GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan: Ukraine – Prepare for a long war

The tempo of the ground war in Ukraine has definitely slowed, with Russian forces making slow progress over the past 48 hours as we approach a new round of negotiations. To the south, the area around Enerhodar is under Russian control and the nearby towns of Vasylivka and Orikhiv are currently contested, indicating a steady advance north along the Dnieper towards Zaporizhzhia, a city of almost a million people. .

On the northern axis, Kiev is still under pressure, with the Russians massing forces north of the city and attempting to envelop the western flank of the Ukrainian defender. More importantly, fighting is currently reported in Obukhiv, about 35 kilometers south of Kiev and close to the Dnieper. The fighting around Obukhiv represents the tip of the encircling forces which are also fighting in a number of other areas to the north and west of this battle, trying to create a ring around Kiev.

This is an important development as it provides information on Russian objectives and possibly a change in their plans. Initially, it was obvious that the Russian strategy was to “shock and scare” Ukraine into submission. Surgical strikes across the country would knock out Ukraine’s air defense network. Then the Russian ground forces swarming across the border in many places were meant to prevent the defenders from predicting where the main blow would land, forcing them to panic and retreat or surrender.

The Russian plan did not work, now they have taken a break, reconstituted as planned (Article 4 in this series – Putin is in trouble) and develop a new strategy. Initially, it looked like they would push for Kiev and attempt to storm the city. The events of the past few days suggest otherwise. NATO’s refusal to intervene by creating a “no-fly zone” is a key factor because it takes the pressure off the Russians.

Now Putin has time, he doesn’t have to worry about completing the operation before a “no-fly zone” takes his mighty air force out of the contest. He can now wait and slowly attack the Ukrainian Air Force. NATO’s political stance also removes another high-risk contingency for the Russians, the deployment of the NATO Response Force. This is NATO’s rapid reaction capability, about 40,000 of the best soldiers in the world able to move on very short notice. If NATO doesn’t institute a “no-fly zone”, it certainly won’t commit soldiers either, so Russian planning assumptions may change. A short war is no longer necessary to avoid NATO intervention.

The key objective remains Kiev and we are witnessing a slow but steady tightening of the Russian stranglehold around the city. Now it seems unlikely that Russia will pulverize the city as they need a quick win. Instead, they use the large concentration of forces north of the city to threaten and pin down Ukrainian forces in the city. The forces north of the city provide a solid base for the envelopment and we are seeing fighting that confirms this strategy. The Russians are now taking the time to encircle and slowly cut off the city and slowly capture Ukraine’s power generation facilities, so their aim is likely to starve the city into submission.

The intervention of NATO being excluded, it is then an economic strategy. Russia can take time and build military power slowly, concentrating on a small number of areas like Kiev in the north and an axis of advance in the south means the invasion force is easier to provide and easier to coordinate, operations can be planned and executed in small, easy steps.

The south offers the most interesting developments, as the fighting pushes north along the Dnieper we can see the possibility of two Russian options developing either; continuing to advance slowly north towards Kiev with the Dnieper protecting their western flank or crossing the Dnieper at several points and advancing towards Odessa.

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The Russians are about 450 kilometers south of Kiev, so advancing north along the Dnieper and joining the Russian force attacking Kiev is an important operation. An advance rate of 20-30 kilometers per day is probably a reasonable planning figure for an operation like this, meaning a commitment of about a month. Logistics are problematic and manpower will be a problem, but if it can be done the Russians will encircle the eastern half of Ukraine.

Russian planners are likely to balance this option and push east from Kherson to take Odessa just 140 kilometers away. Based on Russian strength assessments, this seems like a better option, but I think the choice will be influenced more by political analysis than military planning.

Essentially, the Russians are still stuck militarily because they don’t currently have the forces they need to conquer Ukraine. NATO’s intervention policy, while preventing escalation, gives Russia time to develop options. If there was any chance of a NATO “no-fly zone” or 40,000 well-equipped NATO professional troops entering the battle, the Russians needed a quick victory. A key lesson from this war is that the Russian military is in no way trained to fight using modern tactics and that professional and seasoned German, British, American or other NATO troops in Afghanistan would easily defeat Russians.

Russia’s nuclear rhetoric and recent threats against neighboring countries to allow the Ukrainians to use their airbases show just how much of a threat NATO intervention and airpower pose to the Russians. Now that this threat is gone, Russia can start thinking about winning the peace. It may not be able to conquer all of Ukraine, but Russia can slowly and strategically plan what it wants from a peace deal. At this point, it’s hard to tell what those objectives are, and we have to watch how the ground battle develops to give us any further clues. Broadly speaking, I think the options are likely to be either; cutting Ukraine east of the Dnieper and creating a client state, or creating a Crimean Corridor.

So at the end of D+11 let’s look at our predictions:

  • It is difficult to define the Russian main effort. Kiev remains a key objective but the situation there is stable and the Russians could seek to advance more quickly in other less contested areas. These operations will help us see their longer term goals.
  • At this time the Russians tend to push north from Kherson with very limited reports of fighting west of the Dnieper. It’s still too early to tell whether the focus will continue north or shift west towards Odessa, but expect Russian intentions to become clearer in the coming days.
  • The negotiating table is now the key battleground. Putin is looking for options, continuing talks with Macron and opening talks with the West through Israel. The Russians now have the time but still have too little combat power to conquer the country. Putin must negotiate if he wants a quick victory, because even if the Ukrainians cannot defeat him, they certainly have the capacity to make the war long and costly. Expect to see some movement both in the negotiations and on the battlefield as the two sides vie for position.

In summary, we are entering a new phase of the campaign, in recent days NATO policy has been confirmed. The Russians don’t have to worry about “no-fly zones” or other direct interventions. Something that over the past few weeks must have worried them due to NATO’s united response. Now the Russians have time to reorganize, strategize and prepare for their next move, but they are still overstretched and unable to conquer all of Ukraine. Expect to see negotiations backed by slow and steady Russian advances on key cities and on key infrastructure as Russia slowly strangles major Ukrainian cities, forcing Ukrainian negotiators to make concessions.

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