One month into what looks to be a long conflict in Ukraine, the Russian military conducts a briefing on Friday to discuss what's happening and what its next steps are.
The briefer was given by the chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff, Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy. It was interesting to note the absences of the defense minister, the famous media snob Sergei Shoigu, and the chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, who is Rudskoy's superior. Also, it was clear that the meeting was a practice session to move the goalposts.
Before we move on, we should review the objectives that led to the Ukraine invasion, which Russian President Vladimir Putin has articulated on several occasions. He demanded the dissolution of the Zelensky government, claiming it had committed genocide and was comprised of Nazis and drug addicts. He demanded the disbanding of the Ukraine Armed Forces, describing this action as “demilitarizing” Ukraine. He demanded Ukraine modify its constitution so as to prohibit NATO membership and insisted that Ukraine be kept free of outside missiles and troops.
(In his response, the president of Ukraine pointed out Russia’s theft of Crimea.)
And the Russian president demanded the authorities in Ukraine recognize the sovereignty of the faux state that Russia is creating in the Donbas.
The New York Times described it this way:
A statement issued by the Russian Defense Ministry said the goals of the “first stage of the operation” were “mainly accomplished,” with Ukraine's capabilities to fight “significantly reduced,” and the ministry would now concentrate on the security of Ukraine's eastern Donbas region, in which separatists with Russia's backing have been fighting for the past eight years.
A Defense Ministry statement was ambiguous regarding the possibility of further Russian territorial plans in Ukraine, in which Russian ground forces have been largely thwarted by the surprisingly robust Ukrainian militarism.
On a day when US President Joe Biden was in Poland to visit U.S. soldiers stationed in Poland close to the Ukrainian border, the announcement suggested the Russians were seeking ways to salvage some sort of victory before the cost of the war that they started one month ago becomes too burdensome.
Even though Russia “does not exclude” the possibility that its troops will attack major Ukrainian cities such as Chernihiv, Mykolaiv, and the capital city, Kyiv, according to the Defense Ministry statement that it is not the sole goal.
“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,” Colonel General Sergei Rudskoi, a high-ranking Russian commanding officer in the military, explained in his statement, his first announcement since Russia began its attack on the region on February 24.
Whether General Rudskoi's declaration was genuine or just a misleading strategic move was not clear. However, the statement is the most explicit acknowledgement that Russia could not fully control Ukraine and instead would target regions such as the Donbas, in which Russia has acknowledged the sovereignty of two Kremlin-backed areas of independence that it refers to as the “Donetsk People's Republic” and the “Luhansk People's Republic.”
Russia has also demanded Ukraine recognize its sovereignty over Crimea, the territory that President Vladimir V. Putin's troops seized from Ukraine at the end of 2014. Presidency Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has said that he will not cede these regions in order to end the conflict.
Financial Times Moscow correspondent Polina Ivanova provided a few eloquent bullet points.
The generals firstly said Russia was always planning to “liberate” the Donbas and that's what it had set out to achieve. There were a couple of options available: wage conflict in the east but leave Kyiv alone to replenish their troops and then begin to destroy Ukrainian forces throughout the country.
In the course of a month of fighting, Russia has knocked out all of Ukraine's military capacity, according to the generals, and can proceed to the next phase. This will be focused on the eastern region, which could see massive bombardment.
Russia did not intend to take Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other cities, they claimed. They were not setbacks. In that sense, it was part of the strategy. The plan was to deter Ukrainian forces, while Russia or Donetskand Luhansk gained territory in the east. Many statements have been made regarding the need to not target civilian infrastructure and avoid civilian deaths.
The defense ministry briefing also announced the latest official figures regarding the number of Russian soldiers killed. This is the second official statement made by the Russian army in the course of the war. The ministry said 1,351 soldiers have been killed. This figure is much lower than Ukrainian as well as international estimates.
The Kremlin is quietly altering the winning conditions. Although Putin's objectives are political, they require total military victory to accomplish. That is, until the Zelensky government is thrown out or the Ukrainian military is disbanded and an unelected government such as that created through a popular revolt in 2014 is installed, Putin can't achieve his goals. Nothing that the Russian General Staff believes that it's doing will help achieve the goals of those in charge.
The military seems to be throwing in the towel in the hope of creating the conditions needed for Putin to succeed Zelensky and is preparing the military to occupy the Donbas. It is interesting to note that they are using the traditional Soviet term for “liberation.” In the event that they succeed in their mission, all they'll accomplish is prolonging the conflict, because Zelensky took the Donbas out of the discussion during peace talks. The Russians may be forced to lose Donetsk or Luhansk in the process as a result.
The military asserts that the bulk of Ukraine's capabilities have been wiped out, when the facts prove to the contrary. In particular, Russia has yet to attain air supremacy, and Ukrainian counter-attacks have pushed the front close to Kyev back by 25 kilometers in just two days.
The claim that the attacks on the northwestern Ukraine border were simply a matter of deceit is insulting. If the goal was the occupation of the Donbas, then the assaults should reflect that fact. The actions of the troops clearly indicate that the Russian intention was to take Kyev and other major cities. If these were merely acts of deceit, they must justify that to the battalions of paratroopers who perished trying to seize positions close to Kyev.
Although their intention is to shift the focus towards the Donbas, there are issues. The first is that the Pentagon estimates that 75 percent of Russian command and control units are tied to Ukraine. The only resources left are the troops in other regions of Russia and those in Belarus–as well as the troops currently involved in what the General Staff has declared as a secondary front and the unidentified corps composed of Syrian militants and Wagner mercenaries, which we've heard about. If the troops in Belarus are pulled out, the Ukrainian formations that are still frozen will be an effective reserve plan to be used against Russians in Kyev and the Donbas.
If they attempt to withdraw away from northern borders and move these troops to support the Donbas forces, they'll need to break off contact with the Donbas forces and then withdraw to Russia. What happens if Ukrainian units are occupying a few Russian-controlled towns? Or the Russian troops in parts of the northwestern fronts are currently in the exact place as Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne at Saratoga. They aren't able to move further; they are unable to return. In order to keep them alive, it will take an ongoing infusion of troops and other supplies that could be directed to the Donbas efforts.
There is a report that Russian forces have taken back the frontier with Georgia; however, that will be just a tiny drop of what will be required of the Russian General Staff to achieve their goals.
The whole story of the Syrian warriors-Wagner mercenaries is probably a head-fake by the Russians to say to Ukraine, “Give up, or we'll unleash the barbarians on you.” No one is paying attention as the barbarians, who are the last to be killed, known as the Chechens are earning the reputation of being scumbags.
While the Russians have made small advancements in the Donbas, there are a couple of main issues. One is that Mariupol is still under the control of Ukraine, and there is no evidence to suggest that the Russian and Luhansk/Donetsk forces are equipped to capture and hold the city. The reason the city's defenders were given to surrender was gone after the Russians handed them a “no quarter” order. A more urgent indication of Russia’s imminent demise is what’s happening in the largest Ukrainian city it seized, Kherson. Kherson fell just one week after the start of the attack, when Ukrainians were still struggling to recover. The city is dominated by Ukrainians and is the site of continuous anti-Russian protests from city residents.
Ukrainian troops have entered the city, and Russian troops are reportedly withdrawing. But if Kherson is retaken, Russian forces based in the northeast of the city could encounter a tricky situation since Kherson is their main transportation hub. Their rear guard could be harmed by drones and artillery in Kherson.
What all this means is that the Russians have concluded that their initial plan isn't working. And there's no evidence to suggest that their future plan is going to be more effective. They appear to think that the moment they “liberate” the Donbas, everyone will forget Putin’s demands from February. It’s doubtful that his vision will be the scenario in Russia or anywhere else; however, that's a different argument. The question will be how they source the capability to pull their strategy off, and also how they think the Ukrainian military, which does not acknowledge the “fact” that “most of its capacities” is gone and is now gnashing its teeth, will be kept under control while they execute their master plan.
Another option could be that the information, just like the majority of what Moscow claims, is rubbish, and they're trying to get everyone’s attention focused on the Donbas before taking another shot at Kyev.
Pavel Luzin, a Russian military analyst, warned that public statements made by Russian military leaders must be taken with caution. Although Russia may be reducing its war goals, according to him, General Rudskoi's comments could also be a deceitful move in the midst of Russia preparing to launch a new offensive. “We could say that this is a signal that we're no longer insisting on dismantling Ukrainian statehood,” Luzin said. “But I would rather see it as a distracting maneuver.”
This would be the only plan of action that would aid Putin in realizing his goals. The problem is that one month into the war, the chances of the Russian army taking Kyev is significantly smaller than they were in February. In addition, the military might that the operation would require is close to what Russia had committed in the beginning.