Streetwise Professor

August 19, 2022

Putin’s Army Taking It In the Rear

Filed under: Military,Russia — cpirrong @ 5:50 pm

If you would have asked me in February, or even early-March, whose rear areas would be more vulnerable, Ukraine’s or Russia’s, I would have said Ukraine’s without a doubt. Russian airpower would be able to roam at will over the length and breadth of Ukraine, attacking its headquarters, supply areas, and lines of communication. It would also be able to obtain targeting information for its standoff weapons to attack such military resources.

Wrong! Russia’s air campaign has been the dampest of squibs. It’s pathetic, actually. And its standoff weapons (cruise missiles, Iskanders, etc.) have mainly hit civilian areas–apartment buildings, shopping centers, and the like.

In contrast, in recent weeks and days Ukraine has hit numerous Russian rear area targets by a variety of means.

The arrival of HIMARs has allowed the Ukrainians to take out numerous headquarters, including army-level headquarters. (Though to be fair, Russian armies are really just big divisions or at most a corps, compared to WWII antecedents.) HIMARs have also wreaked havoc on Russian ammunition depots vital to their artillery-centric tactics–which is precisely why their assaults in Donbas have ground to a shuddering halt. HIMARs have also inflicted substantial damage on bridges essential to the Russians for supporting their units on the north/west bank of the Dnipro around Kherson.

But the Ukrainians have also mounted several attacks in Russia proper, through means not fully known. In particular, military targets in Belograd oblast have been hit: these include an oil refinery and yet more ammunition dumps.

Some of these attacks appear to have been carried out by helicopters and rockets. But others are more likely the result of sabotage. And recent explosions in Crimea are almost certainly the result of sabotage operations. The most notable occurred at an airbase at Saki which per satellite photographic evidence destroyed nine or ten front line Russian aircraft. But in the last few days there have been explosions at ammunition dumps in Crimea and even in Sevastopol.

One thing I did get kind of right was predicting that the Russians would be vulnerable to partisan and guerrilla activity in their rear areas. But I was only kinda right because I envisioned this would occur after they had rolled across most or all of Ukraine. The fact that even what should be secure Russian and largely Russified areas are at risk is pretty staggering.

At the tactical level, this means that the Russians will have to divert already scarce manpower from the front to secure their rear, thereby reducing their offensive capacity. Guerrilla/commando/partisan warfare is an economy of force tactic, and it will almost certainly perform that function here.

At the strategic level, the impact will be largely psychological. And I don’t say that to diminish its importance. War is often won by breaking an enemy’s morale and psychologically unbalancing him into making mistakes.

The strikes on Crimea are especially salient in this regard given the psychological value of that region to Putin, and to Russians generally. Putin’s bloodless conquest of Crimea is his crowning achievement, and his prowess is severely tarnished if he can’t even defend it from saboteurs and “terrorists” (something else Putin has claimed to vanquish).

Given the neuralgia Putin has about Crimea, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that these attacks, and continued attacks there, will unbalance him sufficiently to induce him to do something rash–and stupid.

The military damage inflicted by some of the Crimea attacks appears to be small (Saki being an exception). But frequently small events can have outsized consequences if they strike at the leadership’s pride.

Consider the 1942 Doolittle Raid, which had virtually no direct military consequences. But striking the Japanese homeland and at least theoretically threatening the life of the Emperor so shocked and humiliated the military and naval leadership who had promised that such a thing was impossible that they launched the Midway operation (because they viewed Midway as the keyhole through which the Americans had gained access to Japanese airspace). The catastrophic failure of that operation was the beginning of the end for Japan.

Partisan/guerrilla/commando operations in Russian rear areas, and especially in Crimea, are deeply humiliating to Putin and the Russian high command. If they continue, and especially if they escalate, honor (one of the main motivators of war, according to Thucidides) will compel Putin to exact revenge. Given that he has proven incapable of doing so against Ukraine conventionally, the forms that revenge could take are sobering.

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  1. I traveled in Russia a lot but never heard about a town with the name of Belograd. However I visited the city in Serbia with a similar name. So you leave me confused again. I have not heard about the explosions in Serbia though it is a Russian ally for sure.
    What is more interesting for me is to know your opinion about a comparison that I encountered of the current military operation with the war of attrition that the USA experienced in the time of the Civil War. It is hard to obtain the correct numbers for losses now though.

    Comment by A.russian — August 20, 2022 @ 2:53 am

  2. So what happens if Russian Spetsnaz return the favor and mount some special operations in the Ukraine? Such as assassinate Zelensky?

    Comment by Pat Frank — August 20, 2022 @ 10:20 am

  3. The spelling is actually Belgorod (Белгород), not Belograd. Between Kharkiv and Kursk. 50.6 degrees east, 36.6 degrees north.

    Comment by M. Rad. — August 20, 2022 @ 11:06 am

  4. “Belgorod” literally means “White town”. Compare to “Belarus” = “white Rus’” or “Novgorod” = “new town”.

    Belgrad in Serbia means exactly the same. A small town in Odessa area is called “Belgorod-Dnestrovskiy”, “Belgorod on Dniester”, wich is the Russified version of Rumanian Cetatea Alba and Turkish Ak-Kerman, both still meaning “White town”

    Sorry for a tangent )

    Comment by LL — August 20, 2022 @ 3:00 pm

  5. @Pat Frank

    What do you imagine Russian spetsnazis have been doing until now? Guarding Lenin’s tomb?

    Comment by Ivan — August 20, 2022 @ 4:58 pm

  6. @5 — no idea, Ivan, although they certainly haven’t taken out Zelensky.

    Comment by Pat Frank — August 20, 2022 @ 11:58 pm

  7. The conflict is morphing into a different kind of frozen war, where the boot is very much on Ukraine’s foot. Prior to February Ukraine would have been sh*t scared about provoking Russia in Crimea or the Donbas, but now the myth of Russia’s military prowess has well and truly been dispelled, its game on (them possibly even taking the fight to the streets of Moscow with the [mistaken?] assassination of Dugin’s daughter). And they’re so on it with their intel and targeting – an errant Tweet resulting in the destruction of an entire Wagner unit.

    Ukraine is also playing a blinder in the misinformation war, variously claiming the attack on Saki airbase to be by a new weapon they’d developed/an elite special forces team/sympathetic local partisans (plus the usual speculation regarding ATACMS). Russia must be in a frenzy chasing all manner of ghosts.

    @2. Err they tried that right back at the beginning and they died to a man, which must have given their mates a bit of a downer in terms of morale. I recall seeing a video of some Spetsnaz operator cornered by a bus stop in Kyiv, no doubt the last thought going through his mind about what a stupid f*cking idea the whole enterprise was. On which note, I think that sums up why the behind-the-lines fight is so skewed in Ukraine’s favour – Russia’s troops’ hearts just aren’t in it, they don’t see it as their war, or a fight for survival.

    Comment by David Mercer — August 21, 2022 @ 6:58 am

  8. @M. Rad. I’m slightly dyslexic. Really.

    Comment by cpirrong — August 21, 2022 @ 8:22 am

  9. there have been more than a few articles about military morale of the troops from Russia

    plus Russia corruption – such as fake Michelin tires bought from China for military vehicles – the tires blew up when put into use

    FWIW – here’s one of the articles on morale:

    Comment by elmer — August 21, 2022 @ 11:42 am

  10. I’m really struggling with why Ukraine is not planting bombs on the Moscow metro, in shopping centres, etc. “You send your bombers to kill our civilians, we send ours to kill yours” kind of logic.

    Comment by Green as Grass — August 21, 2022 @ 2:47 pm

  11. @ Green as Grass: Because everyone (Craig included) is sh*t-scared about provoking Putin. It’s a nonsense really – Ukraine should be free to do whatever it needs to do to kick the Russians out, not fight with one arm tied behind its back.

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised if NATO hasn’t read their Russian counterparts the Riot Act if, on the highly remote off chance, Putin does decide to do some deranged re Zaporizhzhia etc i.e. if you do, we’ll sweep your forces from Ukraine.

    Comment by David Mercer — August 22, 2022 @ 4:34 am

  12. tourist photo gave away location of weapons in Crimea

    not the first time social media has been used

    Comment by elmer — August 22, 2022 @ 11:57 am

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