Ukraine, a month in

Ukraine, a month in

Ukraine, a month in.

by Philip Ingram MBE

Life changed not just for Ukraine on 24th February 2022 but arguably for a large proportion of the world. Russia’s further invasion of a sovereign country has changed the continent of Europe, changed its political priorities and economies as well as those of most countries across the globe. It has brought the EU together in a way hitherto unseen, shocked NATO with a threat many members had thought had disappeared into a puff of cyber into a grey zone and brought the possibility of nuclear war, a prospect last seen in 1983, but for many last considered with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

A lot has happened in that month, with millions of Ukrainians displaced, some 3.5 million out of the country. Thousands have died and for what? And many more have been injured and scarred for life. Towns and cities have been reduced to wastelands and lives changed for generations.  Causing this, Russia has failed to achieve a single operational objective.

Russia’s main effort (ME) was to topple the current Ukrainian Government and replace it with a more pro-Moscow regime in order to quash Ukraine’s increasing EU and longer-term NATO ambitions. Putin and his Foreign Minister, Lavrov, have both said this, which is why the Russian ME is known.  Its secondary objective was the linking of Crimea along the Southern coast of Ukraine, via the Donbas region to Russia with a Land Bridge and that is clear from the formations used, their operational dispositions and axis of advance. The third objective was likely the capture of Eastern Ukraine unto and including the Dnieper River. This is known from the axis of attacking Russian formations.

To achieve these three objectives, looking at what happened on the ground, Russia had tried to prepare the battlespace with small teams of special forces and from their intelligence agencies, the GRU and FSB inside Kyiv to identify and snatch key Ukrainian leaders whilst an Air Mobile Operation with an Airborne Reserve captured a key airport near Kyiv, Antonov Airport, in order to build a bridgehead whilst ground forces advanced rapidly from the North and North West to link up with the Bridgehead. These manoeuvres were seen in the first hours of the invasion. They failed.

They failed because the teams operating inside Kyiv in the first hours failed to find and capture any government or senior officials and were routed by Ukrainian defenders, it is likely that Ukrainian intelligence had known about them and had a clear plan in place to neutralise them. It worked. The Airmobile operation to capture Kyiv’s Antonov Airport met heavy Ukrainian resistance and it is likely that Russian casualties were high. Russian forces established a toehold at the airport and airborne forces were dispatched to reinforce that whilst the armoured forces attempted to advance rapidly along multiple axis to link up with their lightly equipped forces at the Airport.

However, the Ukrainians successfully counterattacked the airport before the airborne forces could land, destroyed 2 transport aircraft in the air transporting these troops and blunted the advance of the armoured columns on all fronts. The link up armoured columns and their logistics got stuck in traffic jams stretching 10’s of Km making it easy for the Ukrainian defenders to keep them in place, destroying elements, sowing despair, and further restricting resupply and casualty evacuation.

They failed because Russia did not or could not gain air superiority over Ukraine, allowing the Ukrainians to attack Russian manoeuvre operations, keep the Russia air force at distance and allow Ukrainian air and air defence assets to continue to operate.  They failed because all arms combined operations are complex and need a lot of training and experienced and disciplined commanders and troops, Russia has few in that bracket. They failed because logistic support was an afterthought instead of being central to the operation. They failed because their troops lacked the drive and motivation of the Ukrainian defenders. They failed because intelligence was used to support pre conceived ideas rather than give realistic assessments.

The secondary objective required a move from Crimea North and Northeast along the coast of the Sea of Azov to meet up with formations coming from Russia and the disputed Donbas Region the other direction with maritime landings and operations along the coast to fix the Ukrainian defenders. Once completed the operation would switch to capture the strategic port Odessa and therefore the whole Ukrainian coastline and access to the sea. In occupying territory terms, the first part of this objective has been more successful but to date, has also failed.

It is clear the Russian formations were not prepared for the ground conditions, making it virtually impossible for them to manoeuvre their formations operationally and the continual attacks by the Ukrainian defenders caused an expenditure of combat supplies, (fuel, ammunition, rations, water, medical), that was unprepared for, making it easier for the Ukrainian defenders with internal lines of communication (i.e. easily resupplied and supported) to further influence the Russian advance. That Ukrainian influence has in military terms fixed the Russian attackers. Again, a lack of air superiority was and is a significant factor. This means, stopped their ability to manoeuvre in the way they want and need to achieve their objective.

The Third objective required Russian formations backed by formations from the self-proclaimed republics in the Donbas Region to attack West and grab territory up to and including the Dnieper River. This too has failed for the same reasons mentioned above.

So what? Russia will keep pumping troops in and will win. This is what Putin hopes but the signs are it won’t work.  On the ground Russian forces have transitioned from offensive operations to attritional operations and in in some areas purely defensive. Their attritional focus in from what is euphemistically referred to as ‘The Play Book’ which is just shorthand for what happened in Georgia and Syria, but the situation is different, and you can’t (or shouldn’t) template operations. Putin is concerned which is why he has dared use the Chemical and Biological words as well as reaching for his nuclear stick.

He knows that by suggesting their possible use he will likely split some of the political unity seen in the EU and NATO but he also knows that if he uses them then the tacit support he is getting from other countries such as China and India could disappear very rapidly. Putin is playing a game of nuclear chess with words to try and give him and his forces on the ground breathing space to regroup, use attrition to break the will of the Ukrainian people and thereby hopefully the Ukrainian politicians and break the cohesion of the international community reined against him.

This is probably the most dangerous phase of Putin’s Invasion as he tries to wrestle some form of initiative back, knowing he can make this phase last months, with the civilian people of Ukraine paying an increasing price daily. However, there are green shoots of possible Ukrainian counterattacks, North West of Kyiv. If Ukraine can begin to push Russia forces back in any meaningful way, then Putin’s hand will be called earlier. The problem with this is he has nowhere to go and given what he has done should be given no concessions. It is at this point that NATO leaders will have to consider some form of closer involvement with all the inherent dangers that that will bring.

I think we could see Putin waving his nuclear stick harder and the real concern is once he steps onto the escalation ladder, it can be climbed very quickly.  This is a time for international leaders to put politics aside and concentrate on unity of action and unity of message; we live in increasingly dangerous times.

 

Philip Ingram MBE is a former senior British Military Intelligence Officer and NATO Planner – he commentates globally on TV, on the Radio and in print.

 

Russia and Ukraine, the Chemical and Biological threat with a touch of Nuclear

Russia and Ukraine, the Chemical and Biological threat with a touch of Nuclear

Russia and Ukraine, the Chemical and Biological threat with a touch of Nuclear

By Philip Ingram MBE

The Russian messaging machine has gone into overdrive on its claims that the Ukraine and the US are developing chemical or biological weapons for use against invading Russian forces, as they brought the accusation to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on Friday.  So that is the reality, a question I have been asked frequently by many press outlets in the past 24 hours?

At the end of February Vladimir Putin issued a statement where he raised the alert level of his nuclear forces and later his Foreign Minister Lavrov blamed comments from the British Foreign Secretary for forcing them to do so. This one act of putting your foot on the nuclear escalatory ladder then taking it off again says so much about Russia’s approach to diplomacy.

Russia has a policy of “escalate to de-escalate” so threatening the unthinkable to then back down is something in their psyche but they also have a history of following thorough, in particular when it comes to bombing, rocketing and shelling civilian built up areas and in Syria, helping to facilitate the use of chemical weapons.

In Ukraine, Russia’s invasion has become bogged down and in some areas fixed. They have little freedom to manoeuvre. That is why we are seeing what many refer to as the playbook tactics being rolled out. Whenever Russia has been fixed or bogged down in the past, they have rapidly resorted to surrounding cities and pounding them from the air, with rockets, missiles and artillery, in an indiscriminate manner, all to try and break the resolve of the people.

The agreement for humanitarian corridors and ceasefires is also playbook stuff as is mining those routes and shelling fleeing civilians. Again, looking at the response from the international community in the past to these atrocities, there has been none; Russia has been allowed to get away with it.

Many of the commanders involved in invasion of Ukraine will have served in Syria, some may even have been in Grozny in 2008, but that playbook tactics will be in their psyche, Putin likely won’t even have had to order it as it will have been in the wider contingency plans for cities showing too much resistance. What Russia hadn’t expected was that is every city! The last time this level of resolve was shown, in Syria, to break the deadlock, Chemical weapons were employed.

It is that playbook combined with the statements from official Russian MoD channels and the calling of the UNSC meeting that makes the threat of use of chemical weapons in Ukraine all the more real.

I will dismiss biological weapons quickly by saying they are not an act of war. Biological weapons are very difficult to weaponise into battlefield delivery system and their effects more difficult to control. You also need superb medial facilities for your own troops in case of accidental exposure, and the Russians don’t.

However, a real threat doesn’t automatically translate into their actual use. Key to this is that in Syria, Putin had a plausibly deniable outlet for blame when the international community called out the false flag attacks blamed on the Syrian opposition fighters, he could blame Assad and say he was misled too. This is a combination of  маскировка (maskirovka), masking the truth behind disinformation and  враньё(vranyo), which means to tell a lie without expecting to be believed, both are frequently exercised Putin tactics.

There are 2 scenarios where Putin may use chemical weapons in Ukraine, one is in a false flag incident in the vicinity of a Ukrainian research facility giving an excuse for him to go to the Russian people as say, “told you so, this is why we have to invade all of Ukraine.”  This remains a possibility but the fact that western intelligence has already called it out may take that option off the table as it has done before with other potential false flag incidents.

The second is horrific, Putin uses chemical weapons in order to break the blockades around Ukrainian cities. Here I am going to assess this as being less likely to unlikely as no matter what messaging Putin puts out, he knows that personally this gives him nowhere to hide within an international context, ever. He may be a psychopath, but he is in some ways still rational. He knows that use of chemical weapons would have to be authorised by him and that would mean automatic prosecution and a massive withdrawal of the tacit ‘turning a blind eye,’ he is getting from the likes of China and India. His pariah status would be further set in stone; irrecoverably so.

He also doesn’t need to go there yet. He has much more he can do with conventional military capabilities, if he can manoeuvre them and support them logistically, in this case that if is probably the biggest word in the English language.   He can threaten other disasters such as nuclear meltdowns in Ukraine’s nuclear facilities currently under Russian control but blame that on counter attacking Ukrainians. He has much more conventional terror to rain down on Ukraine’s cities before he even needs to consider the unthinkable.

The worrying final issue is no matter what the outcome, Putin has lost this war. He has failed, his military have failed. He has strengthened the Ukrainian people as a nation, strengthened the international community including the EU, caused the conditions for possible further NATO expansion.

Sun Tzu says, “Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions.”  Putin’s forces didn’t listen and are fixed. Unless there is a palace coup in Moscow, this conflict could go on for a long time with all of the associated suffering and deaths. The only other tiny green shoot of hope is that the Russians are becoming so fixed, that if the Ukrainian defenders can generate manoeuvre capabilities to counterattack, their time to push the Russian back in a significant way could come. Supporting the Ukrainian defenders more and enabling them to become attackers is the Wests next logical step.

 

Philip Ingram MBE is a former senior British Military Intelligence Officer and NATO Planner and is available for comment.