GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – Get ready because winter is coming in Ukraine


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.

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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.


  1. Good comments Ben. If Russia collapses internally as seems more likely every day, the result will be chaos that will spill over into the rest of the world.

    Take a close look at the Kinburn Peninsula and you’ll see why Ukrainian troops are fairly secure there. At the tip is a 20 km long nature reserve but between that and the last navigable road is a 10km wide salt marsh. So, troops at the end of the peninsula are outside the range of the Russian artillery unless they diverted grads there and if the Russians did that, they in turn would become exposed to artillery from the north side of the Dnipro. Thus, the Ukraine can park troops there and they cannot be shifted. A launching point for nigh time special ops?

    • Actually it was more the result of Raygun’s and Thatcher’s neoliberal nonsense and the subsequent globalisation bullshit…

    • I have said it before. Weird how the antivaxxer covid conspiracy theorists, (like Brand), have ended up as supporters of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

      I guess once you go down one far right conspiracy theory rabbit hole, somewhere down in the dark it branches off into other far right conspiracy theory rabbit holes.

      The comedian and social commentator Russell Brand recently weighed in on claims made by the Russian government regarding “biolabs” in Ukraine. On March 6, the Russian government’s Twitter account alleged that during Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, evidence of an emergency clean-up operation “aimed at eradicating traces of the military-biological program” was found in various research facilities in the country. Along with Brand, right-wing commentators like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson have repeated the claims, and many conspiracy communities, including QAnon, have latched onto the idea. This misinformation narrative has conveniently lined up with origin myths of COVID-19, while also providing the Kremlin with additional detail to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine…..From his chaotic on-screen career that cemented his “lovable rogue” reputation to his deep involvement in wellness and spirituality, he has followed the unfortunate but well-trodden path into the dubious regurgitation of misinformation couched as “truth.” He offers his audience a window into a world of his own brand of forbidden knowledge,….

      …..Brand’s chosen road leads his audience to a shadowy doorway to conspiracy theories, misinformation, and Russian propaganda. Brand says he’s “explaining, not condoning” – but he’s boosting a lie, and dodging responsibility for doing so.

      • I was reading how Benjamine Netenyahoo is now a moderate in his new terrorist/Kahanist infused Israel Government

        This relates to Ukraine in how the indigenous people of eastern Ukraine are to be cleansed or harshly subjugated by racist extremists ,,,, if they get their way

        John Pilger from 2014-2015 ,,, “,”At the same time, the Kiev regime turned on the ethnic Russian population in the east with the ferocity of ethnic cleansing. Deploying neo-Nazi militias in the manner of the Waffen-SS, they bombed and laid to siege cities and towns. They used mass starvation as a weapon, cutting off electricity, freezing bank accounts, stopping social security and pensions. More than a million refugees fled across the border into Russia. In the western media, they became unpeople escaping “the violence” caused by the “Russian invasion”. ,,,

        Both John Pilger and Russel Brand are far more trustworthy and honest than Pat.

        I recommend anyone to visit John Pilgers site and read from his archives anything to do with Ukraine from 2014 onward’s ,,,,

        anti-war truth reads a lot differently than pro-Ukraine anti-Russian propaganda.

      • well after initial denials the yanks admitted to the labs but insisted they were doing benign research….after the initial lie can they be trusted?

    • They’ve run out of missiles every week and every washing machine in Russia has been stripped for chips. It can’t be the Russians turning off the Ukraine power grid, so who? Maybe those naughty nobodies who fly missiles into Polish farms and bombard nuclear power stations. But its OK, the vast dollar loans have been syphoned off, along with digital cash to buy villas in Monaco etc. Its all just good and dandy.

  2. Your report is okay as far as it goes Ben and I agree with much of what you say.


    The Soviets weren’t alone in the penal battalion concept. Don’t forget the Dirlewanger brigade courtesy of the Nazis and the plethora of warlords as in China and the Arab countries between the wars. Most of Africa and the Islamic countries use the warlord system. Private armies are simply the logical extension of the neoliberal “privatise everything” ideology. The Russians are merely the first westerners (?) to formalise this arrangement.

    Living in NZ is like living on Pluto. Getting stuff here has always been difficult and expensive. Just ask any elderly person with specialised health needs. There was a time when margarine was unavailable by intent. Most of the wonderful consumables that the rest of the world has easy access to are simply unavailable out here. How is that going to be any different as a result of the collapse of Russia? Europa petrol hasn’t been available here since the 80s…

    My one major concern is the spineless reaction of Western Europe to this crisis. In particular the French and once again the Germans. It feels like Putin’s idea of dragging the war out so everyone gets fed up with the cost and the discomfort of not having cheap Russian gas is most likely to work with these two nations. The only thing that counterbalances this is the fervour and sheer determination of the former soviet states that have really got in behind Ukraine, especially Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. They know exactly what a Russian victory will be like; plenty of practical experience. Oh and of course the Brits doing their standing alone against the fascists trick they used once before.

    • Good question Sum, destroying the power and water systems is classic US shock and awe tactics which have been incredibly successful. The question really is why the Russians didn’t do it from the start?

  3. Watching Mercouris, he says all eyes on Bahkmut, as the culmination of the Donbass battle. The rest he contends are sideshows. If Bahkmut falls to Russia then the road is clear to the east bank of the Dneiper. Neither side can afford to lose.

  4. It’s very hard to see how this war can end. Except that it is not going to end with Russia withdrawing it’s troops from any of the territories in which the residents have voted to become part of Russia.
    But the administration in Ukraine cannot realistically negotiate a resolution as they don’t know how much more assistance they are going to get from the Western world. And the Western world doesn’t know either. We are part of that world and a part of the decision making structure though a small one, but we could at least define what or commitment will be and how far we would be prepared to go in terms of the level of direct involvement we are prepared for.
    But with the US pretending that it is for Ukraine to decide when to call it quits ; when we all know that without US NATO etc involvement it would have been over in a month at most and Ukraine would have lost the Donbas and Crimea but not the two southern regions that they have lost now. And who knows what else they will loose besides lives and infrastructure by the time we in the west have got bored with it .
    In the end there is a disfunction in our so called “Democratic” structures that there are too many people involved in making critically important decisions, and no single entity feels ultimately responsible for the result often leading to the present situation where no proper decision is made at all. So Ukraine will probably be completely destroyed for absolutely no advantage to anyone.
    D J S

    • there are too many people involved in making critically important decisions, and no single entity feels ultimately responsible
      DJS I think these people are “expert” technocrats, full of method and received wisdom. It seems however beyond both their pay grade and intellectual capacity to think, and to use moral judgement.

      • Yes I agree that decisions are not made by the figureheads that we elect to pretend we live in a democracy.
        But even those technocrats augt to be able to see that their country needs to decide if we are going to defeat Russia in Ukraine which will require unambiguous involvement of Nato physical involvement ie open war with Russia and all that that implies, or admit that Ukraine is a lost cause as far as retaining the 5 regions that are now part of Russia.
        Ukraine at least deserves to know how much support they can expect in order to be able to make a decision to end with as much of the country intact as possible.
        D J S

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