Will Putin Up the Ante?

The answer may lie in his tactics in previous conflicts.

Geographically, Ukraine is the largest country in Europe (about the size of Texas and some 1800km across from west to east); it has a population of more than 40,000,000. The Russian invasion is being conducted along four axes: 1) from the north, out of Belarus; 2) from the northeast, along the Chernihiv-Sumy-Kharkiv axis; 3) out of the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine (with the help of the two Russian separatist republics of Luhansk and Donetsk); and, 4) out of Crimea in the south. In general, while the Russian assault has been significantly less effective than anticipated, Russian forces are still managing, deliberately and inexorably, to encircle and bombard key Russian cities and towns, e.g., the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, Kharkiv (Ukraine’s second largest city), Mariupol. In the process, they have created the most tragic humanitarian disaster in Europe since the end of World War II, with more than 2,000,000 refugees now fleeing Ukraine.

The Initial Russian Air & Missile Strikes.

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, Western military observers expected the Russian Air Force (VKS) to unleash something akin to the “shock and awe” campaign of our first Gulf War in 1991. At the start of Operation DESERT STORM, U.S. and Allied air forces conducted literally thousands of sorties, paralyzing Iraq’s leadership, destroying its military infrastructure (including air bases), and eliminating or at least grounding the Iraqi Air Force, giving Allied air forces complete command of the air, something air war theorists call “air supremacy.”

Surprisingly, however, Putin’s invasion began quite differently: Instead of a massive aerial assault with dozens, even hundreds of combat and support aircraft, the VKS operated in “penny packets” of two or three aircraft, or even with single fighters or fighter-bombers. And although they have neutralized many Ukrainian airfields, and destroyed dozens of aircraft, they’ve yet to complete the task of driving the Ukrainian Air Force from the skies and establishing total air supremacy. (According to U.S. defense officials, the VKS, as of March 7th, had launched more than 600 missile strikes, which, whether or not by design, have struck both military and civilian targets.) 

We are still waiting for Russia to commit the majority of its air forces, which qualitatively and quantitatively vastly outnumber those of Ukraine—e.g., Russia began the war with more than 700 fighter craft, Ukraine with less than 50. Russia, of course, also has many more fighter bomber and bomber aircraft. Yet given the mediocre to poor performance of the VKS to date, it may be that the Russians simply do not have the capabilities needed to effectively coordinate the kind of complex air campaigns the U.S. and its Allies were able to conduct over Iraq in 1991 and 2003. 

The Russian Ground Advance Broken Down.

1) The Northern Axis:

Along this axis, Russian forces debouched from Belarus (Russia’s ally) and moved south on Kyiv, about 100km from the Belarusian border. Here, the Russians have deployed large numbers of battalion tactical groups (BTGs), each of which consists of about 800 men, with artillery, tanks, anti-tank weapons, etc..

This large attacking force, whose columns stretch back some 40 miles toward the Belarusian border, has reached the western outskirts of Kyiv; however, it has barely budged over the past several days. Why this is so has evoked considerable head-scratching. Certainly, Ukrainian resistance has been quite more robust than anticipated. It also appears that many of the vehicles in this enormous convoy have broken down due to lack of preventative maintenance; in fact, vehicle tires appear to be failing at an alarming rate (many of these tires are of Chinese manufacture and have suffered damage over time due to exposure to the sun). The Russians are also building forward operating bases and casualty collection points to support their impending attack on Kyiv, and that, of course, takes time. They are also moving up supplies and reinforcements, while conducting air, artillery, and ground rocket attacks on Kyiv to weaken its defenses and intimidate the civilian population. A major ground assault on Kyiv, following the completion of its encirclement, is expected any day.

2) The Chernihiv-Suny-Kharkiv Axis:

The main attack along this axis is from the northeast and is also directed at encircling and seizing Kyiv. Taken together, these two axes (1 and 2) make up the primary Russian effort—an envelopment of the Ukrainian capital from the north, northeast, and east. Russian forces are  assembling on the southern outskirts of Chernihiv, most likely with the intention of encircling and then taking the town; this assessment is supported by the fact that the Russians are moving deadly thermobaric multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) into the vicinity of Chernihiv. Russian ground forces along this axis have reached the eastern outskirts of Kyiv; however, Ukrainian force (primarily Territorial Defense units) in this region have managed to ambushed vulnerable Russian supply columns and depots.

3) The Donbas Axis:

This sector, in southeastern Ukraine, is where the two ethnic Russian separatist republics—with support from Putin—were established in 2014. Desultory fighting in the Donbas has taken place for past eight years, resulting in some 14,000 deaths. The Donbas is strategically significant, in part at least, for its coal and other minerals; the region experienced savage combat during WWII. 

Hitherto, Russian forces do not appear to have opted for a major offensive out of the Donbas; rather, they are using their forces to pin in place Ukrainian forces along the so-called line of contact. (Note: The line of contact, established after the Russian invasion in 2014,  runs roughly 400 kilometers through the Donbas; Ukraine controls the west side of the line while Russian-led forces control the east.) Yet other Russian forces that are now moving deliberately up from the south, out of Crimea, could be used to encircle and destroy Ukrainian forces in the Donbas if they continue to sit along the line of contact and fail to pull back out of danger of encirclement.

4) The Crimean Axis:

Here the Russians have realized their most success to date. Oddly, they have attacked out of Crimea along three separate axes that are not mutually supporting—north toward Zaporizhia, east along the Sea of Azov past the port of Mariopul, and west along the Baltic Sea toward the port of Odessa. Along the Sea of Azov, they have surrounded the port city of Mariopul and linked up with forces in the Donetsk Oblast (administrative territorial region), giving Russia a narrow land bridge to Crimea. The situation in Mariopul is horrific, as the Russians continue to  pound the city with artillery, killing many civilians.

Northwest of Crimea, Russian battalion tactical groups have captured the city of Kherson (the first major city to fall). To the east, Russian forces are bearing down on Zaporizhia, a major port and industrial center situated on the banks of the Dnepr River. Along the Black Sea coast, Russian BTGs are advancing on the strategically significant port of Odessa, but are still approximately 100 kilometers east of the city. The capture of both port cities, Mariopul and Odessa, would enable the Russians to bring in reinforcements and supplies from the south unimpeded by enemy action, while cutting off Ukraine from outside assistance through these same ports.

What Comes Next?

If Western reporting is to be believed—and keep in mind that most of this reporting has been relentlessly one-sided (i.e., pro-Ukrainian) and often wrong—Putin is apoplectic about the desultory results of his invasion to date; he is also ill and may be dying we are told. Another media narrative is that the Russian president had expected his troops to be greeted as liberators and for Kyiv to sue for peace within a few days time. Of course, this failed to happen as the Ukrainians, now supported by a small contingent of volunteers—Americans, British, Swedes, Lithuanians, etc.—of Ukraine’s International Legion--continue to “punch above their weight” while the Russians do quite the opposite.

Indeed, the Russians, according to U.S. military estimates, have sustained close to 5000 fatal losses, with confirmed losses of some 850 tanks, other armored fighting vehicles, artillery, etc., while Ukrainian losses (on both the ground and in the air) have been much lighter. According to a reliable source, the ratio of Russian/Ukrainian equipment losses is 3.4:1. Yet despite it’s hitherto dismal performance, Russia’s vastly (numerically) superior forces continue to edge closer to their objectives along all axes of their advance—an overarching reality that most Western observers have ignored. 

So what will Putin do next? To answer this question, one needs look no further than his tactics during the Second Chechen War of 1999/2000 and, more recently, Russia’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War. In both cases, when ground forces were unable to secure key objectives, Putin’s military resorted to savage, murderous, and outlawed tactics. In Syria, Russian air forces helped maintain Bashar al-Assad in power by conducting attacks on schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, and other civilian infrastructure, grinding towns and cities into dust and killing scores of civilians. Sadly, it looks like Russian forces in Ukraine are now pivoting to this proven successful, albeit horrific strategy; in fact, Ukraine reported today (March 8th), that Russian bombs struck a maternity hospital in Mariopul, trapping children and others beneath the rubble.

In other words, Putin shows no signs of letting up and is, as noted, redoubling his efforts to smash Ukraine (hand-to-hand combat has been reported today in Kyiv for the first time). And  while Putin escalates the violence of his war, now turning to outright atrocities, the U.S. and NATO continue to escalate their sanctions, with President Biden hanging an embargo over the importation of Russian oil (currently about 600,000 barrels/day). Moreover, a clutch of U.S. foreign policy “experts” has just called for establishment of a no-fly zone over Ukraine—a reckless idea (yet one, astoundingly, supported by 70% of the U.S. public, no doubt under the baneful influence of social media) that could place America and NATO one incident away from nuclear war. Yet thankfully, it appears that at least one hare-brained idea—that of dispatching Russian-made MiG-29 fighter jets from Poland to Ukraine—has been rejected by the Biden Administration. What this clusterf**k of a conflict will lead to in the days, weeks, even months ahead is anyone’s guess, but the fact that both sides are ratcheting up their responses does not bode well for the future.

Craig Luther, Ph.D., is a former USAF historian and Fulbright Scholar. He has written 9 books on World War II, his recent ones focusing on the eastern front. See his WWII website with excerpts from his recent books at: http://www.barbarossa1941.com.

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