September Update: Ukraine’s Kherson Offensive

Following the fall of Severodonetsk in late June, it’s been relatively quiet on the Ukrainian front. Missile attacks and airstrikes have continued sporadically, with the occasional operation against a Russian refinery or Ukrainian transport hub. Action on the ground has however been limited to local engagements, with no major offensives on either side despite constant skirmishing and persistent use of long-range artillery.

Kherson Offensive

That picture changed recently with the Ukrainian offensive to recapture Kherson. This operation began two weeks ago with eye-catching strikes against the Crimean base of Sevastopol. More recently, long-range artillery (including HIMARS) has targeted Russian bridges and pontoons fording the Donets river. Over the past few days, an intense Ukrainian ground attack is focused on pushing back the Russian bridgehead on the West side of this river, and already appears to have taken several villages. Significant losses are believed to be taking place on both sides.

The Russian failure to follow up their occupation of Severodonetsk with any serious offensive within two and a half months is surprising. It indicates that Russia is likely incapable of winning this war on the ground via a decisive victory within a reasonable timescale, meaning that the war will continue for months or years. There are several further observations that might possibly be drawn:

  • The Russian Armed Forces are incapable of launching a major offensive without serious reorganisation, due to losses in equipment and personnel incurred so far in this costly war.
  • The Russian economy is incapable of sustaining consecutive offensives due to industrial production shortfalls or logistics problems.
  • The Russians believe that time is on their side.

While the first two cases are possible, we would caution against over-optimism here. Even if the Russian Army were incapable of large-scale offensive action for the time being, expelling it from Ukrainian territory is unlikely to be easy. Previous Ukrainian offensives in East Donbas and Kherson have been handily repelled by Russian artillery and MLRS superiority. There are also several reasons why the Russians might sensibly believe that time is on their side.

Why Russia Might Wait

Firstly, the strategic onus lies with Ukraine to recapture its lost territory. Sitting back on the remaining land without a serious attempt to regain this ground is likely to reveal strains in Ukraine’s political system, society, and military. We can thus expect Ukraine to attack. Since attacking is almost always more costly than defending, this lays the groundwork for a favourable trade in men and materiel over the coming months.

Indeed, Ukraine is attacking. They are rather sensibly targeting a narrow area of the front, where the recapture of a major port city (Kherson) would be a huge strategic and moral victory. Not only is the capture of this city a clear objective, but the shape of the front lines and the presence of a river disrupting Russia’s supply routes combine to improve the chances of military success here.

Secondly, winter is coming. This will seriously strain Ukraine’s Western backers, who are staring down the barrel of winter energy shortages, blackouts, and unrest. Since Russia is likely to see the resolution of this conflict as a question of diplomatic settlement with the West, rather than a complete victory on the ground, placing strain on Western economies is the most effective strategic tool in its arsenal – more so than anything they might reasonably achieve on the ground in Ukraine over the coming months.

Russia Versus the West

To expand on that point, victory for Russia is not the conquest of Ukraine. This may have been the objective on February 24th, perhaps due to overestimating the sympathy of ethnic Russian minorities in Ukraine. But the situation has changed. The Russian leadership now needs to deliver their people a victory that reinforces their belief in the Putin regime, without permanently compromising Russia’s economic potential relative to the Western world. The best way of achieving this is to cause as much damage to the Western economy as this war has caused to Russia’s.

The Western economies are in trouble. Following 50 years of the Nixonian financial regime in which the US was able to effectively borrow money infinitely from its creditor nations and military allies through deficit spending, COVID has caused America to spend well beyond its means. This places strain on the USA, which is experiencing double-digit inflation for the first time in decades, and causes larger problems for places like Europe – which have been no less profligate in their panicked response to the virus. Combined with supply shortages as a result of Chinese port closures and continuing lockdowns, as well as stoppages of Russian fuel and the decline in energy security due to Green Energy initiatives, the next year could be disastrous for the West. We believe it is likely that a new economic system will be inaugurated as a result, comparable to the structural changes in the global economy that took place around 1968-1973.

However, the picture is far from terminal. It may be that Russia is relying once again on its own propaganda: believing that the ethnic and religious tensions caused by Western diversity and mass immigration are larger than we realise, and will cause crippling unrest in the event of an economic shock. While this is possible, most commentators believe that such unrest is unlikely to take place on a scale sufficient to disturb Western political systems, which remain impervious to popular discord.

Peace Plans Disrupted?

Every now and again, a rumour has surfaced that Ukraine and Russia agreed to some form of peace deal during the March negotiations, to be implemented in April. Personally, we think this is not implausible.

Following the March negotiations, Russia withdrew from Kiev and northern Ukraine. While it is true that they were overstretched here due to tenuous supply lines and poor terrain, it is not correct to call this a ‘rout’. Russia retreated in good order with the vast majority of its fighting vehicles. It is plausible that this withdrawal was related to the peace talks which immediately preceded it.

The story then goes that the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson flew straight to Kiev to encourage Zelensky and the Ukrainian state to keep fighting, and not adhere to the peace plan. This coincided with a multi-billion dollar influx of Western aid from the US and UK. At the same time, dozens of bodies were found in the suburb of Bucha, which we have reported on previously. This has been attributed to Russia as a massacre; Russia disputes the claim and has called for an international investigation into the incident at the UN, but this call was vetoed by the UK.

Naturally, this story raises many questions (the first being, is it remotely true?). The pieces roughly fit together: peace talks ended immediately before Russian withdrawal, Boris flew into Kiev, Western aid was delivered, and bodies in Bucha became a news story several days after the retreat. What is not known is whether there was a peace plan agreed at the Istanbul talks, and whether Boris Johnson’s visit was in any way connected with the result of talks.

Why Would the West Want War?

If – and it is a large if – the above story is true, then we must question why Boris Johnson would not want peace. Or rather, since it would be remarkable for the UK PM to act alone in a matter like this without instructions from the USA, why the West as a whole would not want peace. I can only guess that the West would prefer to use this war as a golden opportunity to see Russia destroyed or seriously weakened, and a significant enemy of the Western rules-based global economy removed from the map. In geopolitics, war among other nations is often highly desirable (despite loud public proclamations of concern for human life).

Just Rumours

Of course, the truth of this story and others like it remains unknown, and the relevant information will likely remain classified for decades. One should not get too fixated on merely-plausible rumours.

Increasingly Foggy Fog-of-War

The information on the conflict is sparse and sketchy (hence the greatly-diminished frequency of coverage on this site). Many of the accounts which formerly reported news, rumours, and footage from the conflict have disappeared or moved on; this may represent a tightening of narrative control concerning the conflict. We are left with the usual smattering of probably-national-intelligence-backed OSINT channels, popular pro-Ukrainian accounts, and propaganda. Thus, from now on events in the conflict must be taken with even greater doses of salt than before.

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