A relentless Russian onslaught

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin AP PHOTO -


AT THE outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, the Russian intention was clear: take the capital, decapitate the head of the snake and its military command structure will crumble. The Russians, whether through bad military intelligence or just pure hubris, severely underestimated the resolve of the Ukrainian people. The disastrous attempted encirclement of Kyiv proves this. The Russians had less than 50,000 soldiers to pacify a city of over three million. You don't need to be a military expert to recognise that those numbers are simply inadequate.

It was a similar story in Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Mykolaiv. The Russians attempted blitzkrieg tactics to encircle major Ukrainian cities. Russia's lightning war failed for a few reasons. Its military transport and logistics network is mainly defensive and relies on the Russian railway system, making it hard to sustain front lines far beyond its borders.

“Combined arms” is the military doctrine of modern warfare: the air force, army, navy and special forces working in synergy towards a common goal. What we saw instead in the initial phase was a disjointed mess. The army acted without air support, limited collaboration between military arms, and inept politically-appointed generals operating as silos.

Russian military incompetence and corruption are well-documented phenomena and were on full display in the opening phase of this conflict. Trucks were left stranded in fields from collapsed tyre walls due to lack of maintenance, tanks abandoned for lack of fuel, and helicopter after helicopter shot down. At least four Russian generals are among the high-ranking military staff killed in action.

It quickly became apparent to the Russian military command that discontinuing their ambitious offensives was the best course of action. They withdrew from the north (Kyiv and Chernihiv) and made tactical retreats from the east and south (Kharkiv and Mykolaiv) to more defensible positions in Ukrainian territory.

The Russian supply lines were too long. The Russians failed to establish air superiority and the prospect of a devastating Ukrainian counterattack became a legitimate concern to the Kremlin. Most importantly, however, Russian manpower was then and still is now inefficient for multiple assaults over an expansive front line.

This retreat marked a new phase in the conflict. The Kremlin, recognising its initial failures, switched tactics and methods. Russia redeployed troops from northern Ukraine to its southern and eastern fronts. Then focused on establishing control over Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland: the Donbas region. As of August 9, Luhansk is under Russian occupation, and the majority of Donetsk has fallen to the invaders. These two regions make up the Donbas.

The lack of Russian manpower (terrain and fortifications also play a part) has restricted the Kremlin's ability to make large sweeping manoeuvres, forcing it to resort to brutally efficient grinding tactics. Ukrainian defensive positions along the front line are shelled daily by a ceaseless barrage of Russian artillery fire.

A slow march forward is in progress, aided by an overwhelming advantage in artillery systems and ammunition. The Russians pummel any structure or defensive fortification in their way until it is no longer an obstacle. This tactic is one they mastered in the second Chechen war. The result of that conflict?

Chechneya's capital, Grozny, lay levelled to the ground. Russian forces proclaimed victory over the shattered shell of Chechneya's pride. The destruction was so complete in its totality that the United Nations in 2003 called Grozny "the most destroyed city on Earth."

Every day another village or settlement falls, bit by bit, street by street, and the Ukrainian positions on the eastern front lines are collapsing. Kramatorsk and Sloviansk are the two remaining major Ukrainian cities in Donetsk, and the Russians are slowly closing in. If or when these cities fall, then where will the Kremlin’s turn its gaze next?

Likely targets include Mykolaiv and Kharkiv. Russia's initially stated military objective was the "denazification of Ukraine." An ambiguous statement by design, Russian leadership knows that they cannot declare a goal and then not achieve it. The domestic backlash could topple the regime by removing the veneer of strength and infallibility that Vladimir Putin's cult of personality projects.

What does that tell you? When the Kremlin explicitly states a goal, it fully intends to carry it out. Senior Russian government officials have said the liberation of eastern and southern Ukraine is their objective. What does this entail?

In the east, Russia may renew efforts to take Kharkiv to further Putin's goal of reuniting Novorossiya with the motherland. In 2014, the Russian president stated, "The essential issue is how to ensure the legitimate rights and interests of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in the southeast of Ukraine. I would like to remind you that what was called Novorossiya (New Russia) back in the tsarist days – Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Mykolaiv and Odessa – were not part of Ukraine back then. These territories were given to Ukraine in the 1920s by the Soviet government. Why? Who knows."

In the south, Russia intends to sever Ukrainian access to the Black Sea, thus securing control over offshore natural resources and leaving a Ukrainian rump state dependent on Russia for access to shipping ports. In this regard, only two regions stand resolute in defiance of Putin's war machine: Mykolaiv and Odessa.

Odessa has great cultural significance in Russia. Its occupation and successful integration into the Russian Federation may be enough for the Kremlin to declare victory. Geographically the Odessa region serves another purpose as well. It borders the pro-Russian Moldavian breakaway state of Transnistria. A land border could allow Transnistrian acceptance into the federation, which would be seen domestically as another policy win for the Putin government.

Winter is coming. The muddy marshlands and plains of Ukraine, previously unfavourable to heavy Russian mechanised transport and tanks, will harden. Europe's energy demand is going to be at its peak. The Kremlin's bargaining position will be at its strongest since the start of the war, making an end to this conflict unlikely in the near future. Russia continues its relentless onslaught.


"A relentless Russian onslaught"

More in this section