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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

ON UKRAINE'S COUNTER-OFFENSIVE

The Chaplain struggles to distinguish between illusion and reality. I can’t remember the context of the following quote from Catch-22 (the scene is presumably in the military hospital), but the description of the Chaplain’s consciousness and thought process seems apt: ‘It was neither déjà vu, presque vu nor jamais vu. It was possible that there were other vus of which he had never heard…’ The line came to mind as I try to make sense of where things are in Ukraine.

It is quite possible that Ukraine’s counter-offensive has begun with a series of moves that seem to have happened before, almost. An awareness of how similar events blur and muddle, and my desire to have a record of sorts about developments in Ukraine, is my main motivation for writing this particular blog post.


The below is based on speculations and I’m fully apprised of the fact that there’s serious military analysis out there based on sound evidence and informed judgments. In so far as there is an argument in the below, then it is that the military actions just begun may be a feint rather than the main focus of the long-heralded offensive. But I stress that this is neither a substantiated nor particularly well-informed claim.


Yesterday and before


Russia’s defence ministry claimed yesterday morning to have repelled a Ukrainian offensive near Donetsk, killing 250 Ukrainian soldiers and destroying military vehicles. The US-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) claimed, on the contrary, that Ukraine was making territorial gains in military assaults round Bakhmut. This chimed with the commander of the Ukrainian army, General Oleksandr Syrskyi, who said his forces were advancing. There was even corroboration from a Russian source: Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group mercenaries, stated that Russian troops had lost control of a settlement near Bakhmut. He also called the Russian defence ministry’s claims ‘science fiction’. One is advised to take Prigozhin’s statements with a large dose of salt, but it is quite possible that he was speaking the truth on this as Russia strives to convey a misleadingly optimistic picture of how it is faring in the war.


It is quite possible, as well, that the counter-offensive really began last week with a series of drone attacks on Moscow, and with incursions into border regions of Russia over the past week; but it is more likely it began with yesterday’s events, including the hacking of radio and television to broadcast a ‘deep fake’ video of Vladimir Putin (discussed below) – the media and cyber campaigns serving as auxiliary components of the counter-offensive.


Drone attack, again


My first claim (it’s a guess, admittedly) is that a drone attack on Moscow last week, and military incursions into border regions of Russia over the past week, were really the first phase of the counter-offensive. The claim here being that these activities were a way of preparing the ground by diverting Russian resources away from the battlefield and affecting ordinary Russians, with the aim of turning public opinion in Russia against the war.


The attack targeting Moscow, involving at least eight drones, occurred in the early hours of last Tuesday morning (30 May). The drones were shot down by air defence systems, with some residential buildings damaged by the falling debris. Given the importance of Moscow, one can assume that some extra attention was diverted to the city’s defences as a consequence of the attack, albeit that is probably secondary to the psychological effects on Russian citizens in exposing the vulnerability of the capital.


It was also an echo, but not quite déjà vu (perhaps a jamais vu?), of the drone attack on the Kremlin at the beginning of May. The media coverage to the most recent drone attack felt like a repeat of the coverage of that previous incident. First of all, television anchors asked pundits if this might be a ‘false flag attack’ by the Russian state. On this occasion the pundits responded cautiously, even those who seemed confident last time round that the Kremlin was the perpetrator. I think they are right. While it is imaginable that Russia could orchestrate an attack on itself to drum up support for a full mobilisation, a drone attack of symbolic but limited material success is of little use in this regard in my opinion.


The media asked, secondly, whether Ukraine carried out the attacks. Here commentators made the sensible observation that Moscow is 300 miles or so from the Ukrainian border, and it is hard to believe that these drones would not have been spotted long before they reached Moscow. They would have to fly very low, I presume, to evade radar detection, as well.


That leaves the most likely perpetrators Russian partisans opposed to the Russian state, which does not necessarily contradict my claim that this was part of Ukraine’s counter-offensive... (An aside: With a weary predictability, some Russian pundits pointed a finger of blame at western actors. For example, a military expert on a television talk show said that the United Kingdom orchestrated the incident. But even the Russian state didn’t seem to invest any energy into making such dubious claims.)


Assuming that this was indeed Russians opposed to the state, then the suspicion is strong that the Russian partisans are acting with the support of Ukraine’s military intelligence. I cannot know this, of course, but the frequency of drone attacks (and assassinations of propagandists) on Russian soil during the course of the war suggests a high level of coordination and planning inconsistent with partisans acting autonomously. The stepping up of these attacks very recently suggests to me that they may constitute part of a broader offensive strategy.


Incursions


Indeed, since last Tuesday, there seems to have been a series of military incidents inside Russia and I submit that these, too, are a second strand of the first phase of the counter-offensive. These incidents, too, echoed an earlier event. On 22 May, Russian anti-Putin partisans – the ‘Liberty of Russia’ Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corp – seized control of villages on the Russian side of the border. That incursion ended, with Russia claiming to have defeated the insurgents, but I would assume that the Russian military has diverted resources to shore up its defences inside Russia itself; in this case far more significantly than in response to the Moscow drone attack.


This past week such incursions seem to have been a daily occurrence, although again the news has an eerie quality to it which I can’t pin down but it isn’t déjà vu. Russia even began to evacuate citizens from Belgorod. Ukraine’s government insists that it has nothing to do with the attacks, which it says are the work of Russian citizens, but it again seems likely that Ukraine is providing some support to them. They do appear to have been using equipment donated to Ukraine by NATO member states, even if a photo showing two abandoned Humvees in a ditch has been dismissed as 'staged'. The Times reports that the cross-border ‘raiders’ were armed with ‘Czech-made CZ Bren and Belgian FN Scar rifles.’


This presents a tricky area to navigate for western politicians who have been supplying military equipment to Ukraine. None of them will have any sympathy for Russia, but having insisted that the equipment delivered to Ukraine cannot be used against Russian territory they now face the issue of how to deal with these incursions. Do they ignore them? Or do they quietly coax Ukraine to change its tactics? Or do they embrace them? The Belgian government has already said that it is investigating the use of weapons it has supplied.


I’m conscious that I write as if it were known that Ukraine has a hand in these actions. With a wealth of information at their fingertips, intelligence agencies in Europe and North America will most probably have a clear answer as to whether that is the case. There is politically correct intelligence and politically incorrect intelligence, and there may be some awkward conversations going on right now behind closed doors if the intelligence confirms suspicions of Ukraine’s involvement in attacks inside Russia.


Deep fake


My next claim (guess) is that a sophisticated cyberwarfare component is also involved. Yesterday, several radio and television stations in Russia broadcast a message purporting to be delivered by Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin was quick to dismiss the broadcast as fake and claim that there had been a hack of telecommunications infrastructure.


In the video address, Putin stated that Ukrainian forces had invaded Russia’s Belgorod, Bryansk and Kursk; he announced a full mobilisation, declared martial law, and told residents of the border regions to evacuate their homes. It was a convincing ‘fake’. I could believe that I was listening and watching Putin in a way that was harder when watching video of his visit to Mariupol in March. (I’m not joining the chorus saying that the ‘Putin’ in Mariupol was a body double; I make no claim of knowing such things.)


The message was presumably timed to coincide with the counter-offensive and intended to ‘sow panic’ – as the cliché has it – inside Russia. It is also a reminder that, while capturing the airwaves feels an old-fashioned move, it still has potential to be effective in a world where technology has brought ‘narrowcasting’ to the fore. While it doesn’t seem to have provoked much panic, it is easy to imagine that a similar occurrence could do so in the future. It was, therefore, a presque vu (‘almost seen’).


So the counter-offensive begins?


And in this context, we come back to the fighting inside Ukraine itself, the attacks round Bakhmut and, as well, towns in the Zaporizhzhia region where ‘fierce’ fighting is being reported. According to the UK defence intelligence update today, there has been ‘a substantial increase in fighting along numerous sectors of the front’. This fighting seems – so far as I can gauge – too small to constitute the main thrust of a counter-offensive that has been advertised for months, however.


For that reason, I posit that what started yesterday might be a feint attack. Actually, there is some basis for my saying that: a Ukrainian commander claimed the actions his unit was involved in were part of ‘a bigger plan’ yet to unfold. One might wonder why a Ukrainian commander would reveal this, given the Ukrainian Army’s emphasis on secrecy, but there is a transition from the preparatory to the conduct phase on an offensive and deception is an important part of that to keep the enemy guessing. And so the claim is plausible. By misleading the adversary into thinking an attack will happen round Bakhmut or Zaporizhzhia, the Ukrainian Army may cause Russia to divert more forces to these locations, may disorient enemy commanders, and Ukraine’s Army will retain the initiative and freedom of action. That’s my last piece of guesswork for today.


I am more cautious than many, wary of how quickly fortunes can change in war, and I’m not going to prognosticate a collapse of Russian positions in Ukraine because I’m conscious of the manpower Russia potentially has to draw on and I'm conscious the destruction of a dam in the Kherson region this morning may impede Ukraine's plans. Such a collapse of Russian positions might happen, though, and a successful counter-offensive by Ukraine might well be beginning.


All is not well with the Russian forces, stark evidence of which came yesterday with reports that the Wagner Group had captured a Russian colonel after the mercenaries came under fire from the Russian army. What seems clear is that Russia’s control over its ‘special military operation’ is faltering further – and there are signs over the past few weeks that Russia’s control over its own territory is eroding. It feels like Russia is succumbing to both real and invisible weapons.

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