GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – What a week; Russian lasers, Mariupol’s defenders surrender, Turkey’s threatens NATO unity and Ukraine may be moving in the south

The big news this week is not Russia’s claim to be using laser weapons in Ukraine. Instead, it is the surrender of the last defenders of the Azovstal Steel Plant in Mariupol.  Surrender of this force is politically and militarily significant, the defence of Azovstal is a thorn in the Putin’s side. While fighting continued in Mariupol, it was difficult for Putin claim victory in the important city and with criticism at home growing after recent military mistakes he needs a ‘win’.   The surrender of the last, brave defenders of the steel works is a victory. 

Politically Putin, is likely under significant pressure; indicated by his unwillingness to escalate the war effort on Victory Day, the recent explosion of criticism in the Russian blogosphere and most importantly retired Russian colonel Mikhail Khodaryonok’s statements on state television that made international headlines. Khodaryonok is brave, using his platform on a popular news show to tell the truth. He told Russians that they are losing the war, that Russian soldiers are unprofessional and poorly motivated, that the world is rallied against Russia and finally that Russia needs to look for a way out.  In short, he did what retired senior officers sometimes need to do, he told the truth.

Militarily, the surrender at the Azovstal Steel Works will free some Russian troops to be deployed elsewhere in the campaign.  Most estimates claim that there are 11-12 battalion tactical groups deployed in Mariupol, however this does not mean that this force will be immediately available.  The soldiers in Mariupol will be tired and battered from a hard fight.  Digging tough defenders out of an underground labyrinth is hard work.  

Where these soldiers go will be interesting.  Russia’s main effort appears to have switched from attacking Kramatorsk and Sloviansk via Izyum to attacking Severodonetsk and Lysychansk from the east.  Although, Ukraine’s offensive in the north near Kharkov shows signs of slowing down as it reaches the border in the north and the Severskyi-Donets River in the east, it has probably caused the Russians to stop their attack from Izyum on Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.  Russia committed a large force to this area, estimates claim that there are 39-40 battalion tactical groups between Izyum in the south and Belogrod in the north, or about a third of Russia’s total strength in Ukraine.  

The Russian campaign is now threatened significantly, with a third of its force ‘fixed’ in position between Belgorod and Izyum so Russia has less combat power available elsewhere in the battle.  This creates a dilemma for the Russian command, in that they must choose between using the soldiers released from Mariupol to either:

  • Reinforce the advance on Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.  An operation that if successful will result in the largest encirclement of Ukrainian territory.
  • Reinforce the advance on Severodonetsk and Lysychansk from the east. A more limited operation, with a better chance of success. 
  • Develop a new attack. Use the forces to either push west from Kherson towards Odessa or north toward Zaporizhzia or to start a strong attack from the south against Severodonetsk and Lysychansk.

Most commentators are predicting that any forces released from Mariupol will be used to support the attack on Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. Ukraine’s northern offensive’s impact is likely to be significant, forcing the Russians to reassess their strategic objectives and reduce them again. 

The impacts may be even more significant because in the south there is interesting activity happening. In recent weeks, two towns north of Mariupol have changed hands and are now in Ukrainian control. Vuhledar, a small coal mining town and Volodymyrivka another small town nearby, both are small and sit on the Kashlagach River. From Voldomyrivka, the southernmost of these towns it is about 16km to a town called Volnovakha.

Volnovakha was a small town, the site of significant battles during World War Two and was destroyed in the recent Russian invasion.  However, it is still an important road and rail junction sitting on the H20 motorway, 50km directly north of Mariupol.  The strategic significance of Mariupol is well understood, if this area is controlled by Russia, it creates a corridor or land bridge between Donbas, Crimea and Kherson.  If Ukraine holds the area, then Donbas is ‘cut-off’ from Crimea and Kherson.  

So it is strategically interesting that a Ukrainian offensive is ‘fixing’ a third of Russia’s combat power in the north while a stalwart defence of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk is drawing in a large part of Russia’s remaining combat power. Students of military history will remember how Stalingrad’s defence was used to commit, then attrit German forces before a large counter attack.  The capture of two villages heading towards Volnovakha may be an indicator of future Ukrainian plans. However, don’t expect anything too soon, if I was on the Ukrainian staff I would be watching and waiting letting the Russians drift north and commit to battle around Severodonetsk and Lysychansk before moving on Volnovakha, capturing that town then using the H20 as a main supply route for an offensive against Mariupol.  

Strategically, Putin’s other recent victory is Turkey breaking step with the remainder of NATO over admission of Finland and Sweden.  Putin’s aggression against Ukraine convinced both Nordic nations to ask for NATO membership.  Admission of Sweden and Finland brings considerable military power to the alliance, both countries having large, well-equipped and highly professional militaries.   Unfortunately, admission to the NATO alliance requires unanimous support from existing members and Turkey is refusing to support their admission.

This is a dangerous situation, so far Putin’s war has not escalated either beyond Ukraine’s borders or to using nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.  NATO’s unity and resolve are likely to be significant factors in deterring escalation.  Putin, knows that any escalation leading to war with a united NATO is suicide, deterrence is working. However, deterrence is predicated on NATO’s unity so if there is a split Putin has room to manoeuvre.  

So what is Turkey’s plan?  Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has stated that Turkey does not support Sweden and Finland joining NATO claiming the countries are protecting Kurdish terrorists. However, in these circumstance it is not what is being said that is important but what is not being said. Although Turkey is a NATO member, it has a long history of feeling like an ‘outsider’ in the Western European alliance.  A situation exacerbated by the West’s response to the Syrian Civil War and its support for Kurdish separatist movements in the north of Turkey.  Both Finland and Sweden condemned Turkish attacks on the Kurds, provide sanctuary for refugees from the conflict and in 2019 embargoed weapons exports to Turkey.

The most likely reason for the Turkey’s statements is not exclusion of Sweden and Finland but rather using the applications to highlight these issues and force recognition of them by other members.  We can be sure that NATO diplomats are currently working hard to try and broker a solution and that Turkish diplomats are working equally hard to get every possible concession out of their Western partners.  Perhaps greater recognition of Turkey’s Kurdish separatist movement as a terrorist organisation or access to advanced weapons. 

However, we should not overlook the possibility that Turkey has other more long-term goals.  It has a long history of working closely with Russia in Syria and shares mutual areas of interest.  Although Turkey is a NATO member being seen as ‘reasonable’ by Russia is potentially in Turkey’s long-term interests.  Turkey’s control of the Bosporus, mandated by the Montreux Accord has been exercised with absolute fairness throughout the conflict demonstrating Turkish integrity. Looking towards the future; and managing the peace when this war is over, it may be politically sensible for Turkey to be perceived as fair and reasonable by Russia.  

The issue with Turkey’s position though is that it may signal a weakness in the NATO alliance, one that can be exploited.  A long and protracted fight over Sweden and Finland’s admission into NATO may contribute to making it harder for members to stay focussed on the larger strategic objectives; winning the war and then managing NATO’s long-term relationship with Russia after the war. Any division within NATO can be exploited and weakens the clear message of unity and resolve that is required to deter aggression. It is important that NATO resolves this issue as quickly as possible. 

Finally, what about Russia’s lasers? This statement is interesting only because it demonstrates Putin’s desperation.   History shows plenty of examples of corrupt regimes in their last days sabre-rattling about high tech ‘wonder weapons’, Putin is desperate to maintain the illusion of threatening military power that he spent decades creating.  Unfortunately, this illusion is crumbling fast because of the pathetic performance of the Russian military.  

In summary, we are going to see interesting developments in the next few weeks. It is highly likely that the Turkish veto of Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership will be quickly mediated, probably by a ‘behind closed doors’ American ‘pay off’.  Strategically, a united NATO is vital.  Tactically, expect to see Russian forces drift north towards Severodonetsk and Lysychansk as they are rested after the battle for Mariupol. Russia’s main effort is likely now just the capture of these cities.  It is likely that soon there will lots of politicking in Kherson, Crimea and Donbas for independence or more likely for Russian annexation. It is vital that Ukraine recapture as much territory as possible before this happens because annexation brings Russia’s ‘nuclear card onto the table’.  However, a Ukrainian offensive in the south may already be being planned.   


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

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