As the Russian war in Ukraine dragged into its ninth month, the military’s weaknesses became more apparent and its apparent reliance on Iranian support grew stronger.
Ukrainian civilians fend off attacks, widely believed to be carried out with Iranian-made Shahed-136 “suicide” drones, despite Tehran’s urging otherwise, and Ukrainian forces are taking more territory to the south and east.
Meanwhile, US lawmakers and the French president — more on these developments later in this report — appear to be sending mixed signals about their determination to continue supporting Ukraine.
Also in the past week, Russian troops have thrashed Bakhmut in the east, without breaching the defenses of Ukraine.
In the Luhansk region, Ukrainian forces have reportedly captured a highway connecting Kreminna to Svatove, two towns that open up the road to Starobilsk, an important logistics center.
Attempts by Russian forces to recapture the offensive in Kharkov, where they recently lost more than 8,000 square kilometers of ground, were ineffective. Ukrainian troops say they have now recaptured 544 settlements in the region, 32 of which are still occupied.
In Kherson, in the south, where Russian forces have reportedly gathered 45 tactical battalion groups, the next major – and potentially crucial – action is expected to be fought.
According to Kiev, Russian forces have dug crossroads and bridges across the Dnieper River in anticipation of a Ukrainian counterattack.
“Engineering and sapper units of the Russian occupying forces are mining the [east bank of the Dnieper River]leaving small passageways for a possible withdrawal of their troops from the right bank,” said the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
The staff said Russia had sent 2,000 newly mobilized personnel to oversee the evacuation of doctors, teachers and bankers from western Kherson.
Russia’s Tass news agency reported that Moscow forces were preparing the city of Kherson for street fighting, while “authorities” evacuated doctors, teachers and bankers from the wider area.
“All citizens of Kherson must leave the city immediately… all departments and ministries of civil administration must cross over to the left bank of the Dnieper today,” the city’s occupation administration said in a message on the Telegram channel on Oct. 22.
According to Moscow, about 70,000 have fled Kherson so far. Ukraine says the evacuations could be better described as forced deportations to Russia or occupied territories.
The head of Ukrainian intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, told Ukraine’s Pravda that he believes the city of Kherson will likely be taken by the end of the year.
A counter-offensive on August 29 has already recaptured more than 500 square kilometers of the region, and Russian preparations now seem focused on defense and flight.
Ukraine’s military intelligence reported that Russia was mining the locks and engine rooms of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant on the Dnieper River.
The Institute for the Study of War said Russian troops would likely blow up the dam to cover their retreat.
Budanov said partially blowing up the dam would flood West Kherson and delay a Ukrainian advance by two weeks, mainly because the dam no longer functions as a bridge and transport artery.
Russia is running out of missiles and ammunition, Western and Ukrainian sources say.
“Terror with the use of Shahed [drones] might still be around for a long time,” Budanov said, as Russia had ordered 1,700 of the supposedly Iranian-made weapons — though not all of them were built.
“But with the use of missiles – no, because the reserves are almost exhausted. About 13 percent [of stocks] remain for Iskanders, about 43 percent for Kalibr-PL, Kalibr-NK missiles and about 45 percent for Kh-101 and Kh-555 missiles. It is generally very dangerous to go below 30 percent because [that is] the intact reserve,” he said.
Ukraine said that, in addition to drones, Iran is considering providing Russia with Fateh-110 and Zulfighar missiles, which approach the Iskander missile. The purchase would be in the dozens of missiles.
The New York Times reported that Russia had moved S-300s from Syria to Ukraine, suggesting there is even a shortage of these ammunition believed to be widely available.
Meanwhile, Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin has criticized Russia’s handling of the war in talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Washington Post reported.
The Russian armed forces have provided the Wagner Group with poor weapons and money, despite their increasing reliance on it, especially in the east, the paper said.
Ukraine’s military intelligence said some 8,000 Wagner mercenaries were active on Ukrainian soil, the majority of whom had been recruited from Russian prisons.
Unable to capture or maintain territory, Russia continued to bomb Ukraine’s infrastructure from the air, mainly using the Iranian “kamikaze” drones that Iran officially denies supplying.
Budanov said the attacks were aimed solely at civilian infrastructure.
Russian lawmaker Andrey Gurulyov explained the strategy on Russian television.
“The absence of electricity means the absence of water, the absence of refrigerators, the absence of sewage. A week after all electricity is cut, the city of Kiev is swimming in the s***. There will be a clear threat of an epidemic,” Gurulyov said.
“We have to shut down the control centers. We are in the digital age. Data centers with servers control Ukraine’s railways and energy supply systems, as well as banking systems and a currency that prints the money,” Gurulyov said, predicting a “flow of refugees to the western borders.”
But this air campaign doesn’t seem to be going according to plan.
After the initial shock of the loss of power and urban water pumping facilities targeted by drone strikes and missiles, Ukrainians sprang into action, claiming to restore 253 of the 580 damaged energy infrastructure facilities.
An October 24 poll revealed an undiminished will; 86 percent of Ukrainians told the Kiev International Institute of Sociology they wanted to keep fighting despite attacks on civilians.
Even among Russian speakers, 66 percent voted to continue the war. Overall, only 10 percent of Ukrainians said negotiations should begin to stop the bombing of cities.
In addition, Ukraine’s air defenses managed to reduce the threat.
Budanov estimated that by October 22, air defenses had shot down two-thirds of the 330 Shahed-136 drones.
The Ukrainian General Staff figures for that day were typical of Ukraine’s success rate. Russia fired 40 missiles and 16 reported Shahed-136 drones. Ukraine shot down 20 of the missiles and 11 of the UAVs.
Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuri Ignat said the German-supplied IRIS-T air defense system had performed well under attack, providing initial confirmation that supplies received on October 11 and commissioned on October 17 were effective.
Defense Secretary Oleksii Reznikov said he expected air defenses to be greatly strengthened in the next two months with the arrival of new systems, as US President Joe Biden reportedly considered speeding up the shipment of Hawk interceptor missiles to Ukraine.
Ukraine’s spirit contrasted with mixed signals from its key allies.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who has supplied Caesar howitzers and promised Crotale air defenses, told an audience in Rome that “the prospect of peace exists, when Ukraine comes to such a decision”, suggesting that Ukraine should exchange land for peace.
In Washington, a group of 30 liberal US lawmakers wrote to Biden urging him to open direct negotiations with Moscow.
The letter caused Democrats to appear divided in their support for Ukraine days ahead of the US midterm elections on Nov. 8, and the signatories withdrew the letter after 24 hours.
The appeal came days after Republican House minority group leader Kevin McCarthy appeared to suggest his party would cut military aid to Ukraine if it won a majority.
“I think people will be in a recession and they don’t want to write a blank check to Ukraine. They just won’t do it,” he said in an interview.
In contrast, a clear signal of support for Ukraine came from Italy’s first female leader, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, a right-wing populist campaigning for the need to cut energy costs increased by the war.
“Anyone who thinks it is possible to trade the freedom of Ukraine for our peace of mind is wrong,” she told parliament in her maiden speech. “Giving in to Putin’s blackmail on energy would not solve the problem, it would make it worse.”