Putin's War, Week 51. Russia's Slow-Mo Offensive Gets Underway

AP Photo/Oleksandr Ratushniak

Next week marks the first anniversary of Putin’s War, that 72-96 hour walk in the park that was supposed to dismember Ukraine and ensure it remained a Russian satellite state.

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This has been a slow week for fighting but a fairly active one in politics. The big story is that, to all appearances, the long-rumored Russian offensive is underway. I say “to all appearances” because the activities don’t seem terribly coherent. But then again, that has been the hallmark of Russian operations for the last year.

Here are links to my most recent updates.

Putin’s War, Week 50. The Calm Before the Storm

Putin’s War, Week 49. Waiting for the Russian Offensive

Putin’s War, Week 48. The Logjam Breaks and the Leopards Are About to Roam the Ukrainian Landscape

Putin’s War, Week 47. Gerasimov Shakes Up the Russian Army and the Russian Spring Offensive Looms

Putin’s War, Week 46. Putin Shakes up the Army Command, Prigozhin Shows How It’s Done, and Western Tanks for Ukraine Are on the Way

Putin’s War, Week 45: Putin Declares a Cease Fire, Zelensky Gets Putin’s Terms for Peace, and if You’re Fighting a War, Leave Your Cell Phone Home

Putin’s War, Week 44. Drones Strike Russian Strategic Bomber Base…Again… Prigozhin Makes His Move

Putin’s War, Week 43. Zelensky Visits the Front Lines and Washington, Putin Tries to Push Belarus Into War

Putin’s War, Week 42. Ukraine Gets the Nod to Strike Targets in Russia and Some Tools to Do It With

Many more are available at this link.

Politico-Strategic Level

Ramstein Ukraine Contact Group Meeting

The ninth meeting of the “Ramstein Contact Group” took place at NATO headquarters on Tuesday. No new announcements of weapons were made, but there was a broad commitment to continue supplying Ukraine with the ammunition and supplies needed to defend its territorial integrity.

Escalate to De-escalate?

Under Vladimir Putin, Russia adopted “escalate to de-escalate” as a nuclear strategy. In short, this means that if you find yourself in extremis, you pop a tiny nuke just to show the other guy you mean business. If he doesn’t take the message, then you go full-metal Dr. Strangelove.

“Moscow threatens and exercises limited nuclear first use, suggesting a mistaken expectation that coercive nuclear threats or limited first use could paralyse the United States and NATO and thereby end a conflict on terms favourable to Russia,” the US Defence Department’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review said.

Putin and his minions have threatened nuclear retaliation nearly hourly since he invaded Ukraine. No one takes this bluster seriously, except three or four of the people who will comment on this post warning that we risk World War III if we don’t give Putin what he has every right to demand.

While I think the odds of Putin nuking Ukraine are infinitesimally small, I do think he believes he can stop the pain and walk away with something tangible from this war by escalation.

I’ve posted about Putin’s efforts to woo Belarusian autocrat Aleksandr Lukashenko to enter the war in Ukraine (see Belarus Prepares to Join Russia’s Unprovoked Assault on Ukraine and Putin’s War, Week 43. Zelensky Visits the Front Lines and Washington, Putin Tries to Push Belarus Into War). I think he’s also trying to goad Serbian Aleksandar Vucic into an armed conflict with Kosovo that will inevitably involve NATO peacekeepers (Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic Claims Kosovo Will Attack at Midnight). Now, we have reports that Putin is planning a coup or possibly a civil war in Moldova.

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As the article notes, Russia attempted the same thing in Montenegro as it was considering NATO membership (see Lithuania And Poland Prepare Their People For A Russian Invasion As Montenegro Foils A Russian Backed Coup).

This rings true from several perspectives. First, the Moldovan government is unstable right now. The prime minister resigned last week. Second, Moldova is pondering joining NATO, and Russia is not happy. Third, Russia has some 1200-1400 “peacekeepers” marooned Transnistria. They are left over from a Russian-instigated war in 1992 that created a “separatist region” — stop me if you’ve heard that before. Because transportation to and from Russia was severed after the Ukraine invasion, they can’t get home or be replaced by other units of the Russian Army. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has declared Moldova to be the West’s new “anti-Russian project,” and the West has “set its sights on the Republic of Moldova to have the role of the next Ukraine.”

By the way, Russia’s AstroTurf political party in Moldova is calling for protests this weekend. Not suspicious at all.

I’ve previously posted on Putin’s meddling in Moldova in the past and how it may be part of a larger strategy of increasing the size of the Ukraine war as a way to convince the EU and NATO to force Ukraine to give up, see Putin Decides to Widen the War With Ukraine to Achieve His Objectives. By the way, Putin and Lukashenko are planning another get-together, this one in the guise of a meeting of the “Supreme State Council” of the “Union State.”

Is the Sun Setting on Putin’s Love Affair with Wagner Group?

For a few months, Wagner Group and its chieftain, Yevgeny Prigozhin, have been in the spotlight. The private military corporation that had avoided the limelight suddenly wanted attention. Prigozhin, who used to deny any involvement with the Wagner Group, emerged as a budding rock star of the “special military operation.” He talked smack about the Russian military high command, distributed videos of him giving recruiting speeches in Russian penal colonies, and tolerated contemptuous videos about the Russian Army to be produced by his subordinate commanders.

There are now reports that his personal profile may have started to cause unease in the Kremlin. The Financial Times reports that Wagner Group has been barred from recruiting in the Russian penal system. There are also reports that mention of Prigozhin and Wagner Group has been banned from state television (read the thread for details).

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Without access to this source of cannon fodder, the bludgeoning attacks by Wagner Group, where yards of ground were gained over heaps of corpses, will be a thing of the past.

Rich Man’s War and a Poor Man’s Fight

“A rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” is how the ordinary people on both sides broadly described our Civil War. While the working and agricultural classes died for a cause that meant little to them, the monied classes kept the war going but didn’t risk themselves or their progeny. One of the most outspoken cheerleaders of Putin’s War and the “Z” movement is propagandist Vladimir Solovyov. His son has avoided the draft and mobilization and is working as a male model (NTTAWWT) in London.

 

More Missile Attacks on Civilian Targets

After a week’s respite, missile attacks resumed on civilian targets and infrastructure in Ukraine. Ukrainian air defense claimed about 85% of the incoming missiles and drones. In all, 61 cruise missiles and five Iranian-made Shahed drones were shot down.

As I’ve pointed out before, even an 85% success rate means that 15% find a target.

This slow attrition of Ukraine’s power generation capacity is being staunched by Western nations donating replacement equipment, but the only sure way of stopping these attacks is to clear Ukraine of the Russian Army and bring the war to an end.

Did Russia Really Think NATO Was a Threat?

Russia and its fanbois have conjured up counterfactual mythology surrounding the invasion of Ukraine to rationalize the unjustified surprise attack by Russia on its neighbors. One of those counterfactuals concerns the “Minsk 2” agreement. In a recent interview, Russia’s lead negotiator for Minsk 2 and the mastermind behind the “little green men” hybrid war waged by Russia to rip away most of two of Ukraine’s provinces in 2014, Vladimir Surkov, states that Russia made the Minsk 2 agreement unimplementable to keep open the conflict in Donbas.

Surkov is no minor figure. He’s been the driving force behind Russian politico-military strategy. Take a few minutes to watch some of this.

Another of the ridiculous stories concerns the threat that NATO poses to Russia. One of the tells that this is just a propaganda gambit that the Kremlin does not believe comes from this tweet.

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Russia is so terrified of Ukraine joining NATO and NATO attacking Russia that it has pulled nearly all of its defensive troops out of the most isolated part of Russia, leaving it defenseless and surrounded by NATO. Right.

Child Trafficking as National Policy

I’ve posted a couple of times on the Russian practice of forcibly deporting Ukrainians to remote areas of Russia. This isn’t new for Russia. The USSR did the same for the Volga Germans, the Baltic States, and virtually every other ethnic, linguistic, and religious minority they came into contact with. The system processes Ukrainian civilians through “filtration camps” to evaluate their political reliability (our universities do something similar with their Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity training sessions), and they are sent to “resettlement” locations based upon that determination. One of the most horrendous aspects of the process is that children are frequently taken from their parents and placed in state orphanages until adoptive families can be found.

Operational Level

The putative Russian offensive is all the buzz. Arguably, this is one of the better stories.

This one assures us that the Russian Air Force will play a major role and that the Russian Army has done a lot of learning over the past year and is imparting those lessons to the mobiks.

Color me skeptical. What the stories have in common, in my view, is the old journalism tactic of playing up a threat to increase clicks. They also have in common the dismissal of Ukrainian agency. In other words, this stuff will happen because the Kremlin has ordained it to happen. That is the same mentality that existed a year ago. For instance, the assertion that the Russian Air Force will be a major component of the offensive ignores a Ukrainian air defense system that is orders of magnitude better equipped and more proficient than it was a year ago. If the Russian Army has learned from the past year, so have the Ukrainians.

I still don’t see how Russia overcomes the logistical hurdle of having one major rail trunk to supply its entire war effort.

This story (read it without paywall) features some Ukrainian politicians doing the “woe is me” thing on the record.

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Given the communications discipline shown by Kiev, you can get away from the idea that the Ukrainians are playing up the Russian offensive to get more weapons and aid, to fend it off and build on the narrative when the offensive fails, as I think it will, of Ukrainian courage and pluck.

New Weapons

Denmark Donates 100% of its Self-Propelled Artillery to Ukraine

I’ve posed before on the superb French CAESAR 155mm self-propelled gun (Putin’s War, Week 14. Advanced Artillery, a Missing General, and a Grind With No Visible End). France has sent 12 guns to Ukraine. Denmark has now sent its entire inventory of 19 guns.

Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles Arrive in Germany

The US promised to send Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles to Ukraine at the January Ramstein Conference (Putin’s War, Week 46. Putin Shakes up the Army Command, Prigozhin Shows How It’s Done, and Western Tanks for Ukraine Are on the Way; The Next Ukraine Aid Conference Will Reflect a Change in Western Views on the End Game in Putin’s War).

We’ve seen video of them moving through Georgia, probably en route to Savannah.

Here they are in Bremerhaven, Germany. Their next stop will be Grafenwoehr, and meeting their new partners from the Ukrainian Army.

The Beer Test

It isn’t news that Ukraine is receiving about 250 Leopard tanks, both Leopard 1 and 2. So, I thought I’d throw this in for grins.

Turret stabilization is a feature that lets the tank fire accurately while moving at full speed across any terrain. This is what the turret stabilization looks like on the Leopard 2.

The Leopard 1 is older but no slouch when it comes to technology. (Shout out to Ed in North Texas for the video link.)

Combat Operations

I wrote earlier about my macro assessment of the anticipated Russian offensive. This map best sums up my thoughts from the past several updates.

 


Credit: Financial Times

The immediate objective of the offensive is to gain control over the entirety of the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk. You can see those political borders on the map. In my view, this has become imperative for Putin to have a colorable claim to victory and a reason to start negotiations. The negotiations would freeze Russian gains, prevent future losses, and set the stage for Ukraine War Part 2. Keeping in mind the Minsk agreements and the annexation of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia (Putin’s Illegal Annexation of Ukrainian Territory Marks the Beginning of a War Without a Perceivable End), this sets the stage for a “frozen conflict” and a resumption of hostilities in the future to fulfill the intent of those annexations.

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As I see it, the Russians are attacking on a broad front. The northern part of the front is a counterattack launched into the teeth of a developing Ukrainian offensive. I continue to see the Bakhmut fight, at the center arrow on the map, as a fight neither side wants to have but neither can afford to stop. I expect the intensity to taper off there, but with enough Russian pressure continuing to force the Ukrainians to devote men and firepower to hold their positions.

It is pretty clear from last week, see Putin’s War, Week 50. The Calm Before the Storm, that the center of gravity for the Russian offensive is pushing north from Vuhledar aimed at severing Ukrainian supply routes into Donetsk and forcing a retreat.

The map also notes my continuing prediction that when the Leopards, Marders, and Bradleys, with trained crews and commanders, arrive from training in March/April, the Ukrainians will launch a major offensive focused on Melitopol. If Melitopol falls, the air goes out of the Russian balloon from that point west because their lines of communication will have been severed.

I don’t think this is going to work for several reasons. First, I don’t think the Russians have the logistics capability to sustain active combat operations in three areas. Second, the attacks are not synchronized. The attacks along the active front line do not seem to support each other or any effort larger than attacking everywhere. Third, despite the claims of 300,000 Russian soldiers in Ukraine, there is no evidence that this is generating combat power. Even if last week’s attack at Vuhledar had ended with a Russian victory, there were no follow-up forces available to turn a minor tactical success into the beginnings of a breakout and maneuver campaign.

Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTP)

Last week I posted about a Russian assault near Vuhledar that got demolished (Putin’s War, Week 50. The Calm Before the Storm).

This is drone video of some of the action.

There are two things to note here. First, it seems like Russian battle drill for a tank hitting a mine is to swing left or right and continue the attack. Here is another instance of the same thing. This implies a lack of training or immense pressure on lower-level commanders to show gains. Or both.

The other thing to consider is how this came to be. The answer is that the Ukrainians are dropping the minefields in front of the Russian advances.

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These mines have a pre-set self-destruct time which means you can drop a minefield to stop an attack, and a few hours later, you can counterattack over the same terrain.

Northern Front

Donbas

The fighting around Bakhmut remains inconclusive. The Russians are continuing to try to outflank Ukrainian defenses. However, the intensity of the combat in that area is not even what it was a couple of weeks ago. And in this interview, a Ukrainian artillery brigade commander says that in Bakmut, Ukrainian artillery can match Russian volume of fire.

The only way that has come to be is a) attrition of Russian artillery or b) a redeployment of artillery to another area of fighting. Or a bit of both.

The battle at the Donetsk city of Vuhledar seems to have been as bad as was initially reported; see my Week 50 update for details. When the Russian Army gets bloodied enough that Russian milbloggers write about it, you can rest assured it was really bad.

What’s Next?

I think we’ve seen the first stages of Russian offensive. Just like with the initial invasion, they seem to be trying to do too many different things with too few assets. My assessment is that this offensive grinds to a halt with only some small gains of territory. The Ukrainian forces training in Poland and Germany should arrive in late March or early April. If the Ukrainian high command has the courage to withhold these from action until all the units finish their training and then commit them together, we could see significant Ukrainian gains. If they feed them into battle as single tanks or infantry fighting vehicles, and there will be a lot of political pressure to do this, then the stalemate continues.

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