The situation is Ukraine has changed considerably, last Thursday I predicted that the Russians were close to collapse, partly because of their military weakness but more because I thought that Putin would not accept the tactical situation, and that political factors like capturing Kiev would force his generals to operate in a manner that would inevitably lead to their defeat.
The next day I was proven wrong, and watched as Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy, Deputy Chief of the Russian General staff, supported by two senior Russian generals stated at a press conference that “The combat potential of the armed forces of Ukraine has been significantly reduced, allowing us, I emphasize again, to focus the main efforts on achieving the main goal – the liberation of Donbas.”
So we found out that; Putin never wanted to capture Kiev and force regime change, the thrust toward Kiev was obviously a clever ploy, maskirovka, strategic deception! The real objective was always securing Donbas. Yeah right! However, it is an important statement that changes the assessment of the situation.
In the last couple of days, information also become available that the Russians are secretly mobilising forces. Sources at the Pentagon indicate that Russian garrisons in the Georgian occupied territories, Syria and Tajikistan are likely to be providing troops for service in Ukraine. The details are sketchy, and these new forces may already be on the ground. In the next few days we should start to be see how these fresh, well-equipped new troops change the situation for Russian forces in Ukraine. It is a risk for the Russians, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are both claimed by Georgia, in Syria the Russians are engaged in the civil and in Tajikistan the Russian garrison provides security for the border with Afghanistan. Reducing garrisons in these areas is dangerous and indicates that the situation in Ukraine is precarious.
Today, President Biden, made a mistake and escalated the situation, saying in a speech that “Putin must go”, the statement was unscripted and is dangerous because it backs Putin into a corner and is an ‘existential threat’ to him. It allows Putin to argue that Ukraine is being used as an American proxy war specifically to remove him from power. The statement removed the moral legitimacy of America’s position by making American activities seem personal rather principled. Further, it allows Putin to argue within his inner circle that ‘they’ are being specifically targeted. ‘No man is an island’ and no dictator exists without supporters. If Putin, and by definition ‘his’ people, (the lackeys that control the military and its nuclear weapons) have nothing to lose, then we edge closer to a nuclear exchange. President Biden’s poorly thought-out remark makes this war personal, and makes negotiation much more difficult. It was very disappointing and certainly raises the risk of a nuclear exchange.
In Ukraine the situation is evolving rapidly, north of Kiev, the last couple of days were marked by a variety activity. Makariv and Borodianka are both contested and at the same time the Ukrainians are pushing into the northern suburbs of Kiev, Irpin and Hostomel. The Andropov Airfield is also under Ukrainian pressure. This fighting is very interesting, last week my analysis was that the Ukrainians would concentrate on pushing from Makariv north and west capturing Bordianka so that they could envelope the tip of the Russian thrust.
Current fighting, especially local Russian attacks on Makariv, a town that 48 hours ago was in Ukrainian control may indicate the Russians are trying to ‘break contact’, to separate themselves from the Ukrainians and withdraw. When large formations like brigades and divisions break contact, they typically launch spoiling attacks to put the enemy off guard, allowing time for the forces they are supporting to withdraw in an orderly manner.
Further evidence that this is happening north of Kiev, may be provided by the fighting in Irpin, Hostomel and around the airport. If the Russians are withdrawing the Ukrainians will be ‘hard on their heels’ trying to maintain contact and pursue them. Is this happening at the moment in Kiev? It is too soon to tell but certainly tallies with the latest Russian announcements about strategy. Kiev, is definitely an area to keep watching in the next few days.
Across the north east of Ukraine there has been a flurry of Russian activity. Chernihiv, Sumy and Kharkov all seeing increased Russian activity in the last 24 -48 hours, unfortunately at this stage it is too early to confirm whether this is full assaults by soldiers on the ground or increased artillery fire. It is unlikely that the Russians will be able to generate sufficient combat power in these areas to make large scale ground assaults however, we can never say never because even a relatively small number of new professional soldiers could change the situation quickly.
In the south the Russians stopped the attack on Kherson. This is a key battle because the Dnieper River provides a natural defensive line and holding Kherson is key to creating a defensible border on the west of any potential, new Russian backed Donbas. Kherson also protects access to Crimea.
So what happens next?
It is almost certain that Mariupol will continue to be attacked. The city is vital for the security of a new Donbas. It will continue to be bombarded then assaulted by ground forces.
Fighting will continue around Kiev for days or weeks and at this stage and it is too early to tell exactly how it will develop. The Russian are going to have a difficult time extricating themselves from the area and it remains to be seen if they have the combat capability to achieve a break, separate themselves from their Ukrainian opponents and withdraw.
Many pundits are predicting that the Russians will try and launch an offensive thrust south from near Kharkov, or north from Donetsk in order to encircle the large Ukrainian forces located on the border of Donetsk’s breakaway region. The Ukrainians have significant forces defending the western parts of Donetsk Oblast (administrative region) protecting cities like Kramatorsk, Sloviansk and Bakhmut. In theory a thrust of this nature could happen and would envelop these Ukrainian forces, however I do not think this is likely, it would require a thrust of approximately two hundred kilometres into enemy territory and to date the Russian’s deepest sustained penetrations into Ukraine are only about 100km. The Russians may have more combat troops entering the battle but without a strong logistics infra-structure to support them even fresh, new soldiers are going to be limited in their effectiveness.
More likely is that the Russian soldiers from Georgia and Tajikistan will be fed into the war from the east and that there will be a slow push from secure Russian areas in Donetsk and Luhansk west and north. However, the initial objectives will need to be reinforcing Kherson to secure the west flank and capturing Mariupol. After these objectives are achieved, I think that we will see local offensives capturing small areas with overwhelming force rather than deep envelopments. The Georgian garrison can provide only a couple of thousand troops but they are relatively close so are likely to already be moving into action. In Tajikistan, there is a division or about 20,000 soldiers of which perhaps a third could be spared, however moving them 2,000km with their equipment is likely to take at least a week. Although, they may already have been moved secretly.
The most useful new soldiers will be the ones brought back from Syria. Russian soldiers fighting in Syria are professional and will therefore be much more combat capable than the conscripts currently fighting in Ukraine. Unfortunately, there are no firm estimates about exactly how many Russian soldiers are in Syria which makes judging their impact difficult. My thinking is that these soldiers are likely to become Russia’s ‘fire brigade’ being switched quickly from place to place as needs dictate. Perhaps, we are already seeing their impact as the Russians counter attack Makariv.
Strategically, Putin now has a realistic option to achieve a victory. Negotiations may or may not continue as the Russians slowly secure Donbas and Crimea. Any ceasefire would only be a ploy to allow Russian forces to withdraw safely and for that reason is unlikely to be accepted by the Ukrainians.
Securing Donbas is an achievable objective; the Russians are supported by the local population in these areas and can slowly take time to re-focus and move troops into these areas. Looking at Crimea, Donestk, Georgia, Tranistria the slow and steady, low-level but inexorable conquest of an area over time is a game that Russia excels at. Longer-term it is also an operation that can be fought slowly with professional soldiers and mercenaries leading offensives, capturing areas then handing them over to less experienced local militias who can defend the areas. This seems to be a sensible long-term strategy and that is also politically sustainable because conscripted soldiers aren’t being killed in large numbers.
The key issues in implementing this strategy will be withdrawing forces in other parts of Ukraine without taking large loses and limiting the effectiveness of Ukrainian offensives to retake the disputed areas. Both risks can be mitigated but will take time, it is likely that the Russians will keep pressure on Ukrainian cities outside of Donbas in order to support withdrawal and to keep Ukrainian forces from being committed in the south east. Longer term this strategy will test NATO commitment, will there still be a will to keep sanctions in force after a year of small scale fighting on the borders of Donbas?
In summary, the situation is evolving quickly and it seems that the Russians now have a workable strategy that will allow Putin to claim victory. Unfortunately, this change in strategy will mean a longer war. Further, President Biden’s recent slip raises the level of nuclear risk meaning that the world is looking a long period of tension while the new Russian strategy unfolds.
Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.