Saturday 14 May 2022

Where now for Putin? (part 2) - Mission Somewhat-Less-Impossible

 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[1] 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.[2]

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[3], 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[4].  



[1] Even though "there's no such thing as strategic surprise"; ... but "there can always be tactical surprise"

[2] 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

[3] 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)

[4] Sorry, Georgia (subject of my triumphant New Year prediction here in Jan 2008) but I think you're on your own 


Anonymous said...

I can't see Russia leaving the coast in Zelenskys hands, but what do I know?

More interested in the US/UK supply lines which are keeping his lot in the game - I should have stayed up the other night to see where that Ukrainian AN124 from Rzeszow (currently being circled by a KC135 USAF tanker) was heading for.

Interestingly, while Brize Norton and other RAF bases are on the map, not all US bases are. Fairford and Croughton aren't, Mildenhall (where the KC135 started) is.

PS - anyone know where there's a commentary site on the conflict/war/special operation (remember neither Iraq/Libya/Afghanistan/Syria/Grenada/Panama were wars either) that isn't run by glowie Bellingcat types?

Anonymous said...

Rzeszow now has a USAF Blackhawk chopper (if the photo is kosher, with red cross markings), plus an Italian military 767-2EY.

Anonymous said...

There's also an E3A Sentry circling the Romanian coast, an anonymous (no ID) aircraft doing the same, and an RC-135W Rivet Joint doing huge loops over Poland, covering both Belarus and Ukraine.

The no-id craft came from the Catania US base and is at 19,000 but only doing 200kts - another drone?

Nick Drew said...

I can't see Russia leaving the coast in Zelenskys hands

But can you seriously see them advancing any further west towards Odessa? I.e. crossing the big estuary? I can't

Anonymous said...

"can you seriously see him advancing any further west towards Odessa?"

Not a clue, but if Russia don't take the coast I think they will have a lot of trouble in future. We shall see. They started WW2 pretty poorly - but now the lend-lease guys are on the other side. But it's existential for them, not so for US/UK - although you can never underestimate the amount of ethnic hatred in the State Department.

I bet they are regretting not ensuring that Poland/Romania stayed neutral, but then the 1990s were the Yeltsin years. The US loved him. Ever read this?,33009,984833,00.html

I do wonder - where are the Greenham Common girls when we need them?

dearieme said...

"there are several rail links from Russia direct into his 50km strip": them's targets, then.

"apparently he has enough of the Kherson oblast to guarantee the water supply to Crimea": is that water sent by pipeline or canal? Anyway should that too be a target?

Or, if Ukraine has preserved any relevant Soviet expertise, could the water itself be subject to malarkey? Not cholera, presumably, but something unpleasant.

Christ, wars are nasty but that doesn't mean they can't turn nastier yet.

Mark Wadsworth said...

Seems like a good summary. Let's hope it doesn't get any worse than this and that the next Russian dictator doesn't try to rinse and repeat.

Anonymous said...

The "no callsign" plane is being refuelled by the KC135 - and a Dutch military aircraft, flying from Cologne, is now in the area. Big Airbus.

Meanwhile in the UK attention is on a 747-4P8 flying from Brize Norton, alas not going to Rwanda. Not yet anyway.

Anonymous said...

dearieme - Ukraine cut off water to Crimea in 2014/5. There are some "after and before" pics of a parched peninsula and a more green one.

I believe the canal has been reopened.

Re targets, I think you need an airforce to hit targets, not sure what Ukraine have left or their own. NATO have a lot though.

Nick Drew said...

Re targets, I think you need an airforce to hit targets

not in the age of the drone

(the canal looks OK, to judge from google earth - at least, at the time of the imagery currently being used)

Anonymous said...

The Ukrainian AN124 is just heading into Rzeszow again, from Burgas, which is Bulgaria's biggest port. There's a P3 Orion about, plus an RAF tanker from Akrotiri in Cyprus.

My spies tell me there's a lot of movement at the various MOD depots in the UK. I've not checked Real Time Rail for the details.

Anonymous said...

Looks like I'm going to have to start looking at marine traffic too.

E-K said...

Excellent post and comments. This is a nightmare if Russia wins and a nightmare if Russia loses. Let's hope some face saving gains are kept and the war ended and then Putin quietly outed with Russia rehabilitated back into the global community.

I dread to think of the other outcomes.

andrew said...

Russia has already lost.
Sweden and Finland want to join Nato.
The Russian army was stopped by a small force with similar weaponry.
Russian armour is vulnerable to nato man portable weapons.
Unverified reports of casualties reaching 30%.
Ukrainians talking about victory (whatever that is) by christmas.

The next test is when the stans need something, will they ask russia or someone else like china.

Nick Drew said...

Andrew - Russia has already lost

I'd say Putin has lost his best-case dream. But he still holds the cards that (a) NATO says - rather believably - it won't commit to in-country ops under any circumstances; (b) Germany is in agonies of indecision; (c) as things stand right now, he gets to say if anything in particular constitutes "existential danger" to Russia (meaning 'to Putin'): nobody's told him any red lines (or not in public, anyhow)

This might be enough geo-political capital to sustain him for a bit longer

If Chinese-manufactured drones turn up in-theatre, there's real trouble. If they don't, he's stuffed in the long run

andrew said...

If Chinese-manufactured drones turn up in-theatre, there's real trouble

Do you think that is likely?
I started off with nah
But thinking a bit more suddenly felt a bit queasy. The best reason i can think of for it not happening is that the chinese do not think russia can win (by the chinese definition whatever that is)

dearieme said...

I keep asking why Putin doesn't buy some American kit from Afghanistan. But it's occurred to me that US items might have "kill switches" in their electronics so the the US can disable them.

But then I wonder whether they will also have Chinese kill switches in their chips.

At what point does Xi yell "tally-ho" and seize much of Siberia?

Nick Drew said...

Do i think chinese drones are likely? Not right now: i think Xi is content seeing Putin suffer, given how P has humiliated himself + all associated with him.
But if at some juncture he wants a really serious quid pro quo out of P ("give us Siberia"), and wouldn't mind scaring the rest of us into the bargain, I can't think of a neater gesture.

dearieme said...

Hello: speculation that Xi has a brain aneurysm and is opting for treatment by traditional Chinese medicine.

Biden has had two of those, has he not?

Bill Quango MP said...

I don’t believe the military ‘Kill Switch’ is a real thing.

Desirable as it might be, it is also extremely undesirable to have an enemy able to access such a thing when those weapons are in use on your side.

Afghanistan débâcle of evacuation actually left little really useful hardware, even if it was in perfect condition.
The most useful for export would be the Mi-17 Soviet era helicopter transports. Old, but still able to be used effectively as transports in rear areas and if air superiority is assured. One of the most widely produced helicopters of all time. The Taliban were said, ( by bbc news) to have captured about 50 of them. All were said to have been disabled long before the Taliban arrived to take them over.

The mine resistant transport vehicles would also be useful. But not excessively so. Again, Russia is not short of BMP and BTR personnel carriers. It is short of trucks. Trucks and tank tracks, tires, ammunition, fuel in the right places and missiles. Adding the 5,000 USA small arms weapons from the Afghan’s, even if the Taliban wanted to sell them, wouldn’t help that dire logistics situation in any way.

The Russians have vast reserves of armour and weapons. They are short of supplies, ( in the right place) and manpower and competent leadership. The communications embarrassment is something the west would not have suspected. The Russians can’t use their comms or GPS outside of Russia.

It might tempt Putin more to pay for 10,000 combat veteran Afghan fighters to help him out.
Though how effective they would be in an actual assault, is open to question.

Really, he needs China to send him what the USA sent him in WW2.
Military rations. Medical supplies. Radios. Reliable trucks and tankers and tank transporters. Aircraft, ambulances, field tents, and telephone and communication equipment. And the spares for all of that.

( on that GPS thing. Saw a YouTube the other day. A U.S.(Irish accent) Iraq officer does vids. He mentioned, with much disdain, as they were preparing to be ready to go to Desert Storm, he was sent to do the survival training. Part of which involved map reading and plotting by the sun. Current Positional location by starlight. Finding a way home from the woods using just the standard field survival gear found in US military vehicles.
He was astonished to find the Brigade Commander wandering about the mountains with a silk map and penlight.

The commander was not impressed he had to do this pre deployment. “ If I, the leader of 4,500 men, am really lost in the desert, without assistance from any of my command. Or any kind of gps or radio or telephone, satellite system, or even a text phone. Then something has gone so badly wrong I would never dare to come back anyway.”

E-K said...

How reliant are we on MAD ? Some are under the misapprehension that stocks of nuclear weapons are built up to stop nuclear war. They aren't. This is putting cart before horse.

Nuclear weapons are there to ensure international respect and for MAD to work there has to be a paradoxical reality that they will be used.

Putin and those around him have been humiliated... by NATO,not Ukraine, pure and simple. Johnson has virtually demanded regime change in Russia "The West will never deal with Putin again." did that really have to be said openly ?

If Russia is not under "existential threat" that demands a nuclear response now then when are they ?

"If Putin launches a nuclear strike he will get it back ten fold. So don't worry."

Fat lot of good when a few of you're own cities have been taken out. The same sort of (Ukrainian) flag-waving gung-ho mentality we see in the West when people exclaim "Yay ! Plucky Ukraine is winning !" amid the death and destruction.

No. I'm not comforted by the complacency of those around me.

Don Cox said...

Recommended book:

"The Russian Secret Police" by Ronald Hingley.

Readable and well documented, this gives the historical background up to 1970.


Caeser Hēméra said...

@BQ - what condition are those reserves in though? Under Putin, Russia has become "Toxteth with nukes", a nation of thieving scallies, so it wouldn't be too shocking if some newly engineered parts someone got paid to make, actually turned out to be old parts filched from the reserves and the money pocketed.

Makes you wonder what state their nuclear deterrent is in too, the US learned that warheads become unusable over time without maintenance and replacement parts, I can't see that having been particularly protected from the industrial level grifting in Russia on the basis anyone engaging in corruption and theft could expect only to be caught when the nation was busy being blowtorched off the face of the Earth, and at which point it'd be moot anyway.

Not that I'd like to engage in those stakes, mind.

Ukraine has certainly put the lie to Putin being a great leader, he's absolutely hollowed out Russia for personal gain and done nothing to give it a future other than a fourth rate power.

Anonymous said...

"Johnson has virtually demanded regime change in Russia "The West will never deal with Putin again." did that really have to be said openly ?"

I voted for BoJo's party but with no illusions. He's relying on a long war to save his political skin - the last thing he wants is a negotiated deal. I despise him, but there are no heroes leading any political parties here.

The US also want a long war, because they want to weaken Russia. Precisely why a weak Russia is in the national interest of the US or UK is never clearly laid out.

E-K said...

Anonymous - Lavrov sets it all out clearly. The US wants a long war and expansion of NATO to sell all its lovely NATO standard rifles and bullets to.

America's economy needs war in Europe to get it out of a hole as happened in WW1 and WW2.


Caesar "What state is Russia's nuclear deterrent in..." Well. If it's only 10% effective we would suffer terribly. We should remember that until this crisis the West was reliant on their rocketry for getting to the ISS.

Caeser Hēméra said...

@EK - hence the "wouldn't want to play those stakes." However, given Russia waggles the nukes around like a petulant child, I don't think it'd be remiss of someone asking them how sure they are that they're still in working order.

Of course, given Russian TV likes to inform the population that all nuked Russians go to heaven, there's a good chance they don't care as aspects of the place are now almost as death cultist as the more nutty Islamicists.

There's also the question of why they'd use nukes - NATO has never been an existential threat to them, and, had it wished to be, that could have been achieved in fairly short order with cheap rust, aluminium and magnesium rather than expensive weaponry.

NATO's assistance to Ukraine has only become so entirely unexpectedly, and only due to the rank incompetence and corruption that has rotted Russia so.