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Ukraine war diary
The forever war
I write a (short) daily post for Powerscourt, a Strategic Communications company, based in London and Dublin. The idea is to summarise the news flow around the war in Ukraine - not so much the news that makes the front pages but more the stuff that we find interesting/relevant. News that may have not attracted the attention it deserves. Anyone interested in receiving the short email on a daily basis is welcome to contact Powerscourt here: email@example.com.
Monday September 11th
U.S. military top brass are now trying their hands at weather forecasting. Several briefings have emerged in recent days suggesting Ukraine’s counteroffensive has about six weeks to run before winter mud makes manoeuvres of heavy armour and personnel next to impossible. Ukrainian sources have retorted that the start of winter weather is somewhat variable rather than a fixed date in the calendar. It is also the case that Ukrainian winters often see the ground freeze solid, which can actually improve conditions for tanks and other weighty vehicles.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence quotes ex-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev regarding Russian military conscription. 280,000 out of a target of 420,000 by December have been recruited. This has led to labour shortages, particularly in the non-defence sectors of the economy. Data suggests vacancy rates have never been higher. The MoD thinks further large scale mobilisation ahead of March 2024 elections is unlikely.
Of course, those are scheduled elections and it is tempting to wonder whether Putin will simply use the ‘special military operation’ as an excuse for postponement. Either way, there is no electoral threat to Putin, just the possibility of inconvenient protests breaking out in unexpected places. Regional elections in parts of Russia over the weekend were accompanied by the usual reports of electoral falsification and intimidation.
President Macron has used a rather feeble excuse for the wording of the weekend’s G20 communique. The French leader stated that the G20 was set up to discuss global economic matters and that nobody should attach too much political significance to its deliberations. The first part of that argument is correct, the second is delusional. The real message of the G20 is that Europe and the US are more or less on their own in terms of all out support for Ukraine. Europe should prepare for the worst: the return of Trump will probably mean the end of US arms and cash for Ukraine.
Tuesday September 12th
Kim Jong-Un on an armoured train, apparently to Vladivostok (although there are doubts about the real destination), immediately begs the question, ‘why didn’t he take a plane?’ A reported fear of flying, inherited from both his father and grandfather, explains a preference for rail travel. Kim’s grandfather was gifted train carriages from both Mao and Stalin. The current Presidential train is so heavily armoured it can only travel at a reported 28 mph. Kim Jong-Il even died on his train.
This is not the first time Putin has met the North Korean leader. Four years ago the pair met, also in Vladivostok, Kim again travelling by rail. It is said that Pyongyang has massive stocks of Soviet-era weapons, particularly 152mm and 122mm artillery shells, which it is prepared to trade for food and tech.
Superficially, it is clear why Putin is eager for Kim’s shells. Complaints - about lack of pretty much everything - from frontline troops have not ceased following the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin. Less obvious is precisely why his army is so short of men and supplies. Russian industry is on a war footing and conscription, outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, has continued apace.
A NATO briefing yesterday reaffirmed that Russia is struggling with resources. The spokesperson for the alliance stated that the Kremlin is in no position to mount an effective offensive of its own, at least for the foreseeable future. Western intelligence officials have yet to provide a full explanation of Russia’s inability to defeat Ukraine’s army. This armchair analyst is tempted to wonder if the answer lies, at least in part, with the American experience in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, Russia’s own attempt to occupy Afghanistan comes to mind.
Wednesday September 13th
The future of the EU - with enlargement just one big topic - will be the focus of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s ‘State of the Union’ address today. Attention is firmly on the candidacy of both Ukraine and Moldova. Bloomberg reports that von der Leyen has, in private briefings, been stressing the need to protect those two countries. The EU also has plenty of potential new members in the western Balkans, as well as Turkey’s long standing application. Ukraine and Moldova will almost certainly be first in the queue, but the existing 27 members are far from united in their thinking over both process and timing.
Not least of the problems is, of course, money. It would help the EU’s finances if some of the accession countries were rich but that is not part of the typical profile of applicants. Ukraine is so poor that some fear the budgetary consequences of its possible membership. Assessments differ, but Spain, for example, currently a net receiver of Brussels largesse, could become a net contributor.
The Economist has just published an excellent summary of the row over Ukraine’s counteroffensive tactics and the reason for its slow progress. American sources seem to be unanimous in the view that attempting to retake strategically irrelevant Bakhmut, towards the northern end of the line, diverted men and materiel away from the southern axis, where progress is still measured at less than a kilometre a day.
Russia appears to have sufficient reserves to plug holes in the line, whenever they occur. Repeated speculation about the strength and quality of Russia’s reserves have, so far, received a clear answer. One way or another, the Kremlin finds them. The Institute for the Study of War remarks in its most recent briefing that a debate is currently raging in the Kremlin about the next conscription cycle, due to start soon. But there will be one, with plenty of fresh Russian troops soon heading for Ukraine.
Thursday September 14th
American media seem to be keen on running stories that are pessimistic about Ukraine’s prospects for military success. It’s a curious development, the latest instalment being a lead story in the New York Times about Russia’s increased capacity to produce cruise missiles and other key armaments. The Kremlin’s stockpile of missiles, according to the NYT, is now higher than before the war started. That stands in stark contrast to the hopes expressed by Ukraine’s supporters that a combination of sanctions, attrition and battlefield use would cause Russia to use up its stocks of missiles and other weapons. Ukrainian sources were quick to question the accuracy of the NYT assessment.
If Russia does have a plentiful supply of cruise missiles, it seems likely that Ukraine’s civilian power generation infrastructure will once again be targeted this winter. Patriot and other defensive systems have proved very effective in defending major cities such as Kyiv but they can’t protect all of Ukraine.
Russia’s capacity to produce its own weapons shouldn’t really be in doubt. Which begs the question: why is Putin courting North Korea? Does he really need Kim’s artillery shells? Or is it a way of dragging China into the conflict. Beijing would, it is said, have to agree any deal, given its links with North Korea. The Kremlin is a signatory to UN sanctions on Pyongyang and risks a wave of automatic secondary sanctions from the west should it violate its commitments. Perhaps sanctions in general are not all they are cracked up to be.
Around half of Ukraine’s power is generated by Soviet-era nuclear power stations, with the necessary fuel - uranium - supplied, pre-war, by Russia. Alternative supplies are in the process of being secured. The UK’s Ministry of Defence notes in its latest briefing that Energoatom, Ukraine’s nuclear power plant operator, has just successfully refuelled the Rivne power station Western supplied fuel assemblies.
Friday September 15th
Lots of important people shuttle around the world trying, from varying perspectives, to find a path to peace. The Pope’s special envoy yesterday met a senior Chinese diplomat in Beijing in talks described as ‘open and cordial’. Kim Jong-Un is reported to be in the eastern Russian city Komsomolsk-on-Amur, where Su-35 and Su-57 fighter jets are manufactured. Putin is headed for Pyongyang at an unspecified date in the future. Belorusian President Lukashenko is on his way to Moscow. President Zelensky is going to Washington DC next week.
Of course, little of this movement is likely to lead to peace any time soon. Indeed, both sides are merely trying to secure more arms supplies, ostensibly for a peace preceded by military victory. More likely is that both Ukraine and Russia will merely secure enough weaponry to extend rather than end the war.
Yet another long form ‘state of play’ piece appears today, this time in the FT. It’s striking just how similar are all of these analyses and how they all arrive at the same conclusion: this is a forever war.
That doesn’t necessarily make them wrong of course. But the analyses are all the same: Ukraine lost 20% of its new NATO kit in the early weeks of the offensive because it can’t execute modern combined-arms tactics. It then switched to using small groups of infantry, mostly operating on foot, a tactic reminiscent of the Soviet era. Drones have rendered the battlefield field completely visible and are now a vitally important component of both defence and attack. Ukraine’s attritional tactics and better use of precision artillery is giving it a small advantage. Tiny advances on three fronts are made each day, but only usually measured in metres. One of those points of attack, Bakhmut, is without military logic and a waste of resources. Russia is also attacking in one part of the line, without much success, but is tying down Ukrainian forces.