GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – Russia’s next decision – Putin’s ego versus tactical reality?

Attacking defended positions is a costly proposition.  The defender has many advantages and the attacker normally suffers high casualties.  Over the last six weeks, Russian forces have been thrown into a series of manoeuvres and attacks on Severodonetsk, including a tough fight north from Popasna and attempting to cross the Severskyi-Donets River.  Unable to outflank and encircle the city the Russians attacked Severodonetsk ‘head on’.  Even with massed artillery fire the city held against a series of Russian attacks that were driven back by the Ukrainians.  At the completion of the defensive battle, the Ukrainians were able to execute a withdrawal without being routed or pursued. 

Some points to note are that the Ukrainian withdrawal was almost finished before being reported in the media, another example of the Ukraine’s dominance of the information war. Further, the Russians did not pursue and destroy the retreating Ukrainians.  Most likely because Lysychansk provided a firm base to support the withdrawal.  When armies retreat, they aim to have ‘one foot on the ground’, making sure that each group moving is supported by coordinated fire from a static group or groups. Sitting on high ground on the south flank of the withdrawal route Lysychansk provided a firm base against Russian attacks from that direction while the Severskyi-Donets River protected the north flank.  

The current situation is that Ukrainian forces have withdrawn successfully and a new defensive line is established running from Sloviansk in the north, east to Siversk and south to Bhakmut.  This creates a roughly equilateral triangle with each of these three points about 25 kilometres apart, the M03 highway forms the western base of the triangle.  The media is discussing the M03 being a key Russian objective because it is useful logistics, and it is. However, I see a road that artillery can use to support the next phase of the defensive battle.  Modern artillery battles are highly mobile. Artillery systems generally staying hidden to avoid counter battery fire then when required move forwards to fire, ‘shooting and scooting’ before the enemy can return fire. Fighting this way is easier when you have a large road behind your frontline for the artillery to move on and to be supplied from.  

Breaking down this battle and considering it carefully it is clear that the Ukrainians are using their resources and ground in tactically sensible way.  The Russians are not.  Attacking defended cities ‘head on’ is a costly way to fight, even with lots of artillery in support.  The Ukrainians that were fighting in Severondonetsk and Lysychansk probably withdrew through an established defensive line and will be resting and reconstituting near Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. It seems that as the Russians advance west their artillery dominance will be challenged by the increasing amount of modern longer ranged and more accurate artillery arriving from NATO countries.  

Successful generals manage the ‘tempo’ of battle and at this point there is a natural lull and the Russians need to decide if they rest and regroup or if they push forwards.  The decision that they make will tell us a great deal about how the war is being run.  

If the Russians pause, they can regroup, consolidate their logistics and perhaps develop a reserve for offensive operations.  This could allow a change in the axis of advance perhaps using the more open country and better weather to bypass Ukrainian defensive positions.  This option is a pragmatic option and reflects the tactical reality, that an advance on the current axes of advance will be faced with stiff opposition. 

The second option is to push forwards.  This option is less pragmatic.  The Ukrainians are clearly not routed and being pursued, instead they are withdrawing at their own pace and in what looks like a planned operation to draw Russian forces into another defensive battle.  The aim of which will be too further attrit the Russians, with the Ukrainians fighting from prepared positions and starting to benefit from the arrival of new artillery so this will be a tough option.  

It will be interesting to see if Putin’s ego and disconnection from frontline reality will win the debate or whether frontline commanders will convince him to accept the tactical reality. Russian military blogger Igor Girkin, an ex-army officer with about 400,000 followers on Russian social media is aware of the danger recently commenting that “the Ukrainian defence of Lysychansk was deliberately designed to inflict maximum damage on Russian troops and burn through Russian manpower and equipment” and suggesting that “accepting battle on the Ukrainian’s terms was a significant misstep by the Russian leadership”.  Girkin is correct and if the Russians push forwards at this time the results are likely to be a long, slow slog towards Sloviansk that will burn away resources and kill lots of young Russian soldiers.   

Further, if the Ukrainians are generating enough force for a counter attack then by advancing too soon and staying engaged the Russians commit to battle in one area and are more easily outflanked.  A large Ukrainian counter attack could outflank the Russian main force and hit troops tired and depleted after six weeks of tough fighting. Essentially, this seems like a good time for the Russians to pause, consolidate and re-evaluate.  It does not seem to be good tactics to advance straight from one tough defensive battle straight into another one ‘head on’. It appears to be a decision made by a politician, far removed from the battlefield thinking of their legacy rather than the tactical reality ‘on the ground’. 

In summary, if the Russians do push forwards immediately then we will know that their decisions are being driven by political considerations rather than by smart tactics. This is important information that helps us to better understand Russian decision-making.  A feature of this conflict to-date is the commitment of Russian forces to operations that are not tactically sound and it demonstrates a key Russian weakness. 

However, it has important strategic implications the most important of which is that it confirms that this war is being fought for highly emotive and political reasons and that Russian military professionals do not have significant influence on planning. Essentially, this is one man’s war and Ukraine; NATO and its supporters need be prepared for it to continue until the Putin is defeated.  The only way to defeat Putin, is for the Ukrainians to drive the Russian army out of their country. Essentially, Russia will keep fighting until it is militarily impossible for them to continue and they are driven back because their decisions are not made based on logic and reason but rather on ego.  

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

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