Yesterday, it became clear that Kiev is Putin’s main objective. In the last twenty-four hours fighting intensified on that axis of advance. Explosions have been reported in the city, and fighting with Russian troops is reported in outer suburbs of the city. Strategically, it is vital for Putin to capture Kiev. It is not only the capital of Ukraine but is also one of the great cities of the Russian and Soviet Empires, its historical, cultural and religious significance cannot be underestimated.
Kiev is significant operationally because it is the political lynchpin of Putin’s risky adventure. On paper, Putin’s army appears enormous with approximately 180,000 soldiers on the ground however it is important to remember that this is not a huge army to conquer the second largest country in Europe, a country with a population of 40 million people. For instance, the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan included approximately 140,000 mostly American soldiers supporting about 3-400,000 Afghan local forces and struggled to achieve security. This comparison supports that deduction that Putin does not have the manpower to secure all of Ukraine. Therefore, he must prioritise his effort and carefully select where his main effort will be exerted. A thrust straight at the heart of Ukraine, Kiev, is an economic use of force achieving regime change quickly and decisively.
A good gambler, and Putin is one, will also mitigate risk. In this case the ways that he is trying to achieve this are ‘shock’ and by trying to win over the Ukrainian population. The term ‘shock’ refers to the psychological impact of a force’s tactics. The widespread cruise missile and rocket attacks, ground assaults on multiple axis’s, airborne and amphibious attacks all create ‘shock’ forcing military planners to try and assess the widest possible range of alternatives and hopefully paralysing effective planning. It is also designed to scare the civilian population. The United States used similar tactics in Grenada, Panama, two Gulf Wars and in the invasion of Afghanistan.
At this stage Putin also appears to be trying to win over the Ukrainian people, another indication that rather than occupation, he is aiming for a ‘quick and easy’ win by forcing regime change. For all the media hyperbole, vox pops and social media videos of lightly damaged apartment blocks we have not yet seen the massed artillery of Russian doctrine. When we do it will be a shock.
In the last twenty-four hours we have also received important information. The Pentagon reported that Russia has not achieved to air-superiority over Ukraine. This is a vital piece of information because it means that Russia’s initial wave of rocket and cruise missile attacks failed to achieve a key objective, knocking out Ukraine’s air defence missiles and their air force.
Close air support, using aircraft and helicopters to support ground operations is incredibly powerful but can only be used when your side controls the sky. If the enemy can contest the air battle your ability to use attack aircraft and helicopters is very limited. Most importantly, not being able to guarantee air superiority impacts the Russian’s ability to concentrate ground forces, large tank and artillery units are easy targets for aircraft.
Secondly, the Pentagon said that Russian forces were not advancing as quickly as predicted by either the United States or by Russian planners, they also estimated that only about a third of the total Russian force has been deployed to date. This is not a surprise; we have not yet had reports of large concentrations (brigade or divisional sized groups) of Russian forces. Yesterday, we discussed the Russians using network centric tactics, small combat groups swarming over an area coordinated using advanced digital technology then concentrating for quickly battle. At the moment the leading elements are swarming over Ukraine looking for a weak point and when they find that spot, (providing they can achieve air superiority) their next echelon will pour through it.
The problem Putin’s political gamble creates is that focussing on capturing Kiev quickly restricts tactical flexibility. Politically, Russian forces will not be able to use time consuming tactics to take the city. Instead, the Ukrainians will be treated well initially, asked to surrender and if they don’t the Russians will be left with no other option for a quick victory than to unleash maximum force.
Another point that should be noted is that there are now reports of fighting west of Dnieper, Specifically, in Vasylkiv a town that headquarters Ukraine’s 40th Tactical Aviation Brigade, a large unit of combat aircraft. This fighting is most likely a special forces raid to destroy the aircraft and will quickly be defeated, but it is important to keep track of fighting west of the Dnieper because it could signal an expansion of Russian strategic objectives.
So at the end of D +3 let’s look at our predictions:
- It is becoming clear that a quick invasion forcing regime change is Putin’s objective. He wants to capture Kiev quickly hoping that he can shock Ukrainians into accepting a puppet government.
- Kiev is the decisive point at this stage in the campaign and we should expect to see a building intensity in fighting as probing attacks with limited use of artillery and attempts at encirclement are made over the next few days. I believe that these manoeuvres will be defeated by the Ukrainians, triggering an escalation on the Russian side and the use of massed artillery and possibly thermobaric weapons.
- The trigger for Russian use of massed artillery will probably be suppression of the Ukrainian air force even if only around Kiev. Massed artillery is a good target for airpower and if the Ukrainian air force is still ‘in play’ it is unlikely that this risk would be taken. Likewise, suppression of the Ukrainian air force is required for deployment of massed armour and if the Russians achieve air superiority, then I think we will see a freeing of reserves deployment more massed armour and artillery in the north/east and with an offensive around Kharkov.
- More reports indicate that Russia’s armoured forces are blunted by the advanced anti-armour weapons supplied by the West. Regardless of the air situation I predict that these weapons will continue to slow the Russian advance.
- It is day three of the conflict, it is the time that battalion sized battle groups like the Russians are using start to run out of food, ammunition, fuel and supplies. The Russians have a history of being able to live off the land but even so if I was on the planning staff for this operation, then day three or four would be the time that I would be wanting to push the next echelon of forces through. Not achieving air superiority will impact this because it is hard to move a second echelon into action if there is a threat of air attack so we can predict a loss of initiative in the Russian advance on most axis’s although pressure will be maintained on Kiev.
- This could provide the defenders with a brief respite; and from the Ukrainian perspective the next couple of days would be the time to counter-attack. Whether the Ukranians can muster the forces for a large attack for instance; trying to encircle the tip of the Kiev salient, is debatable. However, local counter attacks against tired and isolated Russian battlegroups are likely to be possible and are also likely to be successful. The psychological impact of even small successful counterattacks would be significant.
- Further, the Russians are attempting to fight in a ‘network centric’ manner using small dispersed forces that risk being defeated in detail. Ukrainian counter attacks would need to be met with rapid concentrations of Russian forces providing targets for aircraft and without Russian air superiority this is risky. So we could see the ad hoc commitment of Russian reserve air power and ground forces initially dissipating the main effort of taking Kiev. However, this will rapidly be addressed and these forces re-assigned to the Kiev operation. It seems that Russian ground forces are becoming decisively engaged across a wide front but may be unable to mass for local offensive operations as reserves are diverted to Kiev. The conditions for a prolonged war are developing.
In summary, there is a difference between taking risks and gambling. A ‘risk’ is recoverable and ‘gamble’ is not. If I was on Putin’s staff my advice would be that without action in the next couple of days this campaign is going to transfer from being a ‘risk’ to being a ‘gamble’. The initial precision strikes did not achieve their objective, Ukrainian planes are still in the air and their air defence network is still operating. The initial swarm of Russian ground attacks has not created panic and has been held in many areas. The Ukrainian Army is proving resolute and effective. It also the time that the Russians probably planned to push their second echelon through but this is risky without air superiority.
A smart leader would look for options now, digging in your ground forces and consolidating until the Ukrainian air force is hunted down; or concentrating all air and ground forces on a push at Kiev are both options. Another would be a cease fire, consolidating the gains in the Crimea and Donbas withdrawing and waiting for the next round.
Putin is a ‘hard man’, he can’t afford to lose face, so I think he will concentrate his forces against Kiev and in the next few days we will see an intensification of activity in that area culminating in massive bombardment of the city. He will, turn a risk into a gamble and I think he may lose.
Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics.