This article was first published on February 26th 2022
As the battle rages on in Kyiv, across the West there is a real danger of false self-congratulation. In my first post of this series approx. a month ago I argued that war was coming and explained why: Briefing: Why did Russia attack Ukraine really?
With that, I argued his three military objectives for this war were to:
- Connect Crimea to the mainland and freshwater supplies
- Seal off the sea of Azov and create a land bridge from Crimea to Russia
- Take Kiev and introduce a friendly regime
So, with those objectives, three days into the war, this is where we are at:
- Today it was announced that Russian operatives had successfully destroyed the Dam which had been sealing off the water flow into Crimea. With that, Russian troops have taken a controlling position in Kherson (the oblast which connects Crimea to the mainland.)
- While it has yet to be confirmed by the Ukrainian authorities, the Russian military has now claimed to have taken control of Melitopol, which is the largest city bordering Crimea on the coast of the Sea of Azov. Meanwhile, Mariupol is under heavy siege. (the largest city to the Russian border) While across the mainland, the Ukrainian army has recorded quite incredible successes against the Russian Army, along the coastline of the Sea of Azov, Naval bombardment is proving the differentiator. The Russian fleet is able to target Ukrainian positions with impunity, meaning that the chances are Mariupol will fall as well. For context, once that happens, the Russians in effect will have taken the coastline of the Sea of Azov and completed their second objective. Can the Ukrainian army hold them off? Probably unlikely, but who knows…
- Now to Kyiv. In my last post, I suggested Putin may have over-extended. See here: Briefing: Has Putin overplayed his hand?
- Insofar that Putin has failed to take Kyiv in a lightning attack and the nature of urban warfare will now play heavily to favour the odds towards the Ukrainian army, the capital remains under siege. Putin now is going to look to neutralize those odds by demoralizing the Ukrainian army.
The way to do this will be to bombard Kyiv from outside the city limits using heavy artillery firing in, indiscriminately. This may include thermobaric weapons, to maximize the damage. This will be combined with bombing raids and paratrooper drops supported with troops then pushing in.
While in the here and now, the Russians are struggling to encircle Kyiv due to the technological advantage held by the Ukrainian army (thanks to the NATO weaponry they are using,) the challenge the Ukrainians have is that very soon their supplies of such weapons systems are going to be depleted. This is where I see an opportunity for Russia.
While the Ukrainians hold the western border there can be continual re-supply through Lviv, which is the central command centre for the army in the region. However, the challenge is organizing convoys to resupply the Ukrainian army in the east of the country when the Russians mainly control the air. Therefore what I believe is likely to happen is that the eastern battalions are pulled west as otherwise, they will be overrun once their existing stocks of stingers and surface to air missiles run out.
However what that also means is as they retreat, the Russian battalions will follow them from the east. With the existing Russian battalions which are attacking Kyiv having taken position from the west, what this means is that over time, the city will become encircled, meaning that even if the west is being reinforced, the reinforcements are not making it to the battalions defending Kyiv.
Putin is gambling that once Kyiv is fully encircled, where there are no supply lines which can feed into the city for reinforcements and the invading armies are alternating between bombing, artillery, paratrooper and battalion, with no letup, the army will give up and tell Zelensky that they can not win.
However, there are lots of variables, which Putin hadn’t calculated, between the strength of the resistance amongst the TAs, the level of training in the Ukrainian army and the resolve of NATO members to re-arm.
To increase the pressure on Ukraine, what I expect is that once Mariupol falls and has been reinforced, then part of the Navy will move from the Sea of Azov to target Odesa. While the Turkish have closed the Bosphorus straits, realistically this has only slowed the Russians down as once the Sea of Azov is secure, they can split the fleet already within the Black sea. I would expect this invasion on Odesa at that point to result in Russian victory due to the Naval advantage, where following that, amphibious troops would be sent North, to seek to seal the western border, or as a minimum, to seal off the west from the rest of the country, resulting in the map being redrawn, between western Ukraine, which would be landlocked and centered around Lviv, and the rest of the country.
However, as long as Kyiv remains under the control of the Ukrainians, there is no scenario where the Russians can claim total victory. Equally given the sanctions that have now been imposed, along with the domestic pressure Putin is likely to face, I can see a scenario where at the point at which the sea of Azov has been secured, Putin offers a ceasefire for humanitarian purposes and also to explore a settlement where he presents himself as being open to peace. If Kyiv is still standing by Tuesday, that’s probably when Putin makes his offer, as that would be the point where the existing battalions would be running out of their supplies and would need to be swapped out for battalions currently waiting on the wings.
With all this, the Ukrainians only have one chance. Hold Kyiv, which means maintaining supply lines from the west to the capital.
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