What does Russia’s withdrawal from around Kyiv mean?
by Philip INGRAM MBE
Russia’s withdrawal of forces attacking into Kyiv from the North is a hugely significant step and change to its main effort in Ukraine. It makes no military sense to withdraw completely unless the force is completely unsustainable and there are wider concerns around continued access to lines of communication through and via Belarus. If these were sustainable then you would leave a force to fix further elements of the Ukrainian defenders splitting and thereby weakening their combat power.
However, withdrawing they are, and it is clear this is a defeated army withdrawing to reconstitute before being sent to the newly stated main effort concentrating military operations in the Donbas Region. Russian losses are clearly unsustainable both in equipment and manpower terms across their whole front.
The pictures of allegedly massacred civilians and stories of abuse, not by the first Russian occupiers but by those who relieved them in place, as they withdrew suggests an ill disciplined and very poorly led military force. No amount of reconstitution will change that culture and these units will be a liability on any new front, just adding to the Russian cannon fodder.
It is important to call these alleged atrocities until they are investigated, and a call is made by a recognised independent international body. There are claims and counter claims on both sides and whilst it seems clear which are right and which are made up, a formal process should be the decider. What is in no doubt is Russia carried out an illegal invasion of a sovereign country and its forces have been involved in some horrific war crimes. That does not need alleged in the sentence.
As more alleged atrocities are uncovered, and they will be in all areas of Russian occupation, the pressure on the International Community to do more will grow. The uninitiated will be calling for NATO to intervene directly on the ground and in the air and the immediate moral gut feeling is that is what should happen.
However, those of us who know about warfare, rightly raise the concern that for the 10’s of thousands killed in Ukraine, and millions displaced, if the war spills outside Ukraine’s borders, that death toll would very quickly rise to 100’s of thousands with 10’s of millions displaced if not more.
The pressures on our political leaders at this moment in time could not be greater and it is not a time for armchair commentators to criticise and shame on anyone who tries to score cheap political points when the country needs to pull together. The danger is very real, and a country’s leaders first priority, is to protect its own people. Putin is a long-term threat to all the people of Europe but the most important factor in dealing with him is multinational and international unity of effort; we must work collectively of any activity is to work at all and to do that effectively we need to accept different countries have differing challenges.
The world order has changed for generations to come. If Putin had just occupied the disputed areas of the Donbas region and sued for a negotiated settlement, he may well have got it. However, with the ever-rising civilian death toll, the increasing alleged atrocities, and the clear war crimes then the only solution is for Putin to lose and be ejected from the whole of Ukraine. From Putin’s perspective he must win and will want something to trumpet on his national day on 9th May at the traditional annual Red Square parade. What a target if the Ukrainian’s had long range missiles!
The battle at the moment, is one of attrition and logistics. Can the Russians keep their aircraft flying, missiles launching and artillery bombarding? Can the Ukrainians keep fighting, do they have enough stocks, or can they be resupplied quickly enough? Russia will have to rely on its own stocks and the West is acting as Ukraine’s 3rd line logistic chain with ever increasing moves to provide smart munitions, better anti-aircraft systems, armoured vehicles, artillery including loitering munitions.
It is only a matter of time before that turns into armoured fighting vehicles and aircraft, however, there are complexities. It’s not just operating them but fighting them, fixing them, resupplying them all takes resources and training. You can’t give an army or air force kit it hasn’t trained extensively with and expect it to be able to fight it. However, when it comes to tanks and other Armoured Fighting Vehicles, the weather is still not right for formation level manoeuvre, the ground is too soft for manoeuvre operations. Fields are very muddy; roads are easily blocked, and heavier armour needs to be fought as a formation for best effect. There is still time before the ground in many places will be ready as the Russians have found to their cost and Ukrainian farmers delight as their tractors tow away the abandoned detritus.
Putin’s forces have one attempt to try and wrestle any initiative back and if they fail then it is decision time around the Ukrainian’s going on a proper offensive to attack to push Russian forces out of Ukraine. Whether they can generate sufficient concentrated combat power to do that is not clear, and what is also not clear is what additional support they may need I the form of weapons, fighting vehicles and aircraft and if they can still man and operate them.
If that point comes, then Putin is backed further into a corner and there will come a period where the potential threat from tactical nuclear weapons will raise its ugly head, Putin cannot lose, from his perspective, however from the Ukrainian perspective Putin cannot win. The horns of the political dilemma have no easy or see able path for reconciliation short of a palace coup in Moscow, of which there seems little appetite at the moment. The only fact is that the people of Ukraine will continue to suffer in the most horrific way for the foreseeable future.
Philip INGRAM MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence and NATO Planner and is available for comment.