GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan: Ukraine – A week into the war, are we at an impasse?

The war continues to progress as planned, with Russian bombardment of Kiev continuing and possibly increasing. Elsewhere, Kharkov was bombarded but the general situation does not indicate any significant change in Russian plans.

Regardless of media coverage, yesterday’s bombings are not the start of the planned deliberate attack. Instead, these were attacks that targeted the communications infrastructure, scared the population, and prevented Ukrainian forces from moving easily through the city. That a major attack is brewing is indicated by the targeting of the communications infrastructure. The last thing the Kremlin wants is for the world to see is the true fury of its artillery bombardment.

The bombardment of Kharkov does not seem to indicate a significant change in the main Russian effort. This activity seems sporadic and less targeted. It is probably designed to keep the Ukrainian forces guessing and prevent the Ukrainians from easily moving their forces. In military terminology, “fixing” them in place so that Russian forces know where they are and can prevent them from counterattacking or retreating.

Yesterday the most interesting points related to the situation in southern Ukraine, with the release of a video of Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president, briefing his ministers on the campaign, using a map which appeared to show a Russian push from the south aimed at connecting with Russia. forces in Transnistria and threatening Moldova. The video was interesting and may have been an example of maskirovka, a strategic deception, many Western commentators assume that the goal of the invasion is to capture Donbass and Crimea, building a “Crimean Corridor” that secures Russian access to the Black Sea and Transnistria. It is possible that the map was designed to show Western intelligence analysts what they want to see and distract people from the real target – Kyiv. Another hypothesis is that Lukashenko made a mistake.

The only way to win maskirovka is to look at the evidence. In a previous article (the third in this series) I said it was important to monitor activity west of the Dnieper and in the past 24 hours there have been reports of fighting northwest of Kherson which indicated that Lukashenko’s map might need to be weighted. However, these reports do not appear to have led to anything significant and Russian forces will find it difficult to develop operations in this area without capturing Kherson. At this time, Kherson is still in Ukrainian hands.

Another helpful assessment made in the last twenty-four hours came from the Royal United Services Institute, a very well-established military think tank based in the UK. This group published an assessment saying that the Ukrainian army had lost its ability to fight offensively. Essentially, that like the Russians, the Ukrainians are now so engaged in battle that they cannot generate combat power to launch attacks with any strength. This is not unexpected, to counter the first Russian offensives, the Ukrainians need all their forces and had no choice but to commit their reserves to combat.

In addition, the Ukrainian army has been suffering precision attacks against its infrastructure for the past week. They are likely to run out of supplies, cannot communicate effectively, and are also exhausted. This does not mean that they are defeated, but rather that there will be a transition to entrenchment, holding positions and generating an organic form of local defense as regular units merge with militia and local volunteers. Over time, if the war continues, these groups will likely merge into irregular insurgent units.

The big question of the last twenty-four hours has been: what don’t we see? At this point, if they want to “win”, the Russians need options. Recently I discussed that going nuclear is an option, but we all hope the Russians are looking for other options. What are they doing that we can’t see?

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A key point to remember is that the invasion force was very small, to the New Zealanders an army of 180,000 seems huge, it is important to remember that only a small portion are actually combatants.

In Western armies, each combatant is supported by between five and seven support soldiers. These people provide the fighting soldier with ammunition, food, maintain his technical tools, repair his equipment, dress his wounds and help him in the fight. In the Russian army, the ratio is probably closer to two to three support soldiers per combat soldier, because historically Soviet armies relied on less logistical support. This means that the actual combat strength of the Russians during the invasion is probably closer to around 60,000 men on the ground.

The Russians began the invasion with a force of fighters who could watch a rugby match together at Eden Park. Do not forget that Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe and has 40 million inhabitants.

In the last message, I said this; I would have loved to see the officers selling network-centric tactics and a plan to use such a small force to “shock and scare” Ukraine into submission. If you hang around in the military, you realize that optimism is an essential characteristic of the military. I believe that is why generals should be conservative; this tempers misplaced optimism. In this case, the optimism was clearly misplaced and the Russians now desperately need “boots on the pitch”. Remember that tactical flexibility is provided by having spare soldiers or a “reserve” that can be deployed quickly to exploit success or open up new operations. Where will this reserve come from?

Belarusian intervention is unlikely to make a huge difference, their army is relatively small and less well trained than the Russians. Recently, reports of declining Russian motivation have painted a picture of soldiers who are insufficiently trained to fight using modern tactics and generally lack motivation. Belarusian soldiers are likely to be even less motivated and less well trained.

Are the Russians moving forces from across their “empire” into Ukraine? I haven’t been able to find any reports to confirm this, but it seems likely and I would expect to see confirmation of this in the next few days.

The search for options could also see the Russians resort to unconventional tactics, another round of negotiations is expected soon and we should expect to see displays of Russian strength and determination before this meeting, probably with bombings of key cities and the destruction of civilian infrastructure.

An unconventional war is likely, there are reports that Wagner Group contractors have been sent to assassinate Volodymyr Zelenskyy. This is likely true and we can expect to see more operations by forces like this or by Russian special forces in the coming days as Russia looks for ways to “get the operation off the ground”.

Also, we have to wonder what the United States is doing behind the scenes. I’m sure there will be behind-the-scenes negotiations between Western and Russian generals and diplomats in search of a face-saving solution to the conflict. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States gave Khrushchev a “victory” by withdrawing its missiles from Turkey. Maybe there is something similar being discussed at this point, unfortunately I don’t have an opinion on that yet.

So at the end of D+7 let’s look at our predictions:

  • Kiev remains the decisive point of the campaign. I always predict that Kiev will not be taken, believing that Russia does not have the combat power to take a city of this size which is well defended. However, expect the battle to be long and likely to end in a stalemate rather than a clear victory for either side.
  • Another round of negotiations is scheduled and Putin’s nuclear rhetoric continues. There is therefore a risk that there will be a demonstration of nuclear force. A demonstration designed to “frighten” NATO and international support, “escalate to defuse”. Let’s hope there’s enough common sense and behind-the-scenes bargaining that this doesn’t happen.
  • Conventional Russian activity in the rest of Ukraine will continue to slow as Russian forces consolidate, rebuild and dig in and focus their efforts. However, we can see an increase in unconventional warfare; assassinations, airfield raids and similar activities. Perhaps, as the front stabilizes the deployment of Spetsnaz or Wagner Group units in key local attacks to create break-ins that less well-trained and motivated conventional force units can exploit.
  • If Kherson falls, the situation could change as this city provides a solid base for developing operations in the southwest. Capturing a “Crimean corridor” could be enough for Putin to save face and begin “real” negotiations.
  • Expect to see reports of more Russian troops mobilizing and moving into Ukraine.

In summary, yesterday’s events followed the pattern we predicted. At this point, unless there is a nuclear escalation, expect to see little change in the situation for a few days or weeks. The Russians will continue to consolidate for their assault on Kiev, this will take time and the final deliberate attack is unlikely before the next round of negotiations. After all, it’s easier to capture a city with words than with soldiers. However Kiev, Kharkov and Kherson will be heavily bombarded. The key questions now are: what is happening that we cannot see?

Ben Morgan is a weary Gen Xer with an interest in international politics. He’s TDB’s military analyst.