GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan: Ukraine – Signals of a Russian collapse continue

Last week I made risky prediction, that the Russian army is close to collapse. It was a bold statement so this week we need to see how that prediction is tracking, are there indications of whether it was correct or not?

Starting in the north with the battle for Kiev, we can see interesting trends unfolding.  In the last article the town of Obukhiv, south of Kiev was in Ukrainian hands. It was an indicator of Ukrainian offensive action and a loss for the Russians.  The town is important because holding it allows a complete encirclement of the Kiev’s west side by Russia.  

Obukhiv is still in Ukrainian hands, further the Ukrainians now hold Fastiv, Borova and Vasilykiv.  Small towns to the south and south west of Kiev.  At the start of last week all of these towns were contested by the Russians.  By holding these towns the Ukrainians control a ‘corridor’ on the west side of the Dnieper, approximately 60 km wide and centred on a main highway, the E95.

What this means from a tactical perspective can be summarised in three key observations. First, that that Ukrainians are demonstrating the ability to take the offensive locally and win.  Second, that the Ukrainians have used this capability to open a supply line into Kiev. A supply line that as now been open for about 48 hours.  Third, this activity demonstrates a level of planning and coordination on the Ukrainian side that indicates that their command structure is intact and planning a cohesive and sensible strategy.

In coming days, a key area to observe will Kiev’s western flank.  If the Ukrainians can generate sufficient combat power, which now seems likely with a large supply route open to the city it is likely that we will see the corridor widen and push north towards Makariv. 

Looking south, the Russian thrust towards Odessa has lost momentum.  Recently, Kherson fell to the Russians and after a pause, they thrust west towards Odessa, attacking two cities on the Bug River. Mykolaiv on the coast and 50 kilometres north, Voznesensk.  Obviously, the Russians had worked out that taking Kiev was going to be beyond them and by moving west along the coast of the Black Sea there was the possibility of taking Odessa and capturing a ‘Crimean Corridor’ thereby securing Crimea and Donestk, providing access to the sea and perhaps allowing a direct land route to support Transnistria.

However, both Mykolaiv and Voznesensk are now in Urkainian control.  At this time we have not seen Ukrainian offensives in this area, for instance towns or cities in Russian control being taken back but I think we should keep looking at the area between Mykolaiv in the west and the coast, Zaporizhia in the north on Dnieper and Mariupol in the east.  

Mariupol continues to be reduced with artillery fire and it will take a major offensive for the Ukrainians to re-capture it.  However, at this stage this does not seem beyond the realms of possibility in coming weeks and a number of changes in the situation contribute to this picture. At a tactical level, we are starting to get some firmer estimates of Russian casualties, the Pentagon reporting last week they estimate approximately 7000 Russian soldiers have been killed and it is likely that Russia has suffered in the region 20,000 casualties.  

The Russian invasion force was approximately 180,000 me and reaching ten percent casualties is a key threshold for military planners because it means that your force is likely to become ineffective.  Then consider where those casualties are most likely to be concentrated, likely in the frontline troops.  We have discussed the size of the Russian force before and these casualties will make a big difference on Russian effectiveness because they are simply running out people. 

Strategically, two key observations should be noted this week.  Firstly, that the Chinese have distanced themselves from supporting the war. Chinese President Xi Jinping is walking a political tightrope trying to establish China as a possible mediator but being careful not to upset either side.  This is very important because it confirms that the Chinese see this war as a lost cause for Russia. Generally, there is no margin in backing a loser.  In terms of this war China’s actions are very important, if they did choose to support Russia directly the threat of catastrophic escalation is much, much higher.

The second observation is the increasing strength of American rhetoric and action.  Last week, American diplomats forcefully warned the Chinese about intervention, President Biden also promised approximately $ 800 million dollars of ‘security’ assistance to Ukraine including; 800 Stinger anti-aircraft systems. 2,000 Javelin anti-tanks missiles, 1,000 light anti-armour guided weapons, 100 drones and lots of ammunition, body armour and helmets.  This equipment will make a huge difference to the Ukrainians and is likely already reaching front line troops.  Remember the 60-kilometre corridor leading into Kiev.

Further, President Biden called Putin a ‘war criminal’ an emotive and escalatory statement.  This statement is very interesting because if there was a significant risk of a nuclear escalation it would be unlikely for the United States President to use this type of language.  Statements like this demand that we look for the information that is not seen. What is going here?  

My observation is that America has a substantial intelligence capability and probably has very good insight into the Russian military’s communications and control systems.  Further, there exist unofficial, back-channel discussions between diplomats and generals and it seems likely that from these sources there is information that Putin may not be backed as strongly by his military as previously supposed.  Perhaps this rhetoric is a ‘dog whistle’ for those in the shadows waiting to move?

In summary since the last article, the Russian army in Ukraine has not collapsed, yet. 

But the combat indicators are pointing towards this conclusion, General Ben Hodges last week predicted the Russians have about ten days fighting left, about the end of this week.  Between their combat loses, the military reinforcement of Ukraine and Russia’s increasing isolation it seems more and more likely that this war is going to end sooner than we expect.  The next few days will be very important. 

 

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

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