There is a lot of commentary suggesting Vladimir Putin will want to announce a victory in Ukraine at Moscow’s annual Parade, commemorating victory in the Second World War, with this year’s parade taking place on 9thMay. Putin hasn’t said he wants to announce anything but given its position in Russian society and his ongoing Special Military Operation, it is logical to suggest he will want to do something.
In an ideal world for Putin, he would have wanted to congratulate his victorious Russian forces from rapidly toppling the Zelinskyy government, bringing Ukraine back under the safety of Russia and pushing western influence out and away from Russia’s borders. He has failed with that desire. He would want to say how his victorious Russian forces have liberated the whole of the Donbas Region and now control the Luhsank and Donbas Oblasts; it is increasingly unlikely he will be able to do that.
So, what is he likely to say? He could resort to straight враньё (vranyo), telling a lie without expecting to be believed, but as he controls the ‘truth’ as presented to the Russian people through маскировка (maskirovka), masking, he could invent a victory. However, he is unlikely to do that as it won’t explain the continuing bodies coming back to Russian mothers and need to mobilise additional troops and units to go to Ukraine.
However, he will want to do something. The indicators are appearing to suggest just that. The indicators I am talking about are:
Increasing rhetoric threatening the West for interfering
Issues appearing in other Russian breakaway regions
Missile attacks on cities across Ukraine
Russia exercising energy warfare
Unexplained incidents happening in Russia and Russian breakaway areas
Russia putting messages out about Russian victories in history
Russia continuing to try to court international support
Russia failing to gain advantages on the ground
Incidents and activities hitting all of these indicators have happened and are continuing to happen as well as increasing in frequency. Explosions in Transnistria, threats to hit supply routes from NATO countries into Ukraine, attacks on the likes of Lviv, Dnipra and other cities, the gas being turned off to Poland and Bulgaria, Foreign Minister Lavrov saying, “The risks [of nuclear war] now are considerable,” on 25th April, and more, are all examples, every indicator and warning of something else brewing, has been ticked. The important issue now is what these indicators point to?
Putin’s ambitions for a swift operation to topple the Ukrainian Government and replace it with a Moscow centric regime like in Belarus has failed. Strategically his desire for a weakened EU and NATO has failed. His desire for Russia to be seen as a Global power like the old Soviet Union, something he has been working on for almost the past 20 years, has failed His contempt for the international rules-based system was highlighted perfectly by the way he treated the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres on his visit to Moscow to Putin’s version of ‘Tablegate’ and then rocketed Kyiv when Guterres was visiting there, 48 hours later.
The International Community is hitting back, ‘NATO is ready to maintain its support for Ukraine in the war against Russia for years, including help for Kyiv to shift from Soviet-era weapons to modern Western arms and systems, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in April.’ The UK Foreign Secretary said, “Ukraine must triumph. We will not relent in our efforts until they do,” as the US President, Joe Biden, asked Congress to approve $33Bn of aid including arms, for Ukraine.
We are likely to see an increase in rhetoric from both the Russians and stronger responses from the International Community as 9th May approaches. I can see Russia increasing its nuclear threats and moving from the implied to openly stated. I can see the Russians increasing their global saviours against Nazis rhetoric, siting WW2 and comparing Ukraine and the Wests ‘interference’ in a similar light to 1940’s Nazi Germany. I can see the Russians calling Ukraine and other Western countries, existential threats to Russia itself. All of this could well lead to Putin declaring War on Ukraine on 9th May. We are already hearing more war like talk from Russian commentators at all levels.
So, what will a declaration of war change? It will allow Putin to change his messaging at home and start to explain the huge numbers of casualties, it will allow him to mobilise greater numbers of reserves and give him an opportunity to try and garner additional military support from his strategic alliances. However, the main reason is all about messaging, domestically and then internationally. It is unlikely to change much on the ground except we would see more strategic rocket capabilities brought to bear with conventional warheads, on cities across Ukraine.
What happens next will dictate how the War develops. If Putin manages to capture the whole of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, the whole of the Donbas region, then he would likely try and sue for peace as quickly as possible with the aim of retaining all of the territory he has captured. That would probably be unacceptable to President Zelinskyy and the people of Ukraine, and this is where the first nuclear option could come into play.
To force the Ukrainians to the negotiating table, especially if they were preparing to counterattack, Putin could drop a tactical low yield nuclear device in an unpopulated area, for example the forests around Chernobyl, telling his domestic audience there was an accident but knowing the international community would know instantly what happened. He would then possibly tell the West to back off and say to Ukraine, negotiate and agree to terms or Kyiv, or Lviv are next.
I think this would be below the threshold for a Western nuclear response however, it would almost certainly alienate the tacit relationship Putin has with China, India, and Pakistan. He would be balancing advantages and disadvantages off carefully in his mind. A Joint diplomatic response from the USA, UK, France with ideally China, India and Pakistan could be the precursor to any Western Military response, as there would have to be one or Putin will declare a victory. That possible response would likely be conventional and limited to Russian forces in Ukraine, but the nuclear escalation ladder has been joined!
If Putin doesn’t capture the whole of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts and looks like he could be counterattacked and pushed out of Ukraine, he could try the same tactic with a lesser territorial demand.
However, both options carry a terminal risk for Russia on any part of the international stage so would be last resort tactics. The possibility, however horrifying, exists, and it is critical that Joe Biden, Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron have a contingency plan agreed with President Zelinskyy, should the unthinkable happen. Macron will have the greatest difficulty with options, as he is the only EU nuclear power and will have to try and bring the whole of the EU along with any decision he makes. Again, if it happens it will likely stimulate a massive nuclear arms race amongst many smaller countries across the globe. The global doomsday clock would be slightly closer to midnight.
Philip Ingram MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence and NATO Planner – he is available for comment.
The headline recently appeared in the Daily Mail saying “Zelensky declares social media WAR: President launches campaign telling the world to demand politicians act by swamping the internet with signs reading #ArmUkraineNow amid Russian assault on the Donbas.” In March President Zelensky delivered a historic address to the House of Commons that was beamed into the chamber via a live feed invoking Churchill in only a way a seasoned orator could. To the US Congress he invoked memories of Pearl Harbour, to the German Bundestag, memories of the Soviet days splitting Germany into East and West and the Berlin Airlift.
In his address to every country and institution his messaging has been personalised, focused and expertly targeted. However, it is not just his addresses to parliaments, congress, institutions that have an effect but his regular phone calls with world leaders and his nightly address to the Ukrainian people but also the world. Messaging, the power of words is at the core of his political and military defence and this is something we must understand an learn from quickly. President Zelenskyy is delivering a masterclass in the use of information in crisis.
However, the public master class we are seeing is reflected in an understanding of manipulation in the widest sense of the word that has underpinned Ukraine’s transition from a former Soviet State to one courting EU and NATO membership such that Russia felt compelled to act. Russia’s own information campaign is straight out of their books of враньё (vranyo), telling a lie without expecting to be believed, but told often enough through as many outlets as possible and control the truth through маскировка (maskirovka), literally masking, propaganda to many the lie becomes the reality.
Putin, usually through his foreign minister, Lavrov, frequently masks his intentions in an inflammatory way by stoking up the nuclear threat, knowing it will panic different countries in different ways. The statements we have heard the Russian Ambassador to the UN, Nebenzya deliver, beggar belief in their warping of reality, but Russia doesn’t care. What is good about Russia’s information war is their maskirovka and vranyo are so obvious to the free world. In Russia where the state has total control over all media, it is a different matter.
Their use of information is to reinforce their own beliefs, groupthink, and aimed domestically with the odd poorly aimed snipe internationally. An example of the latter is when Putin made his first nuclear threat, he said it was because of comments Liz Truss, the UK Foreign Secretary made. He saw this as a way of worsening a perceived post Brexit rift between the UK and EU and in particular the Germans, he ignored the reality that the international community was coming together as never seen in recent years.
So where did Ukraine come from in the information sphere, to properly understand their development I talked to a former senior Foreign Office official and ambassador, (not to Ukraine) but someone who was involved with many interactions with the Ukrainians before Russia’s first invasion in 2014. Ukraine had been sending officers to the UK Advanced Command and Staff Course at the Joint Services Command and Staff College since at least 1997 and were trained in complex combined arms and joint operations. They had been courting NATO countries and the UK for many years before then.
Scale and capability is important to understand. The Ukrainians have one of the largest armed forces in region apart from Russia. They have at least 6 times as many tanks and APCs as UK and an Army c126K, with 900K reservists. They have some serious military capability and the Foreign Office official said in visiting Ukraine he was at the “Largest live fire power display I have ever seen, including major Close Air Support, battlefield breaching, manned APCs para dropped from Antonov’s.” The “so what?” from this is Western military support in terms of Armour offered from a numbers perspective is almost militarily irrelevant in terms of its scale; it is all about the message it sends and locking the Wests involvement into Ukraine’s conflict.
“The approach by Ukraine pre 2014 to diplomacy was aways to try to get signature to agreements tying us to support to Ukraine of similar nature to NATO commitments and of course support for NATO membership.” The Foreign Office Official went on to add, “Ukrainian delegations arrived for official Ministerial visit to Secretary of State with agreements for signature despite clear agreement before visit that we did not intend to sign yet another support agreement with Ukraine,” the tactic of trying to bounce the government into different positions was commonplace.
He added, “On official visits to Ukraine, the general tenor/approach was very Soviet, a massive reliance on bulk consumption of vodka morning noon and night, raunchy entertainment at official events as well as regularly being implicitly offered female staff as prostitutes,” as was ever, influence and manipulation was conducted the old Soviet way.
Since 2014 the Ukrainians have worked hard on improving their approach, moving from the very Soviet to the more western approach, but not forgetting what worked in the past. President Zelenskyy is giving global leaders a masterclass in leadership under pressure. The messaging, the influence operations he is conducting are all aimed at getting support from NATO the EU and the wider international community, tying them into the outcome of the war, so that Ukraine is not left on its own and the conditions are set for as rapid a rebuild of the country and its welcoming into other international institutions, as quickly as possible.
He has successfully courted the international community to cooperate in a way that has not only helped and continues to help Ukraine but has also brought international organisations and alliances closer together than they have been for many years. His words, his messaging, his actions have brough billions of dollars of aid in financial and equipment terms, he has pushed the boundaries of what the EU and NATO have ever done before, he has united a dividing world and refocused some interesting polarisations. What we have seen from President Zelenskyy is true effects-based influence and messaging.
The effects he is achieving are seen domestically where his relationship with the West maintains hope for the people of Ukraine. The effect he is achieving internationally is an increasing perception that Ukraine is fighting to protect the wider international community. He has achieved this in a very careful and subtle way. His actions, methodologies and achievements show a real lesson in the information sphere that the West needs to learn from.
We must ask why the West ignored genocide in Africa with the Tutus and Hutsis, why the International Community didn’t respond to Russia’s first invasion if Ukraine in 2014 but has responded now, and the answer, or a major part of the answer is the Zelenskyy effect. We must learn how to do this given the growing importance of information and messaging, we must take a leaf out of Zelenskyy’s book.
Philip INGRAM MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence and NATO Planner and is available for comment.
The appointment of General Dvornikov to be the overall Russian commander in their new phase of operations which will concentrate on seeking full territorial control of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, part of which make up the disputed Donbas region, is an attempt to bring unity of effort to Russian operations. It makes military sense, and a lack of unified command is one of the reasons why the Russians have failed in their objectives so far.
Dvornikov has experience in Syria, however, Syria was and is not an all arms, combined, high intensity military operation. His experience in high intensity warfighting will only have been tested since 24th February when Russia re-invaded Ukraine, so he is likely the best of a bad bunch of commanders.
So, what is his plan likely to be? I would think that to capture the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts and enable rigged referendums in each he needs to attack towards the city of Dnipro, a key city on the Dnieper River and Ukraine’s 4thlargest city. As such it has a political significance, but it has geographic significance with transport hubs controlling access to SE Ukraine from the West and economic significance as a manufacturing hub critical to Ukraine’s export market. Ideally, to gain a favourable position for a negotiated settlement, Dvornikov would want to capture Dnipro.
Of course driving this are the Russian updated Strategic Goals of February 2022, which are:
Ukrainian recognition of Russian annexation of Crimea
Ukrainian declaration stating rejection of future NATO membership
The ‘demilitarisation’ of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Recognition of the Donbas People Republic and Luhansk Peoples Republic as sovereign states at their pre 2014 Oblast borders
In addition, Dvornikov would want to move to capture Zaporizhzhya again on the Dneiper River, south of Dnipro and utilise land and naval forces to threaten an attack on Odesa, to fix Ukrainian defenders. He will likely continue to pressurise Kharkiv and Sumy in the NE of Ukraine again to fix Ukrainian defenders and protect the flank of his main attacking force. In doing so he could attack from the South and Northeast in a pincer movement to fix the Ukrainian defenders whilst a main effort tries to smash through the centre of their defences towards Dnipro.
Focusing on a more limited objective, given the heavy defeat the Russian forces have suffered so far gives an improved chance for some potential tactical victories. However, one man and a reduced objective won’t make this next phase easy for the Russians.
For the Russians, concentrating on Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts has the advantage of shorter lines of communication for logistic supplies and combat formations from Russia into Ukraine. It allows air support, strategic missile support and other shared capabilities to be concentrated where one commander wants their effect, not split across multiple areas of operation. These are the positives for the Russians.
However, Russian formations will be no better than those that have been defeated by the Ukrainians thus far, their commanders are no more experienced and still not able to carry out complex armoured manoeuvre warfare. Russian logistics and logistic planning will not have improved dramatically as they prepare for this new operation and the Russians still do not have air superiority. In addition the ground is unlikely to have dried out enough to enable armoured formation manoeuvre. This will severely hamper their ability to properly manoeuvre and fight as armoured formations.
The Ukrainians have been defending against attacks from the disputed Donbas region of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts successfully for the past 8 years and have had real successes defeating Russian attacks elsewhere in Ukraine. If they have sufficient manpower, weapons, and equipment available, they are perfectly capable of stopping further Russian advances, especially if they use a tactic of blocking Russian advances with disruptive activity in the Russian rear areas destroying logistics, command and control and artillery as a priority. The question then comes if they can generate enough of an armoured manoeuvre capability to forceable eject the Russian forces from at least further parts of Ukraine.
Should that happen, then the clamour for further international community involvement will continue to grow and the Russian response would be to further up attacks on centres of population to destroy the morale of the people, the economic viability of Ukraine and break political will to continue the fight. A sound planning assumption date, is that Putin would want to be able to announce some success at his annual Red Square Parade on 9th May.
If Putin doesn’t get a victory, then it is the people of Ukraine who will suffer further as Putin has the ability to sustain the attritional battle against civilian centres of population in a policy of ‘rubblising’ towns and cities. If he achieves his objectives or even partially by capturing the whole of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts he is likely to try for a negotiated settlement as quickly as possible. The trouble for him is the price the Ukrainian people have paid already is too much for them to countenance giving Putin one square metre of Ukrainian territory. I believe we have many more horrors to come.
Philip Ingram is a former Senior British Military Intelligence Officer and NATO Planner and is available for comment.
What does Russia’s withdrawal from around Kyiv mean?
by Philip INGRAM MBE
Russia’s withdrawal of forces attacking into Kyiv from the North is a hugely significant step and change to its main effort in Ukraine. It makes no military sense to withdraw completely unless the force is completely unsustainable and there are wider concerns around continued access to lines of communication through and via Belarus. If these were sustainable then you would leave a force to fix further elements of the Ukrainian defenders splitting and thereby weakening their combat power.
However, withdrawing they are, and it is clear this is a defeated army withdrawing to reconstitute before being sent to the newly stated main effort concentrating military operations in the Donbas Region. Russian losses are clearly unsustainable both in equipment and manpower terms across their whole front.
The pictures of allegedly massacred civilians and stories of abuse, not by the first Russian occupiers but by those who relieved them in place, as they withdrew suggests an ill disciplined and very poorly led military force. No amount of reconstitution will change that culture and these units will be a liability on any new front, just adding to the Russian cannon fodder.
It is important to call these alleged atrocities until they are investigated, and a call is made by a recognised independent international body. There are claims and counter claims on both sides and whilst it seems clear which are right and which are made up, a formal process should be the decider. What is in no doubt is Russia carried out an illegal invasion of a sovereign country and its forces have been involved in some horrific war crimes. That does not need alleged in the sentence.
As more alleged atrocities are uncovered, and they will be in all areas of Russian occupation, the pressure on the International Community to do more will grow. The uninitiated will be calling for NATO to intervene directly on the ground and in the air and the immediate moral gut feeling is that is what should happen.
However, those of us who know about warfare, rightly raise the concern that for the 10’s of thousands killed in Ukraine, and millions displaced, if the war spills outside Ukraine’s borders, that death toll would very quickly rise to 100’s of thousands with 10’s of millions displaced if not more.
The pressures on our political leaders at this moment in time could not be greater and it is not a time for armchair commentators to criticise and shame on anyone who tries to score cheap political points when the country needs to pull together. The danger is very real, and a country’s leaders first priority, is to protect its own people. Putin is a long-term threat to all the people of Europe but the most important factor in dealing with him is multinational and international unity of effort; we must work collectively of any activity is to work at all and to do that effectively we need to accept different countries have differing challenges.
The world order has changed for generations to come. If Putin had just occupied the disputed areas of the Donbas region and sued for a negotiated settlement, he may well have got it. However, with the ever-rising civilian death toll, the increasing alleged atrocities, and the clear war crimes then the only solution is for Putin to lose and be ejected from the whole of Ukraine. From Putin’s perspective he must win and will want something to trumpet on his national day on 9th May at the traditional annual Red Square parade. What a target if the Ukrainian’s had long range missiles!
The battle at the moment, is one of attrition and logistics. Can the Russians keep their aircraft flying, missiles launching and artillery bombarding? Can the Ukrainians keep fighting, do they have enough stocks, or can they be resupplied quickly enough? Russia will have to rely on its own stocks and the West is acting as Ukraine’s 3rd line logistic chain with ever increasing moves to provide smart munitions, better anti-aircraft systems, armoured vehicles, artillery including loitering munitions.
It is only a matter of time before that turns into armoured fighting vehicles and aircraft, however, there are complexities. It’s not just operating them but fighting them, fixing them, resupplying them all takes resources and training. You can’t give an army or air force kit it hasn’t trained extensively with and expect it to be able to fight it. However, when it comes to tanks and other Armoured Fighting Vehicles, the weather is still not right for formation level manoeuvre, the ground is too soft for manoeuvre operations. Fields are very muddy; roads are easily blocked, and heavier armour needs to be fought as a formation for best effect. There is still time before the ground in many places will be ready as the Russians have found to their cost and Ukrainian farmers delight as their tractors tow away the abandoned detritus.
Putin’s forces have one attempt to try and wrestle any initiative back and if they fail then it is decision time around the Ukrainian’s going on a proper offensive to attack to push Russian forces out of Ukraine. Whether they can generate sufficient concentrated combat power to do that is not clear, and what is also not clear is what additional support they may need I the form of weapons, fighting vehicles and aircraft and if they can still man and operate them.
If that point comes, then Putin is backed further into a corner and there will come a period where the potential threat from tactical nuclear weapons will raise its ugly head, Putin cannot lose, from his perspective, however from the Ukrainian perspective Putin cannot win. The horns of the political dilemma have no easy or see able path for reconciliation short of a palace coup in Moscow, of which there seems little appetite at the moment. The only fact is that the people of Ukraine will continue to suffer in the most horrific way for the foreseeable future.
Philip INGRAM MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence and NATO Planner and is available for comment.