Putin's War, Week 40. Winter Is Coming, and It Is Looking Like Finland in 1939

(As always, the opinions expressed in my posts are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of RedState.com.)

Things on the ground are pretty stable as we enter Week 40 of Vladimir Putin’s four-day demonstration of shock and awe. That is not to say nothing is happening because that is not the case.

Politico-Strategic Level

Russia Decides to Call a War a War

Semantics are always important in war. While fighting in Korea, it was a “conflict” or “police action.” Richard Nixon’s (correct) decision to plow into Cambodia to interdict North Vietnamese logistics was called an “incursion.” That word was chosen, it was rumored, because unlike “invasion,” it didn’t have a verb form that sounded threatening.

Russia has been rigorous about calling its illegal war in Ukraine a “special military operation.” Vladimir Putin signed a decree specifying that calling the war in Ukraine a “war” to be a crime under the heading of “discrediting the Russian military.” People were arrested and jailed for this offense. However, now that Russia is mobilizing reservists for duty, that policy seems to be slipping.

I suspect that if the war still exists by spring, the term “special military operation” will be abandoned because it is ridiculous.

OSCE Meets Without Russia

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is one of those Cold War organizations, like NATO, that has gotten a new lease on life thanks to Russia’s behavior. The OSCE is headquartered in Austria and has observer status at the UN. Its 57 member nations are supposed to coordinate Europe’s response to arms control, promotion of human rights, freedom of the press, and free and fair elections. The very fact that Russia is a member lets you know just how useful it was.

Currently, Poland holds the rotating presidency, and its annual meeting is scheduled for Warsaw. Then Poland decided not to allow sanctioned Russians into the country to participate. This included Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

During the meeting, Moldova’s foreign minister demanded that Russia withdraw its troops from Transnistria as it had promised to do some decades ago.

This signals the diplomatic isolation that Russia’s Ukraine adventure is causing and shows that a decoupling of Russia from Western security and economic systems is probably inevitable. Russia is no longer perceived as a major military power, it is no longer considered a viable partner for security and economic agreements, and it is shut out from any ability to defend itself in the forums where it is attacked.

The Germans Are No Longer In Russia’s Corner

Germany, of all Western countries, has been the most solicitous about Russia’s hurt feelings and the least aggressive in helping Ukraine. According to former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the German government was cheering on an early Russian victory as a good thing. Germany has provided some weapons systems to Ukraine, but they are defensively focused. Germany has intervened to stop the transfer of even obsolescent offensive equipment, like Leopard 1 tanks and Marder infantry fighting vehicles, from other countries to Ukraine. At times, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz seemed to be embracing his early political career as a Russian stooge, going out of his way to kowtow to Putin.

In the last week, things have changed.

Yesterday, Scholz and Putin spoke via telephone. According to the German readout of the conversation, Scholz condemned the Russian attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure and urged Putin to withdraw Russian troops from Ukraine as a prelude to negotiations.

This parallels Scholz’s statement at a press conference in Cyprus two weeks ago, where he said Russia can no longer win its war in Ukraine. Scholz seems to think that if the war is over, everything will return to status quo ante. My personal feeling is that we are beyond that point.

Negotiations

The Ukrainians have set the withdrawal of all Russian troops to status quo ante February 24 as a precondition for negotiations. The Russians have now made a counteroffer:

This might be great trolling to impress the Douglas MacGregor branch of the GOP and various Russian stooges on social media, but it is hardly a serious reflection of the situation on the ground. My earlier supposition that Russia would try to compensate for battlefield weakness by attacking Ukraine’s alliances by appearing reasonable versus Zelensky’s intransigence was wrong. The Russian leadership is just not very bright when dealing outside the Russian domestic audience.

Russia’s Cozy Relationship with Iran Threatened by Israel

This war has had plenty of odd occurrences. None is so bizarre as seeing Russia turn to Third World pariah states for military supplies. I reported earlier on winter uniforms for the Russian Army being manufactured in North Korea. Russia is buying helmets, plate carriers, and ballistic inserts for those vests from Iran. Iran has been supplying Russia with suicide drones and is in negotiations with Russia to open a production facility for those drones in Russia. It has also been rumored that Iran will supply Russia with short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

Israel has not provided military assistance to Ukraine. But it doesn’t seem happy about the idea of Iranian missiles being sold to Russia.

I think Israel will send aid to Ukraine if the war drags on for another few months. The Iron Dome system is precisely what is needed to defend critical infrastructure from Russian attacks without having to divert combat units. In the meantime, interfering in the weapons trade between Russia and Iran is a significant “in kind” contribution.

Ukraine’s Power Grid Soldiers On

For the last couple of months, Russia’s apparent strategy has been to try to force Ukraine to stop fighting by striking at the will of the Ukrainian people. Earlier in the war, Russia carried out what can only be called terror attacks on cities. When these attacks produced no military results and a lot of bad publicity, the targeting switched to the electrical grid, steam heating plants, and water works.

The same nations who are arming and supplying Ukraine with weapons and military-related supplies are not running a consortium to supply parts to keep Ukraine’s electrical grid functioning.

One of the sidebars to this is that Russia has rolled out a public relations campaign to convince the truly stupid that the infrastructure attacks are to stop Ukraine’s electrical locomotives from moving.

Rybar is a quasi-official Russian military account on Telegram. I’ve used them in my coverage before. This doesn’t explain Russian television hosts explaining the purpose of the attacks is to deprive Ukrainian civilians of electricity, heat, and water. Neither does it justify the strikes on waterworks and heating plants. But I’m sure I’ll get educated in the comments by the usual suspects.

Artillery Repair Center in Poland

The war in Ukraine is and has been, an artillery war. Prodigious quantities of ammunition are shot, and drones and counter-battery fires target artillery pieces. Even without enemy action, the wear on gun tubes and recoil mechanisms is horrendous.

The US has announced that it will open a field artillery repair center in Poland.

Like any US Army repair depot, the facility will undoubtedly be staffed by civilian technicians who know their business. It will also be an excellent opportunity for tech transfer to Poland and Ukraine.

Ukrainian Arms Industry Comes Back

Before the invasion, Ukraine had a small and ingenious domestic arms business. Its stock in trade was modifying the Russian trash that it had into inexpensive systems nearly as effective as much more costly Western weapons. However, with a little breathing room due to Western assistance, the Ukrainian arms industry is showing signs of life.

One of the threats to both sides in this war is the consumption of artillery ammunition. According to some estimates, both sides shoot more artillery ammunition in two weeks than the UK’s stockpile to fight a full-scale war. While the West provides several hundred artillery systems and ammunition, that is all in the NATO standard 155mm. Most of Ukraine’s tube artillery and all of Russia’s are 152mm. Russia is buying ammunition from North Korea. NATO has scoured the Third World for 152mm. Ukraine’s primary supplier is…drumroll…Iran. But the US is standing up manufacturing facilities to fill the void.

Now Ukraine’s ammunition production is cranking up.

As would be expected, the details are classified, but the fact that Ukraine is starting to make artillery ammunition is a good sign.

In addition to artillery ammunition, we are starting to see images of a homegrown Ukrainian Multiple Launch Rocket System called the Bureviy or Storm. It is a more sophisticated version of the Russian 220mm “Uragan.”

The fire control system is much more capable and can link to data from drones. Unlike the Russian version, the Storm’s crew doesn’t have to leave the crew compartment to aim the rockets. Unfortunately, it still has to be loaded and the rockets fuzed by hand, so it can only fire once every 20-30 minutes.

Wagner Group Designated Terrorist Group

This war has raised the profile of the Wagner Private Military Company (PMC). Where it has once been shadowy and confined to conflicts where Russia didn’t have forces and its owner, Putin crony Yevgeny Prigozhin, disavowed connection with it, its star is now in its ascendancy. Wagner has a flashy headquarters in St. Petersburg, and Prigozhin touts his affiliation with the PMC. The last update I posted on the execution by sledgehammer of a Wagner soldier who’d defected to Ukraine.

There is a push in several places to declare the Wagner Group as a terrorist organization.

My gut is that this is a monumentally bad idea. I don’t think the Wagner Group violates the UN convention on the use of mercenaries. Even if it did, it would be up to Ukraine to punish individual Wagnerites. What happens when some country declares Delta for the SEALs to be a terrorist group? Do we want to go down that road for no appreciable benefit?

Abducted Racoon Fights Back

In my last update, I posted about the abduction of animals from the Kherson Zoo when the Russians absconded from the area. Since then, the Russians have claimed the raccoon as the mascot of their airborne forces, and the Russian embassy in South Africa held a name-that-raccoon contest on Twitter.

It also led to some sorta funny memes.

The raccoon reappeared in a video last week and showed itself to be unhappy. In the photo op, it nearly took a finger off the hand of the Russia-appointed head of the Kherson Military-Civilian Administration, Volodymyr Saldo.

Operational Level

The lines are essentially unchanged again. As the weather turns cold and the ground mercifully freezes, I think that will change around the first of the year.

New Weapons

Weapons Donations

Ukraine is dependent upon weapons donated by other countries. It is interesting to note that Russia is the single largest contributor of military equipment to Ukraine. This is not equipment the Ukrainian Army had when the war started. These vehicles have been verified by video and imagery to have been abandoned or captured in combat.

Early in the war, Ukrainian farm tractors towing away Russian tanks provided the iconic image of the war.

It wasn’t a joke.

Ground Drones

Germany is providing 14 THeMIS Milrem Robotics drones designed to transport the wounded and cargo.

They may be “designed” to deliver cargo and evacuate wounded, but it doesn’t take a genius to see the possibilities if a few anti-tank missiles and maybe a grenade launcher are slung on it.

Training

Poland Increases Training of Ukrainian Troops

US Provides Combined Arms Training for Ukraine

Prisoner exchanges
Combat Operations

Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTP)

Putin’s War in Ukraine has been the first large-scale drone war. The possibilities have been showcased in lower-intensity warfare between Azerbaijan and Armenia. But Ukraine is bringing the drone mainstream. Here you have a Ukrainian drone controlling the fires of a Mark 19 40mm grenade launcher team.

Kharkiv

There were no significant military operations in the Kharkiv area. However, there was some limited skirmishing around Svatove that could be the beginning of a shaping operation.

This image is four days old because nothing has changed; I’m using it because I hate people who throw around placenames and don’t use a map.

Donbas
There have been no significant changes in the line of contact in the Donbas area. Both sides are locked in a death grip in and around Bakhmut.

Both sides have started using Verdun imagery and references. Every couple of days, the Russian accounts on Telegram proclaim that Bakhmut and neighboring towns have fallen. The fact of the matter is that a lot of the towns change hands daily, if not more frequently.

As I’ve said before, I don’t see what this battle gets anyone other than the bragging rights of having held the ground. That, in my view, is rarely a good enough reason to kill one’s own men. I think the Russians have made taking Bakhmut and the nearby towns a point of honor to compensate for the last three months of failure. The Ukrainians feel honor-bound not to let the Russians win.

Kherson/Zaporizhzhia

I’m going to continue to treat these two areas as one, as it makes more sense to look at the emerging area of operations as occupied Ukraine on the left bank of the Dnieper.

There is some interesting stuff happening in this area of operations. For example, in the last update, I posted about a defensive belt the Russians are constructing along the highway from Melitopol and Nova Khakovka.

Last update, the Russians were preparing positions around Melitopol. This week, via commercial satellite imagery, we see a series of defensive lines being developed along the E58 highway from Melitopol to Nova Kakhovka.

I don’t have the imagery, so I can’t make inferences, but it looks like the line is situated to prevent any Ukrainian breakthrough towards Melitopol from threatening Crimea. Does this imply that Russia is preparing to sacrifice the area north of the defensive line and conduct a planned retrograde operation from the existing front line? Because the Russians don’t have enough troops to man the current front and simultaneously defend the line, they are building. If they don’t, then should a breakthrough take place, the odds of being able to stop a retreat fast enough to man the defensive line are pretty slim.

Russian sources report that the Russian-installed civil government will move from Nova Khakovka to points south. If you recall, the quisling administration in Kherson moved out of that city about a month before the Russians abandoned it.

There are indications that the Russians are thinning out their front lines to man the defensive belt. However, as of now, these reports lack confirmation.

Partisan Activity

Mariupol
There is no word on the identity of the targets, only that the bomb went off outside the Russian administrative headquarters in Mariupol.

Tokmak

The caption reads via auto-translate:

“In Tokmak, the car of collaborator Alexei Koshel was blown up. At the occupiers, Koshel was the so-called “head of the UVD [editor’s note: internal security].” He is reported to have died in a blown up car. Before the war, Koshel worked in the military, but during the war he wanted to betray the oath and go to the servants of the Russians.”

Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNBPP) Security

Rumors from multiple sources indicate that Russia, Ukraine, and the IAEA have agreed on a plan to demilitarize the ZNPP and the surrounding area.

What’s Next?

Winter is coming, as Putin’s booklicks like to say on Twitter. But this is not going to be another Operation Bagration. If it has a historical analog, it will be much closer to the fate of the Red Army in Finland’s birch forests in the winter of 1939-1940.

We are at stasis until the mud freezes. Quantitatively and qualitatively, I still believe that the correlation of forces heavily favors Ukraine. Ukraine has interior lines of communication. The throughput of its training base in the UK and Germany is about 15,000 soldiers per month with basic soldier skills. The Ukrainians appear, at least from social media, to be rotating units out of forward positions and permitting home leave. There is no evidence that the Russians can train the “mobilized” forces or even equip them to survive the winter. Really, there is no indication that they intend to use the mobilized forces as anything but cannon fodder to prevent the Ukrainian front lines from resting. In the absence of any catastrophic change in that correlation, I think we can expect a mid-winter offensive by Ukraine.

The Russian defensive belt in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson and rumors of a thinning of Russian front lines could indicate that Russia has decided it does not have the troop density to defend the current front line and is moving to shorten it. This will entail abandoning most of occupied Zaporizhzhia and attempting to retain a narrow corridor along the Black Sea from Russian-occupied Donetsk to Crimea. I don’t think this will work because, in the words of General George S. Patton, Jr., “Fixed fortifications are a monument to the stupidity of man.”

Another possibility is that this likely shortening of defensive lines may be related to the seemingly mindless slaughter around Bakhmut. It will be difficult for Putin to walk back the invasion’s maximalist goals. Maybe the thought is creating a much-reduced land bridge and making some territorial gains in Donetsk will create a fig leaf of success to mask the abject failure of this military adventure.

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