Putin’s Dumb War of Choice 3.0

The stated aim now is to ‘protect’ the people of Donetsk and Luhansk against Ukrainian ‘Nazis’. The military-strategic aims would thus appear to be threefold. First, the encirclement and destruction of the Ukrainian forces in the Joint Force Operating Area (in a box on the map at the head of this article between Kharkiv, Poltava, Dnipro and Kramatorsk. Second, to secure the axis Kharkiv, Izium, Donetsk. Third, secure the land bridge between Russia’s Zone of Occupation in the East and Crimea.

Republished piece by
Long-time Friend of SAGE International,
Prof. Dr. Julian Lindley-French from his Blog Blast Series

 “Ukraine was becoming an anti-Russian bridgehead where sprouts of nationalism and neo-Nazism were being cultivated. This new generation of Ukrainian nationalists are especially clashing with Russia. You see how Nazi ideology became a fact of life in Ukraine…we had no other choice…there is no doubt that we will achieve our goals”.

President Vladimir Putin, April 12th, 2022

Long war, cold war

April 14th, 2022. The war in Ukraine is going to be a long war followed by a new Cold War. Moscow is now adapting its short-term war aims to suit its available forces which is why the next campaign should be seen as a distinct war in what will become an iterative series of wars. The Western Allies must now decide what their war aims and establish policy and strategy to that end. NATO, a defensive alliance, must thus define a concept of winning. That is the lesson from the Second Russo-Ukraine War and the coming Third Russo-Ukraine War.

Putin won the First Russo-Ukraine War in 2014 when he successfully seized Crimea and much of the Donbas region. Putin was defeated in the Second Russo-Ukraine War and his attempt to seize Kyiv. He is now about to launch the Third Russo-Ukraine War in the Donbas Region. However, the ends, ways and means of both his Ukraine strategy, and his wider aim to roll back NATO enlargement, do not as yet add up. Therefore, the NATO Allies are faced with a choice. They can either seek to defeat the Russian Army now by actively supporting Ukraine to destroy the ‘reconstitution sites’ the Russians have set up, but that will take direct NATO military action. Or, NATO can help Ukraine resist the coming Russian offensive by helping them to fight the Russian Army to a stalemate. The latter option will leave a lot of south and east Ukraine in Russian hands, but also buy some time for both the European Allies and Ukraine to reconstitute credible deterrence and thus forestall a Fourth Russo-Ukraine War in the future. There is another alternative; the Allies can allow the Ukrainians to be defeated, which would lay the ground for Putin at some point to launch the First Russo-NATO.

Russia’s fluid war aims

If Moscow was acting logically it would wait for the land to dry out and the reservists, foreign fighters and mercenaries they have mobilised in the wake of their defeat to be properly trained and equipped. Then Russian forces would be well-placed to do what they have historically done best, grind down smaller more agile enemies through the meat-grinding application of mass and attrition. If Moscow was acting logically it would not have started these wars in the first place. It would appear Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who is a fanatical supporter of the war, has more influence over Putin these days than his generals. And, if President Putin really does want to declare victory by May 9th then he simply cannot wait that long.

The stated aim now is to ‘protect’ the people of Donetsk and Luhansk against Ukrainian ‘Nazis’. The military-strategic aims would thus appear to be threefold. First, the encirclement and destruction of the Ukrainian forces in the Joint Force Operating Area (in a box on the map at the head of this article between Kharkiv, Poltava, Dnipro and Kramatorsk. Second, to secure the axis Kharkiv, Izium, Donetsk. Third, secure the land bridge between Russia’s Zone of Occupation in the East and Crimea. Russia’s decision not to adopt general mobilisation would suggest that capturing Odesa and securing a land bridge to Transnistria and Moldova is no longer a Russian objective for this campaign season. Moscow’s objective of denying Ukraine all and any access to the Black Sea has been further dented by the destruction of the guided missile cruiser Moskva.

Putin’s dumb war 2.0

In President Putin’s mind he is already fighting World War Three. That might seem a strange assertion given that despite fourteen years of modernisation the Russian Army seems only able to undertake limited manoeuvre operations en masse close to Russia’s borders using dumb air power and even dumber land power. Operational planning, tactics and logistics during Russia’s failed war 2.0 was appalling, the combat power of Russian spearhead formations unimpressive, and the casualties reflective of a poorly-trained, poorly-equipped and ill-disciplined force. By using targeted, intelligent small unit actions on their own terrain, reinforced by portable anti-tank and anti-air weapons, the Ukrainians conducted a superb mobile defence with which the pinned, clunking Russian formations simply could not cope. Critically, the Russians failed to destroy Ukrainian command centres, let alone decapitate the political state, and could not even gain air supremacy over Ukraine. Russian forces were also constantly surprised by Ukraine’s clever use of drones and its exploitation of tactical intelligence.

This profound failure begs several important questions. Why did Putin launch a military campaign in Ukraine when the land was so wet it was unpassable for all but the lightest of forces? Why did advanced airborne forces (VVD) have such poor force protection and why were they used in such a low-level dispersed infantry role? Where was the Russian Air Force? Above all, why did Russian commanders launch a multi-direction campaign ordered to seize ten Ukrainian districts when they must have known lacked the force, the command chain, intelligence and secure communications, or even doctrine to conduct such a complex deep joint operation? If the Russian force deployed during the first war had come up against NATO forces it would almost have certainly been totally destroyed by H plus 48.

The Third Russo-Ukrainian War

The Third Russo-Ukrainian War is likely to be run by a Stavka that Marshals Zhukov and Konev would recognise, albeit with new operational staff, a more competent and less complicated plan operational plan, and with only a fraction of the available manpower of a World War Two Russian Army Front. Proval blitskriga revisited, albeit without the blitskriga? Crucially, the Russians have now shortened their lines of supply and re-supply to prevent the chronic logistics failure that took place in the recent war.

The Americans believe the Russians still have about 80% of the combat power that was available to them on February 23rd, just prior to the start of 2.0 when they had 190,000 personnel massed on Ukraine’s borders with Belarus and Russia. There are some 40% of Ukraine’s Regular Army in the Joint Force Operating Area facing Donetsk and Luhansk. Many of them are in fixed defensive positions that have been constructed since 2014 to contain Russian-backed separatists. The Third Russo-Ukrainian War will seek to destroy the Ukrainian forces facing the Russia Army and will be very different to the assault on Kyiv, and in some respects could be even dumber. The Russians appear to have used up a lot of their precision guided munitions, whilst advanced systems, such as the Iskander short-range tactical missile and the Kinzhal hypersonic missile seem fewer in number than expected. It seems the new Russian Army is still only capable of fighting in the old Russian manner.

The Russians will learn what they can from their many mistakes, but for the next three weeks at least their forces will be vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike as they concentrate for 3.0. The new Russian commander, General Alexandr Dvornikov, conducted a brutal campaign on civilians in Syria. Dvornikov is vulnerable in part because he still has six Combined Arms Army headquarters to integrate even as he builds up his forces for the coming offensive. That is why he is trying to centralise all Russian forces under his command. There was evident friction between the commanders of the Western, Central and Southern Military Districts during 2.0. Dvornikov is also likely to offset the loss of land combat power and manoeuvre by massively increasing the use of Russian air, missile and artillery attacks on fixed Ukrainian positions. Whilst Russian airpower possibly lost some 10% of its capability during 2.0 it still has some 1000 combat-capable aircraft, including some 97 of the modernised 4th/5th generation hybrid Su-35S Flanker M, whilst event at the outset of the war Ukraine only had some 124 combat aircraft organised around 36 ageing MiG-29 Fulcrum.

Dvornikov will also pose the Ukrainians a profound dilemma. Do they seek to form a striking force and try to inflict a further humiliating defeat on the Russian Army, or do they try to recover territory. Given the correlation of forces the Ukrainians are unlikely to achieve both objectives. To secure either option the Ukrainians urgently need far more long-range missile and artillery capability. Thereafter, the Ukrainian Armed Forces will need training and equipping with far more advanced Western systems such as Leopard 2s (Germany?)

NATO v Russia

NATO must now answer a profound and pressing question: what must the Alliance do going forward if it is to successfully deter Putin? Putin has chosen a confrontational course of action with the Alliance. He is unlikely to stop because in his mind if he successfully establishes a new iron curtain along the line Kaliningrad, Belarus, Ukraine, Black Sea he will go down in Russian history as Vladimir the Great.

As for President Putin the First, Second and Third Russo-Ukraine Wars are all wars of his choosing. He did not have to start them. There is no reason to believe that this man will not continue to make bad choices for his country, for Europe, and for the wider world. Therefore, it is vital that the Alliance not only help Ukraine resist the coming onslaught, and in time regain its sovereignty, but also deter Putin from launching the most dangerous war of all – the First Russo-NATO War. The only way for NATO to deter him will be to convince Putin he cannot win and to do that the Alliance needs to plan and act…and now!

Julian Lindley-French

Views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of
SAGE International 

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