Victory Day came and went without large statements or grand gestures, instead what was not said provided the insight. Putin did not call for general mobilisation or declare war on Ukraine nor did he claim victory or state objectives for the war. Instead, Putin framed the war as a fight against Nazism, praising the sacrifice and service of Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Local celebrations contributed to demonstrating the popularity of the operation amongst the ‘liberated’ people of Donbas and Kherson. Putin’s speech was measured but provides useful information about the Kremlin’s position and their strategic perspective and objectives.
Strategy, always relates to the tactical situation and the two need to be seen as an integrated whole. Tactically, Russia is not making progress on the ground, for at least the last week movement forwards has been minimal. On 8 May, Russia captured Popasna in the east and continues to bombard a range of areas along the front lines but this is a small gain. In the south they are slowly reducing the last defenders of Mariupol and are not making significant progress near Kherson. In recent articles we have highlighted the fact that the Russian’s key issue is that there is simply not have enough soldiers ‘on the ground’ to prosecute large offensives.
In fact, the major tactical change last week is the developing Ukrainian offensive pushing north and east from Kharkov. The Ukrainians are pushing forwards towards both the border and towards the supply lines that link Russia’s major supply base in Belgorod and their forward base in Izyum. It is a worrying situation for Russian forces in the north-east, advancing south towards the major rail hubs at Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. The Ukrainian offensive presents Russian commanders with a tactical dilemma, in that if the offensive drives north it puts pressure on the border, if it pushes east, it could impact the supply lines supporting operations around Izyum. Russian commanders now need to decide how to respond, do they protect the border or the supply line? Further, where will the forces come from? Obviously, troops protecting either axis of attack can’t be committed to offensives elsewhere in Ukraine.
Taking the tactical situation into account Putin’s Victory Day speech is very interesting and provides some insight into the broader strategic situation. Putin’s speech did not call for mobilisation of the wider Russian military or for greater commitment to the war from the general population. This indicates that Putin does not feel politically safe expanding the war, that there is political risk within Russia of expanding the war. This may provide information about Putin’s hold on power, he may not be as secure as we thought. In fact Institute for the Study of War’s view was that Putin’s speech “implicitly reassured the Russian people that he would not ask for a greater societal commitment”. Perhaps Putin needs the Russian people behind him more than we estimated and mobilisation is risky because it tells the Russian people that Russia is losing and neither the Russian military nor Putin are keen to make that statement.
However, a declaration of war or more general mobilisation was an option, if Putin ‘pitched it’ as an unexpected war against a larger foe, like NATO and the United States. A ‘call to arms’ of this nature might have been successful, over time generating the additional forces that the Russians needs to continue offensive operations. Last week this idea was certainly discussed by analysts and in the wider media. The fact that Putin did not use Victory Day as an opportunity to make a ‘call to arms’ may be indicative of a significant change in strategic policy, an acceptance of the tactical situation.
It is interesting that this comes after a period of escalation two weeks ago, Russian rhetoric increased including Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister describing the war as a ‘NATO proxy war’ with potential to escalate into World War Three. Putin issued demands to stop supplying weapons to the Ukraine and used threatening rhetoric about Russia’s ability to strike back and the possibility of ‘unpredictable consequences’ if NATO kept supplying weapons. Russian state media was busy meanwhile talking about escalation and the possibility of nuclear war or war with NATO. Russia stopped the supply of gas to Poland and Bulgaria and around the same time there were bomb attacks on infra-structure in both Transnistria and Russia that could have indicated either a physical expansion of the war or the creation of a narrative upon which to justify expansion of the war effort.
Then last week, Russia walked back its inflammatory language and demonstrated some goodwill by letting civilians leave Mariupol. This activity considered in conjunction with Putin’s low key Victory Day Putin statement leaves us to ponder two questions:
- What next?
The first question seems relatively easy to answer, Putin is smart and realises that currently Russia does not have the combat power to advance. Generally the situation can be summarised as follows; his army may be able to hold the areas it has taken, but it can’t mount offensives to take new ground. Mobilisation would eventually give Russia a vast increase in combat power. However, the risk of declaring war and mobilising Russia’s reserves is that it highlights all of the weaknesses that have been demonstrated to date by the Russian army.
Imagine trying to use the broken Russian command structure to try and mobilise hundreds of thousands of reservists. Unmotivated ex-conscripts who spent a couple of years in the army, up to a decade ago. The reservists need to found, trained, equipped, formed into units then moved to the front. In a competent army this exercise would take months. In a corrupt and poorly led army it will take longer and will not produce the type of soldiers that Russia needs quickly enough to impact the current battle. And worst of all, this drama would be taking place across Russia reaching into the reservist’s families and demonstrating the military’s inadequacies to the wider population, who at the moment are insulated from the realities of the failures in Ukraine.
It is likely that Putin has ‘thought things through’ and realised that at the moment the political risks of mobilisation outweigh the potential gains. Not announcing it on Victory Day does not put mobilisation ‘off the table’ completely.
Another factor that may be influencing Putin’s decision is NATO. Recent Russian escalation was met by a strong show of NATO resolve. Instead of backing down, NATO countries stood firm and demonstrated that they are ready to work together and oppose Putin. Nuclear rhetoric has not scared NATO off, instead member nations are increasing their support for Ukraine filling eastern NATO partners with soldiers and demonstrating that they are willing to fight. Hopefully, this collective action is deterring aggression, NATO’s military and economic power dwarfs Russia and it does not make logical sense for Putin to start a war with NATO.
Putin knows that now is not the time for rash moves, instead it is better to ‘play the long game’ to wait, to hold what he has taken and to prepare for the next phase.
This brings us to the second question, what next?
In my appreciation of the situation, the key issue is ‘time’ because the campaign season is coming. Traditionally, in the northern hemisphere the campaign season is summer, July and August. The ground dries out after the snow melt, spring rains are over and armoured forces can manoeuvre cross-country. This is probably when Russian tactical commanders wanted to launch the offensives that they have been undertaking in recent weeks. Essentially, at the moment there is a race on between Russia and Ukraine to rebuild armoured task forces; that in July and August can be used to manoeuvre, defeat the enemy and take large areas of ground. Russia, still has a huge amount armoured vehicles, self-propelled artillery and a few infantry. Ukraine has a ‘blank cheque’ from NATO and is receiving a steady flow of new armour and artillery. The real question is which side can create an armoured manoeuvre force first.
This means that there is roughly six-eight weeks for each side to bring together the people and equipment they need. Using the forces that they have already committed Russia will not be able to take all of Ukraine; or even the eastern half. However, if they can stall, defend and create the time to rebuild a strong armoured manoeuvre force, striking from Izyum to Sloviansk and Kramatorsk may be achievable. It could meet up with an advance from Kremina and Rubizhne towards Lysychansk, Severodonetsk and the there is potential to encircle some Ukrainian forces in the east. It is a big ask but might be achievable if forces can be spared from frontline tasks to reconstitute and prepare.
The Ukrainians have the same problem and some distinct disadvantages. The Russians now have the advantage of shorter supply lines and ‘interior lines’ because the Ukrainians now need to cover more ground to contain them relative to the area of Russian control. If the Russians stop attacking, they can use minimal forces to defend their front and then divert the remainder to re-organising and re-constituting an armoured manoeuvre capability. The Russian missile and bombing campaign targeting bridges, roads and fuel depots is to slow down movement of heavy equipment east. The Ukrainians need to not only develop their own capability but also need to make sure that the Russians do not get the break that they need rebuild their forces.
Therefore, Ukraine’s current offensive in the north-east near Kharkov is very important for the future development of the war. It is clear that in this area light forces, like Ukrainian infantry are effective and this offensive will influence the battle in the following ways:
- It will force the Russians to concentrate forces between Belgorod and Izyum to counter it.
- The Russians will either be defeated and forced out of this area or they will defeat the offensive.
- Even if the Russians stop the Ukrainian offensive, it will require resources that will constrain their later tactical options because the forces sent to reinforce the Izyum sector will not be available to assault other areas.
- If the Ukrainians win near Kharkov and Izyum, it will force the Russians to withdraw and defend their border. It may be possible to switch some capability to the east or south but it will be limited and most importantly will take time.
In summary, the area around Kharkov and Izyum is where we should be watching in the next few days. A successful Ukrainian offensive in this area may contribute significantly to a rapid defeat of the Russians. By tying up sufficient forces so that without a larger mobilisation Russia will be stretched so thin across the remainder of its front that it cannot develop the combat power to either attack successfully or defend in depth with strong reserves. If this happens it may be possible, with NATO support for Ukraine to develop a powerful armoured force supported by artillery ready for a large offensive in July or August. In the next few days we may be watching the start of the Russia’s end in Ukraine.
Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.