GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – Russia starting to play smart and gaining momentum

Since the fall of Mariupol last week, we have seen some interesting changes in Russian operations.  The Russians are starting to ‘play smarter’, over the last week they have managed to stop Ukraine’s offensive in the north and are concentrating on crossing the Severskyi-Donets River and attacking Severodonetsk, a city on the eastern back of the river.  Severodonetsk is tactically important because it controls a number of bridges that cross the deep and wide Severskyi-Donets River and because it provides a base to push west toward Lysychansk, then on further to Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. 

Tactically, attacking Severodonetsk is a sensible option because it forces the Ukrainians to make a difficult decision because the city is on the east bank of the Severskyi-Donets River. If Ukraine chooses to defend the city, its troops risk being cut off and could be destroyed. Therefore, Ukrainian commanders now have a difficult dilemma as they try and balance the delay that holding Severodonetsk can impose on the Russians against the loss of life and equipment if the city falls.  The tactical decision will also be influenced by politics too.  President Zelenskyy has publicly stated that he will not negotiate giving ground to the Russians as part of a peace deal so we can be sure that his military commanders will be under pressure to hold the city. 

On the ground, Russian tactics have changed this week.  We are no longer seeing large attacks.  Instead, the Russians are reported to be operating in ‘company’ sized groups or about 80 – 100 infantry soldiers supported by about a dozen armoured vehicles.  This a slow way to fight.  A company objective is likely to be a small hill, a farm house and its sheds, a commercial building or something similar sized.  Probably with a frontage of a couple of hundred metres up to about a kilometre and a depth or about 1-3km into the enemy’s lines.  Roughly, the Russians are taking chunks of territory about the size of Ambury Farm Park, in Auckland.  Anything with houses, forest or other complex terrain and the chunk would be smaller, Cornwall Park for instance with its more complicated terrain, woods and buildings would probably require two attacks of this scale to capture. 

It is slow but sensible, each small attack can be supported by massive artillery barrages.  A Russian ‘battalion tactical group’ consists of three to four companies and normally has two to three artillery batteries each with six artillery guns.  If the fire of 12 to 18 guns is used supporting only one of the companies it is a huge amount of firepower able to ‘suppress’ (kill and injure anyone not in a trench or armoured vehicle) an area of about 200 x 300 metres. In previous articles we have discussed these tactics and suggested that this is what we would advise the Russians to do. Using artillery like this is a way to support poorly motivated and trained soldiers.  It is a low risk but time-consuming option. However, consuming time tactically is good for Russia, the longer the war takes the greater the risk of NATO support collapsing.  

The deployment of the heavily, armoured and armed Russian Terminator 2 combat vehicles is probably not bluster but a sensible response to this type of combat.  The Terminator 2 is a heavily armoured tank hull with an unmanned turret on top.  Similar vehicles are used by the Israelis and it is designed to support infantry in tough terrain like cities and broken country.  It is well-armoured and hard to kill and has a set of fast firing small guns that can pick off infantry. During any assault there is a time lag between when artillery fire finishes and when the infantry soldiers get to the enemy. This is because artillery fire needs to stop before its side’s infantry soldiers are impacted by it. Normal armoured personal carriers are not well-armoured and are vulnerable at this stage of the battle, especially if they are facing NLAW and Javelin, so often hang back providing covering fire from a distance.  Terminator 2s are designed to stick close with the infantry and to use their small (30mm guns) to provide fire support to cover the infantry in this phase of the battle. A tank hull without the weight of a normal large turret can be very heavily armoured and is low and hard to hit.  It is likely that even a small number used effectively could have a big impact.  

If I was advising the Ukrainians, my advice would be to evacuate Severodonetsk and save the soldiers and equipment for forthcoming battles, it will be easier to defend Lysychansk on the west bank of the river.  Further, the Russians are making other smart moves. It appears that they now have a higher level of centralised control and they are planning effectively; and within their means. Evidence of this is the use of Poposna a town captured two weeks ago and now being used as the base for an advance on Lysychansk.  

Poposna, sits on high ground at the end of ridgeline running roughly north towards Lysychansk.  An advance along this ridgeline provides a relatively easy approach march of about 25km.  Being on high ground this approach does not have to contend with large numbers of river crossings so is a smart option.  If the Russians can advance quickly in this direction, they may cut off both Severodonetsk and Lysychansk completely.  Obviously, the Ukrainians need to make some fast decisions or risk losing their forces in this area. 

Even though the Russian thrust from the north, via Izyum towards Sloviansk and Kramatorsk has stopped, the Russians are currently fighting smart and starting to gain  momentum in the east.  It is looking increasingly likely that they will be able to surround Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. However, whether or not they can take the cities without pummelling them into the submission with artillery is another matter. The next step from Severodonetsk and Lysychansk is likely to be a move west towards Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. 

Recently, there have also been reports of the Russians massing forces in the south. The plan is not clear at this stage, although it is likely that the next move for forces here will be an advance towards Mykolaiv. However, it is possible that they could try and advance north towards Zaporizihia or Dnipro.  It is unlikely that Russia has the force available to push west towards Odessa but capturing Mykolaiv might still be a goal.  However, the new Russian approach seems to mitigate against an offensive of this kind at this time because it would dissipate their combat power and the way the Russians are starting to operate means this seems unlikely. 

Finally, the Russians continue to try and use long-range rockets to attack Ukrainian bridges and rail lines behind the frontline. This is to stop the movement east of NATO equipment and support.  It will be interesting to see if this works.  I am not sure if they will be successful, Ukraine has a relatively well-developed network of transport infra-structure and a rocket attacks may damage an area but can often be repaired quickly if they are in a rear area.  Stopping the flow of support forwards may require more consistent interdiction, only time will tell.

How does the tactical situation relate to the strategic situation?  

Russia’s tactical changes are making Ukraine and NATO’s position more difficult. By making sensible tactical choices the Russians are not only gaining some ground but at a strategic level creating the conditions to prolong the war and potentially split NATO.  Already Turkey is opposing Finland and Sweden’s application for NATO membership, further NATO is struggling to agree on the next round of sanctions.  American statesman Henry Kissinger’s recent speech to G7 leaders was interesting and reflected the pragmatism of an old statesman.  He advocated pressuring Ukraine to negotiate, to finish the war on terms even if it meant giving up territory. He argued that Russia has long been part of the European geo-political world and that Ukraine’s role in the current world was to be a buffer state between the competing powers; Europe and Russia.

It was a thought-provoking analysis; some might argue dated being based on pragmatism rather than principles of international law.  Kissinger is an enormously experienced negotiator and diplomat and he makes a number of points that are worthy of consideration.  Pragmatically, getting the Russians out of the areas that they have captured in Ukraine is a big task.  Further, if Putin annexes Donbas, Kherson and Crimea and they become part of Russia and under Russia’s nuclear umbrella it will be very high-risk.  Kissinger realises that Putin may go, perhaps a coup in the Kremlin deposes him, but does that mean that the war will stop? Maybe not, there is a significant pro-war movement in Russia that is currently advocating for escalation. We may lose Putin and get an even more aggressive antagonist.

Kissinger, is also cognisant of the larger world order and that it effects the international balance of power into the future.  Russia still has a large nuclear arsenal and this war is driving them further and further from the negotiating table.  It is also creating a divide between the ‘West’ and the ‘Rest’, as European NATO members take one side and a number of other non-European countries either say nothing or quietly support Russia.  It seems that Kissinger is interested in ‘winning the peace’ and advocating for measured diplomacy, even if it means sacrificing Ukraine’s integrity so that this war does not upset the current world order creating dangerous instability. 

This approach is somewhat at odds with the apparent objectives of United States and NATO strategy which is to defeat Russia. Using a proxy war to undermine a rival is not a new idea, a factor in the defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War blood and treasure the Soviet Union lost fighting the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, funded and supported by the United States.  People would argue that supporting a nation like Ukraine is a moral imperative, NATO is protecting the sovereignty of a democratic, free nation.  The answer is unclear however, the key point for observers to remember is that small nations become pawns in larger games; and that the only mitigation against this reality is strong collective security arrangements.  

The other mitigation available Ukraine is defeating Russia and driving them out of their country. Only time will tell if the developing military situation is part of a larger Ukrainian plan, perhaps to draw the Russians into an expensive battle in the north then counter attack in the summer.  Or, if Russia has played to true to historic form, lost the first part of the war,  learnt its lessons and is now moving into an effective mode of operations.   

Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.

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