GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – Moskva sinks, while ground forces rally for a fight in eastern Ukraine

This week’s major event is the sinking of the Moskva. This ship is one of a small batch of incredibly heavily armed and very capable Russian warships.  It is the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet and its involvement in the capture of Snake Island gives it enormous symbolic value.  It is a significant prize and we can be sure that its loss will not go unpunished.

We should immediately ‘write off’ Russian claims that the ship sunk accidently, damaged by an onboard fire.  It is almost impossible to believe that a warship, in a warzone staffed by a crew with even basic levels of training and competence could accidently catch fire be damaged so badly that it sinks.  It is staggering that the Russians would rather admit to this level incompetence than concede that Moskva was lost to an attack. That it was a carefully planned and executed Ukrainian operation is indicated by reports of Ukrainian stamps commemorating the sinking being printed prior to the attack.  

So the real question is how did the Ukrainian’s manage to sink the ship? The Moskva class, has the best radar surveillance systems the Russians can deploy at sea. The ships deploy layers of air defence each one carrying a battery of 64 long and 40 short range anti-aircraft missiles. The long-range missiles can hit air targets more than 100km away and the short-range missiles can engage fast moving, low flying targets.  Each ship also has a battery of six 30mm radar-controlled Gatling guns designed to shoot down missiles and low flying aircraft.  The Moskva class are a ‘hard target’. 

The Ukrainians claim that they used a new, home-grown cruise missile called ‘Neptune’. More interesting are the currently unsubstantiated reports of drones being used to swamp the ship’s defences. Modern air defences are mostly automated, targets are identified by radar, computers prioritising the targets and automatically engaging them. Modern naval war takes place faster than humans can process information for instance a sea-skimming missile may provide only seconds of warning between appearing on radar and impact, so defensive systems need to be automated.  

Swamping a modern warship’s air defence system is very difficult and it will be fascinating to find out how the Ukrainian’s achieved this feat. Although, contributing factors are likely to be the ship’s maintenance level and crew training. The best radars, missiles and guns are useless if they are not working properly. This attack and the long-range missile attack on the Russian amphibious warfare ships in Brediansk on 24 March, indicate that the Ukrainians are able to deliver long-range precision targeted strikes against high value targets.  The operations are obviously based on excellent intelligence, are well-planned and executed demonstrating that the Ukrainians are able to destroy key naval assets.  

Destroying ships is important not just to prevent their use supporting the invasion but also because their loss is difficult to hide in the Russian media.  It is impossible to cover up the loss of a ship nearly 200m long weighing 12,000 tons for instance an ANZAC class frigate is about two thirds the length and about a one fifth of the weight of Moskva.  Warships especially, flagships are paraded around ports advertising the power of naval fleets, the community knows about these ships so a loss cannot be hidden from the community.  Further, large ships have large crews, imagine if the Russians had not evacuated the ship and it had sunk with all five hundred of its crew it would have been a terrible tragedy effecting 500 Russian families.

If the Ukrainians can sink warships, it changes the Russian’s operational planning because they cannot guarantee control of the littoral coast making amphibious landings or resupplying forces from the sea much riskier.  It also forces Russian warships to operate further from the coast out of range of Ukrainian missiles. Many of the cruise missiles hitting Ukraine were probably fired from Moskva, if Russian ships need to operate further from the coast it may limit their ability to hit targets deep in Ukraine.  This incident will affect Russian planning limiting their naval options. 

On the ground the key action this week is Russian manoeuvres to build their forces in the south-east of the country.   Russian convoys were photographed by satellites moving east confirming that troops withdrawn from Kiev are moving towards Donbas.  The Russians are also calling up reserves to augment their battered units and trying to rebuild a combat capable force.  

A key change in Russian strategy is the appointment of General Alexander Dvornikov, consolidating command of the invasion force under one officer.  It was a shock to find out recently, that the Russians did not start the invasion with a unified command structure.  Instead, separate parts of the invasion were commanded by different officers.  This seems crazy but happens in poorly governed militaries in which officers are allowed to seek glory pursuing individual objectives rather than being required to work together and it is a significant weakness.

An example is the Nigerian Civil, when the province of Biafra declared its independence from Nigeria in 1967 a bloody civil war started. The Nigerian army although much larger and better equipped was led by officers more concerned with personal status and political advancement so it operated as independent units rather than a unified whole. Slowing down progress and allowing Biafra to defeat elements of their forces in detail during the early years of the war.  Although Biafra did not win that war, eventually being crushed by weight of Nigerian numbers it managed to exploit the weaknesses in Nigerian command to prolong the war. 

The Russian military has much longer history than Nigeria’s had in 1967, and I don’t think that their Soviet predecessors would have operated in this manner, centralised control and unity of effort being a hallmark of the Cold War Soviet military system.  The lack of unified command demonstrates two key weaknesses; a poorly governed officer corps and arrogance.  

The appointment of General Dvornikov is a key indication that the Russians are being forced to evolve, however there is difference between appointing a general and that general establishing effective command.  Finding a ‘staff’, the military term for the planners and advisors that support him will take time, developing the administrative procedures to make sure intelligences flows into the new commander and that his orders flow out accurately and quickly to his subordinates will take time.  

In effective armies’ generals have these resources established and tested before they go into combat.  In the 1991 Invasion of Iraq, the United States led coalition force set up a joint command structure headed by General Norman Schwarzkopf as deployment of forces began. By the time the war started General Schwarzkopf and his headquarters were established and working effectively to manage the operation.  General Dvornikov has the difficult task of trying to bring a defeated army together under a single commander, during a war which is a very difficult. Throw in the issues the Russians clearly have with communications and logistics and that task only gets more problematic.  Historically, some exceptional generals have achieved this feat, perhaps General Dvornikov is exceptional and will. Although, as this war demonstrates current Russian military culture mitigates against producing exceptional leaders so it is more likely he won’t.  

The Russians and Ukrainians are probing and testing each other near Izium and Sloviansk, lending weight to the theory that; when it comes the offensive will be in this area.  The major offensive did not start this week and I do not think it will for some time. Recent spring rain and snow melt continues to mean that the Ukrainian plains are muddy and difficult to traverse.  Further, as well as rebuilding their forces the Russians will need to stockpile ammunition and supplies before committing to an offensive. We can bet on the fact that Russian will be learning from their mistakes and preparing better for this round of combat. 

Further south Mariupol will fall soon, the Russians are claiming victory there and I am sure that in coming days this will be confirmed.  No matter how brave, soldiers cannot fight without food, water and ammunition.  It is sad but inevitable, the more I have looked at the ground around the city the less likely I think relief was, Mariupol is a good port but its surrounding geography provides limited avenues of approach for a relieving force.  Many commentators are currently assuming that victory here will free Russian soldiers near Mariupol to turn north and lead an offensive pushing linking up with other Russians moving south from Izium enveloping Ukraine’s forces on the Luhansk border.  This is wishful thinking, the soldiers that capture Mariupol will take time to recover and return to being a viable combat force.  

If a Putin really requires a victory before 9 May for Russia’s Victory Day celebrations, we can work back and from this date and estimate that the Russians can safely re-organise and prepare for action until the end of April.  Therefore, my prediction is that there is unlikely to be a major ground offensive till at least the end of the month or the start of May. Perhaps, 9 May could be the start of an offensive? 

It is likely to be launched in the Izium, Barvinkove, Kramatorsk, Slovensk area.  I still believe that an offensive of this nature is unlikely to be effective.  In my opinion it will take months, or a full- scale mobilisation of the Russian military to produce a Russian force capable of a successful large-scale offensive in Ukraine.  Putin may have to accept the fall of Mariupol as a ‘victory ‘on 9 May.  

The most concerning development this week was a statement by the Director of the CIA, William Burns that Russian use of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons might become more likely, an option to re-balance the situation in Ukraine.  CIA Directors do not make statements like that without thinking them through and although this option has been on the table from the start of this war recent events might make it more likely. The Russians are in a dire situation, they are fighting a tenacious and tough enemy and being beaten. Sanctions are hurting them and the world is turning against them so victory becomes more important so that they can disengage from this war and start recovering.  Now they also face the threat of Finland and Sweden both seriously considering joining NATO increasing Russian tensions about being surrounded.  Using tactical nuclear weapons could be seen by Russian planners as a demonstration of resolve and strength.  I certainly hope that this does not happen, however it is important that if it does the world is not surprised or shocked and can respond in an effective, united manner. 

In coming days, Mariupol will surrender.  Unfortunately, this is a foregone conclusion and inevitable.  The ground war is unlikely to develop in the immediate future, at the moment both sides are preparing for battle, there will be small probes testing each other’s defences and capabilities, however I think that it is unlikely that we will see large scale combat for some time.  Wet weather and the simple requirement for both sides to prepare mean that large scale actions are unlikely at this time. 

Unfortunately, it is likely that we will see air bombardments of Ukrainian cities.  The full power of the Russian’s strategic bomber fleet has not yet been unleashed on Ukraine.  So far it does not appear that Russia has used its fleet of large bomber aircraft yet.  The centres of cities like Kiev, Dnipro and Lviv remain largely undamaged and have not suffered large-scale, repeated area bombing.  After the sinking of the Moskva it is likely that Moscow will seek to punish Ukraine and bombing its people in cities far from the frontline is an easy option to achieve this goal.   


Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.

Related Posts