GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan: Ukraine – New developments in Putin’s plan

During the last 72 hours, there are reports of small but significant Russian activities signalling potential Russian plans.  This week’s negotiations, in Turkey are stalled and did not produce any meaningful break through towards a peace agreement. 

In the last few days, we have also seen a Ukrainian propaganda blitz as videos of successful attacks on Russian forces are released along with announcements that Russian commanders have been killed.  The Russian bombing of a hospital has been front-page news around the world and western audiences happily devour footage of captured Russian soldiers being illegally paraded in press conferences.  The Ukrainians are projecting an image of strength and resolve, winning the propaganda war in the west, and possibly in Russia as well. This ‘information war’ operation is obviously timed to coincide with and influence peace negotiations.  

The Russians have countered with threats, the release of reports that Ukraine is developing chemical weapons is an obvious pre-text for an escalation and although ‘called out’ factually, the fact that the Russians are constructing such a pre-text should be read as a threat.  It is not a threat to NATO though, it is a threat to the Ukrainian negotiators.  

Today, mainstream media is reporting the dispersion of the column of Russian vehicles massed north of Kiev.  Unfortunately, this reporting is not generally accompanied by analysis so today we will start by providing some analysis of this movement. Two tactical reasons can explain the dispersal of this column.

The first being that the Russians are ready to move on Kiev.  That the area north of Kiev is secure and the logistics bases, field hospitals and ammunition dumps required for an assault on the city are operational.  Therefore, the column of supply trucks can move the goods they are carrying to these locations ready to support the assault.  Recent reporting, puts about 18 – 20 battalion battlegroups in this area.  A force of about 15-20,000 so still not really large enough for the task. However, there are recent examples of Russian operations in Syria and Chechnya that provide insight into possible tactics.  

In these countries, Russia used their massive artillery arm to simply demolish cities sending foot soldiers into urban areas only after the buildings are flattened and defenders neutralised.   Further, doctrinally the Soviets (Russia’s predecessors) saw the potential for using poison gas in urban areas because it kills the defenders but leaves the buildings and infra-structure intact. Shelling a city into oblivion destroys the city’s drainage system. Being on a river Kiev is likely to flood easily if it is heavily bombarded slowing movement and creating an unhealthy environment for occupying forces.  The cold calculus of military planning is sometimes very disturbing, and it is highly unlikely that chemical weapons will be used in this way because of the condemnation that it would attract, but does need to be considered in light of recent Russian comments.

 In simple terms, though the Russians have the ability to lay siege with relatively small numbers of troops, if they are prepared for the international condemnation that these methods would attract. 

Yesterday, there was another round of precision attacks across Ukraine using cruise missiles and long-range rockets.  This is probably a prelude to an operation, these strikes aiming to destroy more Ukrainian aircraft and command, communications and control infrastructure.  An attack of this nature is a text book indicator of an offensive. However, it could also be a deception. 

The encirclement of Kiev’s western side is not yet complete, the cities of Obukhiv, Fastiv and the town of Makariv to the south and west of Kiev are still being contested.  However, their capture may not be required to prevent reinforcements and supplies reaching Kiev, and there is likely to be considerable pressure on Russian commanders to take Kiev.  

The second reason for the dispersal of the column could be that the Ukrainians have forced it to disperse.  That their counter attacks are effective and are forcing Russian commanders to move off the roads and find more easily defended locations.  If this hypothesis is correct then long-range rocket and cruise missile attacks are a ruse designed to draw attention away from Kiev.  

At this stage based on balance of probabilities it is most likely that the Russians north of Kiev are moving into their positions for the assault.  However, it is to early to discount the possibility of a Russian withdrawal or dispersion to avoid Ukrainian counter attacks.  It is hard to judge the situation, Ukraine’s dominance of the information war means that we must be sceptical and careful about analysing information.  So don’t expect to see the Russian’s withdrawing, instead expect to see more bombardment of Kiev, further fighting to the south and west and possibly an intense artillery assault.  

But, will Russia commit to the assault on Kiev?  It is still uncertain and we need remember to keep looking at the big picture, not where Putin wants us to look.

The recent development that I believe is most significant are the Russian attacks on the cities of Mylolaiv and Voznesens, in the south.  Previously, it was predicted after capturing Kherson the Russians would either push west towards Odessa or North along the Dnieper (See – Kherson falls possibly a game changer) and since then we have been watching this front, looking for an indication of Putin’s strategic plan. Yesterday the Russians provided that information.

Mylolaiv and Voznesens are both on the Bug River, a large river that runs parallel with the Dnieper and that needs to be crossed to attack Odessa, the largest Ukrainian city on the Black Sea, a major port and cultural centre.  Mylolaiv is about 50km west of Kherson and Voznesens about 140km north and west of the same city.  We have already discussed the importance of cities and their bridges to an advancing army.   Attacking these cities, rather than heading north is an indicator of Russian plans.

It is unlikely that the Russians have the combat power to push north towards Kiev on the Dnieper and simultaneously push west towards Odessa.  

Capturing Odessa would be a significant win, it would be the western section of a ‘Crimean Corridor’ cutting Ukraine off from the Black Sea, potentially linking up with pro-Russia Tranistria, guaranteeing the security of Russian Black Sea access and providing a buffer for Crimea.  Putin needs a win to extract himself from the war.  Kiev is a Pyrrhic victory.  Odessa is a real win, securing ice-free access to the sea has been a Russian strategic objective since the reign of Peter the Great. 

Time is not on Putin’s side; the Russian economy is only slightly larger than Australia’s, so it does not have the economic reserves to keep fighting under the impact of international sanctions.  Capturing a ‘Crimean Corridor’ could be possible, particularly if the strategic focus of NATO and the world is Kiev.  Although, Kiev was the original objective maybe Russian focus is changing and the operations being reported around Kiev are a deception.  Remember that Putin’s most recent territorial demands related solely to the security of the Black Sea; recognition of the Crimea as Russian, and Donetsk and Lugansk as independent states.  

So at the end of D + 15 let’s look at our predictions:

  • The Russians are starting to manoeuvre strategically and tactically.  A thrust west towards Odessa and activity around Kiev are both interesting. Elsewhere, they continue to contest areas around the country, but are not moving forwards in any significant manner.  The coming weeks will be a test of the Russian army either they are going to develop offensive operations or they are going to collapse.  However, do not expect an assault on Kiev soon, instead expect artillery and bombing but a large ground attack is unlikely.  
  • Expect more activity in the south, that is unlikely to be reported, drowned out by artillery and bombing elsewhere.  Putin will keep pressure on Kiev, probably punishing the city and keeping the media focus on that area while he moves west in the South.  Remember Putin is well schooled in the art of maskirovka, strategic deception. 
  • Tactically, the Russians are in a precarious position. Open-source intelligence websites are busily identifying and verifying photos of damaged Russian and Ukrainian vehicles, and the numbers don’t look good for Russia.  Further, Ukraine is winning the information war and although the press conferences with Russian soldiers breach the Laws of Armed Conflict, they will being having an effect on wavering Russian moral.  It will be impossible for Russian officers to stop their men from seeing their seeing compatriots, not beaten up and looking well-treated speaking on social media.  This is a powerful weapon and we will see more and more of these as more Russians surrender or desert contributing to the attrition of the invasion force.  This contributes to the prediction that although there will be lots of artillery and noise around Kiev the real action will be in the south because it provides the best conditions for a rapid ‘win’.

In summary, the situation is starting to change, as predicted the Russians are looking for options and may have found one in the south.  Negotiations have not achieved a ceasefire and I think that the Russians are holding a stressed army together in the north, while they develop an offensive in the south.  Although there will be a lot of noise around Kiev, remember to look south in the next couple of days. 



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

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