Putin’s Surprise Birthday Presents

w/c 10th October 2022

Vladimir Putin got two presents for his 70th birthday that we know of; from Belarus and its president Alexander Lukashenko he received an agricultural tractor, which was a thoughtful gift and I am sure well received. Less well received, I suspect, will have been his present from Voldymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainians – an attack on the Kerch bridge linking Crimea with the Russian mainland.

The attack on the Kerch bridge is a very significant development in the current war, and for two reasons. First of all, it demonstrates yet again how vulnerable the Russians are to (presumably) unorthodox attacks deep in their territory. Everybody has been aware for some time that the bridge was a prime target, including the Russians, and yet they seem to have been unable to deter any sort of attack on it. What other bits of their infrastructure might prove equally vulnerable?

Second, it’s increasingly clear to me that the strategic prize for both sides in this war is Crimea, offering as it does a base for control of both the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. The attack on the bridge may be a precursor for a Ukrainian offensive south to recapture Melitopol and cut the rail line there which is the obvious alternative route for Russian rail-borne resupply.

This would also cut the land bridge from Russia to Crimea and threaten the encirclement of Russian troops in the Kherson Oblast, which might force them to withdraw. This in turn would bring the whole of Crimea within range for Ukrainian precision missile and artillery systems (HIMARS, Excalibur etc) and probably make the continuing Russian occupation of Crimea untenable.

The big question now is whether Ukraine can maintain its momentum as winter approaches. It has to keep winning to ensure continuing support from both the Ukrainian people, many of whom face extreme hardship, and from the west, whose weapon supplies are crucial to Ukrainian victory.

 

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 Alba Party Defence Policy Debate

 

w/c 3rd October 2022

 I note that Scotland’s other party of independence, the Alba party, founded by Alex Salmond and a few acolytes and yet to find electoral success (although it boasts two MPs who jumped ship from the SNP), is to debate its defence policy this autumn, presumably at its conference on October 15th. This will be of interest to those interested in Scottish politics as it appears there are some departures from, and disagreement with, the current defence policy of the SNP, such as it is.

Defence policy has long been the Achilles Heel of the Scottish independence movement as a whole, but at least we are now having a debate once more. Reportedly the policy will be primarily based on naval forces and coastal defence, presumably via both seagoing and air assets, and there will be less emphasis on land forces.

Stand out aspects are a pledge to restore the traditional Scottish infantry regiments in place of the amorphous and largely unloved battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, plus a pledge not to join NATO and the desire to remove the Trident nuclear submarines from Faslane on the Clyde, including “all weapons of mass destruction and all associated nuclear materials negotiated to be safely removed by day one of Scotland becoming an independent nation.”

This latter pledge is pie-in-the-sky stuff. It basically calls for the unilateral nuclear disarmament by the UK and will not be considered acceptable either in Westminster or Washington. The USA has previously warned of draconian sanctions should an independent Scotland demand the removal of the UK’s nuclear deterrent from Scottish waters. Far better, I would argue, to use it as a bargaining chip to secure other concessions in any independence negotiations.

As for not seeking to join NATO, well, with many other nations clamouring to join the Alliance in the light of renewed Russian aggression in Europe, saying that Scotland would not join is hardly politically credible. The SNP changed its policy to be in favour of NATO membership some time ago and rightly so. Alba might want to think this one again.

To be honest, Alex Salmond’s party can say what it likes in its defence policy because it’s highly likely that it will ever be in power to implement it. But at least they have an embryo defence plan, naïve though it may be, and that’s a step in the right direction. We’ll see what the SNP comes up with when it publishes its defence paper, assumed to be in the next few months.

 Ukraine: Russia’s Botched “Partial Mobilisation”

 

w/c 3rd October 2022

Much confusion ensued after Putin’s decree for partial mobilisation of reservists last week. Instances have been reported of mobilizing men without prior military experience, assigning servicemen to the wrong specializations, and unfairly mobilizing men with health conditions or large families. There have been contradictory statements and procedures demonstrating the systemic weaknesses of the Russian military establishment that have mirrored much of their invasion of Ukraine so far.

Russian officials continue to try to execute what is meant to be a reservist call-up which has turned into a confused undertaking somewhere between a conscription drive and the declaration of general mobilization. Even if the Kremlin does manage to mobilize 300,000 men, it is not clear that it will be able to guarantee logistic support or deliver the appropriate training and equipment to the newly-mobilized troops. Ukraine says that Russian forces have already committed mobilized men who apparently did not receive any training prior to their deployment around September 15th.

In any case there is no real belief that this new cohort of military personnel will make much difference in the short to medium term. In Ukraine the autumn mud is more or less upon us and the ability to manoeuvre off-road will become increasingly difficult. Then comes winter, which is harsh on men and equipment. Finally, these new recruits to the war will face a successful and buoyant enemy in the Ukrainians, who will be determined to maintain momentum and build on their recent successes.

As I said some seven months ago, Ukraine will win by not losing and Russia will lose by not winning. Sadly, this war looks like it has some way to run yet.

The Nord Stream Conundrum

 

w/c 3rd October 2022

There was a bit of a media flap last week when a series of underwater explosions damaged both the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines which previously brought gas from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea. Both pipelines are majority owned by the Russian energy company Gazprom and were a major source of revenue to the Russian state before being closed down during the early states of the Ukraine war as Moscow flexed its economic muscles.

The sight of methane gas bubbling to the surface in the aftermath made the headlines around the world, and yet nobody has been able to come up with an explanation, or indeed a culprit, for the presumed sabotage attacks. Typically, Russia blamed the USA and vice versa, but the question “why” has yet to be answered. That the leaks happened as the Baltic Pipe was being opened to allow natural gas to come in from the North Sea through Denmark to Poland has led some to speculate that Russia had sabotaged its own pipelines as a warning to the west that its underseas connections were at risk if support for Ukraine continued.

No doubt the truth will out eventually, but the actions has certainly grabbed the attention of governments in Europe and beyond. Just recently the UK’s Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace MP, has announced that Britain is to procure two specialist ships to keep the UK’s underwater pipelines and cables safe. In the defence procurement context this is very speedy action indeed, and indicates that the threat is very real. No doubt other governments will follow in due course, if they have not done so already.