GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – Ukraine – A player rolls the dice…

Yesterday it became clear that Kiev is Putin’s main target. Over the past twenty-four hours, fighting has intensified on this axis of advance. Explosions were reported in the city and fighting with Russian troops is reported in the outer suburbs of the city. Strategically, it is vital for Putin to capture Kiev. It is not only the capital of Ukraine but it is also one of the great cities of the Russian and Soviet empires, its historical, cultural and religious importance cannot be underestimated.

Kiev is operationally important because it is the political linchpin of Putin’s risky adventure. On paper, Putin’s army appears huge with around 180,000 soldiers on the ground, but it’s important to remember that this is not a gigantic army to conquer Europe’s second largest country, a country of 40 million people. For example, the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan included about 140,000 troops, mostly American, supporting about 3-400,000 local Afghan forces and struggling to provide security. This comparison supports this inference that Putin does not have the manpower to secure all of Ukraine. Therefore, he must prioritize his effort and carefully select where his main effort will be exerted. A push into the heart of Ukraine, in Kyiv, is an economical use of force for rapid and decisive regime change.

A good player, and Putin is one, will also mitigate risk. In this case, the means by which he tries to achieve this are “shock” and trying to win over the Ukrainian population. The term “shock” refers to the psychological impact of a force’s tactics. Widespread cruise missile and rocket attacks, multi-axis ground assaults, airborne and amphibious attacks all create a “shock” forcing military planners to try to assess the widest possible range of alternatives and hopefully -the, crippling effective planning. It is also designed to scare the civilian population. The United States used similar tactics in Grenada, Panama, two Gulf Wars, and in the invasion of Afghanistan.

At this point, Putin also appears to be trying to win over the Ukrainian people, another indication that rather than occupation he is aiming for a “quick and easy” victory by forcing regime change. Despite all the media hyperbole, vox pops and social media videos of slightly damaged buildings, we have yet to see the massive artillery of Russian doctrine. When we do, it will be a shock.

In the past twenty-four hours, we have also received important information. The Pentagon reported that Russia did not achieve air superiority over Ukraine. This is vital information because it means Russia’s first wave of rocket and cruise missile attacks failed to hit a key target, knocking out Ukrainian air defense missiles and their army of l ‘air.

Close air support, using planes and helicopters to support ground operations, is incredibly powerful, but can only be used when your side controls the skies. While the enemy can contest the air battle, your ability to use attack planes and helicopters is very limited. More importantly, not being able to secure air superiority affects the Russians ability to concentrate ground forces, large tank and artillery units are easy targets for aircraft.

Second, the Pentagon said Russian forces were not advancing as quickly as anticipated by the United States or by Russian planners. They also estimated that only about a third of the total Russian force has been deployed so far. It is not a surprise; we have not yet had reports of large concentrations (brigade or division sized groups) of Russian forces. Yesterday we discussed the Russians using network-centric tactics, small combat groups swarming over a coordinated area using advanced digital technology and then concentrating for a quick battle. Right now the lead elements are swarming over the Ukraine looking for a weak point and when they find that spot (provided they can achieve air superiority) their next echelon will pass through it.

The problem with Putin’s political gamble is that focusing on capturing Kiev quickly restricts tactical flexibility. Politically, Russian forces will not be able to use time-consuming tactics to take the city. Instead, the Ukrainians will first be treated well, told to surrender and if they don’t, the Russians will have no choice for a quick victory but to unleash maximum force.

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Another point worth noting is that there are now reports of fighting west of the Dnieper, specifically in Vasylkiv, a town that hosts the headquarters of the 40and Tactical Aviation Brigade, a large combat aircraft unit. This fight is most likely a Special Forces raid to destroy the aircraft and will be quickly defeated, but it is important to keep track of the fighting west of the Dnieper as it could signal an expansion of Russian strategic objectives.

So at the end of D+3 let’s look at our predictions:

  • It becomes clear that a rapid invasion forcing regime change is Putin’s goal. He wants to capture Kiev quickly hoping he can shock the Ukrainians into accepting a puppet government.
  • Kyiv is the decisive point at this stage of the campaign and we should expect to see an increasing intensity in the fighting as thorough attacks with limited use of artillery and encirclement attempts are made over the next few days. . I believe these maneuvers will be defeated by the Ukrainians, triggering an escalation on the Russian side and the use of massive artillery and possibly thermobaric weapons.
  • The trigger for the Russian use of mass artillery will likely be the suppression of the Ukrainian Air Force, even if only around Kiev. Massive artillery is a good target for air power and if the Ukrainian Air Force is still “in play” this risk is unlikely to be taken. Similarly the removal of the Ukrainian Air Force is necessary for the massive armor deployment and if the Russians achieve air superiority then I think we will see a release of reserves, armor and artillery deployment more massive in the northeast and with an offensive around Kharkov.
  • Other reports indicate that Russia’s armored forces are being blunted by advanced anti-armour weapons supplied by the West. Regardless of the air situation, I predict that these weapons will continue to slow the Russian advance.
  • It’s the third day of the conflict, when battalion-sized battle groups like the Russians start to run out of food, ammunition, fuel and supplies. The Russians are used to living off the land, but even so, if I was part of the planning team for this operation, the third or fourth day would be when I would want to bring the next echelon of forces through. Not achieving air superiority will impact this as it is difficult to move a second echelon into action if there is a threat of air attack, so we can predict a loss of initiative in the Russian advance on the most of the axes, even if the pressure will be maintained on Kiev.
  • This could give defenders a brief respite; and from the Ukrainian point of view, the next two days would be the time to counterattack. If the Ukrainians can gather the forces for a big attack for example; attempt to encircle the tip of the Kiev salient, is questionable. However, local counterattacks against tired and isolated Russian battle groups are likely to be possible and are also likely to succeed. The psychological impact of even small successful counterattacks would be significant.
  • In addition, the Russians are trying to fight in a “net-centric” way using small scattered forces that risk being defeated in detail. Ukrainian counterattacks would have to be met with rapid concentrations of Russian forces providing targets for aircraft and without Russian air superiority this is risky. We were therefore able to see the punctual commitment of the Russian air and land reserve forces initially dissipating the main effort to capture Kiev. However, this problem will be quickly resolved and these forces will be reassigned to the Kiev operation. It appears Russian ground forces are engaging decisively across a broad front, but may not be able to masse for local offensive operations as reserves are diverted to Kiev. The conditions for a protracted war are developing.

In summary, there is a difference between taking risks and gambling. A “risk” is recoverable and the “bet” is not. If I was on Putin’s team, my advice would be that without action in the next two days, this campaign would go from a ‘risk’ to a ‘bet’. The first precision strikes did not achieve their objective, Ukrainian planes are still in the air and their air defense network is still functioning. The initial swarm of Russian ground attacks did not cause panic and took place in many areas. The Ukrainian army is resolute and effective. This is also the time when the Russians were probably planning to push their second echelon but it’s risky without air superiority.

A smart leader would look for options now, digging into your ground forces and consolidating until the Ukrainian Air Force is hunted down; or concentrating all air and ground forces on a push into Kyiv are the two options. Another would be a ceasefire, consolidating the gains of Crimea and Donbass pulling out and waiting for the next round.

Putin is a “tough man”, he cannot afford to lose face, so I think he will focus his forces against Kyiv and in the next few days we will see an intensification of activity in this area resulting in a massive bombardment of the city. He will turn a risk into a bet and I think he might lose.

Ben Morgan is a weary Gen Xer with an interest in international politics.