GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – Ukraine – What is really going on

Since the last update, Russian woes continue to increase, after saying that as a sign of good faith, they would decrease military activity around Kiev and Chernihiv, the Russians continued to shell both cities. Pundits around the world told us that the Russians are lying about moving their troops away from these areas.  However, this analysis neglects the practical problems associated with moving soldiers out of combat.  

In order to remove troops from a contested area, the withdrawing force needs a ‘break’ in the fighting to allow it to retreat.  Without that break, soldiers leaving their protected positions and moving back are very vulnerable and at risk of being routed.  A retreating force needs one of three conditions to be present in order to safely withdraw.  It either needs to ‘break contact’ (to separate themselves from the enemy) by military action; normally a counter attack or artillery bombardment.  Or in some exceptional cases the retreating force may be able to use subterfuge and sneak away.  The only other option is that the enemy lets them get away.  

In my opinion the Russians are trying to withdraw, but can’t. 

This is in keeping with the thesis that the Russians, particularly near Kiev are trapped and close to collapse. Essentially, it appears that Russian leadership ‘on the ground’ in Ukraine understands that its soldiers are close to collapse, so is currently focussed on trying to withdraw to regroup and reposition. However, completing this activity without it becoming a rout or a mass surrender is very difficult. The evidence for this hypothesis is outlined below:

  • Russian offensive action is non-existent, we have not seen significant forward momentum in weeks.  
  • There is now very credible evidence that Russian logistics and communications have collapsed under the pressure of combat.  Reports of abandoned vehicles that have run out of fuel, soldiers not being fed, civilian cell phones and un-encrypted radios being used for communications, units running out of ammunition and of medical casualties from frostbite abound, many from credible sources. 
  • Further, there is also increasing evidence of Russian morale being low. In recent weeks there have been numerous reports of Russian soldiers surrendering, recordings of phone conversations that indicate low morale and on Wednesday the head of the United Kingdom’s communications intelligence service, Jeremy Fleming reported that there was evidence of Russian units refusing to follow orders and sabotaging their equipment.   Combined with the large number of Russian senior officers killed leading from the front, there is a strong case that on the frontline Russian morale is plummeting.  
  • Russia’s continuing use of artillery may also indicate low morale and lack of frontline combat capability. Artillery is an easy weapon to use.  Most Russian artillery fires about 20-30km, so it can sit at distance, safely shelling Ukrainian positions without a high degree of risk to the individual soldiers serving those guns.  An infantryman on the other hand must get out his safe foxhole, then advance towards the enemy in order to kill or capture them.  Infantrymen, need to be highly motivated to be effective, artillerymen on the other hand are removed from the stress of frontline combat.  If an army is collapsing but doesn’t want the enemy to know that it is, then digging in and using artillery is useful way to maintain pressure while you try and rebuild the motivation of your combat troops.  

In the north and east, from Kiev and Chernihiv through Sumy to Kharkov, I think that the evidence points to field commanders trying to ‘stay in the fight’ while they try organise what will be a difficult withdrawal. However, Russian field commanders cannot manoeuvre front line forces easily because their frontline, combat soldier’s morale and combat capability are too low. This means that they can’t afford to risk ‘close battle’ or conducting manoeuvres like spoiling attacks, or sudden surprise withdrawals because they know that their frontline soldiers will fail.  If they lose discipline, the Ukrainians will descend on them and inflict lots of casualties.  So the Russians are stuck with using artillery to stabilise their front and withdrawing from within their depth until they can find fresh troops.

Yesterday, Pentagon sources said that Russian forces near Chernobyl were moving back towards Belarus providing evidence that supports this assessment.  The Russians are ‘thinning out’ out their rear areas and this is what we would expect to see before a withdrawal, armies need room to step back into.  If this trend continues it is likely that there will not be sudden surprise attacks in the area instead the withdrawing Russian troops will be sent to safe areas in Belarus and Russia to re-quip, re-organise and get ready to be moved to Donbas.

I think in the next few days there will be some interesting developments in north and east Ukraine from Kiev, through Chernihiv, Sumy to Kharkov.  My prediction is that Russian troops in rear areas will continue to ‘thin out’. Then there will be a series of rapid Ukrainian advances in these areas as the Russian frontline is withdrawn. It is a time that chemical weapons could be used, Soviet doctrine included using persistent chemical agents to deny ground to enemy forces.  For instance, a way of breaking contact could be for the Russians to use chemical weapons to poison the ground their forces currently occupy forcing pursuing Ukrainians to; stop, work out what the chemical agent is then take steps to mitigate its effects. This would delay the pursuit and allow the retreating Russians an opportunity to pull back without being attacked. 

Regardless of the threat of chemical weapons, expect to see Russia trying withdraw its frontline forces in these areas in coming days.  This period is critical for Ukrainian forces, the two phases of war with the highest casualty rates are the defence and the pursuit.  Attacking an enemy in defence is always costly and history tells us that withdrawing forces suffer large casualties.  If Ukrainian forces can maintain contact as the Russians withdraw, they will not only attrit the Russians but may even turn the withdrawal into a rout.  Keep watching the small towns like Borodianka, Makariv and Hostomel near Kiev and the areas around Chernihiv, Sumy and Kharkov for rapid Ukrainian advances.

In the south there is little movement, and it seems likely that we will not see significant activity here for days or weeks.  Instead, Russia will learn from its mistakes and slowly develop its combat power.  Chechen mercenaries, Syrians and Wagner Group contractors are likely to be slowly concentrating in safe, pro-Russian areas in Luhansk, Donetsk and Crimea.  New Russian soldiers from Georgia and Tajikistan are also likely to be in deploying into this part of Ukraine.  Unlike the north, in the south and east, Russia has time on its side. It has safe areas and a supportive community in which to prepare its forces for the next round. 

Therefore, in the next few days the Russian main effort will be manoeuvring its forces in the north into better, less over-extended positions and while the world is focussed on Kiev, Russia will slowly build up combat power in the south east.  The Russians have not demonstrated the logistical capability to support large advances so don’t expect them to envelop the approximately 20,000 Ukrainian defending cities like Kramatorsk, Sloviansk and Bakhmut. Instead, expect to see the capture of Mariupol followed longer term by slow and steady local advances from Crimea and Donbas as large groups of competent mercenaries are used to capture small objectives.  After areas are captured, they can be secured by local militias or Russian conscripts mobilised from other military districts becoming secure bases areas for the next small offensive.  Operating in this way the Russians can turn the war into a long running, low-cost battle of attrition as they slowly secure the Donbas and wait for the world to lose interest in the area. 

Yesterday, we also received news from the United States that Putin’s generals and advisors are not providing honest updates about the conflict.  This report really interested me, not because of its content but because of its source.  A key issue with being a dictator is that the people around you tend to tell you ‘What you want to hear, rather than what you need to know’ so the content was no surprise.  The fact that this information came from the Pentagon and appeared to be quite detailed indicates that NATO and United States intelligence has a deep view into the Russian hierarchy.  Further, recent days saw reports of Russian spies being rounded up in Ukraine, adding to the picture that Ukraine, NATO and the United States are developing an effective intelligence operation.

Today, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, British Chief of Defence Staff was quoted in speech stating;

 “But in many ways, Putin has already lost. Far from being the far-sighted manipulator of events that he would have us believe, Putin has damaged himself through a series of catastrophic misjudgments.” A powerful statement likely informed by good intelligence; a statement probably designed to raise questions in the Russian hierarchy about their leader.  

Two important activities will happen today that need to be watched. More negotiations are scheduled and I think we will see more Russian rhetoric trying to secure a ceasefire in the north and east.  A ceasefire allowing them to withdraw without having to fight their way out. Secondly, today is 1 April, the date each year that Russians conscripted into the armed forces are required to parade for their basic training.  Approximately, 132,000 young men, school leavers are required to parade at local military bases ready to start their training.  An interesting indication of real Russian sentiment about the war will be how many turn up.  

In conclusion, the war is evolving as predicted ‘on the ground’ and in the next few days we expect to see activity in the north and east as the Russians manoeuvre, however the war is far from over.  No matter how successful the Ukrainians are in this area in coming days, the world needs to look south and east and be prepared to support a longer struggle for Ukrainian sovereignty and democracy. 


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

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