GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan: Ukraine – Perhaps I was wrong… Putin negotiates?

Yesterday, I predicted that the ground war would slow down.  NATO is standing firm, ruling out any commitment to intervene thereby giving the Russians the time they need slowly develop their operations, strangle Kiev and advance slowly towards their objectives. 

At the same time, both sides recent ‘Cry Havoc’ was unleashing the ‘dogs of war’ as volunteers from the west started arriving in Ukraine and there were reports of battle-hardened Syrians and Chechens being recruited by the Russians.  The war started to develop the potential to descend into medieval savagery as tough young men travel there to fight.  Mercenaries and volunteers are always bad news. Professional soldiers are bound by conventions and laws, they are led by officers schooled in military law.  No matter the ‘spin’, mercenaries and volunteers are really just dangerous young men looking for an opportunity for excitement and without legal or moral constraints so their employment historically ends in great amounts of suffering. 

The injection of irregular foreign troops into the mix by Russia is also an indication that either; Russia is running out of manpower, or they are using the idea of bloodthirsty mercenaries descending on Ukrainian cities to scare their opposition.  An information operation like this is entirely plausible, it could be that both inferences are true.  It does make interpretation of Putin’s recently released points for negotiation more interesting.

This morning (NZ time) Putin’s requirements for a withdrawal and ceasefire were published, and they shocked me.  Recognition of the Crimea as Russian, and Donetsk and Lugansk as independent states and Ukrainian neutrality.  Further, the Russian’s stated that they were willing to immediately stop military action if these conditions were met.  


Yesterday, I said that the negotiating table is now a key area of operations.  That the Russians are over-extended and exhausted so they will need to focus on getting out of the war while saving as much face as possible.   Putin’s negotiating position shocked me because it seems a very favourable offer.  If, Ukraine accepts, then it essentially returns to the pre-invasion status quo. Although, Ukraine has to legitimise the disputed areas Crimea, Donetsk and Lugansk but they were in Russian hands before the war anyway. It has to remain neutral, but being neutral does not necessarily mean unarmed.  

Why are the Russians making this offer?  Putin, is difficult to understand.  Is he a manipulative, megalomanic psychopath ready to commit to nuclear war?  Or is a he a master strategist?  The problem is that we just don’t know, so must interpret the situation based on either facts or logical deductions that can be made from those facts.  

At this point it is a fact that the ground war is not progressing significantly, Kiev is still under pressure but has not suffered a deliberate and sustained attack.  The western envelopment of the city is still being contested. Obukhiv, a key indicator of Russian success, approximately 35 kilometres south of Kiev and close to the Dnieper still hasn’t been captured. If the Russians hold this town then they are likely to complete the encirclement of Kiev’s western side.  

In the south fighting continues, the Russians have not made any significant advance in last couple of days although it appears they are still focussed on pushing north along the Dnieper.  The same applies in the east around Kharkov.   Reports of Russian logistics failures continue to mount and are coming from increasingly credible analysts.  

Another logistic problem that people outside the military may find interesting is ‘track life’. A tank or a BMP infantry combat vehicle is a finely tuned piece of machinery, it requires maintenance and constant servicing especially the tracks.  The metal caterpillar tracks that these vehicles run on, stretch and wear out quickly.  On average a track lasts about 500 kilometres, which is why tanks normally move of transporters or trains when they are not fighting or exercising.  Replacement track is expensive, bulky and heavy.  Doing some quick maths we can see that there are probably a whole lot of Russian vehicles the need new track right now.  If the Russian army is having logistics problems, then this week, they are likely getting worse.  

Perhaps, Putin’s generals have been honest, sat down with him and outlined the difficulty of continuing to prosecute the war.  A ceasefire would provide breathing space and an opportunity to reorganise, repair and re-quip units. It doesn’t mean the end of Russia’s attempts to absorb Ukraine, instead it may be maskirovka, a strategic deception that would allow time to; plan, re-equip, fight an information war and undermine the Ukrainian government.   

It maybe that a team of generals is presenting a plan, to lull NATO into a false sense of security by negotiating. Ukraine’s recognition of Crimea as Russian and the independence of the breakaway states provides a ‘win’; and we wait, let the west forget about Ukraine, undermine the Ukrainian government, perhaps assassinate Zelensky, use our cyber war capability to get a more amenable candidate elected.  We can always invade again, but this time we will do it right. 

Another option is that Putin’s offer is a different kind of deception.  It is to lull the west into a sense of security or to create a picture of reasonableness so that if he uses a tactical nuclear weapon the shock value is maximised.  That shock is what would make the ‘escalate to de-escalate’ strategy most effective.  

On the balance of probability, the first option is the most likely.  The Russians know that they are facing a long, tough battle to conquer Ukraine.  A battle that will degenerate rapidly into a failed state on Russia’s border. Putin’s generals are sure to be pointing out the risk to Russia of Ukraine being at war.  If Ukraine becomes a lawless warzone contested by Russians, Ukrainians and a range of dangerous outsiders it provides opportunities for other powers to fight a proxy war against the regimes in Russia and Belarus.  Security of Ukraine is what this war was all about, it does not make sense to let Ukraine fall into lawlessness.   

Negotiation seems to be a sensible way for Russia to play the long game.  No-one wins a nuclear confrontation; however I don’t think we can rule that threat out yet because we just don’t know enough about the Kremlin and about Putin.   

So at the end of D + 12 let’s look at our predictions:

  • Defining Russian main effort remains difficult and in all likelihood at this stage in the campaign it is probably – resupply and re-organisation. 
  • Do not expect the Russia to advance much in the next few days. With increasingly credible reports of logistics problems confirming initial assessments of Russia capability I think that: 
    • Kiev is still a key objective but the situation is stable there and unlikely to develop further until after the next round of negotiations. 
    • Fighting in south will remain relatively static and reports of fighting still indicate a northern direction of advance rather than a switch west towards Odessa. 
  • The negotiation table is now the key area of battle.  It does not look like the Russians can currently generate the combat power to be using the ground campaign to influence negotiations. If the Russians did have that capability, we would be seeing it deployed.  Instead, expect a quiet few days before the negotiations.

In summary, the last 24 hours appear to be confirming initial assessments of the Russian army’s capacity.  This morning’s statements by Putin about demands for peace are very difficult to assess but on the balance of probability are likely to be an attempt to extricate Russia from a damaging war and secure some political gains with which to justify the action.  The implications are very hard to understand.  Once again, only time will tell. 

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

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