Combat is set to intensify as the West pours in weapons and Moscow deploys ‘poor man’s nukes’ to the Ukrainian frontier
https://asiatimes.com/-by Andrew Salmon
Ukrainian soldiers use a launcher with US-made Javelin missiles during military exercises in Donetsk region, Ukraine, December 23, 2021. Photo: Ukranian Defense Ministry Press Service
With Russia’s war in Ukraine set to enter a second week, there is no sign of a resolution or a halt to the destruction in sight.
Any Kremlin hopes that its invasion might end with a swift coup de main victory, an uprising against the Ukrainian government, or a collapse of resistance have so far been dashed.
The war winds have not yet risen to hurricane force. Large-scale street fighting, the most murderous and destructive form of combat, has not yet broken out in the capital of Kiev or the second-largest city of Kharkov, though skirmishes are being reported in the streets of the latter. And Russian air-missile strikes remain largely – though not entirely – discriminate, striking military, infrastructure and energy targets.
But with both Russia and the West, including significantly Germany, sending more arms into the conflict zone while the Ukrainian government arms both reservists and civilians, the fighting looks set to intensify in the days and weeks ahead.
Early indications are that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s operation is not only turning Russia into a pariah state, judging by the international community’s rising condemnation, it is also making global heroes of Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky and his embattled people.
A diluted offensive
Russia has advanced on multiple axes across eastern Ukraine – a factor that has necessarily dispersed its attacking forces and diluted their potential combat power.
This lack of concentration, combined with the Ukrainian will to fight, has so far thwarted any hopes the Kremlin may have entertained of a lightning military victory. Russian casualties, unreported in Moscow, are unknown but estimates range from the mid hundreds (UK) to the low thousands (Ukraine).
With fighting reported in multiple locations across eastern Ukraine and missile strikes hitting targets nationwide, Russia’s main point of effort has still not been identified.
Early analyses were that Moscow would seek to carve out the entire Donbass region in the east, or seize a land corridor in the south along the Sea of Avoz, linking Crimea with the Donbass and Russia proper.
Both the above operations appear to be in play. Street fighting is being reported in Kharkov, Ukraine’s second largest city. The site of multiple World War II battles and a key communications hub, Kharkov is strategically located in relation to the Donbass.
However, the fighting around Kiev – or at least the capital’s investiture – in the country’s north-center, suggests an even more ambitious aim.
Absent any ceasefire accord or a shock new ploy by the Russian invaders, the tempo of the fighting looks set to increase for three reasons.
Firstly, it is not clear whether the main Russian maneuver force – its full weight of armored battlegroups – has yet been committed to battle.
Secondly, there are early grim signals that indicate the nature of the fighting is going to become more atrocious.
Thirdly, every day that passes grants the Ukrainian authorities, however disjointed they were by the shock phase of the attack, the opportunity to expand the size of their forces.
Though Russia’s active service military outnumbers Ukraine’s by a ratio of over 4-to-1, Moscow has widespread security commitments across both its own vast landmass – the world’s biggest nation – and with its expeditionary unit in Syria. With Kiev both mobilizing reserves and arming civilians, the manpower matrix cannot favor the invading force.
Kiev’s arming of civilians raises the specter of a double-headed conflict. One the one hand, a clash between uniformed, regular troops; on the other, fighting between Russian troops and Ukrainian partisans. The latter format of combat, as military history shows, has a tendency to accelerate atrocious conduct against the civilian population.
There are already social media clips of unarmed Ukrainian civilians stepping up and playing brave, unarmed roles, including by standing in roads to slow the passage of Russian vehicle convoys. How widespread this kind of action could become is impossible to say.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s pleading for weapons is being answered, including from heretofore reluctant armorers.
Germany – a central European power that has customarily been far more reticent than either the Anglosphere or former Eastern bloc nations when it comes to confronting Russia – has announced that it will send anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to Ukraine. That reverses a long-standing German policy of not sending arms into combat zones.
Already, the US has sent shipments of Javelin anti-tank missiles, while the UK has sent Light Anti-Armor Weapons. While the former is a sophisticated, long-range weapon, the LAW is a simple, one-shot, shoulder-fired throwaway weapon. It can be easily mastered with minimal training, and is highly effective against all classes of armored vehicles at close range.
But it is not just Ukraine that is up-gunning.
Things may be set to turn even more unpleasant for Ukraine’s defenders. According to reports from Russia, mobile thermobaric rocket launchers are being deployed toward the Ukrainian frontier.
Sometimes known as “the poor man’s nuke”, these weapons detonate fuel-air explosive to achieve a combination effect that is both explosive and incendiary: In essence, a combination of bomb and flamethrower.
By literally setting air on fire, these fearsome munitions are ideal for clearing well-defended or dug-in positions – such as the strongpoints encountered in urban fighting.
Separate reports claim that pro-Moscow Chechen units are mobilizing for Ukraine.
Since Czarist times, the Caucasus was a cauldron for struggle known to breed particularly martial peoples. Units of both pro- and anti-Russian Chechens have fought in the Donbass struggle, and now reports from Grozny indicate that Chechen units are moving to reinforce the Russian effort in Ukraine.
The mass killing and destruction of Russia’s wars to prevent Chechnya from breaking away from the Russian Federation, which ran from 1994-2009, are well known. Tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of non-combatants were killed; countless more were “disappeared” in the mopping-up phase.
Thus far, the kind of unrestrained firepower that the Russian military used to reduce Grozny and other urban centers to ashes has not yet been unleashed upon Ukraine.
While TV news reports show unmistakable signs of missile and other strikes on civilian targets, these hits appear to be single-shot misfires rather than part of a deliberate campaign of concentrated barrages or old-school carpet bombing.
Whether such gloves-off tactics will be used in the days to come – particularly if Russian forces run short of precision munitions and resort to “dumb” bombs and shells – is still unclear.
And politically, Chechnya may provide a grim model for Ukraine’s future – either the country as a whole, or a semi-Ukrainian puppet state Moscow may seek to carve out east of the Dniepr River.
In Chechnya, Russia suffered immense fallout in terms of the reputation of its armed forces, and was rocked by spectacularly hideous terrorist attacks, such as the massacre of school children in Beslan and mass deaths in a Moscow theater.
Yet, Moscow remained wedded to its long-term aims. Contrary to the faltering national will that doomed US military adventures in war zones such as Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia stayed the course.
After vicious fighting and mass destruction, Moscow adopted a divide-and-rule policy, striking a deal with former insurgents. Those allies became proxies, who stabilized and now run Chechnya.
Grozny was rebuilt from scratch with massive investment – today,it looks more like Dubai than Stalingrad – but the government of strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, fiercely loyal to Putin, is widely accused of human rights abuses.
Moreover, the successful end game of that war from Moscow’s perspective – Chechnya remains part of the Russian Federation, albeit with significant devolution of power to Grozny – makes clear how determined Moscow is when it comes to maintaining what it believes is its own territory, resources and human capital.
Putin has made clear that he does not consider Ukraine a country worthy of independent statehood.
Blowback storm rising
Meanwhile, across much of the world, Russia’s reputation has plummeted to the point where long-time Putin sidekick Dmitri Medvedev, the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, has blustered that his country could or should sever diplomatic ties with Western countries.
Meanwhile, the invasion has made an early hero of Ukrainian President Zelenksy. It was never certain that the former comedian had the iron will to withstand such a stern, indeed, existential crisis.
However, his ongoing defiance and refusal to flee his threatened capital Kiev to establish a headquarters in the west of his country, or even a provisional government abroad, has been approvingly noted locally and reported worldwide.
In terms of pushback, Western actions are increasing in their severity.
A consensus has at last been reached by Western bloc nations to deny certain Russian banks access to the global SWIFT transaction system. This action, long threatened and now set for implementation, will leave Russia heavily dependent on China, which is seeking to expand the yuan bloc, for access to global financial markets.
Already, the French Navy has seized and impounded a Russian cargo ship carrying cars in the Channel, suspecting it of being linked to a sanctioned Russian financial institution.
And he Russian assault is generating pushback far beyond Western Europe and North America, with anti-Russian demonstrations being reported as far afield as South America.
Even so, not all key players are fully on board.
Despite early reports, the latest indications are that Turkey – in recent years one of NATO’s shakier members, headed by independently minded President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is believed to have amicable personal ties with Putin – has not yet moved to close the Bosphorous passage to Russian shipping.
That potential move, enabled by the Montreaux Treaty which grants Ankara freedom of action in the strait, would trap Russian vessels in the Black Sea, cutting them off from the Mediterranean and wider global seaways.
Meanwhile, with global attention fixated on Ukraine, other actors are conducting their own military actions. North Korea this morning test-launched what is being reported in Seoul as a likely intermediate-range ballistic missile, it’s eighth missile test this year