Over the past 72 hours there have been reports of minor but significant Russian activity signaling potential Russian plans. This week’s negotiations in Turkey have stalled and produced no significant breakthrough towards a peace agreement.
Over the past few days, we have also witnessed a Ukrainian propaganda campaign as videos of successful attacks on Russian forces are released along with announcements that Russian commanders have been killed. The Russian bombing of a hospital has grabbed headlines around the world, and Western audiences gleefully devour images of captured Russian soldiers illegally parading at press conferences. The Ukrainians project an image of strength and determination, winning the propaganda war in the west, and possibly in Russia too. This “information warfare” operation is obviously timed to coincide with and influence the peace negotiations.
The Russians have retaliated with threats, the publication of information that Ukraine is developing chemical weapons is an obvious pretext for escalation and although “called” in fact, the fact that the Russians are constructing such a pretext must be interpreted as a threat. It’s not a threat to NATO, it’s a threat to Ukrainian negotiators.
Today, the major media report the dispersal of the column of Russian vehicles massed north of Kiev. Unfortunately, these reports are usually not accompanied by analysis, so we will start today by providing an analysis of this movement. Two tactical reasons can explain the dispersion of this column.
The first being that the Russians are ready to advance on Kiev. That the area north of Kiev is secure and that the logistics bases, field hospitals and ammunition depots necessary for an assault on the city are operational. Therefore, the column of supply trucks can move the goods they carry to those places ready to support the assault. Recent reports indicate that approximately 18-20 battalion battlegroups are in this area. A strength of around 15-20,000, so still not big enough for the task. However, there are recent examples of Russian operations in Syria and Chechnya that provide insight into possible tactics.
In these countries, Russia used its enormous artillery arm to simply demolish the cities by sending infantry into the urban areas only after the buildings had been flattened and the defenders neutralized. Moreover, doctrinally the Soviets (Russia’s predecessors) saw the potential for using poison gas in urban areas as it kills defenders but leaves buildings and infrastructure intact. Bombing a city into oblivion destroys the city’s drainage system. Being on a Kiev river is likely to flood easily if heavily bombarded, slowing movement and creating an unhealthy environment for occupying forces. The cold calculation of military planning is sometimes very disturbing, and it is highly unlikely that chemical weapons would be used in this way due to the condemnation it would bring, but must be considered in light of recent Russian comments.
Simply put, although the Russians have the capability to besiege with a relatively small number of troops, if they are prepared for the international condemnation such methods would bring.
Yesterday there was another series of precision attacks across Ukraine using cruise missiles and long-range rockets. This is likely a prelude to an operation, with these strikes aimed at destroying more Ukrainian aircraft and command, communications and control infrastructure. An attack of this nature is a classic indicator of an offensive. However, it could also be a deception.
The encirclement of the western side of Kyiv is not yet complete, the towns of Obukhiv, Fastiv and the city of Makariv to the south and west of Kyiv are still disputed. However, their capture may not be necessary to prevent reinforcements and supplies from reaching Kiev, and there will likely be considerable pressure on Russian commanders to take Kiev.
The second reason for the column’s dispersal could be that the Ukrainians forced it to disperse. That their counterattacks are effective and force the Russian commanders to leave the roads and find more easily defended locations. If this assumption is correct, the rocket and long-range cruise missile attacks are a ruse designed to distract Kiev.
At this point, on a balance of probabilities, it is highly likely that the Russians north of Kiev will move to their positions for the assault. However, it is too early to rule out the possibility of a Russian withdrawal or dispersal to avoid Ukrainian counterattacks. It is difficult to judge the situation, Ukraine’s dominance in the information war means that we have to be skeptical and careful in analyzing the information. So don’t expect to see the Russians withdraw, rather expect to see more shelling of Kiev, more fighting to the south and west, and perhaps an intense artillery assault.
But will Russia engage in the assault on Kiev? It’s still uncertain and we have to remember to keep looking at the big picture, not where Putin wants us to look.
The recent development that I believe is most significant are the Russian attacks on the southern towns of Mylolaiv and Voznesens. Previously, it was planned that after capturing Kherson, the Russians would either push west towards Odessa or north along the Dnieper. (See – Kherson falls may be a game changer) and since then we have been watching that front, looking for an indication of Putin’s strategic plan. Yesterday the Russians provided this information.
Mylolaiv and Voznesens both lie on the Bug River, a large river that runs parallel to the Dnieper and which must be crossed to attack Odessa, the largest Ukrainian city on the Black Sea, a port and a major cultural center. Mylolaiv is about 50 km west of Kherson, and Voznesens about 140 km north and west of the same city. We have already discussed the importance of cities and their bridges for an advancing army. Attacking these cities, rather than heading north is an indicator of Russian plans.
It is unlikely that the Russians would have the combat power to push north towards Kiev on the Dnieper and simultaneously push west towards Odessa.
Capturing Odessa would be a significant victory, it would be the western part of a “Crimean Corridor” cutting Ukraine off from the Black Sea, potentially linking pro-Russian Tranistria, ensuring safe Russian access to the Black Sea and providing a stamp for Crimea. Putin needs a victory to get out of the war. Kiev is a Pyrrhic victory. Odessa is a real victory, ensuring ice-free access to the sea has been a Russian strategic goal since the reign of Peter the Great.
Time is not on Putin’s side; Russia’s economy is only slightly larger than Australia’s, so it does not have the economic reserves to continue to struggle under the impact of international sanctions. Capturing a “Crimean Corridor” might be possible, especially if the strategic center of NATO and the world is Kyiv. Although Kyiv was the original target, perhaps Russia’s focus is changing and the reported operations around Kyiv are a deception. Recall that Putin’s most recent territorial claims concerned only the security of the Black Sea; recognition of Crimea as Russian, and of Donetsk and Lugansk as independent states.
So at the end of D+15 let’s look at our predictions:
- The Russians begin to maneuver strategically and tactically. A westward push towards Odessa and activity around Kiev are both interesting. Elsewhere, they continue to contest parts of the country, but are not making significant progress. The coming weeks will be a test for the Russian military, either it will develop offensive operations or it will collapse. However, don’t expect an assault on Kiev soon, rather expect artillery and shelling, but a large ground attack is unlikely.
- Expect more activity in the south, which will likely go unreported, drowned out by artillery and shelling elsewhere. Putin will keep the pressure on Kyiv, likely punishing the city and keeping media attention on this area as he moves west into the south. Remember that Putin is well educated in the art of maskirovka, strategic deception.
- Tactically, the Russians are in a precarious position. Open-source intelligence websites actively identify and verify photos of damaged Russian and Ukrainian vehicles, and the numbers don’t look good for Russia. Moreover, Ukraine is winning the information war and although press conferences with Russian soldiers violate the laws of armed conflict, they will have an effect on faltering Russian morality. It will be impossible for Russian officers to prevent their men from seeing their sighted, unbeaten and well-treated-looking compatriots speaking out on social media. It is a powerful weapon and we will see more and more of it as more and more Russians surrender or desert, contributing to the attrition of the invasion force. This contributes to the prediction that while there will be a lot of artillery and noise around Kyiv, the real action will be in the south as it offers the best conditions for a quick “victory”.
In summary, the situation is beginning to change, as expected, the Russians are looking for options and may have found one in the south. The negotiations did not lead to a ceasefire and I think the Russians are maintaining a stressed army in the north, while they are developing an offensive in the south. Although there is a lot of noise around Kyiv, don’t forget to look south in the next few days.
Ben Morgan is a weary Gen Xer with an interest in international politics. He’s TDB’s military analyst.