GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – Ukraine – Ukrainians on offensive as predicted the Russians are losing

Last week, I predicted that the Russians were in trouble and close to collapse. Now we are starting to see more evidence that this prediction is correct.  On Monday, we witnessed the first small indications of the Ukrainians developing offensive momentum by capturing Fastiv, Borova and Vasilykiv, small towns to the south and west of Kiev.  In the South, we saw the Russians pushed out of Mykolaiv and Voznesensk, important towns that the Russian’s need to hold to cross the River Bug and threaten Odessa. 

On Monday, I said to watch Kiev’s western flank, specifically Makariv. In the south, to watch for Ukrainian offensives predicting that these areas would soon provide evidence of Russian weakness and growing Ukrainian momentum.  Recent events support this theory.

In the north near Kiev, Makariv fell about 48 hours ago the Ukrainians taking it back from the Russians. Now the Ukrainians are pushing north from Makariv and fighting for Borodianka.  This is very important.  The Ukrainians in this area are secure to their west, and when they capture Borodianka will be in a position to push north and east towards the Dnieper River.  If this happens the Ukrainians could encircle the Russian forces north of Kiev, specifically near Irpin, surrounding them ‘fixed’ against the Dniepr River.  

Essentially, in the north we could soon see the encirclement and destruction of the tip of Russia’s thrust at Kiev.  the Russians in that area have two choices; either to stand and fight or to withdraw.  I believe that the Russians will stand and fight because extracting a force from battle requires you to ‘break contact’, or to separate your force from the enemy for long enough to run way.  This takes high-levels of training and coordination, something the Russians demonstrably do not have in abundance. 

Secondly, trading ground for time in this manner requires political flexibility, generals work for politicians and are often tactically constrained by political interference.  Over the centuries, many, many soldiers have died holding ground that was worth nothing tactically but was vital to the rhetoric of their political masters.  I think, that this is what will happen north of Kiev. Recent observations made by retired American general David Petraeus, that the Russians are digging in their armoured vehicles in this area support this theory.  Put simply, Putin will not allow his generals to withdraw and it is likely they will either be destroyed or more likely surrender. 

The Ukrainians are also moving in the south, since capturing Mykolaiv and Voznesensk early this week they are now attacking Kherson.  The attack started this morning (NZ time) and we will need wait and see how it develops but it demonstrates that Ukrainians are able to conduct offensive operations.  If Kherson is recaptured it provides a base for the Ukrainians to push east towards Melitopol and perhaps even relieve Mariupol. 

On the first day of the offensive the Russians looked like they were well-equipped, ready to fight like a modern ‘network centric’ force in the manner of Western armies, breaking down into small tactical units and swarming across the battlefield using advanced digital communications to concentrate quickly for battle.  However, as the war has progressed, we have seen reports of Russian weaknesses move from social media to increasingly credible sources.  Now we have highly credible reports of Russian soldiers running out of food and ammunition.   Further, more and more details are emerging about the failure of Russian tactical communications.  Russian soldiers are stealing cell phones to communicate because their radio networks are being blocked or are failing.

Current Russian tactics conform with this picture, the emphasis on bombarding areas rather than attacking on the ground hints a force that is not willing to engage in tough fights that they may lose.  Recent loses of Russian generals indicates that senior officers are having to be ‘on the ground’ pushing their men forwards.   Recently, NATO reported that their intelligence sources estimate 15,000 Russians have been have been killed.  Huge numbers, the Americans lost approximately 4,000 in their twenty-year war in Afghanistan.  A casualty rate (killed and wounded together) greater than 10% has a huge impact on both military effectiveness and morale, especially over a short period of time.  Overall the picture is of an over-extended army running out of supplies, struggling with morale and unable to communicate. 

The next few days are crucial for the Russians.  Running low on supplies and under pressure from the Ukrainians who are now transferring from small local offensives, to looking like they may be capable of larger operations the Russians are in a tough position. 

Strategically, the Russians are isolated.  China realises that they are backing a loser and are not supporting Russia.  We have unsubstantiated reports that within Russia forces are massing against Putin.  President Biden’s public denouncement of Putin as a ‘war criminal’ is likely a ‘dog whistle’ directed at those men waiting in the shadows.  Both developments reduce the likelihood of a nuclear escalation.  It seems unlikely that Putin would escalate without China’s support.  The thought of facing NATO’s wrath might be palatable but risking China joining with the rest of the world in a response to a nuclear escalation is probably too much.  Secondly, any political pressure on Putin will come from the men that control Russia’s military infra-structure and if they are not behind him, he is unlikely to be able to take that action.

The Russians are now stuck with fighting this war conventionally.  If I was in the Russian leadership, I would be advising that it was time to focus effort on key areas, give ground in less important areas and try to reconstitute an offensively capable forces.   My advice would be to pull back from Kiev and avoid encirclement, to throw everything available at taking Mariupol and defending Kherson, to use the southern Dnieper as a physical barrier and defend the area between there and Donetsk securing the break- away republics.  Then I would negotiate. 

However, I am not in charge and as we discussed previously this is unlikely to happen because Putin has too much political capital tied up in Kiev and because the Russians probably don’t have the capacity to manoeuvre in this way.  

Instead, the next few days are likely to develop in the following manner.  The Ukrainians will capture Borodianka north of Kiev.  Capturing Borodianka will allow the Ukrainians to get supplies on the E40 highway that leads straight to Lviv, and from there to Poland.  Controlling access to the E40 will allow manpower, ammunition and supplies to reach Ukrainian forces in this area. Likely, the Ukrainians will pause briefly then push west to the Dneiper encircling the Russians currently located near Irpin and the Andropov Airfield on the northern outskirts of Kiev.  Look for fighting around the towns of Ivankiv and Dymer to confirm this prediction.

It is harder to predict what will happen in the south, the Russians are racing against time, they have a dilemma because they need to defend Kherson at the same time as they are trying to attack Mariupol and are trying to do both with increasing limited resources.  If pressure is maintained, Mariupol will fall to the Russians soon, but whether or not they can hold it will depend on Kherson.  

Essentially, the Russian dilemma is that they need to either take Mariupol very quickly then commit their forces to stopping the Ukrainians taking Kherson, or hold Kherson then take Mariupol.  Either plan involves hard fighting in urban areas and switching men, artillery and ammunition from one operation to another very quickly.  The Russians have not demonstrated this capability. So, based on Russian operations to date it is likely that they will try to do both and fail. This will open up the south for some potentially rapid advances by Ukrainian forces, so keep watching Kherson this week.  

In summary, wars are won in the mind and it will not take many victories for an over-extended, under fed and poorly led force to lose the psychological battle and turn defeat into a rout.  The Russians are in collapsing and we can expect things to get worse for them in the next few days and weeks because we are entering an endgame, in which the Ukrainians are getting stronger daily as supplies flow into their country as the Russians get weaker.  If Ukraine does encircle and destroy the Russian force north or Kiev or re-take Kherson it will be significant and possibly critical blow to the Russians, and their generals will see that.  The real question is can they influence their political masters to allow them to trade ground for time or will they be caught?


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

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