GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – After Victory Day, where to from here?

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Victory Day came and went without large statements or grand gestures, instead what was not said provided the insight.  Putin did not call for general mobilisation or declare war on Ukraine nor did he claim victory or state objectives for the war. Instead, Putin framed the war as a fight against Nazism, praising the sacrifice and service of Russian soldiers in Ukraine.   Local celebrations contributed to demonstrating the popularity of the operation amongst the ‘liberated’ people of Donbas and Kherson. Putin’s speech was measured but provides useful information about the Kremlin’s position and their strategic perspective and objectives.  


Strategy, always relates to the tactical situation and the two need to be seen as an integrated whole. Tactically, Russia is not making progress on the ground, for at least the last week movement forwards has been minimal.  On 8 May, Russia captured Popasna in the east and continues to bombard a range of areas along the front lines but this is a small gain.  In the south they are slowly reducing the last defenders of Mariupol and are not making significant progress near Kherson. In recent articles we have highlighted the fact that the Russian’s key issue is that there is simply not have enough soldiers ‘on the ground’ to prosecute large offensives.  

 

In fact, the major tactical change last week is the developing Ukrainian offensive pushing north and east from Kharkov.   The Ukrainians are pushing forwards towards both the border and towards the supply lines that link Russia’s major supply base in Belgorod and their forward base in Izyum.  It is a worrying situation for Russian forces in the north-east, advancing south towards the major rail hubs at Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.  The Ukrainian offensive presents Russian commanders with a tactical dilemma, in that if the offensive drives north it puts pressure on the border, if it pushes east, it could impact the supply lines supporting operations around Izyum.  Russian commanders now need to decide how to respond, do they protect the border or the supply line? Further, where will the forces come from?  Obviously, troops protecting either axis of attack can’t be committed to offensives elsewhere in Ukraine.  

 

Taking the tactical situation into account Putin’s Victory Day speech is very interesting and provides some insight into the broader strategic situation.  Putin’s speech did not call for mobilisation of the wider Russian military or for greater commitment to the war from the general population.  This indicates that Putin does not feel politically safe expanding the war, that there is political risk within Russia of expanding the war.  This may provide information about Putin’s hold on power, he may not be as secure as we thought. In fact Institute for the Study of War’s view was that Putin’s speech “implicitly reassured the Russian people that he would not ask for a greater societal commitment”.  Perhaps Putin needs the Russian people behind him more than we estimated and mobilisation is risky because it tells the Russian people that Russia is losing and neither the Russian military nor Putin are keen to make that statement.  

 

However, a declaration of war or more general mobilisation was an option, if Putin ‘pitched it’ as an unexpected war against a larger foe, like NATO and the United States. A ‘call to arms’ of this nature might have been successful, over time generating the additional forces that the Russians needs to continue offensive operations.  Last week this idea was certainly discussed by analysts and in the wider media.   The fact that Putin did not use Victory Day as an opportunity to make a ‘call to arms’ may be indicative of a significant change in strategic policy, an acceptance of the tactical situation. 

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It is interesting that this comes after a period of escalation two weeks ago, Russian rhetoric increased including Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister describing the war as a ‘NATO proxy war’ with potential to escalate into World War Three.  Putin issued demands to stop supplying weapons to the Ukraine and used threatening rhetoric about Russia’s ability to strike back and the possibility of ‘unpredictable consequences’ if NATO kept supplying weapons. Russian state media was busy meanwhile talking about escalation and the possibility of nuclear war or war with NATO. Russia stopped the supply of gas to Poland and Bulgaria and around the same time there were bomb attacks on infra-structure in both Transnistria and Russia that could have indicated either a physical expansion of the war or the creation of a narrative upon which to justify expansion of the war effort. 

 

Then last week, Russia walked back its inflammatory language and demonstrated some goodwill by letting civilians leave Mariupol.  This activity considered in conjunction with Putin’s low key Victory Day Putin statement leaves us to ponder two questions:

  • Why? 
  • What next?

The first question seems relatively easy to answer, Putin is smart and realises that currently Russia does not have the combat power to advance.  Generally the situation can be summarised as follows; his army may be able to hold the areas it has taken, but it can’t mount offensives to take new ground. Mobilisation would eventually give Russia a vast increase in combat power.  However, the risk of declaring war and mobilising Russia’s reserves is that it highlights all of the weaknesses that have been demonstrated to date by the Russian army.  

 

Imagine trying to use the broken Russian command structure to try and mobilise hundreds of thousands of reservists. Unmotivated ex-conscripts who spent a couple of years in the army, up to a decade ago.  The reservists need to found, trained, equipped, formed into units then moved to the front.  In a competent army this exercise would take months.  In a corrupt and poorly led army it will take longer and will not produce the type of soldiers that Russia needs quickly enough to impact the current battle. And worst of all, this drama would be taking place across Russia reaching into the reservist’s families and demonstrating the military’s inadequacies to the wider population, who at the moment are insulated from the realities of the failures in Ukraine.

 

It is likely that Putin has ‘thought things through’ and realised that at the moment the political risks of mobilisation outweigh the potential gains.  Not announcing it on Victory Day does not put mobilisation ‘off the table’ completely.

 

Another factor that may be influencing Putin’s decision is NATO. Recent Russian escalation was met by a strong show of NATO resolve. Instead of backing down, NATO countries stood firm and demonstrated that they are ready to work together and oppose Putin.  Nuclear rhetoric has not scared NATO off, instead member nations are increasing their support for Ukraine filling eastern NATO partners with soldiers and demonstrating that they are willing to fight.  Hopefully, this collective action is deterring aggression, NATO’s military and economic power dwarfs Russia and it does not make logical sense for Putin to start a war with NATO.  

 

Putin knows that now is not the time for rash moves, instead it is better to ‘play the long game’ to wait, to hold what he has taken and to prepare for the next phase. 

 

This brings us to the second question, what next? 

 

In my appreciation of the situation, the key issue is ‘time’ because the campaign season is coming. Traditionally, in the northern hemisphere the campaign season is summer, July and August.  The ground dries out after the snow melt, spring rains are over and armoured forces can manoeuvre cross-country.  This is probably when Russian tactical commanders wanted to launch the offensives that they have been undertaking in recent weeks.  Essentially, at the moment there is a race on between Russia and Ukraine to rebuild armoured task forces; that in July and August can be used to manoeuvre, defeat the enemy and take large areas of ground.  Russia, still has a huge amount armoured vehicles, self-propelled artillery and a few infantry. Ukraine has a ‘blank cheque’ from NATO and is receiving a steady flow of new armour and artillery.  The real question is which side can create an armoured manoeuvre force first.  

 

This means that there is roughly six-eight weeks  for each side to bring together the people and equipment they need.  Using the forces that they have already committed Russia will not be able to take all of Ukraine; or even the eastern half. However, if they can stall, defend and create the time to rebuild a strong armoured manoeuvre force, striking from Izyum to Sloviansk and Kramatorsk may be achievable. It could meet up with an advance from Kremina and Rubizhne towards Lysychansk, Severodonetsk and the there is potential to encircle some Ukrainian forces in the east. It is a big ask but might be achievable if forces can be spared from frontline tasks to reconstitute and prepare.

 

The Ukrainians have the same problem and some distinct disadvantages.  The Russians now have the advantage of shorter supply lines and ‘interior lines’ because the Ukrainians now need to cover more ground to contain them relative to the area of Russian control.   If the Russians stop attacking, they can use minimal forces to defend their front and then divert the remainder to re-organising and re-constituting an armoured manoeuvre capability.  The Russian missile and bombing campaign targeting bridges, roads and fuel depots is to slow down movement of heavy equipment east. The Ukrainians need to not only develop their own capability but also need to make sure that the Russians do not get the break that they need rebuild their forces. 

 

Therefore, Ukraine’s current offensive in the north-east near Kharkov is very important for the future development of the war.  It is clear that in this area light forces, like Ukrainian infantry are effective and this offensive will influence the battle in the following ways:

  • It will force the Russians to concentrate forces between Belgorod and Izyum to counter it.  
  • The Russians will either be defeated and forced out of this area or they will defeat the offensive.
  • Even if the Russians stop the Ukrainian offensive, it will require resources that will constrain their later tactical options because the forces sent to reinforce the Izyum sector will not be available to assault other areas.  
  • If the Ukrainians win near Kharkov and Izyum, it will force the Russians to withdraw and defend their border. It may be possible to switch some capability to the east or south but it will be limited and most importantly will take time. 

In summary, the area around Kharkov and Izyum is where we should be watching in the next few days.  A successful Ukrainian offensive in this area may contribute significantly to a rapid defeat of the Russians. By tying up sufficient forces so that without a larger mobilisation Russia will be stretched so thin across the remainder of its front that it cannot develop the combat power to either attack successfully or defend in depth with strong reserves.  If this happens it may be possible, with NATO support for Ukraine to develop a powerful armoured force supported by artillery ready for a large offensive in July or August.  In the next few days we may be watching the start of the Russia’s end in Ukraine.

 

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

35 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting stuff! Thanks

    Overall, the longer Russia is mired in this, the more it will die as a nation. Is is expending its treasure and men in a no win situation, all while NATO supplies Ukraine with all manner of advanced weapons and intel that Russia cannot compete against.

    • Cyber and space capabilitis has been brewing for years, and I doubt that Russia is the only one that has (or is looking into getting) these sorts of things in their bag. (Remember that thing about malware getting into nuclear facilities in Iran?) And we’re not just talking about state actors, as the regular occurrences of incidents in the news attests to.

      This isn’t really a matter of Russia hitting Ukraine and being able to hit elsewhere. It’s much more serious. This is a matter of too much of everything everywhere being vulnerable to hits from anywhere and anyone. And for that this is just another warning, not some new revelation.

  2. I think what you might have missed is that whilst Russia has more artillery and tanks, it remains very much to be seen whether they have the men to operate them with any effect whatsoever.
    They will not be able to drop some infantry men in them and bob’s your uncle.

  3. God damnit Ben, you are an optimist… Betcha 100s of virtual $s that Russia winds up the Ukie forces in the East this month then takes Odessa.

    Got to admit that you are good at being wrong and doubling down.

    • Hear hear Nick.
      Read around the subject and NO ONE believes the Ukraine has a snow ball in Haydes chance.
      Timing is difficult to predict, because it depends on how suicidal the Ukraining army is. Last stands to the last man, or common sense surrender?

      • Well, Lloyd Austin does. And since he was a highly regarded 4 star general, I will trust his military judgement ahead of yours.

        Austin would not have doubled down on supporting a Ukraine win, without carefully thinking it through. He was known for being very deliberative, but once having made his judgement, relentlessly pursuing it.

    • Why do you think Russia wants to take Odessa Nick? I think their operations there are just to blockade the port from shipments of US military equipment by sea and by air. They don’t need to control the city to do that.
      D J S

      • Two solid reasons DJS. First I believe that Russia sees the coastal areas through to Transnistra as “Novo Russia” i.e not Ukrainian. Id suggest that they would add this as a third independent state to a federation.
        Second benefit is that as a landlocked state Ukraine would be totally dependent upon Russian goodwill.
        Look next for Hungary, Romania and Poland to annex ares of west Ukraine.
        The longer Z refuses to negotiate the smaller Ukraine will be.

        • It will be interesting to see what happens. I’m inclined to think that Putin will do what he said he will do; nothing more and nothing less. i don’t think he is vindictive and I don’t think he wants to reassemble the soviet Union. I don’t think he wants to damage Ukraine as nation as long as Ukraine in accomodating US hegemony does not pose a threat to Russia. To isolate Ukraine from access to the sea would massively compromise that country’s economic viability . We will see if that is what he wants to do but I don’t think it is.
          Cheers D J S

  4. Thank you for your sacrifice in the Great Patriotic war Russia and for your commitment in combating tyranny, selfishness, propaganda and human suffering today.

    • Russia (or the Soviet Union) only became involved in the ‘Great Patriotic War’ because they were invaded by a German-led coalition in 1941 and prior to that they were more than happy to work in tandem with Germany to invade Poland.

      • and all trough the 30s poland was happy to conspire with germany against the USSR indeed signing their very own ‘friendship pact’ with the nazis (1934) until adolf betrayed them of course.
        if you’re going to use ‘lessons from history’ you need to know the history first james.

        • James may well know a lot of that history.
          He is right about how USSR entered WW2.
          The USA entered much the same way. I remember someone as describing it as ‘on the end of a well-placed Japanese boot’
          History has its ironies.

          • Yes you are quite right In Vino the US similarly only entered WW2 because they were directly attacked in 1941 (Pearl Harbour) and subsequently (as with Russia) they have in the decades since tried to paint their joining the war more in altruistic terms than in fact it really was.

        • Poland had earlier only narrowly survived being invaded by the Soviets (Polish Soviet War 1919 – 1921) and as Poland was bracketed directly between two much larger traditional enemies (Germany and Russia) what choice did Poland have rather than trying to placate one or both when they had the chance?

    • In Great Patriotic War there were all nations and ethnic groups of USSR, out of 23 millions dead 16 were Ukrainians.Just some corrections: the USSR first signed the agreement with Hitler and as a result annexed Baltic states, Moldava, invaded Finnland and took part of Poland with cruel massacres. They entered the war against Nacizm only after they were invaded, led it with horrible losses because of their incompetence and would not have prevailed if there were not for American and Britain help as Stalin himself admitted in Jalta. They shamefully refused to help Warszaw uprising and abused their victory to subjugate Baltic states, Poland, Czachoslovakia, Hungary, Eastern Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia through KGB and communist puppets. Remember Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia when they wanted freedom, the USSR came to offer the “help”. The RF did the same in Ukraine in 2014 with Crimea and tried the same with Donbas, though RF was one of the guarantees of Ukrainian sovereignity! (similar to Sudeten and Czechoslovakia in 1938) Whatever Ukraine did to get weapons and military training they did it in order to defend their own country because they, unlike the West, understood that RF would not stop there, as they did not.

  5. The West is still stuck in the mentality that since Russia didnt deploy “Shock and awe” or “Shake and bake” they are easy pickings and a third rate fighting force. I disagree. Slow and steady wins the race. Its always been Putins goal to restore Ukraine by ridding it of Neo Nazis and the war crimes commited by them, that he has been crystal clear on from day 1. Russian propaganda? read the Wests own report by the OSCE dated April 2016 titled “War crimes of the armed forces and security forces of Ukraine, Torture and inhumane treatment”.

    All indications are that the “Special Operation” is legal under international law based on self defence, and not War as the West claims. To be classified as War there must be a full mobilisation but the West knows this.

    It appears the West (US) is happy to ignore the supression of independant media, corruption, Murder of political figures, war crimes and ethnic cleansing in the Donbass as well as Ukraine indoctrinating children to hate Russians as well as Jews. Sound familiar?
    Our trained and armed Neo Nazis are “Good Nazis” its a dangerous game.

    Zelensky certainly did himself no favours of posting a picture of a Ukraine soldier wearing Neo Nazi insignia on Victory day whilst the West is busy scrubbing them from the internet. Heck even the Democrats in 2017 wanted to designate the Azov brigade as Terrorists, but hey in comes the CIA to save the day. I wonder why? Anything to do with clandestine bio-labs?

    Its still anyones game but people dont think of one important fact. Russia has not commited its latest weapons in the form of Thermobaric missiles and other goodies, whilst the Wests warehouses are emptying faster than baby formula in the USA, or Heating in Europe.

    The longer this drags out the more the masses will start questioning why the heck are we sending billions in weapons whilst we starve and cant afford heating.

    The fact is Ukraine is a failed corrupt state led by Zelensky who ran on a platform of having peace in the Donbass which he immediatly reneged on. Jeeze does that explain his 23% approval rating or his main political rival getting arrested in Spain last week where he was in exile because of attempts to silence him by Zelenskys Neo nazi lap dogs?

    Most damning of all is the video of Zelensky begging the Azov brigade to pull back and stop attacking the Donbass to which they blatently refused, even when informed “I’m the President” same answer. Just to prove he was serious he gave a main leader of the Azov brigades a medal one month later. Zelensky is no President but a lap dog of the West and Neo Nazis.

    But hey at the current rate the EU wont have to worried about keeping warm soon. Shit heads, all of them.

  6. What a load of bilge Finngrin. It is outrageous that you echo Putin’s lies about Nazis. Putin’s Siloviki are the real Nazis. Russia is a fascist state. How can you defend such a bunch of criminals?

    • Because we are not sorry. It’s like you think the bug is on the outside of your windshield but it’s on the inside. Ideology like fascism is not something that cea from abroad because those opposed to it want revenge.

      There’s a lot of easy targets and New Zealand has to place itself beyond that.

    • What is outrageous is that none of this “echos Putins lies”. It can all be substantiated. Yet Joe Average in the west which includes Canterbury falls hook line and sinker for the medias nonsense.
      That is outrageous. Its a collective failure to do the research, to think and to judge accordingly.

  7. The USA is out of control. $40 Billion to prolong the suffering of Ukraine?
    American Military Industry profits before all else.

    USA sending old stock Javelins to Ukraine. The warheads have expired the use by date. Not working.
    Russian tanks taking multiple hits, but the Javelins not exploding properly or missing altogether.

    What a joke. Win?
    Ukraine is being slaughtered in their trenches, aka WW1.

    Zelenski is serving up his military to massive artillery bombardment, and aerial bombardment with a “no retreat and no surrender” order. Cannon fodder. War criminal.

    Stop the fighting Zelenski or your army will be wiped out. No chance.

    Looking forward to the media explaining the surrender to Russia.

  8. If Russia invaded Ukraine due to their fear of a further expansion of Nato then they have really shot themselves in the foot (Finland now joining soon to be followed it appears by Sweden / increased military spending by existing Nato members / a few found solidarity amongst existing members / the war making clear to Nato Russian weaknesses in regards to weapons and military doctrine etc).

    • Maybe James getting the remaining European states into NATO was one reason that the Pentagon /CIA / Dem warhawkes had for militarising Ukraine.

      The question that needs to be asked is why would one nuclear superpower want to push up to the borders of another nuclear power? As we are all now in the nuclear firing line try finding some rationally in that.

      • In Short the Unipolar world dominance of the USA has been in serious decline since 2001 with their global influence dropping from 43% to 28% in the space of just 2 decades. The death of the Empire so to speak. The cold war in my opinion was just not about a Nuclear armed USSR, but additionally a power play for dominance by the US. One only has to look at the social and financial deterioration of the USA. Racism, crippling poverty, crumbling infrastructure and the gaping chasm between the left and right is a Republic in decline. History teaches us this. The global dominance of the US dollar is paramount because otherwise the bills become due. Who has $24.43 Trillion lying around.

        The balance of power has been slowly shifting over the last several years with Russia making huge advances in weaponary including nuclear powered underwater drones, undetectable submarines and hypersonic missiles which the West has no answer too.

        With a rising Asia and Russia, the power balance is shifting to a true Multipolar world where countrys will turn away from the West towards trading partners with ideals more in line with their own, for example Russia, india and China could become one major trading bloc with similar laws, currency exchange and values.

        The negative side to this over the next decade or two is more regional conflicts as countrys jocky for posistioning. This is the main reason Australia is up in arms over the Soloman islands as they do not want China in their ecomonic clique. The catylist for this was Obama pivoting the US militry to the Pacific. The writing was already on the wall. The likely scenario is the World will split into 3 different trading blocks Asia, the Americas and finally Europe.

        We are starting to see this now with the increased trade between Russia, China and India since the Special operation started, and the fast expansion of other payment methods besides the US dollar. Interesting that the Ruble is the fastest growing Currency this year and is far outstipping the usual contenders. The middle East is reluctant to bail out the West with oil, whilst South America is.

        To counter this the US in conjunction with Canada, Germany, France, and Great Britain pumped advanced Western weaponary into Ukraine since 2014 and orchastrated the overthrow of the Democratically elected Goverment under Obamas orders to contain Russia. Their complicity of training the Far right Militants in military tactics as a tool to terrorise Russian “Orcs” is their usual go to plan.

        Since the Maidan in 2014 referendums were held in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk voting overwhelming for self rule. Unsuprising the West called them a sham despite the regions being predominatly identyfying with Russia or Russian speaking.

        With the upsurge of the usual Wests rhetoric reguarding Russia and the bought and paid for Main stream “Media” a one sided view is being portrayed to hide the Wests complicity.

        We can all agree that Countrys all have the own unique issues be it beheadings or outlawing Homosexuality. The current trend is banning Abortion. What I can state is Russia is a Traditional Country with old fashioned values and in the Constitution marriage is between one Man and one Woman. However LGQBT is legal in Russia despite 83% of the population being against it, certainly there is “Human rights abuse” with them not being allowed to adopt or indoctrinate Minors. The equivalent of “Don’t say Gay” in the US. This hypocracy has been noted by Putin.

        Putin has stated on numerous occasions over the last several years warning the West it was about to cross red lines to no avail. He has also made it clear his patience has been reached with the United States illegal wars, global dominance, hypocracy, corruption and the Wests corruption of the Russian morals and way of life.

        In short a bitter divorce between East and West. One one hand the Wests destruction of Millions way of life VS Nyit, You are the biggest threat to world peace.

        Putin has clearly said he wants a multipolar world.

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