The situation in Ukraine has changed dramatically, last Thursday I predicted that the Russians were on the verge of collapse, partly because of their military weakness, but more because I thought Putin would not accept the situation tactics and that political factors like the capture of kyiv would force its generals to operate in a way that would inevitably lead to their defeat.
The next day, I was proven wrong and saw Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy, Deputy Chief of the Russian General Staff, supported by two high-ranking Russian generals, state at a conference press that “The combat potential of the Armed Forces of Ukraine has been significantly reduced, which allows us, I repeat, to focus the main efforts on achieving the main goal – the liberation of Donbass.”
So we discovered that; Putin never wanted to capture Kyiv and force regime change, the push towards Kyiv was obviously a clever ploy, maskirovka, strategic deception! The real objective was always to secure the Donbass. Yes indeed! However, it is an important statement that changes the assessment of the situation.
Over the past two days, reports have also become available that the Russians are secretly mobilizing forces. Pentagon sources say Russian garrisons in the occupied Georgian territories, Syria and Tajikistan are likely to contribute troops for service in Ukraine. The details are sketchy and these new forces may already be on the ground. In the next few days, we should start to see how these new, fresh and well-equipped troops will change the situation for Russian forces in Ukraine. It’s a risk for the Russians, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are both claimed by Georgia, in Syria the Russians are engaged in civilian action and in Tajikistan the Russian garrison provides border security with Afghanistan. Reducing garrisons in these areas is dangerous and indicates that the situation in Ukraine is precarious.
Today, President Biden, made a mistake and made the situation worse, declaring in a speech that “Putin must gothe statement was unscripted and is dangerous because it puts Putin in a corner and poses an “existential threat” to him. This allows Putin to argue that Ukraine is being used as a US proxy war specifically to remove him from power. The declaration removed the moral legitimacy of the American position by making personal American activities seem rather principled. Moreover, it allows Putin to assert within his entourage that “they” are specifically targeted. “No man is an island” and no dictator exists without supporters. If Putin, and by definition “his” people, (the lackeys who control the military and its nukes) have nothing to lose, so we are getting closer to a nuclear exchange. President Biden’s ill-thought-out remark makes this war personal and makes negotiation much more difficult. This was very disappointing and certainly raises the risk of a nuclear exchange.
In Ukraine, the situation is changing rapidly, north of kyiv the last two days have been marked by varied activity. Both Makariv and Borodianka are contested and at the same time Ukrainians are pushing into the northern suburbs of Kyiv, Irpin and Hostomel. Andropov airfield is also under Ukrainian pressure. This fight is very interesting, last week my analysis was that the Ukrainians would focus on the push from Makariv north and west capturing Bordyanka so they could wrap the tip of the Russian push.
The current fighting, especially local Russian attacks on Makariv, a town that was under Ukrainian control 48 hours ago, may indicate that the Russians are trying to “break contact”, separate from the Ukrainians and withdraw. When large formations like brigades and divisions break contact, they usually launch sabotage attacks to catch the enemy off guard, allowing time for the forces they are supporting to withdraw in an orderly fashion.
Further evidence that this is happening north of kyiv can be provided by the fighting in Irpin, Hostomel and around the airport. If the Russians pull back, the Ukrainians will be “hot on their heels” trying to maintain contact and pursue them. Is this happening right now in Kyiv? It’s too early to tell, but it certainly lines up with the latest Russian strategy announcements. Kyiv is definitely an area to watch in the coming days.
Throughout northeastern Ukraine, there has been a flurry of Russian activity. Chernihiv, Sumy and Kharkov have all seen increased Russian activity over the past 24-48 hours, unfortunately at this stage it is too early to confirm whether these are full assaults by ground soldiers or increased artillery fire. It is unlikely that the Russians will be able to generate sufficient combat power in these areas to carry out large-scale ground assaults, however, we can never say never as even a relatively small number of new professional soldiers could change the situation. situation quickly.
To the south, the Russians stopped the attack on Kherson. This is a key battle as the Dnieper River provides a natural defensive line and holding Kherson is key to creating a defensible border west of any potential new Russian-backed Donbas. Kherson also protects access to Crimea.
So what happens next?
It is almost certain that Mariupol will continue to be attacked. The city is vital for the security of a new Donbass. It will continue to be bombarded and then attacked by ground forces.
Fighting will continue around kyiv for days or weeks and at this stage it is too early to say exactly how it will develop. The Russians will struggle to extricate themselves from the area and it remains to be seen whether they have the combat capability to achieve a breakaway, separate from their Ukrainian adversaries and fall back.
Many experts predict that the Russians will try to launch an offensive push south from near Kharkov or north from Donetsk in order to encircle the large Ukrainian forces on the border of the breakaway Donetsk region. The Ukrainians have significant forces to defend the western parts of Donetsk County (administrative Region) protecting cities like Kramatorsk, Sloviansk and Bakhmut. In theory, a push of this nature could occur and envelop these Ukrainian forces, but I don’t think that’s likely, it would require a push of about two hundred kilometers into enemy territory and, to date, the Russian penetrations deeper and sustained in Ukraine are only about 100 km. The Russians may have more combat troops entering the battle, but without a strong logistical infrastructure to support them, even new soldiers are going to be limited in their effectiveness.
It is more likely that Russian soldiers from Georgia and Tajikistan will be brought into the war from the east and that there will be a slow push from Russian safe areas in Donetsk and Luhansk to the west and north. However, the initial objectives should be to reinforce Kherson to secure the western flank and capture Mariupol. Once these goals are achieved, I think we’ll see local offensives capturing small areas with overwhelming force rather than deep envelopments. The Georgian garrison can only provide a few thousand troops, but they’re relatively close, so they’re probably on their way to action already. In Tajikistan there is a division of about 20,000 soldiers of which perhaps a third could be spared, but moving them 2,000 km with their equipment is likely to take at least a week. Although they may have already been secretly moved.
The most useful new soldiers will be those brought back from Syria. The Russian soldiers fighting in Syria are professionals and will therefore be much more combat-capable than the conscripts currently fighting in Ukraine. Unfortunately, there are no precise estimates of the exact number of Russian troops in Syria, which makes it difficult to assess their impact. I think these soldiers are likely to become the “firefighters” of Russia, being quickly transferred from place to place as needed. Perhaps we are already seeing their impact as the Russians counterattack Makariv.
Strategically, Putin now has a realistic option to secure a victory. Negotiations may or may not continue as the Russians slowly secure Donbass and Crimea. Any ceasefire would only be a ploy to allow Russian forces to safely withdraw, and for this reason it is unlikely to be accepted by the Ukrainians.
Securing the Donbass is an achievable goal; the Russians are supported by locals in these areas and may slowly take time to refocus and move troops into these areas. Looking at Crimea, Donestk, Georgia, Tranistria, the slow and steady, low-level but inexorable conquest of a region over time is a game Russia excels at. In the longer term, it is also an operation that can be taken slowly with professional soldiers and mercenaries leading the offensives, capturing areas and then handing them over to less experienced local militias who can defend the areas. This seems like a sensible long term strategy and one that is also politically viable as conscript soldiers are not being killed in large numbers.
The key issues in implementing this strategy will be the withdrawal of forces to other parts of Ukraine without suffering significant losses and limiting the effectiveness of Ukrainian offensives to retake disputed areas. Both risks can be mitigated but will take time, it is likely that the Russians will maintain pressure on Ukrainian cities outside Donbass to support the withdrawal and prevent Ukrainian forces from engaging in the southeast. In the longer term this strategy will test NATO’s commitment, will there still be a will to maintain the sanctions in force after a year of small-scale fighting on the borders of Donbass?
In summary, the situation is changing rapidly and it looks like the Russians now have a workable strategy that will allow Putin to claim victory. Unfortunately, this change in strategy will mean a longer war. Moreover, President Biden’s recent slippage increases the level of nuclear risk, which means the world faces a long period of tension while the new Russian strategy unfolds.
Ben Morgan is a weary Gen Xer with an interest in international politics. He’s TDB’s military analyst.