A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

May 14, 2022

Russia's Incredibly Shrinking Ukraine Ambitions

Russian military ambitions have shrunk to fit the competence of its leadership, cross-referenced with debilitating losses of men and materiel. As a result, the question is what success will be small enough to match Russian capabilities but appear large enough to soothe Putin's ego. 

Of course, starving the world of grain is a worthy goal which might force some accomodation, achieved by blocking Ukraine's exports, but that requires Russian ships, which remain vulnerable.  

Daily Kos reports:

There are more than 5,000 square miles of the Donbas’ territory still in Ukrainian hands. Despite broad attacks along that entire front, Russia has only managed to notch gains in that tiny northeastern corner. What happens if Russia takes some territory? What then? They must still traverse layers of Ukrainian defensive positions. There’s no scenario in which Russia has the manpower, equipment, and logistical juice to seriously challenge those cities, all the while Ukraine gets stronger, their reserves training and equipping with NATO gear.

The memester predicted that the tiniest encirclement wouldn’t be Russia’s stated goal until June of this year, but only because he underestimated Russia’s incompetence. Turns out that now, mid-May, was more like it. 

Russia’s original stated goals are reflected in the March 2022 arrows—come down from the north, through Kyiv, and also from the south, from Kherson, Mykolaiv, and Kryvyi Rih. We’ve written at length on how unsound that plan was, particularly since Russia also split its small invading force (~180,000, only of which roughly 25,000 were actual combat troops) along three other axes—around Kherson in the northeast, the eastern Donbas front, and Mariupol in the southeast. The only way this might’ve worked is if Russian intelligence had been correct, and half of Ukraine’s army had defected to the Russian side while more city officials had surrendered their cities, which only happened in Kherson. 

By April, we were onto the new plan, the one supposedly focused 100% on the eastern Donbas front. Russia had learned from its mistakes, and would now concentrate its efforts on a single axis! After weeks of hard fighting, they had captured Izyum and were thus supposedly primed to head south for a wide encirclement. This was important because about a third of Ukraine’s army is on a line of defensive trenches that Russia has been mostly unable to pierce. 

pincer.png

The idea, of course, was that Russia would not just cut off supply lines to those Ukrainian defenders, but would then be able to hit them from the backside. As you might imagine, most of these defenses point east. They’re generally not designed to protect against someone sneaking up on your weaker defenses. Furthermore, you can see that the avenue of attack would capture the administrative boundaries of the Donbas region (the dotted red line), which is made up of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts. 

That plan always had a fatal flaw, however:

flanks.png
I made this on April 11

Russia sucks at logistics, so the idea that they’d be able to manage a 300+ kilometer encirclement (~200 miles) was patently ludicrous. Furthermore, that entire line would be vulnerable to flank attacks from the other two-thirds of the Ukrainian army outside of that “cauldron.” Sure, spread your forces that far out, Russia! Ukraine would be able to puncture any part of it with concentrated force. 

Anyway, the southern half of that pincer never budged. Russia was too fixated on killing the Mariupol Azov remnants in the Azovstal fortress/steel factory. Still is. And like everything else this whole war, Russia wasted units around Kherson, where it is still trying to push toward Mykolaiv and Kryvyi Rih, even though they have nothing to do with the Donbas. (It has its own “land bridge” dream to reach through Odesa to the Transnistria region in Moldova, but they could always pivot to that later in the war, instead of continuing to dilute themselves ineffectively.) 

FQla-dyXoAAGMe3-2.png
Russia was pushing *west* of Izyum, attempting the wider encirclement. After stalling, it began to push toward Solovyansk, a tighter encirclement. 

Remember that weird push westward from the Izyum salient? That was exactly geared toward the wider encirclement. But like everything else Russia has attempted this war, that effort stalled. And so they began to push into a yet tighter circle, this time toward Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. 

Yet nothing moved, and hasn’t for weeks. Same with the southern edge of that pincer, around separatist-held Horlivka. And as with all the other plans, this was doomed to fail for one major reason—there was no way Russia would be able to handle Slovyansk (pre-war pop. 111,000) and Kramatorsk (pop. 157,000) in a timely manner. Both are much better fortified than Mariupol, and there’s been more time to stock its defenders with supplies. Also, they aren’t as isolated as Mariupol, giving Ukrainian forces ample opportunities to punch through any siege. 

Furthermore, we now know full well Russia’s urban warfare strategy: Systematically level a town block by block, then march into the ruins claiming the rubble for Mighty Russia. Yet that strategy is slooooow, and any artillery targeting Slovyansk and Kramatorsk would be in range of Ukrainian artillery both on its western flank, but remember, also on its eastern flank. 

FSmF12TX0AMW4A9-2.jpeg

This new “Slovyansk salient” would be even more exposed than the Izyum salient, which has been under severe stress for weeks now. But ultimately, this strategy was doomed by Ukraine’s liberation of territory around Kharkiv, which put Russia’s key supply railhead into Ukraine in range of Ukrainian artillery. The Izyum salient was already stuck in the mud. Cutting off its main supply line from Russia is its death knell.

But then a funny thing happened—Russia finally started moving! And it happened in two fortuitous places, Rubizhne and Popasna: 

FSmF12TX0AMW4A9.jpeg

It took months of systematic obliteration, but Russia finally controls their rubble. By closing the loop around those two cities, Russia would essentially have the entire Luhansk Oblast under its control, allowing it to trumpet some sort of victory. 

Now if you look closely at the image, you’ll see the Donets River, and how important it has been to the area’s defense. Ukraine is left with just two major cities on the north bank—Severodonetsk and Lyman, both under fierce assault as I type this. Remember, Russia has lost a ghastly amount of personnel and equipment just to get to the river, and it hasn’t even finished doing that. Crossing it will be a challenge. Russia has tried twice in the last several days and has lost two battalion tactical groups in the process.

Given the importance of the river, Ukraine can even afford to withdraw from Severodonetsk to Lysychansk on the other side of the river. I don’t understand why Ukraine is holding it so fiercely, whether out of pride or some broader tactical goal. Maybe it’s as simple as taking advantage of its prepared defensive positions to chew up more Russians before they evacuate. 

But that southern prong, from Popasna, is the more concerning one, as it bypasses the Donets. Though, even there, all attempts to advance have been stymied in recent days. The Reddit meme does a good job of visualizing Russia’s shrinking ambitions, and here’s another way to do so: 

togo.png
Big circle=Russia’s original goals. Small circle in top-right corner is their current operations.

There are more than 5,000 square miles of the Donbas’ territory still in Ukrainian hands. Despite broad attacks along that entire front, Russia has only managed to notch gains in that tiny northeastern corner. Yet that movement is precisely why Russia seems likely to give up that Izyum salient, moving much of the combat power it had amassed there to the east, where it might have some opportunities to press their advantage without depending on threatened supply lines near Kharkiv. 

And still, what happens if Russia takes that corner of territory? What then? They must still traverse layers of Ukrainian defensive positions to crash upon Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. As always, there’s no scenario in which Russia has the manpower, equipment, and logistical juice to seriously challenge those cities, all the while Ukraine gets stronger, their reserves training and equipping with NATO gear. 

Russia’s slow pace of advance now ensures this war will last well into this year (and likely longer), allowing time for a full Ukrainian transition to NATO-standard weapons. Indeed, Ukraine General Staff is arguing they can be fully transitioned by the end of summer. That may be little consolation to those who would rather see peace break out, global food deliveries reestablished, an end to needless death, and money spent on more fruitful endeavors than weaponry. But Vladimir Putin cannot retreat now without delivering the glorious (and easy) victory he promised his nation, and Ukraine sees no reason to surrender given Russia’s sorry battlefield performance. It really believes (and I agree) that with the right gear, it can recapture everything lost to Russia since 2014, including the entirety of Donbas and Crimea. And as long as the Ukrainian people are prepared to make that sacrifice (and they appear so), it makes perfect sense for the West to help it achieve its goals.

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