Ukraine, one year back and now

By Philip Ingram MBE

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.