GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – Russia’s important decision

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The frontlines in Ukraine remained stable last week, both sides appearing concentrating on their own separate areas of interest. Ukraine, reinforcing and expanding its foothold on the east bank of the Dnipro River.  Russia, continuing to attack Avdiivka. The campaign appearing to slow down, Ukraine’s offensive culminating and Russia settling into defence, ready for winter. It is likely that soldiers on both sides are worn out, tired and hopeful that winter will bring a lull in combat.  However, Russia is currently being forced to make a decision that could be the most important one they make this year!

Currently, Russia remains focused on Avdiivka but elsewhere along the frontline is maintaining continuous aggressive patrolling, Russian forces making about 50-60 small attacks per day along the frontline. A feature of this war is that these small actions, probably platoon sized fighting patrols (20-30 soldiers) are recorded publicly, giving bloggers lots to talk about but indicating only that Russian forces are doing what any defending army should be doing, patrolling aggressively and dominating the local area.    This activity indicates that in defence the Russian forces are confident and well-prepared, executing these small operations on a regular basis.   

The main effort is clearly Avdiivka, and this week Russia continued to attack this town making limited progress and sacrificing many lives. As we have discussed this battle makes sense for Russia at this point in the war, taking the city brings Russia military advantages; pushing Ukraine’s artillery out of range of Donetsk City and shortening the Donetsk Oblast’s border making it easier to defend.  Additionally, the road networks Avdiivka dominates provide a ‘jumping off’ point for future offensive operations. On a political level, taking Avdiivka provides a military victory that Vladimir Putin can use in the upcoming presidential election.


Potentially, Russia’s focus on Avdiivka provides information about Russia’s assessment of the campaign and its current strategy.  The Russians appear to be confident that they can hold the line near Orikhiv and Bakhmut. Evidenced by how they are they are settling into a programme of aggressive patrolling and focussing their combat power on Avdiivka, probably aiming to capture it before winter. The plan is likely to settle gently into the new season, wait and then reassess the situation. This plan allows Russia’s domestic presidential elections to play out.  Early next year, a decision can be made about whether the electorate will tolerate larger mobilisations, if it will there is time to prepare resources for offensive action next summer.  If not, Russia can ‘lock down’ the current frontline and defend.  Russia will hold the land bridge to Crimea and can wait for Ukraine’s support to reduce; or for international pressure to compel Ukraine to accept a negotiated peace.  

However, the ‘fly in the ointment’ is Ukraine’s force on the east bank of the Dnipro River. This group has been in situ for about a month and has not been thrown back across the river or bombed into extinction.  Instead, it is slowly expanding and developing its position creating the possibility of a larger crossing.  Consensus amongst commentators is that Ukraine’s forces now hold Krynky village 30km north of Kherson City and about 2km east of the Dnipro River and are also attacking further south near Oleshky, Poima, Pishchanivka, and Pidstepne villages.  The frontage of the crossing between Oleshky and Krynky is approximately 30km and some reports indicate that in some places Ukrainian troops hold territory 4km from the river.  On 17 November the Institute for the Study of War reported that “Ukrainian officials stated that Ukrainian forces have established bridgeheads on the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast and are conducting ground operations aimed at pushing Russian forces out of artillery range of the west (right) bank of the Dnipro River.” An important statement because in military jargon a bridgehead specifically refers to holding ground that allows following forces to cross and provides a base for future operations.    

Ukraine’s soldiers on the east bank are well-supported by friendly artillery firing from higher ground on the west bank and are also reported to have very good electronic warfare capability that is limiting Russian drone activity.  Last week there were reports of armoured vehicles crossing the river and it certainly looks like the Ukrainians are putting a significant effort into developing their foothold.  On 16 November, reports started to circulate in the mil-blogger community that Ukraine has allocated a force of three brigades or approximately 6-9,000 soldiers to this operation. However, Ukraine remains tight-lipped about details and the Ukrainian General Staff is coy about its objectives stating that the operation’s focus is to push Russian artillery out of range of Kherson city.  Another interesting statement because Ukraine holds high-ground on the river’s west bank that allows them to dominate the artillery battle forcing Russia’s guns away from the river without the need to cross.  

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 The situation is strange, Ukraine’s objectives are unclear and initially Russia’s military seemed strangely disconnected from the threat posed by Ukraine’s Dnipro crossing; or did not have the resources to deal with it.  The situation became stranger and more unpredictable when on 13 November, Russian media outlets TASS and RIA Novosti announced a Russian withdrawal from the area stating that “Having assessed the situation, the command of the Dnipro group decided to move the troops to more advantageous positions east of the Dnipro.”  The articles were quickly retracted, Russian sources claiming that they were part of a Ukrainian mis-information operation. 

The media releases came from official sources so are likely to be real releases, written ahead of time somewhere deep within the bowels of the Russian military and circulated by accident.  Most likely, they tell us that Russia is considering the problem and waiting to see how the situation develops.  The tactical dilemma that Russia faces is that the area Ukraine occupies on the west bank of the river is higher than the east bank so Ukraine has good observation positions and its artillery can dominate the local area.  Additionally, the east bank is very flat and therefore hard to defend.  It is approximately 20-30km east of the Dnipro River before the defenders would find ground suitable for a strong defence line. Therefore, Russia is exposed to the risk that if sufficient Ukrainian forces cross the river, they can make sudden and rapid progress supported by accurate artillery fire.  

Russia has limited options to mitigate this risk, it can either:

  • Contain the crossing; or
  • Destroy the crossing.

Both are potentially good options, containing the crossing probably means trading ground for time and making a sudden withdrawal to more easily defended ground.  Creating a strong defensive cordon within which the Ukrainian follow-on force can be trapped and slowly destroyed. Destroying the crossing means rapidly concentrating combat power in the area and attacking the Ukrainians on the east bank before a larger force can cross the river.  The aim being to prevent a lodgement and the crossing of larger follow-on forces. 

Russia’s dilemma is that either tactic can be successful, but you cannot do both.  If you choose to contain the crossing, then forces need to be held back preparing the defensive cordon so are not available to attack the bridgehead. Likewise, if you choose to attack – Who will prepare the defensive cordon?  In my opinion the Russians are busy weighing up these options, and have started contingency planning. This probably explains the media release, an overzealous or poorly informed staff officer releasing a statement drafted during contingency planning by accident.  

Evidence that Russia may be planning to take the first course of action is found in the Institute for  the Study of War’s 17 November update in which  Ukrainian military analyst Kostyantyn Mashovets assessment was reported “Mashovets claimed on November 12 that the Russian command in the Kherson direction has refused to commit additional forces of the 70th Motorized Rifle Division (of the newly formed 18th Combined Arms Army) and 7th Air Assault (VDV) Division beyond elements of single regiments and battalions to the frontline, opting instead to maintain the remainder of these formations in near rear areas and secondary echelons of defense.”  It is always easier to eject a smaller force, something Russia has not done either because it is choosing not to or because it cannot. 

In Russian headquarters there must be teams of staff officers ‘doing the maths’ and trying to figure out whether it is better to pull troops away from the Orikhiv Axis or Avdiivka and immediately overwhelm the force on the east bank; or whether it is better to use less troops further back to dig-in outside the range of Ukrainian artillery.  A tough decision, especially when there is a third factor to consider, that perhaps Ukraine has culminated and the Dnipro operation is just a bluff.  The staff officers will also be considering the political situation, if they advocate for pulling troops away from Avdiivka or from defence on the Orikhiv Axis and either operation is compromised there will be repercussions. 

Putting ourselves into those staff officer’s shoes, we can try to understand their reasoning. Most commentators do not believe Ukraine has the capability to cross the Dnipro in large enough numbers to advance to Crimea.  Further, fighting close to the Dnipro under Ukrainian observation will be costly either on attack or defence because of Ukraine’s local artillery dominance.  In this situation the conservative approach is to trade ground for time and use reserves withdrawn from other sectors to develop a defensive cordon just outside Ukraine’s artillery range.

In summary, although the mainstream media are talking about a stalemate there is still plenty going on in the land campaign.  The Ukrainians now have a month-old foothold on the east bank of the Dnipro River and Russia looks to be taking a conservative approach, cordoning the Ukrainian’s crossing rather than trying to destroy it.  Likely, appreciating that there is little chance of the crossing threatening Crimea before the winter and taking a low-risk approach that allows resources to remain at work in Avdiiivka and near Orikhiv.  

However, this decision is not without risk.  If Ukraine has more reserves than expected and they can gain the initiative on the east bank, they have about 20-30kms of flat and hard to defend ground in front of them.  Further, Russia may simply be ‘kicking the can down the road,’ Ukraine using the reprieve to strengthen their bridgehead and prepare a base for future operations in Kherson. Hence, Russia’s decision potentially has some large and unpredictable consequences.  

 

 

Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger

16 COMMENTS

    • War is shit, let’s try for peace.
      Come on Putin, you can do it. I will nominate you and Zelensky for the Nobel peace prize.

  1. Pretty good analysis – Ukraine has however resumed its assaults in the South, a series of night actions widening the salient above Verbove and West of Robotyne. Ukrainian forces attribute Russian defense vulnerability to their failure to rotate defenders – their reserves having been sent to support the efforts on the eastern front.

  2. Thanks Ben!

    Stop press: The Russians have just tried to counterattack in the south near Krynki, and were effectively hammered by the Ukrainians, resulting in a rout.

    The impression of those on the ground was that the Russian units in the attack were poorly trained and led, so was this a serious attempt to regain ground or just a test of the Ukraine defence?

  3. Ben Morgan needs to read the latest Neocon magazines like the Wall Street Journal that recently published a article called, “It’s Time to end the Magical Thinking about Russia’s defeat in Ukraine” & also the Time magazine article that showed Zelensky as a delusional, desperate Man who refuses to face the reality that Ukraine has lost this War! Recently, high profile visits by the CIA Director who told Zelensky the US money train is stopping & moving to support Israel now & a Biden Diplomatic envoy who asked Zelensky directly, she ominously said, How long could Ukraine last without US Aid & Support? A week was the reply by Zelensky before Ukraines utter collapse! All these articles & visits are signs Ben that the US is telegraphing to the World & Ukraine that the US initialed Proxy War is lost & that the Yanks are bailing out & that Zelensky needs to pick up the phone to Putin & hash out a surrender deal before he loses all of Ukraine or else he’s History & will end up like Gaddafi & Saddam Hussein because if the CIA don’t kill him, the Neo Nazi’s will! So the West & the US is acknowledging the War is lost Ben, you need to wake up from your Western Mass Psychosis like others are now doing & face up to the reality that Russia has won & the Ukrainians & NATO, the UK & US & the entire West has lost Project Ukraine! It’s Game over Man, Game over, as the Grunt Hudson said in the Aliens Movie!

    • What this Russian Antforce army troll doesn’t realise, or forgets.

      If the Western alliance abandons Ukraine to the Russian imperialists, to concentrate on their own colonial imperialists project in the Middle East, the Ukrainian people will keep fighting for their independence, no matter the odds against them, if it takes years, even if it takes decades.
      This is the lesson of Vietnam.
      This is the lesson of Afghanistan.
      This is the lesson of Palestine.

      • Pat these are both US/NATO/Western Imperialism. Your position on Russia as an Imperialist invader of Ukraine does not accord with the facts. The situation is well described by John Mearsheimer and Jeffrey Sachs in many interviews you can find.

        Russia was very clear since at least 2007 what their redlines were, that NATO could not expand into Ukraine. The US/NATO knew this and chose to ignore it. It is beyond doubt that the 2014 Maidan event was a US/NATO organised coup and from that point NATO started working with Ukraine by stealth. The Minsk agreements were intended to stabilise the peace but of course for US/NATO they were a subterfuge to continue to arm Ukraine.

        Zelensky was voted in on a platform of peace with Russia but US/Nato worked with right wing forces in Ukraine to undermine that. Russia presented several proposals to avoid war and were dismissed by arrogant US/Nato.

        US hubristic imperialism caused the terrible war in Ukraine without the slightest concern for Ukrainian lives, fight the “war over there so we don’t have to over here.”

        The US stupidly thought Russia was weak but it is not and any large power will demand a say for what happens on its border. The US wants to break up Russia and plunder its natural resources, this is unfinished business from the break up of the Soviet Union.

        Russia is not Imperialist, it is just not credible to claim this. The US is of course the #1 aggressor all over the world, thinks it is still the only hegemon but it is making one disastrous foreign policy blunder after another. Hopefully the BRICS alliance can continue to expand to provide a counter balance to US/NATO.

        • Bob’s weird monologue is riddled with so many nonsensical, false and even contradictory notions and false claims, it would be very time consuming to go through each of them. So I will just pick one

          “The US is of course the #1 aggressor all over the world, thinks it is still the only hegemon….” Bob

          It seems that the US is not the only one that thinks the US is the only imperialist hegemon.

          Bob appears to be suffering under the same delusion.

          Bob, along with the liberal apologists for the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine, that he mentions, are sufferers of ‘Anti-imperialism of idiots’ syndrome.

          A view of anti-imperialism from the periphery
          By Dana El Kurd, Leila Al-Shami, and Romeo Kokriatski.

          https://joeyayoub.com/2023/07/05/a-view-of-anti-imperialism-from-the-periphery/

          “Through failing to respond to any imperialism which is non-Western in origin, the “anti-imperialist” left has been impotent towards Russian and Iranian imperialisms…..”

          To which I would add; the genocidal aerial destruction of Grozny, Aleppo, and Mariupol by Russian air power, used to successfully crush the independent resistant movements against Russian imperialism, is the exact template being followed by the Zionists in Gaza to crush Palestinian resistance.

          Whatever Bob believes he is, Bob is not an anti-imperialist.

  4. Your dead right Ben, I give you credit, Russia does have a decision to make? Shall we, the Russian Federation as the successor to the Soviet Union which Ukraine was always a part of for Centuries since Catherine the Great, keep the parts of Ukraine we already have or should we just take the whole Country back which was previously part of Russia & just send all these Ukrainians to the EU & flood Europe with 20 million Ukrainian refugees to join the already thankless, ungrateful & bludging 15 million Ukrainians already over there? That’s what I’d do if I was Putin, take over the whole Country & reintegrate back into Russia to eliminate the threat of NATO expansion forever & send all the Azoz Neo Nazi’s back to Germany & to Europe, Let’s make Hitler great Again, Ursula Van der Crazy & Jungle Joseph Borrell can provide safe Harbour for them, they wanted Ukraine to be part of the EU, so be it, be careful what you wish for, NATO & the US created this War to destroy Russia & have catastrophically failed so Europe should handle the consequences of their idiotic, moronic Warmongering actions that the geriatric Biden started!

  5. Oppose Russian imperialism in Ukraine.
    Oppose US imperialism in the Middle East.
    To Oppose just one imperialist side is an invitation to world War.

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