Yesterday we returned to a district in Kherson. All travel to Kherson is complex, but it is one of the principal front lines in Ukraine’s complex war defending herself against Russian aggression and the site of a major humanitarian catastrophe. Therefore it was inevitable that my team, as one of the few genuinely international organisations providing humanitarian assistance along the front line in wartime Ukraine, returned to Kherson despite the problems encountered in this kind of work.
The site we were serving is within the city limits, although its location remained closely guarded because the entirety of the city is within accurate Russian shelling range from Russian artillery positions on the south side of the River Dnieper. Although we had obtained permission for our mission from the Ukrainian Governor of Kherson (Russian occupied Kherson has its own puppet Governor appointed by Moscow), the guards were still nervous at the military checkpoint. Everyone’s passports were photographed, as were the vehicles and their registration numbers. The Ukrainian Armed Forces did not want anything to go wrong. Precisely the same number of people had to leave, alive, as they counted going in.
The guards at the military checkpoint had cause to be cautious. The war in Kherson is heating up, after a period of calm over the summer. Daily incidents of shelling and counter-shelling are returning to the city of Kherson, as the really hot war takes place in a zone to the east of the city across the River Dnieper. I hear that the M14 road northeast from Kherson to Tyahinka and then onwards to the city of Nikopol, opposite the Russian occupied nuclear facility at Enerhodar (Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, as it is officially called), is now the site of daily heavy exchanges of artillery, small arms fire and other airborne ordnance and it is extremely dangerous to drive this road at the current time. Indeed in all likelihood you will not be permitted to pass the military checkpoints in this direction out of Kherson as a civilian, because the danger of death is too high.
This has its consequences further down the front line. One of them is that the warring parties are keeping up the pressure on each other on their respective military positions close to the city of Kherson, and that is why Russians artillery rounds are periodically landing within Kherson city limits. That is why it was so important that our convoy travelled in secrecy: had the Russians known that we were delivering humanitarian aid in the city and had they an approximate idea of our location, they might well have taken the opportunity to start pounding a group of foreigners and hungry, needy civilians waiting for humanitarian assistance in a long concentrated line. That, in Russian military thinking, represents a sort of victory: demoralising the international community and civilians in free Ukraine alike by killing them or frightening them away with volleys of high explosive shells.
The other consequences we are all feeling in Mykolaïv is a return to bombardment, or attempted bombardment, of the city, some 40 kilometres away from Kherson. Because the Russians understand that both the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the occasional international civilian mission use Mykolaïv as a base to supply the front line in Kherson, they have renewed their terror attacks on Mykolaïv although they have no renewed prospect of capturing the city; they are too far away and their supply lines have been demonstrated as unable to stretch this far. Moreover there are only five fighting weeks left in the year before the winter sets in and the sides will be unable effectively to make any advances each against the other because the rain, mud, cold, snow and winter will start to set in and this makes fighting effectively impossible. At this stage, all tactics will start to change: to survival, and to a different form of terrorism against civilians, namely trying to cut off their electricity supplies so that they have no heating during the winter months.
This was the modus operandi of the Russian Armed Forces in the 2022 / 2023 winter season: blowing up electricity substations to try to cause power outages in free Ukraine’s major population centres. In a peculiar turn of fate, this has proved very difficult because under Soviet leadership profound paranoia had set in that an invading western army might try precisely the same thing. Therefore Soviet-era electricity substations are enormous structures, perhaps 1 to 2 square kilometres, with four generators in each substation, one in each corner of a square. The purpose of this design is to ensure that if a missile hits a substation, it takes out only 25% of the electricity that substation produces. So you need four missiles to demolish each substation, each of which needs to be an accurate hit. In practice the Russians no longer have this quantity of accurate long-range missiles. Therefore the Russian policy of terrorising civilians by trying to turn off their power in the 2022 / 2023 winter was not effective. If one quarter of a substation is hit, you quickly rebuild the damaged part while the other three quarters keeps on running. This can be done more quickly and much more cheaply by the Ukrainian side than the speed and price of the Russians manufacturing more accurate long-range missiles.
However the Russians do seem still to have plenty of inaccurate long-range weapons, and this is why the air raid sirens keep sounding over Mykolaïv night after night (and, at times, during the day as well). At the current time there are reports of armed Shahed combat drones carrying different sorts of laser guided bombs to drop on civilian and military targets of potential logistical importance in the city and suburbs of Mykolaïv. Understanding all the different sorts of weapons being used by the Russian Armed Forces is a colossal learning exercise, as the Russians are apparently prepared to buy anything reasonably cheap and functional from anyone who will sell it to them, and are experimenting with lots of different cheap types of weaponry. The Shahed combat drone is a relatively slow-moving unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that might travel at about 100 knots. It was designed and built by the Iranians in various models and specifications but it seems that the Russians have copied the design and may now be manufacturing some themselves or may be buying them from the Iranians. The Sadid laser guided bomb, another Iranian creation, is often carried on the Shahed drones and works on a fire-and-forget infrared / heat seeking basis. It typically holds a fragmentation warhead, designed to cause maximum loss of life. These drones are threatening not just Mykolaïv but, it is reported, are reaching as far as Lviv in the west where a lot of Ukrainian soldiers go for rest, recuperation, training and medical treatment.
Because they do not travel very quickly, the Shahed combat drones can be fairly easily shot down using Ukrainian air defences. Nevertheless some do get through. Moreover this is a game of numbers: it may cost more to shoot a drone down then the cost of the drone itself, as modern air defence systems are reasonably expensive. Hence this has turned into a war of financial attrition to an extent, with the Russians calculating that they can afford to continue the war while wasting less money on it than the West. These are scales it may be important to tip in the other direction if the West is to bring the war in Ukraine to a quicker conclusion: something all sane people want, but Vladimir Putin (whose sanity is unknown) does not want. The end of the war might result in his deposal from power and ultimately to his murder by his colleagues.
Hence the war is reaching a peak of intensity in the closing weeks of the summer season, as each side struggles for a last-minute tactical advantage before the winter season sets in. All this makes the delivery of humanitarian aid increasingly risky. Nevertheless the skies were quiet last night. Perhaps the Russians have run out of combat drones, for now. However it won’t be long before they acquire more. I hear they are now buying artillery shells and other munitions from North Korea. I would imagine that such acquisitions might have a very high failure rate and may not be particularly safe for their operators. Nevertheless it suggests to me that the Russians are getting desperate. They are running short of ammunition to continue prosecuting this act of international aggression, because they front-loaded their war efforts into the first six months. That is why they are resorting to desperate measures such as buying armaments from the Iranians and North Koreans.
We had to pack up promptly and evacuate our delivery point for humanitarian aid quickly yesterday. The dull thud of exploding artillery shells was coming closer to us; the Russians were shelling positions perhaps only a couple of kilometres away. Once you hear these noises repeatedly and distinctly, it is time to move out to a position of relative safety. This sort of careful dancing, slipping into the zones of hot war, calmly delivering aid and then moving out again just as deftly, are part and parcel of the daily effort to bring relief to civilians suffering amidst this most cruel of wars.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.