Ben Morgan: The war is reaching an important ‘inflection point’


Russia continues to advance in the east, its forces showing increased determination and better planning. The land battle is fierce and the world is waiting to see if Ukraine can hold its line against Russia’s offensive. Meanwhile, Ukraine continues to use drones to attack Russian oil, gas and defence industry sites.  While at sea, another Russian war ship was sunk.  But, battles outside Ukraine continue to be influential as the war approaches an important inflection point.

The ground campaign, Russia demonstrates the power of ‘operational learning’ 

Russian ground forces continue to push west and are capturing ground.  This week the focus of operations continues to be roughly between Avdiivka and Kupiansk.  Russia’s main effort appears to be in the north-east, roughly along the Svatove – Kremina Line where they have concentrated approximately 100,000 soldiers. This is a large reserve capable of offensive operations and from this area Russia can attack in three directions; east towards Kupiansk, south-west towards Lyman or south to fill in the salient between Severodonetsk and Sloviansk.

At this stage, it is hard to tell which axis an offensive will coalesce on. However, looking at Putin’s decision to annex Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia and Kherson Oblasts and current Russian resourcing it seems most likely that the short-term focus will be to ‘close the gaps’ or ‘fill in’ the salients near Avdiivka and further north between Severodonetsk and Sloviansk. Probably looking at pushing south-east first, to re-take Lyman. Then using the area’s transport infrastructure as a staging point for movement south. 

Last month, Russia lost a significant number of aircraft, especially Sukhoi Su-35 fighter bombers.  Possibly, indicating Russia is more willing to risk its aircraft close to the frontline. A decision that may demonstrate the importance to Putin of success in the current offensive phase.

Currently, Russian troops are making good progress and some advances of several kilometres have been reported. Further, reports from the frontline indicate that Russian tactics are improving. The Washington Post reporting observations made by Ukrainian soldiers that had recently fought in Avdiivka. The soldiers reported that Russian attacks are now better planned and coordinated. Additionally, Russian units appeared to be at full-strength and the soldiers engaged demonstrated a higher level of training. The Washington Post’s reporting supports similar military blogger commentary about Russian capabilities improving.

More specifically, Russian artillery fire is reported to be fast, accurate and synchronised with battlefield events.  For instance, Ukrainian troops falling back were immediately shelled in their new positions. Coordinating artillery fire is a difficult battlefield skill, especially in a fast-moving operation like an assault.  It requires good training and communications, now days fire control orders are generally sent digitally but even this method of communication requires maintaining digital radio links, and can be a tough job during a fast-moving battle.  

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Our recent annual review of the war (Another year of war. What have we learned?) discussed lessons that can be taken from the war in 2023. This week’s activity demonstrates one of these observations in action. Russia’s centralised command structure that focuses on the ‘operational level’ of war rather than the ‘tactical level’ and stresses centralised command and control, allows for incremental but effective evolution of their whole force. That because of their doctrine of centralised command, Russian forces evolve incrementally but effectively.  Essentially, unlike Ukraine (or Western armies) innovation is not encouraged but when a new tactic or doctrine is developed and proves effect it is rapidly applied across the whole force rather than in one place or one unit.  

Ukraine’s General Syrskii recently spent three days on the eastern frontline and told Al Jazeera that “I have sent groups of specialists to individual brigades where there are problems … to transfer experience and provide assistance.”  A comment that may demonstrate that Ukraine is working hard to share innovation across its force but is relying on individual leadership rather than systems and process to achieve this objective.

Another, factor in Russia’s tactical improvement may be that attrition is simply removing Russia’s less skilful soldiers and commanders from the battlefield.  Whatever the reason we should note that Russia’s battlefield effectiveness is improving not just because of mass or having more artillery ammunition but because their tactics are getting better.

Ukrainian drones continue to terrorise Russia

While Russia makes progress in the ground campaign, Ukraine’s drones continue to effectively engage targets that should be safe. On 4 March, Ukrainian sea drones swarmed on and sank the Sergei Kotov, a Project 22160 class corvette.  The corvette was located near the Kerch Bridge in an area that should be well-protected but is clearly not. The Project 22160s are a small but important ship because they carry Kalibre cruise missiles, one of Russia’s most effective long-range missiles. The ships are useful multi-role platforms and can operate helicopters and drones. Ukrainian sources estimate that about 20% of cruise missiles fired at Ukraine are launched from Black Sea Fleet vessels.   

The 6th of March, was another busy day for Ukrainian drones. The Mikhailovsky GOK iron ore plant and Varichev mineral processing plant, both in the Kursk region, were damaged by Ukrainian drones. The Mikhailovsky GOK iron ore plant is Russia’s largest producer of iron ore, and plays an important role in the Russian defence industry.  Attacks by drones were also reported in Belgorod, this time setting oil tanks on fire. Ukraine’s long-range drone capability is increasing quickly and appears to be hitting a range of key Russian targets deep behind the frontline in areas that should be safe.  An observation that indicates the general weakness of Russian air defences. 

German security breech

Russia had a big propaganda win last week, when it revealed that in February it had taped a conversation between senior German air force officers about the Ukraine War.  Further investigation revealed that a senior German officer had dialled into a meeting with his colleagues on an insecure line.  Current information is that he was attending an air show in Singapore and did not use a secure, encrypted line when he participated in a conference call.  Nearby, in the carpark or on top of a nearby building there was Russian (or a Russian ally’s) signals intelligence unit collecting local digital traffic.  

The story is big news because it is a very embarrassing situation for the German military and because the conversation high-lights political divisions in Germany about sending Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine.  The incident raises alarm bells in NATO’s intelligence, diplomatic and military communities because it is a dumb mistake.  Any large military gathering like the biennial Singapore Airshow is liable to attract spies from all nations ready to jump on any security lapse.  Anybody that has worked in intelligence, diplomatic roles or the military will tell you about the omnipresence of people ‘listening in’ to electronic transmissions whether radio, cellular or digital.  The only defence is rigorous security protocols and the use of encryption, sometimes these protocols are time consuming and people slip. 

However, military personnel, intelligence operatives, diplomats and politicians are religiously instructed about these security protocols, and lapses like dialling into a secure call on an insecure ‘means’ is a serious mistake because everyone on the call is compromised.  

A mistake like this sends a shock wave through allied intelligence, diplomatic and military communities, who will currently be going back over their recent ‘secure’ conversations with their German counterparts (and with the officer in question in particular) reviewing what was said and the risk of it being compromised.  Essentially, these communities rely on trust and confidence and this incident undermines confidence in Germany. 

Russia’s reaction is important to observe, because it shows that within Russia‘s intelligence community there are still some smart operators. The breach happened on 24-25 February, but the information was released a couple of weeks later at a time that coincided with Alexander Navalny’s funeral.  Coincidence?  Perhaps, but more likely as a deliberate distraction that would draw international media attention away from the funeral.  The release also plays well to Putin’s domestic audience. After describing the West’s campaign against Russia in his ‘state of the nation’ speech on 29 February the leak provided a narrative demonstrating both Germany’s ill will towards Russia and the nation’s incompetence compared to Russian intelligence forces. 

Summary – The war is approaching an inflection point

The land campaign is reaching a key inflection point, one at which the curve will either bend dramatically in Russia’s favour or will arc incrementally towards Ukraine. The key decision point being Russia’s ground offensive in the north-east. If Russia can break through Ukraine’s line and exploit the situation driving either west or south and ‘move the line’ significantly on the map it will dramatically increase Russia’s chances of ‘winning’ the war. Most likely defined as securing a negotiated peace, based on a new border that secures Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia and Kherson (east of the Dnipro River).  A situation that provides a politically sustainable ‘win’ for Putin, justifying the war to-date, and providing an opportunity for Russia to regroup, recover and prepare for future operations in Ukraine.

Mainstream media and the blogosphere are full of reports of Ukrainian troops withdrawing and recently of civilians evacuating in the face of Russian advances but these reports should be taken with a ‘grain of salt,’ when this article was written Russian advances were still relatively insignificant.  Examples of battlefield success indicating a significant ‘inflection’ towards Russia (and that Russia may have the capability to achieve) would be capturing Lyman, Chasiv Yar (near Bakhmut) or advancing west of the Bakhmuta River.  Changes in situation that bring Russian tube artillery within range of the large cities; Sloviansk and Kramatorsk providing the indirect fire support required to devastate then attack these cities.  

 A successful offensive demonstrates to the Russian people that Putin is winning, providing the mandate for additional mobilisation. A step Putin needs to take as soon as possible to secure the manpower he needs to finish the war, even within the limited boundaries described above. Internationally, it sends the message that Ukraine is losing and that Russia is an implacable enemy that cannot be defeated.  A message that will encourage the voices calling for a negotiated peace and appeasement amongst Ukraine’s democratic supporters.  

On the other hand, if Ukraine can hold its line, we know that Russia is at ‘peak’ industrial capacity. So other than manpower, it has nothing more that it can bring to the fight. Hence, the critical nature of the next few weeks. If Ukraine does hold, and the offensive culminates, Russia is in trouble.  US support may be faltering but Europe appears to be stepping up, NATO nations acknowledging the long-term threat Russia constitutes and that American foreign policy is liable to remain unstable for a long time, until a new less insular generation of Republican politicians arrives.  For instance, this week Sweden joined NATO bringing another large military into the alliance and the Czech Republic announced that it has identified 800,000 artillery shells on the international market and is working hard with European partners to acquire them for Ukraine. 

Europe may not be able to match America’s level of military support but if Russia’s current ground offensive is stopped in the next few weeks, with the resources Ukraine has right now then it demonstrates that defeating Russia is far from being a lost cause.   So, the next few weeks are set to be very important as the world watches the curve bends towards one or other of the protagonists. 


Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer, a former Officer in NZDF and TDBs Military Blogger – his work is on substack


  1. Just listen to Scott Ritter John Mearsheimer and ex Marine on the Atlas report all say the Ukraine military is depleted and should of taken the deal when Russia offered. Its time for NATO to concede to Mother Russia and Zelensky needs to leave the country and protect himself applying for asylum in the US

      • Neither NATO, Ukraine or Russia will give in. A decision will be reached militarily. Russia looks set to win currently, but who knows what tomorrow brings.

    • You actually believe what Kremlin cheerleaders Ritter and Mearsheimer say? Neither are experts on Russia/Ukraine. All they are doing is hopping on the gravy train.

  2. Ben opines that “the next few weeks are critical… if Ukraine can hold”.

    This completely misses the point. Russia isn’t fighting a war of territory. Their strategy is attrition, de-arming and debilitating NATO, the West and Ukraine concurrently.

    PS it is almost time for the obligatory stop, mud season, rasputitsa.

    • Absolutely correct, Russia is fighting this War, as it has fought every War, based on the War fighting strategy of the Prussian General Carl Clausewitz, who stated that all War is a extension of Politics & that destroying the Enemy’s Military & it’s capacity to fight & wage War is the primary goal, not the taking of Territory & Land! If you annihilate your enemies ability to wage War then you win the War & you’ll gain their Territories as the spoils of War anyway? Russia is achieving this in Ukraine despite all the handwringing analysis from people like Ben who are incorrectly analysing this conflict through the lens of ignoramus Western Military experts who fail to understand what & how Russia fights its War’s, but it’s really simple to understand as everyone can see it on the battlefield in Ukraine, Russia fights via ATTRITION WARFARE, destroying Ukraine’s Military, it’s Weaponry & it’s Manpower, sapping its morale & energy & it’s will to fight with the least amount of casualties, so the use of missiles, drones & artillery do all the heavy lifting for Russia to minimise battlefield losses while the dumb Ukrainians are fighting using overpriced & complicated Western Weapons, lousy out of date Western Military tactics from WW2, inferior NATO Training & poor Military planning & strategies & are throwing themselves into the Russian Meat grinder attempting to take or hold onto Territory, it’s a losing strategy & Ukraine’s catastrophic Counteroffensive failure & its retreat from it’s heavily fortified locations like in Avdiivka are the result, it’s game over man, game over!

      • It is probably a mischaracterization of Clausewitz to paint him as an inevitable supporter of attrition strategies, when his objects were more developed, especially around centres of gravity, or schwerpunkt. Destruction of armed force, for Clausewitz, could equally involve destruction of morale to the point that units became ineffective, which has happened to forces on both sides in Eastern Ukraine during this conflict.

        Pull yourself together Private Hudson, it’s not game over yet.

  3. The Russian advance near Avdivka has come to a screaming halt at the new Ukrainian defensive line. 80,000 rockets delivered to Ukraine has halt the advance, several European countries have found 800,000 155mm artillery shells for Ukraine. America is still away with fairies, despite very fine SOTU.

  4. If the intercept call was legitimate and Ben clearly believes it was then how can Russia releasing it be “propaganda”? Info-war yes, propaganda no.
    A more even-handed analysis would include an examination of what was mentioned during that call, the Taurus missiles, targeting the Kerch bridge, the NATO personnel in Ukraine and the role Germany has been and will be playing going forward.
    We are seeing major strategic, operational and tactical failures from NATO, talking about them is not Kremlin propaganda.

    “On the other hand, if Ukraine can hold its line, we know that Russia is at ‘peak’ industrial capacity. So other than manpower, it has nothing more that it can bring to the fight. Hence, the critical nature of the next few weeks. If Ukraine does hold, and the offensive culminates, Russia is in trouble.”

    This doesn’t make any sense. Industrial production is cumulative, it isn’t consumed immediately, it can be stockpiled. Even if Russia is at full military production capacity it will be able to bring more to the battlefield after 6 months, then after 1.
    Also, even if the resources devoted to military production are currently at their maximum, totally new systems will be produced and older systems will be improved. R&D won’t have stopped, and battlefield experience will be incorporated into the old production lines.


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