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Ukraine's "Fifth Column" Inside Russia?
How Deep Into Russia Do Ukrainian Attacks Reach?
The Bryansk Oblast once again comes to the fore, as an apparent bombing attack on a train in that region has successfully damaged the track, rendering the rail line momentarily inoperable.
The governor of the Bryansk region, Alexander Bogomaz, reported on Telegram that on the evening of October 24, an unknown explosive device went off on the route between the settlements of Novozybkov and Zlynka. Railroad tracks damaged. There were no casualties.
The Telegram channel “Overheard Klintsy” published a photo from the scene of the explosion. On it you can see a cargo platform that has gone off the rails; under one of the platform carts there is a large funnel; the solidity of the other rail is broken, in this place there is a second funnel.
That Kommersant would refer to the incident as an “explosive device” effectively means the Russian government is acknowledging the incident is either an act of terrorism or an act of sabotage carried out by Ukrainian Special Forces.
In either scenario, the import is clear: Ukraine appears to have significant Special Operations capacity and arguably can strike far beyond the front lines and in regions relatively far removed from the battlefield. That would be a significant problem for Putin, as it complicates any effort to organize his 300,000 conscripts from the partial mobilization into coherent fighting units and move them towards the front lines near Kharkiv and Kherson.
Not The First Time Sabotage Has Been Suspected In Bryansk Oblast
While a single explosive device on a single train is a fairly minor attack, what makes this attack significant is that 1) it was reported to the Russian people in Russian media, meaning the government is acknowledging an act of sabotage has occurred; and 2) this is not the first time the Bryansk region has been the subject of sabotage speculations.
In May, Agence France-Presse (AFP), reporting on French media site France 24, speculated that Ukrainian guerilla and special forces detachments were operating in the Bryansk region, conducting various acts of sabotage on industrial infrastructures in the region.
No one is claiming responsibility, but analysts say at least some of the incidents, particularly those in Bryansk, point to a possible effort by Kyiv to bring the war to their invaders.
In a post on Telegram, Mykhaylo Podolyak, a senior advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, called the fires "divine intervention."
"Large fuel depots periodically burn... for different reasons," he wrote. "Karma is a cruel thing."
At the time, the oil depot attacks within Bryansk Oblast were attributed on Twitter to a Ukrainian drone attack.
The anonymous analysts behind "Ukraine Weapons Tracker," a Twitter account that posts detailed accounts with supporting videos of attacks by both sides, said they received "reliable" information that the Bryansk fires were the result of attacks by Ukrainian Bayraktar drones.
"If accurate, then this story again shows the ability of Ukrainian forces to conduct strikes in Russian territory using long-range assets," they wrote.
That the target was a rail line suggests that, if Ukraine is involved in the attack, they are targeting military logistics and infrastructure, just as they apparently did earlier in the year with the alleged drone attacks.
Explosive devices do not plant themselves. That Kommersant would even acknowledge the use of an explosive device means this attack was some form of terrorist or guerilla attack, and either a domestic terrorist group or a guerilla insurgent group is still conducting operations which likely offer significant benefits to the Ukrainian armed forces. And the photos on Telegram indicate the attack succeeded in damaging the rail line.
For Ukraine to be able to strike deep into Russian territory against military logistics and resources greatly complicates Putin’s defense posture, as merely protecting Russia’s borders with Ukraine is no longer sufficient.
Not The First Sign Of Trouble
Nor are the Bryansk attacks the only signs that Ukraine or Ukrainian-aligned Russian insurgent/terrorist groups are operating within Russia proper.
Last week TASS reported on a series of arrests of illegal arms traffickers, including the seizing of weapons caches with distinct military/paramilitary weapons inventories, including artillery shells, anti-tank rifles, and land mines.
Certainly the types of weapons seized by Russian authorities would be consistent with the arsenal of explosives used to damage the rail line between Novozybkov and Zlynka.
Moreover, the arrests made by the FSB after the attack on the Kerch Bridge indicates that a number of Russian citizens were involved in that truck bombing attack.
At the time of that article, more Russians had been detained over the bridge attack than than Ukrainians, not to mention the owner and driver the vehicle apparently were Azerbaijani.
While these data points are by themselves hardly conclusive, every one of them is suggestive of a Ukrainian-led or Ukrainian-aligned insurgent/terrorist group conducting attacks on Russian infrastructure well behind the front lines of eastern Ukraine. This announcement of an attack against a railroad in Bryansk Oblast is merely the latest one of a trend.
One question that deserves to be addressed if Ukraine is connected with this and other attacks within Russia is “Why Bryansk?”
Why attack at a train so far removed from the fighting front of the war? What possible military significance could such a target have?
The answer, simply put, is “logistics.”
What follows is, admittedly, speculation, but if we start with various assessments by military analysts, a strategic view of Russia emerges that identifies potential targets well beyond the immediate front lines of conventional fighting.
Such a strategic view of Russian and Ukrainian territory suggests that, regardless of what happens in the battle for Kherson, at some point Putin is likely to open up a new front.
We know that Russia has been stockpiling massive logistics necessary to support a large mobile force. In September alone, the Kremlin built up over 220,000 tons of fuel for its war machine in the six provinces bordering Ukraine. Moscow is clearly setting the stage for the deployment of large formations created as a result of Putin’s mobilization. The big question is: where will the blow land?
The fuel estimate is based on a Bloomberg analysis of Russian railway data indicating major shipments of gasoline, diesel, and aviation fuels into the provinces bordering Ukraine.
Gasoline, diesel and jet fuel deliveries to the Russian Defense Ministry’s units in six regions bordering Ukraine as well as the annexed Donetsk and Luhansk regions rose to almost 220,000 tons in September, according to Bloomberg calculations based on an analysis of railway data. That’s about four times the volume of a year earlier and exceeds shipments in March, the first full month after the invasion.
The figures include deliveries to four major airports in Russia’s southwest where civilian flights have been banned since the first day of the invasion at the end of February.
It does not take a military genius to assess that Putin is planning a fresh offensive effort in Ukraine, regardless of what happens around Kherson. Having annexed the occupied portions of Ukraine, which includes the city of Kherson, Putin has little alternative but to launch fresh attacks, or accept the likely loss of what he has claimed as Russian territory.
This naturally begs the question of where will Putin’s next offensive effort be, and against what objectives?
One option presented on the military and strategic analysis site 19FortyFive.com is that Putin could attack western Ukraine to cut off the flow of NATO/EU aid via Poland.
The single greatest vulnerability for Ukraine is a Russian drive from Belarus, through Lutsk to Lviv. The vast majority of Ukrainian troops are presently massed in the country’s southeast about to fall on Kherson, the far east defending in Donbas, and in the northeast pressing the Russians in the Kharkiv region; there are almost no sizable formations in the western regions.
One scenario would be for Putin to position his attack formations in a way that would seem to validate Kyiv’s assumptions on where Russia would send its next wave. They might mass a sizable troop concentration east of Donbas and an even bigger concentration of forces north of Kyiv in Belarus. Doing so would make it appear Russian formations were about to pour into the Donbas to reinforce the current offensive and launch large forces south towards Kyiv in a second attempt to take the capitol.
Such an invasion plan would necessarily involve moving troops and supplies into the Bryansk region, either for eventual stationing in Belarus for a fresh invasion or for directly invading from Byransk Oblast itself, as the province is near several Ukrainian roads which lead to Lutsk and onto Lviv.
Disrupting the flow of rail traffic in Bryansk Oblast would without a doubt disrupt and slow the buildup of forces from Putin’s mobilized 300,000 troops in the region, thus delaying any fresh invasion of Ukraine from that direction and giving Ukraine’s forces around Kharkiv and Kherson a chance to finish retaking those territories.
Additionally, Bryansk is north and west of Kursk, where Russia recently announced increased fortifications against a potential Ukrainian invasion. Asymmetric attacks in Bryansk validates Russian presumptions of the vulnerability of these regions to an Ukrainian offensive, forcing Russia to dilute some of its invasion strength in defensive formations around critical cities and infrastructure in these provinces.
Thus, from a military perspective, such attacks in Bryansk have significant strategic benefit to Ukraine. That they are being carried out in asymmetric fashion is also testament to Ukraine’s capacity for special operations well within Russia proper, either using special force units or by fomenting an anti-Putin insurgent group within Russia. Even if the damage to targets such as the rail line is minimal, just the fact that it occurred complicates Russia’s defensive posture.
“Something” Is Happening Inside Russia
While we cannot determine with any specificity whether the sabotage of the rail line in Bryansk was conducted by a Russian insurgency or by Ukrainian special forces, that TASS is reporting these attacks rather than attempting to bury such stories indicates that “something” is amiss within Russia.
Even if the fuel depot fires and other apparent “accidents” earlier in the summer were not the result of sabotage efforts by Ukraine, the use of an “explosive device”, to use TASS’ term, means that “somebody” is out to damage Russian infrastructure in the region. That Russian authorities have rounded up arms traffickers across Russia who, according to Russian media, are apparently trafficking in military-grade weapons and munitions would be consistent with a Russian insurgent/terrorist group capable of conducting at least minor attacks deep within Russia proper.
Given that Ukraine is the clear beneficiary of even minor acts of sabotage against Russian infrastructure, at a minimum, these reports within Russian media suggest a sophisticated intelligence apparatus for Ukraine (which could very well be a NATO apparatus operating on behalf of Ukraine) and an ability to support operations far from even Kharkiv. At a maximum Ukraine is able to support asymmetric special operations campaigns almost wherever it wants within western Russia, meaning that literally no part of Russia in these regions is safe, and railroads, bridges, and supply depots in these provinces are all potentially subject to sabotage.
None of this augurs well for Russia’s future efforts regarding Ukraine. While Putin still has on paper the resources to ultimately occupy all of Ukraine, it seems increasingly unlikely he will be able to pacify Ukraine even if Kyiv is occupied. Putin will likely have to maintain a substantial occupation force in Ukraine even after major military operations have ceased, thus limiting Russia’s ability to threaten other nations. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania at the very least would be able to breathe a collective sigh of relief.
Regardless of what happens around the Kherson front in coming days and weeks, Putin’s war in Ukraine is going to continue soaking up Russian blood and treasure for some time to come.
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