Tuesday 5 March 2024

3 Aspects of Russia's War on Ukraine: Part 1 - a strategy at last?

Lots to think about, and I hope we can do so without some of the inanities that have popped up BTL here over the past two years.  Is that overly-optimistic?  For the avoidance of doubt, nobody ever said Russia was about to run out of ammo / be terminally crippled in a couple of months by sanctions, etc etc etc ...

1.  Russia adopting an identifiable ground-war strategy

Russia has of course laboured under a good many strategies: for the raising of troops; for sourcing weapons from anyone who'd sell them; for sleeving oil abroad; for stirring up FSU countries from Estonia to Moldova, etc etc.  Some of this is coherent; some of it chaotic.  I'm not concerned with them here; nor Putin's Grand Strategy, nor his theory of victory.

So I'm looking at the ground war and Russia's current strategy to achieve what we might infer (from their actions) to be their 2024 objective: capture the whole of the four oblasts they've notionally annexed, to be poised for Odessa and Kharkiv next year.  And after two whole years since February 2022, they've at last come up with a strategy that - insofar as you'd draw it on a map - is informed by Soviet operational art.  That's after mounting an initial campaign that, to general astonishment, flew in the face of such well-developed doctrine: you'll perhaps recall my critiques of their conduct back in 2022 (e.g. here and here.)

Anyhow, the diligent analysts at ISW have recently come up with this: The Russian Winter-Spring 2024 Offensive Operation on the Kharkiv-Luhansk Axis.  Their analysis is not a work of genius (and certainly not of concision), but it's competent, and comes from genuine students of Soviet operational art.  Summarising: on a particular front, the Russians are seeking to advance along four axes that are (broadly) parallel and designed to be mutually supportive - see the second map in ISW's briefing.

And that, folks, is the essence of the geographical or configurational aspect of phase 1 of a Soviet frontal advance.  (Where was this in 2022?)  Think of a heavy wooden club with four long, parallel nails protruding.  It's to be whacked vigorously into the enemy, with the immediate aim of embedding nail-deep into his body of troops; breaking their front line; fixing them in position & denying them the ability to shift left, right or even backwards; and with various pre-ordained reactions planned for contingencies (like one of the nails running into hard resistance).  It's what the first few days are meant to look like, resulting in a punctured, badly injured, immobilised foe, who's to be finished off by what comes in phases 2 & 3, to yield a concrete territorial gain across a broad area.

But here's the thing: just forming units up in the right geographical disposition isn't enough.  I emphasised the above description as being the configurational aspect, because there are other pre-requisites laid down in the Soviet handbook.  As noted back in '22 (see links above), these are: speed, firepower and manoeuvre.

Let's give the Russians of 2024 the benefit of the doubt on firepower: they have probably assembled enough, though there's an important caveat below.  There's also the merest hint of a bit of maneouvre going on just now, although they've proved to be quite shockingly bad at that to date, and Ukraine's massed drones ain't making things any easier for them in that regard.

But what's really missing is the speed.  The Soviets didn't call their front line troops "shock armies" for nothing.  Their doctrine was designed, firstly against WW2 Germans and secondly Cold War Americans, both opponents that were quite masterful at logistics.  Everything depends upon speed, for reasons we could go into.  And speed has been lacking on the Russian side, more even than manoeuvre, in everything we saw after about Day 3 back in Feb two years ago.

The idea that a Soviet frontal attack strategy can be made to work in slow motion is ... well, it's something the Soviets never dreamed of.  Unless some genius has come up with an innovative hybrid - and where has he been all this time? - this ain't gonna work, provided Ukraine retains at least a modicum of military resources.  They have all the depth an army could ask for to fall back into, coupled with some very well-prepared, mutually-supporting defences (e.g. at Slovyansk and Kramatorsk), even stronger than those at Avdiivka** and much more so than at Bakhmut, both of which caused such losses for their Russian attackers.  And they are just as good at chess, which is what you get when everything slows down.

There's even a caveat to my generous concession above on the firepower dimension of all this.  Putin's airforce, long held back in this conflict, was just starting to get into its stride when it suffered a month of serious setbacks and seems to have been withdrawn from the very front line right now.  That's potentially big, and will be the subject of Part 2.



** Footnote: reliable figures are hard to come by, of course, but leaks from Russian sources (FWIIW) suggest they lost the equivalent of approximately three full divisions taking Avdiivka, in about 3 months, with total casualties far higher.  For context, that's like the entire British Army of the Rhine in the Cold War.  For one small town of limited (but, unlike Bakhmut, not zero) operational value.


Anonymous said...

Reading the ISW daily reports (see the ones on the Israel/Iran (sic) war) are worth reading and are more thoughtful that the oscillating headline grabbing tat you get from the MSM.

They have often pointed out the weaknesses in the commanders in the Russian side but appear quite concerned about what Iran are doing. The juxtaposition of both wars make the issues facing the West come into sharper focus. We indeed seem to be heading for multi-polar world with the uncertainties this brings.

dearieme said...

The boss - what happens of Putin has a stroke and descends into Biden levels of mental competence? Would Russia somehow press on with the war or would all energy be put into the struggle for succession?

I ask on the grounds that Stuff Happens.

jim said...

Seems to me the US has lost interest in Ukraine provided Putin does not advance too much further.

Putin has a hinterland he can draw on. He has energy, heavy industrial capacity and can avoid sanctions fairly well. Ukraine has for its hinterland the EU and a dribble of unreliable US support. Essentially stalemate, neither side can improve their position much.

We might try a kind of nuclear poker - I bid Vladivostok and raise you Berlin - run by diplomats with a cellphone. Neither realistic nor stable. So if I were Putin I would sit tight and drain Ukraine of men and materiel whilst offering some sort of settlement. Pretty disgusting, but that is realpolitik.

As for the next decade, Putin could advance further but fear of burned fingers will likely prevent. A more useful strategy for the West might be to weaken Putin's support base. Which means making nice with the Chinese and India and Iran.

Anonymous said...

"making nice with the Chinese and India and Iran"

Seems unlikely given that IMHO China know that they are next on the list after Russia, and Iran know they could be attacked at any time by the US or Israel.

India possibly, but India are doing pretty well out of making nice noises while continuing to take Russian oil, refine it and sell it back to Europe. They are also moving more and more Indians into positions of power in the West anyway - see Rishi and see the US tech sector.

"nobody ever said Russia was about to run out of ammo / be terminally crippled in a couple of months by sanctions, etc etc etc .."


"As a result of these unprecedented sanctions, the ruble almost is immediately reduced to rubble. The Russian economy — (applause) — that’s true, by the way. It takes about 200 rubles to equal one dollar. The economy is on track to be cut in half in the coming years. It was ranked — Russia’s economy was ranked the 11th biggest economy in the world before this evasion [sic] — invasion. It will soon not even rank among the top 20 in the world. (Applause.) Taken together, these economic sanctions are a new kind of economic statecraft with the power to inflict damage that rivals military might. These international sanctions are sapping Russian strength, its ability to replenish its military, and its ability — its ability to project power. "


The head of Britain's Armed Forces, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, has said that a humiliated Vladimir Putin is running out of missiles trying to defeat Ukraine.

When UK rents go up, so does UK GDP. The calculations also include "imputed rents" for owner occupied houses. Thanks to the insane house inflation, it would cost over 3k a month to rent my house. I wouldn't pay that, but that's its contribution to GDP.

While we produce GDP figures out of thin air, North Korea of all places is producing more shells per year than the entire EU.


Wildgoose said...

It's not about "who's winning", because everybody involved is losing with this US-provoked madness. The only "winners" are those on the side-lines such as China and India.

It is more about ranking "who are the biggest losers?"

Right now, the biggest losers are:
(1) Ukraine
(2) Europe & UK
(3) Other US allies, (e.g. Japan)
(4) USA
(5) Russia

In the long term, (not short or medium), the US dollar is finished as the World Reserve Currency. A multi-polar world is emerging.

Sobers said...

"nobody ever said Russia was about to run out of ammo / be terminally crippled in a couple of months by sanctions, etc etc etc ..."

You obviously weren't reading or listening to the MSM or the politicians then......

Anomalous Cowshed said...

"Think of a heavy wooden club with four long, parallel nails protruding."

A garden fork?

Nick Drew said...

You obviously weren't reading or listening to the MSM or the politicians

too right. I meant (of course) nobody around here

Garden fork? Not bad, but it doesn't quite convey the 'heavy blow' aspect, AC

Anonymous said...

Wildgoose - the USA are winning in that they have completely detached Russia from the rest of Europe (and made them buy their gas). In that sense they've done absolutely brilliantly and Victoria Nuland can retire loaded with honours and awards.

What I can't understand is why anyone might think that detaching Russia from the rest of Europe was a good idea in the beginning. German industry plus Russian energy was Europe's main hope of competing with the Far East.

Now we are up a creek where no paddle is to be found, no matter what our clever clogs can do with marine drones.

Sobers said...

"the USA are winning in that they have completely detached Russia from the rest of Europe (and made them buy their gas). In that sense they've done absolutely brilliantly and Victoria Nuland can retire loaded with honours and awards."

I've said all along the Russian Ukraine war will continue until its no longer in the US interest for it to continue, then it will be ended. Freedom, democracy, the rule of international law have nothing to do with it, its entirely US interests (both economic and geo-political) that everyone is suffering and dying for.

Wildgoose said...

@Sobers, Victoria "F*ck the EU" Nuland has just retired.

The month of May should be interesting. Zelenskyy's presidential term finishes. However, even though he has banned most of the opposition parties and gaoled their MPs, he has already talked about scrapping the election. (Otherwise known in Western media as fighting for Democracy instead of the more truthful fighting against Democracy).

That might be the point that saner elements might try and assassinate him, seize control and sue for peace before the entire country collapses. It might also make sense for the USA to allow such a response as it would allow them to walk away while still claiming some kind of supposed "moral highground".

We live in Interesting Times.

Clive said...

@ Anonymous 11:05

While I would be the last to argue the UK was a model of coherent industrial policy and getting its manufacturing priorities right, the fact (https://www.makeuk.org/insights/publications/uk-manufacturing-the-facts-2023#/ ) is it is 8th in the world for manufacturing output and UK manufacturing alone is equivalent to 15% of Russia’s entire GDP. And while manufacturing has a place in a country’s economic profile, it is dubious and unwise to let it — and, more crucially, the inevitable large manufacturing interests — dominate the economic and unavoidsbly also the political sphere.

Just ask Germany about that. Bet’cha a few years ago you were going around telling everyone how Germany is a sensible, grown-up country…

Nick Drew said...

the apparent infantilisation of Germany will make another good topic

I say apparent because Germany has dug itself out of a few holes over time. Their current state of total disorientation in the world may not last

Clive said...

@ ND 9:01

Yes, while it is a leap in the dark and there’s plenty to scoff at, Germany’s long-term bet on renewables and, especially, hydrogen may pay off. Perhaps spectacularly. Necessity is after all the mother of invention. It’s foolish to doubt German dogged determination and clarity of purpose, when Germany is suitably motivated. Of course yes, it could also all go horribly wrong, too.

But I wouldn’t underestimate German resilience. I sense something significant has changed in the collective German mindset. Probably for the better.

Anonymous said...

If you were asked to come up with a plan to ruin the German economy, send well paying stable jobs overseas, make everyone poorer, destroy their well educated, stable, high trust society, what would you do differently?
Hydrogen my arse.