A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 29, 2023

Why Russia's Primary Ukraine Objective May Be Shifting Away From Crimea

Ukrainian success in penetrating Russian lines on the Zaporizhzhia front towards Tokmak and Melitopol threatens Russian troops and assets in occupied western Ukraine and Crimea. 

This means that Russia may now have to contemplate abandoning that part of Ukraine and focus on holding those areas of the Donbas where it retains some sympathy among the population, even though those regions are devastated ruins. JL

Peter Olandt reports in Daily Kos:

Putin may be coming to realize the danger that forces west of Donetsk City are in if they get cut off.  Losing too large of a chunk of the remaining army could threaten his regime in an even larger way than losing Crimea would. The mutiny demonstrated how vulnerable Putin would be to a coup attempt by the Russian army and how much of Russia’s logistics and command focused through Rostov-on-Don. Positioning more forces in the north makes Rostov-on-Don less important to the supply of the troops for the Russian army in general. And it puts a much larger force in range of Belgorod and Kursk. The Oskil river and reservoir line would make for a much more easily defended line.

For the longest time it has been a staple assumption that defending and holding Crimea is Russia’s primary concern.  Today I contend that that assumption no longer holds.  There were two key incidents that I believe refocused Russia’s priorities and as far as I’ve seen, no one has really noticed.  What I am writing here will obviously be controversial and speculative.  I can’t guarantee it to be true and I’m not expecting many to agree with me.  But I’ll lay out my reasoning below.  But if I’m correct, Russia has changed its primary focus to the northeast of Ukraine and almost nobody has interpreted it as such.

After the Russian Kyiv offensive failed and the Russians pulled out of the north, the northeastern section of Ukraine occupied by Russia (east of Kharkiv and north of Luhansk) was not given much priority.  Russia was focused on trying to take Sloviansk and Kramatorsk from the north via Izyum, from the east via Sieverodonetsk and Bakhmut (eventually) from the southeast.  In addition, Russia was focused on keeping western Kherson.  The goal for Russia seemed to focus on taking as much of Donetsk Oblast as they could and to hold on to the land bridge to Crimea with as much of the surrounding area as they could.When Ukraine announced from the rooftops and sent embossed invitations for Russia to fight them in Kherson, Russia focused on the south even more.  They focused so much so that they were caught completely by surprise by the Ukrainians in the Kharkiv counteroffensive.  Izyum, Kupiansk and the surrounding area was liberated and the Russians only held on due to Ukraine apparently outrunning their supply lines.  Lyman was taken fairly soon afterwards.  Russia rushed in conscripts which when combined with the winter was enough to freeze the northern lines roughly where they are now.

Since then, Russia has persisted attacking from Kreminna towards Lyman in an apparent attempt to restart the northern prong attacking towards Sloviansk.  It saw some action this last winter and at various times since then along with Bakhmut and the Donetsk front from Pavlivka and Vuhledar to Avdiivka.  There were relatively small engagements north of Kreminna as Russia fought to hold on to Svatove, but it was clearly not on either sides priority list.  So even after Ukraine had surprised them in this northeastern area, the Russians still were not giving it priority treatment compared to Bakhmut and south.

Then in May of this year the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps attacked across the border into Russia near Kharkiv in the direction of Belgorod.  And then they did it again from a different crossing.  Both times the immediate Russian response was not very strong and it took time for Russia to move forces into the area.  Neither attack was very large, and while I certainly hoped something more would come of it, in retrospect it seems primarily designed to convince Russia they needed to pull troops out of Ukraine to better guard their border.  Alone, this certainly caused a few troops to be redeployed but I wouldn’t consider it a major shift in Russian focus.  But combined with the next event, it is one of the two events prompting a change in Russian priorities.

On June 23rd and 24th Prigozhin really got Putin’s and the Russian military’s attention.  In quick and mostly bloodless fashion, Prigozhin took Rostov-on-Don with one column while another column of Wagnerites began driving towards Moscow.  At the time it certainly looked from the outside like a coup even as some of the details seemed rather odd.  In retrospect, my best guess is that it was a mutiny designed to maintain Wagner command over it’s own soldiers and to possibly remove the top brass of the Russian Armed Forces.  I don’t think Prigozhin meant to remove Putin and I think Prigozhin didn’t understand just how threatened Putin would be by these actions.

While it seems a little hard to believe that, I’m pretty sure Prigozhin didn’t start mentioning Putin by name until AFTER Putin started calling Prigozhin a traitor.  It would also be a really bad coup attempt if Prigozhin didn’t attempt to capture Putin right off the bat, and we had no indication that he attempted that.  Instead, the two seemed to come to a (temporary) agreement and Prigozhin appeared to walk away after stopping his troops before Moscow.  Clearly that didn’t last as Putin remains the most likely individual to have ordered Prigozhin’s death.  Although Prigozhin clearly made a few other enemies with his mutiny so it may not have been Putin.

But the mutiny demonstrated to me two things.  The first and most obvious is how vulnerable Putin would be to a coup attempt by the Russian army.  The Russian army for the most part did not engage with Wagner at all.  The majority of the fighting was Wagner exchanging fire with helicopters and shooting down several planes.  On the ground there were no large scale skirmishes that got reported.  National Guard forces around Moscow were digging up the roadways and creating barricades, but Wagner stopped before engaging them so we don’t know how effective they would have been (or whose side they were on).  As Wagner went by several bases the Russian forces stationed in those bases apparently just let them go by.  Moscow was horrendously vulnerable to Wagner forces.

The second and less obvious, though I did write about it, was just how much of Russia’s logistics and command structure was focused through Rostov-on-Don at that time.  When Wagner waltzed in and seized control of Rostov-on-Don, they weren’t just grabbing a city, they grabbed the primary logistics hub for the entire southern front of the war in Ukraine.  Wagner didn’t end up interfering with military operations, but Wagner controlling Rostov also meant that the military was put into a bind.  In order to stop supply to Wagner, the military would have to cut off supply to the entire southern front.  In addition, commanders downstream of Rostov-on-Don would find it difficult to engage Wagner if told to do so because that would end their supply and they would find themselves caught between Wagner and the Ukrainians.

Earlier in the war Belgorod was a major base and supply hub due to its location near northeastern Ukraine.  It was particularly important early when the Russian Kyiv offensive was still happening, but it still retained some importance until Ukraine liberated Kupiansk.  After the Kupiansk rail hub was lost and the majority of Ukraine’s focus fell on Bakhmut and the rest of the southern front, Belgorod was no longer the closest supply hub to most of the action.  I’m sure plenty of supply still moved through there, but in a reduced amount.

But then in the middle of July, Russia began an offensive SW of Svatove.  They pushed Ukraine back roughly 5km before Ukraine reclaimed roughly half of it back and the line has mostly been stable since.  In the middle of August the Deep State map and other sources started pointing out that Russia had roughly half of their forces in this northern area.  It’s unclear to me when this movement actually happened.  I’ve tried to dig through for early mentions of it but these sorts of movements are rarely caught exactly when they happen.  Rather it takes a little time for the OSINT community to catch up.  If anyone has an early date for this buildup I’d appreciate the info because it is my theory that this buildup is a direct result of both the Free Russian Legion activities near Belgorod and the Wagner Mutiny.  Obviously if it happened prior to Wagner doing its thing (June 23rd) then we could only pin it on the Free Russian Legion, if that.  But it’s my hunch it happened in July after the mutiny.

Most explanations for the Russian offensive in the north has been as a diversionary tactic to draw Ukrainian forces away from the land bridge to Crimea.  I’d contend this is not standard Russian tactics.  When Ukraine threatened Kherson, Russia went all in on defense of Kherson instead of pulling back to the left bank.  The other explanation, and this one is closer to my contention, is that Russia is attempting to capture territory up to the Oskil river and reservoir line which would make for a much more easily defended line than the current one.  It would be more similar to defending across the Dnipro than anything else.

But while I think capturing up to the Oskil is part of it, I think there is more to this move than just that.  Russia has been shown to be vulnerable in two different ways.  First, Wagner made it quite far to Moscow without significant opposition.  While Ukraine would face far more opposition if they attempted this as Russian units wouldn’t just step aside like they did for Wagner, this move isn’t about Ukraine.  Positioning more army forces in the north accomplishes two things.  One, it make Rostov-on-Don less important to the supply of the troops for the Russian army in general.  And two, it puts a much larger force in range of Belgorod and Kursk.  

Putin doesn’t want his entire army in Ukraine to be capable of being held hostage should an uprising or coup take Rostov-on-don again.  He also wants his forces more divided between areas.  Authoritarians depend upon competition between different power sources to play different parties against each other and prevent any single group from gaining enough power to revolt.  Splitting up the forces more evenly between commands will lessen the chance of a general getting big ideas from the Wagner mutiny.

Putin may also be coming to realize the danger that forces west of Donetsk City are in if they get cut off.  Losing too large of a chunk of the remaining army could threaten his regime in an even larger way than losing Crimea would.  This could be the first hints of reality breaking through to him.

Finally, he probably is threatened by the Free Russian Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps.  Even though it is the smaller of the two, the Russian Volunteer Corps being a far right wing group could pose a larger threat to Putin as it would have a greater chance of recruiting Russian army units to it.  I’m not saying this is likely, but I am saying Putin sees these groups as a large enough threat to make sure they do not get a foothold again in Russian territory.

If my theory is correct that defense of the Russian border and parts of occupied Ukraine in the North East are the new top priority, it could have a big impact upon the waging of the war from this point out.  RO37 was recently predicting both sides moving forces from this northern front to the south to start filling gaps.  However, as inconceivable it is, there is a possibility that Crimea is no longer top priority.  I’m not saying Russia won’t fight hard for it.  They will.  But in the coming months, if I’m correct, we will see Russia allocate far fewer troops to the south than we expect them to even as their lines begin to falter.

This isn’t hopium as even I don’t think my theory is that strong yet.  It will take some more backwards sleuthing to see if there is a change in Russian positions appropriately timed after the Wagner mutiny to suggest that the two are linked.  In the future I will be on the lookout for Russia refusing to reinforce the southern front in a manner we currently expect it to.  It will also bear watching where certain higher value units are positioned on the front.  Currently the northern front seems to be mostly motor rifle brigades and regiments which are the standard infantry formation.  Though I do see some Guards and VDV units which are theoretically higher quality units.  If high quality units are preferentially pulled from the south it may indicate Russia is giving up on it.

Again, all of this is highly speculative and not highly probable at the moment.  But I do think it bears watching to see if we can see any other signs of a change in Russian priorities.


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