Battleground: Ukraine

A history podcast that explores the narratives, turning points and characters that shape conflicts, encompassing a blend of social and military history. Following on from the series on the Falklands War, best-selling military historians Patrick Bishop, and Saul David turn their attention to the war in Ukraine.

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46. 'Invisible' Russian Tanks

46. 'Invisible' Russian Tanks

Fri, 28 Apr 2023 00:00

This week Patrick and Saul discuss the latest developments as Russia prepares to defend the territory it holds in eastern Ukraine against Ukraine’s expected counteroffensive. This includes the latest round of sackings and promotions at the top, and an announcement that T-14 Armata tanks – the most sophisticated that the Russians have – are being sent to the battlefield. They also answer a host of fascinating listeners questions.

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Hello and welcome to Battleground Ukraine with me Patrick Bishop and Saul David. Well this week we see more maneuvering as Russia prepares to defend the territory it holds in eastern Ukraine against Ukraine's expected counteroffensive. That involves sacking and promotions at the top and an announcement that T-14 are marked at tanks to most sophisticated they've got are being sent to the battlefield. There's also been an assessment from the Ukrainian side that the Russians have given up hope of taking any more territory and, apart from continuing their operations around back moot, are now thoroughly on the defensive. That would seem to be borne out by British intelligence reports that Russian casualties have declined by a third in the last month. Yeah, now this is mostly coming from Major General Kyrilov Budanov, the head of the intelligence directorate at the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence. And he said Putin's forces have completely switched to positional defence everywhere. The only places on the front line he says where they're making attempts are in the impact mode and have deep gaff, attacking from the north and this localized fighting in the town of Moringa. He says that they haven't changed their tactics they're just doing what they're trying to do in back moot, which is to wipe the settlements off the face of the earth. That's where they're doing things. Now Budanov did reference the Ukrainian upcoming counterattack. He didn't give any details and that's hardly surprising. But he did say it would be a landmark battle in Ukraine's history. Well, that's selling the bar quite high. Well, Saul, I think we've done quite enough speculation on that front. So let's just wait and see how they've got further kind of speculations about where and how it might come. No, I mean, there are even the odd hints for a trick that actually has already begun with this sort of counter-battery fire on the eastern bank of the Denebro. But anyway, we'll update next week as we see how that turns out. Budanov, you mentioned, he did go on to do a bit of speculation of his own about saying that Putin and his military must be facing a lot of pressure at home as heavy losses failed to stack up to any major gains in what was originally presented, as we all know, and is still being presented as a special military operation that implies short-termism. I quote now against the backdrop of the lack of success elsewhere, they face the problem that even their deceived society needs to see something, some kind of victory. You know, deceived is good word as never the way that the Russian State Propaganda works. So we've already seen some objects from the Russian side trying to create some positive propaganda. And this announcement about the sending T-14 armata tanks rolling towards the battlefield as we speak, which they claim are more than a match for the challenges, leopards and the clerks that have been sent by Britain, Germany, Poland and France. Now these armatas have been around for a while as their designation would suggest they win as the production in 2015. They claim to have all sorts of refinements. It's meant to be the first invisible tank because it's supposedly undetectable by radar emissions, et cetera, on the battlefield. It's also much better protection for the crew than on the old kit that there's no one actually inside the turret. And they actually, the crew sit in an isolated armoured capsule in the front of the hull, which would be good news for the men inside. This begs the obvious question, doesn't it, so if they're so great, where haven't they used them before? Well, they sound good in theory, don't they? But that might really be all there is to it talk. They were meant to be part of Putin's big $250 billion military upgrade program. But the armata has been 11 years in development and the whole program for building them has been dogged with delays, reduction in plan, fleet size and reports of manufacturing problems. And one even broke down during a parade in Moscow. It's also larger and heavier than other Russian tanks, which could pose logistical problems. And they don't seem to be many of them, tens rather than hundreds. So the question is, can they take on Western MBTs? My opinion, Patrick, I very much doubt it. Apparently, they're not being used in the front line, but rather for indirect fire. And another alarming report is that they've had extra armor fitted to their flanks, which hardly inspires confidence. And what I'm feeling is that they'll play a relatively negligible role in the battles to come. Right now, what about these command changes? The one that struck me as the most interesting concern this Admiral Sergei Avyakianz, who was, but is no longer the commander of the Russian Pacific Fleet. Mill bloggers are saying he was removed when he tried to prevent more of his special marine units, elite highly trained units, supposedly, being thrown into Ukraine battle. And if we think back to February, remember that story is all about the, I think it was 1555 special marine brigade. It lost 600 dead in Bouladar and in February. And what was effectively in massacre, which was widely publicized on the Ukrainian side. So it does seem highly likely that any decent commander would say, you're not having any more of my guys if you can't use them properly. But the official line, of course, is that he's going into honorable retirement after some lifetime good service. I did a wish to believe. I'd like to believe it's the former. Yeah. He's not the only casualty of the Bouladar battle, actually, Patrick. Another big name is Colonel General Rostar Muradar. I mean, we were mentioned before, but we've now had absolute confirmation from the Kremlin that he's been sacked as commander of the Eastern military district. Why he was sacked has come from a mill blogger linking it to the disastrous offensive around Bouladar. Another guy, forcing to early retirement is General Alexander Vornekov, who's said to have commanded all Russian forces in Ukraine in April of last year. And according to the same mill blogger, the Kremlin is now relying on the newly reappointed commander of airborne forces, needless to say, here, the earlier being sacked. Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky to achieve decisive results. Well, good luck with that. I should add that Teplinsky is close to brygoshin, the Vagna boss, but the big point here is that the constant churn of senior commanders is not a sign that things are going well. So the kind of confusion on the battlefield seems to be intensifying on the kind of private military contractor front. So we've had all these shenanigans with Vagna and Prygoshin. And I'll add it to the mix. He's now complaining about these other PMC's private military contractors. There's one called Reddute, which is now kind of apparently sending men in there and inevitably there's friction between them and the Vagna people and on top of that, perhaps with the regular army. Although just to confuse the picture further, this Reddute outfit seems to be connected to Gazprom, you know, the huge state energy company. And it actually operates under the Ministry of Defense. So it all has the general picture of disorganization. But having said that, I don't want to get over optimistic about what's going to happen next, but it would seem to me that it's less necessary to have a smoothly running battle machine when you're in defense and when you're actually on the offensive. So maybe they can ride this out. Well, a bit optimistic in my view. I mean, I think the first important point to make about the disarray among the Russian senior commanders in this constant churn is that it's not happening in the Ukrainian army. We've actually got a question on the identity of, you know, some of the key players, which will come on to. So I won't repeat that now. But it is interesting that most of the senior people have been in position from before the war started. And you know, generally speaking, Patrick, we get back to the Second World War when things aren't going well as a constant churn. We mentioned that before in the desert. Also, Hitler's commanders started to be sacked when things weren't going so well on the Eastern front. When you keep the same guys, it's because you're happy with their performance. And I think there's good reason for the Ukrainian politicians, Zelensky and others, to be very happy with the performance of their senior guys. On that point, we know more about the Russian commanders than we do about the Ukrainian ones. Which is quite an extraordinary state of affairs. For example, how many people could actually name the head of the Ukrainian armed forces? It is, in fact, Valerie Zaluzni, who's very kind of a camera shy. He gives the odd interview, but he's very self-facing. And I think that's a deliberate policy where they're focusing a world's attention on the president, Mr. Zelensky, and not allowing the picture to be diluted by introducing other characters into the picture. No matter how much they might actually deserve the credit for what is going on, when the war ends, it might be a different matter. But I think the time being, that's a good way of handling their sort of information strategy. Yeah, I think it's also partly down to national character, actually, Patrick. I mean, I don't know the absolute ins and outs of whether this is fairly typical, but you kind of get a sense that we heard this from the big interview on Wednesday. There's a kind of steely determination among Ukrainians, but their senior commanders are just professionals getting on with their job. It's not about a personality cult. It's not a kind of Montgomery Patton scenario, whereas a lot of ego and ability, but a lot of ego too. You just get the idea that these guys are cool professionals going about their business, and obviously, as the weeks develop, the next few weeks, we'll see how accurate that assessment is. Johnny, you should mention Patton, there's all, because we've got an image of a centrist by Emir Kruppich, who featured last week. He's one of our listeners from the former Yugoslavia originally, now living in Ukraine. He sent us an image of George Patton, a general George Patton, doing the rounds on the internet apparently, this image, accompanied by his quote, famous or infamous, according to taste, that quote, the Russian has no regard for human life and is an all-out son of a bitch, Bob Ehrin, and chronic drunk. This was said, I think, in about 1944 and 1945. I actually looked up the original quote, and it's a bit full of them that. The whole quote actually says what we don't do, I'm just paraphrasing, when we consider Russians is that we don't remember their not European, but they're asiatic, and I'm quoting now, therefore, thinks deviously, we can no more understand a Russian than a Chinaman or a Japanese, and from what I've seen to them, I have no particular desire to understand them, except to ascertain how much lead or iron it takes to kill them, and then it goes on to that Russian quote. So I think that says a hell of a lot about George Patton. He's one of these people that you kind of want on your side in battle, but you certainly don't want him anywhere near peacetime policy. And there were a few of those in the American military at that time, and thinking of Curtis LeMay, the Air Force general, who was as bloodthirsty as Patton, if not more, Douglass MacArthur. There was sort of Meglemaniacs, and the antithesis of thank God the man who was in charge Dwight Eisenhower, who I believe you're actually kind of researching at the moment, right, you saw. I am. I'm not going to go into the full details of the book itself, but I'm currently believe it or not in Abelene, Kansas, the Eisenhower Library, or at least I have been for the last couple of days, just finished research here. I mean, I really am in the middle of nowhere. They've still got a kind of makeshift Western town high street. We're complete with jail and saloon. And apparently while Bill Hickock, you know, at the height of his fame in the late 19th century was the sheriff here, which would give you a sense of the potential lawlessness that there was in Abelene. But yeah, I mean, I completely different character and the reason he was so good, not a battlefield commander, as we probably mentioned before on the show, but a brilliant kind of operator, brilliant political general who could keep everyone in order. I mean, he wasn't, you know, incapable of detail himself. It worked, of course, for the Americans in the operations section of the ward department. So he knew about planning. He was very good at that side of things, but actually tactically controlling troops in battle where there were elements of the early fighting in Tunisia, particularly during Casserine, where he probably put a foot or two wrong. But after all, he was his first time in charge of, you know, large numbers of troops. But slowly, but surely he got his act together and so did the Americans for that matter. But yes, Pant was great in battle. They used to bring him in when things were going badly wrong, but he kept putting his foot in it. And I think you're absolutely right, Patrick. A man with some pretty tubious views about the world. But it is interesting that quote about the Russians. It certainly is. Yeah, of course, he went on to say Pant, that they fought the wrong enemy. And it should have been the inference being that they should have been going after the Soviets, he was actually, you know, surprisingly kind of forgiving about the Nazis. And I think a lot of people have seized on that. You know, why didn't they go all the way as Pant suggested in after taking Berlin, of course, that would have been completely impossible for all sorts of geopolitical reasons. But we won't go into that. Sounds like where you are in Abelene is what the in the Balkans, they would call it a book or Yebina, which means where wolves copulate, IE, the middle of nowhere. I used to hear that a lot when we were covering the Balkan wars back in the early 90s. Brilliant, Patrick. I'll remember that. Okay, that's all we have time for now. Join us after the break when we'll try and answer as many questions as possible. Experience the trip of a lifetime with history travel. Explore unique places inspired by the most fascinating events in people of the past with world-renowned historians and local experts as your guide. Go to and sign up today to receive $500 off per person on international trips and $250 off on domestic trips by using promo code podcast 23 in the special request section of your booking. History travel is created and managed by academic travel abroad. Doctors cannot be combined with other savings. Welcome back. We're now going to go through some of your questions. Some really interesting topics been thrown up this week. We're going to start off with one from Andrew Roberts. It's not our old friend Andrew Roberts, I don't think because he says he's from the UK is living in South Korea. He says he's all in Patrick. I have a question about trench warfare tactics. Given the First World War was over 100 years ago, half military tacticians worked out a way for a deadlock to be broken in the trenches. Well, I'll start off on this one because I've just seen some very interesting footage from reporting from Ukraine, this brilliant website you can see on YouTube which we've referenced a few times before. And this latest report is from the Kremovay sector of the back-mote front. So showing an infantry or describing an infantry attack on some just lists and some Russian trenches. And what's fascinating is that before the attack goes in, apparently the tactic is to send in drones that deliver just literally hand grenades into the trenches but with great accuracy. And then they're followed up by suicide drones. And then the infantry arrived to actually clear out the trenches and take care of anyone who's still there. So that's one very kind of clever, it seems to me, use of new technology, overcoming this problem of taking a trench which if it's probably, if any, before these drones came along, it could be a much bloodier, more costly exercise. Yeah. And actually the means of capturing trenches haven't really changed that much. Patrick, since the early days. So the question is, yes, they have developed stuff like the drones but it's still a question of softening up the defenders with artillery fire. And then going in with as much protection as possible, which is what the armored vehicles and the tanks are for, you suppress any strong points. You use engineers to bridge the trenches if they're particularly broad. I mean, some of them will be small enough for the tanks to just roll straight over the top of probably crushing one or two people inside in a kind of horrific consequence for infantrymen. But you know, there's going to be a lot of this in the weeks to come. And I suspect these, these relatively thin trench lines that have been dug, we're not talking about sophisticated trench lines of the first world war, are not going to prove to be that big an obstacle for some of the Ukrainian armor. The all arms brigades that we've been promised are about to go into action. Okay, we've got a nice question from Denmark. That's Martin Anderson. He asks, in the war, we've seen plenty of urban fighting, latest in the ongoing battle of back moot. But with the Ukrainian offensive coming out, what are the chances that they're offensive? It's going to center around cities. It seems costly for Ukraine to be fighting in such places. And is that likely he's really asking, well, I think there's a quick answer to that. And no, it's not likely. I mean, the interesting thing about the urban fighting is that the Russians seem determined to take cities as a kind of symbolic value. But in terms of strategy, they don't have a lot of use. What you really want to do is bypass cities. And then they come under siege and you starve them out, but you don't actually reduce them to rubble and you don't assault them. So I suspect what the Ukrainians are going to be doing in the weeks to come is by looking for the thin crust, looking for the weak positions and they're not going to be in the cities. So they will bypass a lot of these cities or at least get to the cities and seal them off. That seems to be the most likely scenario. Yeah, we said we weren't going to do it, but we can't stop us, can we? Now, I'm just going to read this out from David Gail from working in the UK. And he's going back to something we mentioned a little while ago about the fact that the UK is sending seeking helicopters to Ukraine. And we were both talking about it. And we were stumped trying to think of an aircraft that was still in service after that length of time. I mean, the Seekings go back at least over probably 50 years. And David says, I'm sure I'm not the only person who's contacted you to mention the B-52 Stratto Fortress. The last one was produced in 1962. This is giant American bomber. The last one was produced all those years ago. What's that? We're coming up to 60 years. 61 years ago. But with endless upgrades, he says to its power plants and avionics, the B-52 is set to remain in service into the 2050s. A hundred and thirty years after it first flew. Well, that's great for letting you reminding us all, well, I didn't know that. So I'd forgotten. So yeah, thanks very much for pointing that out, David. OK, we've got a question here from John. It's about prisoners of war, do non-state competence, i.e. Wagner, et cetera, enjoy the same protection under the Geneva Convention as regular groups? And if not, how could this be exploited by Ukraine? Not quite sure what he means by exploited in terms of can they get away with treating them worse? I mean, generally speaking, we've made the point Patrick that Ukraine is treating its prisoners of war well. But do you know where mercenaries come into the equation in a legal sense? Well, I think there's something called the law of armed conflict. And that says that if you don't have to be a state soldier, if you like, to qualify for the rules concerning prisoners as stated by the, well, the 1949 Geneva Convention, I think, is the relevant one. But to do that, so there are these criteria, which allow for a fighting force which isn't a state force to be properly treated. But for that, that fighting force has to fulfill certain criteria, which means that it basically operates in a reasonably civilized way, and so far as that is possible in war. And I would argue that Wagner very definitely don't fall within those criteria. But having said that, I haven't heard anything from Ukraine that they're not being accorded the same status when captured as a regular army, Russian soldier would. Okay, another interesting one from Joseph K. This is not so much a question as a kind of response to earlier comments we've made. He's a political economist, and he's interested in the magnitude of Western economic and military support for Ukraine, which has been and remains vital for its survival against Russian aggression. We agree with that. He says that on the podcast, it's often portrayed as the West is providing massive support, and there's a serious risk of it declining. Absolutely true. We have made that point many times. And Joseph's view, he's not sure that's correct, as one economic historian Adam Tuznod, Western support for Ukraine is very modest in a historical context. Only one country in the Western Alliance is spending more than 1% of GDP on bilateral commitments, and that's Estonia. While the US spends a lower percentage of its GDP on this war than it did in the war in Afghanistan. So, Joseph's broader point here is actually the West should be doing a lot more. We shouldn't be worrying about it decline. We should be encouraging it to spend more of its cash. He goes on to say Germany is only spending a third of what it spent as a percentage of GDP towards the 1991 Gulf War. This would have substantial impacts on the conflict if it were realized and the money was up. So, this is really a call from Joseph to increase the spending because there are historical reasons why it could be a lot higher. Thanks so much for that, Joseph. That's a really interesting insight. Yeah, no, absolutely completely agree with that. Not one here from Joe Hutchinson, who's a Brit living in the Netherlands, and he describes a conversation he had with a friend of his from Brazil who he thought echoed the views of quite a lot of people in the Southern Hemisphere, I would say. And that is that while there is sympathy for Ukraine, there's also a great deal of hostility towards the United States. So, the fact that the United States is so forcefully on the Ukrainian side is almost a reason I'm extrapolating a bit from what he's saying, a reason for being sort of dubious and halfhearted in seeing it in the very sort of black and white but certainly very much right on one side and wrong on the other that we tend to view it from. And so, he's really saying with our eyes on the war in Ukraine and our support for the US's role, do you think it's easy for us as Westerners to lose sight of the damage that's been done by American interventionism over the years and its impact on today's geopolitical climate? Well, I do sympathize with the view that your friend is expressing, having seen, you know, up close, the effects of American intervention in the Second Gulf War and in Afghanistan, they certainly didn't leave Iraq or Afghanistan better than they found it, which surely is a point of any intervention. I think it was, in the case of Afghanistan, the whole point of the operation was this place to start off with. They could have very easily contained the Taliban as indeed happened with the first Gulf War where the George Bush senior took the very sensible decision that the best policy was to contain what was going on in there to put Saddam Hussein back in his books, if you like, and to leave the Iraqis to sort out their future by themselves. The Second Gulf War was absolutely disastrous apart from the military success, very brief moment of satisfaction there of the Americans and everything that came after, not just for them, but mostly for the people of Iraq. And indeed, the wide world was disastrous and continues to play a sort of malign role in the end of politics of that region. So yeah, I mean, I think you'd probably agree with me at least all, but don't do so if you don't, one would say about Americans is that their intentions are often almost not invariably, but frequently that they go into these places with the best intentions. And certainly the 21st century interventions, those good intentions have very rarely actually come to any sort of fruition. Yeah, and exactly right. And we need to remember the times when they really did come up with the goods the first and the Second World War. And also contrast it, Patrick, frankly, with the very bad intentions of this kind of ruthless aggression simply to take over territory that's been displayed, of course, by the Nazis and the in the Second World War. And and and Russia now. So there is an important distinction, although we do get your broader point. And thank you for making it. Well, I mentioned that someone had asked about the key figures apart from Zelensky, almost as though all we ever hear about is Zelensky. And you you kind of backed that up, Patrick by saying the command is very much kept in the background, but they are an impressive bunch. And I'm just going to name a couple of them. You mentioned Zolushni. He's actually commander in chief of the Ukrainian armed forces. So that's all their military, not just the army. There's another guy who's I'd never heard this name before. So he's highly appeared in the press left and in general, Sergey Shaptala. He's actually chief of the general staff. Now in our army, that of course would be the senior commander, but there's a kind of division of responsibility. He's obviously the chief admin guy in charge of organization, whereas the tactical commander and strategic commander in the field or operational is Zolushni. And then of course, he's got his subordinate commander, one of who, again, very highly regarded as a man called Alexander, or Alexander Sersky. He's commander of the ground forces of the armed forces of Ukraine and commander of the Eastern group. So Sersky is going to be absolutely crucial in the coming counteroffensive. And then you've also mentioned him, Patrick, another guy who's regarded very highly, Kirolo Budanov, their chief of military intelligence. So these are the four key people. And as I said before, they've all been there since the before the war. Quite so. I think we'll be hearing more about them in the months to come. So yeah, I think the personalities are beginning to kind of impact a little weeper on what we know and think about the war. And I'm just going to ask one here from Jamie, who says, dear Patrick and Saul, you're going to explicit detail about Russian war crimes. And as we all know, in war crimes are committed by all sides. So why don't you mention Ukrainian war crimes? What is the reason for you only giving one side? Well, it was me that was talking specifically about the crimes of the Wagner group last week. And to answer you, Jamie, I would say that I think that yes, of course there are crimes committed by the Ukrainians. As you rightly say, this goes on in all war. But I would say that the balance of atrocities is massively tilted towards the Russia relations. And there are reasons for this. One is that we often go on about this. It's a very, very important point, which is that the Ukrainians are held to a higher standard than the Russians. Western support depends on them behaving in a civilized fashion as one can in war. And they're very aware of this. There have been occasions when misdeeds have come to light. And that is because the reason they've actually seen the light of day is because there's independent media operating in Ukraine, which that absolutely isn't in Russia. Going back to the Wagner war crimes, you may remember that last week I mentioned some interviews that were given by returning Wagner personnel to a human rights organization in Russia called Gulagunet. Now one of the guys who gave evidence about murdering children, et cetera, in an interview to Gulagunet has now been arrested. And there's no more detail than that. But I wonder whether he's being arrested for the crimes that he more or less admitted to or because he revealed them. The thing about Russia is that we could be either and we don't know. OK, that's all we have time for. Join us again next Wednesday for the begin to view when we'll have another brilliant guest. And also, of course, Friday, when we'll be giving you the latest news and answering list and questions, you'll buy. February the 24th, 2022, a date none of us will ever forget. In Vladimir Putin unleashed his military power in Ukraine, the Russian despot thought he would storm Kiev and leave Europe cowering in his shadow. Instead, a year later, Ukraine has become a by word for heroism and Russia's military reputation is in tatters. How did this happen? How did we get here? And how might it end? I'm Arthur Snell, and in the new series of my podcast, Doomsday Watch, we're going to tell the story of the Ukraine War. That's Doomsday Watch, The Ukraine War. Out now with new episodes every Wednesday. Listen wherever you get your podcasts.