Gunning for China
Eddie Ford wonders whether the much-heralded Kherson counter-offensive and massive deliveries of western armaments could be a potential game-changer
Phase one of the Ukraine war began with Russia’s northern thrust, in a failed attempt to surround and subjugate Kyiv - presumably intending to arrest Volodymyr Zelensky, or see him fleeing into exile. The second phase of the “special military operation” was its moderately successful offensive in the Donbass (now on pause).
Meanwhile, Ukraine has announced plans for its own offensive in the south. The stated intention is to retake Kherson, which has been under Russian control since March - the only oblast capital captured by Putin’s forces. If Kherson were to change hands again, it would deal a big blow to Russia’s propaganda efforts to portray the invasion back home as a military success. Therefore the new battle for Kherson represents a potential game-changer, or at the very least a significant moment in the war.
As part of general preparations for the counter-offensive, the Ukrainian military has been targeting the Antonovsky bridge which joins Kherson to the south with US-supplied Himars. If the city can be cut off from reinforcements and resupplies, Russian forces will be in real trouble. So far we are told that the bridge remains open, but not to civilian traffic. Russian forces are also operating an improvised ferry service with amphibious vehicles for both military and civilian traffic. At the same time, it is reported that Ukrainian partisans - or terrorists if you are Moscow - have damaged the only two other bridges accessing Kherson. Ukrainian forces have retaken dozens of villages and towns along the border.
In response, Russia relocated large numbers of troops from the east to the south. This involved withdrawing tactical groups of airborne forces from Donbas and also moving troops from its eastern military district - which were being used to attack Sloviansk, a town in Ukrainian-controlled Donetsk, and were in reserve in Russia’s southern Belgorod region. A counter-offensive to the counter-offensive, if you like.
Though this is something not really discussed much in the western media, one of the strengths of the Russian army is its ability to move troops and equipment quickly - or at least according to Ukraine’s deputy head of military intelligence, Vadym Skibitsky, who recently spoke to The Daily Telegraph. He has pointed to how the Russian forces retreated from Ukraine’s northern regions in March and reappeared in the Donbas two weeks later. Skibitsky has also stressed that, while Russia was running out of high-quality rockets, it has “a huge amount” of old Soviet rockets left in its stockpiles - over 30 years old and less effective, true, but enough to pound and harass. Russia is now ramping up production of new weapons. In early July, the duma passed war-economy measures to compel businesses to supply the military with goods and oblige employees to work overtime.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive, if it actually happens, will certainly not come as a surprise to the Russians - it has been very much advertised. In a certain sense, why even bother trying to keep it secret? Given satellites, drones and hacking into the other side’s communications network and so on, the only working assumption is that the Russians can clearly see what is going on. Now, maybe the Ukrainian authorities have something up their sleeve and this is all a clever feint. But for the time being, we have to take the counter-offensive at face value.
Could it be successful? Well, how long is a piece of string? But some sort of victory is at least a possibility, not least due to the massive deliveries of western armaments, especially from the US. At the beginning of the week, the Biden administration announced a new tranche of weapons for Ukraine - the $550 million package will include more Himars, as well as 75,000 rounds of 155mm artillery ammunition. Previous weapons assistance from Washington to Kyiv has included counter-artillery radars, Javelin anti-tank missiles, Soviet-made helicopters, shells and light armoured vehicles. This brings the total of military assistance committed since Biden took office to more than $8.8 billion, according to Pentagon figures.
There is also the fact of improved training and pretty accurate intelligence supplied by the US, especially excellent satellite imagery and real-time information. Not to mention joint planning between Kyiv and Washington, which must be happening. Naturally, the US strongly denies it is a participant in the conflict or is at war with Russia. Perish the thought. Rather, we are meant to believe, the intelligence-sharing with Ukraine is designed to prevent wider war. Skibitsky himself has denied that US officials were providing direct targeting information. But he acknowledges there is “consultation” between US and Ukrainian intelligence officials before strikes, like the attack on the Antonovsky bridge, so Washington could vet and if necessary veto intended targets. Russia, needless to say, has denounced Washington for being “directly involved” in the war, and passing on intelligence that has led to the “mass deaths of civilians”.
An intriguing aspect about the war so far has been the surprising lack of air activity, unless we count missiles. Ukraine’s airforce is nothing compared to Russia, it almost goes without saying, having about 175 military aircraft, which includes 61 fighters - but remember that the actual readiness rate could be far below that. There have been no deliveries of advanced American aircraft and Ukraine is still using Russian tanks supplied from eastern Europe. Therefore that immediately poses the question of how to retake a city like Kherson, for instance, without resorting to the same tactics that have been roundly condemned in the west when used by Russian forces in the Donbas. That is, massive artillery bombardment - including the extensive use of missiles - of cities and then tank and infantry thrusts, involving potentially heavy civilian casualties.
There is another obvious question. If Russia suffers a big defeat, such as the loss of Kherson, what would happen in Moscow? You would expect rumblings of discontent at the top. First there was the humiliating defeat of phase one, with Russia becoming a bit of a laughing stock the world over for its military ineptness and logistical blunders. But, if the relatively successful phase two, albeit at a grinding pace, is halted by Ukrainian success in the south - one more humiliation - then there could well be anti-Putin manoeuvring amongst the military and security elite.
Then we have to ask ourselves - what is the west’s strategic goal? It is not only to get rid of Vladimir Putin (take that as a given), but also to weaken Russia so much that it cannot pull off any military venture like Ukraine ever again - thus it needs to be thoroughly hammered and reduced to a permanently weaker position. We know of previous plans to break up Russia in various ways (an open secret). Of course, there could well be unintended consequences of halting and defeating Russia in Ukraine - centrally, cementing Moscow into the orbit of Beijing. You could argue that Russia is the Austro-Hungary of the present period, increasingly subordinate to a greater power - ie, China.
Clearly things are moving in that direction when you consider all the oil and gas embargoes, and other such sanctions, directed against Russia. But, if there are any moves by the security apparatus core in Moscow, it is extremely unlikely that they are going to throw themselves into the arms of the US and agree to divide up the country. Rather, they will turn to China and in that way save the unity and strength of Russia (and retain some dignity). That is surely a vastly more preferable option than becoming a wretched vassal of the US.
A colour revolution would be another matter. If cracks open up amongst the elite it is quite conceivable that the masses will enter the political stage. And here’s the rub (from our viewpoint). The left in Russia is marginal. The so-called Communist Party of the Russian Federation is to all intents and purposes a creature of the silovarchs. Rank and file members might well have no love for Putin and his cronies, but with few exceptions CPRF MPs, mayors and editors have acted a cheer leaders for the ‘special military operation’. No, the danger is that Alexei Navalny, or someone very much like him, will take the lead and become, in effect, a second Boris Yeltsin.
What are Russia’s war aims? Whilst accepting that foreign policy ultimately goes back to domestic policy, we must reject notions such as Russia needing to do something with the fancy arms it accumulated in the years of the commodities and fossil fuel boom. Obviously Russia wants to put a stop to colour revolutions, not only in its near abroad, but also to prevent one happening at home too. On top of that there is the dream of a neo-Russian empire which incorporates the great, white and little Russias and has the strength to muscle its way into the imperialist club. The war in Ukraine must be seen in that context. We assume, therefore, that ‘de-Nazification’ has little or nothing to do with destroying the Azov battalion and other such fascist outfits. It is code for de-Ukrainisation, it is about wiping Ukraine off the map as any sort of viable state - hence the original plan to quickly conquer Kyiv and impose a pro-Moscow quisling administration, or something along those lines.
So the main driver of this war is geostrategic. What is true for Russia is also true for the USA. It wants to reset its global hegemony by expanding Nato, breaking-up Russia and surrounding China. No matter how we feel for the suffering of the ordinary Ukrainian people it is clear that the Zelensky government in acting as US proxy. The US is quite prepared to see Ukraine fight to the last soldier, if that means inflicting a defeat on Russia. It is also quite prepared to see Germany - and its Polish, Netherlands, Hungarian and Czech economic adjuncts - go into a deep recession this winter if it means a Russian defeat. Ukraine and Germany are just pieces on its global chessboard and the US will gladly sacrifice them for the sake of total domination.