Putin's War, the invasion of Ukraine, will soon roll into the third month. The event that was widely predicted (at least by Western analysts) to turn out to be a 72-hour adventure that would end with the exile of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and another Putin toy in Kyiv followed by a victory parade has transformed into a meat grinder that is slugging along.
All Russian forces that attacked the northern part of Ukraine were withdrawn to Belarus (though open-source intelligence suggests that the troops from Belarus have been relocated towards the Donbas) and Russia to re-equip and train replacements. The main focus is now entirely on Eastern Ukraine and what looks to be a Russian plan to take over the entire region of the Donbas and to build a land bridge that connects Russia to Crimea.
Russia declared on Tuesday that a “new phase” had begun. As of now, we've witnessed what we could call “shaping operations.” These are attacks that localize and attempt to seize important terrains or secure routes for advancing as well as boost preparations for firing weapons. It's hard to know when the primary offensive will start due to the numbers of destroyed, captured, or abandoned Russian tanks as well as the amount of infantry combat vehicles and artillery exhibiting soaring losses. More than 500 tanks and 800 tracked or wheeled infantry combat vehicles and armored carriers for personnel and 140 multiple rocket launchers, also known as self-propelled howitzers, have been photographed, revealing the extent of the losses. Around 130 battalion tactical groups (BTG) that moved into Ukraine in February were attacked.
It’s likely that it will take at least six months for units to be rebuilt. However, it’s not clear if Russian President Vladimir Putin is going to accept this. Intelligence claims Putin wants a major victory in Ukraine prior to May 9, when he plans to hold a victory parade in Moscow. The Russians seem to be attempting to assemble their troops and concentrate on a single objective; however, it appears that units are being pushed into battle as soon as they arrive. It seems that Russia has been trying to accomplish too much with a small number of troops.
The forthcoming campaign will have three major battles Russia must win to realize its territorial goals. Putin's goals in terms of removing Zelensky's government, disbanding Ukrainian forces, and stopping Ukraine from forming military alliances with Western nations, barring a Deus ex Machina, are out of reach.
To accomplish the objective of securing contiguous territory that extends from Russia to Crimea, Russia has to keep control of Kherson. Kherson was taken over by the Russians without resistance between March 1 and 2. Since then, the Russians have been fighting. The city is approximately 80 percent Ukrainian and is committed to the Zelensky government. There is a resistance movement within the town.
The Russian forces deployed in this area seem to be quite poor; however, this shortfall is neutralized by Kyiv not being able to free enough troops to control the battlefield. Although the control of Kherson is essential for Russia, taking it over is not as important to Ukraine. At present, Ukrainian offensives are taking place both to the north and south of Kherson. They aim to cut supply lines to Kherson from Crimea in the South and Donetsk in the East. When both lines are cut, Kherson will have to be evacuated.
Mariupol is an important industrial complex and port. It has been surrounded by Russian troops from at least March 20, which is when Russia demanded that the city surrender the troops in the area, with the vague claim that no deal could be granted. It's an interesting battle. The defenders consist of Ukrainian Marines and Azov forces. The attacking forces are Russians with a significant number of demobilized soldiers who hail from Luhansk and Donetsk and a huge number of Chechens. The majority of the area is in Russian control so Putin can declare victory. The rebels have been pushed into a huge steelworks, filled with tunnels and shelters to stop nuclear attacks. There appear to be around a thousand Ukrainian combatants.
This is crucial since the remains of around 12 BTGs are assisting in reducing security measures in Mariupol. Putin, along with his Russian high command, is hoping to get the BTGs out and move them to the Donbas. Putin has also directed that the steelworks be sealed. The most important thing to note is that setting up a perimeter around the steelworks is likely to draw the majority of Russian forces from Mariupol. Even so, the border will be one-man wide, so to stop a break-out by the defenders, a mobile reserve is required. In the end, most of the BTGs will remain exactly where they are.
Mariupol is situated on the main road from Donetsk to Kherson. If Kherson is destroyed and Mariupol defense forces remain in place or, more significantly, break out, the Russian forces that stand between the two cities could be at risk of being separated. It is a fascinating fact that the cross-hatched region between the north and west of Mariupol is the site of intense partisan warfare.
In short, even though the Russians may want to disband the forces in Mariupol and relocate the majority of their soldiers to the Donbas, they won't be able to. They've largely won this struggle if they just leave the current units standing, but will they be able to resist the temptation to transfer large numbers of troops to participate in the Donbas battle? It’s doubtful.
The struggle for control over the Donbas, especially the pocket between Izium in the north and Zapohizhzhia towards the south, is the primary conflict. The main challenges for Russia are logistics, transportation, and supply. Their major supply routes extending north to south will help in the fight as they travel east to west. The region of operations is filled with rivers and streams that run northeast to southeast, perpendicular to the direction in which the Russians are required to advance. Therefore, all offensive activities are likely to be hindered due to multiple bridging efforts and the need to create supply routes that will supply the fighting troops with Classes III (gas, diesel, oil) and V (ammunition) as well as food, and permit them to evacuate the wounded.
In the ideal scenario, the army would prefer to attack one of the shoulders of the Ukrainian front. An attack would come from Izium with another one from Zaporizhzhya. Minor offensive operations may stop the Ukrainian troops on the front edge of the battle zone (FEBA), while the heftier attacks on shoulders would become pincers snatching all the units within the pockets that they have made.
The root cause of this problem is back to the supply lines. A string of successful Ukrainian counter-attacks in the west and north of Izium have put one of the most important Russian supply lines in danger. If the route is cut off, the region all the way to Izium will have to be shut down. This poses a major issue for the Russian pipeline.
While the Russian communication lines are 90 degrees out from the direction they should be, the Ukrainians benefit from similar circumstances that enabled Frederick the Great to protect his back from Russian, Austrian, and French forces for seven years: the internal lines of communication that permit them to swiftly shift forces to defend themselves against threats.
What exactly the Russians are planning to do in this area is an open question. The artillery fire directed at Ukrainian positions is consistent, but it does not seem to be focused on making a space that could be a potential breakthrough. It is yet to be determined whether the BTGs that are attacking in the Zaporizhzhya axis will be able to accumulate enough Class III/ClassV ammunition to launch a credible assault again due to long supply lines. The forces in the south are weak as they've been fighting for two months, and the supply lines suggest that they are one of the very last groups to receive replacements and vehicles.
The Russians find themselves in a difficult situation. The terrain they must fight across in the north is extremely favorable to the defense. Their supply lines will be strained in supporting the 70-80 BTGs they're putting up there. It is also a race against time. Every day, more Ukrainian units are being created and are advancing into the battlefield, with heavier weapons arriving. Russia is trying to find the perfect spot in which their units can be rebuilt with maximum combat efficiency, and the Ukrainians have not yet started to deploy the weapons that they have been sent. The Russians need to be successful in all three combat missions: holding Kherson, securing Mariupol, and gaining control over the Donbas to stand s chance of achieving their territorial goals. Ukraine has only one essential fight: the Donbas.