The Russian push into kyiv disintegrated this week and Ukrainian forces now control the surrounding area. Russian propagandists will try to paint the withdrawal in a positive light, but make no mistake, it’s a victory for the Ukrainians. Unfortunately, the most telling evidence that this is a retreat is the malicious killing of civilians, disciplined armies retreating under strict control do not fire on civilians. Angry and upset defeated young men seeking revenge, and note I don’t use the word ‘soldier’, members of the profession of arms or ‘soldiers’ follow the laws of armed conflict and do not shoot defenseless people.
In the next few days, the situation around kyiv will continue to evolve and we will find out if the Ukrainians managed to surround a pocket of Russians in the towns of Klavdiievo-Tarasove, Nemishaieve and Vorzel. Where did these Russian forces manage to escape?
This is important information because it tells us whether the Russian withdrawal was well planned or hasty and poorly prepared. If many Russians have been killed, captured, or are waiting to be “cleansed up,” this is a key indicator that the Russians are on the defensive. While, on the other hand, the Russians came out with their strength almost intact, they managed to “break contact” and withdraw effectively, indicating that they still have good command and control and that there is always a capable force in this area.
In recent days, Ukraine’s key objective should have been to keep Russian forces north of kyiv from getting away with it by fixing them in place, then surrounding pockets of Russians and forcing them to surrender. or be killed. It is estimated that the Russians launched 18-20 battlegroups of battalions in the kyiv push, a significant part of their total force and that their total or partial destruction would have a significant impact on the Russian war machine. At this point, it’s just too early to tell, but the lack of Russians who surrendered parading on social media leads me to believe that near Kyiv the Russians got away.
Yesterday the withdrawal was followed by more threatening Russian rhetoric, which spokesman Dmitry Peskov said was “…convinced that the objectives of our military operation will be fully achievedindicating that we are unlikely to see peace any time soon. Additionally, news agencies like the BBC and Al Jazeera track recruitment campaigns and possible movements of Syrian mercenaries to Russia. This looks threatening, especially combined with reports of Wagner Group mercenaries, Chechen mercenaries and the arrival of other Russian troops from Syria, Georgia and Tajikistan. This appears to be a buildup of strength that could influence the fighting in the Donbass region. However, these reports need time to be interpreted, as there is a big difference between hiring “gunslingers” and creating a cohesive military force.
This buildup is likely to have a propaganda effect, the picture the Russians paint is that thousands of the world’s most rogue and brutal mercenaries are concentrating in Russia, ready to be unleashed on Ukraine. It’s a threat, but even the most rogue mercenaries are useless against well-trained, well-equipped, and motivated soldiers. Generally, mercenaries are a weapon unleashed on civilian populations to control or terrorize them, there are examples of mercenaries defeating poorly led and poorly equipped semi-professional forces but this is not what they will face in Ukraine .
The practical reason why mercenaries are ineffective against formed armies is simple, imagine trying to assemble a cohesive force, one that uses a common language for command and control, the same tactics and a shared logistics system from a very disparate group of “buccaneers”.
Instead, if the Russians want to make progress, they are going to have to find soldiers within their own army. This is why the details of the battle for kyiv are so important, if the Russians managed to save a large part of their forces in this area, this provides manpower for future offensive operations around the Donbass. Other forces that could be used to carry out major offensives are soldiers returning from Georgia, Tajikistan and Syria.
Whether or not the Russians can mount any offensive in the south and east, and when, will be determined by two factors. The Russians need fresh soldiers, an optimist (from a Russian point of view) the estimate of how many they can generate from Georgia, Tajikistan and Syria is 15-20,000. It’s likely to be less. The soldiers withdrawn from kyiv, Chernihiv and Kharkov will have to be rested, fed, resupplied with ammunition and equipment, receive reinforcements to replace the wounded and then be transported to their new area of operations. Even if the Russians can muster 10,000 mercenaries, these fighters are unlikely to be able to form large, cohesive units capable of driving out trained Ukrainian defenders from important positions, but they will free up regular Russian units in the south and ballast.
The second factor is logistics. A large push into Ukraine to encircle Ukrainian forces on the Donetsk border or to push towards Odessa requires a logistical capability that the Russians have not demonstrated to date. The Ukrainians have a large force of around 20,000 soldiers defending the western parts of Donetsk County (administrative Region) protecting cities like Kramatorsk, Sloviansk, and Bakhmut and enveloping them from a southward thrust would require forcing a supply line through approximately 130–180 km of heavily contested territory. A push to Odessa faces similar issues.
So if we assume that the front is currently stable to the south and east, that the Ukrainians are holding their ground, then Russia will need to muster and prepare a larger force than the Ukrainian defenders in that area to have any hope of success probably in the region at least 50-60,000 troops probably closer to 100,000 as the Ukrainians begin to divert their resources south.
The current Russian rhetoric seems like wishful thinking, which is not supported by mathematics or it is propaganda. It seems unlikely that, even with reinforcements from across the Russian “empire” and with mercenaries assuming roles in the rear area, the Russians could form some kind of offensive force capable of a big push towards Odessa or beyond. wrap Ukrainians defending western parts of Donetsk County short term. Even if they have the capability, it will take weeks to replenish the soldiers in the north and build up the overstaffing required to successfully mount this type of offensive.
This is the crucial question, does the Russian military have the soldiers it needs to return to any type of large-scale offensive anywhere in Ukraine? I don’t think that’s possible anytime soon. This means that Putin faces a problematic set of choices:
- Withdraw to Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea and negotiate a ceasefire.
- Halt, slow down the war and concentrate forces in Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea.
- Step up, declare war and mobilize the entire Russian war machine.
None of the options are good for Putin, withdrawal, no matter what the propagandists offer, is a loss. Going from a “special operation” to a declaration of war and the mobilization of all Russian military forces is a risky political option. The economic implications are huge for the Russian economy and politically it means acknowledging that the great Vladimir Putin and his vaunted army have been beaten in Ukraine, which can be unpleasant for a leader who relies on perceptions of infallibility. to stay in power.
It seems more likely that in the short term the Russians will consolidate in the southeast. This small group of more efficient mercenary soldiers and more professional Russian soldiers will be used to lead a revenge campaign, their tactics to carry out small raids and terrorize border communities. When the defenders of a village or town fail, that area can be brought under Russian control using regular units to hold it. Over time, small areas can be occupied at a low cost in Russian lives while forces are replenished and larger offensives can be prepared.
So in the next few days there are likely to be rocket and cruise missile attacks across Ukraine, like yesterday’s attack on the Odessa fuel depot. However, these are malicious distractions rather than indications of military targets. Instead, keep watching the north closely and see if the Ukrainians are capturing the Russians in large numbers. If they don’t, it indicates that the Russians are coordinating and managing the withdrawal, demonstrating a level of military capability that means they are not completely defeated and will be useful deployed in other areas.
Remember the south, although it will take time for forces to build up this area, we will likely see an increase in artillery bombardment of towns and villages and Mariupol. Remember that artillery is an easy way to maintain operations and keep the enemy under pressure. Moreover, it is now clear that the Russians plan to use artillery to reduce cities to rubble before launching a ground offensive. Unless the Ukrainians can generate enough combat power to carry out a large-scale offensive action and push back the Russians, then in the coming weeks we will probably see the war in Donbass evolve into a long, slow war. artillery attack followed by small local attacks. ground attacks slowly soaking up Ukrainian territory.
The “wild card” is whether Putin is willing to risk a full-scale Russian mobilization. It would prolong the suffering in Ukraine and, in my view, inevitably lead to its defeat, but it is an option he may be considering. The next few days will tell us how cunning Putin really is; a long and slow war of attrition focused on Donbass, is not the victory he wanted but is durable and will produce results. Or will he “roll the dice” and risk full mobilization. That may provide a win, but imagine the political consequences of taking that step and still not being able to beat Ukraine?
Ben Morgan is a weary Gen Xer with an interest in international politics. He’s TDB’s military analyst.