August in Ukraine
Independence Day Fireworks
“The Ukrainian armed forces treated the Russians to a magical evening.” Wrote Seriy Khlan, a member of the disbanded regional council of Kherson last week on Facebook. To hear Kyiv and Western intelligence source murmur, they’ve been planning the show for months. And why not? Fireworks for the 24 August Independence Day.
This time of year, Ukraine is normally pretty pleasant; it’s nothing a guy from Memphis, Tennessee would call hot, but it’s warm and more humid than you’d expect. That and it’s rolling, featureless landscape explains the sense of urgency that the country formerly known as world’s breadbasket has to take-back what territory they can before the land gets too soggy. That may not sound like the sort of thing to put a halt to a Great Resistance that has rallied the free world, but such is the nature of war. And why the chatter all summer has been about a lively August in Ukraine.
Normally, I’m pretty cynical about pre-announcing military plans for the simple reason that one of the first things humans learn to do with language is to lie. If you are planning a game-changing counter-offensive, you’d be a fool to announce the when and where. Not that Kyiv actually ”announced” anything, but by July Ukrainian troops were using US kit to destroy bridges to the southern city of Kherson, and it’s local airbase has been blown up nearly two dozen times. In summation, a British intelligence report on 28 July read: “Ukraine’s counter-offensive in Kherson is gaining momentum.”
In response, Russia has been moving forces from its not very successful advance in the eastern Donbas to fortify the city, which it sees as crucial to its land bridge to Crimea. Rochan Consulting, a firm that tracks the war, reckons that 13 Russian battalion tactical groups (BTG) in the area have been topped up to 25 or 30. Which, of course, has since left holes in the front around the Donbas.
On 8 August, the US announced its largest shipment of weapons yet, including those brutally effective HIMARs. With momentum rolling, though the Ukrainians weren’t waiting on the mail. The next day Ukraine launched a spectacular raid on Russia’s Saky airbase on the southwest of occupied Crimea – far out of the range of any known Ukrainian weapons. Just how they did it is a mystery, but what they did is clear: According to Western estimates wiped out half of the Black Sea’s aviation. Strikes hit near the bridge to Russia on the other side of the peninsula as well as even two villages inside Russia that were serving as ammunition depots – which is some 60 miles away from anywhere Ukraine actually controls.
By 13 August, Ukrainian forces had destroyed a bridge over Nova Khahovha dam, followed by more strikes in Crimea on depots and electrical substations. Last night, strikes hit another bridge near Kherson, further isolating the city from Russian supply routes. Over in the Donbas, after a Russian Journo called Sergi Sredka posted pictures of Wagner Group mercenaries at their headquarters in Lubansk – showing a street sign – strike were able to destroy that as well. Three days later, the mysterious strikes inside occupied Crimea continued, destroying ammunition dumps and a electrical substation some 124 miles from the front lines.
Still, it may yet be just a little too early to break out pertsivka for an endless round of toasts. The counter-offensive in Kherson faces some fierce odds, despite a Ukrainian general boasting that Kherson will be liberated by the end of the year. For one thing, attacking cities is always a low percentage thing to do – you need about treble the manpower and ammunition to take a city than to hold it. What’s more, while the Ukrainians are loath to destroy the city and it’s trapped citizenry, Russian forces have no such qualms. Ukraine has a deep pool of recruits, but they haven’t been trained and its professional army is a defensive one. By their own admission, they’ve never been trained in offensive tactics.
Compounding this is that since taking the city in early March, Russian troops have fortified the city and dug trenches, and the artillery is trained on the likely Ukrainian approaches. While the whole “massive offensive is coming” business is a great phycological trick, and is possibly a comfort to the population still in the city (about half of the quarter million who lived there before the war), Ukraine is simply not prepared for a full-frontal assault. That it may be a feint to draw holes in the Russian lines near the Donbas is possible. Whether intended or not, that is what has happened.
The victories this month are more emotional than tactical, Wednesday is Ukrainian Independence Day. The Russians, however, are not a spent force. Over the weekend they pounded Nikpol, a city near Zaporizhia – the site of that occupied nuclear power plant the Russians won’t demilitarize – and Odessa – the port at the center of the grain shipment negotiations. Even Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky warned that Russia “may try something particularly ugly” ahead of the Independence Day celebrations.
Typical of a war planned by spooks, Russia is also planning to muddy the political waters in Kherson by holding a ‘referendum’ a la Crimea that will almost certainly result in an overwhelming vote for the Russians to stay in the city. Which shows the flaw in Russian thinking: that if they can simply put the official stamp on a situation, that it must be real. Something that might work on a Russian population trained to it for better than a century (save one chaotic nine year stretch), but not a country that has celebrated in Independence Day for 31 years.
To take back Kherson without massive losses that it can’t afford, Ukraine is better off with a siege. It’s not glamorous, and will make for a long winter “below the rapids” but it just might give Ukraine the advantage in a fight where it has been consistently on its heels.
Major General Roman Kovalyov, in the reclaimed north-eastern region of the Kherson province said: “We want to surround them and force them to withdraw. We want to wring them out.”