The Russian strongman has a free hand in Ukraine; his forces dominate the country, and he has enough in hand to ratchet up the military pressure notch by notch
A week into the Russian military operation in Ukraine, and the fog of war remains as thick as ever. This is because of, one, the purposeful lack of media spectacle in the Russian advance that began on 24 February, and two, saturation-level imagery across media, social and otherwise, depicting the entire campaign as one of Putin’s troops swarming towards urban concentrations even as outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian forces fight back. Between the largely downplayed but rapid movement of Russian formations and the near-constant good guy-bad guy depiction of the war, a gross pattern is, however, beginning to emerge.
What we definitely know is that Russian forces have moved north and west from the Crimea, south and southwest from Russia and south from Belarus. Major cities – Kyiv, Sumy, Kharkiv in the north, Odessa and Kherson on the southern coast, and Mariupol in the east – are surrounded by Russian forces.
Putin seems to have executed a war of position in the first week. This ties in with the remarkably sparing use of the Air Force and the famed Russian heavy artillery. Russia has not destroyed any major infrastructure yet; telephones, trains, the internet continue to work across Ukraine. This ties in with him being open to talks in Belarus with the Ukraine government led by Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Peace still has a chance.
The positioning is, however, near complete now. Most unbiased observers of the campaign concur that Putin has yet to commit the bulk of his forces deployed for Ukraine. This can only mean that the real fighting is about to start, provided Ukraine doesn’t surrender to Putin’s main demand of it turning neutral, staying away from NATO and effecting major demilitarisation.
It must be remarked that Russia has been fighting pitched battles in the Ukraine region for centuries. Their maps and knowledge of the ground are detailed enough to know practically every rock and every tree, and they’ve had enough time to prepare for the conflict. The Russian military machine has also gained valuable experience from its actions in Georgia in 2008, and Syria from 2015 onwards, besides drawing vital lessons from the NATO actions in the Balkans and across the Middle East.
The Russian intent, as of now, appears to be:
- Surround Kyiv and other major cities
- Secure the southern coast and the Crimean peninsula
- Push Ukrainian forces out of the Donbass region or destroy them where they stand
Russia has moved to take the southern coast; Ukraine is for all intents and purposes a landlocked country now. The forces moving north up from Crimea have since reached the southern edge of the Donbass, also cutting off Mariupol, a key port on the Azov sea that has been in Ukrainian hands since June 2014. Mariupol hosts a large number of Ukrainian fighters, and is likely to be the scene of a bloody urban battle.
Major nuclear installations, including Chernobyl of the 1986 disaster fame, have been secured. Major airports are in Russian hands, including Hostomel airport close to Kyiv, and will no doubt be used to move fighting units into the action quickly. Russian formations are moving unhindered on the highways. That the Ukrainians have had to blow up bridges only underscores the relentlessness of the Russian advance.
There is no front as such in Ukraine; the Russians are moving in from three major directions, and their advances tie up into a large noose (red line in the map).
The Russian campaign thus has three linked components that can be identified with three compass points of north, south and east.
It was on 21 February that Russian president Vladimir Putin unrolled his Ukraine campaign with the recognition of the two Donbass republics, Luhansk and Donetsk. The regime change of 2014 in Ukraine was followed by conflict between the two mostly Russian breakaway republics and Ukrainian forces. Between sporadic fighting and numerous ceasefires, Ukrainian forces in the east have claimed a wide swathe of the Donbass region. Backed by Russia, the two republics have grimly held on.
Now that Luhansk and Donetsk are independent republics recognised by an invading Russia, all Ukrainian forces in the territory are – according to Putin – on foreign land.
And he has moved, not to attack but encircle and cut them off from the rest of Ukraine. The two long arrows in the eastern part of the map are axes along which Russian forces from the north and south are moving to complete the encirclement of Ukrainian forces in the Donbass region.
Contrary to the social media perception that includes ghost aces in the sky, Russia appears to dominate Ukrainian airspace. This means that the way west — there is one major highway that goes due west from the Donbass — towards Ukraine is not available to the roughly 60,000 Ukrainian soldiers now in the tightening pincer, at least not for a massed breakout.
Putin has clearly declared ‘denazification and demilitarization‘ of Ukraine as his strategic objectives. The Ukrainian forces on the verge of being cut-off in the Donbass region, including Mariupol, are largely composed of neo-Nazi militias and their fighting units. They will have to surrender or be wiped out.
In the south, a band of territory approximating the coastline is in Russian hands. The port of Odessa is cut off by Russian forces; Kherson, another port, is in their hands. Crimea, which Russia accessed by a bridge from its own territory till now, is now linked by land to the Russian mainland. A canal that supplied water from the Dnieper river to the peninsula had been dammed by Ukraine but that dam has been destroyed and fresh water is now flowing again to Crimea.
In the north, major cities are surrounded by Russian forces. Whether these moves translate into battles, with the possible outcome of Russian forces getting bogged down in urban warfare, should be known soon. Russian forces appear to be poised to enter Kharkiv. If that happens, it will be the first of the city battles Putin will have to fight.
As of now, Putin has a free hand in Ukraine. His forces dominate the country, and he has enough in hand to ratchet up the military pressure notch by notch. The US-led NATO has made it clear that it won’t enter the Ukraine theatre or impose a no-fly zone like in Iraq. Then again, how the many weapons — mostly small arms — promised by Western countries get into Ukrainian hands is a question that has not been answered yet.
The best outcome for the US is a long-drawn insurgency in Ukraine, a war that can used to bleed Russia militarily even as sanctions and economic pressure choke its economy. Putin, however, is working to a plan on eliminating the military and neo-Nazi threat from Ukraine, and turning it into a neutral zone.
No plan survives contact with battle, and whether Putin’s Ukraine campaign develops to fulfil its strategic objectives with the rapidity he seeks will be revealed in the days to come.
With inputs from agencies