Ukraine Strikes Russian “Danger Belt”

New tactic aims to destroy weapons and ammunition stores and disrupt key transit routes.

Ukraine Strikes Russian “Danger Belt”

New tactic aims to destroy weapons and ammunition stores and disrupt key transit routes.

A Ukrainian MLRS Grad is shot from Ukrainian positions in Luhansk region.
A Ukrainian MLRS Grad is shot from Ukrainian positions in Luhansk region. © Anatoliy Stepanov
Thursday, 25 August, 2022

August has proved to be a challenging month for the Russian armed forces - and the leadership’s political prestige - as, for the first time, large ammunition blasts occurred in Crimea. 

A drone strike on the Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol on July 31 was followed by even more devastating explosions at an airfield and ammunition depot two weeks later. 

Following reports that the Russian command had relocated aircraft to southwestern Russia, another airfield in Crimea and an ammunition depot in the Russian Belgorod region bordering northern Ukraine were struck on August 18. 

Several media outlets cited anonymous Ukrainian officials claiming that the blasts were the work of special operations forces and local partisan fighters. 

August 18-22 saw further attacks on other Russian targets in the occupied eastern and southern Ukrainian territories. Russian media reported that an attempted drone strike on the Kerch bridge, which connects the Crimean peninsula to Russia, had failed to destroy the key transit route.

The fightback follows weeks of warning that the Ukrainian side was sorely lacking in serious firepower. 

In an early August Facebook post that went viral, young Ukrainian officer Sergiy Gnezdilov described "6,500 shells [falling on] one damn village in less than 24 hours” and issued a plea for heavier weapons.

“This is a fucking meat grinder,” wrote Gnezdilov from Pisky near Donetsk, adding, “We need artillery. Give us at least something here so we can hold our ground." 

Still lacking precise long-range weapons, the Ukrainian armed forces appear to now be using drone strikes and partisan tactics to hit strategic targets along the border on the Russian side.

Mykhaylo Samus, deputy director of international affairs at the Kyiv-based Centre for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, described this area, several dozen kilometres from the Ukrainian border, as "the belt of danger".

"We could liberate the entire territory but if we won't launch an operation at the Russian territory, if we won't destroy their ammunition depots there, they will still be able to shell Ukrainian territory," he told IWPR. 

Ukraine lacks precise, long-range artillery that could reach this danger zone. Its western allies are reluctant to deliver such weaponry, considering this a step closer to direct engagement in a military conflict with Russia. 

The precise rockets delivered to Ukraine in small numbers by the US and several EU countries are too expensive and scarce to fire at small targets like Russian vehicles and military equipment at the frontline, Ukrainian military expert Roman Svytan argued.

Russia has also expended great efforts into discrediting Ukraine’s ability to use these Western-supplied weapons correctly. This culminated with the blast at the detention centre holding Ukrainian POWs from the Azov regiment from Mariupol in occupied Olenivka near Donetsk. 

According to the Russian side, at least 50 detainees were killed in the strike, which Russia attributed to a Ukrainian HIMARS attack, Ukraine and western military experts have insisted that the detained soldiers were killed by a blast from inside the facility. 

But along the frontline, western-supplied weapons have helped deter further Russian offensives by allowing the Ukrainian armed forces to destroy dozens of ammunition depots. 

Russia still used its century-old approach to supply routes, military experts note. 

"These are old logistical systems, we know them very well," said Svytan. "Their entire logistics is tied to railways. They make terminal bases in areas of railway junctions. As I see it, the Ukrainian military command decided to first of all burn these terminal bases."

Successful targeting of ammunition depots closer to the frontline means that Russia will be unable to apply the firewall tactic which has already destroyed several cities and towns in the east of Ukraine, Samus emphasised. 

"Russia is not running out of ammunition," he continued. "The Soviet Union produced a lot of ammunition. Unfortunately, almost all of it ended up in Russia. The western weapons are needed in order not to let them use it, not to let them bring ammunition to Ukraine."

Mykola Sungurovsky, director of military programmes at the Razumkov Centre think-tank in Kyiv, noted that the weapons and ammunition Russia uses either date back to the 1960s or were produced in large quantities by an acting conglomerate of Russian manufacturers. 

These are artillery and rocket pieces which do not require high-tech equipment to fire. The western weapons let the Ukrainian forces compete with quantity by quality, he argued. 

This was still far from enough, however.

"Russia fires 40,000 to 80,000 artillery shells at us per 24 hours, not even counting mortars," said Andriy Rymaruk, head of the military department of Povernys Zhyvym (Come Back Alive) organisation providing military help to the Ukrainian army. 

This meant that Ukraine needed much more western assistance, he continued.

Problems have also emerged with the supplies Ukraine has already received. A research team from the British Royal United Services Institute wrote in a recent report that the howitzers supplied by various countries not only had completely different maintenance requirements but also did not use the same charges, fuses and sometimes shells. 

“The current approach by which each country donates a battery of guns in a piecemeal way is rapidly turning into a logistical nightmare for Ukrainian forces with each battery requiring a separate training, maintenance and logistics pipeline," the report read.

Rymaruk agreed that the Ukrainian army needs a more systematic approach towards supplies. His organisation is now busy supplying more drones to frontline forces; a medium whereby Ukraine can not only hit targets farther than the western rocket launchers it has received, but also ensures an immediate flow of reconnaissance information from a war area. 

"There can't be enough unmanned aerial vehicles. There can only be few,” Rymaruk said. “There are forces and tools which can counterwork them, but it is not possible to lead a war without them.”

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