Kinburn – the Indirect Approach

The Ukrainian liberation of Kherson has been yet another success on the side of the defenders in the war, though it is also easy to assume it will lead to something of a pause on the southern part of the frontline. The withdrawal to the left bank of the Dnipro – even if the losses to heavy equipment are on the scale expected – will still put the battered Russian forces behind one of the more formidable natural obstacles in Europe, and any Ukrainian assault over the river will require either serious amphibious equipment, a lot of luck and daring, or preferably both. The alternative for a continued offensive in the direction of either Crimea or the Sea of Azov is to do so east of where the river turn north and head down the Zaporizhzhia – Melitopol axis.

However, Ukraine just might have found an alternative option. Or at least they might be pretending to have done so, which at the end of the day might in fact prove more or less as useful.

Reports have namely come in that the Ukrainian forces have landed on the Kinburn peninsula, a narrow peninsula stretching out to the west and forming the southernmost part of the Dniprovska gulf, which sees the river outlet situated in the easternmost end of the gulf. Exactly what is happening is somewhat open, but there seem to be Ukrainian light troops on the move, with Herois’ke being reported as having been liberated. And it is a development that causes some major headaches for the Russians. The obvious one is that we have Ukrainians on the left bank of the Dnipro, something that they very much would prefer not to be the case in the south.  If the Ukrainian really are in Herois’ke to stay, it start to open up alternatives.

From the peninsula it is roughly 60 km in a straight line to Olesjky and the southern end of the Antonovskiy Bridge. The bridge is seriously battered, but if the Ukrainians can secure both bridgeheads it is still likely the easiest location to set up a functioning logistics train over the southern stretches of the Dnipro. And coming from southwest would likely flank the Russian positions, as it is safe to assume that these are oriented towards the river banks. An even bolder option which really would get Kremlin worked up is if Ukrainian soldiers started pouring out of the peninsula eastwards, where it is just 130 km to Armjansk and Crimea.

Now, wars have a tendency to be far more complex than just drawing arrows on a map. If Ukraine want to break out of the peninsula with any kind of force, they first need to get it over there, then supply it over the water and by a single road, while advancing along a narrow front which spans at maximum approximately five kilometers across. The Canadian advance on Beveland during the Battle of the Scheldt in 1944 is a good example of the issues that can be expected – though in that case it was an attacker trying to enter a peninsula along a narrow front. As such, is a Ukrainian offensive here even a theoretical possibility?

The Ukrainian 36th Separate Marine Brigade practicing amphibious operations back in 2017, including with light vehicles and APCs. A capability that suddenly could come in handy. Source: ArmyInform

It might be, depending on a number of factors. If the Russian forces in the region are second- and third-tier garrison forces without much in the way of tactical and operational mobility a quick Ukrainian offensive might gather enough momentum to sweep them away. Some have argued that the Ukrainians can’t go on the offensive without armoured or mechanised units, but in this case against an enemy that likely hasn’t had time to entrench themselves the ability to operate quickly and with a limited demand on the stretched supply lines might make light infantry a more interesting option. Infantry certainly is able to conduct offensive operations as demonstrated throughout history in general and this conflict in particular, especially if distances are manageable and the indirect fire support is plentiful. And that’s another interesting issue about Kinburn – the Ukrainian artillery doesn’t have to cross the water to be able to provide fire support. Rather it is possible to stand on the northern shore of the gulf and support the advancing troops for quite some time, including until the frontline would have been pushed well enough east that a supply node in the westernmost part of the peninsula would be relatively safe. This is a huge factor when looking at what kind of supplies Ukraine would have to be able to ferry across the bay to be able to keep going forward.

Another key detail which the possible operation again highlights is the relatively sparse nature of the battlefield. The number of troops involved is huge for a European post-WWII conflict, but so is the length of the frontline. If the Ukrainian light infantry starts moving quickly in gaps behind the frontline, the Russians will have to take action. And that might be the whole point. If Russia starts to shift serious forces south, that might open up possibilities on other fronst, such as finding a nice less-than-well-guarded position for a river crossing. As such, operating against Kinburn might be a fixing attack, or even just a raid in which a limited unit strikes terror and wait for the Russian tanks to come rumbling down the road, before slipping away back over the sea.

It remains to be seen what Ukraine plans to do with the operation, if  there in fact is an operation ongoing at all which so far isn’t completely confirmed. Still, it does seem to indicate that the Ukrainian counteroffensive hasn’t run out off steam just yet, and that they want to capitalise on the momentum in some form or another. It is even possible that the Ukrainians themselves hasn’t decided on the fate of the landing just yet, planning to press the move in case Russia doesn’t respond or then retreat from Kinburn and attack elsewhere in case Russia shifts serious numbers of troops south. In any case this further seem to disprove the somewhat strange notion that the winter would lead to a stop in offensive operations. People living in places where winter occur annually usually have methods to keep performing even if the temperature drops, and as long as other factors doesn’t come into play (such as e.g. ammunition shortages following the fall offensives) winter often can provide better conditions for offensive operations than spring or fall.

Managing the Long-Range Missiles

The massed attacks on Ukraine today again raises the question about different approaches to managing the long-range ballistic and cruise missile threat, and while I don’t claim to have written the book on the issue, I did write a chapter with that headline for a Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) report a few years ago. As such, I have given the topic some thought. The bottom line is, it’s difficult and there’s no single answer.

A Russian Tu-95 heavy bomber sporting a number of Kh-101 cruise missiles, a weapon reportedly used in the strikes on Ukraine today. Source: Dmitry Terekhov/Wikimedia Commons

To begin with, we need to differentiate between ballistic missiles such as Iskanders which are really difficult to shoot down, and cruise missiles which fly towards the target as (often small) unmanned aircraft. While a number of ground-based air defence systems are able to target at least some ballistic missiles, these are of the high-end (and as such expensive) kind, and their coverage against ballistic missiles is significantly smaller than against other flying things due to the ballistic missiles approaching their targets more or less vertically at extreme speeds.

Cruise missiles are easier targets. They come in different shapes and sizes, and rely on a combination of small size, speed, and in some cases stealth and/or electronic countermeasures to avoid interception. However, the most common defensive measure of cruise missiles is the rather straightforward method of keeping low. Flying at low altitude means that the window ground-based systems have to acquire and target them is low, and the problem is further emphasised if the air defence battery is set up in terrain such as forests, hills, or urban areas. But everything is relative. The high cruising speed is still subsonic for the majority of systems, meaning that few missiles are travelling at higher speeds than fighters or strike aircraft do. The size is small compared to fighters, but still comparable to, or larger than, many drones. As such, to make a complex question overly simple – if an air defence system is able to counter fighters and drones, cruise missiles aren’t out of reach. The most extreme version of this is evident in a widely circulated video shot today which appears to show an old Igla MANPADS used to take down a cruise missile.

While this is an extreme case, it also illustrate the point well. Note that the shooter has ample time to figure out what is happening and set up the shot in the flat and open terrain.

The best counter to cruise missiles is however not old MANPADS nor top-of-the-line systems such as Patriot or SAMP/T. Rather it is modern medium-range systems, with NASAMS being the obvious choice here due to Ukrainian familiarity with the system. A number of other systems such as the CAMM would also fit the bill. The key detail is that these provide greater number for a given cost compared to more high-end ones. And when it comes to adding coverage, the number of batteries will always matter more than the range of individual systems. This is of even greater importance in Ukraine’s situation, as the country is large and with Russia resorting to terror bombings the number of potential targets is huge.

However, that is not to say that other air defence systems aren’t of interest to Ukraine. Getting shorter-ranged systems or older ones will free up the more capable ones to the counter-missile mission. With the drone threat also having ticked up recently with the supply of Iranian systems, it is evident that all kinds of air defence systems are extremely valuable to Ukraine for the time being.

A NASAMS-launcher during a Norwegian exercise. The modularity and relatively large number of missiles ready to fire makes the system a prime candidate for anyone wanting to shoot down cruise missiles. Source: Soldatnytt/Wikimedia Commons

Another way to kinetically ensure that missiles aren’t raining down over Ukraine is to hit the systems launching these. This include Russian strike and bomber aircraft, naval vessels including submarines, and launch vehicles such as Iskander units. Obviously, hitting airfields, maritime infrastructure, missile storage sites, and so forth will also achieve the desired effect. Many of these targets are however situated deep inside Russia, and as such Ukraine have difficulties reaching these both due to the lack of suitable weapon systems as well as due to reported Western restrictions on using Western supplied weaponry to reach targets on Russian soil. At this stage of the conflict, providing suitable weapons for Ukrainian long-range strikes on military targets deep inside Russia should be a no-brainer.

But getting complete cover will always be prohibitively expensive and require more resources than Ukraine or anyone else would have available. As such a big part of the answer is usually dispersion, fortification, and creating redundant systems, all of which are naturally more relevant against an enemy actually trying to hit something useful rather than just trying to kill civilians. As such, the real way to stop Russian missiles will be a Ukrainian victory. This will require stepping up support in a number of areas. This includes more of what has already been delivered, including both weapons and financial aid. However, it is also high time to supply new capabilities. This includes finally getting Ukraine those Leopards, as well as starting training on modern western multirole fighters. The F-16 is the obvious candidate, and while it could provide a measure of defence against cruise missiles, the big deal is the general ability to pound targets on the ground with modern weaponry and drastically increase the Ukrainian ability to defend their skies from enemy fighters and helicopters. Because as the war currently sits, the Russian strategy seems largely to be to burn everything they can’t have down to the ground, and the sooner we’ll take the matches from the arsonist, the less damage he’ll be able to cause.

Finland could do more

With the war in Ukraine looking nowhere near resolved and both sides apparently gearing up for the next round of fighting, one thing is clear.

Finland could do more.

This is true for a number of cases, including sanctions on people, goods, and companies, as well as for medical aid through both transporting Ukrainians here for healthcare and supplying equipment to Ukraine, but this blog being this blog, let’s focus on heavy weapons.

There’s a list of caveats long as seven years of famine since much of the details rest on classified information which I don’t have access to – a fact which incidentally is a reason why I am able to write this text – but the idea that Finland can’t supply more equipment is false.

It should be noted that any armed force could always do with more equipment and troops, and it is an almost universal truth that all forces faced with a serious war have experienced shortages in weapons and ammunition – in particular items seeing heavy use such as artillery rounds and expensive items such as guided munitions and advanced systems. Any defence force budget and stocks of equipment and ammunition are the outcome of an analysis leading to what is felt to be an acceptable risk, i.e. at what stage is deterrence and combat capability credible without the defence budget putting undue pressure on the national budget.

This equation is never straightforward, and constantly changes. At the same time, the changes might come faster than it is possible to course correct (i.e. things get worse quicker than industry can supply more stuff or more troops can be trained), meaning that it will require foresight and careful balancing. However, at times it will also require risk-taking, as is evident by the Swedish support to Finland during the Winter War which saw Sweden send significant amounts of their then rather small (and often aged) pool of equipment as well as volunteers, and a large part of their air force to Finland. This was done not because they wouldn’t have been needed at home, but because the risk calculation favoured it:

A Soviet victory would seriously have worsened Sweden’s geopolitical situation.

There probably was at least a small window of time before any of the major powers would attack Sweden.

There were more equipment on order that hopefully would be delivered and pressed into service during that window of time.

…and while international relations realists won’t like this, supporting the democracy against the dictatorship is the morally right thing to do.

While the Winter War-analogies are getting tiring already, I will argue Finland is seeing a very similar situation as Sweden saw then. With one crucial exception, our ground force are in the best shape they’ve been in during peacetime (Lt.Gen. Hulkko said since the end of WWII, but I’d argue that they weren’t better in the 1918 to 1939-period either). That we at this stage wouldn’t be able to spare more than 2,500 old AKM-clones, 60 rounds to each of these, and 1,500 M72A5 LAWs does sound empty and counterproductive from a grand strategy point of view.

Granted, I fully understand that if we ask people within the defence forces they might very well argue that if we aren’t to diminish the combat capability of the FDF there isn’t much to spare, and the argument that countries that doesn’t share a long land border with Russia are better positioned to take those kinds of risks at this stage does hold true. The officers, NCOs, and civilians of the Finnish Defence Forces can be expected to answer honestly when asked regarding what is best for Finland’s military defence, and as the current crisis shows many of the choices made in this regards over the years have been correct.

However, that is not the question in this case.

Rather it is what would be the most beneficial outcome for Finnish national security as a whole, understanding both the added risks involved as well as the importance of Ukrainian successes for Finland as a nation. As such while the question will eventually land on the table of the MoD and the defence forces, the question of whether we can afford to send more aid is first and foremost one for the prime minister’s office and the foreign ministry.

So what are the areas where we could take calculated risks to provide more aid to the Ukrainians?

152 mm 2A36 Giatsint-B (152K89)

Finland has made away with almost all Soviet-calibre systems from the artillery (we will get around to the other exceptions shortly), but one system stands out: the sole heavy guns in the Finnish arsenal that aren’t 155 mm ones, namely the 152 mm 2A36 Giatsint-B. A single battalion of 24 guns is found on strength under the local designation 152K89.

A 152K89 of Kainuu Artillery Regiment during a live-fire exercise late 2019. When firing with a full charge such as here, the gun is capable of flinging out the standard OF-29 HE-FRAG round to over 27 km. Picture courtesy of Marko Leppänen

Finland has been retiring a number of heavy batteries in recent times, mainly older converted 152 mm ones and all 130 mm M-46 (130 K 54), but the Finnish artillery is still very strong by European standards, and having a single battalion operate a unique calibre is an “interesting” choice from a wartime point of view. The guns are most probably excellent for training purposes, but it is still hard to not see them as having a limited value in wartime. In addition, heavy guns is one of the places where Finland has the opportunity to cover any transfers relatively quickly, with there being open options to acquire 38 additional K9 Moukari self-propelled 155 mm guns (options for 10 of the original 48 having already been exercised).

With the 2A36 already being in widespread Ukrainian service, Janes listing 287 in service in 2019-2020 (at least nine having been lost in the war), these could be put into Ukrainian service immediately without additional training required. It also seems possible that the system is in fact a key capability for Ukraine in that it can be used to fire laser-guided shells, and the locally developed Kvitnyk (often transcribed Kvitnik, but Ukroboronprom uses the ‘y’ in their marketing) being a prime suspect behind videos in which Ukrainians reportedly fire artillery that hit single vehicles with high accuracy.

All in all, shipping the last 152 mm guns to Ukraine together with whatever stocks of heavy Soviet-calibre rounds we have left should be a no-brainer. I also believe – though I am not 100% certain – that these are bought directly from the Soviet stocks and are not ex-DDR guns, and as such the export should be politically straightforward (in case anyone is unclear, we do not ask permission from Moscow to send these to Ukraine, in case they want to make a mess, we point to the fact that the war itself is illegal and we have a responsibility to support the defender).

122 mm D-30 (122H63)

The other Soviet-calibre gun in Finnish service is the 122 mm light howitzer which is found both in the shape of both the self-propelled 2S1 Gvozdika as well as the towed D-30. The 2S1 is recently modified to the 112PSH74M-standard and found in somewhat limited numbers, with four battalions – 74 guns in total – being available to provide indirect fire to mobile units. Shipping away any one of these would likely leave some of the key wartime units without organic fire support that is able to keep up with the unit they are supporting, leaving us in a bad spot (note that more or less all of this is speculation, as the wartime OOB and TOE are all classified). However, the towed D-30 is available in significant numbers and generally assumed to be assigned to less-important units. With the risk of getting a lot of angry fan mail from people who will explain that a 122 mm howitzer is not the same as a mortar, some of these are likely local units where indirect fire isn’t a key requirement (instead focus being on rear-guard duties and anti-SOF missions) and you could trade away some weapons for 120 mm or even 81 mm mortars. It obviously will mean a less capable unit, but as discussed above, the geostrategic considerations aren’t guided solely by what makes the FDF as capable as possible.

122PSH74M firing during exercise Pohjoinen 18. Source: Maavoimat FB

How many D-30s and how many rounds for these could be spared is an open question, but as the system is already in Ukrainian use even small batches are useful additions. A number of the guns in service are ex-DDR ones, and as such will need German approval, something which the Estonians already have ensured there is a precedent for.

122 mm RM-70/85 (122RAKH89)

The 122 mm light multiple rocket launch system RM-70/85 is the Finnish light rocket system of choice. The system is easily mistaken for the Soviet Grad-system, and uses the same rockets, but it is in fact of Czechoslovak origin. The Czech republic is reported to already have shipped at least 20 launchers, and with ability to share munitions with the BM-21 Grad these are relatively easy to integrate even if the exact versions differ somewhat. Does Finland have any to spare? These are certainly more difficult to replace than the Giatsint and aren’t available in the numbers of the D-30, but it should be noted that Finland apparently recently has been looking at a possible replacement system.

The delivery time for new launchers is anyone’s guess, but if a swift deal can be made with the Israelis this might be the time to get rid off at least some RM-70s, or if that is deemed impossible then at least ship some rockets – a six-vehicle battery will do away with 240 rockets in a single salvo, so it does seem like a safe bet that Ukraine is interested in getting any 122 mm rockets they can find for their current launchers.

RBS 15SF-III (MTO 85M)

Speaking of quick deals with the Israelis, the current heavy anti-ship missile of the Finnish Navy is the Saab RBS 15 in the somewhat unique Finnish SF-III version (most likely this is a somewhat hotter RBS 15 Mk. II). These are already on their way out with the Gabriel V being inbound as the PTO 2020. Among the systems being replaced are truck-mounted batteries, which would be an excellent complement to the apparently rather low number of Neptune-batteries in Ukrainian service for the sea denial and coastal defence missions.

The PTO 2020 will in the first phase replace the ship-launched systems aboard the Hamina-class FAC as part of their MLU, but in the next phase they will also replace the truck-mounted ones. While not having access to the shore-based systems for a while would be a significant issue for the Navy, this might be another case of us simply having to accept a temporary capability gap in order to ensure Ukraine has the capabilities they need. A caveat here is that if the stories about the UK sending Harpoons is correct, the RBS 15 might not make much of a difference, but as the latest angle seem to be that the UK is sending some other (i.e. lighter and shorter-legged) anti-ship missile, the RBS 15 would certainly be needed alongside the apparently more limited domestic production (yes, I know the UK launchers aren’t ground-based versions, but that has never stopped a desperate country with a dedicated welder in their ranks). While the system would require some training, the fact that Ukraine already successfully operate corresponding domestic systems shows that they have the know-how to integrate and operate the system as well as a cadre of professionals around which to build up more anti-ship units. With Finland also currently enjoying a good reputation in the national security field in Sweden thanks to our more clear NATO-approach, it also seems likely the needed export permissions could be granted more easily than what would have been the case a month ago.

Buk-M1 (ItO 96)

Finland did operate the BUk-M1 system, having acquired it in the mid-90’s. According to most sources the system is now withdrawn for real and it is uncertain if any useable vehicles or missiles remain. One of the really low-hanging fruits of heavy weapons aid is to ship anything that remain in storage – be they spares, tools, or even functioning missiles and vehicles – over to Ukraine quicker than one can say ‘Novator’.

However, as said my understanding is that useful items might be few and far between, which brings us to the next point.

Crotale NG (ItO 90M)

Finland acquired 20 XA-180 equipped with radars, EO-sensors, and eight Crotale-missiles each in the early 90’s. Back in the 2004-2012 timespan these systems were modernised and brought up to what locally is known as the ITO 90M standard. These are still highly competent systems, and their mobile nature and ability to operate quasi-independently (a single vehicle can complete the whole kill chain, but for best effect you obviously want to use them as part of an integrated air defence system) means that they would be of serious value for the Ukrainian forces. The approximately 6,000 meter ceiling and up to 11 km range also means that they would outrange the STARStreak which with the exception of the single ex-Slovak S-300 battery is the heaviest air defence system so far exported to Ukraine during the war, and as such the Crotale would offer a welcome addition in both capability and numbers.

The Crotale NG in Finnish service is a highly compact package that is able to drive around and do all sorts of bad stuff to enemy aircraft and helicopters. Source: MPKK.fi

It should be acknowledged that these play a big role in Finnish ground-based air defences, despite their somewhat low numbers and lesser absolute capability compared to the NASAMS II. There are also few if any quick options when it comes to replacing them, and as such sending even a limited number of them to Ukraine need serious evaluation of the impact such a move would have in Finland and Ukraine respectively. But it is an alternative that I do feel ought to be on the table when discussing all options.

Other options

There are indeed other options as well. The Stinger is already in Ukrainian service and even small batches would likely be accepted with open arms. Anti-tank weapons might or might not be available as well. Mortars, both light and heavy, are found in serious numbers in the Finnish inventory, and it is difficult to see that all would be irreplaceable.

For heavier equipment, the Air Force is basically a no-go. There’s little use in sending small numbers of Hornets which would cause a serious dent in Finnish capability but which would be a dead-end for the long-term rejuvenation of the Ukrainian Air Force which really need to go down the F-16 (or possibly the F-15) route. For other aircraft, the Ukrainians are really better off just getting money and permission to go shopping than getting a Pilatus or two.

For the Navy, while sending two-three-four Rauma class FAC overland to Odesa in a covert operation would be an epic story worthy of the best naval small craft traditions of  Finland, in practice cutting the Finnish anti-surface combat capability by 25-50% for a five-ten year period does not seem like a viable option. Better in that case to focus on the truck-based batteries.

Armour is also rather more difficult. The Leopards are too few in number to make a serious contribution for the trouble it would be to integrate them into the Ukrainian force without Finland in essence giving away half the armoured force. For the IFVs, going over to a CV 9030-only fleet would probably be everyone’s dream, but there is no quick way to achieve that, even if one would be prepared to throw significant amounts of money after it (that would also still leave a split IFV-fleet, as any CV 9030 rolling off the production line today would be vastly different compared to the Finnish ones currently in service, but of course they would still be more related than the  current BMP-2 and the CV 9030 are). The BMP-2M/MD that could be transferred would also be significantly different compared to the ones currently in Ukrainian service, though obviously integrating them would be easier than say the Marders they have been trying to buy from Germany. As such, while a transfer of Soviet-designed armoured vehicles aren’t completely out of the question, it must be understood that any such move would leave the Finnish Defence Forces significantly weaker when it comes to the ability to conduct combat operations in general and offensive operations in particular.

As a finishing note, accepting the kind of risk we are talking about here – and at some point we will have to come around to the understanding that we have to accept greater risk-taking in order to further our national interests and national security – would be significantly easier if we were part of an alliance of western democracies that we would have conducted joint operational planning with and on whom we could rely on for support in case of war. Sending away a battalion worth of IFVs doesn’t sting half as much compared to what the situation is right now if one knew that a Swedish armoured brigade with British air support would immediately roll in over the border and take up positions in the defence of Finland until the transferred vehicles have been replaced.

Ukraine successfully burns Moskva

In general, the ships contain a great deal of flammable material and appear to lack adequate damage-control features.

Those are the words of Eric Wertheim describing the Slava-class guided-missile cruisers in the 16th edition of The Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World. Being second in size among the Russian surface combatants only to the massive Pyotr Veliky and her sister (also known as the Kirov- or Project 1144 ‘Orlan’-class), the Slava (or Project 1164 ‘Atlant’) was built during the later half of the 1970’s as squadron leaders with heavy anti-ship missiles to be able to fight and sink US carrier battle groups. Of a total of six planned vessels, three had entered service with the Soviet Navy and to this day has remained some of the most important Russian surface combatants – yet again highlighting the failure of post-Soviet Russia to build any surface combatant larger than a frigate. The three vessels operate one each in the three most important fleets – Marshal Ustinov in the Northern Fleet, Varyag in the Pacific Fleet, and leadship of the class Moskva (ex-Slava) in the Black Sea Fleet as the flagship of the fleet. Or rather, she did so until last night (ironically, all four were built in Ukraine, where today the fourth hull still rests in a half-finished state).

Moskva back in Sevastopol bay in 2009, a year after it had successfully taken part in the Russo-Georgian War. Note the sailors on the bow, giving away the ship’s massive size. Source: George Chernilevsky / Wikimedia Commons

As of the time of writing little is known for certain. All sides seem to agree that a serious fire which also reached unspecified ammunition storages has caused the crew to abandon the ship during last night, and that’s about where the details start diverging. Ukrainian sources very early started talking about a successful strike using the homegrown R-360 Neptune anti-ship missile, two missiles which reportedly struck the vessel and caused the fire which lead to the vessel rapidly capsizing and sinking. The Russian version is that the vessel suffered a fire not related to any attack, and that the whole crew was evacuated with the vessel eventually sinking while under tow due to hull damage brought about by the stormy weather conditions. In a somewhat rare instance, it does seem that Russians indeed were somewhat honest and that the vessel might have been floating in a damaged state for quite a while, as Pentagon spokesman John Kirby earlier this afternoon (European time) described Moskva as “afloat but clearly damaged“.

As a side-note, this is the second warship named Moskva to sink in the Black Sea due to enemy action, the first having been a destroyer that hit a mine while being engaged by coastal artillery outside the Romanian coast in 1941.

But let’s start from the top and break down the scenarios involved. The Moskva as mentioned is fitted out to operate as a flagship, i.e. the command and control hub from which orders are given and the situational picture is kept up to date. While there are conflicting reports about whether Moskva has been operating in that role or whether the duty has been taken over by one of the modern frigates operating with the Black Sea Fleet, Shashank Joshi of The Economist got a quote indicating that shed indeed did function as the flagship.

With the Ukrainian Navy all but non-existent, the value of the sixteen huge P-500 Bazalt anti-ship missiles found along the sides of the superstructure has been rather limited in the war (there are reports that they would have upgraded to the P-1000 Vulcan, but most seem to agree that is not the case. Anyhow, as there are no targets for them currently in the Black Sea, the difference at this point is largely academic). The Moskva has however been active in other roles, including being the ship on the receiving end of the famous “Russian warship, go fuck yourself”-radio message over at Snake Island – which it then responded to by blasting the island with the deck gun. Besides providing naval gunfire support, the vessel is also equipped with a three-tiered air defence that although old is still of value. The most serious of these systems are the S-300F Fort long-range system which sport 64 5V55RM semi-active radar homing missiles (the system is called Rif in the export version). In essence, the system roughly corresponds to the ground-based S-300PS/PM and was introduced in the mid-80’s. As such, it is a far cry from the S-400 batteries found ashore today, but still longer-ranged than the otherwise significantly more modern 3S90M Shtil-1 system and its 9M317M missiles found aboard the Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates of the fleet (Shtil-1 can roughly be thought of as a naval version of the Buk-M2E system). For closer defence, it operates the equally old Osa-M system sporting twin-rail launchers of the original 9M33-family of missiles (SA-8A GECKO in NATO-parlance). The short range-defence is then handled by the 130 mm twin AK-130 main gun and six 30 mm AK-630 close-in weapons systems. There are also torpedoes and anti-submarine rockets, which in this case are of even lesser use than the Bazalt.

Russian Navy ship Moskva Hit off Ukraine
The major weapon systems of the Moskva. The radar on top of the rear superstructure just in front of the flight deck is the Volna. Picture courtesy of H.I. Sutton / Covert Shores

An interesting detail is that there are rumours around a Ukrainian Bayraktar TB2 appearing in the area to ‘distract’ the Moskva during the attack. In fact, it is not at all a far-fetched idea. The major issue of the S-300F compared to newer systems is the limited ability to track multiple targets. The system can intercept up to 6 targets at a time, but only within a 60° sector as the system is tied to a single 3R-41 Volna (TOP DOME) radar. Considering the additional circumstances of the vessel having sustained operations on wartime footing for weeks and it being a stormy night, the crew handling the air defence systems becoming fixated on a drone is entirely possible, especially as sea-skimming missiles would have been even harder to detect on the radar than usual among the low-altitude clutter caused by the stormy conditions. The TB2 might certainly have been combining the distraction role with that of feeding position date of the vessel back to the firing battery (let’s remember that a number of the Bayraktars are operated by the Navy). Some really fancy accounts are even saying that the Bayraktar would have taken out the air defence radars before the sea-skimmers came in, but even if theoretically possible I find it extremely unlikely. Let’s remember that the technology level of the air defences is roughly corresponding to the most modern air defence systems the Royal Navy vessels that went to the Falklands back in 1982 were sporting, and the issues they had with picking up Exocet missiles in time are well-known. The shorter-range systems should in theory have been able to intercept the missiles, but there are several explanations as to why they didn’t do so, ranging from poor performance through to not being active due to the crew underestimating the threat from anti-ship missiles (both of which have earlier lead to wartime losses for different navies).

A Tatra-based TEL for four Neptune missiles displayed during a military exhibition last year. Source: VoidWanderer / Wikimedia Commons

As mentioned the weapon reportedly used by the Ukrainians was the home-developed R-350 Neptune, somewhat related to/based upon the Russian Kh-35 Uran. As such, it is a weapon largely comparable to many western weapons, being subsonic, sporting active radar-homing, and a warhead in the 150 kg class. Approaching the target at very low-level, it is difficult to detect, and it would not be surprising if yesterday was close to the limit when it comes to how bad weather it can operate in (you don’t want to fly lower than the maximum wave height). A 150 kg warhead (or two) won’t sink a cruiser, but there are a number of other factors to take into account, including the possibility of starting a fire – as was alluded to in the opening quote and which was the case with HMS Sheffield in the Falklands – as well as the explosive potential of the Bazalts lined up along the side of the vessel. Both the Ukrainian and Russian versions talk about a fire threatening the ammunition storage, which is a somewhat vague term for a vessel were several key systems lack reloads and all missiles are stored launch-ready. The batteries are expected to have their own Mineral-U mobile radars which could have been the system feeding engagement data, and as said the Bayraktar might have been involved as well.

Notable for the Neptune is that it has been absent during the early part of the war despite there being ample targets. One possibility is simply that there are too few missiles to use them against low-value targets or targets where the fire control data wasn’t unambiguous. It is also possible that these were the first missiles available to the battery, as there had been reports that deliveries had slipped a year from 2021 to this spring. If so, someone has likely been working around the clock since February to get the weapons ready, and if this really was their debut, it sure was quite something!

The Mineral-U radar of the Neptune batteries in raised position. For transport it is lowered to point straight back. Source: VoidWanderer / Wikimedia Commons

But was it really a missile strike?

While I questioned whether the Tapir lost earlier was caused by enemy action or just an accident, and while the Russian Navy indeed is no stranger to accidents, there are a few things here that leads me to believe the missile strike scenario is the more likely one in this case. The whole scenario does seem plausible, including the weapons used, the usage of environmental conditions and potentially a drone to mask the attack, the choice of target, and so forth. But the most important indication is the statement by western sources that other Russian vessels have turned south to put a greater distance between themselves and the angry coastline. That would not be the expected reaction in case the Russian commanders thought it an accident.

So how big a loss is this to the Russian war effort?

That impact on the war effort depends very much on your point of view. As mentioned there really are no Ukrainian naval vessels operational, and as such the Russian sea lines are not threatened. The utility of the vessel in the current war -which at the end of the day very much is a land war with a maritime flank – is also somewhat limited compared to the more modern frigates and corvettes that are able to fire land-attack versions of the Kalibr cruise missiles. On the flip-side, the Ukrainians have likely shaken the Russian Navy seriously, and any plans on an amphibious landing near Odesa have likely been shelved permanently. Looking 40 years back into history, the similarities to the sinking of the Argentinian cruiser ARA General Belgrano are astonishing, with both vessels in surprise attacks being put out of action, both serving as the flagship of their respective forces, both being old but still packing a serious punch, and both likely having an impact on morale and operating procedures that extend well beyond the loss of their individual combat capability. The vessels are also surprisingly evenly matched in size, with the Moskva being just under a meter longer and the Belgrano being just a bit heavier in displacement. Which one you will hand the dubious honour of being the largest naval vessel sunk since 1945 largely depends on your metrics, but if pressed I’d say the Argentinians still have it.

In more detail the lack of the S-300F air defence system is felt, but not overly much. Again, it had a range advantage compared to the more modern systems on some of the other vessels, but otherwise it was far from modern. The reduction in the number of combat capable hulls is likely to be felt more severely, with just three frigates (two modern), two corvettes, and three OPVs remaining according to one source. With the blockade line having been pushed further south, it also means that naval gunfire support is unlikely to happen and due to the shape of the Ukrainian coast and the Black Sea the blockade line will be longer, further increasing the amount of real estate any single vessel will have to keep its eyes on.

This also potentially open up the possibility to do something about the illegal blockade Russia is maintaining in the Black Sea. In short, you are allowed to blockade your enemy during war, but there are some set rules for how to go about doing so. One of these is that you are supposed to declare the blockade, something Russia hasn’t done. In the grand scheme of things, the undeclared blockade likely ranks as one of Russia’s lesser war crimes, but it is still something, and crucially (my understanding is) that the undeclared nature would give the West the possibility to seize the opportunity and sail some serious vessels into Odesa as a freedom of navigation operation.

These so called FONOPS to ensure that the rules regarding free use of the sea are kept have mostly been associated with China in recent years, but as Charly Salonius-Pasternak pointed out a while back, a FONOPS into Odesa would certainly be a possibility. And as a FONOPS-squadron preferably would have the firepower to take down the adversaries in case they get any ideas, this is one area in which the loss of the Moskva’s Bazalt-missiles would be felt. Compared to e.g. the suggested no-fly zone over Ukraine, a squadron of western destroyers and frigates loudly declaring their intention and sailing into Odesa would probably constitute a lesser risk of escalation into nuclear war even in the case things would go bad and NATO and Russian forces would start killing each other – the sea just tend to play that kind of a role in international politics where a crisis that happens on land is always more serious than one that takes place on open water. The propaganda value for the Ukrainians and the further loss of face of the Russian Black Sea Fleet would be of measurable value, and the vessels staying in Odesa for a few weeks would significantly lessen the threat of strikes or offensive operations against the port, freeing up Ukrainian resources to the drive on Kherson. It would however require more political bravery than the countries with competent enough vessels have so far been able to muster, and as such we are unlikely to it see it any time soon.

But even if the FONOPS stays a dream, the loss of Moskva adds yet another item to the long list of Russian failures and losses in this war. With a crew usually numbering close to 500 (over 500 if including the additional staff when working in the flagship role) this might turn out to be the most serious single loss of manpower of the Russian Armed Forces so far in the war if it turns out the Russian story of the whole crew having been evacuated was wishful thinking. The symbolic value of Ukraine destroying Moscow is also not lost on anyone, and as noted the operations by the rest of the Black Sea Fleet can be expected to become more limited.

And finally, the symbolic value of getting revenge for the occupation of Snake Island is very real.

The Russian warship did really get fucked.

A Ukrainian Triptych

As there’s quite a lot happening in Ukraine at the moment, several things of which deserve a bit deeper analysis than is fitting to a Twitter-thread, I decided to do a short (no, I’m not kidding anyone but myself) post on three topics from the past week: the helicopter strike on the Rosneft fuel depot in Belgorod, the ability of Russia to replace losses in equipment (in particular tanks), and the idea of shipping advanced Western systems to Ukraine (in particular fighters and air defence systems).

The helicopter strike in Belgorod

One of the more spectacular single events of the past week was without a doubt the dawn raid on the Rosneft fuel depot in Belgorod, a city sitting just opposite the Russian border from Kharkiv.

A Ukrainian Mil Mi-24 attack helicopter sporting the B-8V-20 rocket pods for the S-8 rocket which was used in the attack on the Belgorod fuel depot. This helicopter is of the locally upgraded Mi-24PU-1 version, which feature a number of improvements – crucially including avionics and sighting equipment to allow for better performance in darkness, making the version a prime suspect for the performer of the raid. Source: Bennorey via Wikimedia Commons

What we more or less know is that during the dawn of April 1 two Mi-24 (NATO-codename HIND) struck a fuel depot in eastern Belgorod with S-8 rockets, before then rapidly exiting the area at very low level. A number of storage tanks burst into flames.

That is basically what we know for certain. The storage depot has been geolocated both using traditional means as well as through NASA’s FIRMS fire monitoring satellites. The depot is apparently operated by Rosneft’s subsidiary AO Belgorodnefteprodukt, and hold 22 larger and five smaller storage tanks. TASS helpfully reported the size of the larger tanks, which come in at 2,000 cubic meters each, meaning that just the 22 larger tanks can store 44,000 cubic meters (i.e. 44 million litres) of fuel, and of these eight were on fire meaning a loss of 16,000 cubic meters of storage capacity as well as any fuel currently stored inside them. Other damage, such as e.g. to transfer lines, pumps, and so forth, are more difficult to asses, but one theory is that the first helicopter did not aim for the tanks but for what looks like it could potentially be the main office building on the site. Another possibility is that it simply didn’t hit anything as flammable as the second helicopter did.

Possible location of the camera (left upper corner of the red triangle roughly showing field of view) and location of the building that I speculate might have been the target of the first helicopter (yellow box).

In any case, the target is of strategic value to Russia. As is well-known, the Russian offensive has suffered from a lack of of supplies in general, and fuel is no exception. While the Belgorod depot is a civilian one – to the extent we can differ between civilian and state/military infrastructure in Russia – the location of Belgorod at the infrastructure node opposite Kharkiv means that it can be expected to have played a role in trying to fuel the stalled offensive on Kharkiv. This clearly was a target of strategic importance, and will hurt the ability of the Russian forces in the greater Kharkiv-region to conduct operations – be they offensive or defensive. Some have compared this to the Doolittle raid of 1942, but in truth this is rather different as there seems to have been serious material damage done in Belgorod which will have some kind of effect on the continued Kharkiv-campaign.

A short interlude: there has been some discussion that the strike would have been a false flag-operation by Russian Mi-24s to somehow stir up further hatred against Ukraine, and while it can’t be ruled out, I sincerely doubt it. To begin with, the enemy being able to strike strategic target on Russian soil after the Kremlin has declared that the Ukrainian air assets are wiped out and Russia enjoys total control of the skies isn’t exactly helpful for the Russian propaganda effort. If you really want to launch a false flag operation, going after something more war crime-y would also help (such as hitting a school or similar, we’ve seen that Russia is not beyond killing own civilians, and if they would be averse to own losses they could have struck early enough that no people would have been present).

The usage of helicopters is interesting. Most often these kinds of interdiction strikes are left to fixed-wing aircraft or long-range missiles, but there are instances of helicopters being successfully used to carry out long-range strikes – the most famous being the raid by AH-64 Apaches of Task Force Normandy firing the opening salvo of Operation Desert Storm. While helicopters often are lamented as being vulnerable on the modern battlefield – and the conflict so far has indeed seen a number of losses – they are significantly more difficult to kill than many expect, in particular if used at speed and at low level. Many of the Russian helicopters lost have been operating at surprisingly high altitude, making them easily visible (and thereby targetable by air defences). Contrary to that, the Mi-24s seems to have left the area at tree-top height. This would give significantly less time for any air defences to react, and would make it extremely hard for ground-based radars to pick up the helicopters. Still, the complete inability of the Russian air defences to hunt them down is telling, as a layered air defence with sensors, people on the ground reporting observations, fighters on alert, and crucially at least some kind of close-range air defences around strategic targets (such as a fuel depot 60 km from the frontline…) should be able to put at least some amount of lead into the air. One possible explanation is people observing the helicopters being hesitant to fire or report them onwards for fear of causing a friendly fire incident, which is an ironic outcome of having air superiority but not supremacy.

While this isn’t the first strike on Russian territory during the war – we’ve seen e.g. the Millerovo air base having been struck by what presumably was a Tochka-U ballistic missile – this does seem to be the first air raid on Russian territory since the Korean War. It also seems to have been executed close to perfection, with a somewhat unconventional but extremely effective plattform being chosen to perform a surprise lightning raid against a target of real strategic value, without causing any serious collateral damage. The last part is important, as the Russian political leadership has accused Ukraine of escalating, a statement that is difficult to take seriously given that it would mean a Ukrainian limited strike on a militarily relevant target is the issue here when Russia started the war by invading Ukraine, and has followed up by systematically targeting civilian infrastructure – including hospitals and agreed upon humanitarian convoys and corridors of safe passage – as well as the widespread raping and looting done by Russian soldiers in Ukraine.

Covering the losses

There has been some discussion surrounding the significant losses to Russian equipment, but quite a few have pointed to the vast size of the Russian Armed Forces as providing a healthy equipment pool from which to draw troop reinforcements as long as the personnel losses can be covered – and notable is that e.g. when it comes to tank losses approximately half the confirmed losses are destroyed or damaged, with the rest being captured or damaged, something which might indicate that the equipment losses are quite a bit worse than the personnel losses.

However, that does overlook the sheer scope of the equipment losses suffered. A good place to start is looking at the tank losses, as the tank is the key offensive weapon system in case Russia plan on succeeding with their regrouping and upcoming Donbas-offensive.

The exact number of operational Russian tanks in service is obviously somewhat obscure. However, there does seem to be a convergence around a number in the 2,500 to 3,000 range. A rather solid estimate from 2019 is this one which is based on the numbers from IISS, which list 2,750 tanks. An interesting detail is that pro-Kremlin “suspicious information operation” (in the words of Jessikka Aro) SouthFront lands extremely close, listing 2,609 tanks in combat units in 2021 (note that there can be operational tank in other places than combat units, such as schools or research units, which might explain why the number is lower). Both also list roughly half of the tanks as being modern versions (T-72B3 in all versions, T-90A and M, as well as T-80BVM), with the rest being older T-72 versions and T-80BV/U. In addition, there is a sizeable amount of tanks in long-term storage, let’s get back to them.

One of the Russian Armed Forces most modern tanks, a T-72B3 Obr. 2016, apparently abandoned close to Mariupol. Source: Ukrainian MoD/Wikimedia Commons

To start with the losses, Oryx lists 389 destroyed, damaged, abandoned, and captured tanks. As such, that represent 14.1 % of the operational tank force if we stick with the IISS numbers (which we will do for the rest of this post). Of course, that is bound to be somewhat off, due to a number of things. One is that the Russian tank force has not been staying stagnant since 2019 –  e.g. last year TASS published a report that 65 T-90M “would be” (note future tense) handed over to the Army during that year. Another is that the tanks operated by the so called People’s Republics in Donbas aren’t included in the Russian total. However, these are likely to be balanced out against not all losses being confirmed, and at the end of the day we are looking for a trend rather than a bean count.

An interesting detail with the confirmed losses is that they match the 1:1 ratio of modern tanks, with 165 of the 345 identified tanks lost being modern ones, i.e. 47.8 % to be precise. Going back to the 14.1 % of operational tanks having been lost, for the individual tanks versions things are somewhat more varied. The T-90 family has so far suffered relatively small losses, with just 4.9 % of the operational force having been knocked out.

Let’s pause for a while and think about that statement. The modern tank that has fared best has seen roughly one in twenty of the total operational force available in 2019 having been either destroyed, damaged, or otherwise left on the battlefield, and all that in just over a month of fighting. That is bad.

For the others the issues are worse. The exact number of T-80BVM is not listed by IISS, but going from SouthFront we are looking at 72 in operational combat units. With 18 lost, that’s a solid 25 %, or one in four. The reason is obviously unclear at this point in time, it might just be that we are seeing T-80BVM units in areas from where there are lots of images, but we also have reports that e.g. the 200th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade (Pechenga) which is a prolific user of the upgraded version has been extremely hard hit around Kharkiv.

The T-72B3 in all versions fare somewhere in between, with 10.8 % of the vehicles being lost. Again, it’s too soon to draw major conclusions about the survivability of the T-90 compared to the T-80BVM or T-72B3, but it is crucial to note that among the most modern Russian tanks available, we are seeing losses in excess of one in ten operational tank. Even if a number of crews have dismounted and marched back to Russia ready to grab a new tank and get back into the fray, that’s not something even a force of Russia’s size will just shrug off.

But what about the tanks in storage? Most reports place the number of tanks in storage at approximately 10,000 (I will argue that the nice roundness of the figure says something about how accurate it is, but it gives us something to work with, and again, we are looking for trends, not individual tanks). However, obviously the tanks in reserve are mainly older versions, and pulling out a T-72A from storage to replace a T-72B3 or a T-80U to replace a T-80BVM will mean a loss of capability in absolute terms.

There is however an argument that on the surface makes sense, that as the Ukrainians have had no issues penetrating the most modern tanks the increased protection these sport is in fact of limited practical value, and that the increased firepower (gun, ammunition, sights, gun handling, FCS, …) they have is of limited value as there has seemingly been relatively little tank versus tank combat and the Ukrainian armed force is also mainly made up of older tanks (the vast majority of identified losses so far being the 1985-vintage 1-64BV with the rather dated Kontakt-1 ERA “bricks”). As such, the 10,000 tanks in reserve are very much  valid replacements for the losses

However, there is a number of issues with that line of reasoning. To begin with, while a tank has splendid mobility, firepower, and protection – the features which has meant that tanks has dominated the battlefields of the world since at least the Second World War – there are obviously some drawback to being locked inside a tin can. One of them is situational awareness, which naturally is somewhat limited if you are in a vehicle compared to moving on foot. To fight this drawback, modern armoured fighting vehicles have an array of technology to help them, allowing them to fight at long distances and during night. It’s not a perfect solution, as we have seen in Ukraine it is still possible for infantry to sneak up on tanks not operating with their own infantry, but a modern sighting unit does provide a huge benefit compared to for example the 1K13-49 installed on the late 80’s versions of the T-72B, not to mention the kit fitted to the even older T-72A and related versions. And if you thought a tank with a modern thermal sight is vulnerable to infantry sneaking around, just wait until your main night vision device is an IR-searchlight. It might have been cutting edge in the Golan in 1973, but those days are long gone. Poor situational awareness gets you killed on the modern battlefield, and that is what you get with 80’s technology.

Similarly, while an NLAW or Javelin will make the same sized hole in a T-72A as in an T-72B3 (surprisingly often it turns out that it is a turret-ring sized hole), there are a lot of other weapons floating around on the Ukrainian battlefield. These include lighter weapons such versions of AT4 and LAW delivered from western sources, as well as a whole host of Soviet-designed weapons, all of which might or might not be able to take out an enemy tank depending on a number of different parameters in the engagement. However, one thing is clear, and that is that the likelihood of doing so significantly goes up with the age of the target. And in the best case, the target will be a tank built in the early 80’s lacking its ERA-blocks.

Because this is another major issue with the stored vehicles. Most pictures that have come out of Russian depots seems to indicate that the storage conditions often are less than optimal, with vehicles in several cases lacking pieces of removable equipment, and instead having a liberal amount of rust. Now, it is important to note that there is probably some amount of bias involved, as the facilities most visible on the web likely are those most poorly guarded, and as such likely not the most high-priority storage units. Still, anyone who has tried to take a machine into service that has been standing for a few years knows that it seldom is a straightforward task. So how many tanks could be pulled out of storage within say a month or two? No one knows, most likely not even the Russian general staff, but it is safe to assume that number is significantly lower than 10,000.

Obviously, Ukraine has similar issues with lost tanks being hard to replace, and Russia might certainly win a war of attrition. But the losses suffered right now are certainly on a scale that even if Russia would be able to supply trained crews to cover the personnel losses, the combat capability of the units will still suffer significantly.

The long game

This leads us on to the third topic: the Ukrainian requests for military equipment which grows fancier and fancier. At this stage, there are talk both about getting Patriot and NASAMS air defence systems, F-15 and F-16 fighters, as well as NSM anti-ship missiles.

The Ukrainian frustration is understandable, and there is no doubt that a few Patriot batteries with well-trained crews would make a significant impact on the battlefield. However, there are two major issues: delivery speed and training.

The Starstreak HVM (High Velocity Missile) is an advanced short-range system that require the operator to keep the target in sight throughout the intercept, but on the other hand provide the benefit of being unjammable. Source: British MoD via Wikimedia Commons

It is possible that Ukraine has reached a stage of the conflict where they can afford to pull units from the frontline for retraining, that’s something we see e.g. with the delivery of the Starstreak which included a (forced) training program before the system was delivered to the front. The issue, even allowing for the fact that in wartime you will accept higher risk-taking and longer working hours, will become even more pronounced as you move into higher and higher levels of complexity, and a long-range air defence battery or anti-ship missile battery are among the most complex individual systems in service today. Pulling an air defence battalion from the frontlines to re-equip with Patriot would mean them being out of service for a month at the very minimum, most likely more depending on the experience level of the unit in question as well as the acceptable level of proficiency after the training has been concluded. It might be that Ukraine sees this as an acceptable trade-off, especially as we’ve seen equipment losses to e.g. their S-300 batteries which might mean that they have trained crews without vehicles.

The same is true for the fighter requests as well, where retraining of pilots would have to take time. Again, there are certainly corners to be cut when looking at this from the wartime versus peacetime angle, but even then miracles are difficult to achieve. Especially when realising that most everything is different in an F-16 compared to a MiG-29, down to how the human-machine-interface works and what kind of a doctrine the aircraft is built around to be as effective as possible (the same can be said about the discussion of supplying western-made tanks to Ukraine, but here the possible supply of stored T-72 of different versions is looking more promising if the political will is present).

This brings us to the other issue, namely that while older anti-tank systems (and some newer ones) are found in storage units across numerous countries in Europe and the US, modern high-end systems are rarely bought in significant numbers to begin with, and they are usually needed in service. Yes, I understand that “need” is a relative term, but few countries would be willing to send away significant numbers of their key systems if they aren’t able to get them replaced in a short time. And the delivery times for high-end systems is long.

Granted there F-16s available surplus in some numbers with e.g. Norway having recently retired its fleet, and the Ukrainians likely would not be upset with the aircraft having relatively few flight hours left. The famous US “boneyard” in Arizona also have a host of different aircraft that might be brought into service under more or less swift schedules. Operating a US fighter would also mean that there are munition stocks available, so if a completely new system is to be brought into Ukrainian service the F-16 – most likely the European MLU-standard – would be the prime candidate. That would however take vastly more time than the 2-3 weeks the Ukrainian Air Force talks about, not to mention such basic logistics tasks as getting the aircraft to a suitable base (most likely outside of Ukraine) and setting up some kind of training program there already taking some time. Considering the issues even with getting the Polish MiG-29s over to Ukraine and the lack of political will to do that, a Ukrainian F-16 conversion unit in Germany or Poland followed by ferry flights to Ukraine does seem like a dream at this stage, and one that would be hard-pressed to be achievable in anything less than a month from the moment all involved parties have signed the papers (though I will say that I can’t quite understand why the MiG-29s were felt to be an escalation compared to the numerous other systems provided).

There are obviously some middle ground to be achieved in some areas, with e.g. the Finnish RBS 15-batteries being replaced with the Gabriel within the next few years. If a quicker delivery schedule could be agreed upon and possibly even a Finnish NATO-membership allowing for additional naval firepower in the Gulf of Finland in case of war these might be freed up. It would be a significantly greater political commitment from both Finland and Sweden (as the original manufacturer) than what we have seen so far, but would also mean that Odesa would be vastly more secure and the Ukrainian forces could start thinking about some local sea denial missions close to the shore. Similarly, there are some older medium-range air defence systems in Europe that might be up for grabs that would offer at least comparable performance to what the Ukrainians currently have. However, even under the best of conditions none of these systems would have an impact on the battlefield during April, and this is in sharp contrast to the numerous simpler systems delivered.

This obviously brings us to the question of how long the war will take? If someone a month ago would not have taken the decision that it was worth shipping the Starstreak despite it being a month away from Ukrainian service, one more Mi-28UB would be flying around killing Ukrainians than what currently is the case. Similarly, any decision not taken today because a month is too long a delivery time might prove to have been faulty in a month from now if the war continues to rage on, and if nothing else Ukraine will indeed also need to rebuild its forces once the conflict is over. With the Russian attempt at a poorly executed lightning strike having stalled, switching to ensuring the Kremlin can’t win a war of attrition might certainly be the best strategic move the West can do right now, especially considering we do seem set for something of a calm before the storm as Russia tries to regroup forces to focus on more limited aims in the Donbas.

I have a hard time seeing Patriot, NASAMS, or F-15 deliveries to Ukraine right now, but we certainly should start looking at the systems a step above the Starstreak in complexity. Because this is starting to turn into a long one.

Tapir lost

The biggest news from the front-line in Ukraine today is that the Russian Navy has lost one of its major landing ships, a Landing Ship Tank (LST) of the Project 1171 ‘Tapir’-class (NATO: ALLIGATOR). The vessel suffered a catastrophic fire in the port of Berdyansk, an Ukrainian port city approximately 60 km south-west along the shore from Mariupol. The Tapir-class is comparable to the more famous and somewhat newer Project 775 (NATO: ROPUCHA). Of the original 14 Tapirs built, most are decommissioned or in reserve, but two are found in the Black Sea Fleet and a third is in active in the Pacific Fleet. A good clip of the event is found below:

As mentioned the Tapir is old, dating from the mid-60’s, with the two Black Sea Fleet vessels having been commissioned in 1966 and 1968 respectively.

Exactly what caused the fire is unknown. Most reports mention a Ukrainian missile strike, which would be a Tochka-U. The missile system which in Russian service has been more or less fully replaced by the Iskander-M dates from Soviet times and reportedly has a CEP of 95 meters, meaning that you don’t aim for individual ships, but you could conceivably aim for a cluster of vessels tied up port-side together and wish for the best. This ‘fingers crossed’-tactic was apparently tried with some success against the Millerovo air base earlier during the war. Notable is that the Tochka-U can be equipped with a warhead sporting cluster munitions, which depending on your type of target could increase the odds of hitting something (though obviously the damage to whatever is hit would be less). The question has also been raised whether any Tochka-battery could have gotten within range of the port, considering the somewhat limited range of the system (120 km)? Again, lines on a map rarely tell the whole story, but e.g. the front suggested by the Finnish National Defence University would indicate that Berdyansk is within range.

Everyone’s favourite Turkish drone obviously also was included in the speculation, but the weapons used by the Bayraktar TB2 – the MAM-L – sport a very light warhead (the whole weapon tipping the scale at 22 kg). Of course, if you hit something volatile even a small warhead might do the trick, but getting a laser-guided weapon into the cargo hold (the most likely scenario if you are to start a fire with a light weapon) is rather hard due to a combination of factors (such as the discrepancy between the path followed by the laser beam and the bomb, as well as how trigonometry work when you lock a laser spot). Not impossible, but difficult.

A number of vessels from the Black Sea Fleet. Farthest to the right is those of interest to us, with Tapirs Nikolay Filchenkov (‘152’, currently in reserve/not active) and Saratov (‘150’) flanked by Ropucha Novocherkassk (‘142’). Source: Cmapm via Wikimedia Commons

There’s obviously also a number of other possible explanations, including Ukrainian special forces planting explosives or similar, but perhaps the most likely explanation is the boring one that a more or less overworked crew made a mistake that lead to a fire – an all too common event on vessels even without the added stress of being at war. Of course, being at war should also mean that your damage control crew is on rather high alert, especially if you sit within range of enemy ballistic missiles, but here again incompetence or humans being humans can’t be ruled out.

Alert readers might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned which vessel it was that turned into what I believe is the first combat loss of the Russian or Soviet Navy since U-956 sank USSR Deyatelny (ex-HMS Churchill) in January 1945. The reason for this is that both Tapirs of the Black Sea Fleet are possible candidates for the dubious honour. Orsk, the somewhat younger vessel, was seen on the location earlier, unloading BTR-82 armoured personnel carriers, most likely from a naval infantry brigade. However, there are also indications that she had already left the area and her sister Saratov – the lead vessel of the class – had taken her place at the quayside. She would reportedly have been carrying the munitions for the unit unloaded from Orsk earlier this week or late last week.

While I won’t make a definitive call at this stage, the Saratov-theory does make sense, and the fire which sport a number of secondary explosions also seem to fit a fire aboard a munitions vessel. A munitions-handling accident would also not be unheard of as a wartime fire-starter.

Notable is that some port structures, possibly including oil storage on the quay and/or nearby cranes, also seem to have suffered damage. As did at least one of two Ropuchas which successfully sped out from the port during the fire. These are reportedly the Black Sea Fleet-vessels Tsezar Kunikov and Novocherkassk – being true youngsters among the Russian amphibious ships in having been commissioned only in 1986 and 1987 respectively – of which the Kunikov had a quite sizeable fire visible on deck while leaving Berdyansk. This might turn out to be relatively minor damage if it is a case of burning debris having been flung away by the hot air and explosions on the Saratov(?) and then landed on the vessel, though as a rule of thumb you don’t want open flames on a vessel. The status of Novocherkassk is more unclear, but some damage looks likely here as well.

The impact on the war is likely to be modest. If there is half a battalion, especially a fresh elite unit such as naval infantry, now running around without munitions that is obviously bad, especially as Russia so far seem to struggle with their logistics flows even when they aren’t interrupted by massive fires. The loss of the vessel is likely to be felt in the long-run for a country that has seen a total of two LSTs built in the last 30 years, and it will impact the ability to project power in the long run (the Tapir and Ropucha have been regulars on the Syria-run, shipping equipment to Syria to help Assad and the Russian expeditionary forces there). It won’t, however, directly affect the war for the time being as the concentration of six LSTs from the Northern and Baltic Fleets to the Black Sea means Russia should be able to cover the shortfall for now, and the amphibious threat to Odesa remains unchanged. If the port is damaged that is more of a headache for the continued operations against Mariupol and to the north from there, but the extent to which Russia had planned on using Berdyansk as a logistics node is unclear.

An interesting detail is that the earlier video of the Orsk unloading the BTR-82s showed them being hoisted over the side instead of driven off, a procedure that takes significantly longer compared to just rolling out through the bow doors. While it is true that the bow ramp of the vessel is low compared to many larger ro/ro-vessels and as such may not fit the facilities in the port, the low draught of the vessel means that there should be a number of secondary locations available for it to use, one of which you’d imagine would have a ramp that fits. The BTR-82 is also amphibious, so it should even have been possible to let them leave the vessel some ways away from shore and ‘swim’ the last part – something that is regularly seen practised on exercises. If the Russians simply aren’t in a hurry to get the vehicles into combat that would be one thing, but most indications are that there is indeed pressure from the top to get the stalled offensives moving again. Considering that the scene doesn’t show the sense of urgency that is to be expected, but rather it once again seems like ineptitude on behalf of the Russian armed forces.

The things we don’t know

Putin’s war in Ukraine has been described by many as the first live-streamed war, and tuning into Twitter or other social media it certainly feels that way. While we have earlier seen embedded journalists get close access to combat units, this time the journalists – both local and foreign ones showing great courage by choosing to report from Ukraine right now – have received company by any number of Ukrainian civilians sharing images, texts, and videos from their neighbourhoods. However, due to this there is an evident risk that people outside of Ukraine (and to some extent inside the country as well) feel that they know exactly how the war is going.

It is easy to step into this trap. The main bias is that reporters, bloggers, and other people who like to hear their own voice have a tendency to tell stories based on things we know – as opposed to describing the unknown. In a war full of remarkable persons and events there are certainly more stories deserving to be told than there is bandwidth. The other bias is that Ukraine has been remarkably effective in shaping the information space. This stems both from the Ukrainian political and military leadership skilfully setting the agenda, as well as from the Ukrainian civilians being surprisingly OPSEC-savvy and not sharing much in the way of images depicting Ukrainian movements or losses. There is also the obvious issue of the fog of war giving us a false picture of events (i.e. we believe we know something that later turn out to be false).

Despite all of this, there is a number of things we recognise that we don’t know, which in my opinion doesn’t get acknowledged enough in the stream of information out there.

So here it comes, a list of important things we don’t know.

The Ukrainian losses

We don’t know the Ukrainian losses with any kind of certainty. While there have been some official figures published by Ukrainian authorities, these are best treated with a grain of salt. The Russian figures for the Ukrainian losses are simply a joke, and the western intelligence agencies and authorities who supply what probably are the most reliable estimates for Russian losses are less keen to discuss the Ukrainian ones.

Naturally, the Ukrainian losses are a key metric when trying to understand how much of their pre-war combat potential Ukraine has left. Speaking of which…

The Russian losses

We don’t really know the full scope of the Russian losses either. The Ukrainian figures published are almost certainly too high. E.g. the US estimate for total number of troops killed – though notably described as a “conservative” estimate – is at half the number. Again, the Russian figures are a bad joke that is disrespectful towards their own soldiers.

At the same time, the best open-source resource which lists equipment losses – the Oryx-blog post kept by Stijn Mitzer and team – and only looks at visually confirmed losses has listed approximately half the number of tanks and a third the number of rocket launchers as the Ukrainians claim. The methodology is obviously set to give a too low number, as it isn’t an estimate per se, but still point to a discrepancy.

At the end of the day, we probably have a better picture of Russian losses than we have of Ukrainians, but even here we don’t have a comprehensive picture. It is rather unclear what it means for the combat capability of individual units or formations.

The Russian capabilities

That Russia has seriously performed below expectation in this war is well-established by now. There is a solid argument to be made that the initiation of the war was made with suboptimal preparations on the side of the Russians, with little to nothing in the way of preparation for the individual soldiers or tactical formations. There is also the argument that morale among the average Russian soldier fighting NATO or a country that isn’t part of the Russian-proclaimed East-Slavic brotherhood would be higher, which might hold water as well.

At the same time, it is also true that this really should be the ideal situation for Russia. Being the sole aggressor, surrounding Ukraine from three sides, and not fearing any other neighbour taking the opportunity to sort out old wrongs, they literally had all the time they wanted to set up this one perfectly. Was the military leadership hamstrung by the whims of Putin? It certainly looks that way, but at the same time once the shooting starts, you can expect something akin of regression towards the mean when it comes to true combat capability once a unit is sent into combat, regardless of the surrounding circumstances. Instead we see presumed elite units such as VDV, the 4th Guards Tank Divsion (Kantemir), and the Arctic units such as the 200th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade do downright stupid stuff and lose equipment through what looks like a combination of disastrous incompetence, poor logistics, and faltering morale.

At the end of the day, we don’t know the combat capability of the Russian forces. They seem to be a mess on many levels (see points above, the word “seem” might be doing a lot of heavy lifting here), but at the same time it still is the Russians and not the Ukrainians that are advancing.

The level of control

But while Russia is advancing, we also see that in many places the Ukrainians aren’t looking like they are trying to hold a solid frontline. We are instead seeing some key locations, mainly urban areas, being defended determinedly, and in the areas not defended we see continuous attacks by small units, indirect fires, as well as drone and potentially air strikes against smaller Russian units and logistics trains. Exactly how much control the Russian units exert over large areas of the land that they have presumably occupied is an open question. It is also notable that the Russian forces available – including the Rosgvardiya – are way too small to be able to occupy and pacify a country of Ukraine’s size and population according to both most academic measures as well as practical experience post-WWII. So how much of the country is really cleared from Ukrainian troops? We don’t know.

The lessons to learn

The tank is dead. As is light infantry on the offensive. Airborne and airmobile forces are also. And not to mention the amphibious landing.

The limited Ukrainian fleet (20 active drones?) of the Ukrainian armed forces have proved surprisingly resilient. But again, we aren’t sure why that is the case, and how much of an impact they really have on the big picture. Source: Ukrainian Armed Forces via Wikimedia Commons

The truth is that we have a very fragmented picture of the operations so far. Some ideas can indeed be said to have been proven to be less than stellar – such as sending tanks unsupported into urban combat, or airborne operations without adequate support. But truth be told these were disproven numerous times earlier as well. There are some interesting things to note, such as the issue Russia has with establishing air superiority, including stopping the relatively limited force of Ukrainian Bayraktar TB2s (36 vehicles and two fuel trains confirmed hit by the Bayraktars on the Oryx blog so far). However, these are still early days, and we don’t have the full picture of e.g. which weapons have been responsible for the spectacular images of some of Russia’s most modern armoured vehicles being reduced to burnt-out scrap metal.

Again, to some extent we are fed a curated version of the war by the Ukrainians, and it will only be in the years after the conflict when veterans and eyewitnesses on all levels are interviewed that we will start to be able to get a truly comprehensive picture of what worked and what didn’t in Putin’s latest war (and then we can start arguing about which lessons are general and which were due to the particular circumstances of this war). As such, for now we don’t quite know which lessons to learn.

A Modest Proposal

It’s healthier to tie up one’s horse at the roundpole fence of one’s enemy, than that he would tie up at ours

Bishop Johannes Rudbeckius

 

Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you: do ye even so to them

Jesus (Matthew 7:12)

The war in Ukraine is raging on, and so far the Finnish political leadership does seem to still be “looking” at what the options are to help Ukraine and to increase Finnish security. Let’s be blunt:

This war has not come as a surprise, but we’ve seen months of Russia moving units into position until it was more a question of when rather than if. As such, that there isn’t a ready plan is something of a failure of planning, as even if the Finnish politicians didn’t think that war was the most likely outcome, it should have been evident months ago that it was at very least a real risk and as such there should have been a contingency plan. Still, here we are, and in the interest of public service, here is what can and should be done:

Closer cooperation with Sweden (and possibly other partners as well)

While Finnish-Swedish defence and foreign policy cooperation is rather deep already, there are a few practical steps that can be taken swiftly and which would both serve operational purposes as well as provide valuable signalling. The lowest hanging fruit is to invite the Swedish Air Force’s intelligence gathering platforms – crucially the S 102B ‘Korpen’ and S 100D ‘Argus’ – to operate in Finnish airspace and potentially even from Finnish bases, Rovaniemi and Tampere-Pirkkala likely being the prime candidates in that case.

One of the two Swedish SIGINT-modified Gulfstream IV, designated S 102B Korpen. The two aircraft are named Hugin and Munin after Oden’s two ravens. Source: Luc Willems / Wikimedia Commons

The S 102B Korpen (Swedish for raven, having gotten its name from the ravens that flew all over the world to bring information to the god Odin in Norse mythology) are SIGINT-equipped Gulfstream G-IVSP, while the S 100D Argus (named for the all-seeing giant in Greek mythology) is the Swedish AEW&C platform, a Saab 340 with an Erieye-radar on top (the designation ASC890 is also used). Both are regularly seen flying over the Baltic Sea towards Kaliningrad, but are also doing regular runs along the Finnish-Swedish border in the north, trying to get a look into Russian airspace. Allowing them to fly in Finnish airspace would significantly increase their reach, and allow the Swedes to gather better information on what Russia is doing. In the best of worlds, they might even be ready to share some of the material with Finnish intelligence, as while the Finnish Air Force does operate a SIGINT-aircraft, there might certainly be some differences in the sensors carried that allow for the Swedes gathering data which we don’t have, and in any case we lack an AEW&C platform. Even if the Swedish intelligence community would not want to share their information with us, helping Sweden to have a better situational picture on which to base their policy decisions is certainly in itself valuable for Finland. The political signalling would also be a value.

Joint buys of ammunition and other materiel would also be something that both would increase the combat capability (and therefore deterrence value) of the armed forces in both countries as well as signal political resolve in both countries. As it so happens, the Swedish CinC has already provided a request to the Swedish parliamentary defence committee requesting permission to buy more ammunition, fuel, food, and medical supplies than planned under the current budget. As Finland and Sweden recently signed a framework agreements for how to jointly acquire ammunition, this is an excellent opportunity to show both resolve and cooperation in practice.

Joint exercises are more difficult to drum up at short notice, but a few things could still be done. Letting key people such as unit commanders and other high-ranking officers meet for discussions (preferably with photo ops of them standing around a table or out in the field and pointing at maps and things to show how serious the discussions are) can be arranged at relatively short notice thanks to their small footprint. Everyone’s busy right now, but clearing out a day in the calendar should still be doable. Having the commanders of the Norrland’s dragoons and the Jaeger brigade stand at the shore in Suomussalmi flanked by their chiefs of staffs and look over towards at Hulkonniemi would be a rather clear message to any potential adversary, and the importance of personal connections between officers at all levels can’t be overestimated. The same can obviously be done at the political level as well.

Similar kinds of things could preferably be done with other partners in the region as well. A high-profile visit by Finnish Air Force personnel to Evenes Air Force Base in the Norwegian high north to discuss F-35 operations in adverse conditions or the decision to jointly acquire more Stingers with Latvia could certainly fit the bill. However, as Finland and Sweden are two of the only European democracies choosing not to be part of a defensive alliance with other fellow democracies, it is certainly possible that many of the other countries are too busy doing internal alliance-stuff, and it might leave Finnish-Swedish cooperation as the most viable path in the near term.

Weapons to ukraine

This really should have taken place back before Russia invaded, and it is outright bizarre that Finland has declined exports to Ukraine – not just decided not to gift weapons to Ukraine, both from allowing them to buy Finnish-made stuff – with the logic that Finland don’t ship weapon to conflict zones. Besides the obvious stuff that this hasn’t been a show-stopper in certain earlier cases – such as the Patria AMVs appearing in Yemen – it is utter stupidity that Finland would play a part in setting a precedent that if Russia threatens war, other countries should not export weapons to the threatened democracy. But that is all water under the bridge, and the next question is what to do now?

The obvious fact still stand. It is in Finland’s interest to aid Ukraine with as much weapons and ammunition as possible. This argument does not rest on altruism – though you can make that argument as well – both on cold hard realism. Finland has only one possible military adversary in today’s world, and that is Putin’s Russia: a country ruled by a dictator that has outright invaded some neighbouring countries, propped up dictators in others, and supported (more or less organic) separatist movements in yet others, and which has as late as this week warned Finland (and Sweden) against us exercising our sovereign right to choose our security solutions. As such, few things would improve Finland’s geopolitical situation as much as a Ukrainian “victory” (whatever that means) in this war.

The cold hard truth is that every T-80BVM tank of the 200th OMB that is knocked out in Ukraine is one less tank in Pechenga, and that means less forces close to the Finnish border, and that in turn means less combat capability that Russia can use to threaten – or if the worst comes, invade – Finland with. It also means less funds for training and more of the training done being at a simpler level, as the focus in the Russian armed forces shifts to replacing lost equipment and personnel.

This is the cold face of war, that securing the upper hand usually means those on the other side of the border will die or otherwise be made to suffer. It is the grim reality we need to keep in mind when discussing these things, but at the end of the day we didn’t choose this any more than the Ukrainians. Instead, Putin did, and we need to be prepared for him actually staying true to his word when he keeps threating the use of force. As such, arming Ukraine builds Finnish deterrence as our relative strength grows, meaning that the Russian leverage to put pressure on us decreases.

So what can we do?

The obvious thing is the old AK-clones in different version. Finland has earlier bought numerous different foreign-made AKs, including from ex-DDR and Chinese stocks. Following the downsizing of the armed forces, word on the street has it that none of these would be used by the 280,000 strong fully mobilised force (with the exception of the rather limited number of foreign-built folding-stock rifles used by AFV crews), and already back in 2006 there was talk that they could be gifted to the Afghan National Army as the FDF didn’t want or need them. It is highly unlikely that the FDF would need them more now than they did back then, and they could certainly fit the requirement of simple weapons that could be handed out to volunteers in the campaign Ukraine has now embarked upon.

One weapon system that has not been mentioned is the sniper rifles that are becoming surplus in the near future with the introduction of the Sako M23 which will replace most 7.62 TKIV 85 (a highly modded Mosin-Nagant) and all 7.62 TKIV Dragunov. These sport calibres that are found in Ukrainian service and rounds which will be surplus to the FDF with the retirement of the rifles. While it is too early to ship away all, I would certainly believe that at least some of them could be declared surplus right away.

But the big deal is the NLAW and Stinger missiles. With armoured vehicles and massed helicopter assaults being among the key threats facing the Ukrainians, providing simple weapon systems that Ukraine already operate would be a significant addition the combat capability of the Ukrainian army. Also, the knowledge of more missiles being on the way will ensure that the Ukrainian defence forces are freer in using the stocks they already have. And from a Finnish perspective, again, tanks that become burning hulks in Ukraine won’t be used to intimidate Finland in half a years time.

But doesn’t Finland need these weapons for ourselves?

Yes, and no. The weapons are needed, but right now we are in a rare situation where Russia actually does not have the capability to perform offensive operations in our neighbourhood thanks to the better part of the units normally stationed nearby being in Ukraine. If Finland is quick (because we might not be the only one who wants to top up our stocks) to call Saab and Raytheon and place orders for more NLAWs and Stingers respectively this could provide a good opportunity to rotate stocks (granted the current stocks probably have plenty of shelf life left, so it isn’t urgent from that perspective), and still be back at having a sizeable stocks of missiles by the time the Russian units are back from Ukraine and have recovered from their losses. Obviously, that would require more funds, but the weapons right now would certainly do more for Finnish security in Ukrainian hands than in Finnish depots. And as mentioned, we have a framework for buying anti-tank munitions jointly with Sweden, so this would fit in with the idea of using that very framework as expressed above.

At least one T-80BVM is not coming back to Pechenga. This is – cynical as it may sound – beneficial to Finnish national security. Illustration by Erik Gustavsson / Public Domain

We are back to political will. If the political leadership is ready to grab the opportunity and prepared to pay for the costs, it certainly is doable (though the scale depends on a number of factors, many of which are classified).

Nato

Yes, we should have joined NATO ages ago. Nothing has changed, besides there now being yet another data point that non-NATO countries get invaded by Russia more frequently than NATO-countries. Why we wouldn’t want to build our security together with or European and trans-atlantic partners is beyond my understanding, and anyone arguing for us being safe from Putin’s anger if we just keep calm has a rather more difficult time making that argument convincingly following this week (though in all honesty this was clear to anyone willing to look at the world and make a sober assessment already in 2008). The exact form and steps taken to join can be discussed, and I leave that to other.

Developing: Skirmishes in the Sea of Azov

Russia effectively began blockading Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov earlier today when sealing the Kerch Strait by placing a merchant vessel across the sea lane passing under the Kerch Strait bridge and forcing a small convoy of Ukrainian vessels to head back. The incident included vessels of the two sides making contact with limited damage. However, pictures have surfaced of another Russian Border Guard vessel with damage apparently from a collision, and it is unclear if more vessels than originally reported were involved, if the incident is unrelated, or if the pictures are old.

However, a while ago reports started coming in that a firefight have taken place. Apparently the first casualty was Ukrainian patrol craft (gun) Berdyansk (pennant U175) which reportedly lost propulsion. After that Russian forces tried boarding the vessel, with Berdyansk returning fire.

Berdyansk is a relatively new unit, having been launched only in 2016. Source: Ukraine MoD via Wikimedia Commons

Exactly what has taken place since is even more unclear, but it should be remembered that the closing of the strait lead to a significant number of civilian vessels being stuck in the area waiting for things to clear up that they could continue their journeys. There is a very real risk for these, including both Russian and Ukrainian ones, being caught in crossfire. Significant air activity was also observed throughout the day, including Su-25 attack aircraft and armed Ka-52 attack helicopters. One report stated that following the exchange of fire both Berdyansk, sister Nikopol, and a naval tug has been captured by Russian forces, but currently the word is that six Ukranians are wounded, two vessels are under tow by friendlies, and one vessel is held by Russian forces.

The Kerch Strait after hostilities had started. The connection across is roughly 15 km in length. Source: Marinetraffic.com

Unconfirmed reports have stated that the Ukrainian Navy has left its base in Odessa, but it is very unclear if this indeed has happened, what vessels are at sea, and if there is some battleplan. The Russian Black Sea Fleet together with air and ground units will have no problem stopping the Ukrainian Navy if they try to force passage through the strait. The sole major surface combatant of the Ukrainian Navy is the Krivak III-class frigate Hetman Sahaydachniy (U130). It should be noted that the Krivak III was the coast guard-version of the class, and while very heavily armed for a coast guard vessel, it still lacks any kind of anti-ship missiles. The Ukrainian Navy has a number of older fast attack craft as well, but their operational status is unclear. If this motley flotilla is supposed to survive, let alone do any damage to their Russian counterparts, it will need some serious air support.

Ukrainian flagship Hetman Sahaydachniy. Source: Ukrainian MoD via Wikimedia Commons

Both Ukraine and Russia have large numbers of aircraft in the region, including Su-24M which while old still can do serious damage to surface units, especially as the target vessels in many cases are old as well with limited air defences (though it should be noted that the Russian Black Sea Fleet include a number of modern corvettes and frigates which likely will eat Su-24s for breakfast). For Ukraine the question is where any potential battle would take place, as the Kerch Strait is ‘behind’ occupied Crimea. If Ukraine is to secure even limited air superiority, the battle will likely have to take place somewhere else, which might require the Russian Navy cooperating. Another question is if things could now deescalate as it seems the active battle at the strait has died down following the Russian capture of one of the vessels involved? There is no longer an urgency on the part of the Ukrainian to rush headlong into the waiting Russian forces.

Ukrainian Su-24M armed with unguided rockets. Source: Ukrainian MoD via Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, the wheels might already be in motion, and a serious question is at what level command currently rests on both sides? If the politicians have transferred operational decisions to the military things could keep on escalating. In the same way, decisions by local commanders in the field can have outsized impacts upon the continued developments on the Russo-Ukrainian War as a whole. This would not be the first time that politicians have had to come to grips with the fact that measured escalation is difficult.

In the end, a conflict over Russia blockading the strait has been one of the scenarios discussed numerous times since 2014, and as predicted it shows signs of escalating easily. A crucial factor regarding the timing is that Europe is focused upon Brexit, diminishing the potential of EU to work as a stabilising factor. At the same time, it should be remembered that early reports seldom are to be trusted, and by tomorrow morning we should all be wiser.

Putin’s Undeclared War – A look at Bellingcat’s Artillery Investigation

It is by now no secret that regular Russian units played a major role in turning the tide of the Ukrainian summer offensive of 2014. This has been reported by international actors as well as the Ukrainian government, and Russian support has included both older as well as newer systems (such as the Pantsir and T-72B3), and whole units. One aspect which has received relatively little coverage is the considerable artillery support provided by the Russian Army to the Russian/Separatist forces. The latest Bellingcat report remedies this.

The report, titled ‘Putin’s Undeclared War – Summer 2014 Russian Artillery Strikes against Ukraine’ (ENGLISH/RUSSIAN), uses satellite imagery from the border area to locate possible firing positions that can be tied to Russian Army units, as well as artillery craters from a firing direction pointing towards Russia within close proximity to the border. These have then been classified according to a given set of criteria, to give a high probability that any firing position or crater field really could be tied to Russian artillery.

screenshot-2016-12-21-at-16-01-02
Perhaps the single most damning picture in the report: Presenting all the cases where it has been possible to directly link artillery targets to Russian firing positions. Source: Bellingcat

The method employed is described in detail in the report, with helpful examples and illustrations to show its implementation. The numbers are staggering. Russian artillery units fired on Ukrainian targets on at least 149 separate occasions during the summer of 2014, with another 130 positions being identified as ‘likely’. On the receiving side, 408 crater fields coming from the direction of the border have been identified within range of Russian artillery, and of these 127 are within 3 km of the border itself, a range close enough to more or less rule out that the firing system has been stationed on Ukrainian territory. The Russian artillery have participated in the war by firing thousands of shells, a number so great that even in case of some of the incidents would have been from Ukrainian or separatist guns, there’s no denying the underlying conclusion: Russia provided a significant amount of indirect fire in support of their campaign in the Donbas.

There are at least three distinct phases of the campaign, with the first being the early shellings. Here, Russian units crossed the border, and once just inside Ukrainian territory they took up a firing position, and once again withdrew back to Russian territory once the firing was over (leaving easily identified tracks and thread marks). This poorly disguised attempt at getting some kind of deniability was then phased out as the campaign went on, the downing of MH17 being something of a watershed moment, and it became more and more common for the units to fire from Russian territory. The targets in most cases were the Ukrainian military camps set up during the Ukrainian offensive. A third phase of the artillery campaign started with the Russian ground offensive that reversed the Ukrainian gains. Here it is harder to determine which side has performed the attacks, as the Russian artillery pieces moved deep inside Ukrainian territory on the heels of the advancing Russian units. The attacks were usually performed by a limited number of guns, ranging from three to eight artillery pieces (though some sites have been targeted from multiple firing positions), with everything from mortars to self-propelled as well as towed howitzers and MLRS having been used. In some cases these included newer pieces of equipment, such as the BM-30 Smerch heavy rocket-launcher and the Msta-S self-propelled howitzer, both systems which indicate Russian involvement.

rszo_smertch
The Russian BM-30 Smerch is identifiable on satellite pictures due its size compared to earlier systems. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Digr

The report as a whole gives a thorough picture, and is probably the first up until now to disclose the full extent of the Russian use of cross-border artillery strikes in the conflict. Noteworthy is the fact that 35 of the targeted sites sported more than a 100 impact craters.

Does the artillery strikes in themselves constitute an act of war? The report claim so, but as my knowledge of international law is limited, I asked Oscar Jonsson, a visiting researcher at Berkeley and  PhD-Candidate at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, for a second opinion. His answer, to my surprise, was that as ‘War’ isn’t really properly defined. The UN Charter e.g. does not use the word (except in the preamble), but instead forbids the ‘use of force’ (except when defending from an armed attack). Cross-border raids and artillery strikes doesn’t necessarily amount to war unless they reach a certain (non-specified) intensity, with e.g. Nagorno-Karabakh having seen cross-border shootings which usually aren’t described as war. As such the question of what exactly constitutes a war largely rests on the individual states and the security council to pronounce.

However, as Jonsson also pointed out in an earlier post, the question is largely semantic, as the fact that Ukraine has international law on their side in Putin’s secret war doesn’t really help, unless they got the power to implement it (i.e. fight back). Even though the report indicates a degree of fighting that would classify as an armed attack, Ukraine still defines the conflict as an anti-terrorist operation from their lack of power.

All in all, the report is well worth a read, and gives yet another piece of the puzzle regarding Russia’s direct involvement in Ukrainian affairs.