I took a few days off from covering the war in Ukraine. Now it’s time to jump back in and catch up on things.
Putin and his generals have declared the first phase of his “special military operation” over and that it was a success. They claimed that their goal was never the capture of Kyiv or other major cities in the north and east. Rather, those were all feints or diversions to prevent Ukraine from reinforcing their units in the Donbas as Russia “liberates” those regions.
Of course, I believe very little of that. There is a value in “pinning” or “fixing” an enemy’s forces in place so they cannot reinforce them somewhere else. To an extent, Russian and Belarusian forces have been doing this in western Ukraine. There they remain just north of the border without having crossed it. This keeps Ukrainian forces in place to defend against a new axis of Russian invasion.
I would argue that if Putin really wanted to keep the Ukrainian units around Kyiv fixed in that area of operations, he could have done so with fewer units and with a different strategy that would have cost far fewer lives and far fewer military assets. And the same can be said for Chernihiv, Sumy, and Kharkiv.
Rather, we are seeing successful small-scale Ukrainian counterattacks across the country.
You can see how around Kyiv, Ukrainian forces have retaken several suburbs, including Irpin, the focus of weeks of fierce fighting between Russian and Ukrainian soldiers. Whilst Russian forces have been pushed back and Ukraine has liberated the city, Russia continues to heavily shell the area.
Another big change on this map from last week is the Russian advances especially south and east of Sumy. That city had been effectively isolated, but Russia has withdrawn some of its forces and looks to be sending them south of Kharkiv on the push towards and south from Izyum. Ukraine has been following the withdrawing troops and liberating towns and, crucially, reopening those supply lines into Sumy. Russian losses? They appear to be heavy. But, Russia is not abandoning the front entirely, instead they are fortifying their positions.
Another area of Ukrainian success is in the south. They’ve driven Russia from the outskirts of Mykolaiv back to near the city limits of Kherson. There’s been some evidence that Ukrainians are also pushing south from north of the city along the western bank of the Dnieper, though Kherson itself remains in Russian hands. Critically, Russia still holds the two bridges that cross the Dnieper south of Zaporizhzhia.
West of Kherson and south of Kharkiv, however, Russia has been having slow but costly successes. In Mariupol, Russia’s bloody siege continues with the town resembling 1990s Grozny more and more day by day. On the streets, Russian forces continue to take more of the city block by block in bloody, house-to-house combat. The question in Mariupol will be how many Russian forces remain intact, or combat effective, when—it no longer appears to be an if—the city falls to Russian forces? If Russia has sufficient numbers of combat effective troops to garrison the city and reinforce forces north of the city, Russia could push further into Donetsk oblast and try to take more of the Donbas. But if the losses are too heavy, Russia would be forced to only garrison the city.
Northeast of Mariupol, the Russians continue their pincer movement heading west from Luhansk towards Severodonetsk and other points. Meanwhile troops from the region of Kharkiv have been making painful progress, albeit progress, south. These are the units trying to take the city of Izyum. At the moment it appears there are perhaps three different sub-axes of advance, with Russia likely probing to find weaknesses in Ukraine’s defences in that area of operations.
And in the air, Russian artillery shells and multiple-launch rockets continue to rain down upon Russian cities. Yesterday, Russia sent a cruise missile into the state government building in Mykolaiv, killing at least 12 people. Russia uses long-range standoff weapons to hit targets in western Ukraine as well as in Kyiv.
Finally, to end on a positive note.
You may recall the story of “Russian warship, go fuck yourself”. 13 Ukrainian soldiers “died” defending Snake Island. Well, it turned out they surrendered after they ran out of ammunition and Russian forces took them to Crimea as prisoners of war. They were then exchanged for a similar number of Russian prisoners of war. And yesterday one of those Snake Island defenders was given a medal for the defence of the island.
This data took far longer to clean up than it should have. And for that reason I’m going to have to keep the text here relatively short.
We still see tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Putin’s war in Ukraine. Although, we are down from the peaks early on in this war. In total, nearly four million have fled their homes for safety abroad. This does not include those people internally displaced. I’ve seen estimates that including those people, the number may be closer to ten million.
Keep in mind that Ukraine’s pre-war population was about 44 million. In other words, almost 1 in 10 people have left the country and 1 in 4 have fled their home for somewhere else. Given that most men are prohibited from fleeing the country, we also know that half of all Ukrainian children have fled their homes.
Just when I thought I wasn’t going to post an update, we get some news out of Kyiv itself. The municipal government allowed journalists to see an unclassified map of the battlefield as they understand it. It highlighted those areas where Ukrainians have recaptured areas captured by the Russians in the first four weeks.
A lot has been said about encircling Russian troops northwest of Kyiv and the local government doesn’t come close to making that claim. But, they do state that Ukrainian forces have repulsed Russian advances north of the city of Nizhyn. For several days that city has been surrounded, but it appears those forces have managed a breakout and pushed the Russians back several miles.
I’m still trying to post these updates in the morning about what happened yesterday, even though we’re well into the afternoon in Ukraine. The situation on the ground, at least in terms of territorial change, remains largely static. I mentioned yesterday how Ukraine recaptured the town of Makariv. Yesterday, Ukrainian forces made a broader push in that area and there are reports that Ukraine has cut off Russia’s lead formations in Irpin, Bucha, and Hostomel from their resupply lines further north.
I haven’t made any change to the map other than showing some additional blue arrows, because I haven’t seen any confirmation of that claim. But if true, it would be a big deal. I’ve been highlighting Russian attempts to envelop Ukrainian forces in the Donbas—a plan on which incredibly slow but steady progress is being made—and how that could very well lead to the annihilation of those forces. But if the report is correct, that could well mean the Russian lead forces could be annihilated.
We’re also seeing reports that Russia is taking more seriously denying Ukrainian units access to resupply. They destroyed a rail hub on the line from Dnipro to the Donbas and another linking Kharkiv to Sloviansk, a Ukrainian-held city in the Donas. The former in particular could disrupt shipments of NATO supplies arriving via western Ukraine.
Yesterday we looked at no-fly zones. Today I want to take a brief moment to look at the status of the war on the ground. I’ve been doing this later in the evening on my social media because of the time zone difference, but I want to see if it works holding off the posting until the morning.
The status for 21 March is largely unchanged.
The biggest news is that Ukrainians seem to have counterattacked west of Kyiv and retaken the town of Makariv. It sits at a small river crossing and controls one intersection linking a north-south route to a route west. Additionally, a major highway runs east-west just south of the town.
As I’ve mentioned in my social media posts, it’s hard to see the situation improving for the Russians barring an influx of troops or a significant change in battlefield tactics or their broader strategy. The Ukrainians, however, can launch small counterattacks and slowly push back on Russian advances.
Then the question becomes, what sort of casualties are we talking about for Ukraine? Open source reporting gives us a decent idea of Russian ground losses. But those sources have a bias towards Ukraine and we often don’t get as good visibility into Ukrainian losses.
That bias presents itself in other ways, the second big thing I wanted to discuss. There was significant talk about how Russia used a cruise missile to destroy a Ukrainian shopping mall in Kyiv. I read and heard the term “war crime” to describe the attack. But just because something is horrific does not necessarily make it a war crime.
I am no lawyer, just an armchair general. But as I understand it, civilian infrastructure is protected from the type of attacks Russia has broadly been conducting. However, should the defenders (Ukraine) begin using civilian infrastructure as part of their military operation, it makes that infrastructure a legitimate target, though there are still provisions for appropriate and reasoned scale of force to limit civilian casualties.
Bringing us back to Kyiv, we often hear Russia say the evil Nazi Ukrainians used a maternity hospital as a barracks in Mariupol, therefore the horrific bombing we saw was legitimate. I rarely see instances where Russia claims are verified by visual evidence. (Evidence that is increasingly easy to fake. Just ask a designer about what we can do with Photoshop.)
The bombing of a mall is terrible and the last I read, eight people died. But, we are seeing photos and videos of Ukrainian artillery forces using the mall as a shelter for their multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) operating in the area. If this is true, and again, take Russian claims with a large grain of salt, that does not necessarily make this a war crime. The Ukrainian forces put the people in the area in jeopardy by using a civilian building as a military facility.
Do I blame the Ukrainians? Not at all. They are, after all, fighting off an invasion of their country. In their situation I would probably be doing anything I could to win, but that doesn’t mean those actions lack costs.
To reiterate, if true, this is different than the bombing of the hospitals and schools that we’ve seen. The Ukrainians may have used a civilian target as a makeshift base of operations.
I’ve also seen unconfirmed reports that journalists were not permitted near the actual impact site, though they were allowed to walk about and take photographs further away. I’ve seen a sensational claim that a local Ukrainian resident who posted a photo of MLRS systems in the building on social media was arrested for treason. (As I understand it, it’s presently a crime in Ukraine to report Ukrainian military positions.)
Those are all unconfirmed reports, but I report them only because it goes to the idea of we may not be getting the full scale and scope of the war because a lot of the sources upon which we are all relying have a definite and clear (and understandable) pro-Ukraine bias. It just means that we have to sometimes pay more attention about what’s going on with Russian forces because not everything is evil and bad and wrong. (Though a number of things clearly are.)
I took a few days off last week and on my social media I posted a series of graphics explaining why a no-fly zone over Ukraine is a terrible idea. To be clear, Russia’s deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure is horrific. But when Russia failed to quickly take Kyiv and capture/execute Zelensky, what we are seeing became almost inevitable. There was a great piece from Quentin Sommerville for the BBC that he closes saying:
“This is what Russia does to cities. It bombards them. It besieges them. It surrounds them. It terrorises entire populations. And if these tactics are unfamiliar to you, then you haven’t been paying attention, because this is the Russian attack playbook perfected in over ten years of war in Syria.”
War is horrible and the photos and videos coming out of Ukraine are gruesome. But a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over Ukraine creates a very real risk of escalating this war from a conflict between two nations to a war between Russia and Ukraine and NATO. Ukrainians have every right to want a no-fly zone and I would have been surprised if it wasn’t among their asks of the West, but that doesn’t mean the West should give it to them. And here’s a couple reasons why.
First, Russia is not Libya. Nor is it Serbia. Nor Iraq. Russia is a nuclear-armed power. It has technologically advanced fighters, bombers, and drones. And it has thousands of them. Plus it has a very capable air defence network centred around the S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system.
The system consists of a a radar set to find targets, another to track and engage targets, command-and-control, and finally the missile units above. A number of different missiles can be used, including one with a range of 400km and another with a range of 250km. Obviously I’m not privy to the locations of Russia’s SAM systems, but let me place four of them in hypothetical locations around Ukraine and you can see I’ve got pretty decent coverage of almost all Ukraine. Note that none of those four are actually located in Ukraine.
Most of the worst carnage Russia has inflicted on Ukraine is in cities like Mariupol and Kharkiv. You can see just how well those cities are covered in this hypothetical placement. I wouldn’t be surprised if Russia’s actual locations provide similar dense, overlapping coverage of those cities.
Now, at those longer ranges, it’s harder to hit targets flying low to the ground, e.g. an attack helicopter. So for a no-fly zone, NATO aircraft would have to fly over Ukraine to intercept any Russian fighters, bombers, helicopters or drones. To do that, however, NATO aircraft would have to fly higher up in the atmosphere where there’s less air resistance for more fuel economy and more radar coverage of the ground. That puts them squarely in the targets of these S-400s. Maybe NATO’s first flight goes off without a hitch. But the moment a NATO fighter shoots down a Russian fighter, these S-400s would likely start firing at NATO aircraft.
Thus a no-fly zone needs air superiority to be effective. And to control the skies over Ukraine, NATO would need to eliminate Russian SAM systems located within Russia and/or Belarus. To be clear, NATO would be bombing or using cruise missiles to kill Russians inside Russia.
Second, most of Russia’s killing of civilians is not done with bombs dropped from lanes. In recent days we have seen air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) destroy numerous targets. These present a distinct problem for no-fly zones as this graphic shows.
It is not easy to destroy an incoming missile, especially when they utilise countermeasures designed to trick defence systems or when the missile is designed for stealth. With the Kh-101 ALCM, Russia has a long-range stand-off weapon, meaning that it can fire the weapon from beyond a range where the Ukrainians can effectively defend against the unit firing the weapon.
The Kh-101 can be fired from a Tu-95 Bear, it’s kind of the Soviet/Russian version of the American B-52. It’s old, slow, but can hold a lot of weapons. And in this case one Bear can launch from their base in Engels, Russia with eight Kh-101s. With a missile range of 2,000 miles, Russia can fire Kh-101s and hit targets from well inside Russia.
For a no-fly zone this means you need the ability to shoot down those missiles at a bare minimum. But keep in mind, this is not easy to do. And so you would probably need to shoot down the Bears in flight or maybe even target the airfield runway, which is even further inside Russia than the SAM systems at which we just looked. More bombing of Russia.
Are you noticing a pattern yet?
Third, we also need to look at what’s actually causing some of the worst damage. Here you can see two of the culprits: a BM-21 Grad and 2S19M2 Msta-S. The first is a multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) and the second is a self-propelled artillery.
The MLRS does what it looks like it does. This model has forty rockets and it can very quickly launch all or just some of them. But it’s more of an area fire weapon, which means that it’s meant to saturate a target area with a lot of fire. Grad translates to Hail and you can get a sense from that word what the system is meant to do. The Msta-S is basically a big artillery gun put onto a tank’s body so that it can move around on its own without having to be towed into place. With the bigger gun, these things can do a lot of damage on their own.
Neither of them, however, would be defended against with a no-fly zone. To engage them would be more of a proper and conventional war, using aircraft and drones to take out targets of opportunity as they emerge from hiding places. Instead of just taking out Russian planes over Ukraine, Russian SAM sites on the Russian side of the Russo-Ukrainian border, and airfields deep inside Russia, now we’d be bombing Russian units operating on the ground in Ukraine.
A no-fly zone means war with Russia. And that’s bad, because Russia’s military is smaller and less capable than all of NATO, but Russia likely would not hesitate to use chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons against NATO targets should NATO become actively involved. Russia would then be effectively put into a corner and it has a sizeable stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons and has the doctrines to use them.
I don’t want to alarm people, so let’s take a brief aside to talk nukes. A tactical nuke is not the same thing as the nuclear weapons we associate with giant mushroom clouds obliterating entire cities. Those are strategic nuclear weapons deployed from an intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which are themselves different from the short-range ballistic missiles Russia has been using throughout this war. A tactical nuclear weapon typically will have a size of 1 to 1,000 kilotons. A strategic weapon could be in the range of 30,000–50,000 kilotons (some smaller, some larger). For context, the bomb that the US dropped on Hiroshima was about 15 kilotons.
Even though the damage would be more confined to the battlefield, we really, really do not want a nuclear war. Radiation is still a thing. And the local effects would be catastrophic. Finally, if Russia deployed a nuclear artillery shell to eliminate a NATO armoured column advancing east from the Polish border, we would have to counter or risk continued Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons. And if we then take out a Russian tank regiment, what stops Russia from escalating to using a nuclear weapon on Polish soil to take out a NATO airbase. And then we take out one of those aforementioned Russian airbases. And then they respond with a nuclear weapon hitting Bratislava, warning us to stop. But NATO’s been nuked, so we respond and take out a smaller Russian city, maybe Rostov-on-Don or Murmansk. They then launch on New York. We respond overwhelmingly. They respond overwhelmingly. Nuclear winter descends upon the planet and lots and lots of people die.
Putin knows this escalatory ladder as well as we do. I don’t think Russia using tactical nuclear weapons is particularly high. But it’s not zero. And given how cataclysmic that non-zero risk is, it’s worth being more risk-averse in this war.
Back to the no-fly zones, to sum up, if NATO declares and then enforces a no-fly zone, NATO is declaring war on Russia. That’s bad because there’s an obvious if not highly likely route to escalation to complete thermonuclear war between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.
So, if a no-fly zone is a bad idea, what can we do? After all, it’s easy to say no and harder to offer an alternative.
The short version is to keep doing what we have been doing.
When President Biden announced the latest aid package from the US, he mentioned artillery radar amongst the thousands of missiles and other splashy hardware. Artillery radar, or counter-battery radar, may not be very sexy, but it is very important because it allows Ukrainians to detect incoming artillery and rocket fire from units like those BM-21s or Mstas. And once you detect those, you can pinpoint their location and direct your own artillery fire or send your aircraft or drones to take out Russian artillery. That would do the most to defend against Russian artillery.
Then there were a number of measures announced with respect to air defence systems and those fall into a number of categories.
We have all heard about Stingers. Those are incredibly effective against Russian helicopters and low-flying aircraft and drones. But there are also other options, here I’ve depicted an SA-13 Gopher, which is a Soviet-made, i.e. Ukrainians know how to use them, which is in use by several Eastern European NATO countries. The United States cannot supply those. We do have a few systems given to us by those same countries so we can train against them, but I think it unlikely we give those up. But can the United States give those Eastern European NATO countries new American-made systems and then those older Soviet-made systems are given to Ukraine?
Top in this list are some S-300 missile systems, in particular owned by Slovakia. The Slovak defence minister announced that Slovakia is willing to immediately provide its S-300 system, but only if it can receive a replacement system from NATO. If you are Slovakia watching your neighbour be invaded by Russia, I think wanting a replacement system makes an immense amount of sense. Just yesterday, Germany and the Netherlands announced they’ll send their Patriot missile batteries to Slovakia. Once they arrive, hopefully Slovakia will follow through and send its system to Ukraine.
These systems differ in terms of what they can do to defend Ukraine’s skies. The Stingers and some of Ukraine’s own short- and medium-range systems can defend the battlefield, but the S-300 could help defend larger area of operations. Ukraine did have and operate the S-300 before the war, although there have been a number of photos of destroyed Ukrainian systems, probably taken out by Russia in the opening hours of the war. So any replacement systems would allow Ukraine to better intercept aircraft at longer ranges, but also cruise missiles like the ones we’ve been discussing.
Ukraine has effectively used its air defence assets to deny air superiority to Russia. That doesn’t mean Russia doesn’t actively control parts of the sky, because it does, but Ukraine successfully contests that on a daily basis. You only need to look at the mounting numbers of aircraft, drones, and helicopters for proof of that.
Keep giving Ukraine SAMs and a lot of them. That’s the best way to “close the skies” over Ukraine.
Finally, I’ll add a few thoughts about those Polish MiGs, maybe 24 or so of them.
The MiGs are old planes compared to the front line fighters Russia has deployed to the conflict. Additionally, Russia does have airborne command-and-control assets to identify Ukrainian aircraft in the skies then vector those fighters to the area and take them out. MiGs do have some advantages: they can operate from dirt airfields and offer some air-to-ground capabilities. If they fly low enough they can mitigate some of the risk from Russia’s S-400s.
For Ukraine to try and achieve its own air superiority, it would need far more than 24 MiGs. At present, Ukraine flies only 5–10 sorties or missions per day. Russia is flying about 200. Ukrainian fighters would need to loiter in the skies over Ukraine, but we’ve already seen how Russia could shoot down those jets with their long-range SAMs. For Ukraine to establish air superiority it would need to do all the things we discussed earlier, but Ukraine has none of the tools to do that. Ukrainian air superiority is likely out of the question for the duration of the conflict.
So if Ukraine is restricted to low-altitude operations, NATO may have better options for Ukraine. Bulgaria has maybe 14 Su-25 Frogfoots. These excel at flying low and taking out ground units like tanks, artillery, infantry fighting vehicles, &c. The aircraft can be taken out by Russia’s own short- and medium-range air defence units deployed with Russian ground forces, but they can take more punishment than fighter jets.
These would be far more useful than MiGs. As with the MiGs, however, 14 is not really a number that will change the balance of air power and we don’t even know if those Bulgarian planes are still capable of flying. Regardless, the ground-based SAM units would be the best bet along with the aforementioned artillery radar systems. If we can get more of those units to Ukraine, that would be immensely more helpful than maybe two dozen MiGs.
In other words, we’re doing the best we can do. Keep giving Ukraine all the missiles it can use. But a no-fly zone should remain off the table for now.
A quick little post for today, more coverage on Ukraine of course. But whilst I normally focus on the battlefield because that’s what interests me, we shouldn’t lose sight of the enormous refugee problem Putin has created by invading Ukraine. Putin’s war will likely be the largest European refugee crisis since World War II.
Previously, the worst European crisis had been the breakup of Yugoslavia when 2.3 million people left their homes and fled abroad. But over just the first 19 days of this Russo-Ukrainian war, just short of 3 million people have fled Ukraine. And of course these numbers do not count those displaced internally within Ukraine, for example those who have fled Kyiv for Lviv or Kharkiv for Polatava.
Regardless I wanted to chart the daily flow of refugees fleeing Ukraine for all.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.