The hot autumn

Text: Miro Barič

Photo: Maxar Technologies

In the previous section, we dealt mainly with the Ukrainian offensives in Kherson and Kharkiv regions. Furthermore, in the period from October 1 to November 1, a great deal happened in Ukraine. In addition to the ongoing ground counter-offensive, there have been attacks on the Kerch bridge linking occupied Crimea with Russia and on the naval base at Sevastopol. Russia, for its part, is attacking Ukraine’s energy infrastructure from afar, but is pulling up short on the front.


We left operations in Ukraine in the previous part of this series when the Armed Forces of Ukraine entered Lyman in the northeast of the country on October 1. After several successful operations in the Kharkiv region, Ukrainian troops paused for a while to replenish forces, resupply and, last but not least, to collect captured equipment left behind by fleeing enemies. This allowed the Russian side time to consolidate as well and fighting in the region thus continued with alternating success throughout November along the road between Svatove and Kreminna.

Stiff fighting also took place over Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, which the Russians have been trying in vain to capture since August. A Wagner’s mercenary group is very active there. The Russian advance has been extremely slow, despite great efforts. On Monday October 24, the Ukrainians even launched a successful local counter-attack and temporarily pushed the Russians out of the factories on the eastern outskirts of the city.

Most of this, however, took place in the south of Ukraine. On the very next day after the liberation of Lyman, on the opposite side of the front line, Ukrainian troops also moved in Kherson Oblast. They attacked from two directions on October 2, and along the Dnieper River they managed to break through the front lines. In two days, they advanced about 40 km and liberated dozens of villages. From several of them Russians preferred to withdraw as they were in danger of being surrounded.


Putin’s pride down

The Kerch Bridge explosion early on Thursday morning, October 6, posed major problems for supplies to Russian troops in southern Ukraine. This bridge from Russia to occupied Crimea was under construction between 2016 and 2019 and was opened personally by Russian President Putin. The road section is 16.9 km long and the railway section is 18.1 km long.

To this day, it is unclear what exactly happened to the bridge. According to the Russian side, a truck that was crossing towards Crimea exploded. They documented this with both video and X-ray footage showing a semi-trailer loaded with explosives. However, two things do not fit in the Russian version – the different number of axles of the truck on the video and on the X-ray image, plus the logic does not fit, either – why would anyone let onto a bridge a truck in which they see explosives when they check for it? And then the Kremlin is surprised that nobody believes their fairy tales ...

According to another version, a naval drone exploded under the bridge. Ukraine, however, does not claim responsibility for the attack. Anyway, the huge explosion caused two spans of the road bridge at the site of the blast to collapse into the sea, and a little further on, tremors caused a third span to fall as well. At the time of the explosion, on the adjacent railroad bridgethere was a train of tankers, which began to burn.  It took several hours to extinguish the ensuing fire. The rails melted in the process and the bridge structure was also severely affected by the fire.

Although Russia claimed that the bridge was only lightly damaged and traffic was immediately restored, the opposite is true. Half of the road bridge in one direction stayed intact, but only cars were allowed on it, while trucks had to use the ferries. This caused major congestion and supply problems for Crimea and, consequently, for the Kherson region. Trains are also running in a restricted mode.

The severe damage to the bridge is most evidenced by the terms of repair, which were later made public by the Russian side. After replacing the collapsed spans of the road bridge in one direction, they will also replace the opposite direction spans  that were left standing. This suggests that the tremors of the explosion affected them as well. Then the repair of the burnt railway bridge will begin, which will last until at least September 2023.

Satellite images of the damaged bridge taken by Maxar Technologies. (Photo: Maxar Technologies)

The Kerch bridge leading to Crimea burns after an explosion on the morning of October 6. (Photo: Twitter)

Russian revenge

Russia’s reaction was not long in coming. On Sunday, October 9, Putin accused Ukraine of terrorism in connection with the bridge explosion. It was Russia, however, which had set a precedent with its attacks on bridges – in April and May it repeatedly shelled with missiles the strategic Zatoka bridge, which runs over the mouth of the Dniester and connects Odessa with the Romanian border. Moreover, the bridge to Crimea is a legitimate military target according to the Ukrainians, although they have not yet claimed responsibility for damaging it. All the troops that invaded southern Ukraine on February 24 passed over it, and reinforcements, fuel and ammunition for the Russian troops occupying the Kherson and Zaporozhye regions were also supplied this way.

The subsequent Russian attacks on Ukrainian towns and cities could more accurately be described as terrorism. On Monday, October 10, during the morning rush hour, Kiev and other major cities across the country, from Kharkiv to Lviv, were the target of a massive attack. The Russians used cruise missiles, but mainly Iranian Shahed-136 kamikaze drones. In total, they fired about 90 of them. More than half of them were defused by Ukrainian air defenses. A video has even emerged in which one Shahed-136 was shot down by a police unit with Kalashnikovs.

The first attacks came during the morning rush hour, when people were going to work and children were going to school. Power stations and electricity substations were mainly hit, causing power outages in several cities. Water also stopped flowing as pumps were left without electricity. In addition, 'strategic' targets such as the playground, the crossroads in front of the university, the pedestrian bridge and the German consulate building were also hit. At least three cruise missiles fired from ships in the Black Sea flew over the territory of Moldova, which therefore summoned the Russian ambassador.

The wreckage of an Iranian Shahed-136 drone shot down by Ukrainian air defenses. (Photo: Ukrainian military's Strategic Communications Directorate)

 Russian ships launch cruise missiles at Ukrainian cities. (Photo: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)

Russian 9K33 Osa (SA-8 Gecko) system. (Photo: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)

Boosting the air defense

Such attacks continued throughout the rest of the month. If by chance there was a lull for a few days, another large wave of kamikaze drones and cruise missiles would soon arrive.  Despite the partial successes of the air defense, some of the projectiles always get through, and Ukraine’s energy infrastructure is being systematically destructed. The result is widespread power, water and heating cuts.

However, one of the consequences of the massive Russian attacks is the acceleration of the delivery of air defense systems from the West. Germany announced early deliveries immediately after the first major airstrike on October 10 and by Saturday October 15 the first of the four promised IRIS-T systems was already in Ukraine.

The IRIS-T missiles were developed by a German-led group of NATO states as a replacement for the Sidewinder missiles. First appearing as an air-to-air missile in 2005, they developed a surface-to-air version in 2015. Ukraine received the IRIS-T SLM version with a range of 40 km and altitude reach up to 20 km. In addition to aircraft, it can destroy cruise missiles, ground target missiles and has a high success rate against maneuvering drones. The system was immediately deployed in southern Ukraine, making it the first country in the world to use it operationally.

Deliveries of the new NASAMS anti-aircraft systems have also been accelerated by the United States. Two of the eight promised systems were on their way to Ukraine during October. Britain has promised to supply Ukraine with additional missiles for NASAMS. France, Italy, Spain, Canada and the Netherlands have also promised to supply surface-to-air missiles or radars.


Attacks in the rear

While Russia shelled civilian infrastructure all month long, at the end of the reporting period the Ukrainians managed two hussar stunts in the form of attacks on military bases deep in the Russian rear. First was a combined naval and aerial drone attack on the port of Sevastopol in occupied Crimea in the early hours of Saturday October 29.

According to an official Russian statement, nine drones and seven remotely controlled boats loaded with explosives attacked Sevastopol. All the flying drones were to be shot down and the kamikaze craft lightly damaged one minesweeper. However, several large columns of black smoke were rising from the harbor. These were explained by the Russian side as part of a “planned exercise”. Ukraine has not officially claimed responsibility for the attack, but local media reported two to four ships were hit. Videos from the cameras of the attacking kamikaze boats have also been released, according to which at least two ships were hit – in addition to the minesweeper Ivan Golubets, whose damage was also admitted by the Russians, it was supposed to be the frigate Admiral Makarov. The latter became the new flagship of the Black Sea Fleet after the sinking of the cruiser Moskva. The 125 m long vessel, with a full displacement of 4,000 tons, has a crew of 200 and carries a 100 mm caliber gun, eight launchers for Kalibr, Oniks or Zirkon missiles and 24 launchers for anti-aircraft missiles.

Subsequent satellite imagery revealed damage to three ships. The third one would be Makarov’s sister ship, the frigate Admiral Essen. One of the damaged frigates, supposedly the Admiral Makarov, had to be towed by tugboats from the open sea in front of the harbor to the pier. The situation was also captured by satellite imagery.

Whatever the outcome of the attack, it showed that the Russian fleet is vulnerable. After all, bases should be heavily defended, especially in wartime, and just getting inside is a feat. Russia has obligingly branded it an act of terrorism. However, the targets of the attack were warships, which routinely shell Ukrainian cities with  Kalibr missiles. Which of these is closer to the definition of terrorism?

The second Ukrainian action, although significantly smaller in scale, was all the more audacious. It did not involve any remotely piloted unmanned vehicles. Although Ukraine again has not officially claimed responsibility, it was most likely carried out by its special forces. The day after the attack on Sevastopol, on Sunday October 30, they infiltrated the Russian military airfield at Veritye in the Pskov region. The base is located 500 km north of the Ukrainian border and 110 km east of Latvia. It is home to the 15th Brigade of the Army Air Force, which is equipped with a wide range of helicopters – it has 16 Mi-8 MTV-5 transport helicopters, 12 Ka-52 attack helicopters, as well as 12 Mi-28N attack helicopters. It also uses older Mi-35M, Mi-8 MTPR-1s for electronic warfare, and giant Mi-26 transports. The Ukrainian commandos infiltrated there in broad daylight without anyone trying to stop them. Its members calmly planted charges and  even videotaped themselves while doing so. Subsequent explosions destroyed two Ka-52s and one Mi-28N. This was confirmed by satellite images. Two other helicopters wereto be damaged. Russian media reported that one helicopter was subsequently found to contain a 400 gram TNT charge which, for an unknown reason, did not explode.

Footage of columns of smoke over the port of Sevastopol after a drone strike on Oct. 29 has emerged on social media. (Photo: Twitter)


Ukrainian losses

Following intensive ground operations, air power was similarly heavily deployed on both sides. Thus, losses of aviation equipment did not occur only as a result of commando raids on airbases in the enemy rear.

A Ukrainian Su-27 from the 39th Tactical Air Force Brigade was shot down near the village of Shishaki in the Poltava region on October 10. Its pilot, Colonel Oleg Shupik, was killed at the age of 56. He had left the Ukrainian Air Force in 2006 and worked at the Ministry of Transportation but returned to the Armed Forces on the day of the Russian invasion on February 24.

Two days later, on Wednesday October 10, another Ukrainian aircraft was shot down in the same area near the village of Shishaki. This time it was supposed to be a Sukhoi Su-24MR with the designation “yellow 59”. It was attacking enemy fortified targets and after dropping bombs was hit by a Russian fighter on its return. The pilots tried to bring the damaged aircraft to the nearest airfield but failed. One of them survived the crash, but the other pilot was killed. Later, information appeared in the Russian media that this Su-24 had been shot down by a MiG-31 fighter jet. These are increasingly being used by the Russian air force to launch long-range attacks using R-37 missiles against Ukrainian aircraft.

On the same day, October 12, the Ukrainian Air Force also lost one MiG-29 near the town of Vinnytsia in central Ukraine. Its pilot shot down a Shahed-136 kamikaze drone, but after its explosion a fragment of the drone hit the cockpit of the fighter. The pilot had to eject.

The last confirmed Ukrainian loss in the reporting period was an Mi-8 helicopter that crashed on October 31 near the Ukrainian-controlled village of Konstantinovka in the Donetsk region. The wreckage on the ground was completely burnt up, but the crew escaped, according to Ukrainian sources.

Ukrainian Mi-24P helicopter with two 30 mm caliber cannons. Similar eyes appeared painted on the Mi-8. (Photo: Twitter)


Russian losses and accidents

Less fortunate was the crew of a Russian Mi-8MTKO helicopter that crashed on the same day, Monday October 31, near the village of Spirne in the Donetsk region. It was a machine that had been delivered from Belarus and was to be used by  the mercenary  Group Wagner. Shortly after take-off, the helicopter was hit by a MANPADS rocket, caught fire and flipped after it hit the ground.

At least two Ka-52 helicopters were also lost during the reporting period, and the wreckage of one Mi-24 was found in the Kharkiv region. The Ukrainians have also claimed the downing of several other helicopters and Su-25s, but this has not yet been confirmed.

However, the number of Russian aircraft lost in accidents continued to rise. The intensive combat deployment is reflected in the lack of maintenance and subsequent technical failures that have caused at least two of the four recorded crashes.

First, on October 9, an unarmed Su-24, which was on a training flight, made an emergency landing in a field near the settlement of Sibirki in Russia’s Rostov Region. The aircraft caught fire, but both crew members escaped. The cause of the accident is believed to be a technical failure.

On the same day, a Su-25 crashed in the Rostov Region. It happened near the village of Rogalik, 30 km from the Millerovo military airport. In this case, the pilot did not manage to eject and was killed. According to Russian media, he was trying to pull the aircraft as far as possible from the houses of the settlement near which it crashed.

A major tragedy occurred on Monday October 17 in the Russian town of Yeysk on the coast of the Sea of Azov. Just 70 km as the crow flies on the opposite shore of the sea lies Mariupol, which was razed to the ground by Russian troops in the first months of the war. A Su-34 bomber crashed into a block of flats in Yeiisk shortly after take-off. It was supposed to fly a training flight. Both pilots ejected just before impact. One of them testified that one of the twin engines started to burn during take-off. Russian investigators consider the most likely theory to be that it collided with birds during take-off. The impact of the fuel-laden machine sparked a huge fire in the nine-storey apartment building. At least three people died after jumping out of a window rather than stay in the flames. A total of 15 people died, including three children.

A similar accident was repeated six days later in Irkutsk, Siberia. There, a Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jet crashed on houses on October 23. According to official statements of the Russian authorities, the aircraft was on a test flight after being repaired. Su-30 fighter jets are produced in Irkutsk. The aircraft crashed to the ground almost perpendicularly and both pilots perished. Although several houses were hit, no one on the ground was killed this time. It is speculated that this time the cause of the accident was a malfunction on the oxygen system, which caused both pilots to lose consciousness.

A video of the crash of the Su-25, which occurred back in June, also emerged during the reporting period. However, the video footage from the pilot’s helmet camera has become very popular because it is really action-packed. Only 15 seconds pass from the start of the ejection to the pilot’s parachute hitting the ground. The accident happened on June 17 near Belgorod. The pilot caught a power line during a low flight and cut off half of the vertical fin. The crashed aircraft bore the designation “Red 09” and the registration number RF-91965. It also had the letter V on its tail.

In October, a video surfaced showing the crash of a Russian Su-25 "Red 09" near Belgorod back on June 17. (Photo: Twitter)

The wreckage of a Russian Kh-101 missile that was shot down near Chernihiv on October 19. (Photo: Ukrainian Defense Ministry Press Service)

The moment a Su-34 crashes into a residential building in the Russian city of Yeysk. The parachute of one of the pilots can be seen on the right. (Photo: Kooperativ Telegram Channel)