Prior to the Russian retreat from the Kyiv area, on March 23, I posted this image from NASA’s FIRMS satellite service, normally used to track forest fires but also great for tracking a war’s front lines.
At the time, it was well-known that there was heavy fighting immediately west and northwest of Kyiv—Irpin, Bucha, and Hostomel at the front line. But I marveled at that entire line of fire all the way up to the Belarus border. There was zero information on fighting in that area, yet FIRMS imagery was very clear that something was going on, so I confidently stated that “Russia’s entire NW army is under severe assault.”
As Russia withdrew, the world saw Russia’s brutality exposed. But in addition to the war crimes, we also saw hundreds of destroyed Russian vehicles, all the way up that front. For a battle that had been fought mostly in that Bucha-Irpin front, that seemed odd. Now, it’s not so odd, seeing this Ukrainian artillery assault that took place before the Russian retreat:
The target has been geolocated to here:
If you compare it to the FIRMS map above, you’ll see that this attack was firmly along that band of fire, the first evidence we have that Ukraine was pushing hard against that entire Russian front from the west. Remember, depending on the artillery system, we’re talking ranges of 9 to 20 miles. So, well outside the range of any artillery Ukraine had in Kyiv and its environs. That artillery had to be much closer to the point of attack, and Ukraine wouldn’t be deploying artillery without proper defenses, as a typical artillery battery lacks defensive capabilities and would be easily overrun in a direct assault. That means that artillery was in support of an entire army pushing along Russia’s western flank. The FIRMS map really did tell us something that Ukraine’s general staff didn’t want to openly discuss.
No wonder Russia pulled their forces out. It had nothing to do with the stalemate near Kyiv. Those Russian forces were in real danger of being fully wiped out via a poorly protected western flank. Russia lost that entire axis on the battlefield.
So what does FIRMS tells us today? A lot, actually.
There’s a red dot at Kramatorsk, which is Russia’s latest war crime. The Donbas front is on fire, as it has been from Day One. Kharkiv is getting shelled, but not the city proper—north, east, and northeast of it. We know Ukraine has been pushing Russian forces back along that entire line, and even threatening Russian supply lines to Izyum to the east of Kharkiv. So it’s either Russian shelling the counter-attacking Ukrainians, Ukrainian strikes on Russian forces, or, most likely, both.
Then there’s Mariupol. Oh, Mariupol, which should have fallen on the first day of the war but continues to hold out. I’m going to save the story of Mariupol for the next update—it’s quite simply unbelievable.
Interestingly, Kherson looks quiet on FIRMS, but we know that’s not the case. It just means that the fighting, in small towns over barren, open, desert-like terrain isn’t leaving burning vehicles and structures behind for the FIRMS satellite to capture. Also, it’s raining, which presumably snuffs out any such fires. As of now, there are now reports of Ukrainian forces within 5 km west of Kherson.
Let me introduce you guys to the latest and greatest open-source intelligence project—UAWarData, which tracks the movement of individual Russian battalion tactical groups (BTGs). You can even toggle the time slider to get a sense of their movement over time. Note that it’s open-source, based on enthusiasts poring over Ukrainian general staff reports and geolocated photos, so it’s more of an educated guess than precision data. Also, there’s really no way to tell how degraded a particular BTG might be from battlefield attrition.
All those caveats aside, what’s striking about the Russian presence around Kherson is that there only appear to be around six BTGs available, each with approximately 600 to 1,000 troops. Russia has no reinforcements to send, as all spare bodies are being thrown into the Donbas. Kherson was held by “elite” Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) troops, Spetsnaz special operations forces, and elements of the 20th Guards Motorized Rifle Division (GMRD) and a smattering of other units. At full strength, that would be around 6,000 soldiers. But these are the units that tried to go up to Mykolaiv and eventually got spanked at Voznesenks, officially turning the tide of this war. These units are nowhere near full strength. In fact, Ukraine general staff claims the 20th GMRD was degraded 40% and was recently withdrawn back to Russia.
Presumably, that means that all that’s left inside Kherson are a few thousand airborne and special forces types—light infantry with some artillery support, but little in the way of armor. They could try and hold the city, but with an angry and restless populace, they’d have few places to hide, and hostiles inside and outside the city to deal with. While Russian offensives outside of Kherson suggest they’re not giving the city up without a fight, the lack of heavy forces (read: armor) inside the city means they’re ready for a quick and nimble retreat if necessary, blowing that famous Kherson bridge to cover their retreat south.
Given the failure to move on Odesa, there is little strategic value to Kherson left. The source of Crimea’s water supply, the North Crimean Canal and a legitimate strategic concern, is further east, and on the south side of the Dnipro river—easy to defend by blowing all bridges.
In fact, if Russia blows all the bridges, Ukraine has no way to cross the Dnipro River south of Kherson without building entirely new massive bridges (which would be immediately destroyed by Russia). The river is too wide for all but the most complex military pontoon bridges, even if Ukraine had them, which they don’t. (You can see how wide it is here, during one of the early battles for the bridge.)
Unable to cross the Dnipro, Ukrainian forces around Kherson can’t get to Melitopol. Russian control of all that territory south and easy of the river is protected. So why waste men and material trying to defend Kherson?
This whole thread is the stuff of nightmares.
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