Analysis: What We Are Likely to See in the Coming Weeks in Ukraine

Ukraine Russia war“THERE ARE DECADES WHERE nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”. These words by the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin offer a fitting description of the cataclysmic events witnessed since February 24. In the early hours of that day, the largest country in the world launched a strategic ground offensive against the largest country in Europe. What began as a “special military operation” has now escalated into the most extensive military conflict in Europe since World War II. It is clear that Russia’s original plan for this war collapsed within hours of the initial attack. But the correlation of forces continues to overwhelmingly favor the Russian side. Moreover, the bulk of the Russian forces are heading for Kyiv. This could result in the largest and most deadly urban battle since World War II.

Russia’s Original Strategy

The Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine was premised on a rapid military campaign, which was designed to trigger the collapse of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration within about a week. The original plan appears to have rested on quickly introducing non-conscript military units inside Kyiv, in order to force the government toQ Quote 1 flee to Lviv. At the same time, elite formations from the Main Directorate of the Armed Forces’ General Staff (GRU) and Spetsnaz (special operations forces) were sent to the Ukrainian capital to assassinate leading government figures.

Based on that assumption, Russia’s original strategy was to avoid engaging in clashes in major urban centers, barring those that are located along key transportation routes. That is because urban terrain heavily favors the defender and tends to result in mass invader casualties. The Russians can’t afford too many of those, given that the Russian expeditionary force of about 150,000 non-conscript troops is grossly insufficient to conquer—let alone occupy—a country the size of Ukraine, with a largely young population of well over 40 million.

It is clear that the original plan proved absurdly unrealistic. In fact, the original Russian strategy collapsed within about 72 hours. Not only did Ukrainians refuse to surrender, but they consciously began to barricade themselves inside major cities. At the same time, they quickly relied on force generation (acquiring war materiel from allies), such as mass quantities of man-portable air defense systems. They used those to effectively sabotage Russian efforts to encircle major cities in the north and northwest.

Most importantly—and arguably to the surprise of everyone, including themselves—Ukrainian elite forces, supported by Territorial Defense Forces units, managed to beat back a major Russian heliborne assault on the Antonov Airport in Hostomel, northwest of Kyiv, which took place during the opening hours of the invasion. Facing fierce Ukrainian Q Quote 2resistance, the Russians sent in their 11th and 31st Guards Air Assault Brigades—roughly equivalent to the United States’ 82nd Airborne Division—but still failed to secure the airfield. The latter continues to be contested, as the Ukrainians are launching regular counter-offensives in the wider vicinity.

The failure to secure the Antonov Airport in Hostomel was nothing short of disastrous for Russian war planners. It meant that Russian forces were unable to quickly fly in troops and vehicles, which in turn prevented them from realizing their original goal—namely having their forces in downtown Kyiv by the afternoon of February 25. That crucial delay gave the Ukrainians time to prepare their defenses and barricade themselves around numerous zones in Kyiv. Equally importantly, the Ukrainians were able to keep relatively calm during the crucial opening phases of the war. They withstood the inevitable initial shock and were able to quickly regroup and organize urban defenses.

Reality Strikes Down Russia’s Original Plan

While putting up fierce resistance in the vicinity of Hostomel, the Ukrainian forces refrained from launching major defensive operations against Russian troops advancing from the north and east. As a result, the invading army made rapid advances in the first 48 hours of the offensive, taking observers by surprise. In fact, so rapid were those advances, that the front-line troops of the expeditionary force essentially separated themselves from logistical units and from other critical supply components. The latter remained many miles behind.

The early lack of co-ordination between units surprised even seasoned Russia military watchers, as they saw small detachments of Russian troops wandering around Ukrainian suburbs without being part of larger combined-arms formations. Essentially, what the world witnessed in the first week of the war was a Russian strategic ground offensive that was being conducted more like a limited “special military operation”, as the Kremlin keeps referring to it. By the time Russian war planners realized this major deficiency, it was too late. Having failed to secure supply lines, the Russian troops found themselves cut-off from logistical support units, as the latter began suffering guerrilla-style attacks by Ukrainian forces.Q Quote 3

The Ukrainians were substantially aided by Russia’s failure to make use of its air power in the crucial opening stages of the war. Surprisingly, it was only after several days of fighting that Russian forces began to launch tactical air bombing raids, aimed at targets of immediate military significance. Even now, the Russians have made surprisingly sparing use of precision-guided munitions. It is difficult to ascertain why that is; the most likely explanation is that the use of such expensive armaments is being withheld as a last resort, or perhaps against a more powerful potential adversary, such as NATO. As a result, Ukrainian air defense systems remain surprisingly intact, though they have recently begun to sustain heavier damage.

What We Are Likely to See in the Coming Weeks

The Russian forces are engaged in a strategic ground offensive, but have combat and logistical mind-sets that are not designed to sustain this type of operation—especially in such an extensive operational terrain. However, experienced armed forces like Russia’s are not strangers to having to quickly adapt their tactics in order to meet strategic goals. It is evident that the Russian forces are doing just that: their behavior is steadily becoming more rational, and is beginning to resemble what one would expect from a joined military operation using combined-arms tactics. Despite suffering early setbacks, the Russian troops continue to have the upper hand, as the correlation of forces continues to Q Quote 4over-whelmingly favor their side.

More importantly, the bulk of the Russian forces is heading for Kyiv. This is undoubtedly very concerning for Ukrainian leaders, as they prepare their forces to defend the city against large-scale siege warfare. If the Russians decide to take Kyiv—and there is growing evidence that they will—the world will witness scenes of urban warfare that have not been seen since the Battle of Berlin. The only time we have witnessed anything comparable in the postwar setting was in 2016 and 2017, during the Battle of Mosul. In the nine months of that battle, between 4,000 and 12,000 Islamic State fighters faced a combined multinational force of around 120,000 troops. What ensued is widely seen as the most extensive urban warfare campaign since World War II. Mosul had a population of about 700,000 people, most of whom were civilians and did not fight. Kyiv has a population of over 4,000,000 people, with many tens of thousands of civilians who are willing and able to defend the city. These militia members are determined to fight alongside professional soldiers in armored and artillery units, which the Islamic State did not have. Such numbers of urban combatants are unparalleled in the postwar history of warfare.

Projecting to the Months Ahead

Even if Kyiv falls and the Ukrainian government goes into exile, it is virtually certain that the population will mount a war of national resistance. This will very quickly turn into a large-scale insurgency against whatever puppet government the Russian forces install on occupied lands. Given the proximity of NATO borders, a Ukrainian insurgency will have little trouble securing the supplies it needs for a prolonged guerrilla warfare campaign. Under such conditions of heavy attrition, the Russian forces are going to find itQ Quote 5 progressively difficult to maintain control across Ukraine’s vast urban and rural terrain. Russian forces are already having to rely considerably on conscripts and auxiliary forces like the Rosguardia (Russian National Guard), or even financially motivated foreign mercenaries, who are the combat equivalent of scraping the bottom of the barrel.

The combat effectiveness of Russian troops will continue to be challenged in this war. Moscow’s efforts to replenish its increasingly combat-fatigued forces in a steady pace will prove logistically difficult, even for an army the size of Russia’s. These pressures will increase substantially for the Kremlin if the war becomes mostly urban. However, this will not come without significant cost in lives for the Ukrainians. The number of casualties could multiply significantly if the Kremlin decides to make tactical use of weapons of mass destruction. These could include chemical and even radiological or nuclear weapons, which could be used against entire city blocks. It should be noted that Russian military planners are far more comfortable than their Western counterparts in treating tactical nuclear weapons as types of artillery that are usable in combat. All that is to say that the months ahead are likely to involve significant casualties, for which the Ukrainians, and the world as a whole, should prepare.

Conclusion

For nearly 20 years, the Russians have relied on an incremental, ambiguous and low-profile approach to fighting wars. This phenomenon gave rise to numerous discussions in military circles about the dawn of so-called “liminal”, “hybrid”, or “grey-zone” conflict. If nothing else, Russia’s fully conventional invasion of Ukraine points to the importance of military strategists to continue to think about—and plan for—conventional combat challenges, posed by Russia or by others. The era of conventional warfare is clearly still with us.

Few would challenge the statement that Russia’s performance in this war has been unimpressive. However, conclusions drawn from this war are not easily transferable into other Q Quote 6combat settings, and observers should be very wary about making generalizations about the Russian military’s capabilities. The words of Carl von Clausewitz that “Russia is never as weak or as strong as she seems” ring especially true in this case.

Ultimately, like many wars, the war in Ukraine is highly unlikely to lead to a military solution. The solution will almost inevitably be political. It will largely depend on which of the two leaders, Volodymyr Zelensky or Vladimir Putin, will remain in place in the coming weeks and months. Zelensky may end up perishing in the front lines in defense of his country. Putin may meet his political end when his fellow countrymen and women realize they can serve him, or Russia, but not both. In the meantime, the possibility for unprecedented levels of mass casualties in war-torn Ukraine is now higher than ever.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 March 2022 | Permalink

6 Responses to Analysis: What We Are Likely to See in the Coming Weeks in Ukraine

  1. May you please provide some factual evidence of what you describe as “the original Russian strategy” of running around Kiev assassinating people etc. – as you correctly state, this is a strategic war aimed at stopping NATO eastward expansion and bringing the West into a non-zero-sum game where mutual security interests produces sustainable stability and peace so this is neither war of occupation nor will assassinations of politicians make any sense: it looks like a straw-man argument unless you can provide some factual proof – thank you

  2. Very well written and thoughtful piece. It evokes deep thought as to the misconception of the power of the Russian ground forces and the power of the mind and attitude of the Ukrainian defenders.

  3. fletch2015 says:

    If the objective was to replace the government, why didn’t Russian forces just make a beeline to the capitol?

  4. Pete says:

    An excellent analysis Joseph.

    An additional reason for Ukrainian success is the use of imported Javelin and Ukrainian developed https://youtu.be/TNn_QxHJcMM anti-tank missiles against Russian supply convoys. Before the Russian invasion Western special forces trainers were in Ukraine advising on the use of such missiles.

    One lesson is: if you want to stop Russian tanks (instead of firing missiles actually at the hard to kill tanks) fire missles at the “thin skinned” easy to “kill” Russian fuel and ammunition trucks when they’re in supply convoys. Secondary explosions will also destroy other vehicles in convoy.

    The lesson being, Russian tanks without fuel or ammo can’t operate.

  5. John says:

    This is a supportive comment to the author and a reply to andrezaaiman’s comment. It is been made very well clear by the US government, the Ukrainian government, several other western governments, their intelligence agencies and numerous news outlets all independently confirmed that assassinations were a critical part of Russia’s original plan, which is indicative and integrates effectively into the rest of Russia’s original plan, fast overtaking and a short occupation. If I was the author I would not waste my time responding to that comment. This assert ignorance of known evidence to the threat of assassinations cannot be made from a serious position considering the contextual circumstances, such as this very same website providing articles on the factual evidence.

  6. Thomas Jones says:

    Awesome write up, thank you for your insight! Two things about the Russian invasion that I think are very illuminating: 1. The Russian military’s reliance on Ukrainian cellular infrastructure for their operational communications planning and 2. The killing of high-profile leadership to include five generals.
    In the initial attacks of Ukrainian military targets by cruise missiles and medium to short range MLRS artillery, notably no telecommunications infrastructure was targeted. It’s likely that Russian forces included open cellular networks in their communications TTPs for the Ukraine operation, likely as a secondary or tertiary communication option. The obvious drawback to this is that when the Ukrainian resistance morphs into a full-scale domestic insurgency, as I believe you rightly pointed out, individual cells of resistance will have much better C4ISR with access to open-source collection and better ability to coordinate with other resistance cells.
    The Russian military is severely lacking in noncommissioned officers. Having a robust NCO corps within western militaries allows tactical level decision making to happen much more quickly on the battlefield. This decentralized command structure allows officers to empower their senior enlisted leaders to make judgements based on “on scene” information rather than communicating up the chain of command for guidance, especially in a troops in contact situation. This is contrasted with the rigid top-down force structure a military would operate with in the absence of a powerful NCO corp. I believe that it is this reason that Russian top brass, including generals, are in the line of fire. Because their presence on the battlelines is require to direct fires and coordinate with adjacent units for combined actions. I believe we can see evidence of this organizational flaw when we see how Russian tank columns immediately act when under attack. Videos have surfaced showing disorganized dismounts and abandoning vehicles upon contact. We also see videos of lone Russian vehicles driving around unsupported and away from an adjacent Russian unit. These behaviors are hallmarks of a lack of coordination and leadership in my opinion. At the tactical level we can see how detrimental a lack of NCOs is for the Russian combat performance.
    In any event, it is very interesting and beneficial to see how a near peer adversary conducts conventional warfare and TONS of great data is being collected on Russian capabilities.

    https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/03/22/ukraine-russia-military-radio/?tpcc=recirc_latest062921
    https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/russia/personnel-nco.htm
    https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/2011393/noncommissioned-officers-give-big-advantage-to-us-military/
    https://uk.news.yahoo.com/ukraine-war-why-many-russian-102129870.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly9kdWNrZHVja2dvLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAADwNV0814vJFm9DzdOM70RIxTyM3AmGGxXszW5t7GpH2hjIfEJpbZDIPTyJqI0Ng0ZTs2dEyD6weUIPvD9kXHHqJQ2AG_B9e-qETTIgwEHPPQoFhIR3dghiZ-uUuWjdSncpFB37VQO55IzNnhuv5_geM4C30HYKxPxAUTNVbKSlc
    https://nypost.com/2022/03/09/why-the-russian-military-is-floundering-in-ukraine/

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