A month into what seems like might be a very long war in Ukraine, the Russian military held a briefing on Friday to explain where it is and what the next steps will be.
The briefer was Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff, Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy. What was notable was who was not there. The Defense Minister and well-known media whore Sergei Shoigu and the Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, Rudskoy’s boss (read Russia’s Defense Minister Surfaces After Two Week Disappearance and the Mystery Deepens). What was also apparent is that the briefing was an exercise in goalpost moving.
Before we go further, let’s revisit the goals of the Ukraine invasion that Russian President Vladimir Putin has articulated on multiple occasions.
- He demanded the removal of the Zelensky government, which he said was engaged in genocide and composed of drug addicts and nazis.
- He demanded the disbanding of the Ukraine armed forces, which he characterized as “demilitarizing” Ukraine.
- He demanded that Ukraine change its constitution to forbid NATO membership and that Ukraine be off-limits to foreign troops and missiles.
- He demanded that the government of Ukraine recognize Russia’s theft of Crimea.
- He demanded that the government of Ukraine recognize the independence of the two fake states Russia has created in Donbas.
The New York Times describes it like this.
A statement by Russia’s Defense Ministry said the goals of the “first stage of the operation” had been “mainly accomplished,” with Ukraine’s combat capabilities “significantly reduced,” and that it would now focus on securing Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting for eight years.
The Defense Ministry statement was ambiguous about further possible Russian territorial ambitions in Ukraine, where its ground forces have been mostly stymied by the unexpectedly strong Ukrainian military response.
But on a day when President Biden was visiting U.S. soldiers in Poland near the Ukrainian border, the statement suggested the possibility that the Russians were looking for a way to salvage some kind of achievement before the costs of the war they launched a month ago became impossibly onerous.
While Russia “does not exclude” that its forces will storm major Ukrainian cities such as Chernihiv, Mykolaiv and the capital, Kyiv, the Defense Ministry statement said that taking them over was not the primary objective.
“As individual units carry out their tasks — and they are being solved successfully — our forces and means will be concentrated on the main thing: the complete liberation of the Donbas,” Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi, a senior Russian military commander, said in the statement, his first since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24.
Whether General Rudskoi’s statement was sincere or simply strategic misdirection was difficult to assess. But the statement amounted to the most direct acknowledgment yet that Russia may be unable to take full control of Ukraine and would instead target the Donbas region, where Russia has recognized the independence of two Kremlin-backed separatist areas that it calls the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and the “Luhansk People’s Republic.”
Russia has also insisted that Ukraine recognize its control of Crimea, which President Vladimir V. Putin’s forces seized from Ukraine in 2014.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has ruled out ceding those regions to stop the war.
Financial Times Moscow correspondent Polina Ivanova offers some concise bullet points.
- Firstly, the generals said Russia had always intended only to ‘liberate’ the Donbas, that was what it set out to do. It had two options: fight a war in the east, but allow Kyiv to replenish its forces, or start off by knocking out Ukrainian military capacities across the country.
- Over a month of war, Russia has knocked out most of Ukraine’s military capacities, the generals claimed, so can now move on to next phase, which will only be focused on the east, which could involve heavy bombardment.
- Russia had never intended to capture Kyiv, Kharkiv and other cities, the generals said – these are not setbacks in other words, it’s all part of the plan. And the plan was to distract Ukrainian forces while Russia/ Donetsk/ Luhansk made territorial gains in the east.
- Numerous statements made about not targeting civilian infrastructure, avoiding civilian casualties.
- Defence ministry briefing also shared a new official figure for the number of Russian soldiers killed, the second statement by Russian side during the course of this war. Said 1,351 were killed – figure is far below Ukrainian and international estimates. (See Russia Admits 5201 Casualties in Ukraine, but the Numbers Ask More Questions Than They Answer for my commentary on the casualty numbers.)
Here are my observations. The Kremlin is quietly editing victory conditions. While Putin’s goals are all political, they require complete military success to achieve. In other words, unless the Zelensky government is overthrown, the Ukrainian military disbanded, and a puppet government, like the one defenestrated by a popular uprising in 2014, installed, Putin can’t achieve his goals. Nothing that the Russian general staff says it is doing furthers those objectives.
The military is throwing in the towel on the notion of creating the conditions for Putin to replace Zelensky and going for a military occupation of Donbas. Interestingly, they use the old Soviet terminology of “liberation.” Oddly enough, if they are successful in this endeavor, all they will have done is prolong the war because Zelensky has taken the status of Donbas off the table as an item in peace negotiations. The Russians could possibly lose Donetsk and Luhansk to the Ukrainians in the process.
The military claims that most of Ukraine’s capabilities are knocked out when the facts say otherwise. For instance, Russia has yet to achieve air supremacy, and Ukrainian counterattacks pushed the front near Kiev back 25km in two days.
Claiming that the attacks along the northern Ukraine border were mere feints is insulting. If the objective were the occupation of Donbas, then the invasion would have been weighted to reflect that. The disposition of forces clearly demonstrates that the Russian intent was to occupy Kiev and other population centers. If it was just a feint, they need to explain that to a couple of battalions of dead paratroopers who died trying to take objectives near Kiev.
While there may be an intent to shift focus to Donbas, there are some problems. First, the Pentagon estimates that about 75% of Russian maneuver units are tied up in Ukraine. The only remaining sources are the troops he has in other parts of Russia, the troops in Belarus, the troops currently engaged in what the General Staff has declared to be a secondary front, and the elusive body of Syrian jihadis and Wagner mercenaries that we’ve read about.
If the troops are pulled out of Belarus, the Ukrainian formations now frozen in place become a strategic reserve to be used against either the Russians around Kiev or in Donbas.
If they try to withdraw from the northern border and move those troops to reinforce the Donbas effort, they will have to break contact under pressure and withdraw back into Russia. What happens when Ukrainian units occupy a handful of Russian towns? I also think the Russian troops on parts of the northern front are in the same position as Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne at Saratoga. They can’t go forward, and they can’t go back. Keeping them alive will require a continued infusion of troops and supplies that could be going to the Donbas effort.
There are reports that Russian troops have been pulled away from the border with Georgia, but they will be a drop in the bucket of what the Russian General Staff needs to make this plan work.
Finally, I think the whole Syrian-Wagner story is a head fake by the Russians as a way to tell Ukraine, “give up, or we’ll unleash the barbarians on you.” I don’t think anyone is listening as the last barbarians, the Chechens, are acquiring a reputation as assclowns.
While the Russians have continued to make minor progress in Donbas, there are two major issues. The first is that Mariupol is still in the hands of Ukraine, and there is no indication that Russia or the Donetsk/Luhansk forces have the combat power to take and hold the city. Any incentive the city’s defenders had to surrender disappeared when the Russians gave a “no quarter” order; see Mariupol Defenders Reject Russian Demand for Surrender Setting up the Largest Siege of a City Since WWII. Of more immediacy is what looks like the imminent loss to Russia of the only sizeable Ukrainian city it has seized, Kherson. Kherson fell about one week after the invasion when the Ukrainians were still reeling under the assault, BREAKING: First Major Ukraine City Falls to the Russian Invaders. The city is majority Ukrainian and has been the scene of nearly non-stop anti-Russian protests by the citizens.
A Ukrainian flag was put up in #Kherson, a city that’s been “occupied” by Russian forces for weeks. Ukrainians in the city have been protesting against the occupants almost daily. Yet another proof that in this war, Russia will never be able to hold any Ukrainian territory pic.twitter.com/LYpWPVIHMU
— Anastasiia Lapatina (@lapatina_) March 24, 2022
Ukrainian troops have entered the city, and the Russians seem to be withdrawing. However, if Kherson falls, the Russian forces northeast of the city may find themselves in a difficult spot as Kherson is the transportation hub for them, and their rear areas will be threatened by artillery and drones based in Kherson.
What all this means is that the Russians have decided their original plan can’t work. There is no evidence that their new plan is any better. They seem to believe that if they “liberate” Donbas, everyone will forget Putin’s demands from February. I don’t think that will be the case in Russia or the world, but that’s another argument. What remains unclear is where they generate the combat power to pull this plan off and how they think the Ukrainian army, which apparently is unaware that “most of its capacities” has been knocked out and now has its fangs out, can be controlled as they carry out their masterplan.
The other alternative is that this, like much of Moscow says, is just bullsh**, and they are trying to draw attention to Donbas before taking another run at Kiev.
Pavel Luzin, a Russian military analyst, cautioned that the public pronouncements of Russian military commanders should be regarded skeptically. While Russia could indeed be narrowing its war aims, he said, General Rudskoi’s statement could also be a feint as Russia regroups for a new offensive.
“We could say that this is a signal that we’re no longer insisting on dismantling Ukrainian statehood,” Mr. Luzin said. “But I would rather see it as a distracting maneuver.”
This is the only course of action that can help Putin achieve his stated goals. The catch is that a month into this war, the odds of the Russian army capturing Kiev is much less than it was in February, plus the combat power that operation will require will be nearly what Russia committed to the invasion in the first place.
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