Ukraine update: Belarus has another smoking accident; what’s Ukraine’s real plan at Kherson?

Ukraine update: Belarus has another smoking accident; what’s Ukraine’s real plan at Kherson?

The big news yesterday remained Ukrainian’s massively successful attack on a Russian airbase in Crimea, but in the early evening hours an explosion at another airfield Russia’s been relying on for its campaign against Ukraine was reported, and this one’s also a doozy. Eight “large explosions” were reported from Zyabrovka airfield in Russia-backing Belarus, a base near the corner of Belarus’ Russian and Ukrainian borders that Russia’s been using to stage equipment and attacks.

Was this, too, a catastrophic smoking accident? Or did Ukraine launch an airstrike against Belarus?

For now we’re going to be going with the smoking accident story, because as irate as the Ukrainian government is at Belarus allowing Russia to stage attacks from inside their country, Belarusan dictator Alexander Lukashenko has been doing a bang-up job of sabotaging Russia’s war efforts while not looking like he’s sabotaging Russia’s war efforts. And there’s just no compelling reason for Ukraine to poke that right now.

Lukashenko has successfully told Russian president Vladimir Putin to pound sand on Russian expectations that Belarus would be sending in its own troops on Russia’s behalf, and while Belarus’ military competence might make even Russian troops look like crack special forces, his Putin rebuff still means much of Ukraine’s northern border remains quiet. That’s a big deal for stretched-thin Ukrainian defenders and supplies. It’s likely Lukashenko is doing this for reasons of self-preservation as entering the war is such an unpopular notion that it could well result in a spectacular smoking accident in the general vicinity of his skull, but it’s still a big deal. And at this point, it seems very likely that a late Belarus entry into the war would be swiftly met with a military response from NATO itself.

There’s not much Ukraine could target inside Belarus that would be worth opening a new front over. If anything, Russia would be the only beneficiary.

The whole thing might also be … made up. Or at least, not what it seems. Sixteen or so hours after the initial explosion, there’s still no suggestion of strike-scale damage. Belarus explanations have gone from “training” accident to the usual: Look, our troops just cannot stop accidentally setting things on fire.

🇧🇾 Belarus’ Ministry of Defence dismisses reports of explosions at an airfield near the Ukrainian border, says this was the result of a fire that started while repairs were being made to an aircraft.

— European Insider (@Europa_Insider) August 11, 2022

You know what? We’re going to go with that. Not the specific explanation, but the theory that yeah, things just keep exploding in ye old Soviet countries. Nothing anyone can do about it, all these Cold War-era wrenches are made of thermite.

We’ll revisit that if more compelling evidence comes in. Now onto stuff where we have a bit more evidence to go by.

Ukraine has been loudly thumping about an imminent counterattack to retake Kherson and surrounding Ukrainian territory between the current southern front and Crimea, and by “loudly” we mean Ukrainian leaders have all but hired planes to fly over Russian troops in the area with banners reading “BIG ATTACK COMING SOON.” Russia has been rushing troops to the region in response, with 60% of Russian BTGs reportedly now on the southern front.

That, in turn, has brought Russian advances in the north to a standstill, and even resulted in small recaptures of territory by Ukraine. Russia’s all geared up for an enormous Ukrainian assault on Kherson, and … Look, I gotta be honest here, this whole thing is so ridiculously implausible I don’t even know what we’re supposed to make of it.

Ukraine’s near-promises of a massive Kherson attack are being so blatantly broadcast that there would seem to be no possible way this isn’t a bluff. The first rule of war is that you do not tell the enemy what you are doing! Well, the first rule of war is to put out your damn cigarette while hand-carrying individual shells around your ammunition depot, but the second is that you don’t broadcast where your troops are and where they’re currently headed.

Unless it’s a trap. And if you mean to make it a trap, the historic method of goading your opponent into taking the bait is not the televised pointing-to-maps of where you’re going, but “accidentally” letting enemy intelligence forces see your supposed plan by “accidentally” leaving it in a briefcase handcuffed to a corpse you happen to have lying around. Or, you know, just leak it over unencrypted radio channels like everyone else. Not everything has to be so damn dramatic, guys.

What’s actually happening on the ground, however—that we know. Here’s a very good rundown of the current operations west of Kherson:

1/10 #Kherson western front update 🧵is finally here.Been working on checking info from local,#OSINT,sat & other sources to produce the most complete picture IMO while still keeping #Opsec.Let’s go 🚀@DefMon3 @neonhandrail @GeoConfirmed @EngstrT @AndrewPerpetua#SlavaUkraïni

— NLwartracker (@NLwartracker) August 10, 2022

What’s currently happening, then, is that Ukraine is now making consistent but small gains along the southwestern front, pushing Russian forces out of villages or, better still, forcing Russian troops to retreat from those villages because Ukrainian attacks behind them are making resupply perilous or impossible. That’s been textbook stuff from the Ukraine side from the defense of Kyiv onward: Target supply routes, destroy key bridges, weaken the Russian ability to move forward, then their ability to even stay put.

It’s a series of small, often successful operations to weaken and isolate Russian units. But why on Earth would Ukraine broadcast a supposedly much larger action that sends Russia scrambling to put more battle groups in the very place Ukraine is trying to liberate? Why would you want them to send reinforcements?

Reason one: It’s a bluff. Ukraine doesn’t want those Russian forces there, they just really really don’t want them somewhere else. The Russian push to send over half their available forces to the southern front means that Russian forces everywhere else are considerably weaker.

In the olden days, this was a tactic used to prepare ground elsewhere for a counterassault. While Russia is rushing troops to Kherson, Ukraine would be massing troops to retake Izyum. In the days of satellites, however, there’s no such thing as hiding troop movements. Ukraine can’t stage an assault force capable of taking back significant chunks of occupied territory without Russian generals knowing it near-immediately. (For the same reason, Ukraine can’t really surprise Russian generals with troops around Kherson Russia didn’t expect to see. Russia knows what’s there.)

But note that there’s another possible explanation for Ukraine wanting to bluff their way into Russia removing troops from their eastern front: Ukraine felt they were in a very bad place in the east, and needed to take the pressure off. It might not be the case that Ukraine is confidently scheming a new northern operation, but simply felt they needed to reset the board because the status quo wasn’t sustainable.

Reason two: It’s not a bluff. Ukraine wants Russia to mass troops exactly where Ukraine is goading Russia into massing troops because Ukrainian command has a plan to wipe out whatever Russia throws at them.

This is the theory I, personally, am so wary of. This strategy would coax as many Russian units as possible onto the southern front, and particularly into the Russian-occupied land north of the Crimean peninsula. Then Ukraine blows every bridge in the area, leaving Russian forces fragmented and making retreat and resupply difficult. Then Ukraine, using overwhelming might, goes in and mops up whatever Russian battle groups they’ve successfully been able to isolate, doing catastrophic damage to the Russian war effort and forcing Russian leaders to either begin sending a new mass of conscripts to battle or retreating to Donbas and a new stalemate.

I love this theory. This is a wonderful theory. But this theory relies on Ukraine being able to mass overwhelming firepower, enough to take on over half of Russia’s forces in the thin week or so it would take for Russia to get their troops back out of the boiling pot. If Ukraine now has the ability to do that then it really doesn’t matter what the plan is, because Ukraine would be crushing whatever battle groups it wanted to crush wherever they wanted to crush them.

Ukraine’s blowing bridges to make travel around and out of the Kherson-to-Crimea zone difficult. Ukraine’s blowing bridges to slow down Russian reinforcements while individual Ukrainian operations snuff out Russian units in all the places Russia has overextended itself. But where will the firepower be coming from to isolate half the Russian army and tear it to pieces once Russia has its troops exactly where Ukraine wants them?

Yeah, I’m going to have to be a skeptic on this one. Ukraine remains the underdog in this fight, though not by much. It has the advantage of facing a much-weakened foe that’s been cobbling together exhausted fighting forces to reconstitute battle groups that shouldn’t even be on the field right now, and one that couldn’t deliver a pack of gum to the front lines without losing three trucks or “accidentally” losing their way and coming back with a used washing machine, but it doesn’t have ground superiority, air superiority, or enough HIMARS rocket pods in country to wipe out the majority of Russian forces even if Ukraine did corral them into a reasonably constricted formation. It still feels like wishful thinking to me.

That leaves us with still one more theory to consider.

Reason three: Ukraine sent half the damn Russian army towards Kherson just to f–k with them.

This is an unsatisfying theory. It doesn’t result in any massive strategic win. It doesn’t tie in the Ukrainian attack on Russia’s Crimean airbase in a compelling way, and it presumes that Ukrainian targeting of southern bridges is nothing but the normal day-to-day tactics necessary to keep the southern front manageable for the units Ukraine has arrayed there.

In this theory, all of Ukraine’s government has come together to announce that they’re about to stage a mass counterattack on the southern front because, and hear me out on this … they want Russia to waste the gas money.

Russian logistics is terrible. Russian logistics even 10 kilometers outside of Russian borders is terrible. Russia’s inability to supply their troops has been the story of the war. And the Ukrainian threats have, if nothing else, convinced Russia to move a sizable chunk of its in-country forces from their positions in the north and around Donbas down through the tenuous Russian-held lands of the south to back up the Kherson front.

Oh, that had to have sucked. Imagine the wear on vehicles. Imagine the fatigue. Imagine the fuel problems, and the logistics of carting around the massive quantities of ammunition necessary to make sure the newly transplanted units weren’t just exceptionally gaudy and impotent targets.

How many vehicles do we think Russia lost, from all the BTGs forced to make the trip? How many smoking accidents per kilometer of travel?

Even if all it cost Vladimir Putin to move all those troops was gas money, that’s still money Russia doesn’t have. And all Ukraine has to do is announce tomorrow that, joke’s on you, we’re actually preparing an assault in Izyum and Russia has to do the Whole. Damn. Thing. Again.

There’re several problems here that the Russian army has that Ukraine doesn’t, and being on enemy territory is just one of them. The other is the nature of Russian occupation. Russia has occupied a crescent of land with a long, long, long front line; Ukraine holds the center position. When it comes to ease of moving troops from one end of the front line to the other, there’s no contest. Ukraine can get troops anywhere in the country far faster than Russia can.

It’s even possible that Ukraine could mass troops in the far south, provoke a Russian defensive response, and simply drive everybody north again in a fraction of the time it would take for Russia to realize it, pack up, and scurry back. Russia still outranks Ukraine militarily, and in theory Ukraine is the underdog. But there’s simply no contest between Ukraine’s ability to pick locations for new counteroffensives and Russia’s.

Theory three, then, is the one I’m going to pick for now. Ukraine is sending Russia on a road trip simply because they can, using the opportunity to pick off as many new targets as they can while themselves massing no great spectacle of firepower. It beats the first theory, which is that Ukraine needed to reset the eastern front a bit for self-preservation, and is more plausible than the second theory, which is that NATO shipments have now left Ukraine so flush with weapons that Ukraine is confident it can eliminate most of the Russian occupiers by simply luring them to one general area and pointing rockets at them.

Your guess is as good as anyone else’s.

Rounding things off for now:

🧵 The exact cause of the explosions at Saki Air Base is still unknown, but there are three pieces of evidence that point towards the attack being done by SOF on the ground.https://t.co/8vX9n61loY 1/

— Oliver Alexander (@OAlexanderDK) August 11, 2022

I am. It’s very good. https://t.co/7elYuz5bZ8

— Gen Michael Hayden (@GenMhayden) August 10, 2022

And:

Video of Russia striking the Ukrainian village Pinsky with thermobaric weapons (TOS-1A). Daily reminder that Russia is a terrorist state. pic.twitter.com/bon98d46ZN

— Visegrád 24 (@visegrad24) August 11, 2022

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