Putin’s War, Week 34. False Flags, Martial Law, and ‘Dammed if You Do and Dammed if You Don’t'

We’re halfway through Week 34 of Putin’s War in Ukraine. As Day 240 of the three-day excursion to Kiev slips away, let’s take a look at how things stand. TRIGGER WARNING: these updates tend to be long, so if you are triggered by reading, stop now, and thanks for the click.


Politico-Strategic Level

Russian Defense Minister sets up “false flag” claim.

This week’s biggest story has to be Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu calling around today to spread the implausible story that the Ukrainians will set off a “dirty bomb” and blame Russia for it. The presumption is that Russia would use the detonation of such a bomb as a pretext to launch a nuclear strike on Ukraine. If you recall, this is exactly what happened in Syria when Russia claimed the Syrian opposition for using chemical weapons on themselves to pin the blame on Russia (unless you’re one of the credulous morons who believe The Intercept’s claim that the Russians never used chemical weapons).

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Sunday had telephone calls with his French, British and Turkish counterparts in which he made unfounded claims that Ukraine might be preparing to use a “dirty bomb,” according to Russian readouts of the conversations.

The conversations took place after Russian President Vladimir Putin recently raised the prospect of using nuclear weapons in the war he launched against Ukraine. And after Shoigu faced intensifying political pressure over a series of disorderly retreats in Ukraine.

The calls came as Russia continues a mass evacuation of civilians from occupied Kherson in southern Ukraine and defense analysts believe that the movement of people is setting the scene for Moscow to withdraw its troops from a significant part of the region. But among EU diplomats, there are fears that Moscow is only setting the scene for things to get worse.

During the call with French Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu, they discussed the situation in Ukraine, “which is rapidly deteriorating,” according to the Russian readout of the call. And Shoigu conveyed “his concerns about possible provocations by Ukraine with the use of a ‘dirty bomb’,” the Russian ministry said without giving any further detail.

The same content of the readout was provided on the call with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken weren’t buying what Shoigu was selling.

Just because no one believes the story doesn’t mean the Russians won’t do it. Only one person has to believe the story is plausible: Vladimir Putin.

Iranian Drones are not being used by Russia, no sir, not at all.

Russia’s use of Iranian-manufactured drones, particularly the long-range Shahed-136 suicide drone (see Putin’s War, Week 31. Mobilization, Annexation, and Russian Forces Routed From New ‘Russian’ City for more on this weapon), continued to headline the news. These drones carry a warhead weighing up to 110-pounds and have a range of over 600 miles (no reliable information is available on the maximum range, with some sources claiming fantastic distances…not “fantastic, wow!” but “fantastic, bullsh**). This enables them to be launched from the relative safety of Russian-occupied Crimea.


This leads to two different issues. The Russians don’t want official proof that they are buying arms from Iran (not a good look for a self-avowed world power to have to stoop to buying weaponry from a nation it views as a client state). To train Russians on the use of the Shahed-136 and related weaponry, Iran has sent “technicians” to serve alongside the Russian Army in Ukraine.

The Russians have threatened to cease all cooperation with the office of the UN Secretary-General if a UN team is sent to Ukraine to investigate the source of the suicide drones attacking civil infrastructure in Ukraine.

Russia also says it will reconsider the ongoing grain deal that allows ships carrying Ukrainian wheat and sunflower oil safe passage.

Given Russia’s sole and complete responsibility for this war and the war crimes committed by its armed forces, the protests over buying Iranian munitions sound a lot like a crack-addled street hooker screaming at gawkers for not treating her like a lady.

Likewise, I think the issue of Iranian personnel isn’t a major one.

The Jerusalem Post reports that at least ten advisors have been killed by Ukraine targeting their billeting areas.

This report is based on Ukrainian sourcing and intended for a Middle East audience. It may be true…it may not. If it is true, it is an indicator that Shahed-136 drones are being launched from within HIMARS or artillery range or that the Iranian advisors are advising on something other than drones. Both possibilities are interesting.

Martial Law

Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared martial law in the four.

That by itself is not a huge development. Martial law allows the Russian armed forces in occupied Ukraine to commandeer buildings, vehicles, and equipment; it permits the forcible conscription of men and restricts the population’s movements. The declaration of martial law in occupied Ukraine did little more than formalize the status quo. The real story is in the levels of martial law imposed. As shown in the image below, about a quarter of Russian oblasts are under some form of enhanced martial law.


Is this real, or is it security theater to motivate the population? I can’t hazard a guess, but we’ll probably find out in the next few weeks.

Belarusian Mobilization

Belarus is a de facto belligerent in Putin’s War as it allows air and missile strikes to be launched against Ukraine from its territory. I covered some of the goings-on in my last update (see Putin’s War, Week 31. Mobilization, Annexation, and Russian Forces Routed From New ‘Russian’ City).

In that update, I said:

While a “second front” sounds all World-War-II-sy, the forces available would be overmatched by the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces covering the border. Russian rail logistics are strained by supporting one major front to the war; two seem out of the question. But I also don’t think Lukashenko’s regime is stable enough to start a very unpopular war (Belarus Rail Lines Carrying Trains With Supplies for the Russian Army Are Being Hit by Sabotage Attacks). Moreover, I don’t think he can rely on Poland to stand idly by if he does attack Ukraine.

Do you know which other army is wearing the same red tactical identification markings as the Lithuanian Army? The Russian Army.

It would be shocking if Poland and Lithuania missed a chance to take Belarus out of Moscow’s orbit if Lukashenko decides to become an overt and active co-belligerent.


Mobilization Woes Continue

Stories continue to circulate of unfed and unarmed mobilized “reservists” living in open fields. Another story is gaining momentum: allegations of the Russian government conscripting guest workers.

I’m always skeptical of these stories, but they haven’t been contradicted and fit in too well with what we know about Russian mobilization. The key question in this war is whether Russia has the equipment and leaders to train some 300,000 new men and integrate them into units while in the heat of combat. That will determine what the next months look like.

Operational Level

Operational Overview
These maps serve two purposes. First, they let you see how the fighting has progressed since February 24, so any subsequent maps can be viewed in context. They also serve as a visual rebuttal to the claim that Russia is gaining ground.

This animation takes you from D-Day through September 24.

This animation begins on August 31 and ends on October 4.

Russian Milbogger Wounded

Russian milblogger Semyon Pegov who goes by the nom de fail of “Wargonzo” on Telegram, has been wounded in what amounts to a friendly fire accident in Donetsk. He stepped on one of the “butterfly mines” the Russians have strewn about and had his foot shattered.

He will need at least a new heel and half-sole on that boot. In all seriousness, he’s going lose some toes, and despite the happy talk circulating, his foot is permanently maimed.

I don’t have an issue with mines, but they have to be used according to a set of procedures that ensures civilians and friendly forces don’t encounter them and that they can be located (or self-destruct). The Russians have scattered these mines indiscriminately, so it is hard to have a lot of sympathy for one of the vultures following Russian forces around when he runs afoul of a mine as Ukrainian kids have.


Combat Operations

Kharkiv and Donetsk

The frontlines in this theater have remained fairly static. The Ukrainians seem to be preparing for a renewed offensive in the northern part of the area of operations focused on the city of Svatove. A few villages have changed hands, but nothing terribly significant has happened.


One of the more interesting fights going on is around Bakhmut.

Here the Russians, in the form of the Wagner Group mercenaries, have been attacking daily since July without significant gains. No one is quite sure why they have elevated taking this town to the status of a crusade because it is not militarily significant.

The Russians are currently building their equivalent of the Nazi “Siegfried Line” in Luhansk along the demarcation line that existed before the February 24 invasion.

There are two items to note about this wall. The first is that it is technically incapable of stopping an armored attack. The “dragon’s teeth” weigh no more than a half-ton and sit flat on the ground. The World War II version was sunk up to six feet into the ground and anchored in a concrete apron. This description is from Stephen Ambrose’s The Victors: Eisenhower and his Boys — The Men of World War II: “Behind minefields were the dragon’s teeth. They rested on a concrete mat between ten and thirty meters wide, sunk in a meter or two into the ground (to prevent any attempt to tunnel underneath them and place explosive charges). On top of the mat were the teeth themselves, truncated pyramids of reinforced concrete about a meter in height in the front row, to two meters high in the back.”

Neither the ditches nor the “dragon’s teeth” are much of an obstacle. Unless they are covered by fire, they won’t rise to the level of annoyance.

The second interesting thing about the wall is the route chosen. This graphic is a Google Lens translation of an image circulating on pro-Russian Telegram channels.

The defensive line is behind the current front lines implying that the Russians contemplate falling back behind their ersatz barrier. The north-south segment of the wall isn’t anchored to anything in the south, meaning it can be bypassed. Most of the wall is built along the border between nominally Russian Luhansk and the actual Russian oblast of Belgorod. The implication is that the real defensive line is the Russo-Ukraine border.

Either someone with a lot of juice has a concrete contract with the Russian Army, or some worst-case scenarios are being prepared for.


A few days ago, I posted on an order issued by Russian occupation authorities evacuating four towns in Kherson (see Russian Collaborationist Government in Kherson Orders Evacuation of Some Civilians to Russia). That order has since been expanded to cover the city of Kherson.


The only way across the Dniepr River is by barge or a pontoon bridge that comes under frequent and accurate artillery fire. This situation has created a boomlet among Putin’s more stupid apologists.

Protection of the civilian population is the responsibility of the armed forces controlling them. Comingling civilian evacuees with military traffic is a war crime because the military traffic is fair game. Using a ferry/bridge for civilian evacuations that are also used for military traffic is irresponsible and could rise to the level of a war crime. There are accepted protocols for civilian evacuation, like a negotiated evacuation corridor monitored by neutral observers. Russia has not attempted to arrange such a corridor, and it is Russia’s responsibility to initiate the action; see my first point. In short, Russia can’t send civilians across the same river crossings used for military operations without negotiating a temporary, supervised cease-fire. Of course, the optics of this would be horrible, and so Russia will continue to risk civilians if not outright use them as human shields.

Another point of contention is the hydroelectric dam at Nova Kakhovka.

The dam carries a highway and railroad bridge that are not usable.

The Russians have tried to establish a pontoon bridge to replace the road, but it is regularly demolished by artillery fire. The reservoir behind the dam is strategically significant as it feeds an aqueduct that provides most of the potable water to Crimea. The Russians have claimed that the Ukrainians plan to destroy the dam. If so, the resulting flood would sweep away all personnel and equipment in the projected Russian defensive line along the left bank. It would make a lot of Crimea uninhabitable in the process. On the downside, it would create a temporary barrier the Ukrainians would be unable to cross. This Twitter link has an excellent thread on the back-and-forth over who may or may not be planning to blow up the dam.


In my view, Ukraine blowing up the dam would be tantamount to ceding all of Kherson on the left bank to Russia in exchange for screwing with Crimea. I don’t see a tactical or strategic reason why they would do this. Of course, YMMV.

Details on the ongoing fighting in Kherson are hard to come by. The Ukraine General Staff is not releasing progress reports, and pro-Ukraine accounts with field contacts have a blackout on coverage though there are hints things are going well. Reports from the Ukrainian side claim that the front lines are being held with recently mobilized “reservists,” and the better troops and their equipment are headed for the river crossings. My sense is that we are nearing a culminating point that will see the Russian defense collapse. I don’t think I’m the only one with this feeling.


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