29th Sep 2023


Covert operations may be needed, as Ukraine death toll mounts

  • "A no-fly zone requires achieving total air superiority," Jamie Shea, a former Nato official said (Photo: Air Combat Command)
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Faced with the prospect of civilian massacres on their eastern doorstep, Nato and the EU may need to resort to covert military operations as options narrow amid the Russian onslaught against Ukraine.

With 2,000 civilian deaths in the past week of fighting, according to an assessment Wednesday by Ukraine's emergency service, and with that number growing by the hour, there are fears that brutal sieges of Ukrainian cities may be among the horrors that lie in store.

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Russia, the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, said on Wednesday, had already carried out "war crimes", as reports circulated of deadly strikes on residential areas and medical facilities in the cities of Kharkiv, Mariupol and Kherson.

Nato countries still were delivering anti-tank, anti-aircraft missiles and drones to Ukraine on Wednesday, and they also were aiming to deliver low and high-calibre automatic weapons, cannons, and mortars.

But experts now see a window of opportunity closing.

Shipments would become harder to get to front-line positions as Russian forces cut off and encircled Ukrainian cities in the east, north and south requiring a shift in allied tactics, if not immediately, then soon.

Western allies may need to resort to "special operations forces" and to engage in "covert activities to train and direct local Ukrainian forces and volunteers," said Jaime Shea, Nato's former deputy assistant secretary general for emerging security challenges.

Such under-the-radar activities also could include Western "psyops operations to target the morale of Russian forces" and even "covert drone strikes," said Shea, now professor of strategy and security at the University of Exeter in the UK.

"Risky, but doing nothing to help is risky too," he said.

Letting the Ukrainian air force use bases in Poland or Romania to refuel and launch attacks on Russian forces was among the options that were being discussed in expert circles.

But allied efforts had already shifted to a more covert phase, with no more public US or Nato intelligence releases on Russian military moves, said Keir Giles, the senior Russia fellow at Chatham House, a British think-tank.

Nato countries were also likely to be helping Ukraine with intelligence-sharing and cyber-defence, and by jamming Russian signals, he said.

Even so the Russian campaign was rapidly developing in ways "eerily familiar" to Russian president Vladimir Putin's deadly siege of Grozny, in Chechnya in 1999, he said.

"We need to prepare for a humanitarian catastrophe now," said Giles. "We have to assist Ukraine in holding out as long as possible, but with eyes wide open to what this will mean for the Ukrainian population."

One of the most ominous elements of the Russian operation is the 60-km long column of Russian armour slowly moving on Kyiv that has stirred fears of a long war of attrition on the Ukrainian capital.

Russia already was cutting off food, water, and UN access to Ukrainian cities in what amounted to "medieval" siege tactics, said Orysia Lutsevych, a Ukrainian expert at Chatham House.

Russia was also expected to expand use of jamming and electronic warfare, further plunging Ukrainian people into isolation.

French president Emmanuel Macron has been trying to keep channels open with Moscow but it was "utterly useless" for the West to offer Putin face-saving deals or off-ramps so long as "he thinks he's winning" on the battlefield, Giles warned.

Ukraine had earlier called for Nato countries to enforce a no-fly zone, to prevent Russian aircraft from bombing civilians.

And, according to Giles, a no-fly zone might have still been possible "a couple of weeks ago," when Nato jets could still have deployed in "peaceful skies" as a deterrence measure.

But for Shea, a no-fly zone was never an option.

"A no-fly zone requires achieving total air superiority," said Shea, who explained that such an operation would have entailed targeting Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile bases in Russia and Belarus, and installing anti-drone and Patriot anti-missile systems in Ukraine.

That, in turn, would require Nato ground troops for technical support, said Shea. "So, not easy to do" and the kind of steps by Nato that "implies readiness to go to war with Russia."

That is precisely the dilemma facing Western allies, who, amid the moral outrage, must carefully calibrate their intervention to avoid giving Russia a pretext for escalation beyond Ukraine's borders.

Moscow on Wednesday repeated its warnings of a nuclear confrontation and said that even a cyber attack taking any of its satellites offline would be "a casus belli, a cause for war."

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