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Ukraine Wants To Break The Russian Army In Zaporizhzhia And Retake Crimea By Fire
A demonstrated and proven strategy
Nine days after Ukraine struck the Kerch Strait bridge, Russian lines broke at Kilschiivka, south of Bakhmut. The town remains contested. Twelve days after Ukraine struck the Kerch Strait Bridge, Russian lines broke at Robotyne and Staromaiorske. The gains remain contested. Both pulses seem likely to repeat this week, weather permitting.
On day thirteen, Ukraine struck the Chongar railroad bridge, a key logistical link between Crimea and mainland Zaporizhzhia Oblast, with a Storm Shadow cruise missile. The next morning, a drone struck an office building in Moscow where the FSB has at least six government offices, destroying a secret Ministry of Economic Development office on the 10th floor. Anyone who says that Ukraine has run out of momentum is only fooling themselves.
I saw this strategy coming. Indeed, I noted an uptick in long-range Ukrainian strikes on targets in Crimea 52 days prior to the first strike on the Kerch Bridge as preparation for the Kherson offensive. I also observed “something is really, truly broken with Russian tactical air defense platforms that were sold as missile interceptors.” It took the Russian MoD another six months to patch the issue in their S-300 guidance software. Moscow is ostensibly under the protection of air defense systems that still underperform in Russian hands.
Ukrainian Security Service head Vasyl Malyuk claimed responsibility for that earlier Kerch Bridge strike last week. “There were many different operations, special operations. We’ll be able to speak about some of them publicly and out loud after the victory, we will not talk at all about others,” Malyuk said in a cryptic comment.
Russians say that Ukraine used a truck bomb, but if so the driver appears to have been unwitting, nor did he swerve or slow down alongside the train. Furthermore, the target was clearly that parked fuel train, as the resulting fiery destruction put one of the two railroad tracks of the bridge out of commission for five months. Putting a truck bomb onto a bridge at the same time as a parked train, and ensuring that it explodes right next to that train, would indeed require a very complex series of operations.
Yet however Ukraine did it, the target makes sense. Russia is the most rail-dependent army on earth. Increased Russian military traffic on the road bridge was a direct and intended result of that October strike. Meanwhile, the Dnipro River bridges and ferry crossings were under fire from long-range weapons, principally HIMARS-fired M30 series rockets, turning the northern half of Kherson Oblast into an island under siege. Gen. Sergey Surovikin formally ordered the withdrawal of Russian forces from the right bank 31 days after the Kerch Bridge strike. He could not support the logistics of an army there even though he had the advantage of being on the defense.
Now languishing at Lefortovo Prison, Surovikin is the architect of the Zaporizhzhia defenses. Ukrainian offensive activities there bear a striking doctrinal resemblance to the Kherson offensive. Initial breakthroughs led to protracted struggles over a river crossing and a highway. Limited roadways made the Russian positions farthest out from Kherson City precarious. Rather than a rapid advance, a series of brutal battles, and constant pressure in between those battles, exhausted the Russian army defending the Kherson-island.
Twitter abounded with images of devastated Ukrainian tanks and triumphant pronouncements of victory all the way to the end. That Russian army withdrew in good order, but that is because they had Surovikin to organize things. The next Russian army to withdraw under Ukrainian pressure might not be so lucky.
Emergency response to the more recent Kerch Strait bridge strike reflected awareness of the Kherson-like threat that other sites might be hit. An hour after the explosions tore a section of roadway loose, TASS reported the ferries between Crimea and Russia had suspended operations. The reader might recall a video from the Kherson offensive in which a Russian soldier recorded himself being concussed by a Ukrainian rocket that struck the ferry landing where he had just embarked across the Dnipro moments before to reinforce the defenses. He arrived in Kherson alive but useless, in fact a burden on that army.
Ukraine has developed impressive long-range capabilities of their own. The addition of western long-range missiles has enhanced this portfolio. Kyiv is now much more capable of this kind of war than they were during the Kherson offensive, with twice the reach. The pace of deep strikes in Crimea has picked up in the last two weeks. Some of these targets have ripple effects on logistics.
For example, last Monday a Storm Shadow struck the armored vehicle repair facility at Novostepne in northern Crimea. While it is unclear how many damaged or broken tanks and fighting vehicles were destroyed, the more important target was the building full of machinery for repairing them. Now, without a Surovikin to manage the withdrawal from Crimea, an unburned tank waiting on a new drive shaft will still be waiting when Ukrainians show up. Even with a Surovikin to manage that withdrawal, the same tank will have to be moved back to Russia on a railway in order to become combat-ready again. It is a liability now rather than a potential weapon.
In the parlance of generals, this is called a force-directed offensive. Russian logistics in Zaporizhzhia are dependent on Crimea. This was reflected in the traffic jams that followed the Kerch Bridge strike as well as the long lines of Russian tourists driving out of the war zone through Zaporizhzhia. Military traffic authorities had to be lifted, and rest areas provided, in order to accommodate thousands of civilian vacationers-turned-refugees that were forced to drive hundreds of miles around the Sea of Azov in order to return to Russia. Effective blows to transportation infrastructure in Crimea have a similar effect on the bullets, boots, and ration packs that reach Zaporizhzhia.
Expect this campaign to accelerate faster than the battles on the ground. In fact this sort of battle usually seems to end with Russian armies packing up and leaving.
Perchance, Gen. Vasily Gerasimov assembled a large army in Luhansk — as many as 100,000 men backed by hundreds of tanks and rocket artillery, per Ukrainian reports — and attacked towards the Oskil River in hopes of drawing Ukrainian reserves away from the Bakhmut area. He succeeded in forcing Ukraine to send some artillery to the Kreminna area, which is at least something. However, the salient at Novoyehorivka and the Serebryanske forest has already collapsed back to its starting line without the use of Ukrainian reserves. Why?
Analysis is sketchy at best right now because there has been so little imagery from this Russian thrust, and it has been so slow in coming. Which is strange, given that the Z milblogger army made so much noise about the amazing successes and advances taking place, there. They are still raving about great advances even as Deep State updates their map to say otherwise. Perhaps the Russians have been exaggerating this offensive all along. Perhaps this little offensive has been maskirovka, the fabled Russian art of battlefield deception, and Valery Gerasimov is showing off his hybrid war skills by combining kinetic force with fake news.
Or, perhaps the same thing has just happened near Kreminna, that happened outside of Kyiv and Cherniv and Melitopol in March of 2022: Russians reached the end of their logistical tether, balked in the face of eventual resistance, and fell back. Ukraine, aware enough of the looming offensive to discuss it, used an elastic defense to outlast the intense bombardment and repel the advance over a few days.
This theory of the case rests on history. Ukraine avoids making this mistake in Zaporizhzhia by never outrunning their logistics. A Russian counterattack ysterday near Robotyne succeeded in taking back a single treeline. Ukraine’s 10th Corps has shown it can attack, dig in, resupply, reenforce, and resume the rhythm of battle — a bite-and-hold approach to create some tactical depth for the next operation.
A few destroyed BMPs is worth that advance. Ukraine likely reckons they can keep using that tactic and make the losses good when they capture Novostepne. And anyway, the BMPs are Russian crap. A video making the rounds shows Ukrainians using an unmanned BMP to find out if a tank ditch was being defended. This demonstrates the disregard they hold for their old Russian-made equipment: it is the first to be consumed.
To be sure, American Bradleys are getting destroyed as well, but they are also consumables, not collectables. Using up machinery saves on manpower. Ukraine is trying to advance along a front that is more than twice as long as the Western Front in 1918 using a fraction of the number of troops that the allies had in uniform. Success will require a lot of destroyed equipment.
More to the point, the wildly divergent claims from the Russian side about the size of the attack at Robotyne last week suggest either exaggeration or confusion. Reports put the number of vehicles involved anywhere between 30 to 80, or the difference between a battalion and a brigade. The only thing that milbloggers seemed to know for certain was that Ukraine was finished, done, kaput. Immediately and permanently. Nothing at all to see here. No way the Ukrainians keep advancing, bit by bit, while the bullets and boots and ration packs become scarce in those Surovikin Line defenses. Our victory is total, they said.
If they cannot hold the line in Zaporizhzhia, then they can hold the propaganda line for Moscow, at least.
Indicted terrorist Igor Girkin, better known by his nom de guerre Igor Strelkov, reacted to the Kerch Bridge strike with scorn for the Kremlin. "I have nothing to add to what I wrote after the last attack on Crimea bridge: 'they will strike again'. They will strike again. More, farther, stronger. Until the amazing idiots in the Kremlin realize there will be no negotiations, that the partners won't understand and forgive them and that the war is for winning."
By “partners,” Girkin was referring to the Ukrainian oligarchs that the ruling clique of Kremlin siloviki had expected to embrace regime change in Kyiv last year. By “amazing idiots,” he inferred Putin. Last week, Girkin finally used Putin’s name out loud and made it personal by calling him a “lowlife.” As a result, Girkin was arrested right away and charged with inciting extremism.
He had predicted before his arrest that such a move would mean the war in Ukraine is lost. Whether or not Girkin is correct, his arrest has clearly encouraged the Telegram warriors to display improved morale and stop reporting on how bad things really are. Facts on the battlefield are now taking a very different trajectory from the information space in Russia, where the military bloggers were a rare source of real news. Even the Kremlin depended on them and Vladimir Putin has met with them in hopes of influencing the community through access.
The more they try to please Putin, however, the less accurate and useful their information becomes. It is the classic Russian command problem: a society constructed out of systems of lying will produce only lies, and lies do not win battles.
“There seems to be no shock anymore. We've gotten used to it,” one businessman told The Moscow Times after the Kerch Bridge strike two weeks ago. Such attacks “have already become routine” in the Russian metro.
Likewise, drones are now striking Moscow with some regularity. This morning’s office building strike left classified Cyrillic documents fluttering on the sidewalk. Surface-to-air missile defense systems have been parked on the roofs of buildings with cranes, but Moscow is still getting hit.
This is a form of communication. Kyiv is telling the ruling clique in Moscow that they are not safe, that Ukraine is not exhausted, that the war will not end on the Kremlin’s terms. Their message is being expressed more emphatically all the time.
Conversely, Putin keeps sending signals that no amount of dead Russians is too many for him. A new conscription law has expanded the eligible pool of males for his war. Still resisting full mobilization — because that would require re-politicizing Russian society — Putin has chosen further methods of quasi-, or “stealth,” mobilization. It is a display. Putin wants the world to see his his willingness to continue the fight forever and hopefully persuade the west to give up on any possible timetable for Ukrainian victory. He is projecting confidence, in other words.
But Russia has hard limitations looming ahead. Lies do not pay bills. Chinese money only buys Chinese goods. A cash crunch is likely to arrive this winter, as hydrocarbon revenues remain lower than expected and Russia’s sovereign wealth fund runs low. War industry accounts for all the current economic growth in Russia. Gerasimov’s failing offensive in Luhansk is the best Russia can do, right now, in sharp contrast to Ukraine’s incremental progress. Like an engine without oil, this war machine will not stop — until it does, and then it will not move again without a complete rebuild. This is what happens in a wartime society that runs on lies.
If the Russian occupation of Zaporizhzhia was a stock, wise investors would short-sell it. History suggests we are weeks or months away from another “goodwill gesture” in the form of Russian withdrawal. After that, the sheer geography of the Crimean peninsula makes it into yet another island-trap for Russian forces where long-range fires can pick them to pieces. The plan is solid. Ukraine has already shown us how it works. If the west had been serious about supplying them with the material means for victory one year ago, this would likely all be over, already.
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