No, Ukrainian forces can’t beat the Russians on the ground: but they can fight them to a standstill and then win politically. Michael Clarke explains.
After fifteen days of war that was meant, at least in Moscow, to be over in three, it looks as if the Russians will soon begin to run out of troops in Ukraine. Well over 90% of the 190,000 or so pre-deployed troops made ready for this war have now been committed to the operation. This is the first really big, complex and combined military campaign the Kremlin has launched for real since the Battle of Berlin in 1945. And for all the combat power of Russia’s best equipment and its elite forces we see at the front end of the Russian attack on Ukraine, the offensive has evidently stalled along all three of its main lines of advance.
On the first line of advance, Russian forces have so far struggled to ‘break out’ of the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk republics and join up with the forces from Western Military District who ‘broke in’ from the north east. That leaves Russian forces tentatively holding a swath of peripheral territories along the Russian-Ukrainian border where most of the ethnic Russians in Ukraine live. Powerful units from the Western Military District have screened the cities they cannot take and have made a push along the second line of advance, to approach Kiev from the East, while ponderous forces from the Eastern and Central Military Districts, ‘breaking in’ from Belarus, have been slowly approaching the capital from the north and west. These three big formations have made very hard work of surrounding Kiev, both because they have been ferociously attacked by Ukrainian forces on the way and also because their logistical tail has become a nightmare. For modernised ground forces, they seem to be nowhere near battle-ready – which, since they understood they were originally only on exercise, where ‘checks’ are notoriously lapse, is hardly surprising.
Along the third line of advance, to push east and west out of Crimea, where logistical lines are shorter and better prepared, the Southern Military District forces have made some territorial gains in opening the much-vaunted ‘land corridor’ between the breakaway territories in the Donbas and Crimea; and simultaneously pushing westwards towards the vital Black Sea port of Odessa. But even within this long land corridor, Mariupol – which should have fallen to the Russians within hours – is still somehow grimly defying the attackers after fourteen days. And on the road west to Odessa, Russian forces have found themselves fiercely opposed at Mykolayev – their only land gateway to the big port complex, attacking and being repulsed several times. In the Black Sea, a maritime assault force has been drifting around offshore for more than two weeks, waiting for Russian troops to move overland against Odessa, before they can launch their own assault. They may have to wait some time.
So for the next week it looks as if Russian forces will be held up short of the strategic hub of Odessa; held up in the north east pounding civilians in the cities they can’t take, in Chernahiv, Konotop, Sumy and Kharkiv; and finally surrounding Kiev but with severe second thoughts on whether they really want to fight into a city of three million people who have had time to turn it into a fortress.
Kiev was founded in 482. The city is more than one thousand five hundred years old. And next week the Russians will be faced with the prospect of brutalising one of the jewels in the crown of their own Slavic civilisation. Not an easy thought for even the most hard-bitten Russian commander. And the world, and the International Criminal Court, is watching.
And then, if any sort of military decision is to be achieved, Russian forces eventually have to drive up (or down) the line of the river Dnieper to unite their northern and southern forces. At least that would give them some precarious control over the eastern third of the country, between the Dnieper and the Russian border. But to do that, they will have to take the city of Dnipro (formerly Dnipropetrovsk), of more than a million people, who are committed, says Mykola Lukashuk, its regional leader, to making it another Stalingrad.
The determination of a nation of 45 million people to fight the Russian invaders, make all this a poor military prospect. Every gain requires troops to secure it when the vanguard moves forward. So the fighting end of the force gets thinner the further away from its start line it goes. More Russian reinforcements are trundling by train from the Far East this week towards Ukraine, showing all the signs of hasty preparations, lack of transport vehicles, and civilian facilities pressed into service at short notice. No wonder that Russian leaders are trying now to get Belarusian troops into the battle, along with Chechen and Wagner Group specialist mercenaries, Syrians and assorted adventurers from Africa and the Middle East. The next round of conscription in Russia begins on April 1st. It is likely to be more than usually unpopular.
A further briefing on this website will look at the other side of the picture; how and why the Ukrainian forces are doing so well in this war.
The bottom line, however, is that after what looks like the ‘first phase’ of this struggle, the Ukrainians have all but fought the Russians to a standstill. That may not last, of course. The Ukrainians have shown themselves excellent at mounting counter-attacks. But they cannot sustain successive counter-attacks to turn it into a counter-offensive. They do not have the numbers to split Russian forces in half, or encircle them, or throw them out of the country. But the Ukrainian armed forces have made the Russians fight hard for everything. They are humiliating them on the battlefield and wiping the floor with them in the battle of world opinion. The tone and the reality has been set from the very top by President Zelensky – his own life and the life of his country as one and the same – and Ukrainians have responded in ways that must have shocked the Kremlin. More than 50% of the populations of Kharkiv and Mariupol, for example, where the fiercest resistance has been encountered to date, are ethnic Russian. But they are all Ukrainians now.
So Kiev has fought the Kremlin into a real strategic dilemma. Vladimir Putin can keep on putting more troops into the theatre and grind the offensive forward in a series of desperate engagements, hoping that the Ukrainians will suddenly crack in several places at once – possible but unlikely. In the time this would take to be effective, the steady brutalisation of most of Ukraine’s cities would have to continue. Unlike in Syria or Chechnya, that cannot be done while the world is somehow looking the other way.
Or he can cross yet another threshold, as in Syria, and use chemical weapons to clear cities and bring down even greater condemnation on Russia’s head. (He might remember when making absurd claims of justification about ‘Ukrainian chemical and biological programmes’, that Russian accounts of the Litvinenko or Skripal poisonings, or the Hague OPCW chemical or WADA anti-doping hacks, or the downing of a civilian airliner over the Donbas, were all easily dismissed by global opinion in the face of British and US intelligence briefings to the contrary which were believed. Putin’s Kremlin has close to a 100% failure rate in being credible on such issues anywhere outside Russia itself.)
Two weeks ago, the prospect of a resort to chemical weapons seemed far-fetched. In light of Russia’s current military options, it has now to be taken very seriously.
Not least, given that he has gone for broke in Ukraine, Putin might try to widen the conflict on the Hitlerian assumption that the only way to retrieve a massive strategic blunder is to make another one elsewhere. It would be a desperate attempt to throw all the cards in the air and see if a better hand is available when they land. This might include pushing his aggression to the Transnistria region in next door Moldova, or pressing hard on the three Baltic States to distract NATO and give it an Article 5 crisis to worry about. It might also extend to threatening, or even creating, a leakage at one of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities under Russian control – a truly bizarre thought that now enters the realm of the ‘just about possible’ – anything to frighten the world to the point where major nations demand that the Ukrainians stop fighting for their independent existence.
Alarming as such escalation tactics would be, none of them would be likely to work for the Kremlin. The spectacular pariah status of Putin’s Russia has been rapid and astonishing. The ‘voluntary sanctions’ taken by Visa, Mastercard, Macdonald’s, and so many others, are dramatically isolating the country from the world community. Escalation would make that isolation all the more severe and raise the prospect that Russia might walk itself into a more general war. Russia’s folly in this crisis is impossible for Moscow to avoid, and at some point, President Xi Jinping of China will have to extract Putin from it. The more Putin escalates the crisis, the quicker a visibly alarmed China might act to tell him its all over and bring it to some sort of end.
The Ukrainians will live to fight another day. That doesn’t answer the question of where the crisis goes from here. But it does mean that President Zelensky – whose life was in severe danger two weeks ago – might still be around to witness the end of Putin.
Michael Clarke is former director general of the Royal United Services Institute. His latest book, with Helen Ramscar, is Britain’s Persuaders: Soft Power in a Hard World, London, I. B. Tauris /Bloomsbury, 2021.
Photographer: PO Phot Dave Jenkins Copyright: UK MOD © Crown copyright 2021