(Image Source: The General Staff for the Armed Forces of Ukraine)

A War Putin “Cannot Lose”: Latest on the Invasion of Ukraine

On Thursday, February 24, Russia launched a full-scale military invasion of its southwestern neighbor Ukraine. 

The action marked a significant escalation between the countries, which have been in a state of conflict since 2014 when Russia first supported an invasion of the eastern Donbas region and annexed the coastal peninsula of Crimea. Russia’s invasion marks the most significant warfare seen in Europe since World War 2. 

According to the Kremlin, the invasion is merely a “special military operation” aimed at “denazifying” and “demilitarizing” Ukraine. 

Here is The Debrief’s update of the conflict as of the morning of March 9. 

Current Military Situation

In the past 72 hours, Russian military activity in northern Ukraine has mainly been confined to long-range fires, including artillery, air, and missile attacks, in the outlying regions near Kyiv. 

Russia appears to be using these stand-off area attacks to weaken defenses around the Ukrainian capital while also buying time to bring up supplies and reinforcements for its depleted forces. Russia may also be using attacks on the periphery of major Ukrainian population centers as a military strategy. More detail on this will be in an upcoming article by The Debrief. 

Persistent counterattacks by Ukraine continue to affect Russia’s already beleaguered supply lines, particularly along the northeastern axis and the cities of Sumy, Kharkiv, and Chernihiv. 

Having not yet captured Sumy, Russian forces are being forced to try and maintain long supply lines running along roughly 25 miles of roads stretching from the Russian border. 

Indications are Ukrainian troops are effectively using mobile platoon and squad level forces, armed with man-portable anti-tank weapons, to interrupt these long logistical lines. Without secure logistical lines, it is doubtful that Russian troops can launch any major ground offensive towards the primary objective of capturing Kyiv. 

According to the Ukrainian General Staff of the Armed Forces, Russia is attempting to create a network of field pipelines from the eastern occupied territories of Donbas, possibly connecting them to the central oil pipeline and pumping fuel from Belarus. Reportedly, fuel supplies are currently being provided by existing stationary networks, including gas stations and oil storage facilities. 

In southern Ukraine, Russian troops continue to try and advance along three divergent lines of attack: to the west toward Mykolaiv, northward toward Zaporizhya, while simultaneously maintaining an encirclement of Mariupol. 

Based on their movements in the past few days, it appears that Russia’s goal is to seize Zaporizhya and force the surrender of Mariupol to achieve a breakout westward from Donbas. Probing attacks north of Mykolaiv could also indicate Russia may attempt to bypass the city of nearly 500,000 in an attempt to focus on Ukraine’s last remaining port city of Odesa. 

While southern Ukraine and along the Crimea axis has been the area Russian forces have been most effective, The Debrief assesses Russian forces will require extensive reinforcements and resupply for its three-prong advance to have any chance of meaningful success.

(Image Source: The General Staff for the Armed Forces of Ukraine)

Russia’s Situation Could Be More Grim Than it Already Seems. 

The U.S. Department of Defense confirmed previous reports that Russia is currently attempting to recruit Syrians to join the fight in Ukraine. 

“We find that noteworthy that [Russian President Vladimir Putin] believes that he needs to rely on foreign fighters to supplement what is a very significant commitment of combat power inside Ukraine as it is,” an unnamed senior U.S. defense official was quoted in a release by the DoD. The Pentagon likewise said it has assessed that Russia has committed 100% of its staged pre-invasion forces inside Ukraine. 

It is easy to interpret the recruitment of foreign fighters as further evidence of how depleted Russian forces have become nearly two weeks into the invasion. However, this is likely a simplistic overview of Russia’s current situation. 

In the west, “hybrid warfare” is frequently used to describe Russia’s military strategy. Indeed Russia makes considerable use of blended conventional and unconventional forces. However, within the Kremlin, indirect and asymmetric methods are viewed as a matter of military policy, not as an irregular warfare strategy. 

During the Third Moscow Conference on International Security in 2014, Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, outlined the Kremlin’s “adaptive approach for the use of military force.” 

Under this approach, Moscow views undeclared combatants, unconventional forces, private military contractors, and foreign legionnaires as the vanguard of its military interventions. 

Due to its overall force structure and state of combat readiness, Russia’s combat strength cannot be quickly regenerated operationally. This makes the taking of casualties by conventional forces strategically expensive. 

Because of this, and as a matter of military doctrine, Russia’s active and uniformed forces are given the strategic imperative of controlling terrain to shape post-conflict negotiations and striking from behind a proxy force. Russia’s preference for using stand-off fires from artillery and Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) is because its battalion tactical groups (BTG) lack sufficient infantry forces to engage in aggressive ground offenses. 

Though Putin very likely unestimated Ukraine’s determination to defend its homeland, Russia has not abandoned its overarching “adaptive approach” in attempting to conquer Ukraine. 

Evidence for this can be seen in the March 7 report by the Ukrainian General Staff that Ramazan Kadyrov’s Chechen fighters and Wagner Group mercenaries have been seen amassing to the west of Kyiv, assumingly to prepare for an assault on the capital. 

On March 9, Ukraine reported that some of Russia’s conventional forces attempted to move forward toward Mykolayiv while disguised in civilian clothing. 

Ultimately, this means is that Russia’s military situation in Ukraine could be more grim than it already seems. Not only could Moscow require more unconventional troops to continue its adaptive approach, but the casualties and losses to conventional forces could be more significant than even the mere numbers suggest. 

As of March 9, the open-source intelligence site Oryx has documented the Russian side has lost 949 pieces of military equipment since February 24. This list includes some of Russia’s most expensive and modern hardware, including T-80BVM tanks and Tor surface-to-air missile systems.  

According to Oryx, its list only includes “destroyed vehicles and equipment of which photo or video evidence is available.” It is therefore assumed that Russia’s losses are significantly higher. 

The Ukrainian General Staff claims it has shot down 137 Russian planes, helicopters, or unmanned aerial vehicles. Only 24 of these losses have been independently confirmed by visual evidence. 

On March 9, the Ukrainian General Staff also estimated Russia’s troop casualties to be excess of 12,000. The Debrief cannot independently verify this number. However, in a previous update, it was explained that the disposition of Russian BGTs lends itself to suffering high casualties. 

Polish MiG-29 (Image Source: Wikicommons)

What’s Going On With The Polish Fighter Jets? 

Beginning shortly after Russia’s invasion, there have been a series of bizarre and very public incidents involving Poland donating its fleet of MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine. 

In a February 27 press conference, Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, announced a deal had been brokered to allow the EU to finance sending fighter jets to Ukraine. 

The following day, the Ukrainian Air Force announced in a Facebook post that Bulgaria, Poland, and Slovakia, would be sending a combination of 70 Mig-29 and Su-25 planes to bolster Ukraine’s defense against Russia. 

On March 1, Russian state media outlet Tass likewise reported Ukraine was getting 70 fighter planes from three NATO. It’s worth noting that Russian state media is hardly a source for credible information, and Tass was likely citing the Ukrainian Air Force’s Facebook post. 

By March 2, Bulgaria and Slovakia made public statements saying they were not sending any fighter planes to Ukraine, saying previous reports had been erroneous. 

On March 6, citing the Wall Street Journal, the Belarusian media outlet Nexta reported Poland was looking to provide Ukraine with MiG-29 and Su-25 aircraft in exchange for F-16s supplied by the U.S. Comments by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken seemingly confirmed these reports. 

“We are looking actively now at the question of airplanes that Poland may provide to Ukraine and looking at how we might be able to backfill should Poland choose to supply those planes,” said Blinken. 

However, from its official Twitter account, the Office of the Prime Minister of Poland called the claims “fake news,” saying, “Poland won’t send its fighter jets to Ukraine as well as allow to use its airports. We significantly help in many other areas.” 

In a bizarre about-face, on March 8, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs released an official statement saying Poland was “ready to deploy – immediately and free of charge – all their MIG-29 jets to the Ramstein Air Base and place them at the disposal of the Government of the United States of America.” 

In its statement, the Polish Government said it “requests other NATO Allies – owners of MIG-29 jets – to act in the same vein.” 

While never explicitly mentioning Ukraine, Poland’s statement implied that the United States would serve as the middleman in providing the fighters to Kyiv. 

However, reaching a crescendo of confusion, shortly after Poland released its statement, the United States responded, saying it had not been pre-consulted with the plans. Speaking with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, called it “a surprise move by the Poles.” 

Further throwing cold water on the transfer of MiG-29s, late Tuesday night, Department of Defense spokesperson John Kirby said, “we do not believe Poland’s proposal is a tenable one.”

Speaking on background, as they were not authorized to talk on the record, a senior official with the DoD told The Debrief that officials had been working for nearly a week on a plan to allow Poland to transfer its fleet MiG-29s, in exchange for American F-16s. 

However, the official explained the problem involved both getting the aircraft into Ukraine – as the airspace is still contested by Russian forces – and trying to prevent doing anything that Moscow could perceive as NATO actively entering the war. 

Reportedly, officials had come up with a plan to try and covertly take possession and ultimately transfer the jets to Ukraine. However, repeated public comments by the EU, Ukraine, and now Poland had thwarted any chances of secretly getting the jets into the hands of Ukrainian pilots. 

The official wouldn’t confirm but said these plans could have included the transfer of the jets to Ramstein Airbase in Germany to remove sensitive NATO equipment before handing them off. 

Located in the Rhineland-Palatinate region of Germany, Ramstein Airbase is one of America’s largest overseas bases, serving as the headquarters for the United States Air Force Europe and Africa Commands and NATO Allied Air Command. It’s unclear if Germany had been made aware of any plans to transfer Poland’s MiG-29s to Ramstein before Poland’s Tuesday statement. 

After the series of public debacles, any further plans to transfer fighter aircraft to Ukraine remain uncertain. 

(Image Source: The General Staff for the Armed Forces of Ukraine)

Is Russia Purposefully Targeting Civilians? 

Aside from inflicting civilian casualties from indiscriminate area attacks, there is increasing evidence that Russian troops are directly targeting journalists and civilians in Ukraine. 

A CCTV video published on March 8 showed a BMP Infantry fighting vehicle firing three shots from its 100mm main gun at what is easily identifiable as a civilian vehicle. The first shot appeared to miss. However, two subsequent rounds directly impacted the front of the car. 

Highly graphic videos of the aftermath confirmed an elderly couple inside the vehicle had been killed in the attack. 

While it is difficult to tell from the CCTV video, another armored vehicle and column of fuel trucks following the BMP appear to have a white “Z” on the sides, a symbol Russia has been using to identify its forces. 

Additional graphic images and videos have appeared online, showing the bullet-riddled bodies of civilians who have purportedly been targeted by Russian forces. The largest concentration in reports of civilians being targeted seems to be from the areas along Russia’s western Kyiv axis. 

West of Kyiv, near Irpin, Hostomel, and Bucha, are the areas where Russia’s proxy forces, including Ramazan Kadyrov’s Chechen fighters and Wagner Group mercenaries, are believed to be concentrated. 

Map of the situation in Ukraine as of March 9. (Image Source: UK Ministry of Defense)

Immediate Situations To Watch 

Russian forces will likely continue to use unconventional troops, mixed with a limited number of conventional forces, to conduct probing attacks on the western and eastern edges of Kyiv, working towards its ultimate goal of encircling the capital. Particularly in the areas of Irpin and Hostomel in the west and the Brovary area to the east. 

Russia will also likely continue to use stand-off artillery, missile, and aerial bombardments against the Ukrainian cities of Sumy, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Mariupol, Mykolaiv, and Zaporizhia. The threat to civilian casualties in these significant population centers remains exceptionally high. 

Ukrainian defenders will likely continue to challenge Russia’s extended supply lines, particularly along the northeastern axis near Sumy, Chernihiv, and Kharkiv. 

The Debrief assesses Ukrainian counterattacks have likely had a measurable impact on Russia’s combat power in the northeast. It is additionally unlikely that Russia has enough available forces to successfully capture any of the major northeastern cities at this point. 

Russia’s overall ability to succeed in its military and political goals in Ukraine remains uncertain. 

Speaking with the House Intelligence Committee on March 8, CIA Director William Burns said Russian President Vladimir Putin was “angry and frustrated” by the situation in Ukraine. Burns cautioned that this meant Putin was likely to step up his efforts. 

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines testified that Putin likely “perceives this as a war he cannot afford to lose.” 

Note: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an ongoing military conflict. Events on the battlefield are highly dynamic and can quickly change. Be sure to follow The Debrief on Twitter, @DebriefMedia, or The Debrief’s Tim McMillan @LtTimMcMillan, where we will provide updated information on the conflict. 

Follow and connect with author Tim McMillan on Twitter: @LtTimMcMillan or encrypted email: LtTimMcMillan@protonmail.com