Russia’s next move in the East

by Philip INGRAM MBE

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.