Kherson is Putin’s Stalingrad. Time is Not On His Side.

A friend asked me to update my Ukraine thoughts yesterday.  It turned out I had a lot to think through, so here goes with my apologies. 

A lot of people believe that time is on Putin’s side.  That argument is framed in terms of years.  The broad sweep of geopolitics and grand strategy so beloved of armchair generals (and political scientists) everywhere.

Time is NOT on Putin’s side if you think in weeks and months.  If the Russian’s can’t hold their ground in Kherson for the next 3 months, your grand sweep of geopolitics gets swept into the dustbin of history (sorry – couldn’t resist the mixed metaphor).   Historians know better than to ignore the little details.  

The Russian’s prospects in Kherson are dismal and getting worse.  So things in Ukraine are going as good or better than I had hoped.  Why?

  1. The Ukrainians did some really creative, smart things.  Specifically, they disabled the bridges supplying the Russian army around Kherson west of the Dnipro river – wide with steep banks.  The Russians have been reduced to supplying themselves via a jury-rigged ferry and (I presume) helicopter lift.  More generally, the wildly successful Ukrainian campaign to destroy Russian ammunition dumps and command posts.  The super-accurate, long range US HIMARS missiles have been even more effective than hoped.  See pictures below.
  2. The Russians did one spectacularly dumb thing.  They poured more troops in the Kherson pocket.  Even after the first HIMARS strikes on the bridges showed the vulnerability.  If/when that pocket collapses, Russia will lose most of the men and all the equipment.  A delusional Hitler trapped and lost 600,000 German Soldiers in Stalingrad – betting wrongly he could keep it supplied.  It was a tremendous victory for Russia.  Kherson will likely be Putin’s Stalingrad- thankfully on a smaller scale.

Outside of what Russia can fly in, the Russian war effort has narrowed to the whatever and whoever is already in that pocket West of the Dnipro (zoom in on the map here).  Stuff and men not already across the river are no longer relevant.  Equally important (and fantastically stupid), that stuff and men likely can’t get back over the river.

So will the Kherson pocket collapse?  The probability of collapse only increases as the weeks go by.  Why time is not on Putin’s side.  Ukraine launched its counter offensive last week.

The Ukrainians just need to force the Russian tempo without grinding down their own troops.   If they are careful about not over-pressing attacks, they likely precipitate a Russian collapse before the Ukrainian army runs out of steam itself.  The longer #2 and #3 go on, the more weak spots Ukraine will find for #1 (breakthrough).

  1. Probe for weak spots and (maybe) score a decisive breakthrough.  Steady pressure calibrated to minimize Ukrainian casualties.  Giving the Russians no rest, but avoiding a slugging match.
  2. Stir the ants.  Follow them back to the nests,  Bomb the nests.  Activity forces the pace of re-supply.  Ukraine can watches for where the supply trucks go.  All targets for the HIMARS list.  Every ammo dump and command post that goes BOOM strains the morale and supply situation further.
  3. Grind down the supplies, equipment and morale of the Russian military.  With the bridges cut, every Russian shell fired is that much harder to replace.  Every destroyed Russian gun shrinks their fire support.  As the weeks go by, the vehicles will start breaking down (a tank’s running time between overhauls is measured in days/weeks not years).  Other gear will break or get hit.  Most important, all of the above will wear out the Russian soldiers themselves.

Every week that goes by, the Russians will get weaker.  Their supplies of morale probably runs out before the shells do.  Every Russian soldiers West of the Dhipro knows he is trapped in hostile country with blown bridges behind him.  Think yourself into that personal situation for a moment…

Moreover, I don’t see how Putin extracts himself from this trap.  He can’t keep the bridges in repair.  So…

  1. If Putin tries to hang on.  How will he keep a steady enough flow of fuel, spare parts, men, and replacement vehicles?  How will he replace the lost guns?  His stranded troops will get just get more bedraggled as winter comes on.
  2. If Putin tries to belatedly pull back.  The tanks and other heavy equipment are trapped.  He can’t pull the troops back without abandoning huge amounts of gear = bad PR.  Moreover, any fighting retreat is just a step away from becoming a rout.  Would some Russian unit really sacrifice itself to hold the perimeter while the lucky ones get out?  For how long?

So my guess is the Kherson pocket falls in the next few weeks/months.  Its final images an abandoned mass of tanks and trucks at the Western approaches to those bridges.  Russian soldiers trudging across on foot or (more likely) trudging West towards POW camps.  Those photos will be very very hard to censor or explain back in Mother Russia.

Maybe Putin can paper over another defeat?  I don’t think so.  Kyiv was embarrassing.  Kherson will be humiliating.  Practically, he will have lost a equipment and men he can’t easily replace.

The above is fairly obvious from the situation on the ground.  I’m just guessing at what actual Ukrainian generals have pretty obviously put into motion.  Hopefully I’ve avoided straying over the line into “armchair generalship.”

But now lets cross that line, settle into that armchair, and guess what they might do next.  I don’t expect to be right here.  I am expecting to look foolish.  But its worth noting the possibilities.

  • Ukraine can likely choke off supplies to the occupied areas around Melitipol – creating another under-supplied pocket.  Look at the map.  Russia’s supplies come out of Crimea over two rail and road routes.  The Western link is now within HIMARS range.  The smaller Eastern link crosses a bridge that can likely be destroyed.  The alternate rail and supply routes coming East from Donetsk are also likely within HIMARS range.  Same goes for the ports along the coast.
  • If the Melitipol pocket falls, Crimea itself becomes a pocket.  If Ukraine can hit the bridge over the Kerch strait (connecting Crimea to Russia), Russia will have to supply it by sea.  Ukraine has taken delivery of a lot of anti-ship missiles.  Ukraine will also re-take control of Crimea’s main water supply (note the canal that runs to Crimea from the dam at Nova Khakhova).  That starts to look a lot like a siege.
  • Meanwhile, the HIMARS will keep landing anywhere an ammo dump or command post can be found.

So as we slide into year’s end, Putin will likely have lost an big red blob of territory around Kherson.  He will be struggling to supply and hold the last big red blob around Melitipol.  Crimea will be under threat.  He will have lost men and hardware he can’t easily replace.  His economy will be struggling further as inventories and spare parts run short.  All this will be impossible to hide from your average Russian.

Does the above end the war?  I have no idea.  Putin’s next move is hard to guess.  Especially because he’s exhibited such spectacularly bad judgement since Feb 24th.  But he will be move from a position of weakness – on the ropes and reeling.

So to go back to my friend’s question, Ukraine has been progressing more or less as I’d expected.  As I noted in a prior post Putin has trapped himself as the organ grinder’s monkey.  Ukraine is now grinding the organ faster.  Betting the monkey will stumble again.  We can’t be certain that will happen, but the bet gets more likely as the weeks go by.

Putin cannot force a decision.  He can’t stop the war from grinding on.  Grinding his army to pieces along the way.  Zelensky just told the NATO summit the war likely ends Christmas 2022 – the front half of winter on the steppes.  My guess is that is the intersection of two lines

  1. How long it will take to break Russian morale and fighting strength – precipitating another Kyiv-style rout someplace somewhere.
  2. How long Ukrainian morale can hold out (hopefully long enough to force the result above).

Zelensky’s bet is that Russia’s army will break someplace, somewhere.  Keep grinding the organ and wait for the monkey to stumble. Forcing Russia to the negotiating table in a position of weakness.

How accurate are the HIMARS?  The black circles below are show the impact sites of a recent strike.  Another video I’ve seen shows a neat, evenly spaced row of craters hitting just one traffic lane of the bridge upstream.  The bridges are still standing.  Ukraine can repair the structures in some future peacetime.  But the roadways are un-usable Swiss cheese.

r/ukraine - Approximate location of accurate strikes of the Armed Forces of Ukraine on the Antonovsky bridge in Kherson

Ammo Dumps:  HIMARS fiendish accuracy means the most dangerous posting in the Russian Army today is probably working in a command post or ammo dump – which have been exploding spectacularly for weeks now.  The actual front lines are probably statistically safer.  The videos are worth searching for.  The explosions are huge – mushroom clouds looming over entire cities.  The campaign has had a real impact on Russian artillery fire (based on hard data from Nasa’s FIRMS wildfire-spotting satellite).


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