April 23, 2022
Eight years ago, a trio of Ukrainian army brigades fighting Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region made a fatal mistake. They idled their tanks and trucks around a static command post. Russian drones and eavesdroppers pinpointed the command post and blasted it with artillery. Today it’s the Russians who are making that same mistake—and the Ukrainians who are exploiting the error. In the two months since Russia widened its war on Ukraine, Kyiv’s forces have located and destroyed no fewer than 31 Russian command and communications posts. As many as 10 Russian generals have died in combat since Russia attacked on Feb. 23, many of them in the Ukrainians’ “decapitation” strikes.
The latest strike could be the most dramatic. Ukrainian forces on Friday reportedly destroyed the command post of the Russian 49th Combined Arms Army near Russian-occupied Kherson in southern Ukraine. According to the Ukrainian intelligence service, the attack killed two Russian generals and wounded a third.
These strikes alone won’t end the war. There’s no shortage of deputy commanders to take the place of the commanders who’ve died—and replacement leaders actually tend to be more aggressive and crueler than the established leaders they replace.
But blowing up a command post can confuse the subordinate units, temporarily leaving them vulnerable to a swift attack. As Ukraine continues mobilizing its reserves and re-equipping with Western-supplied weapons, Ukrainian counterattacks could become more frequent—and more decisive in rolling back Russian territorial gains in eastern and southern Ukraine.
Smashing a bunch of Russian HQs can only help those efforts. In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s strategic Crimean Peninsula in early 2014, Russian-backed separatists seized huge swathes of eastern Donbas.
In early July 2014, three ostensibly powerful Ukrainian army formations assembled near Zelenopillya, just a few miles from the Russian border, in preparation for an attack on rebel-held territory.
Three Ukrainian army brigades gathered at the encampment alongside a contingent of border guards. The 24th Mechanized Brigade, 72nd Mechanized Brigade and 79th Air-Mobile Brigade together possessed T-64 tanks, BMP fighting vehicles, engineering vehicles and trucks.
Russian drones spied on the camp. The Ukrainians managed to shoot down one Orlan-10 drone, but could not stop the Russians from pinpointing their location. On the morning of July 11, Russian forces hacked the Ukrainian command post’s network and jammed its radios. “At about 4:30 A.M., the Ukrainians lost the ability to communicate due to Russian cyber and electronic attack,” U.S. Army major Amos Fox explained in the winter 2019 edition of Armor, the official magazine of the Army’s tank branch. “The formations, prostrate and unable to communicate, were then ruthlessly attacked by Russian multiple-launch rockets and run-of-the-mill tube artillery.”
Thirty soldiers died along with six border guards and their commander. Two battalions worth of vehicles and equipment burned, according to Fox. “The attack crippled the assembled Ukrainian brigades.” “Armored formations are built for unencumbered activity,” Fox explained. “They are not meant to be tethered, whether digitally or physically, to static command posts.”
The Russian army clearly appreciated this principle back in 2014. Incredibly, it now appears to have forgotten it … and stubbornly refuses to relearn. Ukrainian forces lately have been blowing up Russian command posts as a matter of routine.
The Russians eight years ago used a combination of drones and phone- and radio-intercepts to pinpoint Ukrainian command posts. It’s not totally clear exactly how the Ukrainians are locating Russian headquarters in the current fighting.
Maybe they also rely on drones and intercepts. It’s worth noting, however, that the United States and other foreign powers have been flying around-the-clock intelligence sorties just outside Ukrainian air space—and presumably sharing the resulting intel with Ukraine.
A Royal Air Force RC-135 signals-intelligence plane was over the Black Sea, just 150 miles or so from Kherson, around the time of the attack on the 49th CAA headquarters.
The timing of the Friday decapitation raid is interesting. As the Kremlin focuses its efforts around Izium, on the northwestern edge of Donbas, Russian lines around Kherson have grown fragile. And Ukraine is building up its own forces in the region, apparently planning for an operation aimed at liberating Kherson.
If two generals indeed did die in the destruction of the 49th CAA’s headquarters, expect the Russians swiftly to replace them. Also expect the Ukrainians to continue blowing up command posts around Kherson as they prepare for a possible counteroffensive.
The Ukrainian army clearly appreciates just how disruptive the loss of an HQ can be. After all, it learned the hard way.