Putin’s War. Week 26: A Bizarre Assassination in Moscow, a Nuclear Power Plant Held Hostage, and Ukraine Launches (Maybe) Its First Offensive

Source: RedState

Here we are, 26.5 weeks into Vladimir Putin’s 3-day cakewalk to Kiev. I haven’t done this in a while (last update Putin’s War. Week 21. New Weapons Change the Battlefield in Ukraine’s Favor but Are They Stronger Than European Cowardice and Stupidity?) because not a lot has been happening if you aren’t in a trench in Donbas hoping to make it through an artillery barrage.

The big news today is what might turn out to be a Ukrainian offensive developing in Kherson Oblast. We’ll get to that after the preliminaries.

Politico-Strategic Level

A lot of action has taken place at this level, but it is often better to look at it as a whole to get an idea of what is happening.

Bizarre assassination.

On Saturday night, August 20, a bomb demolished a car belonging to Aleksandr Dugin. Most westerners have never heard of Dugin. Most Russians, either. But Dugin was a hyper-nationalist who told people that he had the ear of Vladimir Putin and took credit as the intellectual driving force behind the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In the wreckage on a Moscow street, police found the remains not of Alexandr Dugin but of his daughter, Darya. Ms. Dugin had followed in her father’s footsteps and was a very active propagandist for the war as well as running a disinformation site.

Lots of craziness ensued. Within minutes the FSB reported that the perpetrators were Ukrainian special forces operators who’d already fled to Estonia. The FSB further claimed they had rented an apartment in the same building with Darya a month ago and followed her around Moscow in an entirely discreet Mini Cooper. They were alleged to have been women who served in the Azov battalion that Russia has labeled a “terrorist” group. This being Russia, you feel like you’re staggering around a fun house. The ID the FSB produced that was left behind by the assassin was debunked as a photoshop effort. See the whole thread below.

The eulogies seemed off-key.

The pièce de résistance Darya’s funeral.

There was a lot of mewling from the usual suspects that this was an “escalation” and it would provoke Russia into new and unspecified retaliation (when you’re firing cruise missiles into random apartment blocks, it is hard to find something to take that to eleven). The question no one could ever answer was why anyone would go to the trouble to bomb the daughter of a third-tier grifter in Moscow. If Ukraine sent a hit squad, they could have done at least as well as an untrained but angry babushka.

Predictably, the story has vanished. Smart money says this has more to do with a business dispute or obscure power struggle than with Ukraine.

Read RedState coverage of the event: Daria Dugina Killing Sparks New Worries About Russia, Escalation of Ukraine War and Russia Points Finger at Ukraine for Darya Dugina Assassination; US State Department Issues Travel Alert.

EU fights over Russian tourist ban.

Much of the EU is agitating for a ban on tourist visas for Russians. The primary voices against it are France and Germany. The reasoning is that the war in Ukraine is not just Putin’s war; it is a war waged by all Russians. So long as that war is ongoing, Russians should not be allowed to travel or reside in the EU. Some countries have unilaterally imposed a travel ban on Russians, but the EU, as a whole, probably will not. The EU will stop giving Russians preferential status when applying for visas; this will reduce the number of Russian tourists and increase the wait times for those who get visas.

Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.

A high-level game of chicken is being played at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNP). The ZNP is occupied by Russia, which attempted to unplug the plant from Ukraine’s grid and send the power to Crimea. This resulted in power pylons being knocked down by Ukrainian partisans and ZNP being taken entirely off the grid for a while, potentially leading to a Fukushima-like disaster. The IAEA asked to take control of the plant, and Russia refused. Now it seems like the IAEA may be on the scene.

Money, money, money.

The Biden White House has approved an additional tranche of $3 billion in defense and economic aid. This brings the total assistance to Ukraine to $13.5 billion since the Russian invasion.

New weapons in action.

One of the more interesting new weapons in the Ukraine aid package is the Vehicle-Agnostic Modular Palletized ISR Rocket Equipment or VAMPIRE. It uses the 2.75-inch (70mm) Hydra rocket usually found on the AH-64 Apache and AH-1(insert your variant here) Cobra. The system can be used on virtually any utility truck and can carry out precision engagements of ground targets, drones, and rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft. Though I think the latter capability is something I’d rather not try out. This system allows anti-drone coverage of Ukrainian units and critical assets. In this war, that is a big thing.

The vendor produces an excellent video for the system.

Last week, something interesting turned up on Russian-oriented social media sites. Pictures emerged showing the wreckage of an AGM-88 High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile, or HARM.

The HARM is designed to take out air defense radars. It normally locks onto hostile air defense systems when “painted” by radar. But it isn’t just any anti-radiation missile. It has a lock-on-jam function that homes in on electronic warfare jammers. If you think switching off your radar will save you, you’re wrong. If HARM loses signal, it has a GPS and inertial guidance system onboard that lock in the location of the targeted radar emitter.

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This shocked a lot of folks on both sides, as no one had any idea that US and Ukrainian technicians had worked together to adapt the AGM-88 to, we think, MiG-29 fighters. What is known is that the introduction of the HARM has shut down the ability of the Russian S-300 system and has opened the skies to the Ukrainian Air Force.

Operational Level.

Here are a couple of videos that show how the war has progressed. The first one you’ve seen before, it covers the limits of Russian occupation for the first 90 days of fighting, from February 24 to about May 25.

This next map shows the lines for the first six months of the war.

The takeaway should be that the front lines have stabilized and any changes in territory possessed are relatively minor.

Crimea

A new theater was opened against Russian forces in Crimea. Read: Airbase in Russian-Occupied Crimea Hit by Devastating Ukrainian Attack. There is no consensus on how the attack was carried out. I discount a SOF attack because it just doesn’t seem plausible. There are claims that ATACMS, a short-range ballistic missile fired from the HIMARS and MLRS platforms, was used, but I’m not convinced ATACMS is in Ukraine.

Drone attacks have been carried out on targets in Sevastopol. This implies that Ukrainian SOF operate reasonably freely in Crimea.

Kharkiv and Donbas

Just like my last update, the frontlines in these two areas are mostly unchanged. The Russians have made some small gains in Donbas, but they are measured in the hundreds of yards.

Kherson

For the last six weeks, Ukrainian artillery has battered Russian C3I and logistics nodes. I’m not going to bore you with more video of exploding ammo dumps; check out my last update.

To understand what is going on, let’s look at the theater of operations.

Credit: Critical Threats

The critical terrain is the Dnipro (Dneiper) River. Most of the battle area for the Russians is north of the Dnipro. All Russian troops north of the Dnipro depend on supplies and reinforcements that must come from either Crimea (off the map to the south) or Donbas (off the map to the east). There are only four bridges available. The massive Antonivsky Bridge, the bridge attached to the hydroelectric dam at Nova Kakhovka, and the railway bridge at Prydniprovs’ke cross the Dnipro. In addition, a bridge crosses the Inhulets River at Dar’yivka. 

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Those bridges are impassible, and all traffic across the Dnipro is by ferry. A pontoon bridge over a kilometer in length is under construction at the site of the Antonivsky Bridge. Bottom line, every Russian unit north of the river is supplied via ferry. Multiple reports say that the Russian headquarters in Kherson has moved south of the Dnipro. That makes a lot of tactical sense, but it is a bad look under these circumstances.

Ukraine has been telegraphing, or head-faking, an offensive in this area for two months. The Russians have responded by pulling units out of Donbas and moving them to defensive positions north of the Dnipro.

Adding to the sense of unease, Ukrainian partisans or special forces have been assassinating collaborators.

Today, Ukraine launched ground assaults after an intense overnight artillery barrage and picked up some quick gains of over six miles in places.

This may or may not be meaningful. At this stage, it is impossible to tell if this is a “shaping operation” intended to set the stage for an offensive; if it is an opportunistic limited offensive to inflict casualties and introduce new units to combat; if it is to draw Russian attention while the real blow lands in Zaporizhzhia Oblast.

Why I think there is a very good chance that this results in tangible gains for Ukraine is that the battlefield is geographically isolated. Supply and reinforcements will be difficult to move. Pontoon bridges will never bear the traffic of the downed bridges and are subject to attack as well. The demolition of Russian ammo dumps in the theater means that Russian artillery will no longer be able to provide the massed fire support it provided in Donbas.

That said, we have yet to witness Ukrainian ability to coordinate artillery with armor and infantry. I assume many of the units going into battle are fresh from the training ground and being blooded for the first time. We don’t know how they will perform. What develops in the next month will give us a much better idea of the course of this war.