GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – Tension builds in Ukraine as Christmas comes

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Christmas is less than a week away but in Ukraine seasonal cheer will be thin on the ground as soldiers and civilians hunker down trying to keep warm and stay alive. Although in recent weeks, the frontline in Ukraine has stabilised this does not mean that there is not tension building in the region. And; my gut feeling is that Avril Haynes, United States head of intelligence may soon be proven wrong by an explosion of activity.   Both sides are under enormous pressure to break the current deadlock, go on the offensive and try to regain some momentum.  

After mobilising approximately 300,000 soldiers, the Russians fed about half to the Ukrainian guns in order to stop the Luhansk offensive and also to allow for a controlled withdrawal across the Dnipro.  The remaining 150,000 soldiers are nearing the end of their training cycle and where these soldiers will be deployed is still uncertain. North of Kyiv, in Belarus a Russian combined arms army (about 9,000 soldiers) has reportedly been building up forces in the south since the start of October. Belarus provided a large number of tanks, artillery and vehicles to replace Russian losses; and the build-up was interpreted as an opportunity to match mobilising troops with this equipment while threatening Kyiv and forcing Ukraine to keep troops on the Belarus border. 

By late November, commentators were interpreting the build-up of Russian forces in Belarus in a more threatening way. American ‘think tank’ the Jamestown Foundation stating late in November that “This is also a marker that a strike group will most likely be formed from the Russian units in Belarus in the near future, about which the Ukrainian General Staff has regularly warned. Overall, this grouping’s tasks will be to jeopardize the supply of aid to Ukraine and seize the Rivne Nuclear Power Plant”.  Essentially, the Russian forces re-constituting in Belarus provide a grouping of forces that could be used to support Russian strategy.  An offensive in northern Ukraine or the area around Kyiv would be integrated with Russia’s wider strategy of targeting Ukraine’s civil infrastructure.  Further, an offensive in this area could help disrupt the flow of NATO aid to Ukraine because its impact on power infra-structure makes it harder to manage railways and an offensive could directly threaten supply routes from Poland.

Last week, tension in this area increased further Reuters reporting that “A flurry of Belarusian military action, including a counter-terrorism exercise last week, has kept Ukraine guessing about Minsk’s intentions and raised concerns in Kyiv that it might join the war on Russia’s side”. At the same time Ukraine is issuing statements about an imminent Russian offensive from Belarus. 

This week, on 19 December 2022 Putin is scheduled to meet Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk. The meeting is to discuss greater cooperation between the countries including a series of snap drills and exercises being conducted this week and planned next week.  Last week’s activity also included a very large and significant Russian missile attack that targeted Kyiv.   Ukraine has been very public about its concerns in the north, and it seems that Russia is using this force to ‘fix’ Ukrainian forces on the Belarus border. Holding them in place in case they are required to stop an offensive from Belarus rather than being able to use them in other areas to support offensive operations.

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 However, it should be noted that the Ukrainians are also successfully fixing a large Russian force in Donetsk.  Ukrainian pressure on the area around Kremina and Russia’s obsession with Bhakmut combining to keep a large number of Russian soldiers occupied.  The Ukrainians are also successfully convincing the Russian’s to ‘dig in’ facing west along the Dnipro River.  An interesting situation because most analysts think there is little chance of Ukraine crossing the river and attacking on this axis.  Essentially, the Russians cannot constitute an offensively focused reserve in the south and east because they are either defensively postured along the Dnipro River and the Svatove-Kremina line or their resources are being fed into the Bhakmut meatgrinder.  Most importantly, the Ukrainian information machine is silent about these area.  Independent media is shut out and very little information flow is coming from Ukrainian sources. Instead, their information operations are directed at highlighting the threat from Belarus.

So what is happening? Who has the initiative and is driving the tempo of the operation? 

My answer is that we have seen this pattern before and that at this time the tempo is being driven by the weather.  Ukraine is still suffering the effect of autumnal rain and both sides are waiting for the ground to freeze.  And; I think that as soon as the ground freezes we will see some significant movement.

The first question relates to the Russian presence in Belarus. The force that we know is mustering there is significant providing Russia an ability to concentrate force at a key point and achieve a ‘break in’.   However, the force we know about is not large enough to make a significant operational impact.  Possibly, it could seize an objective within about 100km of the border so the Rivne Nuclear Power Station is a potential target. About 50% of Ukraine’s power is nuclear generated and disruption or capture of this power plant would reduce Ukraine’s nuclear power generation capacity by more than 10%.  A significant blow on top of the production lost when the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant was captured and this action would contribute to Russia’s wider plan to interrupt Ukraine’s civil infrastructure. Capturing this area would also interdict the E373 highway that links Lublin in Poland with Kyiv.  The key issue is that a force of this size will be defeated.  It is not large enough to hold an 85km salient and will be pushed back by the Ukrainians.  Turning the operation into a raid rather than an offensive. 

Another option advanced by the Ukrainians in their information campaign is that the Russians will advance on Kyiv.  An even more unlikely option because Kyiv’s defences will be very strong and Russia does not appear to have the numbers; even with the full 150,000 newly mobilised soldiers deployed Russia would struggle to capture Kyiv. Numbers alone are not a good measure of offensive capability, the newly mobilised units are even more poorly trained, equipped and led than the Russians soldiers in the initial invasion and this time they will be meeting a fully prepared Ukrainian defence.

Even in the unlikely event that Belarus forces joined an advance, their army is small and suffers the same problems the Russians have including low fighting strength states, poor leadership, old equipment and dated tactics.  Although, considerable work is reported to be underway to integrate Belarus and Russian forces it takes months or years to generate effective integrated units; and requires willingness from both parties. Unfortunately for the Russians, there is lots of evidence that Belarussians don’t support the war in Ukraine either at the political level or at an individual level within the armed forces. 

United States intelligence sources are not confirming Ukraine’s concerns, instead John Kirby recently stated that US intelligence officials “aren’t seeing any indication that there’s an imminent move on Kyiv”.  Throughout the war United States policy has been to be transparent about identified threats and if there was a significant build up on Ukraine’s northern border it is likely that it would be noted. So at this stage, the Institute for the Study of War’s assessment seems correct “A Russian invasion of Ukraine from Belarus as low, but possible”. 

Ukraine is keen to highlight the potential threat to the north for two reasons:

  • The threat encourages NATO nations media to keep talking about the war and therefore to maintain the interest of European voters; and
  • If the world is talking about Belarus, then it is not looking at Ukraine’s next move.

As I said we have seen this pattern before, Ukrainian information operations designed to divert attention away from where the blow will actually land.  A couple of weeks ago in the article What next?  Can Ukraine recapture the initiative? I laid out what I thought would be Ukraine’s plan and that can be summarised as follows:

  • Ukraine has two broad options; pushing east into Luhansk in the north or south into the area between Mariupol and the Dnipro River (the Crimean land bridge). 
  • However, the south coast is the campaign’s ‘vital ground’, the ground that if you hold it – you win.  Russia needs this area to access Crimea, a region of vast historical, psychological, political and military significance.  If Ukraine can cut the ‘land bridge’ Crimea is effectively isolated. 
  • The south coast is also hard for Russia to support logistically. Until the Kerch rail bridge is running again Russia does not have a rail supply line into the ‘land bridge’.  Instead, they must truck supplies forwards; and have a limited number of trucks. 
  • An assault south needs to cover about 80 km to get to the coast.  Less, if Melitopol is the target.  

Based on these factors it seems likely that the Ukrainians will push south. Breaking the Svatove-Kremina Line, advancing east and capturing Luhansk is probably an easier option but strategically won’t win the war.  Breaking the Crimean land bridge on the other hand brings victory much closer reducing the risk of Ukraine losing NATO’s support.  Mariupol is where Russian rail from Donetsk terminates and without this area under control supplying Russia’s forces in the south becomes much harder.  In winter logistics requirements are higher as forces need more clothes, fuel for heating and the ability to evacuate frost bitten soldiers.  Breaking the ‘land bridge’ isolates Russian forces on the south coast and Crimea and winter is the best time to move because if ground is captured in winter, then in spring rain provides an operational pause to re-organise and regenerate after the offensive.  

In simple terms a successful winter offensive in the south, with the objective of breaking the Crimean land bridge could see the Ukrainians able to isolate Crimea with an option to advance north into Donetsk possibly encircling Russian forces currently deployed forwards trying to push west near Bhakmut.  And; Mariupol seems like a good target.  The city’s role in Russian logistics, the fact that it is already battered and largely evacuated combined with its value as a potential place to pivot north into occupied Donetsk all contribute to this assessment.  

So it makes sense that the Ukrainians are talking big about a coming battle in the north while at the same time fixing Russia’s army near the Dnipro River and Bhakmut as they prepare for their next move far away from their current discussions.  The only questions are when and where?  And; it is likely that when the ground freezes we will find out. 

 

Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.

41 COMMENTS

  1. A polack or ukroid joke? Or both?

    Polish prosecutors are investigating a “violent release of energy” at the national police headquarters amid media reports that the chief of police fired a grenade launcher in his office.
    Poland’s interior ministry said on Thursday that Jarosław Szymczyk, the police commander in chief, was injured and taken to hospital when a present he received during a visit to Ukraine exploded at police headquarters in Warsaw.

    Polish media reported that the present was a grenade launcher and that Szymczyk himself had accidentally fired it in his office, in what would be a serious breach of safety regulations.

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/dec/16/poland-police-chief-jaroslaw-szymczyk-fired-grenade-launcher-gift-ukraine

  2. 100% Ben. Thanks.

    The fact that the Russians are busy digging trenches in Crimea tells us a lot about where they think the Ukraine will attack next.

    It would be most unwise for Lukashenko to get involved in this war and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a diplomat from the West has whispered that thought into his ear. He may be a thug but is unlikely to be a stupid thug.

    • Pure fantasy, nothing to do with reality on the battlefields. The west is looking for a way out of this mess.
      Russia is in control and sucking Uke into the meat grinder.

  3. I find your articles on this conflict to be outstanding. I know people will claim bias blah, blah, blah but I have learned a lot about the conflict from your posts.

    • @ ATGX.
      To help you further your enlightenment you might also find this interesting.
      Russell Brand talks to Prof Jeffery Sachs.
      Here is my conversation with Professor Jeffery Sachs, we discussed many controversial topics like Ukraine war, Media Lies & Wuhan Lab Leak.
      https://youtu.be/wfXIJd5J_VA

      • I actually watched that video. Not something I would normally do, since i don’t have much time for Brand.
        Anyway, why am I not the least surprised that followers of Brand have bought into the Russian narrative that their attack was provoked by the dastardly West. As if Russia had no choice but to start the war.
        Even if Russia had grievances, starting a war like they did has zero legal justification. Nothing that Ukraine was doing can conceivably can be dressed up by Russia for their war being a legitimate act of self defence. In this instance, for Russia to use self defence as a justification would require Ukraine to have committed actual and serious military aggression against Russia. There is zero evidence of that.

        • I’m afraid you’re wrong, Russia does indeed have well known and accepted international ‘legal justification(s)’.
          Putin, for all his many expressed faults, unlike the western leaders who are not put up to the same standards and judgement, is following international law as much as possible and thus why he has slowly increased the war, as his international legal options develope.
          i.e. strike at Russian ‘homeland’ (as defined by them) and then it becomes a ‘terrist action’ and thus the few 100,000 newly trained troops now being used.

          • “well known and accepted international legal justifications”
            By whom? Not the UN, not the ICJ. Almost no nations vote with Russia on this issue. Yes, quite a few abstain, though they are reducing in number.

            • Oh yes by the UN and most countries in the world have NOT opposed Russia.
              Just all the countries controlled by the USA empire, that our propaganda media blitz us with information from.

        • I note Angela Merkel recently stated that the West had NO intention of honouring the Minsk agreements.
          This SMO would not have occurred if Ukraine guaranteed not to join NATO and treated russian speakers in the East like…human beings.

        • Wayne, despite the Minsk accords in 2014 Ukraine has continued to shell their civilian citizens in Donetsk. It is on the record and undeniable.
          What amazes me is people like yourself who claim Ukraine has the moral high ground. Where was your opposition to this?
          Added where is your opposition to Ukraine continuously shelling civilians in Donetsk every day since the Russian intervention? It is against established international law.
          To make it worse whilst Ukrainian conscripts are sent into Bahkmut to die, they are denied artillery support because they are too busy shelling civilians in Donetsk.
          Stupid and criminal. Do you have to follow suite?

          • Both sides were shelling each other, with casualties in both sides, mostly among the respective militaries. Neither side really respected the Minsk Agreements in the sense of ceasing all military action. But they essentially stayed within their respective territory.
            The mutual breaches of the Minsk Agreements do not justify the current war. Any more that the numerous breaches of the Korean Armistice would justify either side launching a full scale war against each other.

            • ABSOLUTE B.S, Russia followed the Minsk agreement and spoke many many times to the USA, NATO and France/German (the cosignitures of that accord) about Ukrains MANY many infringements, condemed by the UN for bombing innocent civilians (killing something like 10,000+) in the Dombas, and listed MANY times in the western propaganda media. But ALL their protestations were ignored.
              And after Merkles admission, we now know why.

              • I suggest you do more research on the Donbass region 2015 to 2021. The separatists in the Donbass area certainly did not follow the accords. That is why there was continual low level conflict in that area. Both sides were at fault, with border raids and shelling. However this sort of activity had actually substantially reduced by 2021.
                In any event the problems at the Donbass border certainly does not justify the Russian invasion.

            • Are you aware of Zelensky’s best intentions initially to implement peace in the Donbas area.Have you seen the footage of him at Zolote, attempting to order the commanders to pull back their heavy weapons, and the response he got?
              https://towardfreedom.org/story/archives/europe/how-ukraines-jewish-president-volodymyr-zelensky-made-peace-with-neo-nazi-paramilitaries-on-front-lines-of-war-with-russia/
              Have you seen the breakdown on the deaths of civilians by the OSCE?
              The data clearly shows most of the civilian deaths (3,000) between 2014 -2022 were on the pro separatist side.
              The OSCE also shows most of the violations of the Minsk agreement were perpetrated by the Ukrainians in the leadup to the invasion.
              If Zelensky had managed to overcome the far right militia and implemented the peace agreement , the territories of Luhansk and Donetsk would have remained within Ukrainian boundaries and thousands upon thousands of people would not have lost their lives .You cannot persuade me that ignoring Minsk and collaborating with the far right has been worth all this death and destruction

      • The two best things that I like about Russell Brand are ….

        1) His agenda is the truth ,,, truth and understanding, which he tries to advance through the expertise of his guests and quality of his interviews.

        2) He makes me laugh with his comedy genius ,,,, which I think is needed given the depressing nature of some of the topics he covers.

        So I second countryboys recommendation to increase your knowledge through good ol Russell ,,

        ,, one tidbit I learned from him,,,, is that the Usa spent approx $200 Billion developing their latest stealth bomber ,,, and that it would cost about $20 Billion to end homelessness there.

        If the way a society treats it’s citizens is returned in kind by the people ,,,, then the usa’s mass shootings,, it’s approximately 50,000 gun deaths per year ,,, and it’s high murder rates ,,,, then it all becomes quite understandable.

        Helping to understand https://rumble.com/c/russellbrand

        • What does ending homelessness look like? A roof for everyone? I recall a story about some homeless people put up in newly redecorated flats. They basically destroyed the place and one guy slept outside because he didn’t like being confined inside. These are some unwell people, if money was the answer we wouldn’t have any problems.

          • Your largely talking shit as an excuse to not spend a very small sum of money ,, about 2% of Usa war/military spending ,,,, that small.

            https://youtu.be/s47elUKUZdk?t=18

            anyway,, citing what percentage of homelessness were you referring to RAF ??? ,,, to buttress your ‘lack of money aint the largest part of the problem’ ,,,, bullshit.

            The largest cause of becoming homeless in the usa is medical bills, medicine costs …

            40% of homeless people in LA have jobs
            9-10% of homeless are Children
            18% are physically disabled
            9% are mentally disabled

            Less than 25% are drug addicts ,,,which naturally includes Alcoholics.

            Bombs, war and death are more worthy of money ,,, than spending it on homes for the vulnerable, the medically bankrupted,, and the over 40 Million poor in the usa.

            The homeless serve the purpose of being a threat/warning to workers …

            They are a bad society getting worse internally ,,,,, With Unlimited Sadism Abroad ,,,, USA,,

            The Jakarta Method: How the CIA Promoted Mass Murder & Terrorism Against the Left https://youtu.be/VFFcj1f9K18

          • typical RAF a half heard bar room anecdote means less than fuck all.
            look at how finland have delt with their homeless issue and weep.

      • I would not say your comments are anti war. They do tend to be anti-any Russian-accountability for the conflict whatsoever

  4. Ukraine is a prime example of the wests hypocrisy, Palestinians have been suffering from israeli oppression( apartheid, children murdered, acess to water and electricity used as a weapon etc) and our silence is deafening.

    • Hear hear.
      We are ONLY happy with villians and illegal deaths and war, IF they are the acts of ‘our friends’, or more likely our ‘over lords’.

    • A nation has collective security rights only once it is established.

      Palestine did not declare its independence in 1948 when Israel did. Israel was attacked by 5 Arab armies and grew its territory before a cease-fire. It again refused to declare its independence and remained under Jordan and Egypt occupation till 1967, when it came under Israeli occupation.

      Israel is a Ukraine that won the war.

      Under the 1993 Oslo Accords a PA was established to negotiate the formation of a Palestinian state. Yasser Arafat rejected the 2000 offer (near to 1967 borders and a capital in E Jerusalem) because it did not include right of return for 1948 refugees (and maybe issues of full sovereignty over borders). Since then Israel disengaged from Gaza and Hamas now rule there without elections (and host those who fire off rockets and who refuse to recognise the state of Israel’s right to exist). The PA on the West Bank has not had elections since 2006. Critics get imprisoned by their own PA.

      Palestine is in need of what used to be called a colonial project, external oversight to prepare for self-government. But sadly not because of any lack of capability, but a refusal to stop digging a hole. That this had led to the Religious Zionist party being part of the current Israeli coalition government – Netanyahu now catering to blind greed for the land without any Palestinian people has created the risk of Israel being sucked into the vortex/vacuum of humanity that has occurred.

  5. didn’t poland stop/restrict supplies to the ukraine going through it’s territory? maybe someone in poland looked up volynia and eastern galicia and thought better.

  6. Ukraine is the first European war on the scale of WW ll since then. It is offensive and disgusting. We must impose that idea on Russia’s ideas, like we imposed it on Germany’s.

    So, a hard but necessary road. Except unlike then it’s not the main thing by any measurement. Climate.

  7. Ukraine has now lost approx 25% of their population while Ben posts fantasies about Russian troops being fed to Ukrainian guns.

  8. don’t worry the mighty german Puma armoured vehicles will be on the road to moscow by christmas…..except they’re all stuck broken down.

    it’s funny despite the protestations of of wherboos after the mk4 the germans have never managed a decent tank(except the leopard),,,yeah yeah yeah tigers and panthers look impressive but when they’re mostly immobile they were a waste of resources on expensive pill boxes.

  9. Putn is a cowardly gutless lunatic together with his only friends from Iran. North Korea ang Belarus. This is a super power attacking a small sovereign nation and lobbing missiles and rockets from a safe distance. He is at war with and attacking private citizens, Putin is the Hitler of the day.

  10. Don’t know how verisilimitudinous this thought is but if their public culture means anything Russia reminds me of Jim Jones’s cult in Guyana. A death cult. Except it makes me laugh. Grand cynics like ex-soviets don’t cut their own throat for shite. Just for ideals and when the drink runs out.

    But I’m still worried.

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