Russia’s position at yesterday’s peace talks in Turkey demonstrated the tough position that Putin has found himself in. The Russians said that as a sign of good faith they would decrease military activity around Kiev and Chernihiv. This offer should not be misinterpreted, it is a clear indication that they are in trouble near Kiev and are seeking to extract themselves from it.
Near Kiev the Ukrainians now hold, Brovary a suburb that overlooks Kiev from the east side of the Dnieper. Brovary is high ground making it easier to defend and also a good place for artillery observers to direct fire into central Kiev. Holding Brovary is vital to capturing Kiev. On the west bank of the Dnieper the Ukrainians fighting in Irpin, Hostomel, Borodianka and Makriv are threatening to envelope Russian forces in Vorzel, Nemishaieve, Klavdiievo-Tarasove and Buzova. The Ukrainians are poised to capture a pocket of Russian soldiers and to push the remainder back far enough that their artillery will be out of range of Kiev.
This is why the Russians are offering to decrease their activity in this area, it has nothing to do with ‘good faith’ and everything to do with preserving their dwindling military strength. The Russians are trying to extricate themselves from Kiev, however breaking contact or separating yourself from your pursuer is a hard, especially if you have resolute and resourceful enemy pursuing you. If the Russians can’t get away, they risk a large force being destroyed or surrendering. In recent days, a large part of the vaunted Russian, 4th Guards Tank Division surrendered at Trostianets. The Ukrainians are also reporting that platoons (groups of about thirty soldiers) are surrendering, these reports could be indicative of Russian moral failing. If the fighting in Kiev continues to develop as predicted we are likely to see more large groups surrendering. The Russians are stuck near Kiev and negotiating is their best option to get out of there without suffering an embarrassing loss.
Further, Kiev and Chernihiv and inextricably linked the cities are about 120 kilometres apart on the Desna River and are linked by main highways. If the situation stabilises in Kiev, the Ukrainians will potentially be in a position to relieve Chernihiv. It may be that they are even able to link up via Nizhyn creating a pocket of Russians near Kozelets and Bobrovytsia. However, these are large advances and the Ukrainians have not yet shown the capacity to conduct this type of operation. However, I’m sure that Russian staff officers (military planners) are nervously studying this area.
Russian staff officers will also be furiously thinking through and planning their next moves in the north east. Both Sumy and Kharkov appear to have withstood the Russian attack and small Ukrainian offensives are pushing the Russians near these cities. Trostianets, an important town on the main road network between Sumy and Kharkov was recaptured this week and close to Kharkov the Ukrainians are putting pressure on the Russian’s north flank near Derhachi. It seems likely that these small offensives with continue and that it will not be long before these cities are liberated.
Pundits continue to discuss potential Russian offensives moving either south from near Kharkov or north from Donetsk to try and encircle the force of about 20,000 Ukrainian soldiers defending cities like Kramatorsk, Sloviansk and Bakhmut. This hasn’t eventuated yet and it would be surprising if it did, the Russians are exhausted. Even with new soldiers being drafted in from Georgia, Tajikistan and Syria it is not likely that they have enough combat power or logistics support to manage an envelopment of approximately 200 km.
Listening to pundit’s wax lyrical about potential Russian operations in the east demonstrates clearly the fallacy of ‘big hands, small map’. A saying good staff officers have drummed into them in their training; it means what looks easy on the map, is not always so easy on the ground. Any staff assessment needs to be tempered by experience and observation of what is actually happening in the battle. At present Russian logistics is failing at an average of about 60-100 kilometres from their safe areas. Further, the first days of the conflict demonstrated clearly that even in the good tank country around Kharkov, the Russians could not push an offensive forwards. Beaten by tough defenders and smart weapons. Therefore it is highly unlikely that this type of offensive will develop, even with a ceasefire in the north and a withdrawal of Russian forces there it still remains unlikely. If the Ukrainians let them go, the Russian soldiers released from Kiev and Chernihiv are going to be tired, defeated and useless until they can be re-supplied, rested and re-organised.
The only area that the Russians are currently making progress is in the south. Kherson is still in Russian control and while they control it their western flank is secure. Mariupol continues to hold on but its days are numbered. Looking at recent footage we are seeing the effect of massed artillery, whole suburbs flattened. However, history demonstrates that cities can last a long-time and the Russians will need to send soldiers into the city eventually and when they do the defenders will crawl out of the rubble and cause lots of Russian casualties.
In my opinion the real action today is taking place at the negotiating table. It seems that the Russians are now looking for a way out, a negotiated ceasefire in the north followed by a withdrawal of their forces near Kiev and Chernihiv, or perhaps even Sumy and Kharkov. This provides an opportunity to get out of the fight without losing more soldiers and material. In pursuit of that objective, the Russians will keep punishing Ukrainian cities with artillery because the suffering of their citizens is a powerful negotiating tool.
If I was advising the Ukrainian leadership, my advice would be to hold on, a significant Russian defeat at Kiev would destroy Russian material and kill or capture lots of soldiers, debilitating the Russian military. This not only embarrasses the Russians but on a practical level attrits their combat power and makes future aggression more difficult. The Ukrainians now need to focus on ‘winning the peace’ and every Russian solider killed or captured and every tank or vehicle captured or destroyed is a resource Russia will struggle to replace as its economy collapses.
The Ukrainians, and NATO also need to be looking at managing the future ‘peace’ because any deal is likely to see Donbas and the Crimea become armed Russian proxies contesting an interminable border war with Ukraine. This is not an insurmountable issue but needs to be factored into strategy.
The dynamic of the negotiations is fascinating as the Ukrainian ‘pit bull’ hangs onto the Russian Bear’s nose. And right now, the bear that bit of more than it can chew is ‘playing possum’ hoping that the dog will release it for long enough to pull back and attack from another angle. The next few days will tell us more, expect the Russians to demonstrate the cost of this war by bombarding cities infrastructure.
However Ukraine holds the initiative, it can choose to let go, or keep fighting and either option has serious long-term consequences for managing a future peace. Releasing the Russians in the north will allow a faster ceasefire but probably increases the chance of aggression in the near future because the Russians will have more military resource. Holding on, risks more civilian casualties and the possibility of chemical, biological or nuclear escalation but attrits Russian military power possibly providing a longer period before the Russian’s next incursion. Tough decisions for any leader.
Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.