Friday, 24 June, 2022
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Ukraine will win the first round if Russian offensive doesn’t achieve breakthrough in next week

The slow progress and frustration are likely to result in a no-holds-barred use of firepower on the cities.

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After 14 days of war, Russias four-pronged offensive on exterior lines has made laborious progress towards achieving its military aim the destruction of Ukraines armed forces to facilitate regime change and seize control of the entire country. There has been no sign of a psychological collapse of the Ukrainian political and military leadership.  The battle for Kyiv is progressing at a snails pace and restricted to the suburbs, and no other operational level objective has yet been captured.

Russia does partially control swaths of territory ( see map) along the border, varying in depth from 100-150 km in the north, 220-250 km in the northeast, 30-50 km in the east, and 100-150 km in the south, accounting for approximately 20-25 per cent of Ukrainian territory. Western Ukraine remains unaddressed allowing free flow of military aid and information (including cyber/electronic) warfare from NATO countries. 

Has Russia been forced into a stalemate and made to reach its culmination point prematurely? Or is it the proverbial lull before the storm? I assess the operational/tactical level situation and the likely future course of the war. 

Operational/tactical-level situation

Due to terrain configuration, Russian forces are operating on four major axes from exterior lineswhich are military operations conducted in such a manner that the nearer the belligerent forces get to the enemy the less able they are to support each other and the further they get from their bases.

The northern axis is coming from Belarus on either side of the Dnieper River towards Kyiv. The eastern axis was initially directed at Kharkiv and Sumi. Part of it has now been diverted from Sumi to Kyiv via Hlukhiv, Borzna, Bobrovytsya and Brovary/ Boryspil. The Donbas axis from the southeast is conducting operations towards Mariupol, Kharkiv and the west. The Crimea Axis from the south initially focused on Kherson and after its capture, is conducting a three-pronged offensive towards Mariupol and Mykolaiv for subsequent advance to Odessa in conjunction with an amphibious assault, and Zaporizhzhia. At the macro level, these axes spread over an arch of nearly 3,000 km are unable to complement each other except in the case of Kyiv where part of the eastern axis has diverted towards Kyiv, and to a limited extent in the Donbas region between the Donbas, eastern and Crimea axes.

The Russian military has failed to capture the political centre of gravity – Kyiv – or any other major city except Kherson, which fell nearly a week back. Apart from Mariupol, no other major city has been fully isolated/encircled. Over the last week, the endeavour has been to regroup, build logistics and soften the partially isolated cities with air, artillery and missile attacks.

Ukraines political and military command and control is largely intact. Ukrainian armed forces are still fighting as cohesive force and have the advantage of operating on much shorter interior lines conducive for fighting a coordinated battle. Apart from contesting the advance and defending the cities, the army still has residual combat potential for counterattacks and striking at Russias Achilles heel logistics. The Ukrainian peoples militia has been organised to assist the armed forces in the battle for the cities and operations in the rear of the Russian army in conjunction with special forces.

According to the Pentagon, Russia has committed 100 per cent of the approximately 150,000 troops it had concentrated for the invasion. So far there are no indications of any diversion of troops from other parts of Russia. A disproportionate number of troops have been diverted to safeguard the Russian logistics infrastructure and extended lines of communications. The terrain conditions snow and mud are not allowing the mechanised forces to conduct their famed manoeuver operations. The onset of thaw”/Rasputitsa”/general mud in the third week of March will further compound the problem. Most of the operations are along the road axis, which are easy to defend. Vast distances of exterior lines are not permitting inter-axis regrouping. The Russian army just does not have enough troops to maintain the momentum along any of the four axis.


Also read: Ukraine will now see ruthless city battles — Russia’s Plan B & an army’s worst nightmare


Russian logistics both due to organisational flaws and Ukrainian counteraction have not kept pace with the battle. Since restructuring into combined arms brigades/ battalion tactical groups, the centralised resources at corps/army level are too meagre and lack inherent protection. Terrain conditions do not allow even four or six-wheel drive, vehicles to move off the roads. Destruction of bridges also slows down operations. Hence, the traffic jams and slow movement of logistics convoys. The logistics support areas are located on the roads and are easy to target. A tank requires 1,000 litres and an infantry combat vehicle or an armoured vehicle requires 500 litres of fuel per day. Fuel trucks are unarmored. The Ukrainian armed forces and militia have specifically targeted fuel trucks. All it needs is a Molotov cocktail

Russias strategic/operational-level air/missile/drone campaign to target the five rings of centre of gravity  fundamental strategy for a preliminary air campaign – has achieved only partial success. Air superiority has been achieved, but system essentials like electricity, road/rail infrastructure and communications network are largely intact in Ukraine. It is difficult to say whether it was by design keeping in view the political aim or by default due to poor planning, inefficiency, and lack of resources. 

A large influx of second/third generation anti-tank guided missiles and man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) before and during the war, have enabled the Ukrainian armed forces to blunt the mechanised forces and keep the Russian Air Force at bay. After the initial few days, the air force has been missing in action due to fear of MANPADS. The same is, to some extent, true for attack helicopters.

Russias information, electronic and cyber warfare capabilities do not seem to have achieved the desired results. Either these capabilities in general and Russian capabilities in particular have been overrated or the application was done poorly. Ukraine has also taken pains to secure its command, control, cyber, communications and weapon control/ guidance systems. NATO forces are assisting Ukraine in information warfare from neighbouring countries. 

A combination of the above factors has forced a weeks operational/tactical-level pause for regrouping and build-up of logistics.


Prognosis

Russia seems to have made a concerted effort to regroup its forces for the final assault on Kyiv. It is likely that Belorussian troops have been used to secure the rear areas and lines of communications for logistics, relieving frontline troops. It has diverted part of the forces from the eastern axis to Kyiv. This means less priority for Sumy and Kharkiv, which will only be kept isolated.

Logically, a similar effort should have been made on the Crimea axis with a determined push towards Zaporizhzhia and an eventual double Cannae along Dnieper River to trap the Ukrainian forces deployed to the east. However, the problem is paucity of troops and no details have emerged so far of any major regrouping. Operations are still progressing along the three axes towards Zaporizhzhia, Mariupol and Mykolaiv. An amphibious assault on Odessa is also likely once land lines of communication are opened after capture of Mykolayiv.

It is my assessment that the main effort would continue to be to capture Kyiv. The Russian forces are trying to isolate Kyiv from the northwest, west, southwest and east. They are still 20-30 km from Kyiv city centre. Ukrainian forces are contesting them from the front, flanks and in between the various thrust lines. The final assault on Kyiv is likely to commence in the next 72-96 hours once the suburbs are cleared and isolation completed. As a prelude, the Russian forces are likely to start a more violent air/missile/drone/artillery fire assault on the city and its suburbs to soften up the defences.


Also read: More honesty, less grandstanding can prevent Ukraine war from ballooning into a world war


Along the Donbas axis, the Russian forces are largely intact and have secure logistics. Russian media has reported about a double envelopment – isolating and trapping adversary forces in a cauldron –  of Ukrainian forces operating opposite Donetsk and Luhansk in conjunction with the troops from Crimea and eastern axes. There are no independent reports, but if true, this could be a major setback for Ukrainian forces.

The poor performance of the Russian military has come as a surprise to most defence analysts, including the author, not so much due to poor military judgement, but due to its failure to utilise state-of-the-art capability in war. The slow progress of operations and frustration are likely to result in a no-holds-barred use of firepower on the cities. I foresee an extremely violent phase of this war in the next ten days. If Russia does not achieve decisive results, then it is staring at a stalemate – a defeat for a superior power– and Ukraine has won the first round.

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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