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.