Ukraine’s most significant operations last week were far to the south of Zaporizhia, on the Black Sea. Its operations on the Black Sea demonstrated new Ukrainian capabilities and provided insight into Ukraine’s planning. Additionally, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence confirmed how dangerous and contested the airspace over the Black Sea is; acknowledging that in 2022 a Russian fighter fired missiles at a British surveillance plane operating in international airspace over the sea. In the land battle, commentary by a retired Australian general may provide an insight into why Ukrainian progress is slower than expected. Finally, the meeting predicted between Kim Jong Un and Putin took place last week in Vladivostok.
It was a busy week on the Black Sea. First, Ukraine confirmed on 12 September that it had retaken the series of offshore oil drilling platforms in the Black Sea known as the Boyko Towers. Capture of these small platforms was a prelude to a larger Ukrainian operation that is currently unfolding in the Black Sea and Crimea. The importance of these platforms relates to their location as surveillance and air defence platforms. A key issue for Russia is that it does not have a sophisticated airborne radar system. The coverage of radar is limited by the curvature of the earth, a sea-skimming cruise missile, aircraft or small boat only being visible within a range of about 80km (50 miles) from most surface mounted radar systems. Obviously, the higher a radar system is mounted the further its coverage will be and many nations use powerful radars mounted on aircraft to provide greater coverage. Russia does have these aircraft but not many, and the ones they have are older and are less sophisticated than they need to be to detect modern stealthy cruise missiles like Storm Shadow.
By holding Snake Island and the Boyko Towers Russia was able to push their radar surveillance further into the Black Sea providing their air defence in Crimea with more time to react. See the picture below. The approximate locations of the Boyak Towers are in red and a couple of roughly 80km (50mile) radius circles are overlaid to show the rough range at which we can estimate they could pick up a sea-skimming missile or plane, demonstrating how useful these offshore oil platforms were are as a Russian radar piquet for Crimea.
Additionally, air defence could be layered by deploying air defence missiles on the platforms forcing Ukrainian attackers to fly through layers of defences long before reaching targets in Crimea. And; we should not forget about the importance of small boats or sea drones. A rigid hulled inflatable boat with commandos in it or a Sea Baby drone is very hard to spot from surface-based radar, by occupying these platforms Russia extended its surveillance ‘bubble’ far across the Black Sea. Now that Ukraine has taken these platforms, Russia will need to risk positioning ships forward in the Black Sea, currently a very dangerous proposition; or make more use of its very limited airborne surveillance planes another rare and expensive asset.
Essentially, Ukraine has removed Russia’s ‘eyes’ on the Black Sea and made Crimea much more vulnerable to attack by cruise missiles, drones, aircraft and commando raids. Last week’s announcement put recent Ukrainian commando attacks on Russian air defence missiles in Crimea into a new perspective. Ukraine occupied the Boyak Towers some weeks ago, only announcing their capture recently. However, we can see that their capture has already had an impact on Russia’s ability to stop Ukrainian attacks. First, in late August Ukrainian commando raids destroyed Russian S 400 missiles. Since then, Russian air defence radars and missile systems in Crimea have been subjected to a persistent campaign of attacks. Obviously, enabled by the capture of the Boyak Towers.
Last week, having suppressed Russia’s air defence over Crimea Ukraine struck hard. A complex multi-directional cruise missile attack using large and powerful Storm Shadow missiles severely damaged a Russian amphibious warfare ship and a submarine. Both vessels were very badly damaged and have little chance of being repaired in time to play any further role in this war. The Ukrainians have sunk several Russian ships during the war slowly depleting Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and driving the remainder east out of the war. Further, last week’s attack was a stark demonstration of Sevastopol’s vulnerability. Historically, this port is Russia’s stronghold from which it dominates the Black Sea and is no longer safe.
The impact of Ukraine’s attack on the Black Sea Fleet’s most important and until now secure harbour is significant; first because it drives the fleet further east forcing them to relocate to the relative safety of Novorossisyk, compromising their ability to exert control over the western Black Sea. However, this attack is important in another way because is an example of Ukraine targeting Russian amphibious ships, specifically:
- Saratov, an Alligator class landing ship able to carry about 400 soldiers and their supporting vehicles was destroyed in March 2022.
- Sister ships Caesar Kunikov and Novocherkassk were damaged in 2022 and are still out of action unable to be repaired probably due to sanctions on Russia. Both vessels could carry about 300 soldiers and their supporting vehicles.
- Minsk and Olenegorsky Gornyak both damaged and out of action after attacks in August 2023. Both vessels carry about 350 soldiers and their supporting vehicles.
Is Ukraine targeting Russian amphibious ships because they are worried about Russian amphibious attacks? No, they are not. Instead, Ukraine’s activity points to a wider strategic plan. The map below shows Ukraine’s ‘vice’ closing on Crimea, cutting the peninsular off from Russia’s supply lines. The peninsula’s logistics options are limited, the first option is to use the Crimean Land Bridge marked ‘A’ on the map below. This route has both heavy rail and road freight options and is relatively hard to interdict, unless Ukraine can fight its way to within artillery range of the route. Unlike Russia’s next option is using the Kerch Bridge, marked ‘B.’ Although this route has both road and rail options it is single point of failure. Russia’s third option is to use the sea.
Ukraine’s advance on the Orikhiv Axis (shown as a blue arrow) may be slow but it is inexorable. So far, the Russians have not been able to stop the advance and if Ukraine gets within about 20km of Melitopol or any other point along the Crimean Land Bridge then that supply route can be interdicted using artillery. If both the Kerch Bridge is destroyed and the Crimean Land Bridge is subjected to regular artillery fire then the peninsular has no rail or road access and would need to rely on air or sea resupply. Supporting the defence of Crimea by air lift is unfeasible, ammunition and armoured vehicle parts will be needed and are too heavy to ship in large amounts by air. This leaves sea lift. Therefore, strategically Ukraine has good reason to interested in reducing the number of Russia’s amphibious warfare ships.
This discussion provides an insight into how the Ukrainian thinking and helps confirm that Ukraine’s intent is to isolate and starve Crimea of logistics support. Crimea is Putin’s most important victory to date, returning it to Russian control in 2014 is his crowning achievement to-date. If Crimea becomes untenable Putin’s political position is significantly weakened, instead of being a strong and victorious leader he looks weak; and a weak dictator is a vulnerable dictator.
However, the land battle remains the key to the campaign, because until the Crimean Land Bridge is compromised Putin has a reliable supply route to Crimea. Ukraine continues to attack on three axes shown as blue arrows, on the map below:
- An axis that started at Orikhiv and that is pushing south towards Tokmak and Melitopol.
- An operation flattening the Velyka Novosilka salient.
- Advancing on Bakhmut.
Last week, Ukraine continued to make slow progress on the Orikhiv axis and is currently ‘knocking on the door’ of both Novopropivka and Verbove. Both villages are important tactically, Novopropivka because it is enroute to Tokmak; and Verbove because holding in secures Ukraine’s left flank. In the east, near Bakhmut Ukraine is also making progress and reports indicate that the Russians may soon withdraw from the tactically important villages of Andrivka and Klishchivka opening opportunities to advance north and east towards Bakhmut.
Listening to retired Australian general Mick Ryan on Times Radio last week provided interesting insight into the difficulties facing Ukraine. General Ryan observed that Ukraine is the first war in which there is complete integration of civil and military information; or in simple terms that the widespread use of the internet means that both sides have access to enormous amounts of information, much of it gathered by ordinary people. Further, this information is available in real time so can be used to target enemy forces using artillery, rockets and drones. An interesting observation that likely impacts significantly on tactical logistics.
Even a small company-sized attack, with about 100 soldiers and a dozen vehicles has an administrative and logistics burden. After a successful attack the company need to re-organise(re-org) and prepare for its next task. Expended ammunition, batteries for night vision equipment and communications equipment and replacement equipment all needs to be moved forward. Wounded and prisoners need to be backloaded. Damaged equipment repaired. In previous wars, re-orging’ after an attack was comparatively safe, when the position is secure these supplies are brought forwards while wounded and prisoners are moved back. Generally, if the re-orging force maintains its security and is out of range of direct fire; or in defilade the administration can take place relatively easily.
However, on Ukraine’s battlefields this is not the case, the forward edge of battle is under constant video surveillance not only by soldiers but by drones, people live-streaming from ‘Go Pros,’ civilians posting information on line and a range of other sources. And; because this information is often circulating in real time (or close to real time) it can be useful for targeting purposes. This means that local civilians (as well as military observers) can post accurate, ‘time recorded’ pictures or film of a unit that allows targeting of that unit with artillery or by loitering drones almost immediately.
An impact of this situation is that tactical administration is evolving and probably slowing down. Instead of the company’s ‘echelon’ (its first line of re-supply and repair) being close by, just outside enemy direct fire range (a couple of kilometres) it now needs to be further back, out of artillery range (a couple of dozen kilometres) and wait for an opportunity to move forwards under cover either of darkness at night or in some other manner that is well-protected from observation. This creates significant difficulties resupplying soldiers especially for a force on the offensive. Soldiers in defence, on the other hand are not as constrained because they can cache supplies and dig communications trenches that allow supplies to be brought forwards under cover.
Napoleon, once said that ‘administration was one of the most important but also the most neglected principle of war.’ The ability to manage re-supply, repair and removal of prisoners and wounded in a timely and efficient way is tactically very important; and it seems that this war will produce some important lessons about how to manage this activity on the modern battlefield.
Overall, the campaign is still very much 50/50. On land, Ukraine is pressing forwards slowly on the Orikhiv axis and even though Russia is rushing its best units to this area it has not yet been able to stop; or drive back the Ukrainians. Every step south on this axis exposes the flanks of more Russian units on either side of the salient; and if Russian counter attacks are unsuccessful increases the odds that defending units will break and run rather than risk being surrounded. If this happens Ukraine’s odds of cutting the Crimean Land Bridge increase significantly. At sea and in the air, Ukraine has created a ‘window of opportunity’ over Crimea, creating a hole in Russia’s air defences and we can expect to see lots of activity over the peninsular next week.
On 15 September, the Institute for the Study of War reported that; “Russian State Duma Defense Committee Chairman Andrei Kartapolov explicitly stated that mobilized personnel will only demobilize at the end of Russia’s ‘special military operation.’” Confirmation that Putin is concerned about manpower because the Kremlin is stopping previously mobilised soldiers returning home as this autumn’s conscripts join the war, stealthily increasing the size of Russia’s army without a full mobilisation. Many commentators are speculating about what Putin’s meeting with Kim Jong Un will produce. Will Russia get ammunition? Equipment? Perhaps manpower? My assessment is that Putin needs help but that North Korea’s support will be very limited; perhaps just ammunition. Anything else seems unlikely partly because of Kim Jong Un’s paranoia. He is unlikely to allow significant amounts of soldiers or equipment to be sent to Russia, in case he needs them! Further, it seems likely that China will support North Korea throwing Putin a lifeline because like most nations it sees little margin in prolonging the war.
In summary, the situation remains tense and neither side is looking like being able to achieve a decision before the land campaign is shut down by autumnal rain. And; that tension is dangerous. Last week, the United Kingdom confirmed that one of their surveillance aircraft was shot at by Russian fighters last year. This incident demonstrates two points, first that the United Kingdom’s anti-missile systems were able to defeat the Russian missile. Second, how easily one rogue pilot can change the war. If the Russians were more competent and had shot down a British aircraft with a couple of dozen people on board it would have been a significant international incident. An event that could easily have escalated the war. It demonstrates the need for cool heads and clear thinking on both sides.
Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger