GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – Don’t get excited yet, there is a long way to go and we need more information about Russian capabilities


The Russian thrust at Kiev disintegrated this week and Ukrainian forces now control the surrounding area. Russian propagandists will try and present the withdrawal in a positive light but make no mistake this is a victory for the Ukrainians.  Unfortunately, the most telling evidence that this is a retreat is the spiteful murder of civilians, disciplined armies withdrawing under tight control don’t shoot civilians. Angry, upset defeated young men looking for revenge do, and note that I don’t use the word ‘soldier’, members of the profession of arms or ‘soldiers’ follow the laws of armed conflict and don’t shoot defenceless people.   

In coming days the situation around Kiev will continue to develop and we will find out whether the Ukrainians managed to surround a pocket of the Russians in the towns of Klavdiievo-Tarasove, Nemishaieve and Vorzel. Or did these Russian forces manage to get away? 

This is important information because it tells us whether the Russian withdrawal was well planned or hasty and poorly prepared.  If lots of Russians were killed, captured or are waiting to be ‘mopped up’ it is key indicator that the Russians are on the back foot.  If on the other hand the Russians got away with their force mostly intact then, they have succeeded in ‘breaking contact’ and withdrawing effectively indicating that they still have good command and control and that there is still a capable force in this area.

In recent days, Ukraine’s key objective should have been to prevent Russian forces north of Kiev extricating themselves by fixing them in place, then surrounding pockets of Russians and forcing them to surrender or be killed.  It is estimated that the Russians threw 18-20 battalion battlegroups into the Kiev thrust, a sizable part of their total force and destroying all or part of them would make a significant impact on the Russian war machine.  At this stage it is simply too soon to tell, however the lack of surrendered Russians being paraded on social media leads me to believe that near Kiev the Russians got away. 

Yesterday, the withdrawal was followed by more threatening Russian rhetoric including spokesman, Dmitry Peskov stating that he is “…convinced that the goals of our military operation will be achieved in full“, which indicates that we are unlikely to see peace soon.  Further, news agencies like the BBC and Al Jazeera are tracking recruitment campaigns and possible movement of Syrian mercenaries into Russia. This looks threatening, especially combined with reports of Wagner Group mercenaries, Chechen mercenaries and the arrival of other Russian troops from Syria, Georgia and Tajikistan.  It appears to be a build-up of force that could influence fighting in the Donbas region. However, these reports need to time to interpret because there is big difference between hiring ‘gunslingers’ and creating a cohesive military force. 

This build up is likely to be for propaganda effect, the picture the Russians are painting is that thousands of the world’s most thuggish and brutal mercenaries are concentrating in Russia, ready to be unleashed on Ukraine.  It is a threat, but even the most thuggish mercenaries are useless against well-trained, well-equipped and motivated soldiers.  Generally, mercenaries are a weapon unleashed on civilian populations to control or terrorise them, there are examples of mercenaries defeating poorly led and equipped semi-professional forces but this is not what they will face in Ukraine.

The practical reason mercenaries are ineffective against formed armies is simple, imagine trying to bring together a cohesive force, one that uses a common language for command and control, the same tactics and a shared logistics system from a very disparate group of ‘freebooters’.  

Instead if the Russians are going to make progress, they are going to have to find soldiers from within their own military. That is why the details of the battle for Kiev are so important, if the Russians have managed to save a large proportion of their force in that area it provides manpower for future offensive operations around Donbas.  The other forces that could be used to lead large offensives are the soldiers returning from Georgia, Tajikistan and Syria. 

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Whether or not the Russians can mount any sort of offensive in the south and east, and when, will be determined by two factors.  The Russians need fresh soldiers, an optimistic (from a Russian perspective) estimate of the numbers they can generate from Georgia, Tajikistan and Syria is 15-20,000.  It is likely to be less.  The soldiers being withdrawn from Kiev, Chernihiv and Kharkov will need to be rested, feed, re-stocked with ammunition and equipment, receive reinforcements to replace casualties then be transported to their new area of operations. Even if the Russians can muster 10,000 mercenaries those fighters are unlikely to be able to form large cohesive units able to drive formed Ukrainian defenders from large positions, but they will free up some regular Russian units in the south and east. 

The second factor is logistics.  A large thrust into Ukraine to either encircle the Ukrainian forces on the Donetsk border or to push towards Odessa requires logistics capability that to date the Russians have not demonstrated. The Ukrainians have a significant force of approximately 20,000 soldiers defending the western parts of Donetsk Oblast (administrative region) protecting cities like Kramatorsk, Sloviansk and Bakhmut and enveloping them with a thrust south would require forcing a supply line through about 130-180km of heavily contested territory.  A push to Odessa faces similar problems. 

So if we assume that the front is currently stable in the south and east, that the Ukrainians are holding firm then Russia will need to assemble and prepare a force larger than the Ukrainian defenders in this area to have any hope of success probably in the region of at least 50-60,000 soldiers likely closer to 100,000 as the Ukrainians start diverting their assets south.   

Current Russian rhetoric seems to be wishful thinking, that is not backed up by mathematics or it is propaganda.  It does not seem likely, even with reinforcements from around the Russian ‘empire’ and with mercenaries taking over rear area roles the Russians could form any sort of offensive force capable of a large thrust towards Odessa or to envelope the Ukrainians defending the western parts of Donetsk Oblast in the short term. Even if they have the capacity, it will take weeks to re-constitute soldiers from the north and build up the overmatch of forces required to successfully mount this type of offensive.  

This is the crucial question, does the Russian army have the soldiers it needs to return to any kind of large-scale offensive anywhere in Ukraine?  I do not think that it is possible anytime soon.  This means that Putin, is faced with a problematic set of choices:

  • Withdraw to Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea and negotiate a cease fire.
  • Stall, slow the war down and concentrate forces in Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea.
  • Escalate, declare war and mobilise the entire Russian war machine.

None of the options is good for Putin, withdrawal no matter what the propagandists come up with is a loss.  Changing from a ‘special operation’ to declaring war and mobilising Russia full military forces is a risky political option. The economic implications are enormous for the Russian economy and politically it means acknowledging that the great Vladimir Putin and his vaunted army have been beaten in Ukraine something that may be unpalatable to a leader that relies on perceptions of infallibility to remain in power.

It seems more likely that in the short term, that the Russians will consolidate in the south-east. That small group of more effective mercenary soldiers and more professional Russian soldier will be used to lead a revanche campaign, their tactics to conduct small raids and terrorise border communities. When a village or town’s defenders fail that area can be soaked into Russian control using regular units to hold it.  Overtime, small areas can be occupied at low cost in Russian lives while forces are reconstituted and larger offensives can be prepared. 

So, in the next few day it is likely that there will be rocket and cruise missile attacks across Ukraine like yesterday’s attack on the Odessa fuel depot.  However, these are spiteful distractions rather than indications of military targets. Instead, keep watching the north closely and look to see if the Ukrainians are capturing Russians in large numbers. If they don’t, it is an indication that the Russians are coordinating and managing the withdrawal, demonstrating a level of military capability that means they are not completely defeated and will be useful deployed in other areas.  

Remember the south, although it will take time for forces to build up this area, we are likely to see increased artillery bombardments of towns and villages and of Mariupol.  Remember artillery is an easy way to maintain operations and keep the enemy under pressure.  Also it is now clear that the Russians plan to use artillery to reduce cities to rubble before a ground offensive is launched.  Unless, the Ukrainians can generate enough combat power to take large scale offensive action and push the Russians out, then in coming weeks we are likely to see an evolution of the war in Donbas towards a slow, long war of artillery attack followed by small local ground attacks slowly soaking up Ukrainian territory.

The ‘wild card’ is whether Putin is willing to risk full scale Russian mobilisation.  It would prolong the suffering in Ukraine and in my opinion would lead inevitably to his defeat but it is an option that he may be considering.  The next few days will tell us how cunning Putin really is; a long slow war of attrition focussed on Donbas, is not the victory that he wanted but is sustainable and will produce results. Or will he ‘throw the dice’ and risk full-mobilisation.  This may provide a victory but imagine the political consequences of taking this step and still not being able to beat Ukraine?  

Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.



    Remember how very early on in the escalation ,,, a Ukraine peace negotiator was executed/murdered for being a traitor.

    Recently what has happened to the two Ukraine Generals Zelinsky purged for being ‘Traitors’ ?, usually that’s a death sentence in times of war ,,,, perhaps they were against the senseless slaughter of their troops ?.

    ,,,, What would the Banderite nationalists do to collaborators/traitors in areas retaken from Russian control??

    Why on earth would Britain block independent forensic investigations into Bucha ???,,,

    If there’s no Nazis there should be no problems

    p.s Do we think Jacinda might ask Nz intelligence officers to keep an eye out for any suspicious activity in Ukraine ??,,,, ” many are simply “glory-seekers” or right-wing extremists looking for an excuse to kill.” ,, ,,, “Callaghan acknowledges that while far-right wing individuals are being recruited to fight in Ukraine, in groups such as the Azov brigade”

    …. Seeing as Brenton Tarrent caught us all by surprise

  2. By withdrawing troops from other contested regions, is Putin risking losing ground there? I’m thinking of South Ossetia, Syria, Chechnya and Kazakhstan.

  3. I doubt it. The only risk would be if NATO and Georgia declared support for an independent Ossetia (union of South and North Ossetia) and Georgian forces moved northward (with NATO weapons delivery etc).

  4. I would be interested to see your comments concerning the replacement of lost military hardware by the Russians.
    There is plenty of scuttlebut on the web that a large part of the Russian war machine was manufactured by the Ukrainians and obviously replacements will no longer come from that source. It is also difficult to get a solid reliable number for their hardware losses though even the more conservative estimates are very significant given the cost of some of these items.
    But replacing a war machine also requires parts that are now embargoed, not to mention hideously expensive to a country that is suffering severe fiscal deprivation.
    Are they in fact running out of ammunition?

    • Weapons are flooding into Ukraine from the west.A fair amount of this ends up in the hands of the Russians
      MOSCOW. March 11 (Interfax) – Russian President Vladimir Putin has supported the proposal to hand over Western-made weapons seized in Ukraine to the forces of the Donetsk (DPR) and Luhansk (LPR) People’s Republics.
      This may or may not be real, but it seems there’s been a mass surrender in Mariupol

  5. Not even with all their forces, reservists and conscripts can Russia hold Ukraine.
    They can most likely 4akebit, but holding it would be impossible as more armaments and supplies would continue to seap across the border to a belligerent guerilla force.

    • In the next few days we will see the reality of what Russia are trying to achieve.

      The Ukrainian Army is split between west of the Dneiper and to the east in the breakaway republics. They have surrendered most of Mariupol and are trying to break out to the west and link up with reinforcements.

      Russia is trying to envelope these forces in the open, not in cities or well prepared defensive positions. Their aim is to destroy Ukrainian military capability. Ukraine by contrast is trying to survive by holding urban areas that the Russians are clearly neither attacking or bombarding.

      Withdrawal from Kiev suburbs does not indicate a relief of the city, we are not seeing Ukrainian forces attacking in depth with mobile forces. This indicates lack of capability.

      It looks like stalemate but reality is that Russia has the initiative. If Ukraine collapses in the eastern battle there will be nothing left to negotiate.

      The next weeks fighting to the east will tell us who will win.

  6. Operation Northmoor was investigating whether official operation reports had been falsified. In one case, the RMP had even brought charges against members of the UK Special Forces for murder, falsifying a report and perverting the course of justice.

    But the charges were dropped and the government closed down Operation Northmoor without prosecuting a single case. Insiders said it was closed too soon for them to complete their investigation.

    “It seems to be one of the unique characteristics of British Special Forces that they are truly accountable to no-one,” said Frank Ledwidge.

  7. Afghan witnesses describe how 12-year-old Ahmad Shah and 14-year-old Mohammed Tayeb had decided to stay overnight with 17-year-old Naik Mohammed and his 20-year-old brother, Fazel.

    At around 20:00 local time, UK and Afghan Special Forces made their way into Loy Bagh village and burst into each of the buildings that made up the family home.

    One UK soldier went into the single-roomed guest house and opened fire.

    Sultan Mohammed, older brother of Naik and Fazel, was first on the scene after the special forces left.

    “When I entered the room I saw bones and teeth all over the place. The four of them were lying there, blood everywhere,” he said.

    RMP detectives wanted the soldier to be charged with four counts of murder. They also wanted to prosecute the officer who commanded the raid for falsifying a report, along with his boss for perverting the course of justice.

    These were some of the most senior officers in the UK’s special forces. They were accused of covering up an incident in which children were killed.

    Military prosecutors decided not to bring charges and, in 2017, the government announced Operation Northmoor was to be wound down.

  8. Hey Ben – how many tour rotations does it take for our most highly trained soldiers to turn into child murdering psychopaths?

  9. The report concludes that “there is a reasonable basis to believe that various forms of abuse were committed by members of British forces against Iraqi civilians in detention”, including “the war crimes of murder, torture, rape and/or other forms of sexual violence, and forms of mistreatment amounting to inhumane and cruel treatment or outrages against personal dignity”.

  10. The report also confirms that there were at least three incidents in which Iraqi children were tortured by British soldiers; two of the incidents occurred at one location in 2003, and the other incident occurred at a separate location in 2004. None of the soldiers who committed war crimes against children in these incidents have been prosecuted in Britain, and the ICC has also declined to take action against them.

  11. ABC Investigations then revealed that two SAS patrol members had witnessed Soldier C kill an unarmed Afghan man in an earlier operation.

    Both SAS members alleged the victim was disabled and running away in fear when he was shot.

  12. I had to read the article again to see if I’d misinterpreted the context of this excerpt:

    “…members of the profession of arms or ‘soldiers’ follow the laws of armed conflict and don’t shoot defenceless people.”

    The “laws of armed conflict” sounds like something out of George Orwells 1984 – something the Ministry for Truth would come up with.


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