The land campaign continues to move slowly and last week’s key observations are related to the strategic campaign and how it is developing. Over the last week, the land campaign progressed slowly Ukraine continuing to advance consistently but making incremental gains. Off the battlefield though there are larger forces moving that are likely to influence the campaign. Last week’s peace talks in Saudi Arabia are a very important development. Throughout the war attempts have been made to bring the war to a negotiated conclusion, most recently in Denmark in June.
What makes last week’s talks different and important to watch is that the conference is driven from outside NATO. Held in Saudi Arabia, and supported by China the conference represents a subtle change in international geo-politics. The first point to note is that the peace conference took place outside Europe and involved representatives of 40 nations; including large non-European powerbrokers like Brazil, India, South Africa and China. Essentially, this conference indicates a push from China to develop its position as leader of the ‘Global South,’ the group of countries many of which are from the Southern Hemisphere that have chosen not to align themselves with NATO in the war. The power of the Global South is rising and will impact profoundly on global politics, possibly evolving into a new anti-American block or in a more positive way as an independent voice for countries that traditionally have not been drivers of international discussions. This conference is worth noting because it may be a historic first intervention in global politics by this group. A group with a level of influence over Russia that NATO and the United States will never be able to match.
The Global South’s refusal to condemn the invasion or to take a moral position on the war is interesting, it represents a long-existing world view that challenges the United States’s military activity. Many countries around the world are troubled by America’s global military interventions and see United States condemnation of Russia’s activities as hypocritical, considering that nation’s list of recent invasions including Grenada, Panama, Iraq and Afghanistan. The point is not the legitimacy or otherwise of American military interventions, instead the issue is one of perception because the nations of the Global South perceive the United States and its European allies as hypocritical and are therefore unwilling to get involved; on either side. Most importantly, the larger members of the Global South now have the economic and military power not to need too. We are witnessing history as the nations of the Global South start to develop confident and independent positions in the world.
The United States, Canada and other NATO powers attended the conference but the countries leading the discussion are China and Saudi Arabia. This conference did not achieve a huge amount but represents the start of a process that although likely to be long; probably provides the best chance of reaching a negotiated settlement. If a position can be agreed that China, India and the United States can all support, Russia’s days are numbered. The Ukrainians have probably ‘done the maths’ and understand this too so are likely to commit to the process, especially since they are now under a new strategic threat.
Strange as it may seem the United States, the world’s largest liberal democracy’s presidential election is currently developing as a ‘two horse race’ between two strange choices, one of whom Joe Biden has proven to be a capable and sensible leader, but will be well into his eighties if he is elected. The other Donald Trump, who is almost as old is also currently being indicted for insurrection, corruption and a variety of other offenses. The United States presidential election has a dangerous farcical nature that if it was not so important would be funny. However, it is not humorous, Trump’s history includes threatening to withhold military aid to bully Ukraine’s President Zelensky for domestic political purposes, a cosy relationship with Vladimir Putin, indictment for failing to protect state secrets and many public statements about withdrawing United States aid to Ukraine.
In Ukraine there must be considerable concern about what 2024 will mean for the war and in Moscow Putin must be rubbing his hands together in glee at the thought of Trump being elected. However, the sad part of this farce is that it impacts on the lives of many people caught up in war. Soldiers dying on the frontline, the civilian casualties of artillery, drone and cruise missile strikes on cities, the families left grieving and across the globe there are hungry people who can’t get Ukrainian grain or who struggle to survive the inflation caused by the war. The uncertainty of the United States presidential election next year provides Putin with hope, that if he can hold on and Trump is elected, he can keep what he stole. Further, he can claim a victory and retain his personal power within Russia.
It is a very difficult situation, and the only way around it is for Ukraine to transfer its tactical initiative into strategic initiative. Essentially, the war on the ground is being driven at Ukraine’s pace. Ukraine can choose where and how often it strikes and is driving the tempo of the campaign. However, at this stage it is not doing enough to change the strategic initiative, Putin can wait he is not threatened yet. Although Ukrainian forces are moving forwards a politically embarrassing defeat is not currently imminent. Last week there were minimal Ukrainian advances on the three main axes of advance:
- The area around Bakhmut.
- Ukraine’s advance from near Orikhiv towards Tokmak; and perhaps further toward Melitopol.
- The Velyka Novosilka salient.
Throughout the week intense fighting continued around Bakhmut as Ukraine tries to seize the villages of Klishchiivka, Andrivka and Kurdyumivka that sit on an important ridgeline that if captured will provide a route to advance north-east. A manoeuvre that would allow Ukraine to cut the main supply road into Bakhmut, making resistance less tenable. Ukraine has not been able to capture this ridgeline yet, and until it does its southern envelopment is stuck. Its attempt to envelop Bakhmut from the north looks like it has culminated, this axis of advance has not progressed in weeks. The situation in Bakhmut is not surprising, Russia’s best soldiers, the paratroopers of the VDV are holding this sector of the frontline.
In the south, Ukraine made progress last week. The advance toward Tokmak that started from near Orikhiv continues to move forwards slowly with Ukraine entering the village of Robotyne about 10km from their start line in the last couple of days. Two weeks ago, Ukrainian forces attacked Robotyne and were pushed back by Russian counter attacks, so last week’s progress is important. However, this success is contrasted with a set back as Russian counter attacks put pressure on the advance’s left flank recapturing the defensive trenches Ukraine was reported to have captured the previous week. In my opinion, this area will remain relatively static next week.
Meanwhile, further east on the Velyka Novosilka salient, Ukraine is making more progress and used the capture of Staromaiorske to veer left and capture the village of Urozhaine about 2km to the south east. When Urozhaine is secure a range of possibilities open for Ukraine, 10km south-east across flat, relatively undefended ground is the village of Kermenchyk. The right or western flank of an advance to Kermenchyk is protected by the Mokri Yaly River and the Russian units defending this area are not well-entrenched. Based on open-source information there appears to be an opportunity for Ukraine to capture Kermenchyck, and develop a larger offensive operation possibly pushing towards Mariupol or Yalta and is an area to keep watching.
The wild card next week will be what happens on the Dnipro River, Ukraine has spent the last couple of weeks raiding across the river and may be in possession of territory on its eastern bank. However, the situation is very unclear and reporting contradictory. Generally, reporting places a lodgement of Ukrainian forces near the village of Kozachi Laheri about 30km downstream of the Nova Kakhovka Dam. Ukraine’s intentions are not clear, my assessment is that a large-scale offensive across the Dnipro is very unlikely, even though this is an area in which Russia’s defences are weak they will still be enough to effectively oppose any crossing of the Dnipro in force. This operation is obviously going to draw Russian forces from the battle in Zaporrizhia south, so may be part of a raiding campaign designed to stretch the defending force and some commentators think that this lodgement could be used to push south and attack the town of Oleshky.
However, my assessment is that Ukraine’s objective is larger because any force located Kozachi Laheri dominates the M14 that runs east parallel with the Dnipro River, terminating at Melitopol. This road is one of the main supply routes from Crimea to Russia’s Zaporizhian frontline. A lodgement near Kozachi Laheri combined with bombing attacks on the Kerch Bridge, the Armiansk Junction and Chongar Bridge could severely interdict Russian supply lines. It is likely that operations in this area contribute to the overall ‘stretch, starve, strike’ strategy, aiming to make the Russians divert forces from the Zaporizhian frontline or risk being starved of ammunition and food.
In summary, this week demonstrates the relationship between strategy and tactics. Strategically, Ukraine is facing a dire threat in the possible re-election of Trump in 2024, a situation that gives Putin the upper hand. This situation incentivises Putin to hang on, to keep fighting and to try and wait out the war betting on Trump’s re-election and United States support for Ukraine drying up. The Jeddah peace talks provide Ukraine with a strategic opportunity that may mitigate this threat and are also important because we are starting to see members of the Global South take a confident leadership role in world affairs, one that could change the strategic dynamics very rapidly because a deal struck in this forum would make Putin’s war much less sustainable.
Essentially, although Ukraine is not taking a great deal of ground from Russia it still has the tactical initiative, but its strategic position is threatened. A threat that necessitates quickly transferring tactical initiative into battlefield gains to ensure that; either Ukraine in the best possible bargaining position during peace negotiations or that it achieves a large victory that damages Putin and changes Russia’s political dynamics. Ukraine’s time to capture the strategic initiative is limited, in October the rain starts so expect to see action on the frontline in the next six weeks, or if things have already ‘tipped’ and Ukraine has culminated expect to see an increase in other operations, for instance attacks on Russian territory or more naval activity.
Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger