An important shift in Russia vs. Ukraine war


Editor’s note: Jeffrey Owens is a Jeffersonville native, a 1995 graduate of Miami Trace High School and 2000 graduate of Ohio University. As a lifelong history buff, Owens published “Victory In Europe; A People’s History of the Second World War”, a more than 700-page analysis of World War II in Europe in 2015. Since 2015, Owens has hosted more than a dozen educational symposiums on a variety of military history topics at the Grove City Library. He is a resident of New Holland.

Kherson Oblast in southern Ukraine is an agriculturally rich section of the Pontic Steppe, first documented in detail by the Roman historian Herodotus. Kherson straddles Crimea and is washed by both the Sea of Azov to the southeast as well as the Black Sea to the southwest. Surrounded by water, its principal city of Kherson is a port established on the western edge of the mouth of the Dnieper River where it empties into the Black Sea. Kherson city serves as the western most outpost of the oblast, and is separated from the rest of the region by the Dnieper. As the first of only two major Ukrainian cities to fall to the Russians since the beginning of their full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, the other being Mariupol, it is fitting that Kherson may be on its way to liberation.

General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, has proven himself the world’s first and finest practitioner of the hitherto theoretical military strategy of “corrosion.” Inspired by Liddell Hart’s Indirect Combat strategy, corrosion entails denying the enemy the ability to fight how and where they want. Simultaneously, the enemy’s combat power is “corroded” through attrition, decapitation strikes on command-and-control centers, disruption or destruction of supply lines, and the demoralization of soldiers.

Even while enduring high costs throughout June, Zaluzhnyi has methodically maintained his strategy and has held the apex of the Russian offensive in the Donbas. This was accomplished through a series of impeccably executed tactical withdrawals, while simultaneously building up reinforcements for counter strikes on the flanks of the Russian occupation.

The tactical withdrawal is a highly disciplined and difficult maneuver which involves pulling back while remaining in continuous contact with the Forward Line of Enemy Troops. Sufficient armaments and provisions are required by the defensive force to prevent the strategy from turning into a route. Among the greatest challenges in a tactical withdrawal is avoiding encirclement.

The general strategies of the tactical withdrawal, especially as it applies to corrosion, include straightening out a line of defense, ceding less desirable ground for more defensible positions, and forcing the enemy to attack, depleting their force of considerable manpower and equipment. All of the above were expertly employed by Ukrainian forces in operations in Severodonetsk and Lysychansk on the western edge of Luhansk Oblast.

These successive withdrawals lasted from mid-March through the first days of July, and Ukrainian forces made it back to defensible lines in Donetsk Oblast to the west, with most of their soldiers and equipment.

Meanwhile, the tactical withdrawals cost the Russians not only momentum across the entire Donbas front, but also thousands and soldiers and hundreds of pieces of equipment for a relatively small piece of land.

Although Ukrainian losses increased to unsustainable levels in Luhansk of 700 casualties per day throughput most of June, holding the line and enduring those sacrifices proved essential for the maintenance of corrosion. The arrival of the HIMARS in late June relieved much of the suffering on the front lines by reaching miles behind the front line and pummeling in excess of 200 essential Russian logistics sites. These include, but are not limited to, ammunition depots, command-and-control centers, anti-aircraft batteries and supply routes. Yet another added benefit to the HIMARS is that their success degraded Russian combat power sufficiently that an opportunity for a counter offensive was opened.

The beginnings of that counter offensive is already underway in Kherson. A highly strategic region for Ukraine, Kherson Oblast is home to multiple ports, power plants, industrial cities and hundreds of square miles of fertile agricultural soil. The most valuable of these ports is Kherson at the mouth of the Dnieper, since its waters empty directly into the Black Sea.

Ukraine is under a certain amount of pressure to move forward with this counter offensive for multiple reasons. First, it needs to demonstrate that the billions of dollars of western military aid they have graciously received can reconquer territory, and not just hold defensive lines. The success or failure of this demonstration will likely be instrumental in maintaining the long-term flow of such support.

Second, but no less important, is that it is public knowledge that the Russians are in a rush to hold a sham referendum, as early as September, to formally annex newly occupied Ukrainian lands into the Russian Federation. Such a step could further complicate the counter offensive, as Russia would classify Ukraine’s liberation of its own land as an invasion of Russia.

On May 31, Ukrainian forces established a bridgehead over the Inhulets River, a tributary of the Dnieper, at Davydiv Bird and began pushing southeast. Since that time the Ukrainian general staff has reinforced and stabilized a Forward Edge of Battle Area (FEBA) for the counter offensive.

The establishment of the FEBA is an important part of any offensive as it identifies the area that will be attacked, assesses the geography, and determines the supplies, weaponry and appropriate combined arms units needed for the success of the operation. For the counter offensive in Kherson, the FEBA appears to be contained between two waterways. This stretches from the village of Oleksandrivka on the mouth of the River Buh, which lay south of Mykolaiv city and west of Kherson. It then bends northeast to the village of Osokorivka the western bank of the Dnieper which resides on the northern tip of Kherson Oblast.

The liberation of Kherson is likely the first objective for the Ukrainians as it is not only an important city, but also is the most vulnerable to attack with its exposed location west of the Dnieper. Garrisoned there is the Russian 49th Combined Arms Army, made up of 10 Battalion Tactical Groups of various constitutions ranging anywhere from infantry, armor to artillery. On paper this is a powerful force likely made up of roughly 10,000 troops. Their combat power, however, is questionable, as it has made few gains since seizing Kherson on March 2, and has been beaten back multiple times in its attempted advances on Mykolaiv.

Three major bridges span waterways and connect Kherson city with Kherson Oblast to the east. These include the Antonovksy Bridge over the Dnieper which leads directly into southern Kherson, a nearby railway bridge as well as the P-47 Highway bridge crossing the Inhulets River just north of the city. Isolating the 49th CAA and cutting off its 10,000 troops from the defense of Kherson Oblast is essential to the Ukrainian battle plan. By late July HIMARS rocket strikes made each of these bridges impassable and the Russians were forced to construct a pontoon bridge under the Antonovsky as well as utilize ferries to cross the Dnieper. Using human shield tactics, civilians ride the ferry along with Russian military personnel and vehicles to deter Ukrainian attacks.

Russia is clearly taking this counter offensive seriously as multiple battalion tactical groups (BTGs) stationed in the Donbas are being shifted southwest into Zaphorisia and Kherson to true up defenses. As a result this has also further depleted Russian combat power in eastern Ukraine and hindered Russian offensive action in Donetsk.

This redeployment of Russian troops signifies an important shift in the tactical initiative of the war. Up until this point, especially with Putin being the aggressor, Russia has enjoyed the convenience of choosing when and where to fight. Thus, Russia has held, however unsuccessfully, the tactical initiative. Russia redeploying forces in response to a Ukrainian offensive is something entirely different. This could serve as an indicator that the initiative is beginning to shift to Ukraine with Russia transforming over to a defensive posture to hold on to its conquests.

Fighting right alongside the Ukrainian Armed Forces in Russian occupied regions is their shadow army of partisans. These groups perform a wide range of clandestine activities including, but not limited to, reporting on Russian troops movements, blowing up supply lines and assassinating Ukrainian collaborators working with the Russians. This is dangerous work. The partisans are ruthlessly hunted by Russian forces who employ brutal tactics ranging anywhere from kidnapping, torture and murder to intimidate resistance fighters.

In occupied Zaphorisia Oblast, partisans have relentlessly attacked Russian supply lines, and in early August destroyed an intersection of the T0811and M18 highways along with a major rail line in Melitopol. This significantly interdicted the flow of supplies west toward the Ukrainian counter offensive. Meanwhile, Kherson partisans are headquartered in Mykolaiv, which lies due west of Kherson city, and in Ukrainian held territory. Surrounded every August by seemingly endless fields of blooming sunflowers, the view from Mykolaiv of infinite yellow set against a crystal clear blue sky, was the inspiration for the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag.

Roadside billboard signs bear slogans such as “Partisans see all in Kherson,” intended to intimidate Russians and potential Ukrainian collaborators alike.

Building a database of collaborators and tracking Russian administrators is tedious but is an essential task in identifying who is friendly and who is an enemy in advance of the counter offensive. Partisans hang threatening signs on collaborators and Russians’ homes, some with illustrations of the person’s face in a coffin. Multiple collaborators and Russian administrators have been assassinated ahead of the counter offensive. Some were killed in car bombings, while others were shot. Most recently, the Russian installed mayor of Kherson City, Vladimir Saldo, was poisoned on Aug. 3 and evacuated to a Russian hospital in a medically induced coma.

Partisans are civilians, not military, and are responsible for their own fundraising and procurement of weapons. Many groups have successfully collected online donations and now possess an eclectic blend of rifles, helmets, kevlar vests and possibly most important, hobbyist drones reconstituted for military surveillance. Among the most essential roles the partisans have played is in scouting Russian targets. These include ammunition warehouses, logistics sites and command-and-control centers, and passing that information to the Ukrainian military who then destroy them with artillery fire and rockets.

HIMARS continue to rule the night with punishing strikes on Russian logistics sites further degrading their offensive or defensive capabilities. In the early days of August in Kherson Oblast, a Russian ammunition warehouse in Skadovsk was destroyed. Additionally, two Russian command-and-control centers in Oleksandrivka and Blahodatne were knocked out, and an electronic warfare hub in Bilyaivka was demolished.

Even being in transit didn’t shield Russians from the HIMARS. On July 31, a Russian train bound for Kherson from the Donbas filled with redeploying troops and equipment was struck by a HIMARS rocket. Eighty Russian soldiers were killed with another 200 wounded, while the ammunition on board exploded, projecting what one observer described as “supernova” level radiance. A smartphone video uploaded to Twitter could barely process the glow.

Although highly significant, all the HIMARS strikes to date pale in comparison to a powerful strike the Ukrainians delivered to Russia’s Saki Air base in occupied Crimea on Aug. 9. Carried out in broad daylight in full view of hundreds of beach bathing Russian vacationers, explosions rocked the airfield leaving 60 servicemen dead, 100 wounded and massive destruction in its wake. Multiple ammunition warehouses and fuel storage tanks went up in smoke, huge holes were ripped into the tarmac, along with upwards of 20 multi-million dollar fighter aircraft either destroyed or damaged. Final assessments could show that Aug. 9 was financially speaking the costliest single day loss in Russian Air Force history.

Guessing how the Ukrainians pulled it off has become a serious subject of debate among military analysts, journalists and hobbyists alike. Crimea lies more than 100 miles from the nearest Ukrainian held territory and the air defenses of the Saki Airbase were celebrated by the Russian military as impenetrable. The Russians, by standard practice, lied and released a series of haphazard statements concluding that equipment failures had caused the explosions. Behind closed doors they certainly know it was a Ukrainian attack, but admitting it publicly would significantly undermine the image of their own security and air defense capabilities.

HIMARS rockets currently used in Ukraine only have a maximum range of 45 miles. Plus, the Ukrainians almost exclusively only employ them at night and not in broad daylight where they are more vulnerable to detection. Some have speculated that the attack was carried out by Ukrainian special forces in conjunction with partisan units. This would certainly send Putin into a rampage to realize that a team of Ukrainian commandos could penetrate occupied Crimea undetected and wipe out an airbase. A special forces raid, however, is inconsistent with the deep craters left in the airfield likely caused by 400- to 500-pound warheads.

A missile strike would support the uptick of Ukrainian attacks on Russian radar sites, which certainly would have degraded the ability of Saki air defenses to detect incoming projectiles. Although never publicly announced as part of U.S. aid packages to Ukraine, U.S. AGM-88 aerial launched anti-radar missiles have relentlessly picked off Russian radar sites throughout early August. This is known because embedded Russian bloggers have posted pictures on line of shrapnel recovered from destroyed radar stations that contain serial numbers of AGM-88 missiles.

When affixed to a U.S Air Force F-16 Falcon, the AMG-88 and the pilot can “talk.” The missile’s advanced components search for radar outputting targets and the pilot decides if it’s a threat and launches the missile if warranted. In modern warfare, radar sites are typically switched on and off to prevent their detection. Believing that Ukraine did not possess the advanced weaponry to target them, Russia never followed this protocol, which has proven suicidal to its air defense system.

The AMG-88 is not able to interface with a Ukrainian MIG, so the missiles are likely programmed at Ukrainian air bases by using their “pre-briefed” mode. Since Russia revealed the locations of their radar stations by continuously leaving them active, the coordinates are programmed into the GPS systems of the missiles before the MIG takes off. Once launched, the AMG-88 locks onto the target, and since the coordinates are “pre-briefed” even if the radar station is shut off, it will still be destroyed.

In the end the weapon used on the Saki Airfield is not nearly as important as the morale boost that the attack gave to Ukraine and despair it caused Russia. Few corrosion tactics could better undermine the morale of thousands of Russian soldiers redeployed to Kherson than to destroy the very airfield that was intended to provide them with air cover during the Ukrainian counter offensive.

Due to massive social media controls, Russian civilians had experienced few realities of war, but now thousands of panicked Russians are on their way back home from Crimea having witnessed firsthand the massive Ukrainian strike. Ukrainian civilians by contrast poured out sheer elation across multiple social media platforms and experienced a joy they had not felt in a long time. Now Russian civilians are getting a taste of what Ukrainians have dealt with around the clock since February.

Missile strikes and counter offensives, however, do nothing to curb egregious human rights violations against Ukrainians on a daily basis in Russian occupied lands. One only needs to look at the town of Bucha, Kyiv Oblast to have some idea of what Ukrainian forces will soon find as the counter offensive de-occupies towns in southern Ukraine. Only occupied for a few weeks in March at the beginning of the war, hundreds of murdered bodies were found in Bucha, many with their hands bound, and dumped in a mass grave. With southern Ukraine living under the Russian heel for nearly six months, thousands of murders, tens of thousands rapes and appalling levels of theft and destruction will be be uncovered.

In late July a grotesque cell phone video was leaked online of a Ukrainian POW bound with ropes being castrated by a Russian mercenary using an exacto knife. Over the proceeding days multiple pictures surfaced online of decapitated Ukrainian prisoners, with their heads skewered on stakes; a hideous throwback to the 15th century and the tactics of Vlad the Impaler.

On July 29, a wing of a Russian prison in occupied Donetsk Oblast in the town of Olenivka exploded, killing at least 53 Ukrainian prisoners and wounding scores more. All of the victims were captured in the Azovstal fortress in Mariupol, and taken into Russian custody in mid May. Ukraine immediately blamed Russia for this mass-murder and atrocious violation of international prisoner-of-war laws and demanded condemnation of Russia by the global community.

Russia naturally placed the onus on Ukraine by citing “intelligence” that a HIMARS rocket destroyed the prison wing to prevent the Ukrainian prisoners from revealing “secrets” to their interrogators. Only a half a brain is required to debunk this myth. One simply needs to reason that even if such secrets existed, Ukraine would have let the soldiers all die in Azovstal. Instead, the Ukrainian government brokered a multi-national agreement to coordinate their surrender and have continuously advocated for United Nations and International Red Cross inspections of Russian prisons to ensure their safety.

Satellite imagery has since confirmed that an internal explosion, not a rocket, caused the detonation. Additionally, a review using Maxar Technology has revealed that mass graves were not only dug in the prison yard a week in advance of the tragedy, but also were filled in days afterwards. Ukrainian Intelligence has released substantial evidence through signal intercepts that it was the Russian Wagner mercenary group who moved the prisoners into this specific wing just days in advance of the explosion, and then set off incendiary bombs which burned many of the victims alive.

This action constitutes a double war crime. The Russians murdered these prisoners, an illegal act in its own right, to cover up their brutal abuse of these inmates. Signal intercepts and other intelligence sources indicate that these men were beaten, tortured, hooked up to electrical devices and some were already dead, all of which is also illegal.

Even in the face of such tragedies, the single worst blow dealt to the morale of Ukraine throughout late July and early August came from the unlikely source of Amnesty International. As a global organization committed to the safety of civilians during war, AI has, since the beginning of the invasion, repeatedly condemned Russia’s aggression. It has proliferated reports on Russia’s use of banned weapons and correctly assessed that if Ukrainian defenses were to fail that it would result in the most egregious consequences for civilians in the wake of Russian occupation.

To the shock of Ukrainians everywhere, AI released a report on Aug. 4, accusing the Ukrainian military of endangering Ukrainian civilians, simply by defending their cities from Russian attacks. The report took an additional stab at Ukraine by stating that “being in a defensive position does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international humanitarian law.”

Either ignoring or being ignorant of military tactics, AI charged the Ukrainian military with “provoking” Russian attacks on Ukrainian civilians by setting up defenses within cities. AI instead suggested that Ukrainian troops should have occupied nearby forests. From there they could “shoot from the woods,” and not draw Russian return fire into cities which endangers civilians. Additionally AI cited incidents in which Ukrainian soldiers transformed abandoned school buildings in besieged cities into defensive fortresses and accused them of firing from positions near hospitals.

Such irresponsible analyses ignore the fact that leveling cities and killing civilians en masse is an established Russian strategy intentionally used across multiple wars to demoralize populations. If the Ukrainian military had set up in a forest, the Russians would have either bypassed them or obliterated the woods with massive artillery and aerial strikes. Either way the Russians still would have destroyed the city, but the civilians would have been left defenseless.

By citing Ukrainian defenses set up in abandoned school buildings or around hospitals, AI handed Russia the justification on a silver platter for its continued and intensified attacks on schools and hospitals throughout Ukraine. Ukrainian Intelligence has already intercepted Russian military communications which cite the AI report and encourage further attacks on schools and hospitals by asking commanders to simply rationalize “who is inside?”

Ukrainian civilians almost universally realize that the only reason they are alive is because of the military defending their cities. By accusing the Ukrainian military of endangering civilians, AI has single-handily placed Ukrainian civilians in even more peril. Its report not only alleviated Russia of responsibility for thousands of civilian deaths, but also shifted blame of the continued war from the aggressor to the victim. Russia requires no provocation to attack civilians, but its journalists and government officials have jumped on the AI report like a dog on a bone and have hailed its findings as justification for its tactics.
Tactical withdrawals cost Russians momentum across Donbas front

By Jeffrey Owens

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