Putin Swings...And Misses?
Russia Unleashed A Massive Missile Bombardment Of Ukraine, But To What Effect?
As was noted yesterday afternoon, Russia unleashed a major missile attack on Ukraine in retaliation for the truck bombing of the Kerch Bridge to the Crimean Peninsula.
As more complete data became available, however, outside of Kharkiv and possibly Zaporizhzhia, no cities close to the front lines were hit, and no supply line infrastructures appear to have been targeted.
Though Russia said missiles targeted military and energy facilities, some struck civilian areas while people were heading to work and school. One hit a playground in downtown Kyiv and another struck a university.
While hitting civilian infrastructures as a punitive response for a true terrorist attack is a frequent counter-terrorism tactic, intended to dissuade countries from sponsoring terror groups in the first place, despite Putin’s rhetoric, the bombing of the Kerch Bridge was less of a pure terror attack and more broadly an example of asymmetric warfare1, using improvised explosives to take out a key piece of Russia’s military supply line to the Kherson front lines in Southern Ukraine.
Asymmetric warfare is a form of irregular warfare – violent conflict between a formal military and an informal, less equipped and supported, undermanned but resilient and motivated opponent. The term is frequently used to describe what is also called guerrilla warfare, insurgency, counterinsurgency, rebellion, terrorism, and counterterrorism.
The problem is that Ukraine is an unlikely sponsor of an Azerbaijani terror cell (remember, according to Russian news agency TASS both the driver of the truck and its owner were Azerbaijani). Client of such a terror cell, yes; partner of such a terror cell, yes; sponsor of such a terror cell, no. As such, a counter-terrorist response is aiming at the wrong target(s), as did Putin in his retaliatory strike against Ukraine.
What Ukraine Accomplished
To appreciate the significance of the attack on the bridge, one has to understand the military difficulties the bridge presented to Ukraine as a military target.
Ukraine had few ways to strike it successfully; either its weapons didn’t have the range or weren’t powerful enough to do lasting damage to the $3.6bn steel and concrete bridge.
Ukraine’s air force could have attacked it in theory but would have had to deal with Russian S-300 and, even worse, the latest S-400 air defence missile batteries that guard the span. Ukrainian TB2 drones would fare no better. Their light armament is more suited to taking out vehicles and command posts than destroying sections of reinforced concrete.
Russian defences were bolstered around the bridge to augment the air defence batteries already in place. Fearing missile strikes either from the land or sea, barges festooned with radar reflectors were moored in front of it, facing out.
With most of Ukraine’s military arsenal out of the question, a solution was found in the low-tech methods of asymmetric warfare: a simple truck bomb—one coordinated to explode next to a tanker train car filled with petroleum product. Clearly, that method worked.
Nevertheless, a large explosion took out a section of the road bridge on Saturday and severely damaged the rail line. While repairs began almost immediately, the impact on the Russian war effort — and on Russia’s psyche — was substantial.
Most of the logistics supplying Russia’s southern front, which are centred around the city of Kherson, run through Crimea. The damage to this vital route will have a serious impact on beleaguered Russian forces already squeezed by a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
While the bridge is not destroyed, it is damaged, and that hampers at least somewhat the flow of men and material through Crimea to the Kherson front. That makes the Kerch Bridge bombing a significant military victory and not just a random terror strike.
How Russia Responded
Russia’s retaliation was a series of missile attacks on a number of Ukrainian cities—not necessarily those currently on or near the front lines of the war. The goal was to disrupt command and control of the Ukraine Military.
"This morning, at the suggestion of the Ministry of Defense and according to the plan of the Russian General Staff, a massive air, sea and land-based high-precision long-range weapon was launched against energy, military command and communications facilities in Ukraine," Putin said. He warned Kyiv that "if attempts to carry out terrorist attacks on our territory continue, Russia's responses will be harsh and in scale will correspond to the level of threats posed by the Russian Federation."
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s ability to resupply its frontline forces in and around Kherson and Kharkiv appears to have been unaffected.
Moreover, Ukraine’s strategy of late has been to target Russian logistics and supply lines, disrupting or forcing Russia to alter resupply routes, complicating and impeding the flow of supplies to Russia’s front line forces. With Russia conceding crucial logistics hubs in the Donbass, Ukraine’s strategy appears to be at least somewhat successful.
Even the Kerch Bridge bombing has the ultimate effect of furthering Ukraine’s strategy of targeting Russian logistics.
The same cannot be said of the Russian missile attacks, which by Russia’s own acknowledgement more or less ignored Ukrainian logistics. For once I am in agreement with “the experts” within the corporate media in thinking that Russia’s missile barrage accomplishes little from the military perspective.
“What they seem to have done today, which is basically hitting civilian targets and infrastructure, seems to be much more about signaling on their part than delivering any real military effect,” said Sidharth Kaushal, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London.
Mr. Kaushal said that it appeared that the damage, “though it’s tragic, is actually not of any real military value, and they’ve expended quite an expensive capability.”
Russian Chest Thumping Simply Absurd
While the missile attacks may have been pleasing to the chest-thumping ultranationalists and hardliners within the Kremlin and among the pro-Russian media, there is a hollow ring to their gloating after the missile attacks.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a close ally of Putin, addressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy personally.
“For eight years you could bomb civilians, destroy the infrastructure of the cities of the D/LPR, shell nuclear power plants, blow up bridges and fire on important facilities, but when it landed on your head, suddenly no one else is allowed [to do this]?” he wrote in a taunting Telegram post.
Kadyrov was referring to the Ukrainian government’s conflict with the separatist Russian-backed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics in eastern Ukraine since 2014 as well as Moscow’s claims that Ukraine was targeting the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.
“We warned you, Zelenskyy, that Russia hasn’t really started yet, so stop complaining like a sucker and run away before it gets you,” he said. “Run, Zelenskyy, run without looking back at the West.”
Kadyrov, a hardliner who has criticised Moscow’s campaign for not proceeding hard enough, added that he was now “100 percent satisfied with the special military operation.”
Russia “hasn’t really started yet”? Russian forces are being pushed back in the north and in the south, Kherson is in danger of falling (and with it Crimea’s water supply), and Russia has not been taking its own invasion of another sovereign nation seriously?
If that is true, then Putin has needlessly squandered who knows how many Russian lives by not prosecuting the war he chose to have to its utmost from the outset. He has willingly damaged the Russian economy, and isolated Russia internationally, all without much to show because of supposed Russian lassitude towards the war.
The sheer implausibility of such an outcome reduces Kadyrov’s bellicosity to absurdity. The reality is that, at the moment, Russia’s war is going badly for Russia, and Russia is being outmaneuvered and outfought by a superior Ukranian strategy. The reality is also that Russia’s additional 300,000 conscripts will take at least a couple months to be organized into fresh formations ready for insertion into the front lines in Ukraine, and in the meantime Ukraine is straining and disrupting Russian logistics at every opportunity, in order to amplify the impact of their front line forces during their fall counter-offensive.
The reality is that Ukraine’s strategy is working.
Missile Targets A Waste Of Vital Munitions.
Whether or not Kherson falls to the Ukrainian counter-offensive, it seems unlikely that Russia missile strike today will have little impact on the outcome of that battle. Whether Ukraine succeeds in making further inroads into Russian defensive positions north, in the Kharkiv sector of the front, it seems unlikely that the Russian missile strike today will have little impact on the outcome of that battle.
Putin retaliated against the militarily effective Kerch Bridge bombing by launching a stupendously militarily ineffective missile bombardment on Ukraine. Given that such an attack on civilian infrastructures seems unlikely to dissuade Ukraine from defending its own territory and sovereignty, the missile attack has to be considered a near total waste of munitions—munitions which some media reports indicate Russia lacks sufficient reserves as it is.
It has been reported that former Russian general Andrey Kartapolov has stated openly on Russian television that Russia lacks the munitions necessary to completely disrupt Ukraine’s infrastructure.
Mr Solovyov asked: "Why can't we trash the infrastructure of the Nazi Ukraine? So trains aren't running, and there is no electricity."
The former Russian general responded: "There aren't enough munitions today in order to complete all tasks.
Regardless of whether that is an accurate assessment of the situation, for Kartapolov to make such a claim on live television is not a statement that can go over well among the Russian population, and certainly is not going to help build Russian enthusiasm for Putin’s war. It does not have to be accurate factually to have significant impact politically and even militarily.
Putin’s missile barrage extracted a toll in Ukrainian lives and made life more difficult for those in several Ukrainian cities. What Putin’s missile barrage did not do is make life more difficult for Ukraine’s front-line forces near Kherson. That failure makes life that much more difficult for Russia’s front-line forces near Kherson, and at the least opportune time
That makes Putin’s missile barrage a tactical mistake and a strategic failure.
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Mirzeyev, B. What Is Asymmetric Warfare? 6 Sept. 2021, https://strategyvision.org/en/news/22.