Since the fall of Kherson the frontline in Ukraine has not moved significantly; and autumnal rain has hampered both sides ability to maintain offensive operations. This doesn’t mean that the intensity of operations has diminished; but rather that the ability to exploit local victories and create larger successes is limited by the weather and terrain.
Starting in the south, the area around Kherson continues to see plenty of action as both sides engage each other with artillery and yesterday, Michael Clarke an ex-director the Royal United Services Institute (an old and well-respected English think-tank) reported that the Ukrainians have occupied the Kinburn Peninsular on the east side of the Dnipro River’s estuary. A position from which Ukrainian forces can provide greater security for ships visiting Mykolaiv or Kherson. The Kinburn Peninsular is relatively narrow (approximately 10 km wide) so it is unlikely that it will be used as the start point for a major offensive and it will be tough to hold because being a relatively small area it can be effectively shelled. The Ukrainians likely have a larger plan for it; perhaps for anti-ship or anti-aircraft missiles. Locating them at the tip of the peninsular for extra range and in the case of anti-aircraft missiles greater depth against ship or submarine launched cruise missiles targeting Ukrainian cities.
In the north-east, along the Svatove-Kremina line that runs north-south, parallel with the P66 motorway Ukraine and Russia continue to trade blows. Ukraine trying hard to break the line and capture the P66 motorway. The geography of this area suits the Russian defenders with the Krasna River and high ground running north-south providing natural obstacles for any Ukrainian attack. Further, elite Russian airborne soldiers recently released from Kherson are now operating in the area. And; the battle is ebbing backwards and forwards at places like Novoselivske where the Russians are on the offensive and at Kolomychikha and Ploshchanka where the Ukrainians are attacking.
The Russians are fighting to protect their supply line that runs south from Russia into Luhansk and Donetsk along the P66 motorway. If the Ukrainians capture this road Russia will have to divert its supply lines 30-40km east via Starobilisk. A change that will further stretch already taut supply chains. A Ukrainian breakthrough also opens up the possibility of a deep penetration into northern Luhansk because once past the P66 the terrain of Luhansk becomes more open, flatter and easier to advance across. Reports from the area indicate that fighting is fierce and that both sides are losing large numbers of soldiers.
The most intense fighting in Ukraine this week is the relentless human wave attacks that Russia is launching against Bhakmut. A small town and transport hub in Donetsk. The town is important because it sits on an important road junction and capturing it will open up options for a Russian advance on the towns of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, the remaining two large towns in Donetsk that haven’t been captured by Russia.
The battle for Bhakmut is led by Wagner Group mercenaries, fighting for the Russian government. This battle is unique because it includes the use of Russian criminals released from prison on condition that they fight in Ukraine. Like much of the war in Ukraine this tactic is ‘turning the clock back’ to an older and darker period in history. The idea of using criminals as shock troops (or cannon fodder) is not new and persists in some parts of the world.
During World War Two, Soviet Russia organised ‘penal battalions’ in a similar way. The prisoners were armed and sent forwards compelled to fight by the knowledge that behind them were professional soldiers with orders to kill them if they retreated. Often, in World War Two Soviet penal battalions were ‘harvested’ from the gulags so were as likely to be political prisoners as criminals and were forced to fight. Penal battalions were often used in suicidal ‘human wave’ attacks to wear down defences or sometimes driven across minefields to clear the way ahead of advancing Soviet forces.
Using people in this manner is cruel, ruthless and barbaric. Tactics like this demonstrate that a combatant’s leadership places little value on human-life. Seeing this sort of barbaric tactic used in the 21st century is very sad.
It is also unlikely to be successful, even in World War Two human wave assaults could not overcome the firepower of entrenched defenders. Today with more accurate weapons and higher rates of fire they are even less likely to succeed. Wagner Group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin; ex-cook, ex-convict with no military experience or training is probably not a tactical genius and it is an indictment on Russia’s military governance that this style of war fighting is allowed.
In fact is being encouraged, as another Russian oligarch seeks to develop a private military force in Ukraine. Armen Sarkisyan, a Russian business man has been appointed director of prisons in occupied Ukraine and has stated that he intends to develop his own private military company. The Institute for the Study of War assesses that this is a political move to break Prigozhin’s political power based on the success of Wagner Group. And; Ramzan Kadyrov is also discussing the use of independent Chechen units in the conflict.
The rise of these private armies is problematic, we can safely say that Russia will be militarily defeated in Ukraine. Few commentators think that Russia will be able to build its forces back to a point that it can return to large offensive operations; or even hold the territory it has taken. The attacks on Ukraine’s civil infrastructure are driven by the realisation (in Russia’s military) that Russia can’t win on the battlefield. The first problem that private armies generate is that they are being used to win political points in Moscow, pro-longing un-necessary combat. The attacks on Bhakmut are a good example, Prigozhin emptying Russia’s prisons to provide expendable manpower in the hope that he will be able to bring Putin a prize. Sacrificing Ukrainian and Russian lives needlessly in relentless, small, un-coordinated attacks.
The second problem with the rise of the warlords is that if defeat in Ukraine causes a larger collapse of the Russian Federation the potential for a dangerous civil war is vastly increased. Imagine a collapsing Russia, in which private armies are able to compete with legitimate armies as the political landscape is re-engineered. Wagner Group is a trained and effective fighting force close enough to Moscow to influence a post-Putin political meltdown. Kadyrov’s Chechens are another trained and effective force ready to serve their master’s political needs. In the ensuing ‘dog fight’, the World’s most important question is – Who gets Russia’s nuclear weapons? Containing nuclear proliferation and trying to build a new stable Russia is complex enough without having to contend with private armies led by entrepreneurs motivated only by profits and power.
Nuclear proliferation is a potential consequence of Putin’s poorly thought-out war that the world needs to understand and be watching carefully. The growing Russian relationship with an increasingly unstable Iran is of particular concern. Russia’s traditional partners are distancing themselves driving Russia to build new relationships. Iran is supplying Russia drone technology and the question is – What does Iran want in return? For a long time, Iran has wanted to be part of ‘the nuclear club’ and now has a potential opportunity to accelerate its nuclear programme. A worrying development of this war that may bring global impacts.
Two weeks ago an Israeli owned tanker, the Pacific Zircon was struck by a drone about 250km off the coast of Oman. At the time this article was written no one has claimed responsibility for the attack. However, suspicion falls on Iran commentators describing a ‘shadow war’ between Israel and Iran being fought in the Persian Gulf. Iran targeting Israeli owned or associated ships. Although, not directly related to the war in Ukraine it is a reminder of the interconnectedness of our world and of the possible consequences of both Iran and Israel being nuclear armed.
This point in turn reminds us of the importance of ‘collective security’ or nations working together to preserve the international rule of law and protect states that are illegally invaded. Everybody benefits from a safer, stabler world in which international law is respected. It is important to remember this as Europe faces a cold winter and even in the Pacific we pay more for imported goods. However, the price of not supporting Ukraine and not committing to collective security arrangements is far higher.
Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.