All indications point to Ukrainian forces having defeated Russia’s initial military campaign by week four of its invasion.
Moscow’s initial strategic plans centered on using light infantry and mechanized troops to seize major Ukrainian cities, including the capital of Kyiv, to force a regime change favorable to Moscow’s interest.
However, since March 9, Russian forces have not engaged in any meaningful offensive operations toward achieving these campaign goals. This lack of forward momentum and credible reporting from the ground suggest Russia’s initial war campaign has culminated.
However, this does not mean Russia’s war in Ukraine is over.
On the contrary, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears fully invested in continuing. Stiff Ukrainian defenses and harsh Western economic sanctions appear to have done little to dissuade this commitment.
Having lost any chances of a rapid, decisive victory, many feel the war in Ukraine will now become a protracted and very violent affair. Russia certainly has a history of sitting back and using artillery and bomb strikes to effectively level entire cities in its past conflicts in Chechnya and Syria.
Yet, as Moscow is forced to change gears, Russian military planners may still believe they have a potential path to victory that doesn’t involve a drawn-out slugfest.
Whether or not this strategy can be successful is another story.
Southern Ukraine Could Be Key
Faced with the failure of its initial campaign, Russia’s most sound course of action would be to take a lengthy operational pause to develop the necessary resources and launch a new campaign when conditions are more favorable.
However, so far, Russia has not adopted this strategy. Instead, Moscow continues to throw relatively trivial batches of reinforcements in the fray and engage in small-scale harassing and reconnaissance attacks.
Russia could be continuing to nurse along its current campaign because military leaders still see their successes in southern Ukraine as still offering a potential path to victory.
Kherson, home to nearly 300,000, has been under Russian control since March 2. Situated on the Black Sea and Dnieper River, Kherson is the only major Ukrainian city so far captured. Though occupying troops have faced substantial civil disobedience, Kherson remains firmly in Russian hands, serving as a southern base for supply and refitting.
Russia has likewise seized an uncontested corridor of over 200 miles running east of Kherson to Mariupol in the south.
Representing another major port city on the Black Sea, Mariupol has been cut off and encircled by Russian troops and Russian-backed proxy forces since nearly the start of the invasion.
With a pre-war population of nearly 500,000, Mariupol has faced indiscriminate daily air, missile, and artillery bombardments for almost three weeks. City officials say more than 2,400 civilians have so far been killed. However, the constant shelling has prevented officials from getting an accurate figure for how many have died, with reports of bodies still lying in the streets and hasty mass burials.
For their part, Russian forces have seemed content engaging in “siege and starve” tactics to force Mariupol into capitulation.
An estimated seven Russian battalion tactical groups (BTG) and one naval infantry brigade have been slowly tightening the noose on Mariupol for more than a week. Forces have been moving on the city from the east and west, using a mix of standard urban warfare practices and indiscriminate shelling.
Surrounded on all sides by an overwhelming force, the eventual fall of Mariupol is all but a foregone conclusion. However, the city’s defenders have demonstrated a remarkable willingness to fight, so just when Mariupol will fall remains to be seen.
Russian military leadership likely sees the eventual fall of Mariupol as being vital in opening up a path to victory.
Russian forces have been curiously attempting to advance along two other divergent axes in the southern area of operations: North of Kherson, trying to bypass Mykolaiv east of the Bug River, and north of Mariupol toward Zaporizhiya and Dnipro.
So far, Russian forces have not had enough combat power to make any meaningful advances on these two approaches. However, if and when Mariupol falls, Russia could bolster these two avenues of advance by redeploying the forces previously besieging Mariupol.
By successfully advancing northward from its southern axes, it would place Russia in a position to potentially encircle the bulk of Ukraine’s conventional military forces opposite Donetsk and Luhansk, on the east side of the Dnieper River.
Russia’s aim here would be to encircle and ultimately destroy a large portion of Ukraine’s conventional military currently operating under the Joint Forces Operation (JFO) umbrella.
Russian forces along the Northeast axis appear to be trying to set the stage for just this type of maneuver by currently attempting to bypass Kharkiv to the south and west of Poltava. If successful, it would prevent JFO forces from escaping northwards from the closing southern pocket.
In pursuing this strategic approach, Russian forces would forgo further attempts at seizing any major cities in exchange for defeating the bulk of the Ukrainian military in the field. This strategy would be working on the 18th-century military precedent that a nation’s military is the true center of its power, not its cities.
Thus far, Ukraine has done an exceptional job in waging “compound warfare” or using a mix of regular and irregular forces. Many successful attacks on Russian supply lines have come from ambushes by small-platoon size irregular forces.
However, the success of irregular forces is significantly augmented by having a larger conventional force to consume an enemy’s attention. Defeating a large portion of JFO’s conventional forces would potentially reduce the effectiveness of Ukraine’s highly-mobile groups of irregular troops.
Further indications the Kremlin is banking on successfully employing a northward advance and encirclement of JFO can be seen in the staging of Russian forces in the west.
The Westside Story
Currently, Russia is believed to have at least three battalion tactical groups (BTG) – composed of elements from the 98th Guards Airborne Division, 36th Guards Motor Rifle Brigade, and 38th Guards Air Assault Brigade of Belarus – staged in the Brest region of Belarus near the border of Ukraine and Poland.
On March 20, a most-likely-course-of-action (MLCOA) report, purportedly from the Lithuanian–Polish–Ukrainian Brigade, was “leaked” online. The somewhat dubious report shows Russian and Belarusian forces moving south from the Brest region to encircle and seize Lviv.
Russia also has approximately 1,500 to 2,000 troops in Transnistria, an unrecognized Russian-backed breakaway state in Moldova near the Ukrainian border.
Finally, at least five Russian amphibious landing ships, assumingly filled with Russian marines, are currently lurking near the final uncontested port city of Odesa.
Right now, if Russia were to create a new axis and launch simultaneous or divergent attacks from any of these three areas, it would be suicide. However, these forces still have to be accounted for by Ukrainian defenders.
With a current focus on pursuing a northward envelopment, it’s highly likely the troop stagings in the west, and the Black Sea is merely a feint to keep western defenses pinned down.
Of course, if Ukraine was to redeploy significant numbers to the east to stop an attempt to encircle JFO troops, it could set favorable conditions where Russian leaders would attempt to send these staged forces forward.
The North Abides
By focusing on the southern area of operations, Russia’s struggling forces in the north would likely do exactly what they’ve been doing for nearly two weeks.
Instead of attempting meaningful offensive operations, Russian forces along the Kyiv and Northeastern axes appear to be strengthening defensive positions, including reports by the Ukrainian General Staff of troops laying minefields.
Russia has also deployed forward more artillery and fire control assets to bombard the major northern cities of Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, and the capital Kyiv. With this comes the exceptionally high threat of civilian casualties.
Ultimately, Russia’s northern forces have taken on the more familiar strategy previously used in Chechnya and Syria. In Russian military thinking, long-range fires and “siege and starve” tactics serve several strategic purposes.
By constant indiscriminate shelling, Russia hopes it can erode the willpower of these cities to continue holding out. This tactic likewise aims to discredit the Ukrainian government, and citizens begin to feel that their leadership is powerless to protect them. In this regard, Russia’s approach is akin to the medieval warfare strategy of chevauchée, prominently used in the 14th century and during the 100 Years War.
This medieval style of warfare also fits well within the “leashes and clubs” doctrine of how to control a local populace, which has become central to Putin’s government in the last 20 years.
There is also evidence that this type of strategy is being effective. In the besieged city of Mariupol, remaining residents have been effectively cut off from the outside world. Consequently, citizens are being inundated with Russian propaganda that Ukrainian forces were holding Mariupol hostage and developing chemical weapons.
According to Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletkato of the Associated Press:
“The propaganda was so strong that some people we talked to believed it despite the evidence of their own eyes.”
The exceptionally high risk of casualties through indiscriminate fires also reduces the amount of international media exposure, as news organizations become increasingly unwilling to place journalists in harm’s way.
Chernov and Maloletkato were the last two remaining international journalists in Mariupol. However, both men were pulled out several days ago for fear of their safety.
For Moscow, this is a crucial feature of the overall war strategy.
Putin and Kremlin officials have made it abundantly clear that they view Western media as an enemy of Russia and honest reporting of the invasion to be comparable to acts of war.
Reducing the amount of media coverage on the invasion allows the Kremlin to engage in its favored victory through war crimes strategy. Equally as important, the Kremlin banks on the public’s limited bandwidth for international news and relatively short attention span.
Ideally, Moscow would like to see the invasion of Ukraine become like the wars in Syria or Afghanistan, whereby the greater world, which is not directly affected, essentially forgets the war is still going on.
This aims to peel back the incredible political, economic, and military support Ukraine has so far enjoyed from the West and NATO.
Regarding a shift in focus to the south, Russia’s northern forces will likely continue this pace of small-scale probing attacks and long-range fires to keep defenders pinned in these major cities and from coming to the aid of JFO troops in the east.
What Would a Defeat of the JFO Mean?
Suppose Russia could pull off a significant advance from the south, encircle and eventually destroy a large portion of Ukraine’s military strength opposite Donetsk and Luhansk. This would still not inherently mean an end to the war.
Ukraine would still maintain the significant forces defending its remaining major cities and the capital. Likewise, even if successful, it’s also hard to predict what Russia’s combat power would look like after a confrontation with JFO forces. Likely, Russia would still not possess the strength necessary for large-scale urban warfare to seize Kyiv even after consolidating forces.
By focusing on the destruction of JFO troops in the east, Russia would be effectively offering an unconditional surrender of its initial objective of seizing Kyiv and forcing a regime change. However, after nearly 4 weeks of war, likely, this lofty goal has already been lost.
Instead, this shift in focus would set conditions for a negotiated agreement favorable to Moscow’s interest. Potentially, this could include the annexation of the Donbas region, along with Kherson and Mariupol. Considering a large portion of Ukraine’s conventional forces would be destroyed, Russia could also claim it had been successful in “demilitarization.”
Considering all factors as they stand right now, a southern focus on enveloping forces east of the Dnieper River appears to be the only military objective with any remote potential of meaningful success. Achieving this objective would quickly change the tide of war in Russia’s favor.
Now, whether this potential can actually translate into reality is a whole other story.
Russia’s Chances of Success in a Southern Push
On March 20, Russian forces offered an ultimatum of surrender to the city of Mariupol. Russia said it would provide safe passage out of the city for its remaining occupants in exchange for laying down arms.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk responded to Russia’s demand, “There can be no question of any surrender, laying down of arms.”
In light of the odds being heavily stacked against them, the Ukrainian forces in Mariupol have kept the city out of Russian hands for nearly four weeks. Their valiant defense conjures images of the besieged American forces in Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge in WWII. Of course, unlike U.S. General Anthony “Nuts” McAuliffe and the 101st Airborne, there is no equivalent to General Geroge Patton’s 3rd Army coming to rescue them.
However, by being willing to fight block-by-block, the defenders of Mariupol have successfully cost Russian forces valuable time, resources, initiative, and combat power. This has effectively thrown any Russian plans for a northward push from its southern axis into chaos.
Every day Mariupol refuses to capitulate it makes any chances of success in encircling JFO forces less and less likely.
For Russia, the seizure of Mariupol is a political imperative. Going back to the initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Russian-back proxy forces unsuccessfully attempted to seize the city. Securing it now would give Russia a land bridge to the so-called separatist-held Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in the east to Kherson and Crimea to the west and south.
In terms of optics, Mariupol is currently being defended by the Azov Detachment.
Numbering only roughly 900 soldiers, Azov is the only real far-right Ukrainian National Guard regiment whose members have actually espoused neo-Nazi views. It’s hard to promote a “special military operation” to “denazify” Ukraine if you don’t take out the only fighters using the wolfsangel as their official logo.
And yet, given the tenacity of localized fighting, if and when Mariupol falls, the Russian forces besieging it may no longer be strong enough to offer additional meaningful combat power to push northward to secure a Donbas pocket.
The best avenues of advance northward to encircle JFO troops would pit Russian troops against the heavily populated and well-defended cities of Mykolaiv, Zaporizhzhia, Kryvyi Rih, and Dnipro. Each of those cities is larger, in some cases twice as large, as Mariupol.
Given the ongoing struggles to seize Mariupol, it seems likely that Russia doesn’t have the necessary combat power to successfully push northward to Dnipro even under the best of circumstances.
To even threaten envelopment of JFO forces east of the Dnipro River, it would require Russia to be able to engage in a near-flawless multi-domain, combined combat arms campaign, with exceptionally secure lines of communication and logistics running from Mariupol, Kherson, and Crimea.
Thus far, the Russian military has not demonstrated itself capable of performing any of this, much less while amid high-intensity maneuver warfare.
Russia is also facing a different military force than it did in Chechnya and Syria.
Ukraine has a sizable conventional military, and entering the fourth week of the invasion, it is estimated that Ukraine still retains a “significant majority” of its air defenses and roughly 90% of its ground combat power. Ukraine’s combat power is also being considerably bolstered by training, military aid, and intelligence support from the West.
This means the Ukrainian military can defend itself and be capable of launching very disruptive counter-attacks on Russian movements.
On March 17, Ukrainian forces launched a counter-attack on the occupied Kherson airport. For several weeks, Russia had been using the airport as a forward operations base. Indications are this strike delivered a devastating blow to Russia’s ability to conduct operations in southern Ukraine.
Open-source images, including satellite imagery, reveal many Russian helicopters, vehicles, and equipment were destroyed in the strikes on the airport. Additional unconfirmed reports say the airport was being used as a command post for the entire southern area of operations, including the headquarters of the 22nd Army Corps, the 7th Assault Division, the 127th Separate Intelligence Brigade, and the 20th Motorized Rifle Division.
Reportedly, the Commander of the 8th Russian Army of the Southern Military District, Lieutenant-General Andrei Mordvichev, was killed in the attack. Days later, the Deputy Commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Captain 1st Class Andrei Nikolayevich Paly, was reportedly killed in fighting near Mariupol.
Continued Ukrainian attacks on columns trying to bypass Mykolayiv and Zaporizhia have stymied Russia’s potential avenues of approach to encircling eastern JFO troops. Based on open-source imagery, these counter strikes may well have reduced Russia’s capability to make a northward advance even if refitted by troops currently besieging Mariupol.
On March 15, Ukrainian troops captured a Russian R-149Ma1 command staff vehicle on the outskirts of Mykolayiv. One of Russia’s newest and most sophisticated military vehicles, the R-149Ma1, can serve as a brigade-level nerve center for command and control. The loss of this vehicle, and assumingly the staff occupying it, likely means further deterioration of Russia’s ability to direct combined arms warfare.
Stiff resistance outside Mykolayiv and Zaporizhia has forced Russia to try and split the middle, advancing northward along the T1505 highway corridor. This advance would place Russian forces directly in the path of Kryvyi Rih- a major, well-defended, urban city with a population of nearly 700,000. The flanks of this interior approach would also be highly exposed on both sides by Ukrainian troops near Mykolayiv and Zaporizhia.
There are also some indications Russia may be trying to split its forces in the vicinity of Mykolayiv, sending troops around the city and towards the west, presumably to Odesa.
In light of any successes in southern Ukraine, Russia seems Hell-bent on undermining its combat power by continuously breaking apart its forces to needle along multiple divergent axes.
Finally, On March 19-20, Ukrainian forces successfully repulsed a Russian attempt to capture Izyum, roughly 60 miles southeast of Kharkiv. Blunting this approach would destroy Russia’s hopes of linking their northeastern and southern axes to encircle JFO troops in Donbas.
What Could Come Next?
On paper, it is easy to see how Russian leadership can envision a southern push and encirclement of the majority of the Ukrainian military along the Donbas as a path to victory. Albeit, likely a lesser political victory than Putin’s original hope of a regime change.
Based on its movements in the past week, Russia is at a minimum probing the conditions to set up an envelopment of JFO forces in the east.
However, based on some puzzling strategic thinking and seeming refusal to commit to a coordinated mutually supporting thrust by its southern forces, it seems highly unlikely this potential paper victory can be realistically achieved.
The failure of what appears to be Russia’s only remaining offensive potential at this stage leaves the question -What comes next?
Some defense analysts think Putin could opt to employ a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) to try and shock Ukraine into submission. Russia indeed still has a range of weaponry for this scenario, including tactical nuclear, radiological, chemical, or biological weapons.
However, the use of WMDs in Ukraine would probably be a redline for NATO to become actively involved, and Putin likely realizes this.
Instead, if Putin is dead set on continuing the war, it is far more likely that Russia will indeed adopt a drawn-out campaign of “attrition by afar.”
In this approach, Russian forces will settle on long-term sieges of Ukrainian cities, recklessly using long-range fires to reduce them and causing significant civilian casualties.
Russia likely sees time as being on their side, and therefore they can engage in a “Siege of Sarajevo” if they have to. Some defense analysts agree that a war of attrition would ultimately fall in Russia’s favor.
However, if anyone should be aware of the consequences of attrition warfare, it would be Russia.
In 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded Russia, it did so with the most powerful invasion force in history, totaling over 3 million troops, 3,000 tanks, 2,500 aircraft, and 7,000 pieces of artillery across a thousand-mile front. Nevertheless, once things degraded into a campaign of attrition warfare, the result would be the catastrophic defeat of Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS troops in the east and the eventual fall of Nazi Germany.
Nearly 130 years earlier, when the 1812 French invasion of Russia turned into a bitter battle of attrition, it spelled defeat for one of the celebrated and studied military commanders in history – Napoleon Bonaparte.
Observers who believe a long-drawn-out affair in Ukraine favors Russia are likely focusing too much on Russian battles in Aleppo or Grozny. While in reality, the invasion of Ukraine is more comparable to Napolean and Nazi Germany’s invasion of Russia.
For Putin, his Western front involves punishing economic sanctions, which only continue to cut deeper in Russian society as time goes on. Sanctions that will also hinder Russia’s ability to refit its battered war machine.
Some reports indicate Russia’s largest tank manufacturer, UralVagonZavod, has already had to stop production lines due to a lack of component parts. On March 21, Russian media revealed Russian law enforcement agencies were monitoring social media networks and arresting people trying to sell commodities like sugar at inflated prices due to shortages.
None of this sounds like the actions of a nation capable of engaging in a protracted war of attrition.
Instead, the path to victory or defeat for Russia likely rests in the hands of Ukraine.
So far, Ukrainian forces have waged an exceptional defensive campaign. The biggest thing to watch for in the coming weeks will be if Ukraine can take that defensive success and translate it into offensive power.
By successfully defeating Russia’s invasion, Ukraine would write Putin’s name alongside Adolf Hitler as having commanded one of the most significant military defeats in history. Ironically, due to a baseless claim to “denazify” Ukraine.
Conversely, if Ukraine cannot muster the power to push Russia from its borders, the war could become a drawn-out and very bloody affair. Of course, as sanctions continue to bite away at the Russian economy, a protracted war of attrition could also push a nearly 70-year-old Vladimir Putin closer to being willing to use weapons of mass destruction.
Ultimately, as it stands right now, Russia doesn’t appear to have any easy path to victory, nor does it have a palatable option for defeat. This alone makes the situation unpredictable and concerning.
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