12 months ago, Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, was in the final stages of making his mind up about his planned re-invasion of Ukraine. His Navy was engaged in manoeuvres off the Southwest Coast of Ireland, sending a clear message to the EU and NATO that a neutral EU member left a proportion of the Atlantic approaches undefended and reliant on the Royal Navy and possibly French Navy to police the area. Putin was testing Western political messaging to see what any reaction might be if he attacked Ukraine.
What I had been noting in my blogs which started on 4th January 2022, discussing the Russian options around their large-scale deployments for manoeuvres close to Ukraine that “What is clear is that Putin is playing a game of 3D or 4D chess, every time he moves, he sits and watches what the global reaction is. He knows that he controls the timings to an extent. Troops deployed without purpose can become disillusioned, equipment deployed where it can’t be maintained properly becomes unreliable, funding large military deployments is expensive and the court of Russian public opinion, no matter how much it is controlled, will only stay silent for a finite period.”
In the information domain, Putin continues his tirade of commentary, much aimed at his domestic audience, trying to find excuses to justify why his Special Military Operation is going on a lot longer than he had hoped and why the number of Russian casualties is growing. On casualties, a rough number based on 100,000 dead Russians, fewer than Ukraine claims but about the same as many other analysts – in Warfare for every death there is 3-5 severely wounded – if we say 4 – that is 400,000 wounded – ½ a million in total – it is likely the Ukrainians have similar casualties, in almost 12 months we are possibly in the 1 million casualties’ bracket!
It must be recognised that Putin has lost every phase of his special military operation to date. Initially, his main effort was the rapid replacement of the Zelensky government through the capture of Kyiv, that failed and caused the collapse of all elements of his special military operation outside the initial successes he had in the East around the disputed Donbas Region. It was clear, although Ukraine had built strong defences, that they were forced to trade space in the East for time and that time was used to mobilise and deploy additional Ukrainian forces, stop and then defeat the Russian attack on Kyiv and then set the conditions for support from the international community.
The second phase was Russian withdrawal from Kyiv and the north-eastern Ukraine and the relaunch of a Russian main effort concentrating on the disputed Donbas Region. The decisive battle in this phase was the Russian battle to capture Mariupol and the eventual surrender of the Ukrainian Azov Battalion in the Azovstal Iron and Steel works in the city.
After that the momentum shifted, the Russians clearly having culminated again gave the Ukrainians an opportunity to wrestle the initiative back and dictate the operational tempo. The key element that enabled this was the deployment of the HIMARS and with that the Ukrainians managed to recapture two massive chunks of territory, initially around Kharkiv and then Kherson. They have now entered an operational pause whilst they continue to fix Russian forces in the Bakhmut area allowing time for more experienced soldiers and tank crews to go to the west to be trained on Challenger 2, Leopard 2, M1 Abrams, Bradley IFVs and more. They not only need to learn how to operate the individual pieces of equipment but also how to fight them as part of an all arms battlegroup. This is no mean feat in a few short weeks.
Russia knows it must act decisively to regain the initiative and try and dislocate Ukrainian defences before these game changing new capabilities get deployed and will be planning a major offensive with what manoeuvre formations it can cobble together and regenerate.
There have already been reports of the 2nd Motor Rifle Division moving from its regeneration and training in Belarus round to the Lushank Oblast ready for operations. The new commanders of the Russian Campaign, General Gerasimov is taking a much more disciplined conventional military thinking approach, hence him starting to sideling the Wagner Private Military Company and more. Additionally, there are reports of 10’s of thousands of new Russian Troops in Melitpol waiting to be deployed.
However, it is unlikely that Gerasimov will have been able to fix some of the fundamental flaws in the Russian military, his logistics will likely remain uncoordinated, equipment unreliable, command and control hap-hazard at best with junior commanders lacking initiative, his logistics vulnerable and uncoordinated and I suspect he will be able to generate little more than a one shot wonder which is why simultaneously his forces have been preparing further defensive lines to try and slow any Ukrainian counter Offensive.
However, that one shot wonder could have a decisive breakthrough in their desire to secure the whole of the Donbas, but it is unlikely to have sufficient combat power to do so. We will then have the Ukrainians deploying their new manoeuvre capabilities, equipped with modern Western Tanks, IFVs and AFVs, able to fight 24 hrs a day. This is when any Russian gains will likely be very short term. Remember it is a sound and deliberate military operation to trade space for time and the Ukrainians are masters at it.
We are about to enter the decisive phase of this Russian Special Military Operation and the Russians love anniversaries so symbolically the Russian strike could come around 24th February with a secondary aim of wanting to broadcast success back to the Russian domestic audience. One thing is certain, we are in for a busy few weeks and months and the human cost is immeasurable.
Let’s be very clear, strategically Russia has lost its war against Ukraine. Russia’s main effort was to topple the West leaning Zelenskyy Government and replace it with a Moscow centric puppet, as in Belarus. Not only has it failed in that effort, but part of the reason was to stop any potential for NATO to expand and Ukraine to join. With Finland and Sweden applying to join NATO he has lost that strategic objective.
In his initial operations, Putin has lost many of his best military units, caused the expansion of NATO meaning the Baltic Sea is now almost completely NATO territory. He has emboldened the people of Ukraine, brought the EU together, focused the international community and has China, India and Pakistan nervously watching as events unfold.
Militarily, the Russian forces have failed to achieve any operational objectives in a timely manner and their taking of the Southern Coast along the Sea of Azov has been very costly. Ukraine was forced to give up much of the additional territory captured by the Russians, by fighting a well planned and executed defensive battle trading space for time. That space was the coastal ground, the time was used to defeat the Russian aggression against Kyiv and to the Northeast of Ukraine.
The cost to the rest of the world has been heavy. Cutting the reliance on Russian oil and gas has been costly and shocked global economies. The impact on the closure of the Black Sea for Ukrainian food exports, in particular wheat and oils, is only just being realised and hasn’t yet translated into effects on the ground in different countries, but it is coming. Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine is just starting to have a global impact and potentially the worst is to come.
However, what is happening in Ukraine will dictate how long the global impacts are likely to continue. The oil and gas shock to Western economies will be absorbed relatively quickly but will impact less well-developed countries for a longer period of time. The food export difficulties will have an impact on the less developed areas of the globe as Western countries will be able to absorb any shock. Sanctions on Russia are having an effect but will take time to really change attitudes and cause pain to the Russian people, that time is measured by calendars, not watches.
With military operations, Russia is pushing hard to capture the final areas of the Donetsk and Lushank Oblasts and has probably decided that with its coastal gains opening a land bridge between Crimea and Russia, these will suffice as a ‘victory.’ If Putin is able to achieve that he will then be likely to propose a peace settlement. He will do this to try and wrestle the initiative back. I suspect he is getting bored with what is happening and bored, rather than concerned, about hearing of continuing Russian losses, that is a measure of the value he holds against Russian soldiers’ lives. Of note at the lower estimated Russia has 20,000 dead and that means probably another 80,000 at least with life changing injuries, off the battlefield.
However, he will have calculated that by proposing a peace settlement he can break the international community’s support for Ukraine. He will already have seen the Italian peace plan proposal what ceded territory to Russia, he will calculate that Germany, Austria and Hungry will all support any peace proposals he puts forward as will China, India and Pakistan. He will want to split NATO, the EU and create global division if he can.
Getting to the point where he can propose a peace settlement is still some way off and whilst Russia has been hit hard and suffered horrendous losses at the hands of the Ukrainian defenders, it has much more it can and will throw int the fight to achieve its objectives. Fighting in the East is ramping up and will likely become more intense. To make up for a lack of ability to carry out true armoured manoeuvre warfare, and a poor logistic tail, Russian advances will be preceded by use of heavy indirect fire and where possible air attacks. Drones, battlefield surveillance and EW, as well as sympathisers, will continue to provide targeting information.
Only when they believe Ukrainian defences have been neutralised will ground forces move forward. The Ukrainians may withdraw faster to additional pre prepared defences, trying to extend Russian lines of communication, knowing that will put pressure on incompetent logistics, as they prepare for potential counter offensives.
All of the time the Ukrainian defenders will be gathering intelligence on where the Russian Artillery Regiments are operating from and, with their new longer-range artillery, be preparing for concentrated counter battery fire. This will only really become apparent when the Ukrainians have armoured manoeuvre formations reedy to counterattack and try and disrupt the Russian plans. That is likely still some time off as there has been no evidence of armoured formation level attacks to date. Until then we will likely continue to see the intense fighting we are today, where every field, hedgerow, track, road and village is being hard fought for.
Russian objectives will be to encircle Ukrainian forces in a cauldron and then destroy them however, the Russian ambitions have been decreasing with each month of the war and it is probable they are not far off having to transition to a defensive posture. That gives the initiative back to the Ukrainian’s, who have been defending against Russian attacks and having to be ready on multiple fronts. Ukraine will then be able to choose the time and place for its counterattack(s). This transitional phase will see large artillery exchanges and use of air power if available with attrition being the aim rather than capturing ground. Ukraine will want to weaken any Russian defences and set the conditions not to let the Russians know where and when they will counterattack.
This unfortunately means a period of not massive moves but lots of attrition on the ground. When Ukraine will be fully ready is unclear and whether it will wait for further Western supplied equipment is again unclear. What is clear, is there will be no quick solution on the ground and Putin’s inner circle seems relatively secure. The people of Ukraine and the international community have a lot ahead with this conflict. The most important thing is that we maintain international unity as if cracks appear, Putin will enlarge them, and the war will go on longer.
Philip Ingram MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence and NATO Planner and is available for comment
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.