A Blog by Jonathan Low


Sep 15, 2023

The Counteroffensive and Ukraine's Methodical Demolition of Crimea's Defenses

The recent steady number of attacks on Crimean installations and air defenses are victories in their own right. But they also contribute to the advance of the Zaporizhzhia counteroffensive thrust by forcing Russian to deploy troops to defend what appears to be a going threat to Crimea. 

In addition, the destruction of naval and air defense assets there makes Russian intention to disrupt Black Sea grain shipments harder and reduces Russian capabilities in the entire occupied southern zone. This makes it a strategic assault of some brilliance. JL

Mark Sumner reports in Daily Kos:

Following the spectacular attack on the dry docks near Sevastopol the previous night, Wednesday night brought another Ukrainian attack on Russian military targets in occupied Crimea. And though a $350 million sub was a pretty good score, this time Ukraine looks to have gone hunting for even bigger game, a single S-400 air defense system carries a price tag of around $500 million.

Sometimes very exciting announcements made in the immediate wake of a military action turn to slightly less glowing achievements once the smoke has begun to clear. No, I’m not talking about the destruction of the landing ship Minsk and significant damage to the Kilo-class submarine Rostov-on-Don. In spite of Russian propaganda that all is very hunky and most extremely dory, visual evidence supports reports of severe damage to both ship and boat. Your Russian Navy Bingo cards are safe.

Why the Ukrainian Army is still moving forward south of Bakhmut is a bit of a puzzler to some observers (namely, me). Having taken the high ground west of Klishchiivka and pushed Russia back to where it represents little threat to traffic along either highway T0504 or the Chasiv Yar-Khromove road, it would seem that Ukraine has done what they need to secure this front while their forces concentrate on the movement into Zaporizhzhia. If anything, the remaining task in the area for Ukraine would seem to be dislodging Russian forces from hills west of Berkhivka on the west of the city. That little cluster of force near the village of Dubovo-Vasylivka still represents a significant tactical position that threatens Ukrainian positions on lower ground to both the south and east.

Deep state make of Bakhmut area / topo
Approximate positions in Bakhmut area

However, Ukraine is continuing to advance south of Bakhmut, and Russia seems to be helping them out with some extremely ill-considered maneuvers. In August, Russia made two runs at the town of Klishchiivka from the east, but with Ukraine’s well-positioned artillery on the hills to the west and drones providing clear images of Russian forces making a slow approach down a heavily cratered road, each of those attacks was converted into scrap with high efficiency.

Until this week, Russia had been able to maintain a small infantry force, hiding among buildings and trees at the northeast edge of Klishchiivka, but that force has taken a prolonged battering.

It’s unclear how or if Russia was able to provision that force. The bridge heading out of the town to the north has been destroyed, and everything around the small Russian-occupied area was clear ground under close coverage.

In just the past few days, Ukraine largely flushed out these Russian forces to capture the remainder of the town. Honestly, this might not have been so much “Ukraine advances” as “surrounded Russian forces try to make a break for it.” Russian infantry wasn’t really holding part of Klishchiivka: It was more like they were trapped there. And as they tried to exit the area to the east, Ukraine knocked them off. I’m not really sure that counts as “an advance.”

Russia is still apparently throwing forces at Klishchiivka where, again, Ukraine not only holds defensive positions in and around the buildings, but has artillery mounted on high ground with a commanding position over the fields east of the town. So Russian attacks are running into what appears to be properly described as a “meat grinder.” If the Deep State map above is correct, Ukraine is not really moving to position people on every street in Klishchiivka. They’re just keeping those streets clear of Russians.

However, there is a significant fight underway just south of Klishchiivka at the smaller town of Andriivka, where Ukrainian forces have pushed across the canals that had for some time defined the boundary between forces. And it’s here that we get to the “not as good as indicated” part of the story.

Earlier today, Ukrainian deputy defense minister and military spokesperson Hanna Mailar announced the news that Ukraine had completely cleared not just Klishchiivka, but Andriivka. This led others to proclaim that Russian defenses around Bakhmut had collapsed, and expectations were raised that a significant Ukrainian force movement was underway.

Russia has defensive lines in place a few kilometers to the east of the highway running south of Bakhmut, but as Ukraine has already demonstrated in the south, not every defensive line is the same—and empty trenches never stopped anyone. So maybe Ukraine has decided to make a big push east. Or to take its forces to the highway, then press north into Opytne. Or maybe it was going to deliver a big PR kick to Putin’s nethers and advance into Bakhmut.

However, soon after this information went out, members of the unit actually fighting in Andriivka sent out a different message: “The statement about the capture of Andriivka is false and premature. Currently, serious and heavy fighting continues in the districts of Klishchiivka and Andriivka. Such statements are harmful, pose a threat to the lives of personnel and harm the performance of combat missions.”

Soon after that, Mailar put out an apology, noting that Ukrainian and Russian forces are still fighting in Andriivka. This doesn’t mean that Ukraine hasn’t advanced, because it has. It also doesn’t mean that Ukraine isn’t winning this confrontation, because it is. What it means is that Russia’s defenses in the area have not “collapsed” in the sense that Russia is fleeing the area in a rout and Ukraine can advance at will with minimum losses. Russia is continuing to contest these areas.

If Ukraine wants to move on Opytne, or advance on defensive lines to the east, they will need to fight for it.

The other partially walked-back story of the day is one that started off big, then got slightly smaller, but may turn out to be even bigger than originally thought.

Following the spectacular attack on the dry docks near Sevastopol the previous night, Wednesday night brought another Ukrainian attack on Russian military targets in occupied Crimea. And though a $350 million sub was a pretty good score, this time Ukraine looks to have gone hunting for even bigger game.

Actually, a single S-400 air defense system carries a price tag of around $500 million. That price, about half that of the U.S. Patriot Pac-2 system, has been one of the S-400’s big selling points around the world. Even so, there have been reports that the S-400’s reputation for being among the best air defense systems available was not well deserved, and some countries who bought S-400 systems in just the last few years are reportedly looking for an upgrade.

In the case of the overnight strike, things may be a bit more complicated than originally thought. An S-400 is composed of multiple components, but as this post suggests, even taking them all out wouldn’t total the price tag that many sources were originally suggesting.

Of all the things on that infographic, it’s reportedly the 96L6 radar that is both the rarest and the most expensive. When the first clear satellite images of the area were available this morning, the truck bearing the 96L6 appeared to be missing.

This led to suggestions that this detector escaped the attack. However, other vehicles have since been removed from the site and it’s equally possible that Russia hustled the 96L6 away before the satellite images were taken. Even if that component did escape, this S-400 system is out of business.

In fact, there has since been something of a walk-back to the walk-back. Because it seems that Ukraine may have hit more components that would be found in a single S-400 system. That may include a launcher belonging to another S-400 or parts of an S-300 system, which Russia has been using for both air defense and for offensive missiles.

It might not all add up to $1.3 billion—but it was still a very bad day for Russia. And it was the second in a row. It’s also not a great ad for your supposed “best in the world” air defense system when it gets taken down by drones and missiles. That is definitely not going to help with future sales.

This time around, Ukraine didn’t use the British-sourced Storm Shadows. The S-400 was reportedly taken down with a mixture of drones and Neptune missiles, originally developed as anti-ship weapons (they’re what took down former Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva).


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