The war continues to progress as predicted with Russian bombardments of Kiev continuing and possibly increasing. Elsewhere, Kharkov has been bombarded but the overall situation does not indicate a significant change in Russian plans.
Regardless of the media coverage, yesterday’s bombardments are not the start of the predicted deliberate attack. Instead, they were attacks that targeted communication’s infra-structure, scared the population and stopped Ukrainian forces moving easily around the city. That a significant attack is coming is indicated by the targeting of communications infra-structure. The last thing the Kremlin wants is the world to see is the true fury of its artillery bombardment.
The bombardment in Kharkov does not seem to indicate a significant change of Russian main effort. This activity seems to a sporadic and less targeted. It is likely designed to keep the Ukrainian forces guessing and prevent the Ukrainians from moving forces around easily. In military terminology ‘fixing’ them in place so Russian forces know where they are and can prevent them counter-attacking or retreating.
The most interesting points yesterday were related to the situation in Southern Ukraine, with video emerging of Alexander Lukashenko the President of Belarus briefing his ministers on the campaign, using a map that appeared to show a Russian thrust from the south aiming to link up with Russian forces in Transnistria and threatening Moldova. The video was interesting and may have been an example of maskirovka, strategic deception, many Western commentators assume that the invasion’s objective is capturing Donbas and Crimea, building a ‘Crimea Corridor’ that secures Russian access to the Black Sea and to Transnistria. It is possible that the map was designed to show Western intelligence analysts what they want to see and distract people from the real objective – Kiev. Another hypothesis is that Lukashenko made a mistake.
The only way to defeat maskirovka is to look at the evidence. In a previous article (the third in this series) I said that it was important to keep watch for activity west of the Dnieper and in the last 24 hours there were reports of fighting north west of Kherson which indicated that the Lukashenko map may need to be given some weight. However, these reports do not seem to have developed into anything significant and Russian forces will struggle to develop operations in this area with capturing Kherson. At this time Kherson is still in Ukrainian hands.
Another useful assessment made in the last twenty-four hours came from the Royal United Services Institute, a very well-established United Kingdom based military think tank. This group issued an assessment saying the Ukrainian army had lost it ability to fight offensively. Essentially, that like the Russians the Ukrainians are now so committed to battle that they cannot generate combat power to launch attacks in any strength. This is not unexpected, to counter the initial Russian offensives the Ukrainians required all their force and had no choice but to commit their reserves to battle.
Further, the Ukrainian army has now suffered a week of precision attacks on its infrastructure. It is likely that they are running out of supplies, cannot communicate effectively and are exhausted too. This does not mean they are defeated, rather it means there will be a transition to a digging in, holding positions and generating an organic form of local defence as regular units merge with local militia and volunteers. Over time if the war continues these groups will likely merge into irregular insurgent units.
The big question in the last twenty-four hours has been – What are we not seeing? At this point if they want to ‘win’ then the Russians need options. Recently, I have discussed the fact the going nuclear is an option however we all hope that the Russian are looking for other options. What are they doing that we cannot see?
A key point to remember is that the invasion force was very small, to New Zealanders an army of 180,000 seems enormous it is important to remember that only a small portion are actually fighting men.
In Western armies, each fighting man is supported by between five and seven support soldiers. These people supply the combat soldier with ammunition, food, service their technical tools, repair their equipment, bandage their wounds and support them to fight. In the Russian army probably the ratio is closer the three to one because historically Soviet armies relied on less logistic support. This means that the actual fighting strength of the Russians in the invasion is closer to about 60,000 men on the ground.
The Russians started the invasion with a force of fighting men that could watch a rugby game together in Eden Park. Remember that Ukraine is the second biggest country in Europe and has 40 million people living in it.
In the last post I said that; I would have loved to have watched the officers selling net-work centric tactics and a plan to use such a small force to ‘shock and awe’ Ukraine into submission. If you hang around the military, you realise that optimism is a key characteristic of military men. I believe this why generals need to be conservative; it tempers misplaced optimism. In this case the optimism was clearly misplaced and now the Russians now desperately need ‘boots on the ground’. Remember that tactical flexibility is provided by having spare soldiers or a ‘reserve’ that can be deployed quickly to exploit success or open new operations. Where will this reserve come from?
Belarus intervention is unlikely to make a huge difference, their military is comparatively small and less well trained than the Russians. Recently, reports of flagging Russian motivation have painted a picture of soldiers that are not well-trained enough to fight using modern tactics and generally lack motivation. The Belarus soldiers are likely to be even less motivated and worse trained.
Are the Russians moving forces from across their ‘empire’ towards Ukraine? I haven’t been able to find reporting to confirm this but it seems likely and I would expect to see confirmation of the this in the next few days.
The search for options may also see the Russians resort to unconventional tactics, another round of negotiations is planned soon and we should expect to see demonstrations of Russian strength and resolve leading up this meeting probably with bombardments of key cities and destruction of civilian infrastructure.
Unconventional warfare is likely, there are reports that Wagner Group contractors have been send to assassinate Volodymyr Zelenskyy. This is likely to be true and the we can expect to see more operations by forces like this or by Russian special forces in coming days as Russia looks for ways to ‘unstick’ the operation.
Further, we need to ask what the United States is doing in the background. I am sure that there will be back-channel negotiations between Western and Russian generals and diplomats looking for a solution that allows a face-saving end to the conflict. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States gave Khrushchev a ‘win’ by removing its missiles from Turkey. Perhaps there is something similar being debated at this point, unfortunately I don’t have an opinion on this yet.
So at the end of D + 7 let’s look at our predictions:
- Kiev remains the decisive point in the campaign. I still predict that Kiev will not be taken, believing that Russia lacks the combat power to take a city this size that is well-defended. However, expect the battle to be long and probably culminate in a stalemate rather than a clear victory for either side.
- Another round of negotiations is planned and Putin’s nuclear rhetoric continues. So there is a risk that there may be a nuclear show of force. A demonstration designed to ‘scare off’ NATO and international support, ‘escalating to de-escalate’. Hopefully, there is enough common sense and back-channel negotiation happening that this does not eventuate.
- Conventional Russian activity across the remainder of Ukraine will continue to slow down as Russian Forces consolidate, reconstitute and dig-in focussing their efforts on Ukraine. However, we may see an increase in unconventional warfare; assassinations, raids on airfields and similar activity. Possibly, as the front stabilises the deployment of Spetsnaz or Wagner Group units in key local attacks to create break-ins that less well-trained and motivated conventional force units can exploit.
- If Kherson falls, the situation may change as this city provides a firm base to develop operations in the south-west. Capture of a Crimea Corridor might be enough for Putin to save face and start ‘real’ negotiations.
- Expect to see reports of more Russian troops being mobilised and moved to Ukraine.
In summary, yesterday’s events followed the pattern that we predicted. At this stage unless there is a nuclear escalation, expect to see little change in situation for some days or weeks. The Russians will continue to consolidate for their assault on Kiev, this will take time and the final deliberate attack is unlikely before the next round of negotiations. After all it is easier to capture a city with words than with soldiers. However Kiev, Kharkov and Kherson will be bombarded heavily. The key questions now are what is happening that we can’t see?
Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.