What does Russia’s withdrawal from around Kyiv mean?

What does Russia’s withdrawal from around Kyiv mean?

What does Russia’s withdrawal from around Kyiv mean?

by Philip INGRAM MBE

Russia’s withdrawal of forces attacking into Kyiv from the North is a hugely significant step and change to its main effort in Ukraine. It makes no military sense to withdraw completely unless the force is completely unsustainable and there are wider concerns around continued access to lines of communication through and via Belarus. If these were sustainable then you would leave a force to fix further elements of the Ukrainian defenders splitting and thereby weakening their combat power.

However, withdrawing they are, and it is clear this is a defeated army withdrawing to reconstitute before being sent to the newly stated main effort concentrating military operations in the Donbas Region.  Russian losses are clearly unsustainable both in equipment and manpower terms across their whole front.

The pictures of allegedly massacred civilians and stories of abuse, not by the first Russian occupiers but by those who relieved them in place, as they withdrew suggests an ill disciplined and very poorly led military force. No amount of reconstitution will change that culture and these units will be a liability on any new front, just adding to the Russian cannon fodder.

It is important to call these alleged atrocities until they are investigated, and a call is made by a recognised independent international body. There are claims and counter claims on both sides and whilst it seems clear which are right and which are made up, a formal process should be the decider. What is in no doubt is Russia carried out an illegal invasion of a sovereign country and its forces have been involved in some horrific war crimes. That does not need alleged in the sentence.

As more alleged atrocities are uncovered, and they will be in all areas of Russian occupation, the pressure on the International Community to do more will grow.  The uninitiated will be calling for NATO to intervene directly on the ground and in the air and the immediate moral gut feeling is that is what should happen.

However, those of us who know about warfare, rightly raise the concern that for the 10’s of thousands killed in Ukraine, and millions displaced, if the war spills outside Ukraine’s borders, that death toll would very quickly rise to 100’s of thousands with 10’s of millions displaced if not more.

The pressures on our political leaders at this moment in time could not be greater and it is not a time for armchair commentators to criticise and shame on anyone who tries to score cheap political points when the country needs to pull together. The danger is very real, and a country’s leaders first priority, is to protect its own people.  Putin is a long-term threat to all the people of Europe but the most important factor in dealing with him is multinational and international unity of effort; we must work collectively of any activity is to work at all and to do that effectively we need to accept different countries have differing challenges.

The world order has changed for generations to come. If Putin had just occupied the disputed areas of the Donbas region and sued for a negotiated settlement, he may well have got it. However, with the ever-rising civilian death toll, the increasing alleged atrocities, and the clear war crimes then the only solution is for Putin to lose and be ejected from the whole of Ukraine. From Putin’s perspective he must win and will want something to trumpet on his national day on 9th May at the traditional annual Red Square parade. What a target if the Ukrainian’s had long range missiles!

The battle at the moment, is one of attrition and logistics. Can the Russians keep their aircraft flying, missiles launching and artillery bombarding? Can the Ukrainians keep fighting, do they have enough stocks, or can they be resupplied quickly enough?  Russia will have to rely on its own stocks and the West is acting as Ukraine’s 3rd line logistic chain with ever increasing moves to provide smart munitions, better anti-aircraft systems, armoured vehicles, artillery including loitering munitions.

It is only a matter of time before that turns into armoured fighting vehicles and aircraft, however, there are complexities. It’s not just operating them but fighting them, fixing them, resupplying them all takes resources and training. You can’t give an army or air force kit it hasn’t trained extensively with and expect it to be able to fight it. However, when it comes to tanks and other Armoured Fighting Vehicles, the weather is still not right for formation level manoeuvre, the ground is too soft for manoeuvre operations. Fields are very muddy; roads are easily blocked, and heavier armour needs to be fought as a formation for best effect. There is still time before the ground in many places will be ready as the Russians have found to their cost and Ukrainian farmers delight as their tractors tow away the abandoned detritus.

Putin’s forces have one attempt to try and wrestle any initiative back and if they fail then it is decision time around the Ukrainian’s going on a proper offensive to attack to push Russian forces out of Ukraine. Whether they can generate sufficient concentrated combat power to do that is not clear, and what is also not clear is what additional support they may need I the form of weapons, fighting vehicles and aircraft and if they can still man and operate them.

If that point comes, then Putin is backed further into a corner and there will come a period where the potential threat from tactical nuclear weapons will raise its ugly head, Putin cannot lose, from his perspective, however from the Ukrainian perspective Putin cannot win. The horns of the political dilemma have no easy or see able path for reconciliation short of a palace coup in Moscow, of which there seems little appetite at the moment. The only fact is that the people of Ukraine will continue to suffer in the most horrific way for the foreseeable future.

Philip INGRAM MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence and NATO Planner and is available for comment.

 

Russia’s refocus – what does it mean?

Russia’s refocus – what does it mean?

Russia’s refocus – what does it mean?

“Our forces and resources will focus on the primary objective: full liberation of the Donbas,” said Sergei Rudskoy, head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Operational Department a matter of hours ago. So, what does this mean for the state of Russia’s invasion and their dispositions on the ground? Will we see a withdrawal of troops who have been trying to encircle Kyiv? Philip Ingram MBE a former British Military Intelligence Colonel and NATO planner gives his thoughts.

On the surface this is a significant statement by the Russia General Staff for a number of reasons. It is a possible indicator that Russia has realised it can no longer try to take Ukraine or even the capital Kyiv, and that Russia’s initial operations have effectively been defeated. President Volodymyr Zelensky says Ukraine has inflicted “powerful blows” and “significant losses” on the Russians.

There is no doubt that the Ukrainian defenders, enhanced by Western weapons and poor Russian logistics, command and control and morale, have stopped and in military terms, fixed the Russian invaders. (To fix an adversary is to deny them of their goals, distract them and thus deprive them of their freedom of action. UK Army Doctrine Publication Land Operations).

However, does “Our forces and resources will focus on the primary objective: full liberation of the Donbas,” mean that we will see Russian troops withdrawing from around Kyiv or stopping their relentless destruction of Mariupol and then move on the Donbas region? The simple one-word answer is no. Russia will keep its forces where it can provide maximum pressure from a defensive and attritional perspective thus continuing to pressure the civilian populations of Ukrainian Cities, keeping Ukrainian defenders occupied and there by not letting them regroup to support any effort to stop the new Russian focus.

What it does mean is that Russian logistic support, the deployment of additional combat formations, air support and airmobile support will be primarily focused on their operations to take the wider provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, making up a greater Donbas region.

Rudskoy said the “first stage” of the “special military operation” is complete, which is an indicator that the Russians are rearranging the phases of their overall plan and switching their main effort, but this does not stop them potentially switching it again at some point in the future in another ‘phase.’ I described what Russia’s Main, secondary and tertiary efforts were in my previous blog looking at one month in, here: https://greyharemedia.com/ukraine-a-month-in/

However, the underlying message, especially if actions on the ground suggest this new main effort is progressing, is that the original objectives behind the invasion have failed and Russia is trying to set the conditions to get what it can before going for a negotiated settlement. An attempt at face saving. However, watching what is happening on the ground it is clear the Russian invasion is in trouble. It is just difficult to assess how much capability remains with the Ukrainian defenders, but I suspect a lot.

The claim could also be a bluff. маскировка (maskirovka) or masking, is at the heart of all that Russia does and, in this case, it could be to buy time and distract whilst Russia reinforces and regroups or in an attempt to get the Ukrainian defenders to move some of their defensive effort away from Kyiv. Putin and his leaders are past masters at keeping everyone second guessing what his real intentions are.

This new phase could go on for weeks, months or even years with Russia keeping up its attrition of Ukrainian built up areas trying to break the will of the people and thereby politicians.  However, there are increasing number so f reports of successful Ukrainian counterattacks slowly pushing the Russians back. It is difficult to access if Ukraine can generate sufficient manoeuvre combat power to launch a major counterattack but I suspect they will have something up their sleeves when the time and conditions are right.

If Putin achieves his new objective he will likely push for a diplomatic settlement, however given the destruction rained down on Ukraine and the slaughter of Ukrainian civilians I don’t think President Zelensky could settle for Russia retaining 1 Sq M of Ukrainian territory, nor could the international community.

Should the Russians fail in their new objective and get fixed or forced to retreat then Putin will be in a more difficult position and would have to consider more drastic actions to wrestle the initiative back. I don’t believe this would involve chemical weapons as, if he possesses any in sufficient quantity, they are likely very old, unstable and their use would destroy any tacit support from China, India and Pakistan that remained. They would also be difficult to have an operational or strategic effect in the Russians favour. Additionally, his already demoralised troops are unlikely to have the necessary protection to operate in a chemically contaminated battlefield.

A nuclear accident or use of a small tactical nuclear device however, could have a better effect, but again that would lose Putin’s support from China, India and Pakistan. I discuss the nuclear options more here: https://greyharemedia.com/russia-and-ukraine-the-chemical-and-biological-threat-with-a-touch-of-nuclear/

The coming days and weeks will give a clear indication as to Putin’s intent. We can only hope that Putin’s closest team are plotting his heart attack, window cleaning incident from the 9th floor or Novichok on his door handle or in his underpants, as a palace coup in Moscow is the only way this war is likely to end quickly and stop the murder of more civilians and destruction of the Russian state internationally.

Philip Ingram MBE is a former British Military Intelligence Colonel and NATO Planner and is now a journalist providing insight on TV, Radio and in the papers across the globe. He is available for comment.

 

Ukraine, a month in

Ukraine, a month in

Ukraine, a month in.

by Philip Ingram MBE

Life changed not just for Ukraine on 24th February 2022 but arguably for a large proportion of the world. Russia’s further invasion of a sovereign country has changed the continent of Europe, changed its political priorities and economies as well as those of most countries across the globe. It has brought the EU together in a way hitherto unseen, shocked NATO with a threat many members had thought had disappeared into a puff of cyber into a grey zone and brought the possibility of nuclear war, a prospect last seen in 1983, but for many last considered with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

A lot has happened in that month, with millions of Ukrainians displaced, some 3.5 million out of the country. Thousands have died and for what? And many more have been injured and scarred for life. Towns and cities have been reduced to wastelands and lives changed for generations.  Causing this, Russia has failed to achieve a single operational objective.

Russia’s main effort (ME) was to topple the current Ukrainian Government and replace it with a more pro-Moscow regime in order to quash Ukraine’s increasing EU and longer-term NATO ambitions. Putin and his Foreign Minister, Lavrov, have both said this, which is why the Russian ME is known.  Its secondary objective was the linking of Crimea along the Southern coast of Ukraine, via the Donbas region to Russia with a Land Bridge and that is clear from the formations used, their operational dispositions and axis of advance. The third objective was likely the capture of Eastern Ukraine unto and including the Dnieper River. This is known from the axis of attacking Russian formations.

To achieve these three objectives, looking at what happened on the ground, Russia had tried to prepare the battlespace with small teams of special forces and from their intelligence agencies, the GRU and FSB inside Kyiv to identify and snatch key Ukrainian leaders whilst an Air Mobile Operation with an Airborne Reserve captured a key airport near Kyiv, Antonov Airport, in order to build a bridgehead whilst ground forces advanced rapidly from the North and North West to link up with the Bridgehead. These manoeuvres were seen in the first hours of the invasion. They failed.

They failed because the teams operating inside Kyiv in the first hours failed to find and capture any government or senior officials and were routed by Ukrainian defenders, it is likely that Ukrainian intelligence had known about them and had a clear plan in place to neutralise them. It worked. The Airmobile operation to capture Kyiv’s Antonov Airport met heavy Ukrainian resistance and it is likely that Russian casualties were high. Russian forces established a toehold at the airport and airborne forces were dispatched to reinforce that whilst the armoured forces attempted to advance rapidly along multiple axis to link up with their lightly equipped forces at the Airport.

However, the Ukrainians successfully counterattacked the airport before the airborne forces could land, destroyed 2 transport aircraft in the air transporting these troops and blunted the advance of the armoured columns on all fronts. The link up armoured columns and their logistics got stuck in traffic jams stretching 10’s of Km making it easy for the Ukrainian defenders to keep them in place, destroying elements, sowing despair, and further restricting resupply and casualty evacuation.

They failed because Russia did not or could not gain air superiority over Ukraine, allowing the Ukrainians to attack Russian manoeuvre operations, keep the Russia air force at distance and allow Ukrainian air and air defence assets to continue to operate.  They failed because all arms combined operations are complex and need a lot of training and experienced and disciplined commanders and troops, Russia has few in that bracket. They failed because logistic support was an afterthought instead of being central to the operation. They failed because their troops lacked the drive and motivation of the Ukrainian defenders. They failed because intelligence was used to support pre conceived ideas rather than give realistic assessments.

The secondary objective required a move from Crimea North and Northeast along the coast of the Sea of Azov to meet up with formations coming from Russia and the disputed Donbas Region the other direction with maritime landings and operations along the coast to fix the Ukrainian defenders. Once completed the operation would switch to capture the strategic port Odessa and therefore the whole Ukrainian coastline and access to the sea. In occupying territory terms, the first part of this objective has been more successful but to date, has also failed.

It is clear the Russian formations were not prepared for the ground conditions, making it virtually impossible for them to manoeuvre their formations operationally and the continual attacks by the Ukrainian defenders caused an expenditure of combat supplies, (fuel, ammunition, rations, water, medical), that was unprepared for, making it easier for the Ukrainian defenders with internal lines of communication (i.e. easily resupplied and supported) to further influence the Russian advance. That Ukrainian influence has in military terms fixed the Russian attackers. Again, a lack of air superiority was and is a significant factor. This means, stopped their ability to manoeuvre in the way they want and need to achieve their objective.

The Third objective required Russian formations backed by formations from the self-proclaimed republics in the Donbas Region to attack West and grab territory up to and including the Dnieper River. This too has failed for the same reasons mentioned above.

So what? Russia will keep pumping troops in and will win. This is what Putin hopes but the signs are it won’t work.  On the ground Russian forces have transitioned from offensive operations to attritional operations and in in some areas purely defensive. Their attritional focus in from what is euphemistically referred to as ‘The Play Book’ which is just shorthand for what happened in Georgia and Syria, but the situation is different, and you can’t (or shouldn’t) template operations. Putin is concerned which is why he has dared use the Chemical and Biological words as well as reaching for his nuclear stick.

He knows that by suggesting their possible use he will likely split some of the political unity seen in the EU and NATO but he also knows that if he uses them then the tacit support he is getting from other countries such as China and India could disappear very rapidly. Putin is playing a game of nuclear chess with words to try and give him and his forces on the ground breathing space to regroup, use attrition to break the will of the Ukrainian people and thereby hopefully the Ukrainian politicians and break the cohesion of the international community reined against him.

This is probably the most dangerous phase of Putin’s Invasion as he tries to wrestle some form of initiative back, knowing he can make this phase last months, with the civilian people of Ukraine paying an increasing price daily. However, there are green shoots of possible Ukrainian counterattacks, North West of Kyiv. If Ukraine can begin to push Russia forces back in any meaningful way, then Putin’s hand will be called earlier. The problem with this is he has nowhere to go and given what he has done should be given no concessions. It is at this point that NATO leaders will have to consider some form of closer involvement with all the inherent dangers that that will bring.

I think we could see Putin waving his nuclear stick harder and the real concern is once he steps onto the escalation ladder, it can be climbed very quickly.  This is a time for international leaders to put politics aside and concentrate on unity of action and unity of message; we live in increasingly dangerous times.

 

Philip Ingram MBE is a former senior British Military Intelligence Officer and NATO Planner – he commentates globally on TV, on the Radio and in print.

 

Putin has lost his war in Ukraine and created Toxic Russia.

Putin has lost his war in Ukraine and created Toxic Russia.

Putin has lost his war in Ukraine and created Toxic Russia.

by Philip INGRAM MBE

No matter what the end state is on the ground in Ukraine in the coming weeks there is one simple fact that cannot be disputed, Putin has lost.  So, how can I be certain?

Putin’s objectives for his further invasion of Ukraine (remember he started this in 2014 with the forceable annexation of Crimea and then FSB led, with GRU support, activity to generate the breakaway Donbas Region), were to topple the Ukrainian Government, as it was becoming to EU and NATO focused, and replace it with a more Russian focused and sympathetic government that would fall into line as Lukashenko does in Belarus. His secondary objective was to open a land bridge between Crimea and Russia including the disputed Donbas region, setting the conditions for autonomous Donetsk and Luhansk.

To achieve his objectives, Putin will have wanted a rapid surgical operation into Kyiv to achieve his objective and a then slower mass movement of Russian troops into Ukraine to ensure compliance. He will have expected a rapid reinforcement of the Donbas region, welcomed capitulation by the local people and a rapid progression along Ukraine’s Southern coast.  In any final settlement with a new government, he would likely have wanted the disputed regions of Donetsk and Luhansk to be recognised as independent along with any additional captured territory linking them to Crimea.

Looking at the military operation around the invasion so far. Russia has failed to achieve air superiority as Ukrainian Airforce and Air Defences are still operating; gaining air superiority is a precursor to any lightening strike. Rapid special forces and elite military operations to capture key terrain around Kyiv in the first few days of the invasion were repulsed by the Ukrainian defenders. A ground convoy aimed at linking up with the captured key terrain coming from the North on Kyiv became fixed for many kilometres on roads, unable to manoeuvre through Ukrainian resistance and poor Russian logistic support.

Progress has been slow through poor equipment’s availability, poor logistic support, bad planning, poor command and control and massive resistance from the Ukrainian defenders.

To date Russia has failed to capture what would be assessed as any of its key objectives. In essence all of these suggest a complete failure in the planning, execution and therefore command and control of the first stage of the operation.  The Ukrainian Government remains active, President Zelenskyy is clearly in charge and is giving global leaders a masterclass in leadership. His approach has been key to uniting the Ukrainian people in a tighter national bond that they have ever had. That bond will be almost impossible to destroy.

Russia has been forced to move to its classic play book actions mirroring what happened in Grozny in 2000, Georgia in 2008 and more recently in support for Assad in Syria.  The surrounding of built-up areas and their gradual destruction through indirect fire from aircraft, rockets, missiles, and artillery – this is exactly what is happening in the cities of Kherson, Mariupol, Donbas and more. Given a complete loss of initiative moving into Kyiv and the way urban warfare soaks up experienced troops, the same fate will be the only option for Kyiv should Russian forces be able to encircle it. That still remains in doubt over 2 weeks into the invasion.

Strategically Putin has set the conditions for the EU to come together in a way no one could have predicted. Defence spending and focus in EU countries is going up rapidly and as a block its political and economic reach is likely to expand.  The same can be said for NATO, member countries traditionally reluctant to meet the 2% GDP spend on defence are doing so now with some haste and more expenditure to deliver real capability back into their militaries. Some countries who work closely with NATO and in particular Sweden and Finland but have never sought membership are now seeing a swing in public opinion supporting membership.

Putin has galvanised the EU and NATO and set the conditions for both to expand.

Global diplomacy, economics and politics are reined against Russia with sanctions biting deep, international companies and brands are removing any association with Russia to protect their reputation; historic votes in the UN General Assembly condemning Russia’s action have happened and the look of disbelief on world leaders faces, every time Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov says anything is palpable.  China and India will be concerned at the speed the international community reacted with economic sanctions and be wary of ending up on the wrong side of international feelings.

Putin has galvanised the international community against Russia in a way never seen before. Putin has created Toxic Russia.

Inside Ukraine, pre-invasion, politics was confrontational, the people happily existed together, and the former actor President was tolerated.  However, since the invasion, the Ukrainian people have come together as a single entity with a spirit and belief that is electric. President Zelenskyy has galvanised a national spirit focused against Putin in a way no one would have expected, he continues to give a master call in leadership under adverse conditions to other global leaders.

Putin has galvanised the Uranian people against him in a way no one would have expected.

I suspect the Russian people are in a mixed emotional bag at the moment, some angry at the international community and Ukrainians because they believe the disinformation fed to them through state media; some are shocked and don’t know where to turn, some are beginning to hurt and see the real damage Putin has caused Russia on the global stage. It is too early for the impact of what is going on to have a real effect insider Russia and the thinking of the Russian people but more importantly those with access to power, Putin’s closest aids.

It is clear that the Russian military are beginning to hurt on the ground, and Putin’s initiative to start peace talks was a classic effort to create breathing space for elements of his war machine, even though their activities haven’t stopped. However, he is likely looking for his get out options. The most likely before the conflict started would have been rapid seizure of ground and a negotiated pull back to the disputed Donbas region, with Donetsk and Luhansk being recognised as truly independent and the land bridge between Crimea and Russia maintained.  However, it is too late for that. Even if President Zelensky agrees to discuss the possibility to stop the slaughter of civilians, even if there is a Minsk type agreement, Russia will never be allowed fully back onto the international stage and global brands will abandon Russia for fear of untold damage to their reputation. NATO would still be expanding, the EU and much of the globe galvanised, Defence capability focused against Russia would be growing.

There is no winning scenario for Putin, even if he could take the whole of Ukraine. The only way for Russia to come back is Putin’s demise. The only question is what cost till then?  The sad thing is that a long-drawn-out war, achieving nothing for Russia and delivering untold death and destruction to the people in Ukraine, and increasing Russian casualties, remains on course to be where this invasion is going.

Philip Ingram MBE is a former senior British Military Intelligence officer and NATO Planner. He is available for comment.

Russia and Ukraine, the Chemical and Biological threat with a touch of Nuclear

Russia and Ukraine, the Chemical and Biological threat with a touch of Nuclear

Russia and Ukraine, the Chemical and Biological threat with a touch of Nuclear

By Philip Ingram MBE

The Russian messaging machine has gone into overdrive on its claims that the Ukraine and the US are developing chemical or biological weapons for use against invading Russian forces, as they brought the accusation to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on Friday.  So that is the reality, a question I have been asked frequently by many press outlets in the past 24 hours?

At the end of February Vladimir Putin issued a statement where he raised the alert level of his nuclear forces and later his Foreign Minister Lavrov blamed comments from the British Foreign Secretary for forcing them to do so. This one act of putting your foot on the nuclear escalatory ladder then taking it off again says so much about Russia’s approach to diplomacy.

Russia has a policy of “escalate to de-escalate” so threatening the unthinkable to then back down is something in their psyche but they also have a history of following thorough, in particular when it comes to bombing, rocketing and shelling civilian built up areas and in Syria, helping to facilitate the use of chemical weapons.

In Ukraine, Russia’s invasion has become bogged down and in some areas fixed. They have little freedom to manoeuvre. That is why we are seeing what many refer to as the playbook tactics being rolled out. Whenever Russia has been fixed or bogged down in the past, they have rapidly resorted to surrounding cities and pounding them from the air, with rockets, missiles and artillery, in an indiscriminate manner, all to try and break the resolve of the people.

The agreement for humanitarian corridors and ceasefires is also playbook stuff as is mining those routes and shelling fleeing civilians. Again, looking at the response from the international community in the past to these atrocities, there has been none; Russia has been allowed to get away with it.

Many of the commanders involved in invasion of Ukraine will have served in Syria, some may even have been in Grozny in 2008, but that playbook tactics will be in their psyche, Putin likely won’t even have had to order it as it will have been in the wider contingency plans for cities showing too much resistance. What Russia hadn’t expected was that is every city! The last time this level of resolve was shown, in Syria, to break the deadlock, Chemical weapons were employed.

It is that playbook combined with the statements from official Russian MoD channels and the calling of the UNSC meeting that makes the threat of use of chemical weapons in Ukraine all the more real.

I will dismiss biological weapons quickly by saying they are not an act of war. Biological weapons are very difficult to weaponise into battlefield delivery system and their effects more difficult to control. You also need superb medial facilities for your own troops in case of accidental exposure, and the Russians don’t.

However, a real threat doesn’t automatically translate into their actual use. Key to this is that in Syria, Putin had a plausibly deniable outlet for blame when the international community called out the false flag attacks blamed on the Syrian opposition fighters, he could blame Assad and say he was misled too. This is a combination of  маскировка (maskirovka), masking the truth behind disinformation and  враньё(vranyo), which means to tell a lie without expecting to be believed, both are frequently exercised Putin tactics.

There are 2 scenarios where Putin may use chemical weapons in Ukraine, one is in a false flag incident in the vicinity of a Ukrainian research facility giving an excuse for him to go to the Russian people as say, “told you so, this is why we have to invade all of Ukraine.”  This remains a possibility but the fact that western intelligence has already called it out may take that option off the table as it has done before with other potential false flag incidents.

The second is horrific, Putin uses chemical weapons in order to break the blockades around Ukrainian cities. Here I am going to assess this as being less likely to unlikely as no matter what messaging Putin puts out, he knows that personally this gives him nowhere to hide within an international context, ever. He may be a psychopath, but he is in some ways still rational. He knows that use of chemical weapons would have to be authorised by him and that would mean automatic prosecution and a massive withdrawal of the tacit ‘turning a blind eye,’ he is getting from the likes of China and India. His pariah status would be further set in stone; irrecoverably so.

He also doesn’t need to go there yet. He has much more he can do with conventional military capabilities, if he can manoeuvre them and support them logistically, in this case that if is probably the biggest word in the English language.   He can threaten other disasters such as nuclear meltdowns in Ukraine’s nuclear facilities currently under Russian control but blame that on counter attacking Ukrainians. He has much more conventional terror to rain down on Ukraine’s cities before he even needs to consider the unthinkable.

The worrying final issue is no matter what the outcome, Putin has lost this war. He has failed, his military have failed. He has strengthened the Ukrainian people as a nation, strengthened the international community including the EU, caused the conditions for possible further NATO expansion.

Sun Tzu says, “Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions.”  Putin’s forces didn’t listen and are fixed. Unless there is a palace coup in Moscow, this conflict could go on for a long time with all of the associated suffering and deaths. The only other tiny green shoot of hope is that the Russians are becoming so fixed, that if the Ukrainian defenders can generate manoeuvre capabilities to counterattack, their time to push the Russian back in a significant way could come. Supporting the Ukrainian defenders more and enabling them to become attackers is the Wests next logical step.

 

Philip Ingram MBE is a former senior British Military Intelligence Officer and NATO Planner and is available for comment.

 

No fly zones and the Russian nuclear threat

No fly zones and the Russian nuclear threat

No fly zones and the Russian nuclear threat

by Philip INGRAM MBE

The clamours to instigate some form of a no-fly zone over Ukraine are increasing as the humanitarian fall out from Russia’s invasion and increasing rocket attacks and shelling of built up and residential areas, grows.

From a cursory glance perspective, it seems a logical step, something the West did over Iraq as Saddam Hussein oppresses his people, but what are the implications?  At the moment the conflict is geographically bound inside the borders of Ukraine. On paper Russia has a much stronger military force but realistically only a small percentage is properly trained, equipped, and resourced and the Ukrainian defenders are having success after success in blunting their advances.  The Russian have become largely fixed.

Should the international community decide to implement a no-fly zone, or even humanitarian no fly corridors, the only organisation that has the resources, including command and control, to police this is NATO. To maintain them safely NATO would have to be prepared to destroy any air defence capabilities that tracked them, the risk of not doing so would be too great.  This would bring NATO into direct conflict with Russia and probably Belarus.

The implications of this are instantaneous, the conflict would go from being geographically bound, to being at the minimum Northern Hemisphere, but more likely global. Putin knows he can’t win against a sustained conflict with NATO. He would need to warn NATO off from proactively attacking Russia. His only option for doing this is a nuclear option.

This doesn’t mean there would be an immediate strategic first strike and therefore global nuclear Armageddon, Putin is not that daft, but the escalation ladder would be escalated quickly.  His first option would be the use of a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine, possibly on or near a Ukrainian Nuclear power plant and therefore Chernobyl is a distinct target, so he could blame the explosion on Ukrainian shelling of the plant causing an explosion. He would know that the West and Ukranian government would know it was a weapon but could sell the accident to his domestic audience and to doubters in the West, remember маскировка (maskirovka), literally masking, is key to his tactics. The effect would be a clear message to the West that he is ready to escalate and to the Ukrainian’s, give in now or Kiev is next; the thought and implications are horrific.

Putin would know the West would know the truth but could calculate that by doing this he is sending a warning that the West would not want to escalate. The Wests only nuclear response realistically is a more strategic one. However, in 2018 former Defence Secretary James Mattis told the US Congress, “I don’t think there is any such thing as a tactical nuclear weapon. Any nuclear weapon used any time is a strategic game-changer.” He is right.

The West would have to decide the next moves, if it was to back down, Putin would redouble his murderous tactics in Ukraine. If it were to escalate by attacking a Russian military target with a medium range nuclear weapon, that escalation ladder would be being climbed very fast, and we would, de facto, be involved in a nuclear war.

Putin’s response to that would probably be further escalation, likely hitting a target in a small European country, one of the Baltic states or Finland or Sweden, again calculating the West would not escalate further. It is not in his increasingly deranged and psychopathic psyche to back down, he knows he can’t lose or he loses everything and to him, if he loses everything then it is possible he will think everyone should lose everything. There is only one unthinkable step next. We must remember his thinking will not be wholly logical from an external viewpoint.

So, what tactical weapons does he have and are they controlled? Reports are confusing and numbers of tactical nuclear weapons in open-source reporting range from 230 and 2,000. Tactical weapons are not regulated by treaty, unlike strategic nuclear weapons. However, U.S. and Russian arms control treaties simply define non-strategic weapons as those with a strike range inferior to 5500 km with Operational nuclear weapons up to 500 Km and Tactical, 300 km. Jim Mattis’s comment remains relevant!

Russian policy on Nuclear, release (Principles of State Policy in the Sphere of Nuclear Deterrence Until 2020), states that Moscow may also use nukes in response to non-nuclear attacks threatening to disarm Russia’s nuclear forces, or that threaten the existence of the Russian state itself.  NATO involvement would easily evoke this policy and маскировка (maskirovka) would make the threat seem much bigger to the Russian people and military commanders.

It is believed that nearly half of Russia’s non-strategic arsenal are estimated to belong to the Russian Navy. Of greatest relevance are long-range (1,550 miles) subsonic Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles, as well as P-800 Oniks supersonic anti-ship missiles (range 500 miles), both understood to be nuclear-capable.  We have seen reports of the air or land launched Kalibr missiles used with conventional warheads in Ukraine already.  The Russian navy also have nuclear torpedoes and anti-submarine weapons. In addition Russia reportedly has nuclear anti-aircraft systems.

Their Land based capability is estimated to possess less than 100 nuclear warheads for its missile batteries. Its precise Iskander-M tactical ballistic missile system can swap its regular warhead for up to a 50-kiloton device.  The 2S7 self-propelled gun with a calibre of 203mm and a range of about 37km is believed to be able to fire nuclear projectiles with a yield up to 1Kt. The number of nuclear shells held is not clear.

In the air, Su-34 and older Su-24M attack jets are nuclear capable and longer-range Tu-22M supersonic bombers, which can carry dual-capable Kh-32 supersonic anti-ship and land-attack missiles.  Russia has also allegedly developed a unique air-launched Kinzhal hypersonic ballistic missile with a 1,200-mile range. However, it is likely that if so this isn’t fully operational yet.

The bottom line is, at the moment with the conflict geographically bound, Putin does not currently need to consider the use of nuclear weapons, he has many more tactical conventional steps he can take before that would cross his mind. However, as mentioned before the escalatory ladder can be ascended very rapidly and NATO military involvement could stimulate a step onto the first rung. Even tactical use in Ukraine would likely result in more Ukrainian casualties that a no-fly zone of any type could save. Is it worth the risk?

Philip Ingram MBE is a former Senior British Military Intelligence Officer and NATO Planner. He is available for comment.