Last week I predicted that the Russians were in trouble and on the verge of collapse. Now we are starting to see more evidence that this prediction is correct. On Monday, we saw the first small indications that the Ukrainians were building offensive momentum by capturing Fastiv, Borova and Vasilykiv, small towns south and west of kyiv. To the south we saw the Russians driven out of Mykolaiv and Voznessensk, important towns the Russians must hold to cross the Bug River and threaten Odessa.
On Monday, I said to watch kyiv’s western flank, especially Makariv. To the south, to monitor 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 kyiv, Makariv fell about 48 hours ago, the Ukrainians recaptured it from the Russians. Now the Ukrainians are pushing north from Makariv and fighting for Borodianka. Its very important. The Ukrainians in this area are safe to the west, and when they capture Borodianka they will be able to push north and east towards the Dnieper. If this happens, the Ukrainians could encircle the Russian forces north of kyiv, specifically near Irpin, surrounding them “fixed” against the Dnieper River.
Essentially, in the north, we may soon see the encirclement and destruction of the tip of the Russian thrust into kyiv. the Russians in this area have two choices; either to stand up and fight, or to retreat. I believe the Russians will stand and fight because extracting a force from battle requires you to “break contact”, or separate your force from the enemy long enough to flee. This requires a high level of training and coordination, which the Russians clearly do not have in abundance.
Second, trading time for time in this way requires political flexibility, generals work for politicians and are often tactically constrained by political interference. Over the centuries, countless soldiers have died occupying terrain that was tactically worthless but vital to the rhetoric of their political masters. I think that’s what’s going to happen north of kyiv. Recent observations by retired US General David Petraeus that the Russians are digging in their armored vehicles in this area support this theory. Simply put, Putin will not allow his generals to stand down and they are likely to be either destroyed or more likely to surrender.
The Ukrainians are also moving south, since capturing Mykolaiv and Voznesensk earlier this week they are now attacking Kherson. The attack began this morning (new zealand time) and we will have to wait and see how it will develop, but it demonstrates that the Ukrainians are capable of carrying out offensive operations. If Kherson is retaken, 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 seemed well equipped, ready to fight as a modern “network-centric” force in the style of Western armies, breaking down into small tactical units and invading the battlefield at the using advanced digital communications. focus quickly for combat. However, as the war progressed, we saw reports of Russian weaknesses move from social media to increasingly credible sources. We now have highly credible reports of Russian soldiers running out of food and ammunition. Moreover, more and more details are emerging about the failure of Russian tactical communications. Russian soldiers steal cell phones to communicate because their radio networks are jammed or failing.
Current Russian tactics are consistent with this image, the emphasis on bombardment areas rather than ground attacks suggests a force that is unwilling to engage in hard fighting that it could lose. The recent losses of Russian generals indicate that senior officers must be “in the field” to push their men forward. Recently, NATO reported that its intelligence sources estimated that 15,000 Russians had been killed. Huge numbers, the Americans lost about 4,000 in their twenty-year war in Afghanistan. A loss rate (killed and wounded together) above 10% has a huge impact on military efficiency and morale, especially over a short period of time. Overall, the picture is of an overstretched army short of supplies, struggling with morale and unable to communicate.
The next few days are crucial for the Russians. Short of supplies and under pressure from the Ukrainians who were now moving from small local offensives to seemingly larger operations, the Russians were in a difficult position.
Strategically, the Russians are isolated. China realizes that it is supporting a loser and not supporting Russia. We have unsubstantiated information that forces in Russia are massing against Putin. President Biden’s public denunciation of Putin as a “war criminal” is likely a “dog whistle” directed at these men who wait in the shadows. Both of these developments reduce the likelihood of a nuclear escalation. Putin seems unlikely to step up without China’s support. The idea of facing the wrath of NATO might be acceptable, but risking China joining the rest of the world in response to a nuclear escalation is probably too much. Second, any political pressure on Putin will come from the men who control Russia’s military infrastructure and if they are not behind him, it is unlikely that he will be able to take this action.
The Russians are now forced to wage this war conventionally. If I were in charge of Russia, I would advise that it is time to concentrate efforts in key areas, give ground in less important areas and try to rebuild offensively capable forces. My advice would be to withdraw from Kyiv and avoid encirclement, do everything possible to take Mariupol and defend Kherson, use the southern Dnieper as a physical barrier and defend the area between there and Donetsk by securing the breakaway republics. Then I would negotiate.
However, I’m not responsible and as we discussed earlier, this is unlikely to happen because Putin has too much political capital tied up in Kyiv and because the Russians probably don’t have the ability to maneuver in that way .
Instead, the next few days should develop as follows. The Ukrainians will seize Borodyanka north of kyiv. The capture of Borodianka will allow the Ukrainians to get supplies on the E40 highway which leads directly to Lviv, and from there to Poland. Controlling access to E40 will allow manpower, ammunition and supplies to reach Ukrainian forces in this area. Likely, the Ukrainians will pause briefly and then push west to the Dneiper encircling the Russians currently located near Irpin and Andropov airfield on the northern outskirts of Kyiv. Look for fights around the towns of Ivankiv and Dymer to confirm this prediction.
It’s harder to predict what will happen in the south, the Russians are racing against time, they have a dilemma because they have to defend Kherson at the same time as they try to attack Mariupol and try to do both with increasingly limited resources. If the pressure is kept up, Mariupol will soon fall to the Russians, but whether or not they can hold will depend on Kherson.
Essentially, the Russian dilemma is that they either have to take Mariupol very quickly and then commit their forces to prevent the Ukrainians from taking Kherson, or they have to hold Kherson and then take Mariupol. Either plan involves fierce fighting in urban areas and the very rapid transfer of men, artillery and ammunition from one operation to another. 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 the south to potentially rapid advances by Ukrainian forces, so keep watching Kherson this week.
In summary, wars are won in the mind and it won’t take many victories for an overstretched, underpowered and poorly led force to lose the psychological battle and turn defeat into a rout. The Russians are falling apart and we can expect things to get worse for them in the coming days and weeks as we enter a final stage, in which the Ukrainians are getting stronger every day as supplies flock to their country as the Russians weaken. If Ukraine surrounds and destroys Russian forces in the north or in kyiv or retakes Kherson, it will be a significant and possibly critical blow for the Russians, and their generals will see it. The real question is can they influence their political masters to allow them to trade time for time or will they be caught?
Ben Morgan is a weary Gen Xer with an interest in international politics. He’s TDB’s military analyst.