Ukraine-Russia War Update
“So long as Russian forces are illegally occupying Ukrainian territory any weapons the West provides to assist in our legitimate defence are by definition defensive”
Dmitro Kuleba, Foreign Minister of Ukraine
April 3rd, 2022
Sitrep April 5th
Russia will soon launch a renewed spring land offensive in Ukraine. Russia’s military aims would now appear to be threefold. First, to destroy or wear down the main body of Ukrainian regular forces in the Joint Force Operating Area and expand their control over the whole of the Donbas, including the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Second, to secure the land bridge between Russian controlled Ukraine in the east and Crimea, Moldova and Transnistria. Third, to deny Ukraine all and any access to the Black Sea by taking the port of Odesa. If Russia succeeds the implications for both Ukraine and the Black Sea Region will be profound.
Russian forces are re-positioning, re-organising and re-suppling in their Western, Central and Southern Military Districts during an enforced operational pause following the failure of phase one and the conquest of Kyiv. Russian forces have been forced to make such a choice because given the force ratios they generated initially they were highly unlikely to have seized Kyiv and much of the rest of Ukraine east of the Dnepr River, and successfully occupy it thereafter, unless Ukrainian forces had collapsed. They did not, putting up stout, clever and carefully-tailored resistance reinforced by advanced light Western weapons systems.
What specific ends does Russia now seek? In my LINDLEY-FRENCH ANALYSIS of December 20th, 2021, I stated that given the forces deployed and the balance Russia will still need to strike between risks, costs and benefits seizure of Ukraine’s entire coastline from Donetsk to Moldova would seem the likely objective. If successful, the campaign would leave a rump Ukraine dependent on the rest of Europe and thus Europe’s problem, minimize risk of direct operational contact during with NATO forces, and be close enough to Russia to ensure its much degraded echelons can prevail. If achieved, Russia would establish another buffer zone between Russia and NATO forces, increase the implied threat to the Baltic States, and further extend Russia’s sphere of influence into the wider Black Sea Region. With the continuing attacks on Mariupol and the opening of an offensive against Odesa that plan is now beginning to unfold.
Cease-fire or more fire?
It would also appear Russia has abandoned any pretense to seek an early political settlement. The discovery of tortured and murdered civilians in Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel makes it hard to imagine that any ceasefire, let alone an interim political settlement, can now be agreed between Russia and Ukraine. Thus, if the Russian political aim is to establish a negotiating position on the ground then such war crimes are not only disgusting, they are self-defeating. Naturally, Moscow denies any involvement in the murder of civilians, but satellite imagery provided by Maxar, together with video footage obtained by the New York Times, clearly shows that 11 of the bodies in Bucha were of people killed in situ between March 9th and 11th when the town was under Russian control.
The gap between Russian campaign objectives and campaign performance continues to remain wide meaning the war could increasingly become a bloody stalemate unless there is a decisive external intervention. Russian targeting has been appalling, as has the organisation, replenishment and thus the utility and agility of much of the Russian force. What reinforcements Moscow has brought, such a 1500 strong force from Georgia, is unlikely to make much difference to their fighting power.
They have also merged and re-organised Battalion Tactical Groups to offset losses, albeit at the expense of both the experience and combat power of their once feared ‘BTGs’. Russia’s elite airborne and armoured formations have suffered particularly heavy losses, whilst Russian infantry has shown that it is not at all well-trained, particularly for operations in urban environments, which is why they have resorted to indiscriminate missile and artillery attacks. Russian forces had clearly not planned for such significant losses of armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) and air assets, which has thrown them on the defensive.
The Russians also failed to plan for carefully targeted and well-executed Ukrainian attacks on their rear echelons, or the ability of Ukrainians to use drones to gain some semblance of local air superiority. The Ukrainians have also critically and cleverly exploited the weaknesses of Russian infantry, their poor training and low morale. However, the Ukrainians have also suffered losses and urgently need to reinforce their own forces and replenish their arsenals with advanced Western equipment, both light and heavy. If not, they could be slowly worn down, however well they fight. What are the options open to Ukraine’s Western partners?
Options, pros and cons
Options depend on aims and aims depend on ambition, capability and capacity. Prior to the discovery of war crimes the West seemed content to simply keep the Ukrainians in the fight so that they could negotiate a ceasefire from at least some position of strength. Now, it will be extremely hard for the Ukrainians to negotiate with the Russians. What other options are there?
Sanctions: On Wednesday, EU ambassadors will meet to discuss imposing tougher sanctions on Russia. These are likely to include tougher sanctions against targeted individuals, as well as more restrictions on exports to Russia, together with a ban on Russian ships using EU ports. Interestingly, the EU also now seems willing to discuss sanctions on importing Russian coal, oil and gas. Berlin has even indicated it could stop importing Russian oil and gas in the wake of the atrocities. Enrico Letta, the former Italian prime minister and a key player in supporting Prime Minister Mario Draghi and the national unity government, even called for a complete oil and gas embargo.
However, there are also signs of divisions within the EU and remains to be seen if the tough rhetoric is more than that. Russia is also successfully circumventing many of the existing sanctions, with the help of China and others. Sanctions also take time and given that the living standards of the Russian people has already declined some 30% since 2013, with no signs of the regime crumbling, sanctions alone are unlikely to force Russia to change direction.
The provision of Western lethal aid to Ukraine, is being co-ordinated to a significant degree by the British who on March 31st hosted the Second International Donor Conference in London. Britain’s own efforts are a case in point of what is needed if the strategic aim is to move from keeping Ukraine in the fight to some form of Ukrainian ‘victory’. Since 2014, Britain has trained over 20,000 Ukrainian personnel and has provided extensive lethal aid to Ukraine, including over 4,000 NLAWs and Javelin anti-tank systems, and is in the process of sending its latest Starstreak air defence systems, as well as 6,000 more anti-tank high explosive missiles, as well as body armour, helmets, boots, ration packs, rangefinders and communications equipment.
Vital though such aid has been it is not enough to help Ukraine prevail given the nature of the current and coming fight. That is why Britain, along with its 35 partners, are actively considering sending tanks, artillery and anti-ship missile systems to counter the threat posed by Russian forces in the east and south, including the Russian Black Seas Fleet and additional amphibious units which are now threatening Odesa. More lethal aid in conjunction with tougher sanctions would increase the pressure on the Kremlin without putting Western forces in direct conflict with Russian forces. Could sanctions and the level of lethal aid envisaged tip the balance in the coming fight? Unlikely.
No Fly Zone:
Some are proposing a Western or NATO No Fly Zone which would afford Ukrainian forces a much higher level of force protection against Russian air and missile power. However, to be effective an ‘NFZ’ must be imposed both over the fight and the lines of supply and re-supply. Much of the next phase of the Russian campaign will take place close to the Russian border and air defence hubs.
Therefore, if NATO, for example, were to try and enforce such a Zone, it would be less a No Fly Zone and more a major air campaign that would inevitably lead to direct contact and conflict between NATO air forces and the Russian Air Force, with all the dangerous capacity for rapid escalation such a conflict would entail. Most European air forces also simply lack the capability to undertake such a deployed forward air campaign over hostile air space, and the one or two that do, such as Britain’s Royal Air Force, lack the capacity to sustain it. Therefore, any such campaign would need to be overwhelmingly American. It would also offer Putin the opportunity to claim that he was right all along: NATO is not a defensive alliance and poses an existential threat to Russia. Therefore, whilst a No Fly Zone would undoubtedly improve the tactical position of Ukrainian forces it would come with a host of strategic risks.
Direct Allied action:
The most unlikely scenario is that NATO would move to act directly in support of Ukrainian forces across the full bandwidth of the conflict. It is very hard to see any such proposal making it to the North Atlantic Council, let alone being approved. If such a decision were ever to be approved what options would be open to SACEUR. One such option could be to use American and British nuclear submarines to launch distant cruise missile strikes from the Eastern Mediterranean against Russian naval and amphibious forces threatening Odesa. Possible, but highly unlikely given current circumstances and Alliance politics.
What other options exists?
As I proposed in a previous Analysis NATO, or more precisely the Americans and the British, could increase further their intelligence support for the Ukrainians. Another option could be to impose a blockade of the Black Sea by enforcing the Montreux Convention, either by closing the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, or via a distant Alliance blockade in the Mediterranean. Bottling up Russian naval forces in the Black Sea would have significant consequences for Russian naval operations elsewhere, not least in the Baltic Sea, North Atlantic, Arctic and the Pacific. Other options include increasing cyber and more electronic warfare support for the Ukrainians, both offensive and counter-measures.
What it likely to be agreed to by Western nations are a mix of increased stand-off short-of-direct engagement measures to support the Ukrainians, including marginally tougher sanctions, some more lethal aid, and greater covert combat support, but no direct confrontation with Russian forces in or near Ukraine unless they step over onto Alliance territory. Paradoxically, such a confrontation might only be triggered if Russia were to use chemical, biological or even tactical nuclear weapons if, for example, its efforts to seize Odesa failed and thus to cut Ukraine off completely from the sea. Denying Odesa to Ukraine rather than taking the port could be just as attractive to Russia.
Or, it might have the opposite effect. Any such action would certainly split the Alliance. Why not more? There is the obvious fear in Europe of another major European war and with it the threat of potential nuclear annihilation. There is also another reason. In the event of some form of political settlement Ukraine wants security guarantees from its Western partners that most are simply not willing to give. The Ukrainians are also only likely to want to work with the Americans, British, Poles and a few others. The French and the Germans are seen by Kyiv as appeasers of Putin at best, collaborators at worst.
The Russian Order of Battle, April 4th
The current Order of Battle of Russian Forces in Ukraine reveals not only the state of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but also its sheer scale of the campaign, and the strain it is imposing on Russian forces and their commanders are under, with so many killed, sacked or arrested (with thanks to Dr R.D. Hooker Jr. and the Institute for the Study of War). It also shows how far and wide the Russian General Staff have had to trawl to maintain any scale of force and its increasingly disparate and, therefore, potentially ill-disciplined nature. What it also reveals is that the coming Russian ‘offensive’ will be as much defensive as offensive, designed to consolidate existing limited gains in the east and south of Ukraine. This is because not only has the Russian Army lost much of its manoeuvre capability, it has lost almost all of its capacity to conduct intelligent manoeuvre en masse. Just look carefully from where the forces are drawn. Perhaps the most telling sign of force stress is the presence in Ukraine of 11 Corps, the Kaliningrad garrison. The next two months will also see Ukraine at its muddiest.
It is precisely for these reasons Russia has switched from conquest to confrontation and even terrorism. They have the forces for it. In addition to the mercenaries of The Wagner Group and the Chechen fighters of the Kadyrovtsy force, there are also believed to be African, Arab, Azeri, South Ossetian and Libyan mercenaries fighting alongside Russian forces.
There is another factor that should be considered looking at the Russian Order of Battle: just how long can Russia maintain this level of operations? Two weeks ago, Lieutenant-General (Ret.) Ben Hodges and I wrote a piece entitled Kulminatsionny Moment? We argued that the Russian Army was at the limit of its offensive potential. Whilst the Russian General Staff is trying to re-organise to maintain some level of offensive momentum, the conventional combat power available to it is clearly diminishing. In our book, Future War and the Defence of Europe, we also suggest that Russia could cause mayhem near its borders for thirty days and then begin to run out of steam. To be honest, we did not realise it would be so close to Russia’s borders, that much of the mayhem would be self-inflicted and that it would run out of steam and much else so quickly.
Which leads to me to yet another paradox of the Russian campaign in Ukraine. Moscow is clearly now preparing its people for a longer war with an army clearly unable and not particularly willing to fight it. Some reports suggest that President Putin wants to declare victory by the May 9th Victory Day commemorations. However, given the changing nature of the conflict if he is ever to declare ‘victory’ it will probably need to be closer to the 80th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Stalingrad on August 2nd and only after many more conscripts have been killed and wounded. What happened in Stalingrad was not conquest by either side, but annihilation of a people and a city and on the Soviet side it was carried out in the name of de-Nazification.
Therefore, if the West wants to make a real difference it will at the very least need to demonstrate a determination to prevent Russia from claiming victory, and if possible help Ukraine win. The question then is what would victory look like for Ukraine and how could the West best help achieve it? Short of all-out NATO intervention it is very unlikely that Russian forces can be forced out of their pre-February 24th positions, let alone back to the pre-2014 position. The closer Russian forces are to their own border the more difficult they will be to dislodge from a battlespace they have had eight years to prepare.
The most that can be reasonably expected given the correlation of forces is a return to pre-February 24th positions, the blocking of a secure land bridge between Russia, Crimea and Moldova and Transnistria, the holding of Mariupol and the denial of Odesa, as well as the preservation of the bulk of Ukraine’s regular forces. To be blunt, it is hard to see this war ending in any peace agreement anytime soon. It is going to be a long haul. Much more likely is some form of frozen conflict akin to the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement after which the preservation of Ukraine’s fighting power will be crucial.
Putin is conducting an incompetent, cack-handed and brutal war in Ukraine, but then again history would suggest that is precisely the Russian way of war, now made worse by the forever stench of terrible war crimes.
Analyst, author, commentator and speaker with ten books to my name, including two for Oxford University Press (and about to publish my third for Oxford “Future War and the Defence of Europe), My job is to speak truth unto power in an age when the gap between power, people and politics is growing dangerously wide. My focus is the tension between strategy and politics with an emphasis on security and defence policy. My analysis is the product of many years policy and practitioner experience, allied to long and deep research. Sadly, I also support Sheffield United Football Club – the triumph of endless hope over long, hard, and painful experience!
Future War and the Defence of Europe (Oxford University Press English Edition and Kosmos Press German Edition)
2017: The Geopolitics of Terror – Demons and Dragons (Routledge)
2015: NATO: The Enduring Alliance 2015 (Routledge)
2015: Little Britain: Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power ( 2nd and paperback edition) (Amazon)
2014; The Oxford Handbook of War (paperback edition) (Oxford University Press)
2014: Little Britain: Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power (Kindle e-book)
2012: The Oxford Handbook of War (Oxford University Press)
2007: A Chronology of European Security and Defence (Oxford University Press)
2007; NATO: The Enduring Alliance 2007 (Routledge)
2003: Terms of Engagement (EUISS)
1998: Coalitions & the Future of Security Policy
Ukraine-Russia War Update