While the Ukrainian defence has disrupted Moscow’s plans, it does not guarantee a return to the status quo ante.
Moscow’s plan in Ukraine was centred on the flawed assumption that the circumstances that prevailed during the 2014 Crimean hybrid campaign were still in place. The war, in President Vladimir Putin’s eyes, would be short. Besides, countries of the Euro-Atlantic were already divided; the French president had even declared NATO ‘brain-dead’.
The Russian push for Ukraine, therefore, would have deepened those problematic divisions. With energy prices already on the higher side and given Europe’s troublesome dependency on the Russian gas supply, securing another win for the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ should not have been a big issue. What the Russian military found in Ukraine, however, has been quite far from a blitz achievement.
Moscow started the attack with a badly-calculated Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB). This was displayed first in the airborne troops’ (VDV) botched raid onto Hostomel Airport at the outset of the war, expecting little, if any, Ukrainian resistance.
The plan was to take control of the facility, and use it to transport the elite units of the Russian military into Kiev to topple Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's administration. A pro-Russian regime would then have been imposed to manifest the ‘historical unity of the Ukrainians and Russians’ in the post-Soviet space, as Putin once envisaged. The Ukrainian military and people, however, showed unexpected resolve and resistance.
Having failed in the hybrid attempt, the Russian military resorted to conventional operations, highlighting their lack of readiness for a large-scale, interstate war. The Russian Aero-Space Forces could not establish air superiority over Ukraine, while its army suffered from ill-planned and ill-executed logistics. As capturing the Ukrainian capital became an unattainable objective, the Russian General Staff ordered the withdrawal from the northern parts of Ukraine to concentrate their efforts on the east.
As the conflict progressed, the Russians had to learn from their intelligence mistakes in an even harder way. The Moskva missile cruiser, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, was sunk by Ukraine’s Neptune anti-ship missiles.
The war as it is
Ukraine’s eastern frontier is now looming large with certain military-geostrategic parameters shaping the conflict: the topographic setting in the east, especially rural lowlands, prioritises massive land-based attacks through artillery and multiple-launch rocket systems, as well as armoured warfare.
Having seen the transformation of the conflict, Western military aid, too, has been keeping up with the new ballgame. Poland and Czechia have transferred Cold War-remnant T-72 tanks to the Armed Forces of Ukraine, capitalising on the Ukrainian personnel’s familiarity with the platform. Other Western nations, especially the US, have boosted transferring artillery weaponry and supporting assets.
Yet, while a large-scale, successful counter-offensive on the part of Ukraine is not impossible, it is easier said than done due to two major caveats.
The first boils down to the foundations of operational planning. So far, the Ukrainian defence has been very successful in bleeding the Russian war party in the country’s depth, especially through mobile defence conducted by tactical units in urban and suburban areas. The Ukrainian troops have also been sensationally taking out Putin’s generals and high-ranking officers.
In return, the Russian military has suffered from high attrition rates in material and personnel, and lost around 20 percent of their frontline main battle tank arsenal.
However, one should not confuse Ukraine’s successful mobile defence conduct producing an asymmetric impact on the battleground with a potent counteroffensive for recapturing, and more importantly, holding territory.
The second is about the nature of defence assistance programmes and efficiency cycles. Not all military aid programmes are digested equally on the receivers’ end. Equipping the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces with man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) has built dangerous capabilities against Russian armour and aircraft flying at low altitudes. Yet, capitalising on the incoming T-72 battle tanks, and preparing large combat formations to match the Russian capacity will not be as easy or fast.
The southern sector appears to be reaching the limits of what the Russian military can secure. The presence, in particular, of coastal anti-ship missiles deterrents (both Ukraine’s Neptunes and Britain’s plans to deliver Brimstones) has rendered an amphibious landing to Odessa shores extremely dangerous. The Armed Forces of Ukraine have also been fighting well in Mykolaiv, which halted the Russian push from Kherson. Russia can devastate Odessa with missiles, but Russian boots on the ground is a low probability, at least for now.
The eastern sector, on the other hand, is likely to witness a protracted and bloody conflict. The Russian manoeuvre units fell short of encircling the Ukrainian buildup along the Izyum-Sloviansk axis. Still enjoying the flowing logistics and reinforcements, and having relatively secured lines of communications, the Ukrainians can stand longer.
At present, two scenarios — neither of them optimistic — loom large.
The milder scenario would revolve around the prospects of the Kremlin, in a sober fashion, re-calibrating its military policy, and going with the limited gains it had already seized.
In fact, some strategic forecasts conclude that Moscow can opt to annex the Ukrainian territory under its control, such as Kherson, instead of establishing satellite ‘people’s republics’.
This scenario comes with some troubles for Russia, though: the local population in the occupied Ukrainian territories may not be comfortable with living their lives as the citizens under harsh sanctions, restricted digital connectivity, and a political system dominated by the Soviet-Russian intelligence elite.
A prolonged insurgency, supported by the West and the Ukrainian security establishment, can upset the Russian plans. Still, Putin, in his face-saving hopes, can opt to rely on General Viktor Zolotov’s infamous Rosgvardya to quell uprisings with an iron fist.
But the fait accompli scenario may have even more bitter ramifications. The West has long passed the 2008 Georgia and 2014 Crimea benchmarks. The prospects of throwing an olive branch, or presenting a ‘reset button’ as then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton preferred, to Russia’s Siloviki establishment is highly unlikely this time.
The upcoming NATO strategic concept will not be anywhere close to the 2009 document which, naively, sought to establish a working ‘partnership’ with Moscow, ignoring the Russian invasion of Georgia. In the end, Russia will likely grow more reliant on China and become increasingly isolated in the international arena.
Then there is the second, more pessimistic, path. Should the Russian Armed Forces fail to soon provide Putin a ‘sellable’ achievement, the Kremlin could start calculating that it has consumed the conventional means in its power.
This is where the low-probability and high-impact scenario comes into play. Russia can resort to limited use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Moscow would expect to achieve two things by such an unprecedented escalation: halting Western military aid and breaking Ukraine’s will to keep fighting. The tactical nuclear path would be a risky, double-edge sword for Putin. Should NATO opt to call the escalatory challenge, things can get nastier.
What is more, no one can safely assume that the Ukrainian military and people will unconditionally surrender if the nuclear threshold is passed; human group behaviour patterns are incredibly hard to predict. More importantly, President Putin may face opposition from his inner circles, should he pursue such a dangerous path.
Overall, poor intelligence planning with the poor combat performance of the Russian military has led to a deadlock for the Kremlin. The war can last for months with the aftershocks enduring for years, and the security situation is getting more dangerous.
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