Britain, 12th September 2022
The Pro-Russian online commentariat has been appalled by the retreat from north-eastern Kharkov in the face of the Ukrainian counter-offensive.
But they may take comfort that Special Military Operation (SMO) has begun to live up to President Vladimir Putin’s paraphrasing of the ‘classic’ Bachman Turner Overdrive (BTO) song ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’.
Never mind that the Russian Ministry of Defence has not yet claimed responsibility for whatever happened to power stations in the eastern half of the Ukraine on the night of Sunday September 11 — a date which helps Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claim to his US audience that the Kremlin is run by “terrorists”.
“The gloves are finally off!”, some will rejoice. It’s a bad metaphor: if you box without gloves then you end up breaking your hands on your opponent’s skull. Aircraft and cruise missiles can’t take and hold territory. Even if you wipe out the enemy, troops on the ground must finish the job.
Bloggers and YouTubers like Andrei Martyanov, Larry Johnson and Brian Berletic have argued cogently that the Russian-led forces made a tactical retreat from the north-east of Kharkov oblast as part of a ploy to inflict several thousand more casualties on the Ukrainians and their foreign mercenaries.
Whether or not that is true, others such as Dima of Military Summary and Alex Mercouris of The Duran say the manoeuvre will prompt a crisis of confidence among the Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population, who previously saw the Russian forces as their protectors and saviours from the Nazis. If those people don’t support the military intervention, what is the point of it?
It has also raised questions over the strategy of using the smallest number of regular army troops in direct combat, rather than in artillery and air support roles. Mercouris points out that the slow pace of the SMO has allowed the Ukraine to regain the initiative, and asks how Russia could spare 50,000 men for joint military exercises with China in the far east. There is a clamour among the ‘armchair generals’ of Telegram for the big Russian tank divisions to roll over the border and put things to rights.
That might even be one of the Putin government’s aims: the Kremlin made sure it had overwhelming public support for the SMO before acting, and it may be seeking another such mandate before risking thousands of casualties on a blitzkrieg offensive from Kharkov to Zaporozhye that would settle the issue.
The Ukrainian counter-offensives in Kherson and Kharkov over the past three weeks have discredited the daily MoD reports of progress in “demilitarisation and de-Nazification” — in other words casualties and material losses inflicted on Kiev’s forces.
The hundreds of Western-supplied M113 armoured personnel carriers, armoured Humvees and MRAPs, which had hardly been seen on the Donbass front, finally hove into view in Kherson and neighbouring Nikolaev.
As predicted, these aluminium spam cans and bullet-proof trucks didn’t fare very well against modern anti-tank weapons, and there are pictures and videos of them blown apart, burnt out and half-melted. The Russians claimed to have destroyed around 500 of them. Even if that number is exaggerated two-fold, the losses are significant.
But the MoD had already claimed the destruction of tanks, big guns and planes that the Ukraine had at the start of the conflict and has received from the West since — even when the most dubious reports of covert aid are taken into account.
The fledgling air forces of the First World War had stringent criteria for confirming their ace pilots’ aerial victories. To be credited with shooting down an enemy aircraft, the act had to be witnessed by others or the wreckage recovered. Manfred von Richtofen, the famous ‘Red Baron’, had a room full of trophies taken from the planes he downed, including scraps of fabric with aircraft numbers on, a machine-gun and even a rotary engine block converted into a ceiling lamp.
But in the Second World War those rules were relaxed, and as a result it became normal for fighter squadrons to claim to have downed two or three times as many enemy aircraft as they actually did. This wasn’t just a case of propaganda or personal aggrandisement — often two or three pilots would be shooting at the same plane when it went down, or they would assume a damaged aircraft trailing smoke was a goner without seeing it crash.
So over-claiming is normal in warfare. But the big problem is that, with the snail’s pace of territorial gains, the daily clobber list was the only indicator of Russian progress. And when the Russians start to give ground in their war of attrition, the crisis of confidence sets in.
Close observers of the SMO are left second-guessing how far the MoD claims are exaggerated. Is it by 50 per cent? 100 per cent? The best one can do is draw graphs of the daily figures and see if the curve is levelling off. It was for tanks and planes before the Kherson counter-offensive. then the graphs ticked up sharply. It remains to be seen how much armour Kiev can muster for the anticipated Ugledar offensive in Donetsk, and how many tanks and infantry fighting vehicles will end up as scrap metal — in real life as well as on paper.
The same goes for casualty figures. The MoD claims to have killed almost 87,000 Ukrainian troops and foreign mercenaries in six-and-a-half months (I added all their reports up in a spreadsheet). Assuming twice that many wounded, the Ukrainian army should be on its knees and the generals ready to arrest Zelensky and start peace talks. Those ‘leaked documents’ talking about 200,000 dead are also not credible.
But it is becoming clear that since early in the conflict, Kiev has been manning the trenches in Donbass with those wretched Territorial Defence conscripts, middle-aged men (and now women) with no proper training, uniforms or weapons. They’ve been doing the bleeding while the professional troops were held in reserve.
The USA had no idea how to fight its war in Vietnam, so it resorted to counting the bodies of the Vietnamese dead. Those counts became inflated with the corpses of innocents as the huge US armed forces failed to control territory. Russia has clearly tried to avoid getting large forces bogged down in the Ukraine or drafting young men into the army, but it must avoid the trap of substituting body-counts for real progress.
The original aims of the SMO were very straightforward: to pre-empt a major Ukrainian offensive against the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics, and to stop the Ukraine joining NATO. “Demilitarisation and De-Nazification” are just code-words for those goals. The first was an existential question for the DPR and LPR, the second was a matter of life or death for Russia. Both threats remain, and both justify maximum use of force.
In Russia’s defence, one should always keep something in reserve. That can mean military forces and supplies, or it can be some way to escalate the hostilities — to deter the other fellow from escalating. Turning the lights out in the eastern Ukraine is an escalation. Doing the same west of the Dnieper is a card Russia still holds in its hand, along with others.
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