What Is Putin Trying to Accomplish Now in Ukraine?

So first, these maps are from last night and by the time this posts, most of the daytime in Ukraine will have happened and things on the ground could have changed dramatically. But let’s start the week out with where things are at in Ukraine.

In short, on most fronts not a lot has changed since my post last week. The only area where you’ll see some differences is in the south in the Donbas and along the Sea of Azov.

In the north and west of Kyiv, the Russian offensive has largely ground to a halt. Russian ground forces appear to be moving south in an attempt to encircle the city in coordination with Russian forces moving east from Sumy. In the meantime Russian artillery continues to devastate Kyiv’s suburbs, though the city proper is not nearly in bad a shape as Kharkiv and Mariupol. Meanwhile, forces moving south from the area around Chernihiv remain stuck, north of Kyiv. Though some forces may have been diverted in an attempt to encircle Chernihiv in preparation to try and take the city. If the Russians could take the city, it would allow for a more direct line of supplies from the north.

Kharkiv remains in Ukraine’s control, but Russian artillery forces continue to bombard the city almost nonstop. Photos of the city show a city that looks more like Grozny in 1999. However, some Russian forces have begun to move south from the city and into the Donbas in the direction of Izyum. This isn’t far from the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, which were key battlegrounds back in 2014.

Further east in the Donbas, Russian and separatist forces are slogging through heavy combat, but are making progress on the city of Severodonetsk, a key intersection of several highways. Russian forces have been advancing on the city from the north, northeast, and southeast.

South in the Donbas the same Russian and separatist forces have broken through the Ukrainian defences in Volnovakha. They have moved into the interior of Zaporizhzhia oblast and are in position to link up with Russian forces moving east/northeast from the Crimean front.

If Kyiv is Ukraine’s best front, the Crimean front remains Russia’s. Forces have split into perhaps three axes. The aforementioned group has taken the city of Melitopol and is pushing east towards the Donbas in support of another group that has moved to encircle and besiege Mariupol. Mariupol remains cut off from Ukraine and Russian forces have been bombarding the city, the size of Miami, almost nonstop. We haven’t seen many photos of Mariupol, but it’s almost certainly worse than what we’re seeing out of Kharkiv.

Another group from Crimea is moving north towards the city of Zaporizhzhia after having captured the nuclear power plant at Enerhodar.

The other main group moved west towards the city of Kherson. After capturing that strategic city, forces moved northwest towards the city of Mykolaiv. But over the last week, they haven’t been able to take the city. Instead, there we are seeing perhaps reconnaissance forces probing the approaches north towards the city of Kryvi Rih, which controls the western approaches to Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia.

When we look at it altogether, what can we glean about Putin’s plan?

What Putin may try to do…

First and foremost, Putin still wants Kyiv. The bulk of his forces are in position to try and encircle the city and besiege it. If he can do that, he can try to then eliminate Ukrainian president Zelensky. That hasn’t changed. I want to focus on the southern theatres of the war.

I’ve highlighted the general area of Ukrainian areas of operation in yellow. In blue arrows I’ve drawn what I think will be Russia’s planned axes of movement. Looking east to west, the first objective is to clearly encircle Severodonetsk and crush Ukrainian resistance in the region. West of the city, we have two clear axes of movement aiming to meet up at probably Dnipro. This would encircle the larger yellow area, the concentration of Ukraine’s best troops, which have been fighting Russian-backed forces in the Donbas for eight years. With the whole region surrounded, Russian artillery and air power could attrit Ukrainian forces and attempt to destroy them without significant ground contact.

You can see a smaller version of that plan just north and west of Mariupol. The forces breaking out of Volnovakha are in position to link up with the Crimean forces, effectively cutting the whole area off from Kyiv’s control. Again, with these being some of Ukraine’s most effective units, this would deprive Kyiv of valuable reinforcements.

Further west, Putin probably wants to capture Mykolaiv desperately. He needs the city to safely cross the Southern Bug river. That’s perhaps the last main natural defence for Odessa. Whilst Russia has created an effective blockade in the Black Sea, controlling Odessa would put Ukraine’s third-largest city in Putin’s hands.

Extending north and west from Mykolaiv we have another new offensive focus: Kryvi Rih. If Putin could take this city he would open up another axis of advance upon Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia.

But this all points to what I think is an under-discussed strategic goal: the southern land bridge linking Crimea to Russia. In 2014, when Russian and Russian-backed forces agreed to a ceasefire with Ukraine, the Russian forces never left. Crimea was fully annexed and constitutes an integral part of Russia whilst the Donbas saw two semi-states carved from the Ukrainian oblasts.

If Ukraine cannot force Russian units to retreat, I fear that any negotiated peace with Russia will see these areas—if not along with others—ceded by Ukraine to Russia. This could either take the form of territory added to Russia or as a new state that would be de facto under the control of Moscow.

And while Putin’s advances in the north have thus far ground to a halt, he continues to make good, if not slow, progress in the south.

Credit for the piece is mine.

Evacuation Corridors

I’ve been posting a lot of map updates to my personal social media accounts instead of to the blog here. In part that’s because at the end of the night, it’s the wee hours in Ukraine and I can post something that will hold up fairly well for a few hours. But right now in the morning, it’s the middle of the afternoon and whatever I post here could change by the time I finish this post. So timing has been tricky. But I’m trying to figure out a way of making the posting/graphic-making more efficient to keep you, my readers, updated. And don’t worry, I’m still bookmarking plenty of non-Ukraine things for when this war calms down. But priorities.

This morning, Russia and Ukraine agreed to several ceasefires to allow civilians to evacuate several towns. Most notable for many will be the northwestern suburbs of Kyiv, whose inhabitants can flee to the south to another suburb of the capital.

A humanitarian crisis in the making

To the south and east you can see the trend emerge. Cities or towns at the edge of the red areas, which is usually the line of contact, are those begin evacuated. And in the cases of Sumy, Kharkiv, and Mariupol we have three cities that have been under sustained bombardment and are in desparate need of supplies.

On the military front, after several days of relative inaction from Russian troops, they began to move again yesterday. There were no gains on the main thrust from Belarus into northern Kyiv, but east of the capital, Russian armour and mechanised troops have now pushed into the eastern suburbs. This shows their intent to try and encircle and besiege the city. But Russia is likely several days away from being able to accomplish that objective.

In the east, Russian troops appear to be moving beyond Kharkiv, perhaps content with its partial siege, and moving to the south. This could potentially link them up with separatist and Russian regular army forces trying to break through the Donbas’ Line of Contact, where some of the most seasoned and well-equipped Ukrainian troops have been stationed for years.

Southwest of that we have Russian troops still bombarding Mariupol in an attempt to I would guess force its surrender. But north of the city, Russian troops are beginning to move north and northwest. That would allow them to threaten Zaporizhzhia and then Dnipro, both of which are major cities and control Dnieper River crossing points. If successful, they could then cut off the Ukrainian troops in the Donbas from falling back to reinforce Kyiv.

And in the west, Russian troops have begun to move around Mykolaiv, perhaps content to simply besiege the city whilst sending small patrols further north to try and find a secure river crossing. Their ultimate goal is almost certainly Odessa.

Credit for the piece is mine.

Bolstering the Ukrainian Air Force

Undeniably, Russia outnumbers and outguns the Ukraine on the ground, on the sea, and in the air. The latter matters because Ukraine’s air attacks have devastated Russian convoys. But beyond drones, Ukraine could use additional combat aircraft: both ground attack aircraft and fighter jets to try and defend Ukrainian airspace.

The problem is that Ukrainians would need to be trained how to to use any new aircraft they purchase or receive. American F-16s would make sense, but they would require significant training time to make the switch from Soviet-made to American-made hardware. Enter European countries. A few former Eastern Bloc countries still have Soviet-made equipment and Ukraine has asked them for those same aircraft.

Bulgaria, Poland, and Slovakia all operate MiG-29 Fulcrums, which Ukraine does as well. Bulgaria also operates Su-25 Frogfoots, which is a ground attack aircraft the Ukraine flies (and has already lost at least two in combat). It’s not clear how many Fulcrums Ukraine may have lost thus far in the war.

Ukraine claims that the three countries have announced they will provide 70 aircraft to Ukraine and bolster the Ukrainian air force. Here is how that breaks down.

All the MiGs

I should note that after I wrote this and designed this, there are indications that Bulgaria has now refused to send the MiGs. Things change fast in war, so take this all with a grain of salt.

Credit for the piece is mine.

Putin’s War in Ukraine

Last week I wrote about what I considered Russia’s most likely plans of attack in a war with Ukraine. For the next day I had a post planned about what we could perhaps glean from Russian troop movements in days prior. But, the day I posted the first piece, late that night (US time), Russian forces began their initial artillery and cruise missile barrage. Helicopter assault forces followed as ground troops then began to roll across the border. Suffice it to say, my planned post no longer made sense and I scrapped it.

But we’re now into day five of the war and to start the week I wanted to show where we are at and how my thoughts played out. Unequivocally we are looking at one of the worst case scenarios. That day I wrote:

Finally there is the least likely, a full-out invasion of Ukraine west of the Dnieper River…[this] would likely take many months and occur over multiple phases…But it likely would involve almost all of the above to some degree or another.

If you blend together all the maps from that day, you see this:

All the lines

You have an invasion from the north, via Belarus, with an objective in Kiev. In the east, a group tries to take the city of Kharkiv whilst a portion also makes a drive towards eastern Kiev. Troops continue to press north and west out of Donetsk and Luhansk into the broader Donbas. And finally troops from the south and Crimea attempt to create a land bridge whilst a small group heads towards Kherson to take the crossings over the Dnieper and protect that group’s flank and rear.

So after four days of warfare in Ukraine—a still very early phase, mind you—where are we?

Lines sadly made real

To be clear, the shapes and arrows here are for illustrative purposes. They are not necessarily the exact routes taken by Russian forces. And the light fill does not mean these areas are not wholly under Russia’s controls. After all, the numerous photos and videos of destroyed Russian supply convoys make it clear Ukrainian troops behind the lines continue to wage effective resistance.

You can see we are looking at one of the worst case scenarios. But, all is not lost because the Ukrainian troops’ organised resistance has stymied much of the Russian advance. Only in the south do you see any real Russian progress in trying to complete a southern corridor or land bridge linking the Russian mainland to Crimea. I don’t think this is the primary goal of Putin’s invasion, that clearly appears to be to take Kyiv and remove Ukrainian president Zelensky. But you can imagine that should Putin realise he’s failed in his main objectives, his ask to withdraw troops from the rest of Ukraine would be to keep the southern corridor. And it’s not like Ukraine would have the troops to necessarily force the Russians out.

But the other thing about this new map is that it’s from yesterday, not today. There would only be a few changes and updates I’d have to make, because not much movement has happened on the ground thus far today. Unfortunately, it looks like Putin is changing tactics, as I and many had feared. With his advances largely halted, he is resorting to a tried-and-true approach: bomb the shit out of everything.

Today we have video of multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) fire raining down upon the densely populated residential areas of Kharkiv. Undoubtedly this will result in dozens if not hundreds of casualties. (Though if we’re lucky, most Ukrainians huddled safely in bomb shelters throughout the barrage.) Kharkiv, like Kyiv, has fiercely resisted the Russian advance. What happens to Kyiv when Putin is able to bring his ground artillery within range?

Sadly, Russian troops continue to advance towards Kyiv, albeit at a crawl and not the blitzkrieg-like pace I think they expected.

Credit for the piece is mine.

Some Possible Shapes a Russian Invasion of Ukraine Could Take

I’ve been trying to figure out how to start several days’ worth of coverage about Ukraine and Russia’s “further invasion”. For those that haven’t followed me here at Coffeespoons for very long, eight long years ago, in addition to covering other media outlets’ work, I did quite a lot of research, designed several pieces trying to explain the last Russian invasion of Ukraine: when Putin seized Crimea (ultimately annexing it) and then supported separatists in the oblasts (provinces/states) of Donetsk and Luhansk. You can see that work on this tag for Ukraine.

Perhaps then it should come as no surprise that in the last several weeks my old Ukraine content about Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the Donbas has suddenly become my most popular content. By far. I figure as the first of likely a number of posts on a new invasion, I would outline some options that seem plausible to me, an armchair general.

At this point, it is now clear that Russia has begun to invade Ukraine once again—although the Russians never left at 2014. In Crimea, Russia exercises de facto jurisdiction having annexed the territory and incorporated it into the Russian Federation. The Donbas, on the other hand, remains under the de facto control of the separatists whilst remaining an integral part of Ukraine.

The Donbas consists of the aforementioned oblasts, Donetsk and Luhansk. Importantly, the separatists only exercise authority over approximately 1/3 of the territory with the Ukrainian government in control of the remainder. The separatists’ area of control, however, does include the region’s two largest cities, the eponymous capitals of the two oblasts. Yesterday, however, President Putin announced he supported the “sovereign” borders of the separatists, which claim the entirety of their oblasts.

You don’t need to stretch to see the impact of that statement. Russian troops will “maintain the peace”, or “piece keep”, as they help the separatists forcibly remove Ukrainian authorities from the remainder of the Donbas. The first question is will Putin go that far? Or could Western sanctions stop Putin from advancing beyond the current Line of Contact that divides the separatists from the Ukrainian government?

I wish. I really wish this is all that happens. Maybe we get lucky and the West’s sanctions keep it here, but I doubt it.

Of course Russia made a number of demands upon Ukraine: Recognise Russian annexation of Crimea, cede control of the Donbas to the separatists, withdraw plans to join NATO, declare neutrality, and demilitarise. Of course the Ukrainians could never accept any of those. So will Putin use a refusal to send the Russian army in to push back the Ukrainians to the borders of Donetsk and Luhansk? Personally, barring some significant ramping up of sanctions when the first T-80 tanks cross the border, I don’t see these as likely. You just don’t need to assemble 190,000 troops and your elite armour and mechanised infantry units to do this.

I wish this were the most likely outcome, but I just don’t see the need for so many troops surrounding Ukraine if this is the ultimate objective.

That leaves of us with the sadly more likely, but worse to worst case scenarios. To the south, along the shores of the Sea of Azov, would Putin seek to create a land bridge to Crimea? In 2014, the separatists advanced as far as Mariupol before being repulsed by Ukrainian government forces. After Crimea’s annexation, Russia built the Crimea Bridge, linking the Crimean city of Kerch to the Russian mainland via a road-rail bridge that crosses the Strait of Kerch. But in a hot war with Ukraine, I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see those bridges as targets of Ukrainian forces. Ukraine’s goal would be to significantly restrict Crimea’s access to reinforcements and resupply. Having an overland route would make it easier for the Russians to keep Crimea and Sevastopol. For the Ukrainians, that would mean the loss of several economically important (and large) Ukrainian cities, notably Mariupol.

This is bad, but in my estimation the least bad of the likely bad options before Putin. It would be messy and costly to occupy several cities of 100k+ people that hate you.

Would Putin move on Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkov? Its population is roughly the same size as that of Philadelphia with 1.5 million people, largely Russian-speaking and split between ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians. The city is located only 20 miles from the Russian border and during the 2014 rebellion, separatists raided and ransacked government offices there, though Ukrainian forces ultimately reasserted control. Holding this oblast or a portion of it would create a new conflict zone, much like the Donbas has been for the last eight years. Those eight years with the world focused on the Donbas allowed Putin to consolidate his hold over Crimea. Could a frozen conflict in the Kharkov region take the world’s eyes off the Donbas and allow Russia to integrate Donetsk and Luhansk into western Russia?

Russia would be forced to try to take and hold a city of 1.5 million people, many of whom would be partisans against it. This is where it starts to get really ugly.

To the north is the more remote possibility of a lightning strike—perhaps in concert with one of the above options—to besiege or even attempt to take the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. Could a siege resemble the utter destruction of Grozny back in 1999 when Putin “handled” the Chechen rebels? One certainly hopes not. But it’s not out of the realm of likelihood. One hopes that Putin is keeping so many troops in Belarus to force the Ukrainians to hold back their best troops from engaging in eastern Ukraine.

This is where the really bad gets downright atrocious in the truest sense of the word.

Finally there is the least likely, a full-out invasion of Ukraine west of the Dnieper River, which bisects the country from north to south similar to the Mississippi in the United States. This type of invasion would likely take many months and occur over multiple phases. And too many variables make it difficult to simply illustrate the geography. But it likely would involve almost all of the above to some degree or another. One could see this being the ultimate goal: utterly crippling if not destroying the Ukrainian state, showing the rest of Russia’s neighbours what happens to states that seek to align with the West and follow the path of liberal democracy. Subjugating Ukraine like it’s (peacefully) doing to Belarus.

Russia has already moved a significant portion of its heavy armour and lead units to the border, away from their forward bases. This means that Russia likely needs to commence operations in the next few days or then rotate them back for rest and resupply. This week is likely critical to Russia’s plans.

And as some housekeeping you may note that I’ve temporarily disabled commenting on new posts. Eight years ago as I started posting about these Ukraine articles, my site was hit by spam comments originating from Russia and Ukraine, unfortunately in sufficient numbers to bring down my site for a number of weeks. I will probably leave commenting disabled for the foreseeable future.

Credit for these pieces is mine.

You Thought That Was All China Was Doing in Its Western Deserts?

Yesterday I wrote about some new ICBM silos China is building in its western desert. These things clearly interest me and so I was doing a little more digging when I found this even more recent article, this one from the BBC about an entirely different ICBM silo field that China is building in another western desert.

In terms of data visualisation and information design, we are looking at the same kind of graphic: an annotated satellite photograph. But the story it paints is the same: China is rapidly expanding its nuclear missile arsenal.

Similar to the earlier piece we see dots to indicate missile silo construction sites. But the Federation of American Scientists noted these silos appear to be at earlier phase of the construction process given that sites were still being cleared and prepared for construction activity.

You get a silo, and you get a silo, and you get a silo…

But put it together with the publicly available information from yesterday and, again, we can only draw the conclusion that China wants to greatly increase its nuclear arsenal. And like yesterday we’re left with the same question:

How will the United States and her allies respond?

Credit for the piece goes to the Federation of American Scientists.

It’s the Big Things That’ll Kill You

We can move from the microscopic things that will kill us to the very big things that will kill us. Nuclear missiles.

Because satellite photography from late June indicated that China is presently building over 100 ICBM silos in its western deserts. China has long had nuclear weapons, but has also long kept its arsenal small, compared to the two nuclear behemoths: the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. But you don’t begin building over 119 missile silos unless you intend to build ICBMs.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that China will build 119 missiles. More than likely it’ll be a very expensive and potentially deadly shell game. How many missiles are underneath the silo covers? Can you keep track of them? But even if China builds a fraction of 100, modern ICBMs come with multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRVs) that allow a single missile to target several cities independently.

We also know that China has been building shorter and more intermediate range ICBMs. But some of those are thought to be equipped with conventional warheads, designed to target and sink American supercarriers in the Pacific. The goal to deny American sea and airpower effective bases to defend Taiwan or other allies in the South China Sea.

We know about this most recent buildup because of a Washington Post article that used satellite photography to pinpoint those new silos.

Beware the missile gap

Of course this isn’t news to the defence and intelligence agencies. For sometime now they’ve been warning of China’s build-out of its military capacities. The question will be is how does the United States and her allies respond?

Credit for the piece goes to Planet/Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

The Times Wore It Better

Two weeks ago I posted about the death toll in the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas. As it happened, later that morning when I opened the door, there was this graphic sitting above the fold on the front page of the New York Times.

They added a map.

The piece sits prominently on the front page, but tones down the colour and detail on the map to let the graphical elements, the coloured boxes, shine and take their prominent position.

Here’s a detail photo I took in case the above is too small.

Maps make everything cooler.

Ultimately, the piece isn’t too complex and isn’t more than what I made. However, the map adds some important geographical context, showing just where the deaths were occurring.

The piece also highlights the deaths in the West Bank and those in Israel from civil unrest. That was data I didn’t have at the time.

redit for the piece goes to the New York Times graphics department..

Some Data on Deaths in Gaza and Israel

I’ve seen an uptick in traffic to the blog the last few days, specifically my older content on the Middle East. I don’t exactly have the bandwidth to track the conflict between Israel and Gaza in addition to Covid-19 and my other projects. But as we approached the ten-day mark since Hamas first fired rockets into Israel, I wanted to get a sense of the death toll and so here we are.

The biggest thing to note is that we should take all this data with a grain of salt. For example, the Israeli Defence Force will likely talk up the effectiveness of its Iron Dome air defence system and downplay total civilian deaths. Conversely, Hamas will likely talk up civilian deaths while not detailing at all the deaths of its fighters. And when it comes to deaths in Gaza, it’s not clear what share of those reported by civilian authorities, i.e. the hospital systems, are militant fighters vs. civilians.

Not at all covered by any of this is a discussion of the opportunity costs involved, particularly when it comes to Israeli air strikes. For example, if a Gaza household contains a known Hamas fighter, one can certainly regret an Israeli drone strike that kills the fighter and his non-combatant son whilst in a field. But that strike may be a better outcome than striking the fighter’s home and along with killing not just him and his son, but now his wife, daughters, and the rest of his family.

Credit for the piece is mine.

Indonesia’s Sunken Submarine

A few years ago, I created a piece about the missing Argentine submarine ARA San Juan. For those that do not remember, back in 2017, the Argentine Navy Type 1700 submarine ARA San Juan disappeared on a voyage from Ushuaia to Mar del Plata. At the time, people thought it may have sunk over the continental shelf where the seafloor was shallow enough the boat could have survived and not imploded. A year later, surveyors discovered the wreck at a much deeper depth east of the continental shelf. But at the time of the loss I made a graphic trying to show how the submarine was much smaller than the standard American submarine, the Los Angeles class, and how much deeper the Los Angeles class can dive.

So when the news broke this week that an Indonesian submarine, KRI Nanggala disappeared north of Bali, Indonesia, I decided to update the graphic. Since I finished the piece, however, the Indonesian Navy discovered the wreck in three pieces at 850 metres, far below even the presumed crush depth of the Los Angeles class. In other words, at that depth there was never any hope to find survivors.

Another 1970s era German-designed U-boat sank, this one was found within days however.

The Indonesia submarine is an even smaller than the Argentine boat, both having an operating depth of about 250 metres—actual depths are generally not disclosed because, well, military secrets. But the graphic shows just how far below that depth the sub’s wreckage rests.

Credit for the piece is mine.