GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan: Ukraine – Kyiv is now Putin’s only option

Over the past 24 hours, the situation in Ukraine has continued to develop as expected. Peace talks in Belarus ended with a pledge to negotiate again, as a 64-kilometre-long column of military equipment advanced on Kiev.

Satellite images of military equipment heading towards Kiev are useful as they confirm that the Russians are massing forces in this area. More importantly, we can infer that Russia controls the airspace north of Kyiv, as a move of this nature would not occur in daylight if there was a significant threat of air attack.

This observation does not contradict Pentagon reports that the Ukrainian Air Force is still able to contest the air battle. Instead, it means the Russians are concentrating their air assets in the area north of Kyiv, confirming that the main campaign effort is still Kyiv. This represents the gathering of force before the assault that was predicted, satellite photos mostly show trucks and other logistical vehicles bringing in ammunition and other supplies for the attack.

This buildup of forces will not happen overnight and continued sporadic shelling of Kiev takes place as the Russians surround and probe the city. A deliberate attack has not started at this point and the key indicator of this will be the use of huge amounts of artillery.

Yesterday the Pentagon reported that about a quarter of Russian forces remain unengaged. From a military point of view, this is vital information. Any military operation requires reserves or forces that are not engaged in battle and can be quickly deployed to exploit a breakthrough or surround an enemy. This campaign began with two-thirds of the Russian forces uncommitted and within a week the Russian reserves were drastically reduced without achieving any significant pause or advance. Essentially, the Russians had to use their reserves too early, committing them to battle too early and now lack a significant reserve echelon to exploit success. This has serious implications for campaign planning.

The first implication is that the lack of reserves means that a deliberate attack on Kiev is likely to be an all-or-nothing operation. Simply put, Russia is getting “one shot” to subdue the city and we can deduce that psychological warfare is a key part of this battle. The long columns of trucks moving towards Kyiv by day send the message that Russia dominates the airspace and that there is a great force descending on the city. Then we will see more calls for surrender that will serve to legitimize the attack and offer an easy Russian chance of victory.

Moreover, when the attack is mounted, it must be well prepared and overwhelming. The Russians do not have the capacity for a second deliberate attack. Ongoing operations around Kiev represent Russian probing attacks and aggressive patrols to uncover Ukrainian defenses. The Russians carry out a reconnaissance of the city.

The real attack will involve a number of phases likely beginning with cruise missile and rocket attacks to knock out any remaining air defense systems, followed by aircraft bombing known Ukrainian positions. Then there will be a slow advance in large numbers supported by a lot of artillery. The initial attack could be preceded by the use of thermobaric weapons at key points to “break into” the defender’s lines. Essentially, we’ll see it develop slowly over a period of days, culminating in the massive influx of infantry into the city.

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The second implication of the lack of reserves is that it forces the Russians to commit to an axis of advance. In this case in Kiev, it is therefore unlikely that we will see significant developments in other parts of Ukraine. Recent reports of shelling in Kharkov do not yet indicate the progress of an offensive in this area.

Yesterday, new information surfaced on the web regarding Ukraine’s use of Turkish-provided drones to spot Russian armored vehicles and guide anti-armour missiles. This tactic is not new and was first used in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, the fact that these systems work effectively adds weight to the assumption that the Russians are not as tactically effective as expected against advanced Western anti-armour missiles and new technologies like drones.

We are also seeing increasing reports of declining Russian soldier morale and general disorganization. Tik Tok is full of videos of errant, lost or out of gas Russian vehicles and although this is anecdotal evidence, it contributes to the image of an overstretched army. An army that loses control of its poorly trained and demotivated soldiers operating in a dispersed manner and according to their logistics train. While the Russian force of 120 battalion battlegroups looked fierce on paper, we are witnessing the difficulties of operating using this doctrine. It was always going to be hard work bringing together battle groups of battalions from all over Russia and turning them into a fighting force.

Having listened to the network-centric warfare debate for about twenty years and seen these tactics develop around the world, I understand the difficulties of actually fighting this way and would like to know if this tactical model has been decided on because of a fast-talking futurist selling the idea to Putin or whether the Russians really thought the Ukrainians were going to collapse. Remember Donald Rumsfield and Dick Cheney selling a “cheap” occupation of Iraq by disbanding the Iraqi military and employing private military contractors in the United States twenty years ago? Network-centric tactics work but require a lot of logistics, a lot of training, and motivated professional soldiers, all of which the Russians seem to lack.

Belarus’ troop supply also contributes to the emerging image of a depleted army that has made serious mistakes in operational planning, such as trying to use high-tech and dispersed tactics without the necessary logistics and training to do it. I’m sure this is a last option for Putin, it means admitting that the vaunted Russian military has failed. However, it offers another option before you have to scale without using nukes.

The situation is difficult for the Russians, too extended and without great reserve they lack tactical flexibility. In a previous article, I said that if I was a Russian commander, my advice would be to hold on to Kiev, dig there, but present a threat that fixes Ukrainian forces in that area. Focus on open country, “tank country” in the northeast near Kharkov. Then use large amounts of armor supported by artillery to suppress anti-armour weapons to break through the Ukrainian defenders and regain the initiative.

Based on the Pentagon’s assessment of the Russian forces engaged, I don’t think trying to regain the initiative in the northeast would be a feasible plan at this point. Russian reserves are too small, even if an attack in the northeast succeeded in breaking through near Kharkov, there would not be enough follow-up forces to exploit the situation by moving about 350 kilometers west to Kiev. Or even the possibly better option of traveling about 200 kilometers southwest to Dnipro and joining the Russian forces already present in the southeast.

Kiev is now the Russians’ only chance of success. In my opinion, they will fail. Ukrainians fight hard and have good leadership. Advanced anti-armour and anti-aircraft missiles are pouring into Ukraine from Poland. Fighting in urban areas is incredibly expensive and difficult and the Russians simply don’t have enough resources to capture the city.

So at the end of D+6 let’s look at our predictions:

  • Kiev remains the decisive point of the campaign. In fact, as Russian reserves are depleted, a push on Kiev becomes a necessity rather than an option.
  • Kyiv will not be taken, it currently appears that Russia lacks 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.
  • Putin’s nuclear rhetoric is still concerning and there is a risk of a nuclear show of force. A demonstration designed to “frighten” NATO and international support, “escalate to defuse”.
  • Russian activity in the rest of Ukraine will continue to slow as Russian forces consolidate, rebuild and entrench.

In summary, we are witnessing the cessation of the ground war. The player has one last conventional card to play, capturing Kyiv. At present, it seems unlikely that the Russians will be able to do so. A more likely scenario is a big attack, followed by weeks or months of street fighting culminating in paralysis as the Russians run out of reserves, but the Ukrainians lack the forces to completely drive them out of the city.

The problem is that there will be people in the Russian military who will do the same analysis and start looking for options. Russian options are limited; they can mobilize more soldiers, an activity that takes time and money, which is quickly depleted by Western economic sanctions. Or, they may accept Belarusian military aid which, apart from being politically embarrassing, is unlikely to significantly influence the battle. Or, they can use nuclear weapons, which will certainly create a dilemma for NATO. Would this action break the current unity of the alliance? Would NATO countries be willing to risk nuclear war to save Ukraine? Hopefully we won’t have to find out. That in the Russian command structure there are reasonable, sensible people who are thinking about the future and looking for other options.

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