The Ukrainian offensive pushing north and east from Kharkov continues to put pressure on the Russians forcing a withdrawal from the area around the city. This offensive is dangerous for Russia because if it continues to push east it could cut the supply lines that run from Belgorod in Russia, through Vovchansk on the Ukrainian side of the border to Izyum a town Russia is using as a base to push south towards Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
In recent days, Russia’s advance towards the important towns of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk has ground to a halt as forces are pulled north to defend their supply lines. Social media is also reporting that retreating Russian forces are blowing up bridges, a clear indication that their leadership is worried about pursuit and are assuming that they will not be returning to the area on the offensive anytime soon. Further, there are reports of lapses in Russian discipline and motivation. It appears that this is a hasty withdrawal.
The Ukrainians show no sign of relaxing their pressure on this part of the front and it is likely that operation will push Russian forces to at least the Severskyi-Donets River, the river runs north-south from near Belgorod, west of Vovchansk providing a roughly 55km long barrier to an army advancing east. In places, it is 2-3km wide and a formidable obstacle. It is most likely that the Ukrainians will cross below this wide section of the river and push south-east towards Izyum. Earlier in the week there were reports that this was happening near Chepil, although to-date there are no further reports from this area.
Fighting further east is still ongoing as Russian forces continue to try and take Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. However, the Russians suffered an embarrassing military setback when an infantry unit, the 74th Motor Rifle Brigade (consisting of two to three battalion tactical groups) tried to cross the Siverskyi-Donets River near Kreminna. The force was trying to advance south towards Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. However, the crossing was poorly executed and the Urkainians were able to engage it successfully with artillery destroying the formation. The loss of two or three battalion tactical groups is significant militarily because the Russians need infantry. Importantly, the incident has also been picked up by Russian military bloggers and commentators upset at the incompetence demonstrated by this unit. Normally pro-military commentators in Russia, are have been highly critical of Russian leadership after the incompetence exhibited in this defeat.
Russian probes north towards Severodonetsk and Lysychansk from the recently captured town of Popasna have been checked by Ukrainian forces and the remainder of the front is relatively stable. The Russians are making lot of noise in this sector but are not making significant progress. The same applies around Kherson, and across the tactical battle Russian momentum has ground to a halt.
The most interesting news story in the last couple of days was on Sky News. Major General Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s intelligence service was interviewed and stated that he was confident Ukraine would win the war recapturing all of it lost territory. Further, that the turning point will be in late-August. This interview was interesting because it may confirm previous predictions about both Russia and Ukraine working towards large scale operations in the northern summer. By August, the Ukrainians may have integrated a significant amount of the sophisticated NATO aid flowing into their country into their military increasing their combat power. If the Ukrainians can keep the Russians ‘off balance’ with offensives like the one in the north, the Russians will be unable to develop reserves that can be used for either attack or defence in the summer. Essentially, we can see a Ukrainian strategy developing.
The Russians on the other hand seem to be beset with leadership issues and floundering strategically. Putin’s unwillingness to risk mobilisation hints at his lack of confidence in political support for the war. In the last couple of days there are reports of more purges of senior officers which will further weaken Russian leadership. Purging leadership in war has precedent in Russia, and in the 1930s and 40s it probably worked. Essentially, if you shoot enough generals, you will eventually find a good one. However, wars evolve more quickly now and even in today’s world it takes time for a general to get a sense of the battlefield, build relationships with their subordinates and take control. In the time that it takes a general to establish control, the situation may have developed significantly requiring sudden changes to plans that are difficult to communicate to soldiers, undermining command integrity and reducing morale.
The weakness in leadership plays out in a variety of poor tactical decisions that impact on the unpredictable, strategic paralysis that we are witnessing from Putin. What is Russia’s goal? After observing the war to date I think we can reject the ‘Maskirovka Hypothesis’, rather than a clever deception the lack of clear strategic direction probably has more to do with Putin’s lack of political security and the natural tendency for dictators to micro-manage. So far Putin, has been unable to stop himself from micro-managing the war. Not appointing a superior commander with overall responsibility for the operation at the beginning of the war indicates both an arrogance and a tyrant’s desire to have direct influence on every aspect of the battle. The operation was going to be simple, a ‘cake walk’. Why have a superior commander sitting between the President (and sharing in the success) and the generals on the ground?
After the withdrawal from Kiev and transition to a focus on the south and east, a superior commander was appointed but he appears to have been instructed to deliver results by May and forced by Putin to attack too soon. Now as the war drags on and particularly as Ukraine starts to launch offensives it appears that a form of a strategic paralysis is emerging. What professional military officer will give Putin the advice he needs to retrieve the tactical situation? Only one that is either brave, stupid or both. And without good advice, strategy cannot be integrated with the tactical battle. Likely, Putin is worried and isolated within the Kremlin and the advice he gets from the front is nuanced and careful rather than free and frank.
Putin’s Victory Day speech indicates that he is not secure politically and did not feel safe escalating the war at this time. He is caught on the ‘horns’ of a tough dilemma, at a tactical level he is not winning, however on the other ‘horn’ he cannot escalate strategically and use either mass mobilisation or nuclear weapons to break the deadlock without being sure of his political support.
Two days ago the Institute for the Study of War’s assessed that a pathway Putin could use to get out his current dilemma is annexation of Donbas, Kherson and Crimea. By annexing these areas they become part of Russia and therefore fall under that country’s nuclear umbrella so driving the Russians out involves a significantly increased risk of nuclear war. This option could provide Putin with a way out, one that does not involve large scale mobilisation and provides a victory. However, delivering this option requires a number of conditions to be achieved. It is impossible to annex a warzone instead there needs to be sufficient stability to impose Russian rule of law and build the local government infra-structure required to run ‘stage managed’ plebiscites confirming local people want to be part of Russia. Remember there are people in Donbas, Kherson and Crimea that don’t want to be part of Russia or part of Ukraine. Further, Donbas Oblast (region) alone has a population of approximately 4 million and achieving the level of stability for an annexation that does not descend into an ungovernable civil war takes time and manpower. At the moment, it is reported that Russian para-military security police, Rosgvardia or National Guard forces are active in Donbas, Kherson and Crimea. Likely, tasked to provide the level of local security required for annexation and possibly confirming that annexation is Putin’s strategy.
However, the question remains can Russia achieve the level of stability that is required to carry out an annexation? The answer is simple, it cannot when it is throwing valuable soldiers into offensives trying to take Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. The same soldiers who died trying to cross the Siverskyi-Donets River a couple of days ago could be on the ground in Donbas, Kherson and Crimea enforcing the rule of Russian law, or they could be defending Russia’s new boundaries. The key point is that without clear strategy Russia will continue to burn up its limited tactical resources.
In summary, Ukraine is developing its offensive capabilities quickly. Putin’s options appear limited and it seems he is not politically secure enough to escalate. Therefore, his remaining options are to negotiate, stall and try to use time to split NATO partnership and resolve while re-constituting his forces – digging-in for a slow, long war; or he can pursue annexation. However, to achieve either goal he needs to provide direction so his forces can move quickly, stabilise the tactical situation and not waste limited resources on futile operations. The question is does he know that this is required? Or, is he isolated by his own management stye from good tactical advice? It is likely that his generals are now manoeuvring politically, speaking carefully and trying to out last him rather than providing frank tactical advice.
Hence, why the Russians with very limited manpower are still fighting in Kharkov, trying to take Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, attacking the Avostal Steel Works and trying to fight offensively near Kherson. Draining their tactical resources, that could be used to hold ground or stabilise territory for annexation. This is ‘strategic paralysis’, Russian leaders continuing with tactical operations across a wide front simply because they are not getting clear direction about strategy. It is an opportunity for Ukraine because every day Russia operates this way is another day to prepare or to attack and take back territory.
Essentially, the current lack of clear strategic direction is probably a result of Putin and his advisors trying to figure out what to do next, generating an unpredictable situation because Ukrainian success makes it likely that the tactical situation will change suddenly; for instance the Russian forces near Izyum may collapse and withdraw. When the tactical situation changes suddenly it may surprise Putin causing him to over-react or escalate quickly and NATO needs to manage that threat by communicating clearly about the situation in Ukraine, developing channels for communication and most importantly demonstrating its resolve. It is a delicate and unpredictable situation.
Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.