GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan: Ukraine – Operational tempo slowing down?

Key information from Ukraine in the last 24 hours supports the theory that there is currently a pause in Russian activity.  Yesterday, the city of Kherson fell to Russian forces providing a building block for any strategy to advance across the south of Ukraine and create a coastal, ‘Crimean Corridor’.  This pause was predicted and coincides with both negotiations and with Russia’s operational requirement to resupply and reorganise its forces. 

A large Russian force north of Kiev is currently holding it position and appears to have halted.  The halt is probably because the Russians are preparing for their deliberate attack on Kiev, rather than Ukrainian activity.  

Approximately, 170 kilometres north of Kherson on the eastern bank of the Dnieper, fighting was reported around Enerhodar, a city that services the largest nuclear power plant in Europe.  This fighting caused a fire in one of the plant’s reactors.  The fire created frantic discussion in the media as people likened it to the Chernobyl reactor fire and meltdown that sent radioactive fallout across a wide swathe of Europe in the 1980s.

This incident is interesting because it demonstrates how confusing interpretation of intelligence can be, initial reports, from the Ukrainian side, painted this incident as deliberate environmental terrorism.  This is a possibility that needs to be considered.  Bombing a nuclear power plant and callously releasing radioactive fallout, could be a signal to NATO that Russia is willing to accept nuclear risk, possibly a step on the ‘escalation ladder’ before a tactical nuclear strike.  

Looking at the map it is clear that the Russian forces attacking the city are not looking to outflank Kherson, and move west.  At this point the Dnieper is very wide and also there are more direct routes to Zaporizhzhia, a city of approximately a million people about 40 kilometres north of Enerhodar.  Zaporizhzhia, may become an objective because it provides another crossing point on the Dnieper allowing an offensive against Odessa to cross the river at two points.  

The reason the Russians need to capture cities on the Dnieper if they want to advance west is that they need bridges. One Russian ‘battalion battle group’ has approximately 30-40 armoured fighting vehicles and probably the same number of support vehicles.  Spread out, advancing on a road each one cover tens of kilometres.   A bridge is ‘defile’, a narrow gap that your whole force must pass though.  Moving each battlegroup through takes time.  So it is always best to cross rivers in as many places as possible to avoid congestion and minimise the time it takes to build combat power on the other site

Enerhodar, does not allow a crossing of the Dnieper Rive and is not on the most direct axis of advance north, so it is most likely that Russian forces there are tasked to seize the power plant, an important asset. This is predictable and brings us to the question of the fire in the rector.

Two rules any analyst needs to apply to interpreting information are the ‘razors’ of Ockham and Hanlon.  Hanlon’s Razor ‘states never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity’ and I think that shelling the powerplant was a mistake.  

Interesting evidence is appearing that shows the Russians are not well equipped with GPS systems.  GPS systems are not only used for providing directions between points, they are also used in modern militaries to locate artillery.  Most Russian artillery in action in this war has effective ranges of about 20-30 kilometres and fires at targets it cannot see directed by ‘forward observers’.  The ‘fall of shot’ is predicted using maths and maps. If the forward observer or the gunline that is firing have not located themselves correctly then when the guns fire inaccuracy can easily creep into the fall of shot.  Even a small error in location can lead to a big mistake when it is extrapolated over 20-30km. Essentially, it is easy to make a mistake especially when you are relying on manual survey rather than GPS.  My gut feeling is that near Enerhodar there is a Russian junior officer in the artillery getting ear bashed by their bosses, probably all the way back to Moscow!

I don’t think is makes military sense to shell the reactor, if you wanted to attack a reactor as a terror tactic it would be better to use a cruise missile, long-range rocket or aircraft bomb.  

Other interesting points that can noted in the last 24 hours include the Ukrainian commentary on the ceasefire negotiations, the report was reasonably civil and humanitarian corridors were agreed.  Unfortunately, not many conclusions can be drawn from this reporting because the Russians have proven that their statements cannot be trusted.  

Another interesting point might seem strange.  Recent reports of powerful Russian’s daughters protesting the war on social media are fascinating.  Military analysis is my field of expertise; however this trend highlights the generational difference between modern Russia and its leadership.  A similar generational difference defeated the Americans in Vietnam.  In 1968 at the end of the Tet Offensive the Vietnamese were militarily defeated but in America people had lost their stomach for the war and wanted out.  The anti-war movement gained ascendancy and America exited the war.  Perhaps, the power of Russia’s Gen X’s and Millennial will mobilise and pressure the autocracy to stop this war.

So at the end of D + 9 let’s look at our predictions:

  • Russian main effort may start to switch to the south but don’t expect a respite for Kiev it will continue to be menaced and bombarded holding Ukrainian forces there so they can’t be used elsewhere. 
  • Continue to expect lots of activity around Kherson as the Russians probe outwards looking for weaknesses that can be exploited by either advancing north towards Kiev or west towards Odessa. 
  • Although, the last 24 hours was free of overt nuclear rhetoric the risk still exists that there may be a nuclear show of force.  NATO’s clear statements about not creating a ‘no-fly’ zone may be defusing this risk.   
  • The Ukrainian ability to challenge Russia in the air is likely disappearing.  The Ukrainian requests for a ‘no-fly’ zone have a hint of desperation.  Expect to see more satellite images of large Russian troop concentrations as Ukrainian bombers become less of a threat. 

In summary, yesterday’s fire at Enerhodar demonstrates why we need to carefully evaluate information and think through its implications.  The inflammatory coverage of the fire demonstrated how easy it is to misinterpret information. 

Today’s question remains – Do the Russians have the conventional combat power in the south to conduct an offensive?  At this stage we don’t know, but as Ukrainian air power is worn down expect to see clear evidence of Russian intentions as they allow more concentration and movement of forces in daylight. 


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

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