Top Putin propagandist calls for total war and return to brutal Stalinist-era operations after Crimea bridge explosion as Russian governors warn of ‘desire to seek revenge’ and threaten missile attacks on Ukraine’s ‘big cities’
- Top Putin propagandist Vladimir Solovyov called for total war against Ukraine following Crimea bridge blast
- He also demanded a return to Stalinist-era counterintelligence operations to root out internal opposition
- Crimea’s governor spoke of a ‘healthy desire for revenge’ while another official warned of rocket attacks
- The deputy governor of Stavropol told Ukrainians ‘leave your cities’ as he threatened Sarmat missile strikes
- Russia’s deputy PM meanwhile deployed divers to inspect bridge foundations and search for more evidence
- Some Western intelligence officials fear Putin will raise new hell in neighbouring country amid humiliation
- Rocket attacks killed more than a dozen people in the territory of Zaporizhzhia late last night and early today
- Putin previously said that any attack on the bridge connecting Crimea to Russia would prompt ‘judgment day’
Top pro-Kremlin propagandist Vladimir Solovyov is demanding a brutal Stalinist response to ‘plunge Ukraine into dark times’ and round up all Russians against total war in the wake of the humiliating hit on the Crimean Bridge.
Alluding to an enemy within, Solovyov called for a return of the notorious Stalin-era SMERSH counter-intelligence to crush all internal opposition to a full-scale war against Ukraine.
SMERSH, whose motto was ‘Death to Spies’, was a conglomeration of counterintelligence agencies used by Stalin to root out and obliterate those trying to subvert his regime during and after World War II.
‘It’s time to remember Soviet military training and act decisively and creatively,’ Solovyov said.
‘Not responding to the enemy’s actions, but breaking their plans, striking unexpected blows in directions where the enemy is not expecting them.
‘Ukraine should be plunged into dark times. Bridges, dams, railways, thermal power plants and other infrastructure facilities should be destroyed throughout Ukraine.
‘The country should switch to a military mode – entirely. This should include SMERSH making a return,’ Solovyov declared. ‘Everything for the front, everything for victory.’
Meanwhile, a pair of Russian governors spoke of their desire for revenge following the attack on the Kerch bridge connecting Crimea to mainland Russia, with one deputy claiming that devastating Sarmat missiles will target Ukrainian cities.
The deputy governor of Russia’s southern Stavropol region Valery Chernitsov exclaimed: ‘Ukrainians, leave your cities, especially the large ones. Because a big surprise is waiting for you. Sarmat missiles are ready to strike,’ in a menacing video posted on Twitter.
Crimea’s Russian-installed governor Sergei Aksyonov declared there is a ‘healthy desire to seek revenge’ following the explosion which destroyed parts of the Kerch bridge yesterday morning and killed three people.
‘The situation is manageable – it’s unpleasant, but not fatal,’ Aksyonov said of the bridge which constitutes a prestigious symbol of Moscow’s annexation of the peninsula and a key supply route to forces battling in southern Ukraine.
‘Of course, emotions have been triggered and there is a healthy desire to seek revenge.’
Rocket attacks have already rained down on the southern Ukrainian region of Zaporizhzhia since the bridge explosion, killing more than a dozen people late last night and early this morning.
The strikes came as Russia’s deputy prime minister Marat Khusnullin deployed a team of divers to inspect the structure’s underwater foundations for further damage and to search for evidence.
The divers began work at 6am this morning and are expected to spend the entire day combing the area underwater to ensure the bridge is structurally sound.
Top Putin propagandist Vladimir Solovyov (right with Putin) is demanding a brutal Stalinist response to decimate Ukraine and round up all Russians against total war in the wake of the humiliating hit on the Crimean Bridge
Alluding to an enemy within, Solovyov called for a return of the brutal Stalin-era SMERSH counter-intelligence to crush all internal opposition to full-scale war
Head of Crimea Sergei Aksyonov (L) said that ’emotions have been triggered and there is a healthy desire to seek revenge’ following the bridge explosion. Deputy governor of Stavropol Valery Chernitsov (R) took a more direct tack with his threats of revenge, claiming that nuclear capable Sarmat rockets will be used to target Ukranian cities
A view shows a fire on the Kerch bridge in the Kerch Strait, Crimea, October 8, 2022, in this screen grab from a handout video
Explosion causes fire at the Kerch bridge in the Kerch Strait, Crimea on October 08, 2022
A color infrared satellite image shows a close up view of smoke rising from a fire on the Kerch bridge in the Kerch Strait, Crimea, October 8, 2022
The deputy governor of Russia’s southern Stavropol region said ‘Sarmat missiles are ready to strike Ukraine’ in a menacing video posted on Twitter (Sarmat missile launch pictured April 2022)
Solovyov called for a return to Stalinist-era policies which saw counterintelligence services ruthlessly root out those it believed were trying to undermine the regime (Stalin pictured)
Saturday’s explosion on the bridge prompted gleeful messages from Ukrainian officials but no claim of responsibility, though it is widely thought to have been of Ukrainian origin.
The bridge is a major artery for the Russian forces that control most of southern Ukraine’s Kherson region and for the Russian naval port of Sevastopol.
But Aksyonov claimed the peninsula had a month’s worth of fuel and more than two months’ worth of food, while Russia’s defence ministry said its forces in southern Ukraine could be ‘fully supplied’ through existing land and sea routes.
Rail traffic was restored to the bridge late last night, meaning it is unlikely the destruction will dramatically hinder Russian supply routes.
A leading Ukrainian presidential aide claimed this morning the Kerch Strait crossing carnage may have been ordered by one of Vladimir Putin’s warring commanders.
Mykhailo Podolyak alleged that Russia’s FSB secret service and the defence ministry are at loggerheads in a bitter dogfight over the botched war and are trying to undermine one another’s credibility.
‘Isn’t it obvious who made [the] explosion? Truck arrived from RF [Russian Federation],’ he said.
Meanwhile, a Western diplomatic source said the bridge attack could have been commissioned from inside the Russian establishment to fatally weaken Putin and trigger his toppling.
‘It might be the SBU [Ukrainian secret service] but it also could be the first major sign of a bid from within Russia to incapacitate the Kremlin tsar,’ the source said.
Some Western intelligence experts warned Vladimir Putin ‘might go nuclear’ and deploy weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine after the latest setback for his war.
The former head of the British Army warned that Putin could now opt for the Armageddon approach after the Kremlin previously insisted that an attack on Crimea would ‘cross a red line’.
General Lord Richard Dannatt also said he expects Putin to escalate his attacks on Ukraine, The Telegraph reported last night.
The Russian dictator had previously vowed that any attack on the strategically important Kerch Strait between Russia and annexed Crimea would prompt ‘judgment day’.
Devastating video footage showed a volley of missiles rain down on residential block in Zaporizhzhia, southeast Ukraine, as Putin launched his first retributive strikes on Ukraine.
A series of explosions rocked the city in the early hours of the morning, sending towering plumes of illuminated smoke into the sky and triggering a series of secondary explosions.
Putin’s furious response came after it was widely reported that Ukrainian forces launched an ‘explosive-laden aquatic device’, possibly a drone, that brought the road bridge connecting Russia and Crimea crashing into the sea.
Putin (pictured addressing an audience in the Kremlin last month) is expected to escalate war
Ukrainian president Zelensky told viewers of his nightly Telegram video address that Ukraine’s prospects were ‘sunny’, in stark contrast to the smoky clouds over Crimea after the blast
The Russian leader ordered the FSB intelligence service to monitor security on the bridge, a potential sign of a spat between the army and the secret service as Russia’s war effort continues to falter.
Putin received pyramids of melons from the president of ally Tajikistan for his birthday. He was also given a tractor by Belarusian president Lukoshenko.
Meanwhile Ukrainian president and ex-comedian Volodymyr Zelensky rediscovered his comic chops in a tongue-in-cheek weather report following damage to a key strategic bridge between Russia and Moscow-annexed Crimea.
The Kyiv leader poked fun at the humiliating attack on Putin’s supply line, making the audacious comments in his nightly video address posted on Telegram.
Zelensky said: ‘Today was a good and mostly sunny day in our country. Over most of the territory, it was about 20 degrees Celsius and sunny.
Dramatic CCTV footage showed the moment the deadly bridge blast took out a key supply line
Satellite images also showed the damaged bridge continue to burn hours after the detonation
‘Unfortunately, it was cloudy in Crimea, although it was still warm. But however the clouds are, Ukrainians know what to do, and they know that our future is sunny.
‘This is the future without invaders, on all our territory, in particular in Crimea.’
Three people were killed when the apparent truck bomb took down a chunk of the bridge between Russia and the Ukrainian region stolen by Putin in 2014.
The explosion took place just hours after Putin’s 70th birthday, with one of Zelensky’s aides joking: ‘Happy birthday, Mr President’.
The plot thickened when a mysterious ‘wave’ was caught on video, fuelling speculation that Ukrainian special services used a boat or explosive-laden drone to launch an attack that has damaged Putin’s supply lines.
Moscow furiously claimed a truck bomb caused the blast which killed at least three people but did not apportion blame – while the speaker of Crimea’s Kremlin-backed regional parliament accused Kyiv of being behind the explosion.
Putin responded to the embarrassing attack by ordering tightened security at the bridge.
In a decree issued hours after the bridge was damaged by a blast, Putin said the FSB security service would be responsible for strengthening protection measures.
The Kremlin had claimed the bridge, which was opened personally Putin in 2018 to much fanfare in Russian-state media, was being protected by a maximum security operation which even included attack dolphins.
Russian law enforcement has identified Samir Yusubov, 25, from the Krasnodar region in Russia, as the alleged owner of the red-coloured International Prostar truck, which, according to investigators, exploded on the Crimean Bridge. They are still investigating who was driving the truck when it exploded.
Workers are pictured repairing the railway line section of the bridge over the Kerch Strait this evening on Putin’s orders
The rail bridge from Russia to the Crimean peninsula can be seen engulfed in flames on the right, while a huge section of the road bridge has collapsed into the sea
Cars are pictured below the damaged bridge connecting Crimea to Russia tonight, hours after a massive explosion
But the so-called ‘wave’ which appeared under the bridge before it was destroyed has led to speculation that it was attacked using a boat or explosive-laden drone.
Ukrainian officials have repeatedly threatened to strike the bridge and some lauded the destruction, but Kyiv stopped short of claiming responsibility. However, a top aide to President Zelensky boasted that ‘Putin should be happy. Not everyone gets such an expensive birthday present’, and the Prime Minister of Estonia suggested that the attack was committed by Ukraine.
The attack could cut supplies to Putin’s forces as Ukraine makes more advances in the south towards Kherson. A section of the bridge has collapsed into the sea and seven oil tankers on a train caught fire in the blast. Long fuel lines are already forming in Crimea, despite Russian claims to have enough supplies to last two weeks.
Officials at the bridge opened the doors of the truck before sending it on its way – despite claims it was guarded with a maximum-security operation
Images appear to show movement in the water under the bridge a split second before the explosion which brought down the road bridge and set fire to oil tankers
The Kerch Bridge is the only direct link between Russia and Crimea and is a crucial supply line for Russian forces in Ukraine
The explosion is the latest setback in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Putin’s forces struggling to hold ground in the past few months
Eyewitnesses said the enormous blast could be heard from miles away, and a column of smoke could be seen rising over the Black Sea
Russian propaganda had claimed the Crimean bridge was impossible to attack because of 20 different kinds of security protecting it, including military dolphins
Speculation is mounting that a drone was used to blow up the bridge. This image handed out by the Russian Ministry of Defence shows what was claimed to be a mystery Ukrainian drone found near Crimea
The 12-mile bridge across the Kerch Strait linking the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov opened in 2018 and is the longest in Europe.
The £3.2billion project is a tangible symbol of Moscow’s claims on Crimea and has provided an essential link to the peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Crimea holds symbolic value for Russia and is key to sustaining its military operations in southern Ukraine. While Russia seized areas north of Crimea early on during the invasion and built a land corridor to it along the Sea of Azov, Ukraine is pressing a counteroffensive to reclaim them.
The Russian Defence Ministry said troops in the south were receiving necessary supplies through the land corridor and by sea. The Energy Ministry said Crimea has enough fuel for 15 days and it was working on ways to replenish stock.
The bridge has train and road sections. The blast and fire caused the collapse of one of the two links of the road bridge, while another link was intact.
Russia has released this picture of Samir Yusubov, 25, believed to be the truck’s owner
The Russian Transport Ministry said train traffic across the bridge would start again shortly after quick repair works.
Vehicle traffic resumed on Saturday afternoon on one of the two links that remained intact from the blast, with the flow alternating in each direction and vehicles undergoing a ‘full inspection procedure,’ Crimea’s Russia-backed regional leader, Sergey Aksyonov, wrote on Telegram.
Rail traffic was resuming slowly. Two passenger trains departed from the Crimean cities of Sevastopol and Simferopol and headed toward the bridge on Saturday evening. Passenger ferry links between Crimea and the Russian mainland were being relaunched Sunday.
Mr Putin was informed about the explosion and ordered the creation of a government panel to deal with the emergency.
The speaker of Crimea’s Kremlin-backed regional parliament blamed Ukraine for the explosion, but downplayed the severity of the damage and said the bridge would be promptly repaired.
Leonid Slutsky, head of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of Russian parliament, said ‘consequences will be imminent’ if Ukraine is responsible.
Gennady Zyuganov, head of the Russian Communist Party, which is nominally in the opposition but votes in line with Kremlin wishes in parliament, said the ‘terror attack’ should serve as a wake-up call.
‘The long-overdue measures haven’t been taken yet, the special operation must be turned into a counterterrorist operation,’ he said.
Sergei Mironov, head of the Just Russia faction in parliament, said Moscow should respond by attacking key Ukrainian infrastructure including power plants, bridges and railways.
The parliamentary leader of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s party on Saturday stopped short of claiming Kyiv was responsible but appeared to cast it as a consequence of Moscow’s takeover of Crimea.
‘Russian illegal construction is starting to fall apart and catch fire. The reason is simple: if you build something explosive, then sooner or later it will explode,’ David Arakhamia, the leader of the Servant of the People party, wrote on Telegram.
The secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, Oleksiy Danilov, tweeted a video with the Kerch Bridge on fire alongside Marilyn Monroe singing her famous Happy Birthday, Mr President.
Pictures in the aftermath of the explosion show the devastation it caused on the crucial road and rail bridge
Later this morning, smoke could still be seen billowing out over the sea as the bridge was closed to all traffic
The fire could still be seen burning from miles away from a suspected fuel tank on a train was hit by the explosion
The road section of the Kerch Bridge was severely damaged by the blast – it is not known how long it could take to repair
A helicopter was used to drop water in an effort to extinguish the flames on the bridge earlier this morning
People posed for photos with a giant postage stamp of the bridge on fire today following the explosion
The blast has been welcomed by many in Ukraine as the latest blow against Putin’s regime as his forces continue to suffer setbacks
Member of Putin’s inner circle ‘directly confronts Vladimir over Ukraine war mistakes and mismanagement’ as Kremlin insiders reach ‘breaking point’, US intelligence report claims
Vladimir Putin has been confronted by one of his inner circle about his handling of the failing war in Ukraine, US intelligence has said.
The insider complained to Putin about ‘mismanagement of the war effort’ and ‘mistakes’ being made by those executing the campaign, it is alleged.
It is the clearest indication yet of rebellion among Russia’s elite over the war and the first evidence that Putin has been directly confronted about it.
Meanwhile Russian business executives linked to Moscow’s political class described the situation inside the Kremlin as being at ‘breaking point’, and said in-fighting will break out soon if the tide of war keeps flowing in Ukraine’s direction.
The news emerged after Ukraine scored a series of battlefield victories over Russia, forcing Putin to announce a deeply-unpopular mobilisation to shore up the front line, annex occupied territories, and threaten anyone who intervenes with nukes.
The blast on the bridge occurred hours after explosions rocked the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv early on Saturday, sending plumes of smoke into the sky and triggering a series of secondary explosions.
Ukrainian officials accused Russia of pounding Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, with surface-to-air missiles and said at least one person was wounded. The strikes targeted two largely residential neighbourhoods, the regional governor, Oleh Sinehubov, said.
Huge queues appeared at petrol stations in Crimea in the wake of the bridge’s destruction, soon after the Russian puppet authorities said there was petrol for 40 days. Other sources said there was only 15 days of fuel as panic buyers queued for hours.
Locals were also rationed to 3kg of essential groceries amid fears for supplies, according to reports on the peninsula.
A video shows a Russian man in Crimea saying: ‘We’ve had a good life, but it was short-lived. The ways [of escape] are now cut off.’
Pro-Putin military correspondent Yuri Kotyonok joined a wave of demands for overwhelming Russian attacks on Ukraine. He said: ‘The answer for blowing up the bridge should be crushing. The question is not about revenge, but about punishment and our capacity as a state responding to terrorist attacks. The Crimean Bridge will certainly be restored. I hope that they will do it promptly – within a few months. He asked for answers on why ‘targets in Kyiv are still intact’.
Yuri Podolyaka, a popular pro-Rus blogger, said: ‘It looks like this is the prelude to the main strike of the Ukrainians in the south. If over the next few days Ukraine does not plunge into darkness and strikes are not carried out on the bridges across the Dnieper, I personally will consider it a sign of an [epic failure].’
Vladimir Rogov, chairman of ‘We are Together with Russia’ movement, and a key official in occupied Ukraine, said: ‘The Crimean bridge has been blown up. Both the road and railway lines have been cut. The [Ukraine] terrorist entity must be destroyed.’
He published exact map coordinates of targets he wanted hit in Ukraine.
Kharkiv mayor Ihor Terekhov said the early-morning explosions were the result of missile strikes in the centre of the city. He added that the blasts sparked fires at one of the city’s medical institutions and a non-residential building. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Russian officials said they faced an ’emergency’ on the bridge with the train on fire. A Russian Telegram channel said: ‘It is likely that an improvised explosive device hidden in any of the passing vehicles was detonated.’
Oleg Kryuchkov, aide to the Kremlin-appointed head of annexed Crimea, said: ‘According to preliminary information, a fuel storage tank is on fire…. Navigable arches were not damaged. It is too early to speak about causes and consequences. Work to extinguish the blaze is under way.’
Russian-controlled Crimean Railways said: ‘A fuel tank at the tail of a freight train caught fire. The locomotive with some carriages was brought to Kerch station.’
Ukraine in recent days has grown more ambitious in its predictions that it will retake Crimea – annexed by Russia in 2014.
Rybar, a pro-Russian Telegram channel reported: ‘There was an explosion at around 6am on one of the sections of the Crimean Bridge. According to official reports, a fuel tanker caught fire. Road services and the Emergencies Ministry are working at the scene of the fire and traffic has been temporarily suspended.
‘However, photos and video footage show one of the vehicles being put out of action, which in no way could have happened due to a simple fire. It is likely that an improvised explosive device hidden in any of the passing vehicles was detonated.’
Pro-Kremlin war reporter Andrey Rudenko asked: ‘What kind of power did the explosion have to for a span of the bridge to go under water? It is quite possible to assume that the main explosion was underwater. At the beginning of the year, there were reports that the West had supplied Ukraine with underwater kamikaze drones.’
Vladimir Rogov, chairman of ‘We are Together with Russia’ movement, and a key official in occupied Ukraine, said: ‘The [Ukraine] terrorist entity must be destroyed.’
Army General Sergey Surovikin is reported to have taken charge of Putin’s war in Ukraine after a series of setbacks for Russian since it invaded in February
The British Ministry of Defence said in June: ‘For over thirty years, Surovikin’s (right) career has been dogged with allegations of corruption and brutality’
Ukraine has been launching a successful counter-offensive against Russia in the last few weeks, claiming miles of territory
Ukraine has won back hundreds of settlements and miles of territory as it pushes back against Russian forces in the east of the country
How Ukraine could achieve victory against Russia: As Kyiv’s forces advance in the south and east, expert lays out the path to victory – with all roads leading to Crimea
‘This war began with Crimea and must end with Crimea – with its liberation,’ President Volodymyr Zelesnky declared back in August. And, according to military experts, that is exactly what his generals are aiming to do.
Ben Hodges, former commander of American forces in Europe, has outlined what he believes to be the Ukrainian route to victory – going via the cities of Kherson and Mariupol and ending ‘when the last Russian soldier crosses the [Kerch] bridge out of Crimea.’
General Hodges, now at the Center for European Policy Analysis, believes Ukraine’s main effort will remain capturing Kherson in the south – where a major assault has been underway since early August – with a secondary attack hooking down through the Donbas and towards the city of Mariupol.
When Mariupol falls, he told a CEPA conference last week, those troops would also converge on Crimea – hammering the peninsula with HIMARS rockets and forcing the Russians back beyond the border.
Dr Mike Martin, a visiting fellow of war studies at King’s College, also raised the prospect of a third assault with Ukraine using its reserves to split the Russian frontline in two and making it difficult for Putin to move reinforcements around as he gave his own thoughts on Twitter.
Nothing is guaranteed in war, and Putin will certainly do everything in his power to stop Kyiv – from piling conscripts on to the frontlines to possibly using a nuclear weapon.
But, as Ukraine’s path to victory becomes clearer, MailOnline examines how it could play out…
General Ben Hodges, former commander of US forces in Europe, has outlined what he believes to be Ukraine’s path to victory against Russia – saying that ‘Crimea is the prize’ and the war will end ‘when the last Russian soldier walks along the [Kerch bridge, connecting the peninsula with mainland Russia]’
Ukraine began its much-vaunted counter-attack on the Kherson region in early August and has been making gradual progress ever since – though reports have started emerging of a breakthrough this week.
The goal, touted by Kyiv, is to re-take the city of Kherson from Russian control. It is the only regional capital seized by Putin so-far during the war, and occupies a strategic position – spanning the Dnipro River where it flows into the Dniprovska Gulf and on to the Black Sea.
Taking it would deprive Russia of its only toe-hold on the west bank of the Dnipro, all-but rule out any assault on Odessa, give proof to the lie of Putin’s sham referendums and claims to annexation, and open the door to an assault on Crimea – the jewel in the Ukrainian crown.
Ukraine has been steadily fighting its way towards the city of Kherson for the last two months, and may have scored a breakthrough this week amid reports of Russian forces withdrawing more than 10 miles
Ukrainian special forces troops are pictured advancing across the south of Ukraine amid reports of a breakthrough in Russian lines that may have pushed Putin’s men back more than 10 miles
General Hodges estimated that breaking the pocket in Kherson may take ‘weeks’. Ukraine itself has given no such timeline. But victory here, if it can be achieved, would be a watershed moment.
Russia has stationed most of its remaining forces in Ukraine, and almost all of its best fighting units, in the city – perhaps up to 30,000 troops in total – and their loss would be a blow the Kremlin would struggle to recover from.
And, should Kherson fall, Kyiv has left observers in little doubt about what would come next.
In the build-up to the assault on Kherson, several large explosions rocked the Crimea – destroying ammo dumps, airfields, and resupply routes. Kyiv was slow to claim responsibility, perhaps trying to disguise what weapon it used for the attacks – which seemed to go beyond its known capabilities – or perhaps fearing escalation by Putin.
The despot, after all, annexed Crimea in 2014 making it – in the Kremlin’s eyes at least – part of Russia.
But, in a speech on August 10, Zelensky vowed: ‘Crimea is Ukrainian and we will never give it up. This Russian war…began with Crimea and must end with Crimea – with its liberation.’
Until a few weeks ago, this frontline looked radically different: Ukraine holding out against Russian long-range attacks in the north in Kharkiv, while Russia made grinding advances in the south around Bakhmut.
But a surprise Ukrainian counter-attack, launched after Russia had relocated some of its best units to the south to help defend Kherson, changed everything.
A breakthrough in Russian lines turned into a rapid advance and then total rout of Putin’s armies in the Kharkiv region, returning an estimated 3,000 square miles to Ukrainian control in just a few days of fighting.
So hasty was the retreat, that Ukrainians reported finding food still sitting on stoves when they arrived in abandoned Russian encampments. Dozens of vehicles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition were seized.
A stunning Ukrainian counter-attack east out of Kharkiv has slowed but has not stopped, with the city of Lyman now under Kyiv’s control and its troops pushing towards the cities of Svatove and Kreminna
Ukrainian troops are filmed ambushing Russian armoured vehicles using anti-tank launchers in Donetsk, leaving at least one of them destroyed
And the offensive is still going. Russia has regrouped and Ukraine’s advance has slowed, but it has not stopped.
Lyman, a major transport node in northern Donetsk, was captured at the weekend. Troops are now advancing from there towards Kreminna, in neighbouring Luhansk, and from Borova to Svatove in the same region.
Should those two fall, it would open the way for an attack on the cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk – which Russia expended blood, sweat, and ammunition capturing over the course of weeks and which is key to its claim of having ‘liberated’ the Luhansk region.
From there, Ukraine could choose to attack either of the regional capitals – the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk – or to bypass them and push south towards the sea and the city of Mariupol.
That is certainly the conclusion that General Hodges has come to.
‘My sense is that the operations that are underway now – the northern arm that is coming down from Kharkiv towards Donetsk, [and’ that’s heading straight towards Mariupol,’ he told the CEPA conference.
Aside from Kherson, Mariupol has been the other prize captured by Putin in a little over seven months of war, having worn down the heroic Ukrainian defenders to the point of surrender – which came back in May.
Should Ukraine re-capture Mariupol, it would be a hammer blow. Russia painted the Azov Battalion – who defended the city – as war criminals and neo-Nazis. Putin’s claim to be ‘de-Nazifying’ Ukraine is, at least in part, based on destroying this unit and taking the city.
Should Mariupol fall, General Hodges believes the Ukrainian forces will head in one direction: ‘Towards Crimea.’
‘When and where to commit your reserve is literally THE question for the theatre commander,’ Dr Mike Martin of King’s College wrote on Twitter around a month ago, after the extent of Ukraine’s counter-attack around Kharkiv became clear.
Much remains unknown about Ukraine’s reserves. Kyiv has kept the size of its armed forces and its casualties a closely-guarded secret, meaning it is impossible to guess at how many men it might have ready and able to deploy and what kind of equipment they could be armed with.
However, Kyiv has carried out a general mobilisation of the population – unlike Russia, which has belatedly gone for ‘partial’ mobilisation – meaning every man aged up to 65 is eligible to be called up, which would amount to millions of troops if they could all be armed and trained.
So, the question is: Where, how and when does Ukraine use these forces?
Ukraine has an unknown number of troops in reserve, but has fully mobilised its population – giving it a pool of millions to draw on, and they could be used for an attack
Kyiv has carried out a general mobilisation of the population – unlike Russia, which has belatedly gone for ‘partial’ mobilisation
Dr Martin, posting on Twitter today, believes he has found the answer. ‘Ukraine [would use] its strategic reserve to sever the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine into two pieces that cannot mutually reinforce.’
Alongside the tweet he posted a hastily-drawn map showing the presumed direction of the advance, from the cetnral cities of Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia towards Mariupol and nearby Berdyansk.
Aside from skirmishes around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and Ukrainian partisan activity, this front has been relatively calm since Russia advanced across it early in the war – but Dr Martin suggests it could soon find itself at the centre of the action.
The trust – assuming Ukraine can do it – makes sense. It would free up the forces near Kharkiv to focus on attacking Luhansk and Donetsk, liberating the Donbas from Russian control. And it would prevent Putin from pulling any units out of Kherson to help defend the region – unless they were willing to punch through Ukrainian lines.
‘Crimea is the prize. That’s what it is going to be. Victory will be when the last Russian solider walks across that long bridge,’ predicts General Hodges – speaking about the bridge Putin ordered built across the Kerch Strait, connecting Crimea with the Russian mainland.
Mark Hertling, another former US general speaking at the same CEPA event, agreed that the peninsula is where Ukraine is aiming to get. But, he cautioned, taking it is going to be ‘a tough fight’.
Unlike the rest of Ukraine, which is primarily flat and open, the Crimean peninsula is largely separated from the mainland by what General Hertling describes as ‘marshland’ – a series of small islands with only two main roads that Ukrainian forces can use to attack it.
Even assuming that Russian forces are in bad shape by the time any assault comes, that still makes them extremely vulnerable and limits Kyiv’s options for how to go about the operation.
Several large explosions have rocked a military airbase in Russian-held Crimea this afternoon as an ominous mushroom cloud sent bathers fleeing from nearby beaches
A large mushroom cloud is seen rising from the scene of explosions at a Russian held airbase in Novofedorivka, Crimea
Smoke rises after explosions at a Russian military airbase near Novofedorivka, in occupied Crimea, August 9
‘When Russia invaded in 2014 they used mostly naval infantry and special operators to go into Crimea,’ General Hertling said. ‘Ukraine don’t have ships right now, they don’t have naval operations – so it is going to take some long-range [artillery] to go in there.
‘But you can’t take ground with just artillery, you have to have some people go in there on the ground to do that. It is going to be a tough fight.’
And Putin, General Hertling is certain, will put up a fight to keep Crimea – provided he is still the one at the helm.
‘If Mr Putin is still in power he will view [an attack on Crimea] as even more contentious than attacks in the other oblasts of Ukraine,’ he added. ‘We have not yet seen Russia use their strategic bomber fleet, we have not yet seen them use their naval forces to the extreme that they potentially could.
‘What you might ask is: Should we be as concerned about their air and their navy forces given how we’ve seen the disfunction in their ground forces? I would say probably. But they still have those available.’
General Hodges agreed, but believes that once Ukrainian artillery – particularly the devastating HIMARS systems – get within range of Russian bases in Crimea they will become ‘untenable’ and Putin will have ‘a choice’.
‘I think the Ukrainians will leave that big bridge up as an invitation to leave,’ General Hodges added.
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