August 19, 2022
Ukrainian forces attacked various military targets deep behind Russian lines on Thursday evening.
We’ve seen an arms depot explode at Timonovo in the Russian oblast of Belgorod. This area serves as a key logistics hub for Russian operations in northern and eastern Ukraine. In addition, there are multiple reports of explosions near the Russian airfield in Stary Oskol. Sixty miles from the Ukrainian border, Stary Oksol is just 55 miles from Voronezh, the headquarters of a major command of Russia’s Western Military District. There have also been explosions around the Kherson dam, located at the southern juncture of the Dnieper river. Ukrainian forces are slowly moving to retake Kherson. Reports of explosions across the Crimean Peninsula also abounded on Thursday, though these may be the result of Russian air defense activity.
Yet, in the context of recent Ukrainian strikes against a major Russian naval aviation base in Crimea and explosions over the past three months at numerous military sites deep inside Russian territory, we can be confident that the Ukrainian forces are responsible for at least some of Thursday’s incidents.
This activity represents a concerted effort to degrade Russian command and logistics in what is known in military parlance as the “deep battlespace.” As I noted in March, deep battlespace operations against Russian forces are particularly valuable due to the systemic weaknesses in Russian command and control, concealment, security, and logistics. Unable or unwilling to conduct effective perimeter security operations or to conceal the location and type of operations they are conducting, Russian forces have made themselves vulnerable to surprise attacks far behind their front lines. NATO will also have learned from this Russian weakness.
Still, three Western government sources tell me that Ukraine’s deep battlespace effort owes especial thanks to Britain — specifically to British strike and reconnaissance special forces personnel inside Ukraine. This UK deployment was originally supervised by the now-retired head of the British Army, Gen. Mark Carleton-Smith, a former head of the U.K. Special Forces command who is deeply respected by the Army’s combat infantry cadres. I am told that this military advisory effort is being supervised by the United Kingdom’s foreign intelligence agency, the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6. While other Western nations also have a special operations forces presence inside Ukraine (to include CIA paramilitary and operations officers), Britain has adopted a particularly forward-leaning approach to supporting Ukraine. This reflects a personal and professional assessment by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the U.K. national security establishment in favor of highly active support for Ukraine. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, the heavy favorite to replace Johnson as prime minister on Sept. 6, appears set to continue this effort.
That said, the U.K.’s activity here is highly significant. It has, at times, involved advisory U.K. special forces activity very close to the front lines. (I understand that U.K. forces are not authorized to directly engage Russian forces.) Regardless, Ukraine’s escalating deep battlespace campaign is a direct extension of long-standing British special forces doctrine.
Established by the British Army’s 22nd Special Air Service Regiment, this doctrine involves the deployment of very small 4-8-16 person patrols deep into enemy territory. These patrols then gather targeting intelligence for commanders at the rear. But they also conduct sabotage operations against targets of opportunity such as logistics trains, command centers, and high-value targets such as aircraft, ammunition dumps, and fuel depots. The doctrine exists in pursuit of degrading an enemy’s means of action on the front line. But it is also intended to degrade an enemy’s morale by fostering his condition of fear well beyond the front line.
For Ukraine, however, the battlefield application of this doctrine is enabled by four additional factors:
First, access to extensive human agent reporting behind Russian lines and U.S./UK-provided satellite, electronic warfare, signals, and cyber intelligence. Second, access to boutique strike drone and electronic warfare technology that allows small teams to deploy capabilities that Russian forces cannot easily identify, target, or engage. Third, the deeply unreliable professionalism of Russian commanders and soldiers assigned to protect key assets. (The Russian military’s endemic morale problems and penchant for vodka — Arkady Babchenko’s brutal testimony is an enduring one for Russian soldiers — is a big problem.) Fourth, the willingness of Ukrainian special forces to operate at very high risk in defense of their country (will to fight).
This threatens to become a crisis for President Vladimir Putin.
As Russia struggles to sustain its heavy combat losses in personnel and materiel, Ukraine’s deep strikes will produce an ever-increasing battlefield effect. Putin will eventually be forced to choose between concession or dramatic escalation.