation of Kherson and the end of the active phase of the war, and then there will be some more local military actions. But by the end of the year, we must finish the main phase of this war.
Such pronouncements have the Atlantic Council crowing that Russia has lost its second-power status and Twitter tankies raging at Ukraine for the casualties incurred by months of brutal fighting in Donbas. Nuclear worries intensify. Amnesty International concern-trolls on CBS News because Ukraine won’t tell them where the nice advanced weapons are located, pretty please.
Weirdly, this is not even that organization’s job at all. No one can quite explain why a human rights organization has the right to know this information. Now, I would never question the motives of such an august human rights organization. For example, I am definitely not suggesting that Amnesty’s weird ideological crusade for the pimp lobby might be connected to the Russian mafia’s human trafficking networks, as I am not a real investigative journalist who can connect those dots. Ahem.
Most of all, everyone despairs at the body count. Artillery warfare is attritional by nature. Armies of the First World War reported “wastage” in hundreds of lives a day from the mere accidents of war, such as men atomized by high explosives, leaving no trace and counted missing.
Kherson even reads to me like a revised, improved version of the battle plan for Verdun — the one that Field Marshall Falkenhayn might have constructed after the fact, or that his subordinates disregarded, depending on your view of the historiography. That is, I see a Verdun that has been planned and executed well, unlike the historical Verdun, and with precision instead of volume of fire.
The basic idea Erich von Falkenhayn presented was sound. Since he wanted to “bleed France white,” and the highest casualties were inflicted on French infantry attacking, he chose to threaten something they would pay any price to keep. Verdun fit the bill. The city was a potent national symbol enfiladed from three sides by his artillery. It was to France then what Crimea is to the Russian self-conception of Russia as an empire today.
Germans attacked behind an explosive blizzard of steel, captured territory, dug deep, and annihilated French counterattacks. France was indeed bled white, but so, almost, was the German Army. For whatever his intentions were, Falkenhayn’s subordinates could not conceive of a victory that did not look like a victory on the map. Altogether, the casualty ratio inflicted on France was not lopsided enough to justify the destruction because they did not stop trying to advance on Verdun and just kill Frenchmen.
The cream of Putin’s remaining force is trapped far more effectively than the defenders of Verdun ever were. Putin chose to double-down in Kherson because his “land bridge” to Crimea was so damned important to his image of Russia. Russian leaders responsible for the disasters in February have all been sidelined, so he has little insulation left between himself and what is to come. Ukraine does not have to bleed like they did in Donbas anymore to bleed the Russian Army white. The beginning of the end is here.
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"For example, I am definitely not suggesting that Amnesty’s weird ideological crusade for the pimp lobby might be connected to the Russian mafia’s human trafficking networks, as I am not a real investigative journalist who can connect those dots. Ahem."