Russia’s refocus – what does it mean?
“Our forces and resources will focus on the primary objective: full liberation of the Donbas,” said Sergei Rudskoy, head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Operational Department a matter of hours ago. So, what does this mean for the state of Russia’s invasion and their dispositions on the ground? Will we see a withdrawal of troops who have been trying to encircle Kyiv? Philip Ingram MBE a former British Military Intelligence Colonel and NATO planner gives his thoughts.
On the surface this is a significant statement by the Russia General Staff for a number of reasons. It is a possible indicator that Russia has realised it can no longer try to take Ukraine or even the capital Kyiv, and that Russia’s initial operations have effectively been defeated. President Volodymyr Zelensky says Ukraine has inflicted “powerful blows” and “significant losses” on the Russians.
There is no doubt that the Ukrainian defenders, enhanced by Western weapons and poor Russian logistics, command and control and morale, have stopped and in military terms, fixed the Russian invaders. (To fix an adversary is to deny them of their goals, distract them and thus deprive them of their freedom of action. UK Army Doctrine Publication Land Operations).
However, does “Our forces and resources will focus on the primary objective: full liberation of the Donbas,” mean that we will see Russian troops withdrawing from around Kyiv or stopping their relentless destruction of Mariupol and then move on the Donbas region? The simple one-word answer is no. Russia will keep its forces where it can provide maximum pressure from a defensive and attritional perspective thus continuing to pressure the civilian populations of Ukrainian Cities, keeping Ukrainian defenders occupied and there by not letting them regroup to support any effort to stop the new Russian focus.
What it does mean is that Russian logistic support, the deployment of additional combat formations, air support and airmobile support will be primarily focused on their operations to take the wider provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, making up a greater Donbas region.
Rudskoy said the “first stage” of the “special military operation” is complete, which is an indicator that the Russians are rearranging the phases of their overall plan and switching their main effort, but this does not stop them potentially switching it again at some point in the future in another ‘phase.’ I described what Russia’s Main, secondary and tertiary efforts were in my previous blog looking at one month in, here: https://greyharemedia.com/ukraine-a-month-in/
However, the underlying message, especially if actions on the ground suggest this new main effort is progressing, is that the original objectives behind the invasion have failed and Russia is trying to set the conditions to get what it can before going for a negotiated settlement. An attempt at face saving. However, watching what is happening on the ground it is clear the Russian invasion is in trouble. It is just difficult to assess how much capability remains with the Ukrainian defenders, but I suspect a lot.
The claim could also be a bluff. маскировка (maskirovka) or masking, is at the heart of all that Russia does and, in this case, it could be to buy time and distract whilst Russia reinforces and regroups or in an attempt to get the Ukrainian defenders to move some of their defensive effort away from Kyiv. Putin and his leaders are past masters at keeping everyone second guessing what his real intentions are.
This new phase could go on for weeks, months or even years with Russia keeping up its attrition of Ukrainian built up areas trying to break the will of the people and thereby politicians. However, there are increasing number so f reports of successful Ukrainian counterattacks slowly pushing the Russians back. It is difficult to access if Ukraine can generate sufficient manoeuvre combat power to launch a major counterattack but I suspect they will have something up their sleeves when the time and conditions are right.
If Putin achieves his new objective he will likely push for a diplomatic settlement, however given the destruction rained down on Ukraine and the slaughter of Ukrainian civilians I don’t think President Zelensky could settle for Russia retaining 1 Sq M of Ukrainian territory, nor could the international community.
Should the Russians fail in their new objective and get fixed or forced to retreat then Putin will be in a more difficult position and would have to consider more drastic actions to wrestle the initiative back. I don’t believe this would involve chemical weapons as, if he possesses any in sufficient quantity, they are likely very old, unstable and their use would destroy any tacit support from China, India and Pakistan that remained. They would also be difficult to have an operational or strategic effect in the Russians favour. Additionally, his already demoralised troops are unlikely to have the necessary protection to operate in a chemically contaminated battlefield.
A nuclear accident or use of a small tactical nuclear device however, could have a better effect, but again that would lose Putin’s support from China, India and Pakistan. I discuss the nuclear options more here: https://greyharemedia.com/russia-and-ukraine-the-chemical-and-biological-threat-with-a-touch-of-nuclear/
The coming days and weeks will give a clear indication as to Putin’s intent. We can only hope that Putin’s closest team are plotting his heart attack, window cleaning incident from the 9th floor or Novichok on his door handle or in his underpants, as a palace coup in Moscow is the only way this war is likely to end quickly and stop the murder of more civilians and destruction of the Russian state internationally.
Philip Ingram MBE is a former British Military Intelligence Colonel and NATO Planner and is now a journalist providing insight on TV, Radio and in the papers across the globe. He is available for comment.