Another round of peace talks is fast approaching and although the tactical situation ‘on the ground’ has changed little, the previous 72 hours has seen some key developments. Ukraine continues to win the information war, blitzing the Russians at every turn.
The Ukrainian’s propaganda demonstrates an impressive droll sense of humour in the face of enormous odds. Recent social media clips of abandoned Russian tanks being towed away with farmer’s tractors, produced an impressive reaction. Ukraine’s inland revenue department issuing a (tongue in cheek) statement that any tanks remaining in private hands at the end of the tax year would be counted as tax assets.
Humour, in the face of adversity is an admirable quality and plays exactly to Ukraine positioning itself as the plucky underdog. On a philosophical note, humour has historically been the greatest strength of liberal democracies, pompous dictators and fundamentalists do not have a sense of humour and struggle to win the information battle because of it. When free speech is oppressed humour dies quickly because too many laughs come from highlighting the failings of the elite.
In the tactical battle Russia is still struggling, although there has been a flurry of long-range precision attacks by rockets and cruise missiles in the western parts of Ukraine and the slow devastation by artillery of parts of Kiev and of other towns in the east and south continues. This pattern of activity provides useful information. Artillery and air attacks maintain pressure on the enemy, they terrify the civilian population but they are not ‘holding ground’. Capturing a town or city requires soldiers to occupy the area, and at this stage that appears to be a problem for the over-extended Russians.
Commentators particularly noted the long-range attacks missile on Yavoriv, near the Polish border. Attacks close to a NATO border are concerning because they may contribute to the possibility of escalation. Many commentators said that these attacks aimed to interdict the flow of weapons and supplies into Ukraine from NATO. This is unlikely, a long-range missile attack will not interdict a supply route for any length of time. It is more likely that these attacks are on Ukrainian staging areas, Yaroviv has a training bases, or on airbases.
Remember, the Ukrainian air force is still active and contesting air superiority over country. Further, my suspicion is that the Russians are running out of long-range precision weapons, hence the discussions with China about weapon supply. Chinese long-range rockets and cruise missiles are often copies of Russian weapons so may be easily interoperable. Other options for Chinese support are drones and ammunition both of which are easily able to be integrated into Russian operations. The United States is putting considerable pressure on China not to intervene and the results of that discussion in Rome will be very important.
Will China back Russia?
Probably not, China has more to lose than to gain. It cannot be entirely ruled out though, and it is important that the world’s liberal democracies can see the link between China and Russia. The world is about to enter a new ‘Cold War’ between the liberal democracies and aggressive autocrats. If China backs Russia, even after Putin’s aggressive and poorly thought through action it will create a very different type of ‘Cold War’, one in which two nations, one with considerable economic resources need to be engaged with rather than a weak and relatively ineffective Russia.
In the last 72 hours we have also seen confirmation of the use of thermobaric weapons and some reports of white phosphorous being used. White phosphorous weapons, are generally banned because they are loaded with phosphorous, a chemical that burns very hot when it is exposed to air. In the past they were used for three reasons, they provide very good smoke screens, they do a lot of damage to property and finally because their shrapnel embeds in a casualty’s flesh then reignites when a surgeon opens the wound to remove the metal. This often injures the surgeon damaging the enemy’s medical capability.
The use of these weapons is not unexpected. Russia has used both in its recent conflicts and they are militarily effective and terrifying. At this stage, their use is probably not indicative of Russia looking to punish Ukraine but rather of these weapons military effectiveness. Russian doctrine like their Soviet predecessors accepts the use of range of weapons that NATO armies do not use.
The main area in which Russian progress is being made continues to be the south. Mariupol is cut off and being slowly reduced using artillery fire and bombing. Capturing Mariupol is vital to the creation of a coastal corridor linking Donetsk in the east, to Kherson and possibly in time to Odessa. On the Bug the Russians continue to besiege Mykolaiv and Voznesensk obviously looking for secure crossing points.
The Russians continue to be put Kiev under pressure with fighting now reported to the north and east of the city. A major offensive has not been launched yet and it looks increasingly likely that it won’t. Instead, Kiev will be bombarded and threatened but a costly assault will be avoided. We are seeing switch of main effort to the south, forces there are making progress and capturing the ‘Crimean Corridor’ that will be needed to justify this war.
So at the end of D + 17 let’s look at our predictions:
- Russian main effort is switching. The south from Donestk to Odessa is where they can now ‘win’ the war and they are making progress. Mariupol is surrounded and will fall soon or be reduced to rubble. If the Russians secure crossings on the River Bug at Mykolaiv and Voznesensk they can advance towards Odessa. Even at this time they have effectively secured Donestk and Crimea.
- Kiev is still important; however it is now a bargaining chip rather than the prize. It will continue to be bombarded and threatened but it seems unlikely that the Russians have the combat power to take the city. Instead, expect more bombing and shelling but no ground assault.
- As predicted, we are seeing an increase in special forces operations and unconventional operations from the Russians. Assassination attempts against Zelenskyy and kidnapping of key politicians. Expect more of this particularly in the south and east. This is the area the Russians want to keep and they will be ‘removing’ potential resistance leaders from the community.
- The next round of negotiations will not be successful. Putin will be waiting to see if his forces in the south can secure Mykolaiv and Voznesensk. If Putin’s army is ‘on the ropes’ securing a defensible line on the Bug provides some security for Crimea and Donsetsk. If on the other hand, he can generate enough combat power to move on Odessa then he needs to hold these areas. Therefore, now is not a good time to negotiate.
- This prediction is less certain, but worth noting. Russian forces appear unmotivated in the north and east, we have credible reports of Russian soldiers running out of supplies and many Russians have close family links in Ukraine. These observations combined with the barrage of Ukrainian propaganda (especially the good treatment of prisoners) may start to have serious implications for Russian morale. We may start to see large unit collapses on the Russian side. It would be easy for an isolated battalion battlegroup to simply desert. If it does happen, rest assure we will know about very quickly!
In summary, the Russians now appear to have found a path to a ‘win’ in the south, securing a ‘Crimean Corridor’. Putin is currently successfully pursuing this objective while the world watches Kiev and Yaroviv.
Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.