Roll Tide Roll
The Tide Changes in Ukraine
The press in Russia isn’t exactly free, but by Friday night even the state-run outlets were discussing that something had gone terribly wrong with the “Special Military Operation.” Moscow had rebalanced its troops ahead of the expected Ukrainian counter-offensive in Kherson, in the south of the country along the coast, only to face a massive attack from Ukraine on 6 September in the Kharkiv region that also swept up the city of Izyum – a crucial rail hub - in its blitz. The attack netted some 3,000 sq km (better than 1,800 sq miles) in 11 days.
Members of one local council near St. Petersburg called for President Putin’s resignation. The council was dissolved and its uppity members fined. Nearer to the center of power in Moscow, the response has been more politic. While pundits are calling to horsewhip whomever thought the ill-advised adventure up in the first place, it is tactfully assumed that this was not Vladimir Putin. A former deputy of the Duma (parliament), Boris Nadezhdin, said on television as the Ukrainian surge was shaping up to be a Russian disaster, “People who convinced President Putin that our special operation would be effective and brief, that we wouldn’t strike the civilian population, that we’d come and restore order, these people basically set us up.”
Since nothing really comes out of Russian media that Putin doesn’t like, this is an interesting development. In the Russian blogsphere, the generals are still mostly to blame, but they are less deferential, and the president is catching some flak. Igor Girkin – an ultra-nationalist who led the 2014 offensive in the Donbas told his nearly half a million followers on Telegraph: “We have already lost, the rest is just a matter of time. Across the border, Putin’s Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, articulated a Russian exit when he said, “They will call it a ‘goodwill gesture.’ We’ll call it victory.”
Despite the Kharkiv counter offensive taking the world by surprise, the well-publicized operation to the south in Kherson was hardly a mere a feint – just a different, practical approach to urban warfare. The softening up of the Russian position in the south caused a re-deployment of troops, leaving the Kharkiv region exposed. Was this the plan all along? It’s hard to tell in these open-intelligence, social media driven wars. There is always a quirk among pathological liars that they seem to believe that they are the only ones who lie constantly. Perhaps he was just outsmarted. However it happened, the thinly maintained Russian line, in the wide open spaces, were steamrolled and, facing encirclement, fled. The Ukrainian counter-offense retook more territory that the Russian gains since April. Included in the take was the city of Izyum – a crucial logistics and rail hub for the Russian war effort. Considering that the Russian Military has the tactical flexibility of Amtrak, this this will make even the Kremlin’s (famously reduced) war aims of taking the entire Donbas out of reach.
The advance slowed as Ukrainian troops paused to consolidate gains that had outpaced their commanders in some places, as well as to root out remaining pockets of Russian troops and local collaborators. If the SBU, Ukrainian intelligence, is to be believed, the fleeing troops are leaving behind warehouses of military kit at precisely the time that Russia is being forced to buy arms from North Korea of all places.
The tide of war is one of those crucial factors in conflict that infuriates military planners because it simply refuses to square with the spreadsheet. Most military academies, not just Russian ones, are in essence engineering schools. Which is what they ought to be, but the fact remains that something as nebulas as “tide” doesn’t enter into it unless you are building a levy. That belief that the momentum of a fight has turned in your favor will often take a force further than mere kit or neatly stacked body counts. In both metrics, the United States beat out the North Vietnamese by orders of magnitude for a solid decade, and yet still lost the war.
So as autumn descends on Ukraine with some spectacular gains under its belt, and renewed military aid by its Western allies, it is still too early to say that the levy has definitely broken. The tide, though, seems to have turned. As for the lively few weeks in the Borderlands, Ukraine appears to have captured the momentum that Russia lost in the early spring when Blitzkrieg: Kyiv didn’t pan out.
To the south Kherson is facing a siege rather than a frontal assault – and that’s the right move. Russian troops have dug in, but they are growing isolated. This is likely disheartening news for the citizens of Kherson, but it isn’t great for the Russians either. Paris, France notwithstanding, holding a city that doesn’t want to be held is extremely difficult. If the locals know that you are trapped, and the tide is turning in their direction, it’ s even worse.
According to German Chancellor Olaf Schultz – who spoke with Putin for about 90 minutes this week – the Russian president doesn’t grasp the what the fuss is all about. His plans for a Stalin-era theme park in Moscow are coming along. The family fun, he insists, will feature the world’s largest Ferris wheel. Bloggers point out that the ride is so large that, now that the front has moved so far east, you can see it from the top.
The smart move would be for the Russian lines to withdraw to the far side of the Dnieper river and use that as their frontier. Putin, though, appears to be in this for the PR, so the Russian army has yet to make the militarily smart move. And Ukraine, for the first time since the war started seven months ago, has time on its side.