Today we publish the first part of General Jonathon Riley’s review of Ukraine, Russia and the West one year since Putin’s invasion. He examines the reality of the military situation on the ground and Russia’s likely short-term military strategy in the context of its long-term objectives.
Tomorrow he considers the involvement of the West, the limitations of Western hardware support for Ukraine and why calls for war with Russia ring hollow and would undermine Nato.
ONE year on from the start of Putin’s Special Military Operation, the language has changed. In his recent speech, Putin has abandoned even the term SMO and now talks openly of war, and a long war at that.
Why so? First, it was realised some time ago that the initial campaign, which was to see the rapid fall of Kiev and the collapse of the Ukrainian army and government, had failed in spite of considerable successes in the south and south-east which resulted in the annexations of the four oblasts bordering Russia and the Crimea. The Ministry of Interior troops and local levies who formed much – not all – of the initial assault force have long since been replaced by regular troops with grown-ups like Gerasimov in charge. There was no big military event to mark the anniversary of the invasion, but these things mean more in the West than they do to the Russians; however, let us be in no doubt that the Russian winter offensive is under way.
Most observers will say this is not so, but they are looking for the wrong things. The offensive is not about taking territory: Putin does not want any more than the four oblastsand the Crimea, which can be held as part of Russia and which contain at least 60 per cent of Ukraine’s industry and natural resources. Occupying vast swathes of rural Ukraine, with a hostile population and a likely guerilla campaign, is beyond Russian resources and beyond Russian aspirations. The offensive is all about killing or disabling Ukrainian soldiers and destroying their equipment to achieve the aim of a demilitarised, de-Nazified (in their view) Ukraine once the war is concluded. It is thus an offensive based on attrition, which, as I have said before, is a perfectly respectable strategy if it works in one’s favour.
Casualty figures are very hard to verify but there is a good case to be made for far higher Ukrainian deaths than Russian in spite of the reports in the western mainstream media: there is little or no sign, for example, of demonstrations by Russian families demanding to know what has happened to their sons, whereas these are now widespread in Ukraine with something like 35,000 dead unacknowledged and unaccounted for. This is indeed an odd situation. Usually, an attacking force will reckon to suffer far higher casualties than the defenders but it is entirely possible that this has been reversed – the result of Russian caution, limited objectives and the devastating use of air power, drones, missiles and artillery.
It is also possible that Gerasimov is masking his batteries, so to speak. Ukraine is in dispute with its major allies about launching a counter-attack to the south, towards the Russian assault on Zaporizhzhia. If it succeeded and pushed on to Mariupol, it would unhinge the Russian hold on the Black Sea coast, especially if combined with the capture of Vuhledar, which controls the rail network southwards to the Crimea. Although the US has advised caution on the part of Ukraine, Gerasimov may be waiting for the Ukrainians to commit fully to such a move, which would then be the subject of an intensive counter-move. Already the preparations for this Ukrainian attack are drawing reserves away from other disputed areas like Bakhmut, which is now almost totally invested by the Russians and whose garrison is largely volunteers and home guard. It may be abandoned to the fate of Mariupol to fuel the media campaign further.
Why this caution by Russia, when there are probably at least 350,000 troops, well supported by tanks, guns, missiles and aircraft? First, because Russian battlefield performance has been lamentable and Gerasimov dare not risk a battle of manoeuvre, requiring the skilled co-ordination of all arms. Secondly, because he is playing to his strengths, which favour attrition. Third, because there are deep-seated Russian memories of what follows battlefield failure, especially in 1917 on the Eastern Front and 1989 in Afghanistan. Misconceived and badly executed military adventures lead to huge casualties, loss of face and the internal overthrow of the regime. Far better to dismember Ukraine militarily and engineer a settlement on favourable terms. Odessa gives a clue in this calculation: it has not been taken or disabled and is clearly a bargaining chip. The destruction of the key bridge south-west of Odessa and south of Moldova, linking Ukrainian Bessarabia (a name familiar to students of 19th century history) with the rest of the country, is illuminating. The bridge appears to have been taken down by a maritime drone and is a stark warning of how Odessa could be isolated and Moldova annexed if the Russians chose.
Against this background, what of Russian relations with, and the involvement of, the West – and indeed the East? In his speech Putin confirmed the return to a Cold War confrontation, underlined by his withdrawal from the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. He has, it appears, negotiated a deal on a new drone system from China – no doubt just the beginning of a stream of equipment which the Chinese will be eager to see field-tested ahead of any move on Taiwan. Nato, and the US in particular, has condemned this and has already placed some Chinese companies under sanctions, but China is doing no more than the West has already done by supplying Ukraine. The Chinese proposals for peace talks, on account of the deal and because the proposals are fantasy, will go nowhere. This is not to say that Russia had any legal justification for its invasion, rather that such intervention usually only makes a bad situation worse.