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Russia’s dilemma deepens as Ukraine escalates attacks

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In the 76th week of Russia’s ongoing conflict with Ukraine, the situation on the ground has taken a new turn as Ukraine’s tactics evolved, presenting Russia with a significant strategic dilemma. Bogged down in a cycle of small-scale infantry assaults and incremental territorial gains, Ukraine sought to gain an upper hand by launching attacks on Russian shipping at a distance. The week also witnessed Ukraine being accused of drone strikes targeting Moscow, further escalating tensions between the two nations.

Ukrainian Naval strikes and Moscow’s dilemma
One of the notable developments during this week was a drone attack by Ukraine on Russian naval assets. Drone footage released on August 4 depicted a Ukrainian surface drone approaching the Ropucha-class Russian landing ship, Olenegorsky Gornyak, before communication was lost at close range. The attack occurred outside Novorossiysk harbour, which had been considered a secure port on the eastern edge of the Black Sea. Russia had relocated much of its navy fleet to Novorossiysk after the sinking of its Black Sea flagship by Ukraine in May.

The incident raised a significant strategic question for Russia. Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategy at St Andrews University, highlighted the dilemma faced by Russia: should they deploy more surface assets to protect their tankers in the Black Sea, making these warships vulnerable targets, or should they attempt to attack the Ukrainian coast, which has proven lethal to Russian forces?

Naval strikes and infrastructure damage
Ukraine’s shift towards targeting naval assets and strategic infrastructure marks a new phase in the conflict. On the same night as the drone attack, Russia’s Ministry of Defence reported that two other surface drones were destroyed near Novorossiysk. Russian sources downplayed the damage, claiming that only a single compartment had been flooded and could be swiftly repaired. However, British military intelligence indicated that the severe listing of the Olenegorsky Gornyak suggested multiple breached compartments.

Subsequent to this, another Ukrainian surface drone targeted a Russian fuel tanker, causing severe damage. This tanker, identified as the SIG, had been under sanctions for supplying jet fuel to Russian forces in Syria. These strikes on military and commercial shipping in close proximity to Russian mainland ports appear to be a part of Ukraine’s broader strategy.

Strikes on Russian supply lines and retaliation
Ukraine continued its strategy of disrupting Russian supply lines deep in their rear areas. Using HIMARS, Ukraine targeted a group of Russian soldiers on a Crimean beach, aiming to weaken Russian equipment and personnel wherever the opportunity arose. Geolocated footage on August 4 showed Ukrainian drones striking close to an oil depot in Feodosia, Crimea. Russia claimed to have intercepted or destroyed all 13 Ukrainian drones, but these strikes reflect Ukraine’s efforts to disrupt Russian logistics.

In response, Russia launched a substantial missile barrage against Ukraine, which Ukraine’s general staff claimed to have successfully countered. This exchange of missile attacks demonstrates the intensification of the conflict and the complex dynamics at play.

The path ahead and International diplomacy
Despite Ukraine’s slow progress on various fronts due to Russian defenses, Ukrainian forces managed to make limited gains. The commander of Ukraine’s support forces highlighted the challenges posed by Russian minefields, trenches, and other defenses. The situation has brought Ukraine to a turning point, as it seeks to push Russian forces to breaking point through a combination of strategic tactics.

Ukraine has also been actively pursuing international diplomatic efforts to garner support and undermine Russia’s position. A 42-nation summit held in Riyadh saw diplomats from various countries, including some nominally aligned with Russia, calling on Russia to respect international principles and Ukrainian sovereignty. This diplomatic initiative indicates the mounting pressure on Russia from the international community.

As the conflict enters its 76th week, the evolving tactics, strikes on naval assets, and strategic infrastructure present Russia with a formidable challenge. The future trajectory of the conflict remains uncertain, but it is evident that Ukraine’s strategies have created a complex dilemma for Russia’s military leadership.

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