THE Russian advances in Ukraine continue, albeit in a slow and costly manner. Ukrainian armed forces are making the most of the natural defenders’ advantage both on the ‘front line’ and in the overrun (but not yet fully occupied) areas, inhibiting Russian logistics (a weak point as their preferred method of operation does not need it) and inexorably increasing Russian casualties.
These casualties have included some pretty senior officers. Some are interpreting this as an example of the Russian Army’s failings. I’m not so sure. Good commanders always get forward so that they can see what’s happening, assess options, inject enthusiasm and, where necessary, sort out problems. Famously, Rommel nearly got himself captured in the invasion of France while sorting out a flank attack and at a lower level, Lt Col H Jones VC was killed injecting pace into his battalion’s stalled attack on Goose Green in the Falklands war. So evidence of Russian commanders being forward is not evidence of weak command, it’s the opposite. Sure, the Russian attack is stalled – although they are still advancing. It’s likely that commanders are re-forming units from the remnants of others and getting them back into action. The Russian army is far from defeated in Ukraine. Moreover it’s bringing in reinforcements from across the country.
This war is developing into a number of concurrent sieges, where towns and cities are being surrounded, isolated and starved of resupply. Assaulting a city is an appalling prospect for any commander in any army as such operations consume vast quantities of ammunition (warfare is constrained by logistics) and inflict huge losses on the attacker. Much better to get them to surrender, a process which can be accelerated by reducing their morale to breaking point.
Of course, the defending force may well have large numbers of civilians cohabiting (and suffering) with them. Any bombardment of (say) defensive weaponry and positions comes with a cost in civilian lives. Depending upon your point of view that’s either ‘collateral damage’ or ‘war crimes’. A debate on moral relativism is an irrelevant discussion; the military necessity for the attacker is to destroy the defence’s military capability. Inside the city he can do that only with artillery, rockets, missiles or air power.
Although we live in the age of GPS and laser target designation, the vast majority of artillery shells are neither guided nor guidable. When fired they simply obey the laws of physics, which include wind (impossible to predict accurately), so they often do not hit what they were aimed at. To speak of ‘targeting a building’ with artillery is misleading.
Even if laser guidance is available (from a soldier on the ground, drone or aircraft that can see the target) it’s not always reliable. The circular error probably (CEP: the radius of the circle into which 50 per cent of projectiles will fall) varies from system to system, but is seldom less than 10 metres, in ideal conditions. The other 50 per cent hit something else. Ideal conditions are on the range, not lurking in a building worrying about being seen or pulling G in a cockpit worrying about a Starstreak missile up the backside.
Attackers might lob shells in at random, but the chance of a military benefit (other than reduced morale) accruing are low. More likely, they aim at something seen or detected, perhaps by its use of radio. That means adding in the error of the detection system to the CEP, contributing to another miss. Of course, at the target end it is scant comfort to understand that the shell which destroyed your house wasn’t targeted on it.
The reality is that life in occupied territory is miserable and dangerous. Any doubts about the nature of Putin’s regime can’t exist. We are now watching two sides engaged in an existential war that is not going to end any time soon. The pictures on TV and social media will get worse.
The debate will move to what, if anything, is the West prepared to do about it? There are no easy or comfortable answers.