Having spent the last few weeks in Ukraine, I was fortunate enough to be staying at the Intercontinental Kyiv, during the YES conference and was able to speak to people about the war. With that, it became increasingly obvious that there is a clear scenario where they can win within 15 months and where they take back Crimea, as a part of it.
- It is estimated there are currently 420,000 Russian soldiers in Ukraine, where this number is being boosted by conscription happening across the poorer regions of Russia, along with Mercenaries being brought in from locations such as Afghanistan, Africa, and Latin America, not to mention Ukrainians in the occupied territories being made to fight for Russia too.
- Every day, approx 500 Russian soldiers are either killed or injured in action, resulting in them being unable to fight. On that basis, in a year, the Ukrainians can take out 180,000 which means before the Russians conscript further, it is already 2.5 years more of fighting. The Ukrainians don’t have the human capital for these kinds of losses. In contrast to Russia, the people who fight for Ukraine are their youth, and once you discount the ineligible, unwilling etc., they are already struggling to replace those KIA. On the streets of Lviv, military recruiters have been known to target young men on the street and issue them conscription papers. Not widely talked about, but it is happening.
- For Putin, life is cheap, so the KIA stats will matter less, than the loss of land. For Ukraine the opposite arguably is true. They can afford to temporarily concede positions, but can’t afford to lose experienced soldiers. Hence in the first phase of the war, Ukraine ceded land to protect against casualties. Now they are on the offensive, the KIA ratios start to level out, meaning, for the Ukrainian army to want to drive out Russia through attritional warfare, it will mean at least 420,000 dead before any further conscription by the Russians and at least another 2.5 years of fighting. Put simply, it is not viable. The West will not continue to support Ukraine in the manner required, for that long and the Ukrainians can’t afford that death count. At least that is what Putin thinks.
- Hence now we are seeing the Ukrainians widening conscription to include women with a background in medicine & pharmacology. Why? When a soldier is injured on the battlefield, how quickly they get expert medical attention (e.g. tourniquets etc.) can be the difference between amputation so becoming an invalid, and a recovery cycle where they can return to fight. Already there are 20,000 approx. people who have lost limbs due to this war, and it is estimated that could go up by another 50,000. Minimizing loss of life is critical for Ukraine to be effective. Just as important is returning injured in action back to the front lines, quickly.
- Similarly, Western military support now going up by another level. The F-16s will be flying by Feb. ATACMS are likely to be supplied too. Not to mention mine busters etc. F-16s allow for real-time targeting. For context, the challenge with artillery is the gunners need to know where to fire, before doing so. For an F-16 pilot, they don’t need to know where to fly before they take off, they decide once airborne. What this means is the defensive lines become infinitely harder to hold, as the missiles that can be fired for F-16s can flush out troops from even the most well-fortified positions.
- Also, assuming the Ukrainians take Tokmak, through ATACMS, they can operate precision fire across the region to the point where supply line convoys are impossible to maintain. And once the supply lines fall, that means the Russian soldiers can no longer be re-armed with ammo, food, or anything really. The Mine busters which have also now been authorized will help with the advance to Tokmak. How long will the army stand, when faced with F-16s, ATACMS, HIMARS, and with supply lines cut off?
So what’s the game plan?
- Crimea is everything. Given the Russians had taken it in 2014, they have had over eight years to fortify it. It is also of strategic importance due to the deep sea port, along with the natural resources. If the Ukrainians can drive the Russians out of Crimea, it will send a message to the world, that Ukraine can win. Already the Ukrainians have had some big wins, including taking back Boyko Towers, one of the oil & gas rigs in the Black Sea. That combined with the attacks on the Russian Navy, along with the Kersch Bridge, means the Russians are slowly losing control of the Black Sea, and with it, any ability to prevent Ukrainian shipping from happening. Taking back Crimea though, also means Ukraine has the territorial right of claim on the resources too, which will be all-important for the rebuild of the country.
- Assuming the Ukrainian military is backed up by F-16s, Storm Shadows, Mine busters, HIMARS, ATACMS etc. it is hard to see how the Russians can effectively defend Crimea. It is a war where the technology on one side, is so superior to the other, that to stand your ground is to die. Other than Russians shouting about Nuclear weapons, which would only result in a full-on NATO response, there will be nothing they can do to be routed. Expect this offensive to begin in mid-February at a time when the ground is at its coldest, and the winter is harshest, where supply lines to front-line Russian troops have been eradicated. Morale will be at an all-time low, and then the precision missiles will start firing.
- In the meantime, Ukraine will keep firing drones at Moscow. This will act as not just a disturbance, but a serious disruption, as every time the airspace is shut down, it acts to remind the people of the war. Similarly, for those in positions of authority, it reminds them of the risks associated with the war.
- By September 2024, Crimea will be under Ukrainian control again therefore is a hard target for the Biden administration, as they need for the final lap of the US presidential election, where floating voters are making their final decision on how to vote, to sell Biden as being someone who stood up for the American dream. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, against the old foe, Russia, who had employed every tactic imaginable, to conquer Ukraine and helped them not just defend themselves, but take back land that was theirs. This is the campaign Biden wants to fight, so he can create a clear differential between him and Trump, positioning Trump as being an appeaser of a Dictator, and as a result, a supporter of a man who instructed an army to commit genocide. But for that to be effective, Ukraine has to be winning, because Americans first and foremost, like to back winners…
- Assuming Ukraine then takes back Crimea by September 2024, the autumn campaign becomes increasingly procedural. Russian troops, hearing about what has happened in Crimea, and how the Western forces are decimating their own, understand that to stand their ground is to die, and turn on themselves and would rather face Chechnyan soldiers there to shoot down people deserting, than guaranteed death from a precision missile from a F-16. Last summer we saw how fast Ukraine can retake land when the Russians are on the run. Expect the same next Autumn.
- With that, keep the pressure on the oligarchs, so they feel the financial pain of war and understand that as long as this war continues, and as long as Putin is in power, there is no way back to normality. As the Russian economy starts to implode under the weight of sanctions, this is starting to hurt across society. GDP per capita has dropped from $1200 per person to $600 since 2014. That has a real impact. Already certain oligarchs are asking to raise sanctions by disassociating themselves with the regime. Putin for a long time had a simple truce with the oligarchs, Leave me be and I will leave you to make money. He has broken his side of the bargain, What price the oligarchs revolt? Putin overcame one revolt, through negotiation, but people would have seen how he broke his word shortly after. If there is another revolt, it will be organized to take Putin out, and there will be no way for him to negotiate out.
So where does the plan go wrong?
- A counter-offensive in the east: The challenge here will be that in pursuit of Crimean victory, the Ukrainian army over-commit and left themselves exposed in the east. This is what Putin is gambling on. A classic sucker punch, counterattack and take land which forces the Ukrainian army to pull back to protect its eastern flank. The Russian army is already attempting this, up to now without success, but with a larger army, could be successful.
- A counter-offensive from Belarus to Kyiv: Whilst unlikely, right now, it has to be priced in. The Wagner group has been relocated to Belarus and is now being incorporated into the Russian Army. It is estimated there are between 50,000-60,000 troops that can invade from the north, between Wagner and the Belarusian Army. Whilst Lukashenko has been at pains to not be drawn into the war, his position has become weakened, as his allies have ‘disappeared.’ Similarly, his survival politically increasingly depends on the Kremlin. If Russia seriously thinks Crimea could be at risk, I don’t doubt there will be pressure on Belarus to launch a counter-offensive from the north, to force Ukraine to recall troops. Whether or not it happens is another matter.
- Russia uses nuclear weapons: Probably unlikely. If Russia uses any form of nuclear weapons, it will lose any support they have in the global political community. They have been making efforts to curry favor across the BRICS and global south generally. Using Nuclear weapons would risk them becoming a pariah and would result in a counter-strike involving Western forces, the like of which has not been seen since Iraq. Similarly, the West would then apply pressure on sanctions to the point that no one would be able to trade with them, without being sanctioned themselves. No country bar possibly Iran, Venezuela, or North Korea would risk that.
- January Congressional Budget meeting: Republicans control Congress, and with that, all spending. Whilst there are Republicans who support Ukraine, there are those who don’t, and given it is an election year, McCarthy will be loath to do anything to split his party. That being said, as long as there is a clear strategy for a victory for Ukraine, that should trump everything. However, regardless of who wins the Presidential election next, it is safe to assume, that military support for Ukraine in 2025 will not be there from the USA, at least while countries like Germany continue with defense spending under 2% of GDP.
- Winter 2023/24: In many ways, the fact last year was so mild, was a blessing for the Ukrainian nation. However, it would be foolish to assume the same will happen this winter. And winters in Ukraine can be cold. The power system in Ukraine has less capacity than a year ago already, due to the dam being destroyed, along with other power stations. Insofar that there has been a diversification of power supply, to the point where even office buildings now have their generators (including the one for my company, in our office in Ukraine) the challenge is, that the people across the country without this back up of missile shields and generators, start to resent the elites, who have protected themselves and don’t do enough for them and become susceptible to Russian propaganda. In simple terms, the nation fractures from within. This is a question, but to give Zelenskyy credit, what he has done better than anything, is act as a voice for his people. So I don’t think this winter will break the Ukrainian resistance. Just harden it.
- Elon Musk: It is now reported that he decided to withdraw Starlink services in Crimean space, which meant that a sneak attack on the Russian navy failed. Whilst he has now negotiated a new military contract with the Pentagon, he remains the single most important civilian in terms of his influence in this war. And as becomes apparent, the Russians have direct access to him, as he was pressured into switching off Starlink already. He is the joker in the pack, the variable no one can predict. But whose ability to influence proceedings is beyond doubt. Could Russia target Starlink satellites and take them out of action? Nonetheless, now he has his Pentagon contract, I can’t see him reneging.
In summary, I wrote in a previous blog about the parallels between this conflict, and the Korean War and it is perhaps ironic, that one of the most important countries right now, is South Korea. The conflict from 70 years ago and the fact no peace treaty was ever signed, meant they have had to keep high levels of armaments on hand, at all times, in case of another conflict. And them sending artillery to Ukraine now, when the West has in effect, started to run out of its stocks, has been the difference in enabling Ukraine to push on. Then when looking at the Korean War, it was the third year when the Allies explosively took back land, but it is worth noting, that only happened, once they had air power. I expect the same from February.
The West is surprisingly united. We remember the Second World War through our schools and history. We remember appeasement. We remember, that in 1938 Hitler invaded Austria, and declared an Anschluss. The West stood by as after all, the Austrians were German-speaking and it was not their sphere of influence. We remember that within a year, he was invading Poland.
Now Poland is again under the spotlight. The Suwałki Gap divides Kaliningrad from Russia, and is the land bridge connecting Poland to the Baltics. Senior Russian military officials are on record as saying, after Ukraine, the Baltics, which starts there. Hence Poland is now increasing their army, to become the largest land force in Europe, and is subsidizing industry so they have armaments being produced, now. NATO are doing training exercises in the Baltics on how to protect the Suwalki gap. In short, NATO is gearing up for war.
Hence we can say Putin’s gamble has failed. He thought that the West would not care about Ukraine. He has been proven wrong. It is up to the West now, to prove it decisively, so Ukraine not just wins, but do so in a way where there is never again a chance of Russia invading another sovereign country. There has been concern about whether Russia should be allowed to fail too hard, and that the collapse of the Russian Federation would be too destabilizing. Equally, just before the Empires fall, they become their most militaristic, as the inner circle becomes so corrupt that the only way for those below to enrich themselves is through conquest.
Hence, the West should focus on the fact that next month, supporters of 41 regions within the Russian Federation, will meet in London, as part of ‘the Free Nations of Post Russia Forum.’ They see Russia’s collapse as inevitable and only look to minimize the disruption, help with securing nuclear arsenals, and economic stabilization. And in truth, the Russian empire is now over, it is just a function of timing. The West needs to start planning for it now, so when it falls, we don’t end up with a collapse akin to Yugoslavia. As on a landmass the size of Russia, which is nuclear-powered, the potential for destruction is… mind-boggling.
Could this be Putin’s legacy? The last Tsar of Russia, the one who brought Russia as we know it, to an end? Whatever happens, his invasion of Ukraine will go down in history as the biggest military miscalculation of the decade, if not the century, and one that Russia will pay for, for many years to come.