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Russia's Cyclical War
Since February 24, the invasion has gone through two full cycles of perilous Russian headway eventually falling flat amid heroic counteroffensives. It will happen again if Ukraine's allies allow it.
Greetings from Belgrade! Today we will be discussing what to expect next from the war as we get ready to enter the New Year. As you may have noticed, the situation on the frontline has been relatively uneventful since the liberation of Kherson a month ago. While the Russians are making life miserable for Ukraine’s civilians through their relentless attack on infrastructure, their ground forces appear to mainly be digging in these days. The only exception is the assault against Bakhmut, but that is mainly a Wagner operation outside the armed forces’ command.
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The Russian armed forces apparently shifted strategy under General Sergey Surovikin, who took command of the main invasion force in October. He is actually Russia’s first unified commander in Ukraine; prior to Surovikin, the leadership on the ground was a hodgepodge of generals competing among themselves for Moscow’s attention and resources.
Dara Massicot at RAND posted an interesting thread last Friday evaluating Surovikin’s performance. It is a worthwhile read.
The short version is that Surovikin has curbed Ukraine’s advances by successfully transitioning his forces’ stance into a defensive posture. After managing to withdraw elite airborne troops largely intact from the left bank of the Dnipro River at Kherson, he is now digging in all across the line for the winter while using missile and drone strikes to cause grief far behind the line. In short, the invaders are learning from their mistakes and adapting.
We have seen this all before. Since February 24, the war has gone through two full cycles that both began with Russian success and ended with Ukrainian victories. In both cases, Russia lost control of the initiative in the middle of the the cycle through a combination of Ukrainian consolidation and increased scope of military aid from NATO. Russia has furthermore experienced diminishing returns from one cycle to the next while Ukraine’s victories escalated. With the last cycle having concluded with the liberation of Kherson, we are now waiting to see how the third cycle develops.
First cycle: failed regime change
The invasion’s first cycle began on February 24 with its initial blitzkrieg. Its initial plan presumed that the Ukrainian state would crumble under the pressure of its all-out attack bearing down on the capital and other vulnerable population centers. The plan might have worked had President Volodymyr Zelensky listened to his advisors and fled Kyiv, or if the military had not made a handful of critical decisions in the preceding weeks as they laid the groundwork for the defense of the capital.
After the shock of the first days began to wear off and it began to become clear that the Ukrainian state remained viable, the U.S. drastically increased weapons deliveries from pre-invasion levels. They also began sending Stinger missiles for the first time (although Latvia had already sent some on the day before the invasion). As nice as it would have been for Washington to have sent such help before the invasion, the Americans back then had been acting on the presumption that Kyiv was doomed to fall. They thought they were laying the groundwork for an insurgency, not a successful full-scale national defense.
With the Ukrainian armed forces standing strong through March amid regular resupply from the Polish border, Russia found itself fighting a war that it was totally unprepared for. After attempting to cobble together a Plan B with the forces it had in place, they finally decided at the end of March to withdraw entirely from the northern front while aborting its attempt to advance westward along the Black Sea coast. While the Battle of Kharkiv continued throughout April, the offensive against Ukraine’s second-largest city was clearly petering out. Amid its failure to dislodge the Ukrainian state, Russia instead decided to redirect its efforts to the Donbas.
Second Cycle: The Battle of Donbas, HIMARS and the autumn counteroffensives
When the time came for Putin to address the nation at the annual May 9 Victory Day parade on Red Square, he had little to celebrate. Not once did he even use the word “Ukraine” in his speech, instead attempting to characterize the war as a fight limited to the Donbas region against “Banderites backed by the United States.” The speech reflected the essence of what Russia had in store for its newest attempt to secure a win. Without acknowledging his previous failures, Putin retconned the “special military operation” to be all about evicting Ukraine from the Donbas.
This phase of the war is generally agreed to have begun on April 18 when a massive Russian push all across the Donbas contact line prompted Zelensky to declare that “the battle for the Donbas has begun.” The term is somewhat misleading, since Russian forces by then had already taken most of Luhansk Oblast along with Donetsk Oblast’s entire southern coast (save for the Azovstal plant in Mariupol, which would fall a month later). What the term actually refers to was the sudden offensive along the pre-February 24 contact line with the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, which had been relatively quiet as the invading forces pushed from Russia proper and occupied Crimea instead.
The situation was growing increasingly precarious for Ukraine in the Donbas throughout May. Concentrating its massive firepower in a relatively small area, Russian forces were able to rapidly advance under a curtain of artillery that Ukraine simply could not match. By the month’s end, Lyman had fallen and Russian forces had successfully broken out at Popasna. All that was left of Ukrainian-held Luhansk was the beleaguered Sievierodonetsk salient. The only good news was that the Izium axis in the northwest had failed to materialize, making it unlikely that Russia would successfully close the caldron around non-occupied Donbas. Still, it became clear that Ukraine was going to need some more help from its friends.
The only good news from the battlefield in June was that Russia was advancing slower than expected, with Sievierodonetsk holding out for most of the month. But Ukrainian casualties were extremely high, with the only comfort being that the invaders were paying a massive price themselves for every kilometer of land they seized. Ukraine thus retreated from Sievierodonetsk in late June, leaving Russia with the entire northern bank of the Donets River. That was followed by another retreat from Lysychansk, leaving Luhansk Oblast entirely in Russian hands by July 3.
But just as Russia was consolidating its gains in the Donbas, the first HIMARS multiple rocket launchers from the U.S. arrived in late June. With a range of about 50 miles, HIMARS allowed precise, devastating strikes deep into enemy territory unencumbered by Russian air defense. Suddenly, Russia lost the ability to stockpile ammunition close to the front, nor could officers safely establish headquarters. With the arrival of HIMARS, the war’s second cycle had shifted the fight back into Ukraine’s favor. Russian progress in the Donbas suddenly came to a halt.
After spending July and August weakening Russian defenses, Ukraine struck back in Kherson and Kharkiv Oblasts, delivering a devastating blow to the Russian war effort. The counteroffensive also reached parts of the Donbas, with the northern lid of the caldron retaken by Ukraine’s defenders. Finally, on November 8, Kherson city itself was liberated and the entire left bank of the Dnipro was in Ukrainian hands. The war’s second cycle was over.
To summarize: the first cycle began with Kyiv on the brink of capture and ended with Russia forced to abandon its plans for imminent regime change. The second cycle began with Russia making rapid advances in the Donbas before losing steam and ultimately losing vast amounts of occupied territory nationwide. So how can we expect this cycle to play out?
Before continuing, it should be pointed out that General Valerii Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s highest-ranking officer, warned in an interview with the Economist published yesterday that Russia is preparing resources for a new major offensive. He considers sometime in February the most likely start date, although possibly as early as the end of January or as late as March. He is noncommittal about where it will take place, but fears Kyiv may be the next target. He emphasized that he has “no doubt they will have another go at Kyiv” at some point.
If the available intel begins to match Zaluzhny’s predictions, it is possible that the next couple months will serve as an intermezzo between the autumn counteroffensives and whatever mad plan the Russian brass cooks up. It is possible that whatever happens from now through February or so will be overshadowed by an impending bloodbath as the world watches Russia position its shock troops.
That said, we will have to wait for visible buildups before we can conclude if, when and where Russia strikes in the new year. For now let us focus on the impending winter, which may prove to be either a cycle in its own right or a holding period between phases of the war.
It’s important to highlight just how relatively weak Russia’s current position is on the battlefield compared to previous cycles. While they have successfully created hardship for millions of Ukrainians through missile and drone strikes, they are fostering civilian resolve without really giving themselves an upper hand on the battlefield. Beyond raining death on power substations, the Russian forces (excluding Wagner) are not doing much in Ukraine apart from digging in while trying not to freeze to death under artillery fire. Success for them at this stage is largely a matter of how well their fighting force survives the next several months.
Hypothermia is no joke, and the available evidence suggests that it is proving to be a serious problem for the invaders. For a disturbing visualization of its effects in combat, check out this drone footage of a Russian foxhole (not for the fainthearted).
Ukraine’s best play on the front for now may be to keep its soldiers well fed, dressed and dry while maintaining punishing fire control against the enemy. Russia’s well-documented logistical woes will prove to be more of a liability than ever in the cold, giving Ukraine the opportunity to amplify losses from well-places strikes.
Tanks and Patriots, please
Whatever Russia does next, NATO allies will have to increase the scope of its military aid to properly disrupt the enemy’s new strategy. For the first cycle that meant giving more Javelins, NLAWs and Stingers, while HIMARS turned the second cycle back to Ukraine’s favor. What the defenders now need the most are Patriot air defense systems and tanks. Plans to deliver the former were announced this week, while deliberations are still underway for the second.
While the West has thus far balked at Kyiv’s requests for main battle tanks, there are signs that the push is gaining momentum. Some actually have arrived from Slovenia in the form of old Soviet T-55s upgraded with modern, U.K.-built guns. The U.S. has also given its nod of approval for Germany to supply Ukraine with the Leopard 2, the most practical choice given this tank’s dominance in the European market, as well as Marder infantry fighting vehicles. It is now up to Germany, which has already equipped Ukraine with self-propelled armored artillery, to make a final decision.
As it stands, Ukraine has plenty of Soviet-built tanks but a fickle supply of compatible ammunition. We witnessed the same problem with artillery, which was largely solved through the provision of American M777 and German Panzerhaubitze 2000 howitzers. These guns, in addition to being more modern than their Soviet counterparts, use 155mm NATO-standard shells. Thanks to standardization, any NATO member with a surplus can chip in. The same would hold true with NATO-produced tanks, which tend to use 120mm rounds.
There has of course been a lot of debate since the beginning of the invasion about the extent to which tanks are useful in modern warfare. Everyone saw the photos of devastated Russian tank columns outside Kyiv, leading some to speculate that armored assaults may be obsolete in an age of drone warfare and portable fire-and-forget missile launchers. Others still advocate for tanks, instead blaming Russian losses on bad strategy rather than the entire concept being obsolete.
While I do not have the technical knowledge to articulate one argument or the other, it must be pointed out that the true experts are the Ukrainians themselves. As it stands, the people who lit up hundreds of Russian tanks this year are quite confident that more armor is what they need to finish this war. I have no reason to second guess them.
A Zaporizhzhia counteroffensive?
All eyes this week are on Melitopol in occupied Zaporizhzhia Oblast after it was reported that Ukrainian forces damaged a key bridge there behind enemy lines. While we are still a ways off from a point where Ukraine is ready to initiate a full-blown counteroffensive on that front, a push south toward the Azov Sea here would be a logical next step if it is able to seize and maintain the initiative (that last caveat is crucial; all bets are off if a huge Russian strike force begins materializing in Belarus or Voronezh in the near future).
The Zaporizhzhia front has consistently been the war’s most stable and quiet since the early days of the invasion. Once they established overland lines of communication between Crimea and Russia proper along the Sea of Azov coast, the invaders stopped pushing north just south of Zaporizhzhia city as they encircled Mariupol to the east and assaulted Mykolaiv to the west of Kherson along the Black Sea. While Ukraine forced Russia to abort its push westward in April and has since pushed the enemy back to the east of the Dnipro River, the land bridge between Crimea and Russia’s Rostov Oblast remains in Russian hands.
Should Ukraine successfully push through Zaporizhzhia Oblast and regain defensible positions on the Sea of Azov, Russia’s only remaining overland supply route to its western front will be across the damaged Crimean bridge (which currently appears unable to carry heavy weapons). All of Kherson and much (perhaps all) of Zaporizhzhia would be liberated as a result, and the war would arrive at Crimea’s doorstep – even just seizing Melitopol would put the peninsula’s isthmus in HIMARS range.
That last part is important. While Crimea’s ultimate fate is still unclear, the mere possibility of Ukraine recovering any part of the peninsula would send shockwaves through Moscow given how much domestic legitimacy Putin has riding on the 2014 annexation. It is likely that defending Crimea would become the Kremlin’s number one wartime priority, at the expense of defending occupied territory anywhere else. Should Ukraine be able to credibly menace the peninsula, the entire nature of the war would change at Russia’s expense.
Or maybe Putin will do something incredibly audacious in the coming months and all present talks of counteroffensives become obsolete. What will not change, however, are the calls from Ukraine to get the right equipment to meet whatever challenge is next. Ukraine’s allies do not really need to bother with the details of where, exactly, the next great confrontation on the battlefield takes place. The main point Ukraine wants to impress upon them is that they need to send the Patriots and tanks posthaste.
It could be that Zaluzhny is underscoring this dark possibility as a means of nudging away complacency among NATO allies. He may also be signaling to his counterparts in Moscow them that he is extremely well-versed in their doctrine and knows precisely which options they are considering. Regardless, Zaluzhny is well-placed to speculate on his enemy’s decision-making progress. Although he was instrumental in transforming Ukraine’s military into a western-style fighting force, Zaluzhny was originally trained under the old Soviet doctrine still favored by Russia. He also keep a full collection of the works of Russian chief-of-staff General Valery Gerasimov in his office and claims to have read all of it.
For the current cycle, I am predicting two sources of deliverance. The first one, Patriot air defense missiles, were actually announced this week as I drafted this newsletter. Once the systems are in place and the crews are trained (I understand this may take a couple months), Ukraine will be much better placed to defend its cities from Russian missiles and drones.
But for Ukraine to initiate a proper counteroffensive against Surovikin’s new defenses, it will probably need new main battle tanks.
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