Interview with CIT military expert on challenges for Ukraine’s army and capabilities of its navy

14 May, 05:14 PM
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The United States has delivered dozens of M777 howitzers to Ukraine (Photo:Сommander in Chief of Ukrainian Armed Forces/Facebook)

The United States has delivered dozens of M777 howitzers to Ukraine (Photo:Сommander in Chief of Ukrainian Armed Forces/Facebook)

In an interview with NV, Kyrylo Mykhailov, a researcher from the Conflict Intelligence Team – an open-source intelligence research organization – discusses Russian propaganda, likely military scenarios near Kharkiv and Luhansk, and the ongoing battle for control over the Black Sea.

NV: According to Radio Liberty, Russia has deployed every single ship from its Black Sea Fleet that is capable of launching missile strikes. How would you comment on that?

Mykhailov: That’s true, we’ve seen satellite images confirming this. I think these (Russian) ships are in serious jeopardy. The sinking of (Russian) missile cruiser Moskva weakened Russian anti-air defense in the Black Sea, which was further exacerbated when their attempts to install AA systems on Snake Island were thwarted. Ukrainian UAVs and cruise missiles now pose a threat to the Russian fleet.

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While the TB-2 Bayraktar UAV is a threat to small boats and landing ships, they can’t sink a frigate, for example. Those targets will, hopefully, be sunk by Neptune cruise missiles, for instance.

NV: Why did their ships leave the harbor in the first place? Is Sevastopol no longer safe for them?

Mykhailov: I’d say they are trying to ramp up missile strikes (at Ukrainian territory) and generally bolster their Black Sea strike group. Perhaps they hope that with more ships they would have better chances of intercepting Ukrainian missiles and UAVs.

NV: How would you explain the seemingly baseless Russian claims about 10-20 destroyed Ukrainian UAVs and 60 marines?

Mykhailov: I think it’s lunacy to even attempt a landing there (on Snake Island). Even if Ukraine managed to land troops, they would be completely unprotected against a Russian naval air force, like, for example, Su-24 bombers. It would have turned into Ukraine’s Chornobaivka (an airfield near Kherson, where Russia made over a dozen unsuccessful attempts to land airborne regiments). I don’t believe that happened at all.

Meanwhile, other Russian sources make less triumphant reports. They suggest Ukraine lost a couple of warplanes and UAVs. We’ve seen some reports of Ukrainian naval pilots getting killed, so it’s plausible that Ukraine sustained some losses near the island. But I doubt they are even remotely close to the Russian MoD’s tales. Everyone was stunned by the audacious sortie at Snake Island by Ukraine’s air force. It’s possible that one or two planes were lost.

NV: As Moscow keeps grossly exaggerating the scale of Ukraine’s losses in this war, do you think that’s being done for their domestic audience?

Mykhailov: It’s done to counter and dampen incoming reports from Ukrainian sources, which lay bare the true scale of Russia’s colossal losses. So, they invent some Ukrainian landing (on Snake Island), and fabricate the numbers. Basically, they are trying to say “We, Russians, have sustained losses, but Ukraine lost even more.”

NV: Head of the Luhansk regional administration, Serhiy Haidai, said that artillery fire across the entire front line in the region is ramping up. How would you describe the situation there?

Mykhailov: We assess that direction to be the most challenging one for Ukraine. Moscow has taken Popasna. Sure, it took them several weeks, but they captured it nevertheless. Something bizarre is going on in Bilohorivka: Russian pontoon bridges got destroyed, but they are still working (to establish a crossing over the Siverskyi Donets River).

Bilohorivka is not that far from Popasna – 30-40 kilometers. Haidai mentioned that the “lifeline” road –from Bakhmut to Severodonetsk and Lysychansk – is now within the range of Russian artillery. That is the only remaining way to resupply that whole urban area.

Should Russia manage to complete the envelopment there, it would be a limited victory for them. Yet it would still be miniscule compared to their initial plan to encircle Donbas entirely, trapping Ukrainian forces around the Joint Forces operation area. We don’t think that’s in the cards anymore, but they might still try to surround and besiege Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, turning those cities into Mariupols, so to speak.

NV: Why do the Russians keep trying to bridge and cross Siverskyi Donets, even after getting demolished there several times?

Mykhailov: Out of curiosity, I read up on the 1943 battles around Donbas. The Red Army also tried to cross Siverskyi Donets, north-east from there. After heavy fighting and losing a general, a corps commander, they managed to establish a foothold.

The river was bridged in May 1943, but the offensive didn’t start until September. Those intervening months were a proper bloodbath. After all, the Wehrmacht didn’t have access to UAVs, modern recon equipment, and high-precision artillery. Even if Russia gains a foothold there, it could still become a meatgrinder – just like it did 80 years ago.

NV: Ukrainian forces have reached Ternova, near Kharkiv. That’s only three kilometers away from the Russian border.

Mykhailov: That’s virtually the border. There are no more occupied settlements between (Ternova) and the border. The next closest settlement in that direction is Russian.

NV: How can we leverage that? Obviously, Ukraine has no plans to advance and capture Russian territory. How can this help our war effort, then?

Mykhailov: One of the goals of this counteroffensive was to push Russian artillery away, ensuring that Kharkiv is beyond the range of Russian guns. Most of their tube artillery, besides the Pions, can no longer threaten the city’s homes and infrastructure. MLRS and missiles can still strike at the city, but the threat to Kharkiv has been greatly diminished.

Another benefit of these recent developments is that (Ukraine) can now pressure the Russian supply route to Izyum, to the east of the Siverskyi Donets river. Izyum remains another tough spot for the Ukrainian army. Now, it will be able to fire at these supply lines near the Ukrainian town of Vovchansk. This will further exacerbate the already dire situation Russia faces near Izyum, in terms of ammunition, food, and fuel.

NV: According to Ukrainian journalist Yuri Butusov, the Armed Forces o Ukraine are already making use of U.S.-made M-777 howitzers. What kind of advantage do they provide us with?

Mykhailov: M-777 is NATO’s most modern howitzer. It’s very light, being made mostly from titanium as opposed to steel. It can also fire rocket-assisted rounds, which have greater ranges – as far as 30 kilometers. Not to mention the Excalibur – high-precision guided projectiles capable of striking targets 60 kilometers away. Those rounds are very accurate and rather expensive.

When they were used in Iraq and Afghanistan, these howitzers inflicted the most damage on enemy combatants.

Naturally, they use NATO-caliber rounds, meaning that it won’t be a problem to find ways of procuring them – in stark contrast with the difficulty of purchasing Soviet-era 152mm rounds. NATO has plenty of 155mm shells in its stockpiles.

Almost all artillery rounds currently produced are of this caliber. Several Balkan countries still manufacture 152mm ammunition, but I gather they’re not particularly eager to help Ukraine out. Most importantly – this is a major step towards transitioning to NATO standards, making it much easier for Ukraine to resupply, repair, and service their armaments.

NV: What’s the significance of reports about the Donetsk TV tower getting damaged by Ukrainian fire? Does this mean that people in the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” will be rudderless and confused without Russian television?

Mykhailov: That’s right. Many people who stayed in Russia-occupied areas are elderly and poorly educated. Sociological research suggests they get all their information from TV. However, Russian propaganda is very well-developed even on the Internet: there’s a whole host of their Telegram channels, full of false, triumphant news about how the war is going.

That means that even without TV, they will still have access to Russian propaganda via the Internet.

NV: Your colleague, Ruslan Leviev, says that mid-level Russian officers refuse to carry out orders from their commanders. What’s his source on that?

Junior (Russian) officers refuse to even deploy to Ukrainian territory. 20%-40% of Russian soldiers that were withdrawn from the north (from Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy oblasts) have refused their redeployment to Donbas.

Mykhailov: We’ve had our sources in the Russian army confirm this, along with open-source information and media reports. They get either fired, or sent to man the rear. Others are being kept at their bases, with little understanding of what to do with them.

Comms intercepts published by Ukraine’s security services corroborate these reports. Many Russian soldiers and junior officers are refusing to fight – something even their families often advise them to do.

Since Russia didn’t declare war on Ukraine, the country is still technically in peacetime. Therefore, it’s not a crime to refuse deployment.

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