Russia Is Trying to Advance Along Too Many Axes at Once and It’s Showing
You can't wage a soft war AND divide your effort between six different axes
Here is a fact. During the first 4 days of the war the Russians were trying to get into Kharkov. They were sending small probing forces relatively deep into the city to get the idea of enemy strength while much larger forces sat on the outskirts waiting for orders.
️ Russian troops continue to advance in Kharkiv pic.twitter.com/MxvNX7ZKdf
— The RAGE X – Conflict News (@theragex) February 27, 2022
Here is also a fact. After the first 4 days, the Russian forces stopped their incursions into the city, and the forces sitting outside of the city were transferred to the Kiev and Donbass theaters.
In other words, the Russians realized that they were trying to do too much with too little. They were trying to advance along too many axes and it wasn’t going to work. The Kharkov effort was thus quickly abandoned to strengthen two other axes of advance.
This raises a question. Along how many axes are the Russians trying to advance at the present moment, 16 days into the war? Are they now concentrated enough, or still spread out too much?
Let’s look at the Russian forces in the south that broke through from Crimea. These are now attempting to do three things simultaneously.
About 5 of its BTGs are at Mariupol trying to storm the city along the forces of Donetsk Republic. The latter could have probably kept the city bottled up on their own, but it was decided to try and take it.
Meanwhile, 7 of its BTGs are pushing north toward the city of Zaporozhye on the Dnieper and the town of Gulyaipole to its east. This is an important one. Enveloping Zaporozhye from the east would neutralize its bridges. This would cut one of the two routes Ukrainian forces in Donbass can use to retreat behind the river. (The other being the bridges in Dnipro.)
Finally, 8 BTGs have crossed the Dnieper and have advanced far forming a kind of long tentacle from Kherson on the Dnieper past Nikolaev on the Bug, and far up the Bug river to a town called Voznesensk.
This last effort is particularly difficult to understand. Russia is attacking the great vastness of southwestern Ukraine beyond the Dnieper with a force of under 7,000 men.
While the advance from Kherson past Nikolaev and to Voznesensk looks impressive on a map it means that with every step taken its flank gets longer and there are fewer forces left to face forward. The thinly spread troops are then forced to fight small-scale skirmishes in which, spread out as they are, they hold no advantage over the enemy which can locally muster firepower equal to theirs. The Ukrainians have also been able to raid their exposed supply lines, taking prisoners.
Don’t get me wrong. Taking Nikolaev, crossing the Bug, and advancing on Odessa are worthwhile goals. Strategically and morally, landlocking Ukraine could be very impactful. But it is not something that is going to be achieved by 7,000 men.
It seems to me that Russia either ought to commit enough forces to get the task done, or not attempt it at all. Using up men and lives to form a ridiculous tentacle stretching into the Ukrainian vastness that achieves no strategic objective is the worst of both worlds.
A smaller force backed by airpower could have protected the captured Dnieper crossings with a bridgehead while the rest helped out in the east in the critical Zaporozhye direction where just going from 7 BTGs to 12 could have potentially made a very big difference. (They’re stuck but near.)
Instead, spread out between three separate directions and objectives (Mariupol, Zaporozhye, Nikolaev), the forces that broke out from Crimea are securing none of them particularly fast.
The only reason this isn’t a massive problem is because 16 days into the campaign a true northern pincer to complement the Zaporozhye effort and trap the Ukrainian units in Donbass still hasn’t materialized anyway.
The Russian side helped by Lugansk has made considerable gains against Ukraine’s Donbass concentration of forces. But rather than going for a deep pincer and encirclement this progress has consisted of collapsing the Ukrainian positions from the flank which allows them to fall back and retreat to safety.
However, in recent days what could become a pincer has started to form with Russian advances on Izyum and Balakliya. Why did it take so long? Not enough forces. The 20th Combined Arms Army on that axis doesn’t have more than 10 BTG in total and some have been occupied on the flanks.
Where are all the forces? Devoted to the Kiev operation which is supported by no fewer than three separate axes. From Belarus down south to the west of the Dnieper. From Belarus down south to the east of the Dnieper. And from Russia past Sumy going west. Altogether over 60 BTG.
The big Ukrainian concentration of forces along the Donbass contact line, close to the Russian border presented a unique opportunity for Moscow to radically alter the military equation very early into the war. It presented the opportunity to swiftly degrade the Ukrainian military via a strategic success, rather than having to grind out a win at the tactical level.
Encircling, and then marching off 40,000 Ukrainian troops in Donbass to POW camps would have bitten the head off of their military. That is probably a third of their first-rate troops. It would have also affected the morale of all the rest.
It was also perfectly doable. Deep, focused pincers past Mariupol to Zaporozhye, and past Kharkov to Dnipropetrovsk were entirely within the ability of the Russian forces had they been amassed for this job. The Russian forces going to Kiev past Sumy covered a longer distance than that in under a week. By now, the Donbas cauldron could have already been cooking for over a week had it been prioritized.
Military 101 would say that it should have been. Striking at the center of gravity of the enemy military is always the first step. Going for the political center of gravity only the second. It’s the far safer play.
Instead, Putin very clearly demanded a focus on Kiev and the enemy’s political system. This is a much more ambitious play where you try to force a win at the higher level, moral rather than physical. But it’s far more uncertain because unlike for the physical plane there is no arithmetic. There is no way to know what must be achieved to have a certain result and to attain victory.
It would have been a fantastic coup if it actually worked, but of course, it didn’t.
Putin made the plan yet more ambitious than a by-the-books military campaign would be in a number of other ways. The military was made to do without airstrikes, without artillery, was to avoid and extricate itself from contact with the enemy but was to snake forward regardless, was to push at lightning speed in small company-sized units, and was to have fewer than 1/3rd of its BTGs actually committed. In fact, during the first three days we weren’t looking at a military operation at all. We were looking at a simulation of a military operation. We were looking at a psychological operation using the military as a prop. All of this made it more unlikely that the drive on Kiev on which everything hinged would actually succeed. There is only so much ambition (wishful thinking?) one plan can contain before it becomes a complete dud.
Now, the Kremlin is even saying that any conscripts which entered Ukraine were sent by mistake (conscripts are legally guaranteed they won’t be ordered abroad) and that Moscow will look into prosecuting commanders who ordered their conscripts to come along.
This is another insanity. If it is really the case that Russian officers felt under pressure to leave their conscripts behind then that would actually help explain a lot.
In the Russian military most combat roles are filled by contract soldiers while conscripts fill a chunk of the support roles. The Russian military can not fight without its conscript enablers. In place of prosecuting officers who use conscripts, Putin ought to issue a decree retaining current conscripts past their 12-month term due to war. Soon the large spring 2021 conscript class will have to be released and much experience and training will be lost. (Russia takes up most of its recruits in two large drives in spring and fall.)
This conscript ban (if real) is yet another way in which Putin is hamstringing the military and thinking he can wage a halfway war.
There is actually something very disturbing about that. Putin’s thesis is that a Russian-Ukrainian war is a fratricidal war between brothers, between one and the same people even. So what excuse is there for Russia to not do everything in her power to create the overmatch that puts Ukraine out of its misery quickly?
What possible excuse can there be to juggle the needs of the war against trifles such as the state breaking its word to conscripts and their mothers? (A state that lies all the time BTW, as they all do.) All this seeming high-minded stuff Putin started the war with sounds nice enough on paper, but what it does in the real world is prolong the bloodletting and ultimately drives up the price for everyone involved.
If you are truly high-minded then just don’t escalate.
But if you do escalate, then do it the correct way — going all in and giving it your all.
No willful self-delusion. No drawing up of a plan that has the theoretical potential of delivering a near bloodless resolution, but that has nearly zero chance of actually panning out. (And leaves you maldeployed when it fails.) Draw a plan that is actually going to work in the real world that limits the loss of life as much as possible within the constraints of an actually workable, realistic plan.
None of this half-assery is permissible. A war on a brother is no sideshow that can be fought with one arm only. Launching a military campaign to make Ukrainians remember they’re just a regional variant of Russian is a dubious enough proposition as it is. But if you’re going to do it anyway it should at least consume the full attention and effort of the entire nation. (But that would have required ideological preparation which of course wasn’t done.)
Limiting the use of artillery as much as possible is laudable. But what you can not do is set artillery aside and spread yourself over six(!) different axes AT THE SAME TIME. Some concessions to reality do have to be made. Ukraine is a big country. How you approach a big country is piecemeal. That requires concentrating your forces and prioritization.
To be perfectly fair, Russia does have a focus — but it’s the wrong one. Battle of Kiev will entail fighting numerous Ukrainian forces in the country’s largest city which is the last place where you want to fight them. Meanwhile the campaign against the exposed Ukrainian forces far to the east which are in an open field proceeds on leftover scraps of manpower.
To be fair, the idea was that Kiev would be encircled quickly and flow of reinforcements cut off early on but that hasn’t happened. Advancing from Belarus where the Russian military doesn’t have permanent infrastructure proved tricky, and due to maskirovka logic* the forces sent to Belarus could only be from the Eastern Military District which, facing friendly China, is Russia’s lowest priority district for professional soldiers and new equipment.
As it is, 16 days into the war Kiev is still not fully blockaded. Its lines to the south are still open on both sides of the river and will remain for the next couple of days. And let’s be very clear about something. The Kiev axes, particularly the two Belarusian ones, spent a full week in March in an operational pause. That is to say the gargantuan Kiev task forces spent a full week not making gains. Where if just some of them were in the southeast they could have been advancing and contributing to — speeding up and enlarging — a major strategic victory.
Anyhow, if Russian mapmakers are to be believed the Donbass pocket is now nonetheless slowly forming. Some Ukrainian troops will likely be caught and disarmed but the haul likely won’t be anywhere near the 40K that was possible with a focused operation with deep pincers early on. Also having come later it won’t have that key early impact on morale.
The Russian problem is clearly overstretch. Even the Kiev forces are still dealing with attacks on their supply lines and pockets of resistance in their rear. Doing a phased plan that in the initial stage assigned the Kiev-bound advance a diversionary role, while the real focus was on removing a 40K enemy force from the board quickly could have solved a lot of that.
It has to be said the Russians (their leadership) underestimated their little brother here. They didn’t even give the Ukrainians the courtesy of drawing up a plan for a proper by-the-books military operation against them. Instead, they thought they would wage an overambitious psy-op.
But Why? If the Ukrainians are the same people as the Russians, why should they fight any less hard? Why should the Little Russians just collapse because the Great Russians came for a visit? Why was this even hoped for?
The Ukrainian performance is good, they’re making any Rus’-appreciator proud, and whatever the outcome they deserve a big monument after the war. But the guy who empathically doesn’t deserve a monument for his performance in this one is the guy who drew the Russian plan for this “not-war”.
*Having Eastern District units in the Western District while Western District units were in Belarus would have been a dead giveaway. Western District units staying in their district while Eastern troops “exercised” in Belarus made it slightly more believable.