BEN MORGAN: Terror attack dominates the news, but the air battle over Ukraine is more important

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The Moscow terror attack dominated last week’s news cycle, but the week’s most important activity was in the air over Ukraine.  Russian drone and missile strikes increasing in size and intensity, drawing valuable air defence missiles away from the frontline.  This is the strategic air battle and its potential impact on the land campaign is often overlooked, mainstream media focussing on the campaign’s impact on electricity networks and civilians rather than its military effect. Russian forces are struggling to make a significant breakthrough. So, Russia is looking at new ways to crack open Ukraine’s defences before European aid starts to reach the frontline.

The strategic air battle, looking at it’s most important impact 

Both Russia and Ukraine continue to relentlessly attack each other in depth. Ukraine targeting Russia’s oil production and distribution infrastructure while Russia targets Ukraine’s electricity network.  Missiles and drones are the weapon of choice and recently there have been two important developments in this aspect of the war.

The first is that there is evidence the US is asking Ukraine to stop their campaign against Russia’s oil network. The Financial Times broke the story last week and the reason why appears to be that the US is worried about increases in the price of crude oil and Russian retaliation against Western oil infrastructure, like the Caspian Pipeline Consortium’s network that carries oil from Central Asia to the world.  This US intervention proves that Ukraine’s campaign is working and is hurting Putin.  However, it is an indictment on the US that it chooses to intervene in this way at as it continues to fail to deliver on its commitments to support Ukraine.  

The second development is more threatening, Russia’s strategic campaign appears to be achieving its main goal.  Air defence missiles are expensive and Russia’s drone attacks force Ukraine to deploy their launchers widely and to deplete their limited supply of missiles.  This means that less launchers can be concentrated on the frontline and that missile stocks diminish.  In turn, this allows the Russian air force to become more active over the battle field.  

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Historically, strategic air campaigns have proven relatively ineffective and in Ukraine we are seeing a new use of strategic air power.  Unmanned aircraft used en masse to create an operational effect in the land campaign by depleting Ukraine’s reserve of air defence missiles and reducing Ukrainian frontline air defence.  Russia demonstrating the unsustainable nature of modern tech as Ukraine uses million-dollar missiles to shoot down thousand-dollar drones, creating a strategic air campaign that appears to be influencing the land battle.

The land campaign – Important trends emerging

General summary

Russia has constituted a large reserve in northern Luhansk but continues to attack across a broad frontage. However, the position of the reserve and location of fighting indicates that they are most focussed on the Ukrainian salient demarcated by Lyman, Kremina, Bakhmut and Avdiivka.  Russia’s current main effort is likely to be getting tube artillery within range of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, two large Donbas cities that are still held by Ukraine. Russian attacks are constant but to-date have made only incremental progress. 


The air battle over the frontline

A couple of weeks ago we highlighted improvements in Russian drone capabilities (See “A chaotic Russian election week’ dated 18 March). A trend complemented by an increasing use of Russian manned air craft closer to the frontline in the last five to six weeks. An indicator of changes in operating conditions.  

At the start of the war, the Russian air force failed to use the advantage of surprise to destroy its Ukrainian counterpart.  Since then, it has proved ineffective at hunting down and eliminating the remainder of the Ukrainian air force or at suppressing Ukraine’s air defences.  Instead, the story of Russian manned airpower has been to provide platforms for launching long-range missiles and glide bombs.  A relatively wasteful use of sophisticated and expensive airframes.  

Recently, things have changed and now Russia is using combat aircraft closer to the frontline and pressing their attacks.  The question is; Why are we seeing this trend?  

It appears that there are two factors involved; the first is probably a leadership direction.  Putin is clearly keen to gain ground and airpower can play an important role in any land battle.  Supporting this hypothesis is the relatively high loss rate of Russian aircraft in recent months.  Russia losing two airborne early warning and command aircraft and more than a dozen attack aircraft. This indicates that Russian aircraft are accepting higher levels of risk, or coming closer to the frontline to be more effective in their attacks.  It is likely that air craft are being deployed more aggressively because they have been ordered too, the requirement to make a break through outweighing the risks of losing air craft.

The second factor is more concerning and is likely to be that Ukraine’s air defence missiles are running low, forcing rationing. The situation opening a window of opportunity for Russia’s air force to increase its operations.  A dangerous situation for Ukraine because Russia still has many operational aircraft and their glide bomb capabilities are increasing. If Ukraine is running out of air defence missiles, sustained aerial bombardment of towns and cities will become easier for Russia.  Already, we have seen a large glide bomb attack on Kharkiv and it seems likely that we can expect to see more Russian cities and towns being bombed.

Are the Russians planning a new offensive?

Currently, there is speculation about Russia planning a new ground offensive in late-April or May.  Ukrainian officials reported on 27 March that Russia was conducting an information operation trying to create the perception that there would be an attack on Sumy.  However, at this stage there is no firm evidence of this happening and it seems unlikely.  

Currently, it is unlikely that Russia has the combat power to open a new axis anywhere on the frontline.  The number of troops required to conduct an offensive is enormous, for instance the operation to take Avdiivka required a force of 50,000 Russian soldiers. Russia’s largest single concentration is in northern Luhansk and has about 100,000 soldiers who are committed to fighting around Lyman and Kremina so are unlikely to be moved elsewhere.  

Russia is simply too short of manpower to be opening a new axis of advance.  Instead, it seems more likely that they currently have a limited objective, getting within artillery range of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.  Probably, this objective is synchronised with the next round of conscripts arriving and with plans for mass mobilisation now the election is over.  

And don’t forget the Dnipro River

On 20 March, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced the creation of a new Dnipro River Flotilla creating a new maritime command specifically responsible for the river.  Very little information is flowing out about Ukraine’s foothold on the east bank near the village of Krynky. Ukrainian forces are believed to still hold the foothold. Ukraine issuing a statement on 17 March reporting that an attack on Krynky by 810th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade had been defeated.  

Sergei Shoigu’s announcement indicates that there are sufficient Russian concerns about the Dnipro’s security that a new command needs to be created. Suggesting that this is still an area to keep a close watch over. 

The Moscow terror attack – False flag? Potential impacts?

A ‘false flag’ attack?

‘False flag’ is a term used to describe an attack or crisis that is engineered to deliver a specific political outcome and the identity of the initiator is hidden.  In this case there is plenty of speculation that the attack on theatre goers at Moscow’s Crocus Town Hall was secretly organised by the Kremlin to achieve a political goal.  For instance, to rally support among the Russian people for mass mobilisation using conscription.

In my opinion, this speculation is unfounded and the chance that this attack was organised by Russia’s security services is almost non-existent.  The key reason this hypothesis is unlikely is because the attack makes the Kremlin look bad.  This attack sent a shock wave through Russian society and even within Putin’s inner circle there will be difficult questions for the siloviki (the ‘strong men’ that run Russia) in charge of the security services.  Awkward questions, about how it could have been allowed to happen, that will need to be answered. Especially, since part of Putin’s appeal is that he is a strong leader able to protect the Russian people and maintain the status quo that allows his inner circle to maintain their lifestyles. 

Secondly, the confused Rosgvardiya (National Guard) response and the professional nature of the ISIS–K footage indicates a level of coordination and professionalism that Russia’s intelligence services do not currently exhibit. The attack does not look like an operation put together in Russia. Additionally, the US paper trail of warnings combines with ISIS-K’s statements to effectively undermine the anti-Ukrainian narrative.  Both factors that contribute to the assessment that this is not a ‘false flag’ attack. 

The impact of this attack may be more significant than we expect

This attack’s impact may prove to be very significant.  In last week’s article (See ‘Putin re-elected, but his armies are still struggling’ dated 25 March 2024) we pointed out that this attack demonstrates Russia’s security and intelligence assets are stretched thin by the war in Ukraine.  The attack demonstrates a vulnerability that is sure to be exploited by others keen to hurt Russia. Further, regardless of their elevated positions the Russian siloviki exist at the discretion of the masses, and they know it.  Putin’s men were young military and intelligence officers when the Soviet Union collapsed and were eye witnesses to popular uprisings and coups, they know the game.  

If the Russian people lose confidence in their regime, then their time in power is likely to end.  Therefore, inside the Kremlin there will be plenty of discussion about how to manage this situation. It is worse than Prigozhin’s coup because all the players in that drama were Russian, so could be managed. The Moscow attack is harder to control because many other Islamic terrorist or anti-Putin groups have both the will and capability to conduct similar attacks. So, if steps are not taken immediately to address Russia’s security and intelligence gaps there are likely to be more attacks.  A tough task when Russia’s security and intelligence focus is Ukraine. And, more attacks will undermine political stability.  A dangerous situation for the siloviki, one that makes sacrificing the leader, or  the war for the greater good a more reasonable option.

Summary 

Russia’s position continues to get worse. Although, Russia’s strategic air campaign is reducing Ukraine’s stocks of air defence missiles and allowing for more use of the Russian air force at the frontline the key metric of success, advances on the ground has not moved in their favour.  Meanwhile, Ukraine is digging in defensive lines and Europe at least is planning to deliver long-term support.  

Russia needs to make ground quickly, but to-date has been unsuccessful. Additionally, Russia’s leaders are distracted by the Moscow terror attack that is likely to be politically significant ramping up pressure on Putin.  And, we know that Ukraine’s campaign against Russia’s oil infra-structure is working because the US has become involved.  Next week’s key issues will be; whether (or not) Ukraine accedes to the US request to stop bombing Russian oil infra-structure and if the Russian air force can help create a break through. In conclusion, pressure is mounting on Putin from all angles while his army struggles to advance but the war is far from over.

 

Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer, a former Officer in NZDF and TDBs Military Blogger – his work is on substack

14 COMMENTS

    • Nick J, I hope you are not suggesting it should not be posted. I think Ben Morgan’s columns are quite valuable in some ways. Because they seem to have a reasonably free comment section and so the frequent inaccuracies get a refuting or two. It’s up to the brain of the reader – there’s the challenge.

      • There’s just no point in reading the actual article, though. It’s like reading any other ASPI nonsense or anti-Chinese racists like Anne-Marie Brady.

  1. You can’t blame “the US” for not sending aid to Ukraine. The major, in fact pretty much the only reason it’s not sent is that the speaker refuses to bring it to the house. Because the speaker is a right wing religious nutcase in thrall to the Maga crowd. But even he now seems to be softening his stance, so I do have hope that aid is on its way. I also think Biden has used what presidential powers he has to send what aid he can. Little though it might be. One problem is that industrial capacity – the capacity produce wall materials at least has been declining for years now. Some countries can barely cope with their own needs in peacetime let alone supply someone at war.

    • Another problem the US has is a significantly degraded Eastern seaport. That Ukrainian captained Dali sure made a mess of the “star and bangles” bridge that Biden has crossed many times by train (in his dotage).

    • Certainly the issues with the USA supplying more military aid has caused the rest of Europe (NATO) to stop relying on them, and that in itself is not a bad thing.

      This is an opinion piece so as always take with a grain of salt, but I do think the narrative that the Republicans (and Trump) are friends of Putin is not true.

      https://thehill.com/opinion/international/4568183-bidens-to-blame-for-the-ukraine-aid-mess-not-trump-and-the-gop/

      And in the mean time freedom of speech remains alive and well in Russia

      https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2024/3/29/russia-mulls-labelling-queen-of-soviet-pop-pugacheva-a-foreign-agent

    • On the contrary, we can blame the US for their treachery toward the people of Ukraine.
      It’s all a matter of priorities.
      The independence of Ukraine is nowhere as important to the US as having a racist settler state in the heart of the oil rich Middle East, with the military ability to enforce US domination of the region.
      The US hardly lifted a finger in 2014 when the Russian Federation seized control of Crimea.
      When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the US closed their embassy in Kiev and fled the country, and on the way out offered the President of Ukraine a seat in one of their departing planes.
      It was only when the Ukrainian people mounted an unexpected and spirited defence of their country, that the US realised that by helping the Ukrainian people to resist the Russian takeover of their country was an opportunity to give their Russian imperialist rival a black eye.
      This US turn around saw the US reopen their embassy in Kiev and give military aid to the Ukrainian government.
      Just as easily the US will turn off this support if they think that their proxy state in the Middle East is in trouble.

      • Hahahah, OK Pat. Funny how you skip over how Victoria Nuland and other bestial American monsters overthrew the Ukrainian government in 2014, necessitating Russia to come to the rescue of the people of Crimea.

        • My brutal racist imperialist occupier is better than your racist imperialist occupier Eh Mohammed?

          …..perceived internationally as the conflict between Russia and Chechnya. This conflict, which escalated into a war, focussed the spotlight on the North Caucasus as the most critical region in the Russian Federation and brought with it reminders of the anti-colonial resistance put up by the Muslim mountain peoples in the 19th century against Russia’s advance into the region, resistance that in some regions had been maintained right through to the Soviet period. During the pre-national era this resistance had been based above all on Islam….

          https://journals.openedition.org/assr/18403?lang=en

          Nearly three decades ago, when post-Soviet Russia launched its first bloody war on Chechnya, Moscow traded its prospects for democracy for renewed, revanchist imperialism. When in 1993 then-President Boris Yeltsin decided to move against his opposition in the Russian parliament, he used the military to crush it. With the help of the military generals who backed him in his assault on the parliament, Yeltsin dismantled Russian parliamentary democracy and rewrote the constitution to secure presidential authoritarianism. He paid back the generals by destroying Chechnya. Yeltsin’s undemocratic move set the precedent for Russia to use violence at home and abroad to strengthen personalized rule.

          Russia lost the first Chechen War of 1994-1996 due to the Russian army’s weakness and the resilience of Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev’s command. Although Russian and international human rights organizations and European Union states condemned Russia’s crimes against humanity, Yeltsin successfully sold the war to the United States as an internal conflict against “banditry.” And in one of its greatest strategic missteps, the United States failed to condemn Yeltsin…..

          …..A few years later, Vladimir Putin, too, used a war in Chechnya to legitimize and strengthen his personal power. In August 1999 Putin used the pretext of Islamic terrorism to launch the Second Russian-Chechen War. He officially labeled it a “counter-terrorist operation,” which he thought would be short, to raise his own popularity, rising from an unknown political appointee as prime minister to the president of Russia.
          Like Yeltsin, Putin’s path to domination within Russia arose thanks to military force. Proving victorious in Chechnya, with huge losses over 10 years, Putin appointed a proxy governor—Akhmad Kadyrov, the father of Ramzan Kadyrov—in Chechnya in 2000 in exchange for loyalty, setting the precedent for Putin’s political formula of regional domination.
          Both Yeltsin and Putin nurtured populist imperial sentiment, a belief that Russia is the victim of external powers that needs to protect itself by conquest.

          https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/03/11/russia-chechnya-democracy-ukraine-putin-kadyrov/

          Mohammed, Want to know what the Russian imperialist invasion of Grozny looked like. It looked just like the Zionist’s invasion of Gaza looks today.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Grozny_(1999%E2%80%932000)#

          …..the siege and assault of the Chechen capital Grozny by Russian forces, lasting from late 1999 to early 2000. This siege and assault of the Chechen capital resulted in the widespread devastation of Grozny. In 2003, the United Nations designated Grozny as the most destroyed city on Earth due to the extensive damage it suffered. The battle had a devastating impact on the civilian population. It is estimated that between 5,000[5] and 8,000[6] civilians were killed during the siege, making it the bloodiest episode of the Second Chechen War.

          . From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, and everything in between, the nature and the crimes of American imperialism are well documented.

          Every imperialism is racist and genocidal, it is the very nature of imperialism.

          Biden calls Putin an imperialist. Putin calls Biden an imperialist. Both deny that the US and Russia are both imperialists

          All imperialists are racist, how else can they justify to themselves ruling over other peoples?

          All imperialists are genocidal, how else can can an imperialist nation put down an insurgent people, who refuse to submit to foreign rule?.
          As one US general once said in Vietnam ‘We had to destroy the village to save it”

          ‘Destroying the village to save it’ is a euphemism for genocide.
          Destroying the village to save it, is what Israel is doing in Gaza. It is what Russia did in Grozny.

          The Grozny model

          After 20 days of heavy artillery shelling of the city center — sometimes at a rate of 4,000 rounds an hour — the Russian military eventually took Grozny on Jan. 20, 2005.
          The heavy bombardment of Grozny “worked” in one sense. The Russians took the city. But Mogulof and other observers believe it may have made the Chechens more resolved to fight back. “It’s mechanized terrorism,” ….

          ……The air assault killed tens of thousands of civilians and left Grozny in ruins. The United Nations called it “the most destroyed city on earth.” …..

          Aleppo —“a kind of hell”

          ….In 2015, Russian forces began an intervention in Syria on Assad’s behalf, using air power to tip the balance in his favor. In Aleppo, the rebel-held territories were completely encircled in mid-2016, leaving 250,000 people under siege and subject to heavy Russian airstrikes. The Russian and Syrian militaries were both accused of war crimes, including deliberately targeting medical facilities, using indiscriminate weapons such as cluster munitions and attempting to starve the city’s population……

          https://www.grid.news/story/global/2022/03/29/terror-destruction-and-chaos-russian-tactics-in-ukraine-have-a-history/

          • Some kind of bullshit equivalence argument, eh Pat?
            Is it too much to hope for that one day you might wake up?
            Putin’s disdain for bolshevism must really piss you off.

          • Pat, you are so naive. “Aleppo a nightmare”?
            There is no evidence of this. None. Except Western experts saying how “bloodthirsty” Putin was to kill the citizens of the country he was helping. you know, the sort of talk that is entirely absent from these experts about Gaza.

            You do not comprehend that this is not the cold war era you grew up in. This is not the Imperialist US v Ismperialist USSR, to whatever degree that was actually true. Since the end of the Cold war we have been in the hegemonic era, where the Anglo-Zionist “rules and orders” forces, led by the US, have been actively warring all over the world unopposed for 20 years. Russia’s moves in Syria and Ukraine are the counterattack that sovereign nations have been crying out for. So they don’t get balkanised, Iraqed, Libyad, Syriad, Ukrained. With the ME simps being a special case where they are finally brave enough to stop funding terror forces for the US bidding.

  2. GS, a year ago I photographed street people asleep outside the stock exchange in Wall St, and again in Times Square. I saw tent cities in Baltimore and Philadelphia.
    On that basis alone the US has absolutely no right to send a single dollar offshore.

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