A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 13, 2023

Beyond Bakhmut: Evaluating Russia's Shrinking Options In Ukraine

Of the likely options, the ones that make the most sense are embracing a defensive posture in preparation for the Ukrainian counteroffensive everyone knows is coming or shifting the axis of offensive operations from Donbas to the south, which would be unexpected. 

But if Putin were logical, he would not have invaded, not have continued to assault Bakhmut - which has become a fixation - and would not be gearing up for a long war he probably knows he cannot win on his terms. So, the illogical option is continuing to attack around Bakhmut, elsewhere in Donbas or even in the south. The smart money in this war does not bet on Russian logic, it bets on Putin's ego. JL

Mick Ryan reports in War In the Future:

Option 1: Keep Pushing. The Russians could keep plodding away with their current offensive activities in the east. This is probably achievable for a few more weeks. Option 2: Step It Up. One possible black swan is that the Russians have kept a large operational reserve used to reinforce their current offensive operations. This option is quite unlikely. Option 3: Shift Axis. Shift their main effort for offensive operations to the south to impact potential Ukrainian offensives in that region. Option 4: Shut it Down. The Russians might decide to shut down offensive activities and hunker down for the Ukrainian offensives but continue air and missile strikes.

Much attention at present is being paid to the Ukrainian offensives that are likely to be launched in the coming weeks (or even the coming days). In a post this past March, I explored the Ukrainian offensives and why timing would be vital. Earlier this month, I examined why I thought the forthcoming Ukrainian offensives would be different to those they executed north of Kyiv and in Kharkiv and Kherson in 2022.

But, what of the Russians?

One of the fundamental elements of planning is not just understanding friendly purpose and capabilities, but also estimating the enemy’s most likely and dangerous courses of action. And to conduct such an appreciation, an update of the strategic and military situation is important. Therefore, in this article, I will provide a short update on the situation in Ukraine as a prelude to exploring Russia’s options in the coming months.

Russian Progress?

The Russians launched their 2023 offensives back in February. A series of thrusts have taken place along the following axes of advance:

  1. The Kreminna region, including north to Kupyansk and south to Bilohorivka.

  2. The Bakhmut-Soledar area.

  3. The Avdiivka axis.

  4. Donetsk, particularly around Marinka.

  5. The Vuhledar axis.

Map from the @DefenceHQ Twitter feed

A quick look at the map shows that these assaults are concentrated in the eastern parts of Ukraine, with the Russian forces (largely) retaining a defensive posture. For the most part, the Russians have had limited success with these offensives.  While they have taken some ground in many of these areas, attacks in places such as Vuhledar have been disasters, resulting in significant loss of lives and equipment. Ukrainian estimates - based on their daily updates - list the Russians having lost over 40 thousand personnel since 1 February this year (this is more than the entire regular strength Australian Army) and over 400 main battle tanks (about the same number as the combined British and French Army main battle tank fleets).

For an excellent graphic on Russian progress in seizing Ukrainian territory (or lack of it) during 2023, this story in the New York Times is also worth reading.

And then, of course, there is Bakhmut. This battle has been ongoing since mid-last year, but new energy and focus was brought to bear when the Wagner Group decided in the back half of 2022 to show the Russian Army how to ‘succeed’ in operations.  Using human wave attacks with convicts, and then employing more capable troops echeloned behind them to exploit successes, Wagner’s tactics resulted in even higher casualties as well as fomenting institutional friction between Wagner on one hand and the Russian Army on the other.

As a consequence, the Russians over the past 7-8 months have suffered from a Bakhmut Fixation. Regardless of where else their forces have been fighting, their attention appears to constantly return to Bakhmut. For Russia it has become a vital battle to win. They have invested strategic and political value in a small city that has almost no military value. But this Russian focus has also drawn Ukrainian political attention, including at least two visits there by President Zelensky.

The recent decision to reinforce the Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut, rather than withdraw them, surprised some observers of the war. It is likely to be a decision debated by many in the wake of the war. I take no position on this issue because only a few senior leaders will have had all the information needed to make the ‘stay or go decision’. And, it will only be some way down the track that we will be able to make a fair judgement about this decision within a wider context of what has already happened and what will occur in the near future.

But I do understand the decision taking by the Ukrainian President and his military advisers. The decision will have surprised the Russians and it certainly would have had an impact on Russian morale. The Ukrainian leadership, besides their desire to retain Ukrainian territory and deny a political ‘victory’ to Putin, probably sniffed this ‘Bakhmut Fixation’ in the Russians and decided to exploit it. The Russians have continued to use forces there that could be used more effectively just about anywhere else in Ukraine.

Bakhmut is representative of the broader Russian 2023 offensive. It has used massive human and equipment resources for very minimal territorial gain. And if that is the only yard stick one was to use, the offensive would be classified as a significant military failure.

But the Russians are also hoping to extend the length of the war in the hope that we in the west grow weary of the support being provided to Ukraine. So, viewed through this lens, the Russians will probably view the last few months as successful because they have ‘not lost’.

Russian Prospects

What are the Russian prospects, particularly in the wake of the enormously destructive and bloody fight for Bakhmut over the last few months as well as the impending Ukrainian offensives? Where do the Russian’s go beyond Bakhmut?

First, it might be interesting to speculate on the direction that General Gerasimov was given by President Putin when he was appointed to lead the Ukraine operation in January. Commanders’ Intent is a critical part of planning because it provides the essential strategic context and desired outcomes for military operations. As the US Department of Defense dictionary defines it, “commanders’ intent is a clear and concise expression of the purpose of the operation and the desired military end state that supports mission command, provides focus to the staff, and helps subordinate and supporting commanders act to achieve the commander’s desired results without further orders, even when the operation does not unfold as planned.”

What might the ‘commanders’ intent’ provided by Putin to Gerasimov look like? I have sketched out some thoughts below. Please note, I have taken some licence here:

Dear General Gerasimov, my most loyal servant (except Shoigu, of course, who is both loyal and a total suck up). As you depart Moscow for your command of expedition in Ukraine, I want you to understand what I seek from you. First, we need to make the Ukrainians understand that they cannot win; that is vital. We must defeat them in their minds before we defeat them on the ground. And we must do the same to publics in the west. You are to use all means to achieve this, especially on the battlefield but also with our strategic influence operations. Lavrov will help out with his ‘diplomacy’. Second, I want you to plan on conducting operations into 2024 and beyond. I now believe that the west is tiring of this war, and if we can just out-wait them, we will see a decrease in aid to the Ukrainians. We can exploit this next year. At the same time, I will keep using the word ‘nuclear’ every now and then to throw a wrinkle into NATO and US thinking. It is amazing – every time I use the word, they are paralysed for days. Third, plan on another mobilisation after your initial 2023 offensives. I appreciate you have ironed out the minor challenges experienced last year, and we still have millions of Russian men willing and able to be mobilised to serve in Ukraine. Finally, I want you to keep the east and the south. Luhansk and Donetsk are important. But the south is key to us strangling Ukrainian economic growth. You should make all efforts to keep it. If you can’t, don’t come back. That’s it. Oh, I almost forgot, I will send you a ‘comfort package’ on my private jet each week to keep you stocked with vodka and caviar. Your boss, Putin.

OK, so Putin’s direction may not have been phrased exactly like this, but he would certainly have provided guidance to Gerasimov on the current offensives as well as future operations. And it may have featured some of the strategic outcomes described above.

Now we have reviewed the ‘higher commanders’ intent’, what kind of options might Gerasimov be considering after three months of combat operations in eastern Ukraine?

Whether the Russians capture Bakhmut or not, their forces in the east have been handed a severe beating by the Ukrainians over the past three months. The offensive activities around Bakhmut, as well as on the axes to the north and south of the city, have consumed significant amounts of Russia’s available combat power. To that end, they are probably already considering broad courses of action similar to those below for the period between now and the northern Summer.

Option 1: Keep Pushing. Over the coming weeks, the Russians could simply keep plodding away with their current offensive activities in the east. This is probably achievable for a few more weeks.  However, even large capable organisations exhaust themselves – physically, psychologically and logistically - after several months of offensive action. The Russians, having undertaken dozens of attacks as part of their offensives over the past few months, will be getting individually and organisationally tired.

Option 2: Step It Up. One possible black swan is that the Russians have kept a large operational or strategic reserve that can be used to reinforce their current offensive operations. Notwithstanding their desire to expand the Russian military to 1.5 million people, there are few indications that the Russians have been able to generate and hide such a large reserve for operations in the east. This doesn’t mean they don’t have tactical and operational reserves there. But overall, I think this option is quite unlikely.

Option 3: Shift Axis. The Russians might decide to shift their main effort for offensive operations to the south. They are maintaining a large number of units and troops across southern Ukraine and could decide to undertake spoiling attacks to impact on the potential for Ukrainian offensives in that region. Additionally, the defensive works appear to be better developed in this region. If things don’t go well for any Russian attacks from this direction, they have better defences to withdraw back behind to forestall any Ukrainian pursuit.

Option 4: Shut it Down. Finally, the Russians might decide to shut down their offensive activities across the east and hunker down for the Ukrainian offensives. They have well-prepared defensive works they can use to construct a defence in depth concept, which would utilise mobile troops for counter attacks and counter penetration missions. If the Russians really are in this for the long haul and are more focussed on attrition of the Ukrainians than taking more territory (at the present), this is a logical course of action for them. And, they could go on the defensive on the ground but continue offensive air and missile strikes.

The Road Ahead

Notwithstanding the losses they have suffered, the Russians remain a formidable presence in Ukraine. Whichever course of action they select (and it could be different to those above), it will be a complicating factor for Ukrainian planners finalising the manoeuvre and support aspects of the coming offensives.

But going through the detailed process of assessing possible enemy courses of actions will also inform Ukrainian intelligence collection plans, as well as the priorities for operational strikes. It will also assist in wargaming different options for Ukrainian offensive actions, as well as reviewing ‘worst case’ actions that the Russians might undertake against Russia in the coming months.

This process of looking at the enemy’s future options will also force some to think beyond the Ukrainian offensives and explore ‘what next?’

Prudent military strategy and planning must consider the desired objectives and possible courses of action that an enemy might take over the course of a campaign or entire war. Not doing so is intellectually lazy and can lead to disastrous battlefield and strategic outcomes for friendly military forces and countries.

The coming weeks will reveal how accurately this article has assessed Russia’s options.


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