After one week of Putin's war, we wrote this:
... it was widely suggested that Putin has available to him a fruitful strategy of "bloody a few noses, seize 50km, freeze the new border, wait for the waters to close over, rinse and repeat, from Tbilisi to Tallinn". In other words, that's not to be characterised ... as a less-than-ideal outcome: it's maybe what he wanted all along... He certainly has his 50km ... (But) the whole of NATO has been royally stirred up; and Tallinn might be feeling a bit more secure than it did three months ago. The "50km" strategy starts to look a bit, well, glacial ... how long has he got?
Ten weeks later, a different way of asking the question might be: what else has he got?
|Map (extract): Institute for the Study of War - to whom maximum kudos|
As any student of warfare knows, you overlook logistics at your utter peril. Putin now has to confront the obvious fact that he simply doesn't have the wherewithal to execute an offensive war, Red-Army style, which requires vast usage of ammunition (each salvo from a single BM-21 requires a full truck-load of rockets). Russian logistics are essentially dependent upon rail networks (maybe subject of a later post) - they don't even have many trucks, still less the resources and logistical genius of (e.g.) Gen Schwartzkopf in 1991, or Wellington in 1813. And while he can't advance to Kyiv on a train, there are several rail links from Russia direct into his newly-acquired strip (pink in the map above).
So what's Putin got left? Let's credit him with retaining a degree of agency in the matter (though he does look awfully ill...) - so what orders does he give? He has, de facto and possibly by accident, the components of a workable "fait accompli" strategy and probably the military means to sustain it, territorially if not politically.
Faits Accomplis / Coups de Main
A standard geo-politico-military strategy is to grab something more-or-less out of the blue in the hope that the other side will be taken aback and, before they can respond effectively, you've consolidated to the point where it's too late: think Putin / Crimea 2014, Nasser / Suez 1956, and several of Hitler's early moves. Less encouragingly, there's Argentina / Falklands 1982, and Saddam / Kuwait 1990.
Putin certainly has his 50 km - more like 100 km, in fact - the arc roughly between Kherson and Kharkiv. Note two things. On the negative side, he faces very stiff & well-organised resistance in the centre of the Donbass front: indeed he's being rolled up from the west at Kharkiv. On the positive side: apparently he has enough of the Kherson oblast to guarantee the water supply to Crimea - a genuine strategic goal; and all of his 50km has a border and rail links with Russia.
Provided he sticks to a defensive posture, his logistics there are (relatively) secure. That alone isn't remotely sufficient - both Argentina and Iraq had broadly favourable, and certainly superior (in relative terms) logistical positions to the foe they faced. But it is 100% necessary: and proximity to the border will do this for him.So: much as he evidently wanted to achieve more, Putin's orders must surely now be:
Define a defensible subset of what we now occupy - categorically including whatever it takes to water Crimea. Dig in; set up the resupply lines; and hold that territory to the last mercenary. Lay waste and abandon the rest.
This is militarily realistic. And he seems to be laying the geo-political groundwork, by declaring Kherson to be part of Russia, which he can then announce will be defended by whatever means, as NATO would defend its own borders.
It is not guaranteed to succeed, of course: see Falklands 1982 and Kuwait 1991. That pinkish chunk in the map running north and east of Luhansk up to fiercely-contested Kharkiv looks to me like turf to be abandoned on the theory outlined here. And note the little blue patch east of Kherson: that represents Ukrainian claims of partisan operations: WW2 teaches us it's the right kind of territory for that stuff, after all.
And the politics for him (at home and abroad) and indeed for everyone else, will be complex - to say the least - and not concluded any time soon. Maybe, indeed, he'll regret the whole thing profoundly; and Xi will never talk to him again. But in purely military terms it is at least coherent in light of the resources he can put in the field, and his ability to sustain them.
BUT ... rinse and repeat? No way. Even if "successful", he'll never live to see a re-run of this - anywhere west of Donbass, at least.
 Even though "there's no such thing as strategic surprise"; ... but "there can always be tactical surprise"
 Faits Accomplis are all rather important right now because Xi obviously hopes to pull off a big one with Taiwan - hence his acute interest in the fate of Putin / Ukraine 2022 - and is trying a slow-motion one with the South China Sea "new islands" trick
 As the one-time 1990s Russian PM, grizzled old Victor Chernomyrdin said sadly upon leaving office: "we hoped for better things - but it turned out as normal" (A deeply Russian sentiment, that)
 Sorry, Georgia (subject of my triumphant New Year prediction here in Jan 2008) but I think you're on your own