Ben Morgan: Miyamoto Musashi and Ukrainian strategy

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Last weekend’s peace conference in Switzerland produced few tangible results. However, the conference dialogue demonstrates subtle shifts in the international order. Several nations criticised the lack of Russian involvement and the summit’s ‘joint declaration’ was not signed by Brazil, India, South Africa and Saudi Arabia. A group of nations often cited as leaders within the ‘Global South,’ an emerging group of mostly Southern Hemisphere nations, without clear commitments to either the US, Russia or China. An observation of the conference is that it may be further evidence of the emergence of a new multi-polar world. 

Putin played down the conference and issued a ceasefire plan with conditions amounting to Ukraine’s unconditional surrender. Putin then spent the week obliquely threatening nuclear escalation. Putin’s statements probably indicate his lack of confidence in his own forces and concerns about the West’s continuing support for Ukraine.  The threats are probably designed to scare NATO countries away from supporting Ukraine. 

This week Putin visited North Korea and signed a military partnership agreement, a deal that may backfire because it has angered South Korea. An economic power house, South Korea has to-date avoided supplying lethal aid to Ukraine.  However, the threat of Russian ballistic missile technology heading to North Korea sparked a very angry South Korean response.  A response that is likely to change the current policy and see the country providing lethal military aid to Ukraine. A dire prospect for Russia because South Korea’s defence industry is enormous.  Putin’s response to South Korea was more threats, warning South Korea that supplying Ukraine would be a “big mistake.”  South Korea produces some of the best military equipment in the world and if it throws its industrial might behind Ukraine, Russia will feel the impact. 

Putin’s trip to North Korea is clear indication that the war is not going as planned.  North Korea is an isolated pariah state with little to offer, other than large stockpiles of Soviet era ammunition and equipment.  It is an indication of Russia’s desperation that they are looking for aid from North Korea.  

 Additionally, while visiting North Korea Putin continued to discuss the idea of a ‘Eurasian economic and security alliance’ as a counter to NATO and the US.  My assessment is that this idea’s time has passed, that nations like India, Brazil and South Africa do not need Russian or American leadership.  Instead, the world is becoming multi-polar and more complex.

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The land campaign, still Putin’s biggest problem

Putin’s forces failed to take advantage of the ‘window of opportunity’ provided by US aid being held up in Congress to make either operationally significant manoeuvre; or to create conditions for future operationally significant manoeuvre.  Now that US aid is arriving, Russia is highly unlikely to advance. 

In my opinion, commentary that argues Russia is winning the land campaign by attrition is wrong.  Currently, without full national mobilisation Russia is recruiting and training about 30,000 soldiers per month.  My assessment is that if it was politically acceptable, Putin would mobilise and that not doing so indicates he cannot. This rate of recruitment means that Russia’s current daily casualty rate of 1000-1200 casualties per day is marginally sustainable. But, any increase in Ukrainian lethality or Russia launching more attacks increases casualty rates, and reduces Russian sustainability.

Last week, there was plenty of fighting but no movement on the frontline. Chasiv Yar, the piece of ground most likely to unlock operationally significant manoeuvre for the Russians remains firmly in Ukrainian hands.  South of Chasiv Yar, Russia is making notable attacks near Marinka and Toretsk. The objective is probably to reduce the Ukrainian salient, centred on Toretsk. If captured, the salient could provide a firm base for an advance from the south against Chasiv Yar.  Another area with notable fighting is the Svatove-Kremina Line Russia continuing, unsuccessfully, to probe west. 

Further north, Russia’s Kharkiv offensive appears to have collapsed. A group of approximately 400 Russian soldiers cut off in Vovchansk has been bombed into submission, a small group of survivors surrendering on Saturday.     


Currently, Russia can maintain continuous small attacks along the frontline keeping Ukraine’s forces ‘fixed’ and preventing the generation of new Ukrainian forces for local counter-attacks.  This situation will probably continue through this summer, Putin hoping for this year’s American and European elections to return governments less likely to support Ukraine. 

‘Attacking at the corners,’ Miyamoto Musashi and Ukraine’s wider strategy

In ‘The Book of Five Rings,’ Japanese strategist, Miyamoto Musashi states that “It is difficult to move strong things by pushing directly, so you should ‘injure the corners.’ In large-scale strategy, it is beneficial to strike at the corners of the enemy’s force. If the corners are overthrown, the spirit of the whole body will be overthrown.”  Ukraine is currently facing the physical mass of a large and powerful enemy. Even though Russia cannot develop enough combat power for operationally significant manoeuvre, its ‘mass’ makes a direct Ukrainian thrust impossible.  

General Oleksandr Syrskyi understands this situation, his strategy is for Ukraine to defend, absorb Russia’s attacks and let the enemy exhaust itself.  A strategy that appears to be working, Russia is making no progress in the land campaign despite suffering high casualties.  Meanwhile, Ukraine is striking at Russia’s ‘corners,’ the hard to defend extremities that can be attacked by small forces.  The ‘corners’ are:

  • Crimea’s air defence network.
  • Russia’s oil industry infrastructure.
  • Russian military operations in Africa and Syria.

Crimea’s air defence network

Strategically, Crimea is the ‘vital ground’ of the war, if it is captured or becomes untenable Russia loses.  The last Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) figures I reviewed estimated that Russia has lost approximately fifteen S400 air defence missile systems in Crimea. The S400 is Russia’s equivalent to the US Patriot missile system.  This is an estimate and impossible to verify but even half that number is a significant figure since Russia started the war with approximately 90-100 of these weapons.

We have previously discussed Ukraine’s operations to degrade Russian air defence and isolate Crimea, describing how HIMARs and ATACMs missiles are used against these weapons and older S 300 systems.  

Crimea’s importance means that every S400 destroyed in Crimea needs to be replaced. Originally, the Far East Military District was stripped of these systems but as loses increase they are starting to be drawn from areas actively engaged in the campaign.  

Russia’s logistics and oil infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable to air attack because the air defence network is over-stretched.  By continuing to hunt out air defence systems in Crimea, Ukraine forces Russia to replace them weaking defences elsewhere.

Attacking Russian oil production 

Ukraine’s attacks on Russia’s oil production and distribution networks are shown on the map in orange. The extent of these attacks is impressive, Ukraine consistently hitting targets across an arc of approximately 1500km, and deep within Russia. The campaign has a measurable impact on Russian oil production and distribution, reducing export revenue and increasing petrol prices in Russia. 

African and Syrian operations

Since 2023, there have been reports of Ukrainian special forces teams operating in Sudan and Syria, specifically targeting Russian military units in these areas. Russia has a considerable military presence in both nations and earns valuable revenue from other operations across Africa. Ukraine is using special forces to target Russians in Sudan and Syria using drones, Improvised Explosive Devices and sometimes direct engagements.  

By engaging in Sudan and Syria, Ukraine causes security issues that require scarce soldiers and equipment to manage.  A few dozen special forces soldiers, probably supported covertly by partner nations, can tie down large numbers of Russia’s most valuable and useful soldiers.  Further, Russia’s private military contractors provide valuable foreign exchange and access to lucrative resource deals that may be jeopardised if their use comes with Ukrainian attention.

The Sahel region of Africa is probably already an area of operations in this emerging covert war. The area has recently suffered several political and military coups, creating instability. Power vacuums that Wagner Group is probably already active within. French President Emmanuel Macron sounded the alarm about their presence in Mali and Niger earlier this year.  Therefore, it seems likely that Ukrainian special force operations will start to spill over into other Sahel nations as they pursue their Russian adversaries. 

An assessment of the Syrskyi strategy 

By attacking Russia’s ‘corners,’ far from the battlefields of Donbas, Kharkiv and Zaporizhia, Ukraine is trying to draw combat power away from the land campaign.  For instance, sucking scarce air defence missiles into Crimea means there are less to defend the nation’s oil depots and refineries. Ukrainian special forces operations in Africa and Syria require a security response, more soldiers and equipment that cannot then be used in Ukraine.  Additionally, using Wagner Group mercenaries is a less attractive option for other nations when their ‘baggage’ includes Ukrainian special force operators.

Essentially, attacking at the ‘corners’ makes sense because for a relatively low investment Ukraine can continue to hurt Russia economically, militarily and psychologically.  However, to maximise the benefit of these operations requires an understanding of ‘tempo’ or the rhythm of the campaign. A factor Musashi stresses in the ‘Book of Five Rings’ stating “You must see the rhythm of distance, and the rhythm of reversal. This is the main thing in strategy.”  Attacking at the ‘corners’ must be synchronised with Ukraine’s combat power in the land campaign, so that when Russia is weak Ukraine can strike.  Or as Musashi said “To defeat the enemy you must follow up the attack when the corners have fallen.”  

Summary 

Euromaidan Press recently assessed Russia’s long-term viability based on OSINT information.  (See the article here- https://euromaidanpress.com/2024/06/22/resources-of-war-can-russia-sustain-its-war-in-ukraine-for-years-infographics/ )   Although Euromaidan Press is a Ukrainian source, the assessment stood out because OSINT strongly indicates that in 2025-26 Russia’s stocks of spare artillery barrels will start to run out.  Firing artillery shells down a metal tube is enormously mechanically stressful, and artillery barrels have a limited life span.  Additionally, they are also expensive and time consuming to produce so when Russia’s barrels run out, their tactics will have to change.

When any army loses its artillery advantage, its combat power reduces.  A situation exacerbated by Russia’s reliance on this arm and by Ukraine’s strategy; attrition on the frontline and attacking at the ‘corners’ to wear Russia down.  By summer 2025, Russia’s casualties will be nearing 1 million personnel, its air defence will be degraded, and it will be needing to reduce volumes of artillery fire.  Ukraine on the other hand is likely to have re-constituted a strong reserve, will be fielding F 16 and Mirage 2000 fighters and be able to generate the combat power for strategic manoeuvre.

It will take time but Russia can be defeated and driven out of Ukraine, providing NATO, the US and other supporters continue to back Ukraine. 

 

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

36 COMMENTS

    • That is certainly not being shown on any off the conflict front line maps. Ukraine are excellent at a withdrawal to lure Russian troops into the open for destruction by artillery, mines, himars, javelin and swarms of drones.

      Russia has to take the fight (for its strategic objectives are not being fulfilled) to the Ukraine and as such expose themselves to counter attacks. Strategically Russia has lost all their objectives that Putin set out at the beginning of the war.

      No NATO on the border – Finland and Sweden say “hold my beer”.
      New regime in Kiev – Zelenskyy says “hold my beer”.
      Annexation of the Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts – Ukraine armed forces say “hold my beer” for Russia is not even 50% there.

      Now on the battle field the first “unofficial” NATO troop are in the Ukraine with some 100 of 1500 French Foreign Legion troops ensconced with the Ukrainians.

      https://asiatimes.com/2024/05/france-sends-combat-troops-to-ukraine-battlefront/

      Perhaps tha other non news to consider is the lack of open and whole hearted support from Belarus and Chechnya, Russia’s strongest vocal supporters. Add to that uneasy in the Russian Federation with Armenia leaving the Russia led security bloc because the Russia cannot be relied upon for Armenian security.

      https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/armenia-leave-russia-led-security-bloc-says-pm-2024-06-12/

    • Seems the Ghost of Kiev (the mythical Ukrainian pilot swatting those naughty Russian jets) is alive and well. There’s the totally unverified surrender of 400 Russians (what a photo op.. should be emblazoned across the media). There’s the 1000 Russian casualties a day. The Ghost of Kiev is busy as. I’m wondering if he’s working an overtime shift in one of those mythical factories pumping out 155mm ammo?

  1. A good assessment – thanks Ben.

    Recruiting 30,000 men per month and killing over a thousand a day isn’t progress in anyone’s language. At what point do Russian recruits refuse, seeing as it’s pretty much a death sentence?

    The only battlefield advantage Russia has at the moment is those enormous glide bombs but as soon as the Ukraine gets its F16’s, that game is pretty much over too. I also expect the US to relent a little more on the targeting of assets inside Russia giving the Ukraine more scope in this area.

    All in all, I think we’ve already passed ‘Peak Putin’ and it’s a downward path for him from here on.

    • I agree.
      The fact he has had to go begging to North Korea says all that needs to be said.
      It is only a matter of time before the Russian oligarchs crumbles and Russia falls.

  2. Ben, Ukraine doesn’t have enough manpower to fight in the frontline of their own country let alone facilitate “special military forces” in Syria and Africa to target Russian strategic interest curiously how did they get to operate into these countries without the elected government permission? At least russia has the backing of Syria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger govt & armed forces and their people unlike Ukraine.

    Despite Ben discounting its “Putin is Running Out of Time” “America’s War Machine along with South Korea Can’t make basic artillery fast enough” Bens attempts to convince TDB audiences that the tide is about to shift in Ukraine’s favor is a repeat of this same empty rhetoric used to sell Ukraine’s 2023 “counteroffensive” as poised to shift the conflict.

    Even in 2019, US policymakers realized Ukraine would not win a US-sponsored proxy war against Russia. The actual objective was to raise the cost of Russian victory high enough to undermine Russia’s economy, divide Russian society, and perhaps even eventually precipitate a Soviet Union-style collapse. While RAND’s predictions of Ukraine’s destruction amid such a proxy war have clearly come to pass, the supposed “benefits” of this policy have yet to avail themselves and do not appear even plausible at this juncture.

    Crimea will never fall to NATO and that a fact because if any “credible analyst” knows that if russia even contemplates losing Crimea then it opens itself up to having nuclear capability naval warship parked in the “Seas of Azov” threatening Moscow with a nuclear strike that could reach their capital within minutes of being launched. Putin is a master 3D chess player Ben he ain’t dumb and his visit to North Korea is more than just political posturing to scare the South Koreans and russia don’t need North Korea weapons in fact his visit opens up another corridor of trade that will see the hermit state become part of “BRICS” ever widening the Multipolar world that will have huge ramification for the west into the near future.

    • So Russia has not killed any children in its war against Ukraine. Obama made a big mistake by not defending Crimea when Russia took it back.

      • Of course they haven’t. There aren’t air raid sirens in Kyiv every day and all of their targets have been military ones.

        And it’s a SMO. Unless you call it that all the cool kids will just ignore you.

      • Trevor, your exceptionalism probably inherited from your ancestors is showing its ignorance again. Obama couldn’t do a damn thing about defending Crimea because Russia had secured another 25 year perpetual lease from the previous government of Viktor Yanukovych overthrown by a coup facilitated by NATO in 2014.

          • The UN also endorsed the Minsk agreements.There was a unanimous vote in the Security Council to endorse implementation of the agreement.Then later, Merkel, Hollande, Poroshenko and Zelensky all admitted that the negotiations were in bad faith, none of them ever intended to implement the Minsk agreements.They used them to buy time to build up Ukraine’s military, in flagrant breach of a UN directive.
            I guess the UN is useful when it has a view that endorses your own .Not when it goes the other way….

    • I don’t think Russia will respond to this terror attack. It is a trap for further escalation to get direct US involvement in the war. Instead they will likely merely increase the pressure at the front.

  3. Ben Morgan comes the closest he has yet to mentioning imperialist conflict in the Middle East, albeit in a coded mention of alleged Ukrainian special forces backed by unnamed Western powers attacking Russian imperialist forces in Syria and Africa.
    The genocidal fascist regime of Bashar Assad, with Russian support, are the second biggest killer of Palestinians after Netanyahu, with US support.

  4. Seems that the “good guys” aka the civilised West believe it’s OK to arm Israel to bomb defenseless Palestinians. As an encore they arm Ukrainians with banned cluster munitions, provide target coordination and deliberately strike Russian beach goers. Imagine Russia doing this to a beach in Miami.

    This is all about putting pressure on Russia to escalate and respond, “justifying” more escalation. Against a nuclear power that is mind boggling stupidity.

    • What is the most important thing in the world?

      He Tangata! He Tangata! He Tangata!

      Every imperialist power keeps genocide as a threat in its arsenal of intimidation and control, The Russian Federation is no different. The invention of nuclear weapons, industrialised scale mass murder ie genocide has been streamlined.
      If Putin dared to use nuclear weapons to achieve his military goals in Ukraine, the Russian people would tear him a new arsehole.

      • Pat, you are right that the Russian people would do as you say to Putin should he use Nukes. Fortunately Putin has a very legalistic mind, and has stated many times that Russian law prohibits first use.

        I’m far more worried about the Americans whose citizens appear to have discounted the nuclear threat and the neocons who seem to think that brinkmanship is a game. Then there’s the Balts and Swedes who thought joining NATO wouldn’t mean the Russian would add them as nuclear targets in any counterstrike.

        We are in very dangerous circumstances.

  5. Hilarious. As usual Ben directly lies, falsely claiming that ‘South Korea’ has not been supplying weapons. Even the NYT admits that American-occupied Korea has been supplying the Zelensky regime with weapons passed through the US for years.
    https://www.nytimes.com/2023/09/14/world/asia/north-south-korea-ukraine.html
    The Kpop weirdos haven’t been able to compete with the military industrial production capabilities of their free, non-perverted neighbors to the North, and that won’t be changing.

  6. Farage has just torpedoed his chances in the UK elections by supporting Putin. Now he is as toxic as Corbyn was 2019.
    I hope that Ben’s optimism is well founded and that the Putin supporting rabble on this blog will be proven wrong.

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