FT: Ukraine’s daring “shaping operations” stretch Russian defences

    WORLD  30 May 2023 - 15:28

    Ukraine conducts "shaping operations" to mislead or divert the attention of the Russian command and to form a favourable backdrop for a counter-offensive.

    First, there was a mysterious drone strike on the Kremlin, according to The Financial Times.

    Ranging from symbolic strikes to more strategically significant attacks, these “shaping operations” form part of standard military practice.

    According to defence officials and analysts, the operations aim to deceive the enemy, meddle with its mindset and otherwise “shape” the battlefield before a large offensive.

    “Deception operations have always been part of the war, but now their effect is magnified by social media,” said John Spencer, a former US Army major who chairs urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute at West Point.

    “They are Ukrainian grey zone operations that require Russia to expend resources — be that troops or information operations. They’re like a magician’s sleight of hand: they deceive the viewer and force his attention elsewhere.”

    The explosion of two drones against the backdrop of the Kremlin’s golden dome on May 3, which Kyiv denied any responsibility for, was the first in Ukraine’s recent run of dramatic strikes.

    “A successful offensive starts with a successful psychological offensive,” a senior Ukrainian official said. “Their [Russian] morale is not at its highest level.”

    An equally bizarre event came on May 22 with an incursion by two Ukraine-backed groups of far-right partisans into the Russian border province of Belgorod, which the Ukrainian official said showed Russians that “their borders are not impenetrable”.

    Ukrainian social media lit up with memes that proclaimed the establishment of the “Belgorod People’s Republic”. In Russia, by contrast, the raid dismayed hardline military bloggers and led to heated criticism of the defence ministry by Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner paramilitary group which has spearheaded Russian attacks in the Donbas city of Bakhmut.

    In an hour-long video, Prigozhin lectured locals on how to set up better defences and said Russia needed to beef up its military presence on the border. After the region was reportedly hit by Ukrainian shelling on May 29, Belgorod’s governor said “we are living in a de facto state of war”.

    “The idea is to create a lot of dilemmas for the Russian command structure,” said Mike Martin, a former British army officer and author of How to Fight a War. “Problems — such as a breakthrough of the front line — focus attention. Dilemmas, by contrast, paralyse action.”

    The shaping operations seem to have had some psychological effect in Moscow. Commenting on the Belgorod incursion, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the war required “very difficult and tense work” that “constantly created questions”.

    On May 13 a huge explosion, possibly of an ammunition depot, also shook the western Ukraine city of Khmelnytsky, damaging schools, medical centres, apartment buildings and industrial facilities, according to the local mayor (opens a new window). The city’s air base was also struck on May 29.

    In addition, Russia has deployed its own information operations, such as spoofing the tracking data of commercial ships to create the impression of a 65km long Russian pro-war Z symbol (opens a new window) in the Black Sea. It has also built formidable defensive fortifications along the front line.

    Western officials caution it is far from clear how effective Ukraine’s counter-offensive will prove to be. But Ukraine will continue its shaping operations, combining them with precise attacks that seek to corrode Russian military assets and capabilities, they added.

    These may include long-range strikes using UK-supplied Storm Shadow cruise missiles, which Ukraine’s defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov has called “treats”, to drone attacks on what the senior Ukrainian official calls “fat targets” such as the reconnaissance ship Ivan Khurs.

    “They [the Ukrainians] are testing and probing and finding out what works and what doesn’t,” a senior Western official said. “The whole point of this counteroffensive is that neither Russia nor the [western allies] know when it has really begun, and what we’re seeing now is them forcing the Russians to keep second guessing.”

    From the Ukrainian point of view, that nervous uncertainty is key. Commenting on state television last week after the Belgorod raid, Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s national security chief, said: “They [the Russians] need to get used to it.”

    Caliber.Az

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