GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – Ukraine – Putin’s Plan Being Revealed – What Next?

It is now night on the second day of the Russian invasion and developments in the battle for Ukraine allow some further deductions about Putin’s actual objectives.  Putin is a master of ‘maskirovka’, the Russian concept of strategic deception. Understanding his real objectives requires looking through his rhetoric and deceptive manoeuvre, using key facts to deduce his plan. 

In yesterday’s combat a key deduction about Putin’s objectives can be made, he is aiming for regime change rather than just occupation of Crimea and Donbas. The invasion started in textbook fashion with precision strikes by rockets and cruise missiles on military infrastructure across the country, even as far west as Lviv.  This is exactly the same tactic as the US used in the 1993 and 2002 Gulf Wars.  Attacks like this spread fear, confusion and destroy key military capabilities. Most importantly by striking across the country they mask the invader’s key objectives. 

The other use of cruise missile and rocket attacks early in an invasion is to suppress the enemy’s air defences. The Russian strikes were successful allowing Russian airborne forces to try and seize Andropov Airfield north of Kiev. This airfield, 20 km north of the capital, is important because it is a large airfield capable of operating fighter aircraft and the largest transport aircraft.  Holding this airfield provides an airhead that more troops can be brought into the country through and provides a base for close air support aircraft.  The battle is still being contested and some reports indicate that the initial airborne operation was counterattacked and defeated. 

This operation is a key indicator of Putin’s strategy, reports indicate a force of 600 – 3000 airborne soldiers being used which is a significant airborne operation from which we can deduce two key points. First, that Ukraine’s air defence system in that area was crippled by the missile attacks.  

Most importantly we now know that Kiev is a key target.  A force this large of elite (expensively trained) airborne soldiers would not be committed to capturing Antonov Airfield unless there was a large ground force with tanks and heavy equipment following behind to secure the area. 

In the south and east the battle is developing as expected, seizure of areas around Donbas and amphibious attacks in the Crimea can work towards either; securing limited objectives or to a larger objective of a full country invasion. The operations here appear to have been successful with Russian forces capturing significant areas.

Another piece of key information is reports from fighting in the north and east particularly near Kharkov, a large city in the east.  The reports are unsubstantiated at this stage but describe the Russian offensive becoming bogged down and moving slowly.  This is interesting because this part of Ukraine is ‘tank country’. The largest tank battles in history were fought in this area in the Second World War.  These reports may, in coming days, demonstrate the effectiveness of the British and US antitank weapons sent to Ukraine in February.

Another observation is that the Russians seem to be trying to limit damage to civilian areas.  At this stage there are not significant reports of massed artillery or the use of the terrible thermobaric weapons that are a key part of Russian tactical doctrine. This may change, the only way to beat modern anti-armour weapons is with large artillery barrages that force the operators to remain under cover.  Further, towns and villages are great places for infantry with anti-armour weapons to hide, so if these weapons are effective expect to see more use of artillery and therefore civilian casualties.  

 

So at the end of D +2 let’s look at our predictions:

 

  • Regime change is Putin’s objective.  He wants to capture Kiev.  The commitment of airborne forces, the capture of Chernobyl and Pripyat indicate an advance south on the Dnieper. The only objective can be Kiev.  Whether, he wants to capture the more difficult west of the country is yet to be seen.
  • Initial reports indicate slow Russian progress in good tank country.  This is may be the first indication of a long war for the Russians.  It may also indicate the effectiveness of Javelin and NLAW missiles supplied to Ukraine. 
  • If Russia’s armoured forces are blunted by advanced anti-armour weapons it will require the use of lots of artillery to regain the tactical initiative, this will kill and injure civilians. The impact of the collateral damage will be to further motivate Ukrainian resistance. 
  • The motivation of individual Russian soldiers may start to lapse.  Soldiers fight because they are motivated to do so. Invading Ukraine could be likened to Australia invading New Zealand the two countries share history and cultural roots and it is very hard to demonise someone that looks, talks and acts like you do. The Russian army is still a largely conscript force with a limited period of service they are not the hardened professional soldiers of Britain or the United States.  When the Soviets invaded Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the Cold War discipline became a key issue, as conscript soldiers challenged why they were invading these countries that didn’t seem to be bad.  This may happen in Ukraine. 
  • Finally, the Russians are attempting to fight in a ‘network centric’ manner like Western armies, breaking down into small tactical units and swarming across the battlefield using advanced digital communications to concentrate for battle.  This has never been done before in a ‘conventional war’ against an organised nation state.  It is risky, if you do not have the digital capacity to communicate effectively then your small forces can be defeated in detail.  If this situation develops is will require the commitment of more and more Russian reserves. The issue is that reserves provide flexibility allowing a commander to exploit an enemy’s weakness, without them wars bog down and become static which will contribute to slowing down and prolonging the war. 

 

In summary, I think that we are getting a clearer picture of Putin’s plan.  However, based on the current information there is hope that Ukraine can hold on and if they can I believe there is hope of defeating Putin.

The liberal democracies have had nearly 80 years of comparative piece and are unfamiliar with the older type of ‘hard man’ that Vladimir Putin represents.  The ‘ends justify the means’, Cold Warrior ready to make decisions aggressively, act unilaterally and to gamble in big stakes games.  

In this invasion he has gambled big, his economy is faltering and he needs a quick and prestigious win.  Keeping an army this big in the field is enormously expensive, if that army is not successful and casualties start to mount then even the most powerful dictator is threatened at home.  Ukraine’s best hope is to hold on, treat surrendering Russian soldiers well, prolong the war and defeat Putin politically at home. 

It could even mean fighting a long running insurgency if they are defeated conventionally.  A future NATO / US strategy could be war by proxy, imagine using Putin’s tactics in the Crimea against him with an army of ‘independent’, ‘freedom fighters’ flocking to Ukraine through the rugged Carpathian border, armed with high tech Western missiles and slowly bleeding the Russian occupation forces. Ukraine could become another Afghanistan or Vietnam, a type of war men like Putin don’t know how to win. 

 

Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X. Interested in international politics.

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