The Russian attack, an assessment as at 26th February 2022
By Philip Ingram MBE
With Ukraine firmly under attack by Russia in the Air, from the Sea and by Land forces it is an opportune moment to take a proverbial step back and analyse what seems to be happening with the Russian campaign, attacking Ukraine.
What is clear is the Russian Main Effort, the capture or destruction of Ukraine’s political and military leadership, decapitating Ukraine, in order to install a leadership more sympathetic to Russia’s (Putin’s) goals. Putin and Lavrov have effectively said this. Militarily this would be achieved by attacking and capturing Kyiv.
So, in military terms what is a main effort? The main effort is defined in the Army Doctrine Publication Land Operations as: “the concentration of forces or means in a particular area and at a particular time to enable a commander to bring about a decision.”
That in simple terms means it is what the military commander should concentrate his best resources and primary focus with all other activity designed to support that main effort. In Ukraine, the attack on Kyiv is clearly the Russian military commander’s main effort and the other activity is supporting effort aimed at dividing Ukraine’s defence forces by giving them multiple areas to focus on.
To have achieved their main effort the Russians should have rapidly secured air superiority by destroying Ukraine’s radars, air force and air defence assets. This would have given Russia the ability to manoeuvre freely on the ground and using airmobile and airborne assets whilst restricting Ukraine’s ability to manoeuvre defence forces to counter Russia’s attacks. It is clear Russia tried to do this, but it is equally clear it hasn’t been successful.
Once air superiority had been achieved, I would have expected rapid Air Mobile and Airborne operations to capture and hold key terrain, those areas that would give the attacking Russians an advantage, so bridges, airfields, power plants and for another blog, the information sphere. It is clear with the Russian Special Forces air mobile attack on Antonov Airport, 20 miles north of Kyiv, they tried to do this. If they had been successful, they would have been reinforced rapidly with other airborne and airmobile troops so they could break out, fix Ukrainian defenders and join up with advancing armoured forces. They have failed to do this.
Simultaneously Russian Armoured formations would be expected to deploy rapidly towards Kyiv with the main axis of advance likely following the M-01 highway from the Russian Border to the Northeast of Kyiv, bypassing but surrounding the city of Chernihiv to fix defenders in place whilst continuing to move the main body of the ground offensive to Kyiv as rapidly as possible.
A secondary axis to Kyiv would likely be from the Northwest of Kyiv following the M-07 highway. Artillery, rockets, ground attack aircraft and attack helicopters would provide cover for the armoured forces to advance as rapidly as possible by neutralising any defences before that got there. This clearly hasn’t happened.
The one question that hangs over all of what seems to be happening, from open-source reporting only, is; where is the expected overwhelming force by air and land that was expected looking at Russia’s on paper capability and superiority over the Ukrainian defenders?
The longer the Ukrainian’s can slow, stop, defeat, disrupt the advancing Russian forces the more frustrated their commanders will become. This is called creating friction, that friction makes what should be simple, more difficult and the difficult impossible and increase the potential for the ‘fog of war’ to further cloud Russian command and control decision making. I can just imagine the language Putin will be using to his military commanders.
However, what must be remembered and is clear in the Land Operations publication, is human dynamics lie at the heart of all conflict.” The human dynamics of a frustrated attacking force made up of personnel hundreds and thousands of kilometres from home who have been deployed for months already and don’t know the real reason why they are there, will be very different from the human dynamics of the defenders fighting for national survival and the safety and security of their families.
The loss of 2 IL-76 aircraft, likely carrying some of Russia’s elite airborne forces will not just have led to another mission to capture key terrain to failure but will impact heavily on that human factor.
It is because of this that Russia has only days to achieve its main effort because the first troops are the best equipped, best trained and most motivated, you never lead with your second best. Only a small percentage of the on-paper strength of the Russian military will be those troops, the more poorly trained and equipped will be there to hold ground after the fight has been won, not to become embroiled in a protracted campaign.
A very early assessment would be the Ukrainian defenders have the Russian attacking forces on the back foot the coming days are vital as if Russia is defeated in its main effort (which must happen) then Putin’s days are numbered. It is clear that secondary effort is a land bridge along the sea of Azov coastline connecting the Donbas region to Crimea but securing only that may not be enough to keep Putin in power.
We can expect Russia to become more aggressive around Kyiv with further attempts at Airborne and Airmobile troop insertions and increasing indirect fire and missile attacks to try and attack the morale of the defenders of Kyiv and the population. This next 48 hours is critical to both sides.
Philip Ingram MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence and NATO planner. He is available for comment.