GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – Ukrainian forces push forward in the north, east and south and who bombed Belgorod?

The situation in northern Ukraine is developing as expected, it was clear that the Russian thrust at Kiev has been blunted and it is now being pushed back. Russian propaganda about withdrawing from this area because ‘they want to’ should be dismissed. Since the last article; Irpin, Hostomel, the Andropov Airfield, Makariv and Brodianka are as now in Ukrainian hands. The capture of these areas pushes Russian field artillery out of range of Kiev, although it should be presumed that aircraft and long-range rockets will still impact on the city, it is an important achievement. 

Tactically, the key question in this area, is did the Russians in the satellite towns of Klavdiievo-Tarasove, Nemishaieve and Vorzel manage to get away or is there now a pocket of surrounded Russians ready to either surrender or be destroyed? 

Reports also indicate that near Chernihiv, Russian forces are withdrawing and the situation near Kharkov is developing as predicted with Ukrainian forces pushing the Russians back near the towns of Mala Danylivka and Derhachi just north of the city. Then to the south and east the town of Chuhuiv is being contested.  Taken with the recent capture of Trostianets this may be an indication of the north eastern front stabilising soon, in Ukrainian control along an arc from Chernihiv through to Sumy and Kharkov.  

Chernihiv is only 50 km from the Russian border, Sumy and Kharkov less, about 40km.  Putting this distance into perspective, the distance from central Auckland to Orewa is approximately 30 km and travelling 50km in the other direction takes you to Pokeno.  In this area the Ukrainians are close to pushing the Russians out of Ukraine.  

Fortunately, the retreating Russians did not use chemical agents to delay pursuit, however appear to have spread mines and booby traps liberally, probably to slow down Ukrainian pursuit. The next few days will provide more information about Ukrainian capabilities.  A nagging question is how much of Ukraine’s armour (tank heavy forces supported by infantry in armoured vehicles) survived the first few days of the war.  My initial assessment was that it was probably destroyed stopping the first Russian advance.  An assessment from the Royal United Services Institute, early in the conflict stating that the Ukrainian army was offensively incapable indicated that this was the case. 

Ukraine’s army fields two regular force and four reserve force tank brigades, each with about 100 tanks and supporting infantry, engineers and artillery.  With regards to the regular force brigades; 1st Armoured Brigade was located near Chernihiv and 16th Armoured Brigade was located centrally near Dnipro at the start of the war.

The Ukrainian’s also fielded fifteen mechanised brigades each with about 30 tanks, a couple hundred armoured fighting vehicles, supporting artillery and between 1500 -3000 infantry soldiers. Most of these brigades are reserve units and the war started with the seven regular force brigades deployed across the country focussed on Kiev, Kharkov and near the Donbas border.  

Armoured and mechanised units are the ‘mailed fist’ of an army, they provide powerful fast-moving forces that spearhead offensive operations. Although the Ukrainians had a sizable force of armoured and mechanised units at the start of hostilities it is hard to tell how many remain, and as the war develops Russian withdrawals certainly provide opportunities for armoured offensives to inflict damaging casualties. Watching the war develop, it seems that the Ukrainians were more prepared for war than I expected, perhaps they strategized and held their armour back in the first stages, using light infantry with guided anti-tank weapons and drones to blunt the Russian offensive and preserving an armoured counter-attack force.  If this is the case, Ukraine and has preserved a significant amount of armour, then the Russians could be in for a tough time.  

Which brings us to the strange bombing of Belgorod. Today footage of two Mi – 24 ‘Hind’ attack helicopters using rockets to attack a fuel storage depot in Belgorod, 30km from the border and about 70 km from Kharkov.  The facility caught fire and is destroyed. Fortunately, no one was injured. The Russians say the Ukrainians did it, and the Ukrainians say the Russians did it.  

It is a strange incident, at first it seemed logical that the Ukrainians attacked the depot, it is close to the border (70 km is only 10-15 minutes flying time in a Hind attack helicopter) and probably serves a useful military purpose.  Initially, it looked like a Ukrainian demonstration that they had the capability to strike depth targets.  However, the confused initial response to questions and subsequent denial by Ukrainian officials indicate that it was not planned centrally.

So what happened?  There are three possible explanations:

  • The mission was organised locally by Ukrainian forces and their higher headquarters was not aware of it.
  • The attack is a ‘false flag’ operation executed by the Russians to stir up resentment towards the Ukrainians.
  • It is a Russian mistake.

Hanlon’s Razor states that we should “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity” and anyone with ‘boots on the ground’ military experience will tell you that all sorts of stupid things happen during a war.  It seems most likely that poorly trained, inexperienced young pilots flying at night without GPS equipment (a credibly reported problem with Russian aircraft) simply got lost and hit the wrong target.  At night, flying fast and low, without radio direction finding or radar (to avoid electronic direction) it is easy to get lost.  I think it was a mistake.

By far the most interesting activity today is in the south, Orikhiv and Huliapol are towns located between Kherson and Mariupol.  During the week they were attacked by Ukrainian forces, today both towns are in Ukrainian hands although Huliapol is being counter attacked. The towns are in a direct line between the major Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia and Mariupol.  If the Ukrainians are trying to relieve Mariupol holding Huliapol and Orikhiv is a step towards that goal.  It is exciting stuff, perhaps there is a Ukrainian offensive developing that will relieve the besieged city.  A well-supported relief would also trap a significant Russian force in the area around Kherson.  It would be overly optimistic to make a firm prediction at this time but I think we should definitely be keeping our eyes on this area. 

The Russian troops withdrawn from the north will not reach the south and be in any fit state for combat within a week, Russian reinforcements from Georgia, Tajikistan and Wagner Group mercenaries are not overwhelming numbers so if the Ukrainians do have the combat power to advance on Mariupol we could see some very sudden and significant changes in the campaign.

In summary, the last 48 hours have developed generally as predicted the Russians withdrawing and the Ukrainians advancing north and east.   At this time, it is difficult to make predictions about small Ukrainian gains in the south the capture of Orikhiv and Huliapol, may only be small local operations, however they could be the start of something bigger, especially if the Ukrainian’s armour is still a viable force.  In the next few days we will have a better idea of the situation in this area.  The Ukrainians are in the driving seat at the moment and it will be interesting to see how much ‘gas they have in the tank’, perhaps they will drive the Russians to a total collapse.  


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

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