Putin's War, Week 43. Zelensky Visits the Front Lines and Washington, Putin Tries to Push Belarus Into War

Ukrianian President Volodymyr Zelenksy visits troops at the front in Bakhmut

Forty-three weeks, or 301 days, have elapsed since the lead Russian vehicle crossed the Ukrainian border and kicked off a war that has devastated about a third of Ukraine.

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Like the last few weeks, not a whole lot has happened on the ground, but the political, economic, and logistics pieces are being shuffled around in preparation for the next round.

Politico-Strategic Level 

The week’s big story was President Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to a Joint Session of Congress. I posted on this appearance earlier today; see Zelensky’s Speech Did What It Needed to Do but It Wasn’t a Home Run. The reactions to the speech convinced me that there are big jerks on both sides of the argument about supporting Ukraine. On the left, I can spot them by the Ukrainian flag emoji. On the right, I have to wait for the first reference to “dictator” or “money laundering.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky presents House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with the Bakhmut battle flag.
Moldova

Moldova has felt it was on Russia’s menu since the early days of the war. In 1991-92, Moldova fought a civil war. This war, fomented by ethnic Russians who claimed they were being mistreated, led to the intervention of the Soviet Army and the subsequent establishment of the “breakaway republic” of Transnistria. Under Russia’s “protection,” Transnistria became a focal point for just about any illegal activity you care to name. For example, recently released Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout had his headquarters there.

In 1999, the Russians agreed to withdraw their troops in three years, yet here we are today with 1,400 Russian vatniks marooned because they have no way to rotate home. So the next time someone brings up some fatuous reference to Ukraine failing to abide by the “Minsk Accord,” just remember Russia never honors its word under any circumstances and only uses agreements to buy time for the next conflict. Read my post, Putin’s Ukraine Annexation Speech Told Us What to Expect From Russia, and It Is up to Us to Pay Attention, to understand why you can’t be constrained by agreements and remain the tsar. Putin made noises early in the war about creating a land bridge connecting Russia with Moldova; see Putin Decides to Widen the War With Ukraine to Achieve His Objectives.

Two things happened in the past week that bear watching. First, Moldova shut down a half-dozen Russian-language television stations owned by a sanctioned Moldovan with criminal ties to the Kremlin (are there any other kind?).

Estonia did the same thing to its sole Russian-language television station last week. Contrary to what a lot of people on the right claim, a nation under threat of invasion, or actual attack, does not have to sit idly while its enemy runs propaganda to undermine national unity and the legal government because of “free speech.”

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Shortly afterward, Moldova repeated the warning that they had information that Russia was still planning to snap up Transnistria.

I don’t see a scenario where the Russian Army would be capable of doing this or how they would make it stick if they did. But I think it is reasonable to expect a flare-up of fighting in Transnistria. This would distract Europe from Ukraine and serve as a warning by Putin that he can make mischief anywhere there is a critical mass of Russian speakers.

Russia Allows Finnish Embassy to be Attacked

Last update I posted about Russia demanding that Finland punish people for disrespecting Russia. This isn’t new behavior; Russia regularly does this in the Baltic States. But it is a first for Finland. In a way, it signals that Russia realizes that Finland has slipped from its potential orbit forever. Earlier this week, a rent-a-mob showed up at Finland’s embassy. In case you’re wondering about the symbolism of the sledgehammers, they are what the Wagner Group mercenaries use to execute people who break the rules; see Putin’s War, Week 38. The Lines Clarify and Everyone Is Getting Ready for the Next Phase.

Putin Tries to Close the Deal with Belarus

Russia has tried to convince Belarus to enter the war against Ukraine since the planning phase for the war. So far, Belarusian strongman Aleksandr Lukashenko had refused to do so. He knows his army is quite possibly more inept than Putin’s, and his population is broadly sympathetic to Ukraine. Over a brigade of Belarusian soldiers serve in Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force. Lukashenko has allowed Russia to launch attacks, aircraft, and missiles from Belarusian territory.

This week, Vladimir Putin paid a visit to Minsk. Everyone suspects he was there to strongarm Lukashenko into opening a second front. His Defense Minister accompanied him.

By the way, Putin’s sudden changing direction on his host reminds me of something an old-style Sicilian mafia don would do just to throw off any plotters.

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Belarus not attacking Ukraine does precisely the same thing as attacking. A significant number of Ukrainian units are frozen in place to guard against an attack. It has the advantage that Belarus doesn’t become a battleground. Pushing Lukashenko to act against his own regime’s security interests for the sake of Russia might have worked if Russia was winning. Russia isn’t, so it won’t.

The Saga of the Polish Security Official and His Pet Grenade Launcher

A week ago, this strange story hit social media.

Hmmm, I wondered. Was this an assassination attempt? Did the Russians try to take out the head of Poland’s national police by way of a cut-out?

Then we got more clarification.

Then this happened.

I have nothing to add to this story beyond these three reports. I have no idea how a live munition was given as a gift, how it was transported from Kiev to Warsaw without anyone objecting, or why someone was playing around with it in an office.

Zelensky and Putin Visit the Front

A couple of days ago, President Zelensky visited the front lines. The place he chose was Bakhmut. Bakhmut is a meatgrinder that both Ukrainian and Russian partisans are equating to Verdun. There has been some really stupid stuff written on why it’s important to both sides; this is by a grad-student-turned-military-expert who likes to draw arrows on maps. The fact is that Bakhmut leads nowhere Russia needs to go. My assessment is that Bakhmut, like Verdun, has become a symbol, and neither side believes they can walk away from it without appearing to have suffered a grave defeat.

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The contrasting statecraft could not be starker.

Zelensky circulated with the troops less than three miles from the line of contact. He had a Ukrainian flag signed by the soldiers that he presented to the US Congress last night. Putin was in Russia, though somewhat near Ukraine, amid immaculately dressed officers.

Shoigu Tours the Front Lines…at a safe distance…at a safe altitude

While Putin was hanging out in Rostov-on-Don, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu took a flight over Crimea.

Power Grid Battle Touches Russia

For a few updates, I’ve posted about Russia’s ongoing attempt to take down Ukraine’s power grid. The only military purpose officially articulated for this campaign is to prevent the use of Ukraine’s electric rail system to prevent the movement of troops and equipment. That may be a side effect, but Russian politicians and media figures have stated the purpose is to make sure Ukrainian civilians spend the winter without heat, light, or water.

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The US and Europe have teamed up to try to replace the equipment lost to Russian strikes, and the influx of air defense systems, particularly those optimized to defend against drone attacks, are having an impact. Russia has launched one major attack each week since October. However, the number of weapons used has steadily decreased from over 100 to about 70. Ukraine is downing about 80-90% of the weapons.

Last week, I reported that Washington had given Ukraine the go-ahead to make attacks on Russian soil other than special operations strikes. This week the Ukrainian military struck at part of the Russian electric grid.

This seems more like a warning shot than the beginning of a campaign. We’ll see soon enough how well the message was received.

Deportations of Ukrainian to Russia Continues

I’ve hit this subject in several of the updates. Taking a play out of the World War II playbook, the Russians have been systematically deporting Ukrainian civilians living in occupied areas to Russia. This is done through a series of “filtration camps” where each person is evaluated on their potential danger to the regime. Thousands of children have been removed from Ukraine and adopted out to Russian “parents.” Now Russian news agency TASS has given us the official number.

Wagner’s Yevgeny Prigozhin Takes Issue with the Pentagon’s John Kirby

In Thursday’s Pentagon press briefing, John Kirby called out North Korea for supplying weapons and equipment to the Wagner Group PMC.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said U.S. intelligence officials determined that North Korea completed an initial arms shipment that included rockets and missiles last month.

“We assess that the amount of material delivered to Wagner will not change battlefield dynamics in Ukraine,” Kirby said. “But we’re certainly concerned that North Korea is planning to deliver more military equipment.”

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I’m not sure what Prigozhin was trying to accomplish in this statement. Prigozhin has been under US sanctions since 2016, and his Wagner Group has been since 2017 (link). If they have purchased US weapons, and there are enough of those floating around the arms markets, the purchases weren’t from the US government. Maybe he thinks having it as public knowledge that his troops rely on North Korea for supplies hurts his brand. Your guess is as good as mine.

 

You Can’t Have Christmas Without Music

Anytime you find yourself thinking, “Russians are just like us, we should be able to reach a sensible agreement,” fire this baby up.

Operational Level 

New Weapons Systems

For the first time since I started these updates, I have no new weapons systems to add. Yesterday sealed the deal on transferring a Patriot missile battery to Ukraine. This system will provide point defense against any new ballistic missile threat and deny much of Ukrainian air space to Russian reconnaissance and attack aircraft.

Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTP)

Drones have become ubiquitous on the Ukraine battlefield. While most of the attention has been focused on drones supporting combat operations, now we have evidence that support systems for drones in combat are being developed.

Combat Operations

Kharkiv

Ukrainian shaping operations continue around Svatove and Kreminna.

Donbas

The fighting around Bakhmut has slackened a bit. The number of Russian attacks and the volume of artillery strikes reported by unofficial and official sources is down. My guess is that both sides are adjusting to the weather. However, the fighting here is still far from over.

This map covers all the activities in both areas of operations.

Lack of operational security continues to plague the upper levels of the Russian political and military command structures. Last update I posted about a party held by senior Russian staff interrupted by a HIMARS strike.

Dmitry Rogozin, former Deputy Prime Minister of Russia and until July 2022, the head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, and Vitaly Khotsenko, the “prime minister” of the illegal Donetsk People’s Republic, were celebrating Rogozin’s 59th birthday when an unexpected guest dropped in. A 155mm Excalibur guided artillery round.

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Initially, Rogozin’s injury, artillery fragments in the back narrowly missing his spinal column, was said to be minor.

Later reports said the injuries were more serious and that he’s been evacuated to Moscow.

These kinds of attacks are only possible when basic operational security measures are ignored (you can bet everyone in the party had their cell phone on) and when the area is riddled with partisans and Ukrainian special forces.

Zaporizhzhia/Knerson

No significant activity.

Crimea

Russian operations based in Crimea are governed by the road and rail network. The main route into Crimea from Russia, the Kerch Strait bridge, was put out of action in October, and repairs have only established a limited vehicular capacity. The other chokepoint is the Perekop Isthmus. However, last week the Ukrainians demonstrated they could hit the road and rail system there.

What’s Next?

My assessment remains unchanged. The Ukrainians are using the early winter as a time to refit units, train new troops, and absorb new weapons systems into their formations. The weather will do substantial hardship to exposed troops, and the Ukrainians will have the better of this because of the massive amount of non-lethal aid, like winter uniforms and rations, arriving from the West. I think that we can expect a Ukrainian offensive in Zaporizhzhia with Melitopol as its objective.

 

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