Lawrence Freedman has some thoughts on the war’s next stage.
This new stage of the war, however, promises to be much harder for Ukraine. Before considering Kyiv’s strategy we first need to consider Moscow’s options.
Russia’s forces have been badly depleted and so they must make choices about where to concentrate their efforts. Estimates vary about how many of the Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs), the main unit with which the Russian army organises its operations, they have left. Of those involved in the first wave of the invasion, often elite units, some half, maybe more, have either been damaged beyond repair or can be repaired but are not usuable in the near future. The casualties – wounded and captured as well as killed – perhaps represents about 20 percent of the original force of 190,000.
We know from assiduous work that Russian equipment losses have been heavy. For example 425 tanks are known to have been destroyed, damaged, abandoned or captured. There are reports that many of the replacement weapons being brought out of storage suffer from the effects of age and corruption, lacking key components and with ordnance that does not work. Aircraft and helicopters have shown themselves to be vulnerable to air defences, and many have been shot down. The inability of Russian airpower to impose itself remains one of the remarkable features of this campaign.
Russian personnel reserves are also not in a good state. Moscow has been casting about for extra bodies – whether Syrian volunteers or the mercenary Wagner group. As already noted the Belarusian army is no longer available, while troops from South Ossetia, the breakaway enclave in Georgia, have decided, when asked to go to Ukraine, to decline the invitation. There is a huge new cohort of conscripts about to join the army. Conscripts have already been used (Putin claimed without his knowledge) but there can only be risks in putting unwilling young men into battle without training.
Of course, even half the original Russian force is still substantial and it now has fewer and more manageable tasks to accomplish. But its position is not straightforward. Having decided to concentrate their effort, the Russian high command still has choices to make about priorities. They do not yet appear to have wholly given up on Kharkiv. Meanwhile they have been shelling Mykolaiv, on the southern coast, on the road to the important city of Odessa. For some time there has been speculation about an encirclement operation that would enable them to trap the considerable, and capable, Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region. But these objectives are easier to accomplish by drawing red arrows on a map than in practice. And they carry risks. Are they prepared to relinquish their gains in Kherson, where Ukrainian troops have bene pushing them back? If Ukrainian forces can take back Melitopol might Russian forces to the south get caught?
Simplifying somewhat the Russians must work out what offensive operations they wish to complete before they feel that they can then move into a largely defensive stance so that they can hold on to what they have. An analysis from the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War suggests that the most immediate Russian objective will be to take the city of Sloviansk, with a population of 110,000. There is some irony in this city taking a pivotal role because exactly eight years ago a small force led by Igor Girkin, the subject of my last post, took this city, marking the start of military actions in the Donbas, until he was forced out by Ukrainian forces.
Evidence of this intention can be found in a rare Russian military success at the start of April when they took Izyum (southeast of Kharkiv), inflicting heavy losses on the Ukrainian defenders, and they have now advanced beyond that. According to the ISW, they
‘have conducted active preparations to resume offensive operations for the past three days—stockpiling supplies, refitting damaged units, repairing the damaged bridge in Izyum, and conducting reconnaissance in force missions toward the southeast. Russian forces will likely begin offensive operations towards Slovyansk, 50km southeast of Izyum, in the coming days.’
Taking Slovyansk would be a first step to a more ambitious objective of cutting off Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine, but to encircle the Ukrainian forces they will still need to meet up with Russian forces advancing from the South. Slovyansk is preparing for the battle, and many of its civilians have been evacuated. As the ISW note:
If Russian forces are unable to take Slovyansk at all, Russian frontal assaults in Donbas are unlikely to independently breakthrough Ukrainian defences and Russia’s campaign to capture the entirety of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts will likely fail.
If this analysis is correct this new stage of the war could be critical. Another Ukrainian victory will not see the Russians pushed out of Ukraine but will make their position more difficult for the stage after that. Ukrainian losses have also been significant, both in personnel and equipment, although with the country now mobilised for war they are not short of committed and reasonably well trained soldiers. Their problem is with equipment. Their successes up to this point have largely been with judicious use of portable, light equipment, including drones, anti-tank weapons, and air defence systems. They have a shopping list that has been discussed with Western donors to fill some of their gaps. This means keeping up supplies of the equipment they already use, but also providing the extra armour, aircraft, and artillery to raise their game for the coming operations. Here there has to be balance between taking in aged kit from the former Soviet Union, which could be put to use quickly, or getting more modern kit, which may require more training.
Yet even if Russia does acquire the territory it seeks in the Donbas and prepares for a climactic defensive battle, there still remains the perplexing question about the nature of Putin’s end game. From the start the most baffling aspect of this war has been the incoherence of Russian strategy. The gap between stated aims and available capabilities was wide enough when it started but it has now widened even further, especially after being defeated in the war’s first round.