Yesterday I predicted that the ground war would slow down. NATO remains firm, ruling out any commitment to intervention, thus giving the Russians time to slowly develop their operations, strangle Kiev and slowly advance towards their objectives.
Meanwhile, the recent ‘Cry Havoc’ from both sides unleashed the ‘dogs of war’ as western volunteers began arriving in Ukraine and battle-hardened Syrians and Chechens were recruited by the Russians. . The war began to develop the potential to descend into medieval savagery as tough young men traveled there to fight. Mercenaries and volunteers are always bad news. Professional soldiers are bound by conventions and laws, they are led by officers trained in military law. No matter the “turn”, mercenaries and volunteers are really just dangerous young men looking for an opportunity for excitement and without legal or moral restraints, so their employment historically ends in great suffering. .
The injection of irregular foreign troops into the mix by Russia is also an indication that either; Russia either lacks manpower or uses the idea of bloodthirsty mercenaries descending on Ukrainian cities to scare their opposition. An information operation like this is entirely plausible, it could be that both inferences are true. This makes Putin’s recently released interpretation of negotiating points more interesting.
This morning (New Zealand time), Putin’s demands for a withdrawal and a ceasefire were published, and they shocked me. Recognition of Crimea as Russian, and Donetsk and Lugansk as independent states and Ukrainian neutrality. Moreover, the Russians declared that they were ready to immediately stop the military action if these conditions were met.
Yesterday I said that the trading table is now a key area of operations. That the Russians are overworked and exhausted, so they will have to focus on getting out of the war while saving as much face as possible. Putin’s bargaining stance shocked me as this seems like a very favorable offer. If Ukraine agrees, it essentially reverts to the pre-invasion status quo. Although Ukraine must legitimize the disputed areas of Crimea, Donetsk and Lugansk, they were in Russian hands before the war anyway. He must remain neutral, but being neutral does not necessarily mean disarmed.
Why are the Russians making this offer? Putin, is difficult to understand. Is he a manipulative and megalomaniacal psychopath ready to engage in nuclear war? Or is he a master strategist? The problem is that we just don’t know, so we have to interpret the situation based on facts or logical inferences that can be made from those facts.
At this point it is a fact that the ground war is not progressing significantly, Kiev is still under pressure but has not come under deliberate and sustained attack. The western envelopment of the city is still disputed. Obukhiv, a key indicator of Russian success, about 35 kilometers south of Kiev and near the Dnieper has still not been captured. If the Russians hold this city, they will probably complete the encirclement of the western side of Kiev.
In the south the fighting continues, the Russians have made no significant advances in the past two days, although it appears they are still concentrating on the push north along the Dnieper. The same is true in the east around Kharkov. Reports of Russian logistical failures continue to pile up and come from increasingly credible analysts.
Another logistical issue that people outside the military may find interesting is “life tracking”. A BMP tank or infantry fighting vehicle is a finely tuned machine, it requires constant maintenance and maintenance, especially the tracks. The metal tracks on which these vehicles run stretch and wear out quickly. On average, a track is about 500 kilometers long, which is why tanks normally move from transporters or trains when not fighting or exercising. The replacement caterpillar is expensive, bulky and heavy. By doing some quick math, we can see that there are probably a lot of Russian vehicles that need a new track right now. If the Russian army has logistical problems, then this week they are likely to get worse.
Maybe Putin’s generals were honest, sat down with him, and pointed out the difficulty of continuing to pursue the war. A ceasefire would provide respite and an opportunity to reorganize, repair and re-equip units. This does not mean the end of Russia’s attempts to absorb Ukraine, but perhaps maskirovka, a strategic disappointment that would allow time to; planning, re-equipping, waging information warfare and undermining the Ukrainian government.
A team of generals may come up with a plan to lull NATO into a false sense of security by negotiating. Ukraine’s recognition of Crimea as Russian and independence of breakaway states offer ‘victory’; and we wait, let the West forget about Ukraine, undermine the Ukrainian government, maybe assassinate Zelensky, use our cyber warfare capability to elect a more receptive candidate. We can always invade again, but this time we’ll do it right.
Another option is that Putin’s offer is another kind of deception. It’s about lulling the West into a sense of security or creating a reasonable image so that if they use a tactical nuke, shock value is maximized. This shock is what would make the “escalation to de-escalation” strategy the most effective.
On the balance of probabilities, the first option is the most likely. The Russians know they face a long and difficult battle to conquer Ukraine. A battle that will quickly escalate into a failed state on the Russian border. Putin’s generals are sure to point out the risk to Russia of Ukraine being at war. If Ukraine becomes a lawless war zone contested by Russians, Ukrainians, and a host of dangerous foreigners, it presents opportunities for other powers to wage a proxy war against regimes in Russia and Belarus. Ukraine’s security is the reason for this war, it makes no sense to let Ukraine descend into anarchy.
Negotiation seems like a sensible way for Russia to play for the long haul. No one wins a nuclear confrontation; However, I don’t think we can rule out this threat yet because we just don’t know enough about the Kremlin and about Putin.
So at the end of D+12 let’s look at our predictions:
- Defining the Russian main effort remains difficult and in all likelihood at this stage of the campaign it is likely to be resupply and reorganization.
- Don’t expect Russia to advance much in the next few days. With increasingly credible reports of logistical issues confirming early assessments of Russian capability, I believe:
- Kiev remains a key objective, but the situation there is stable and should not change before the next round of negotiations.
- Fighting in the south will remain relatively static and combat reports still point to a northward direction of advance rather than a westward shift towards Odessa.
- The negotiating table is now the key battleground. It does not appear that the Russians can currently generate the combat power necessary to use the ground campaign to influence the negotiations. If the Russians had that capability, we would see it deployed. Instead, expect a few calm days before negotiations.
In summary, the past 24 hours seem to confirm early assessments of the Russian military’s capability. Putin’s statements this morning on peace demands are very difficult to gauge, but on the balance of probabilities it will likely be an attempt to extricate Russia from a damaging war and secure political gains for justify the action. The implications are very difficult to understand. Again, only time will tell.
Ben Morgan is a weary Gen Xer with an interest in international politics. He’s TDB’s military analyst.