Podcast recording date: 26 April 2022.
Huw Williams of our EMEA news team chairs a discussion focussed on the Russian invasion of Ukraine featuring Amael Kotlarski, Senior Analyst at Janes, Thomas Bullock, Senior Russia and CIS OSINT Analyst at Janes and James Rands, C4ISR Manager at Janes.
Speaker 1: Welcome to The World of Intelligence, a podcast for you to discover the latest analysis of global military and security trends within the open- source defense intelligence community.
Huw Williams: Hello and welcome. My name is Huw Williams. I'm head of the EMEA news team here at Janes. I have the pleasure of introducing today's webinar where we will be exploring the latest developments in the conflict in Ukraine. Now, to do this, I am joined by Tom Bullock, our Senior OSINT Analyst, Amael Kotlarski, one of our senior defense analysts, and James Rands, our C4ISR manager. Tom, perhaps we should start with you. Can you give us a bit of an update on the lay of the land in Ukraine at the moment since the second phase of the conflict started and perhaps some of the forced disposition and what's been going on in the Donbas in particular?
Tom Bullock: So, Russia's fully completed its drawdown from the north of Ukraine now. They're now focusing mostly on the east and conducting offenses in the Donbas area. They've been moving large numbers of troops into the area and are continuing to do so. They've started conducting what appear to be probing attacks, concentrated around three areas in the Donbas area. So, a town called Izyum just south of Kharkiv, slightly to the east of that, there's another area, Severodonetsk and then in the south, they're pushing up from the Russian frontline east of Donetsk and north of Mariupol. The Russians have also made the decision to not try and capture Mariupol in full, so leaving the Ukrainian forces in the Azovstal steel plant, encircled and surrounded. It seems like a rather wise decision from the Russian, the Azovstal steel plant is essentially a fortress, it's maze of steel and tunnels and it seems like the Russians would waste a lot of manpower trying to capture that area so what it seems like they're doing now is pulling forces out that are still able to go fight elsewhere and moving them north to the front line to help with the offensive in the Donbas.
Huw Williams: Can you just give us an update on what's happening elsewhere in Ukraine as opposed to just in the Donbas, perhaps around Kherson, for example?
Tom Bullock: So there's been a lot of fighting between Russian and Ukrainian troops in Kherson. As of today, the 26th of April, the Ukrainians have captured a few villages in western Kherson on the sides, pushed the Russians back in different areas. There are indicators that the Russians are preparing for an offensive north out of Kherson possibly to cut off railway lines, heading east to west across the country. They've also been, according to the British and Ukrainian ministries of defense, preparing an independence referendum, which is slated to happen in early May for the Kherson region. The Ukrainian intelligence have been talking about this for several weeks now. Doesn't appear that the Russians have put in the groundwork we saw in the Donbas in 2014, 15, things like pro- Russia protests and the like. But Russian forces do appear to be trying to limit the withdrawal of civilians from the area they occupy. So they're forcing people to stay in the towns where they are.
Huw Williams: So since the start of the conflict, we've seen a gradual uptick in the supply of equipment from the West. Can you talk to us a little bit about some of the issues that the Ukrainians might have in fielding these systems?
Amael Kotlarski: Yeah, sure Huw. So we've seen a shift from the early days where it seems that Ukraine's allies were more prepared to shift small arms and weapons, in the expectation that perhaps the war wouldn't last very long and therefore not only would the sending of heavy equipment be seen as escalation, but also perhaps the idea that the Ukrainians wouldn't have time to properly train on them before the war would end and therefore it would be, perhaps somewhat wasted. With now the Russians being defeated in the north and refocused towards the east, the realization that this war could last for a lot longer than everyone expected, obviously most people expected. Ukraine's allies are more prepared now to put in more time into providing them with more, heavier equipment that they will surely need in the battle of the east. So we've seen a gradual transition away from light weapons, shoulder ammunition, light weapons, anti- tank weapons, anti- tank missiles, stuff that can be easily trained on quite quickly shifted in quite large numbers to increasing numbers of armored fighting vehicles from Slovenia and Slovakia now, Poland potentially. Lately we've had a lot of countries declaring that they would send different artillery systems. So the US and Canada are likely sending M777,` towed 155s. France would be providing 12 Caesars self- propelled guns, the Netherlands between eight to 12 of their Panzerhaubitze 2000s. We've seen a number of other E30 Haubitzes from Estonia via Germany. So these are a mixture of... I believe inaudible as well from Poland. So we're seeing a mixture of surplus, Soviet- style equipment that Ukraine is familiar with and therefore can put into use quite quickly. The retraining burden and the logistics burden is not as heavy and more advanced Western systems that are completely new to Ukraine. So on the one hand capability will be most welcome, but also it will also put a pressure on Ukrainians in terms of the logistics chain, how they're going to incorporate all these different systems, especially Western artillery systems, which require their own training, their own maintenance, spares, et cetera, into their logistics chain. It's not going to be easy, I'm sure they'll figure it out, but it will pose a challenge in a certain sense. But once again, not to say that beggars can't be choosers, but Ukraine needs this capability right now and the only way they can get it, is being provided from abroad. So they'll have to prove to be quite resourceful and they have so far, in adapting these Western systems into their orbit, into their logistic chains, to be able to employ them effectively. There's still some debate as to whether certain countries will provide more heavy equipment. It's certainly true, something we mentioned perhaps before, that the open terrain of the eastern part of the country will lend itself more to large scale mechanized warfare. Whereas, we saw, focusing on the battles in the north, it was a lot more urban, a lot more close range terrain and weather conditions will make things more mobile in the east. So certainly artillery will be welcome. We know that the Ukrainians have also managed to capture a large number of Russian vehicles, the extent to which they've managed to repair these vehicles and put them to use is unclear. We know that there's evidence that they have, with some vehicles. Whether or not they've done it to the scale that we think they have, we suspect they have, in terms of numbers of vehicle captured, I think it's a lot less because it takes time to get these vehicles repaired and the Russians have been targeting their industry as well. So a lot of this stuff is being done in small workshops, wherever they can find the space for it. So obviously, growing this to a large scale will be difficult but certainly... They have a logistics... Bit of Gordian Knot on their hands, for sure. But on the flip side is this capability that they sorely need, so we'll have to juggle with that.
Huw Williams: James, perhaps you can address a point that Tom made there regarding the strike on the rail infrastructure and perhaps a bit more on what we can expect from the Russians in the coming weeks.
James Rands: Thanks Huw, if I may, I'll answer those two in reverse order. So what are we expecting the Russians to do? I think we said this in the last podcast, that all, pretty much all wars in one or two ways, either one side is so thoroughly crushed that it's unable to offer any resistance and the winner can impose their will on them in any way they choose or, more frequently, the two sides meet and agree a mutually acceptable, if not desirable settlement. It's pretty clear that the Russians are not in a position where they can actually achieve that total or" absolute", as Klausmann put it, victory. And so, if this war is going to end on anything other than their defeat, what they need to do is gain some sort of significant military advantage, which they can then exploit. By refocusing on the east, it looks like the objective would be to take on the bulk of the Ukrainian professional forces. And remember though, of course, that the bulk of the Ukrainian professional forces prior to this invasion were positioned in the east and they have been fighting there for eight years. So gaining a victory over them would be significant and would allow them to save a significant amount of face, after what has been a pretty humiliating set of failures and defeats at the hands of the weather, at the hands of the Ukrainian forces, let's not forget that the Ukrainians have fought really hard and very effectively, and in the face of their own incompetence on some elements like logistics planning. So what has been suggested is that they would do a double envelopment from the north and the south. So breakout around Kherson from the south and down from the Izyum area and try and encircle as much of the forces in the east as they could. I think, realistically, they are lacking the combat power to do that. If you look at the roots they follow, they're going to be quite thin, they're going to be quite exposed on both flanks. And given the casualties that they've taken, both in personnel and in vehicles and given the fact that those forces that are up in the north are not fit for combat, they are defeated forces, which need time to refit and really need an injection of dynamic leadership from someone to get them back on their feet. Actually, what they have in the east is just not enough to do that. So what they're probably trying to do is more of a bite and hold to take some ground, getting the whole of Donetsk and Luhansk under their control is credible. And I think that would tie in quite neatly with what's going on in, or what we suspect is going on in Kherson because if they were to push out of that area and cut, the railways are cutting some of the logistic resupply capability for those forces in the east. If they could sit astride that and also road routes, then they are making life very difficult for those forces in the east, even if they're not making the position untenable. And they're giving them more problems to think about as they actually plan their operations and as they try and resist the Russian probing attacks. I suspect what we'll have, that said is the probing attacks that Tom picked out, if any of those start to have success, for the reasons I've already said, they'll probably reinforce that as much as they can to try and get some advantage out of what's been happening so far.
Huw Williams: Well, James thanks for joining me today. Some great insight there. I'm sure we'll be back in a couple of weeks as things progress.
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