Fragments from a War Diary, Part #139
Last night, I went to what is possibly the most famous restaurant in all of Ukraine, by the name of Kriyvka in central Lviv. This restaurant pretends to be a secret, although it also boasts on its website that it is the most popular restaurant in Europe and Google Maps shows its address. It purports to be in a basement of a building that served as a Ukrainian paramilitary resistance unit in World War II, although this may be mere lore. The restaurant has a superlative military and conspiratorial theme. There is an unmarked door (although everyone knows where it is) and when you knock on it a shutter is moved back and you are asked for the password for entry. Everyone knows what it is: it is “Slava Ukraini”. As you descend some deep stairs into a series of rooms kitted out in the style of military bunkers or trenches with war memorabilia, photographs of Stepan Bandera and other miscellaneous fun, you are able to forget all about the war and immerse yourself in revelry and really very good food. But this is really not an advertisement for a restaurant. Up those stairs there is a war going on outside, and we were abruptly reminded of that last night as Lviv was struck with a series of Shaheed drone strikes on infrastructure positions in the region.
The Shahed drones are manufactured en masse by the Iranian government for Russian use in Ukraine and cost around US$20,000 each. They are so-called “loitering munitions”: that is to say, relatively slow-flying drones with high explosive warheads attached to them that travel across territory in clusters to foil air defence and then circle in the air until the appropriate target is located, and then they crash into it. Hence they are remotely controlled flying bombs. Because they are very cheap by the standards of international military hardware (each Russian Kalibr cruise missile costs US$1,000,000 to manufacture, or some US$6.5 million for the anti-ship version) a high loss rate can be endured and they are still very economical to use to attack vital infrastructure and to terrorise civilian populations and thereby reduce morale. The five Shahed drones that struck Lviv last night had a total cost of around US$100,000 to the Russian Armed Forces and traumatised the people of Lviv so they were relatively effective in cost-harm terms. That is the sort of crude commercial logic that prevails in the current war in Ukraine: causing maximum terror for minimum money.
It is always important to remember that Russia is in this war for the long haul. Her political leaders have expressly said so, and they are anticipating a war that lasts several years longer. Therefore they are planning their expenditures now, and their goal is to keep Ukraine terrorised and on edge, and on a war footing that the West has to continue to fund, until the western interest in Ukraine becomes exhausted, western funding dries up and then the Ukrainian government collapses. That, at its most simplistic, is the Russian war strategy and the use of Shahed drones plays into that strategy impeccably. The Iranians can make these drones in limitless quantities at whatever rate the Russian government wants to pay them. They are straightforward to deploy and guide and it does not matter much whether they hit their targets or not. They cost far more in the use of air defence systems to resist than they do to deploy and therefore western budgets to support the Ukrainian military are being eaten up every time the Shahed drones are used. Last night Shahed drones were used to attack infrastructure across Ukraine, including in Kherson, Kharkiv, Odessa, Donetsk and Ivano-Frankivsk. Some of them were repelled by air defences; others were not.
Their principal targets are electricity substations as the winter fighting season begins. The idea is to further terrorise Ukraine’s civilian population by damaging the electricity grid and plunging cities into darkness at night or depriving them of electricity, in particular for the purposes of heating. The targets are not military at all but civilian, and this makes the use of Shahed drones for these purposes a war crime as under the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court the intentional targeting of civilians or infrastructure is a crime against international law. Unfortunately where air defences are successfully engaged to intercept Shahed drones, the effect is often that the drone crashes into another building instead, potentially causing even more damage if that building is an occupied residential structure. Where they strike electricity substations, they may take out 25% of a neighbourhood’s electricity supply for a period until the substation is repaired. However the Ukrainian side has become quite good at repairing these substations quickly. The reason electricity consumption is reduced only by 25% is because in the Soviet Union the authorities, paranoid about attacks from the west, built enormous substations with four units about half a kilometre from one another and therefore a single strike will only take out one quarter of the electricity capacity.
The net result is that the winter season of arbitrary Shahed drone attacks upon the electricity and power supply infrastructure across Ukraine will not actually cause widespread loss of power or result in people freezing in the Ukrainian winter. The Russian Armed Forces tried that strategy last year and it did not work. However what it will do is cause widespread consternation amongst the civilian population of Ukraine in the major population centres, as there is night after night of relentless drone attacks with the concomitant air raid sirens and sense of civilian panic as ordinary people, not used to nightly routine aerial attacks, panic and feel a sense of anxiety. This reminds me of World War II tactics of bombing cities to demoralise the population and it did not work then and it won’t work now. What it will do is harden the spirit of the Ukrainians and of the West alike against the cruelties and merciless nature with which Russia is conducting this war, as well as waste a lot of money.
We need to fight this war intelligently, from a commercial perspective as well as from all the other relevant perspectives necessary to prevail in what is inevitably going to be a Marathon and not a sprint. The Russians are using the cheapest possible technology, with wanton disregard for civilians and engaging in war crimes on a daily basis, to try to exhaust us, and we in the West must husband our own financial resources in a prudent way to protect Ukraine most efficiently over the long term until this war is brought to a conclusion. In order to prevail, we must adopt the same long-term perspective as the Russians but with an ever greater determination to see it through to the end. If, and only if, we adopt that perspective, will we win with total victory over the Russian aggression.