The campaign is developing as predicted. Kiev remaining the Russian’s main effort. Although, sporadic air and rocket attacks are reported and there are Russian attempts at encirclements by ground forces and airborne troops, the city is yet to experience massed artillery or a large-scale deliberate attack. Elsewhere, the war is bogging down as Ukrainian’s continue to resist and mount local counter attacks.
This analysis may be contrary to mainstream media reporting, vox pops and Tik Tok videos that describe the ferocity of the fighting around Kiev. The Russian’s full offensive power has not come close to being used against Kiev. Doctrinally, Russian use of artillery is massive and their army is equipped with a large and very effective artillery arm.
An attack will come, but a deliberate attack at the strength required to ‘break in’ to a large city like Kiev will take days to plan and coordinate. The attacks we are seeing at the moment are probing manoeuvres looking for weaknesses or attempting encirclements. When the deliberate attack comes, we will know because it will be supported by massive artillery bombardment. Yesterday it was reported that Kiev has been hit by 200 rockets. However, to provide perspective just one Russian BM-21 multiple launch rocket system fires 40 rockets. A multiple launch rocket ‘battalion’ has 18 individual systems each firing 40 rockets. Doctrinally, we could expect 3-6 multiple launch rocket battalions supporting an attack on Kiev. It is likely doctrinally that there would also be approximately 20-30 battalions of conventional artillery, each with 18 guns firing 152mm or 122mm shells into the city. The fire would be coordinated and intense supporting a large force of infantry to advance through the city.
However, it will take time for the Russians to generate the combat power that they need. Yesterday, the Pentagon reported about 50% of Russian forces are now in Ukraine. This information adding strength to yesterday’s prediction that Russian reserves would be drawn into the battle prematurely because of the stronger than expected Ukrainian resistance. Part of the art of war is managing the ‘tempo’ of the battle, its rhythm, speed and how it is punctuated by respites to rearm, rest and re-equip. A commander’s most important tool for managing a battle’s tempo are reserves of combat power. When the enemy is stronger than predicted, and a part of the front ‘bogs down’ reserves (or troops not committed to battle) are used to bypass that area or to reinforce the attack. Every soldier, tank or gun committed to battle is ‘stuck’, it cannot easily be re-deployed.
A risk to the Russians of swarming across the Ukraine in small battle groups is that if those units are engaged, they need to be rapidly reinforced or withdraw. As predicted Ukrainian counter attacks are forcing Russian forces in the east and north to draw forces into a battle to hold ground. This has two effects; it slows the campaign down giving the Ukrainians an opportunity to re-group on interior lines concentrating their combat power in a smaller area. It also dissipates Russian main effort, because every soldier, tank or gun fighting around Kharkov is a resource that cannot be thrown at Kiev.
Another risk of the Russian’s network centric tactical experiment is that their small independent battle groups have limited logistic capacity. Over the last twenty-four hours there are more reports of exhausted Russian units. Supporting widely dispersed battle groups is very difficult requiring highly trained and competent logisticians. It is particularly difficult supporting highly technical equipment that breaks down easily and requires trained technicians to repair or service. We see modern soldiers festooned with night vision googles, tactical communications systems, digital data transfer equipment, laser range finders, drones and all sorts of other high-tech equipment which even if it doesn’t break down requires batteries. Imagine trying to get organise getting the different battery, each type of equipment requires from a supply base in Russia, 50-100km into a hostile Ukraine to support an isolated battle group that’s initial three days of batteries has just run out. Let alone ammunition, petrol or medical supplies.
Russian staff planners must be having a tough time at the moment. Network centric tactics have been discussed for at least twenty years in military circles and in the Russian army’s post Chechnya re-organisation they would have featured heavily in staff officer’s discussions. This war seems to be demonstrating that this technological approach to war fighting is probably beyond the current Russian army’s level of capability.
So at the end of D + 4 let’s look at our predictions:
- It is now certain that a quick invasion forcing regime change is Putin’s objective. He wanted to capture Kiev quickly hoping that he could shock Ukrainians into accepting a puppet government.
- Kiev remains the decisive point in the campaign. This is where the war will be won or lost. If Putin captures Kiev, he can claim victory if not he has failed. However, the major attack on Kiev is yet to come and will take days to develop. We should see more probing attacks and attempts at encirclement in the next few days and demands to surrender and these attacks will be defeated by the Ukrainians.
- The Russians are currently building their combat power for a major attack on Kiev. This will take days to develop and will require concentration of air power to secure local air space. The Russian will use massed artillery because it will be required tactically to achieve a ‘break in’ against a heavily defended city. The current probing attacks, are being defeated and Ukrainians are not over-awed by the Russians and surrendering. Further, Ukrainian access to advanced anti-armour missiles will make their defence very strong. Tactically, the way for the Russians to defeat NLAW and Javelin is by using artillery suppress the defenders and let their tanks and infantry in armoured personnel carriers get close enough to attack. Massed artillery will be required to do that.
- Thermobaric weapons are being discussed in the media because they are terribly destructive weapons. In Russian doctrine, thermobaric weapons are used as ‘break in’ weapons, because they suck air out of bunkers, suffocating their occupants. This creates a hole in the defender’s line that the Russians can push troops through. The tactical issue with their use is their short range, which means that before they are deployed the Russians would want to achieve local air superiority and have suppressed Ukrainian artillery assets both of which will target thermobaric launchers. Thermobaric weapons are likely to be used if the pre-conditions for their use are achieved. Whether this happens is still being contested.
- Expect a slow down in Russian activity across the remainder of Ukraine. The Russians are over-extended, having relied on the psychological impact of multiple small groups attacking on wide fronts and are now in trouble. Resistance is tougher than they expected and probably their small battlegroups have over reached their supply lines, are tired and are being defeated in detail. We are likely to see local stabilisation of the front elsewhere in Ukraine as the battle in Kiev develops.
- In the weeks ahead, expect to see a consolidation of Russian forces into more conventional brigade and divisional organisations. This will be driven by both tactical and supply considerations. We will see a greater concentration of Russian assets around major road networks as they are required to return to a conventional logistics model. After this re-organisation takes place, the Russians will become more aggressive because they will be able to concentrate combat power more easily. The Ukrainians should plan to maintain their offensive pressure to stop this happening.
In summary, the Russians are over-extended and bogged down. If they have good leaders, they will be planning now to reconstitute their forces in the north and east into more conventional brigade and divisional sized organisations that are easier to support. This will also concentrate forces allowing for a return to offensive operations in the open country around Kharkov. This area is good tank country and with concentration of force here they could possibly regain the initiative, but this needs to be done before they run out of reserves.
The Russian generals will probably be thwarted in the in their ability to reconstitute and take back the initiative because they will be under enormous political pressure to take Kiev. This will soak up the reserves they need to reconstitute in the north and east and will commit that element of the Russian force to a stalemate.
Putin is in trouble and his commitment to Kiev is pushing him further from victory.
Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.