The War Now Hinges on Whether Russia Can Encircle the Ukrainian Army in Donbass
Merely pushing it back would be suboptimal
Editor’s note: When pro-Ukrainian (actually simply anti-Russian) UK think-tankers write about how Russia could win and is perhaps on the verge of doing so that’s an interesting and worthwhile read. RUSI is a kind of Britsh RAND Corporation. Military-focused and influential with the government.
Source: Royal United Services Institute
An assessment of Russian movements and successes in Ukraine indicates that Russian forces are advancing and may still achieve their goals. To survive the next few weeks, Ukrainian forces will need to adopt an operational plan based on exploiting their interior lines.
The war in Ukraine has been dominated by an effective and far-reaching information campaign led by the Ukrainian state. The Ukrainian narrative is dominating both the news and social media cycles, which are now of equal importance in forming public opinion. The narrative is littered with broken Russian convoys, farmers triumphantly towing boutique Russian air defence systems away from their hiding places, and harrowing footage of Russian tank formations being destroyed. And yet, by analysing three maps depicting the operational picture, including one released by the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) and two curated by open-source investigators – the Twitter account Jomini of the West and Konrad Muzyka’s Ukraine Conflict Monitor – it is apparent that Russian forces are making progress.
What the Maps Say
In the north of the country, Ukrainian forces have enjoyed significant successes, many of which have been well-publicised. The advance of Russian forces from the First Guards Tank Army and Second Combined Arms Army through an axis running past Sumy has proceeded on a narrow front with an extended vulnerable line of communications. Russian forces advancing from the north including from Belarus to both encircle Kyiv from the west and conduct a secondary offensive against Chernihiv have, similarly, stalled. Indeed, the inability of Russian forces in the north to make ground after an operational pause [true, the speed of Russian gains around Kiev after the pause has been underwhelming] has led some analysts to question whether the Russian army can in fact encircle Kyiv at all. In other theatres, Russian forces have made few gains against major cities, having captured only Kherson in the south so far, although it is likely that they will also take Mariupol.
However, an exclusive focus on cities [which the Russians are mostly happy to cordon off and leave be] – though understandable – may obscure more than it reveals. Though it seems clear that the initial Russian plan was based around a swift coup de main against Kyiv while the bulk of the Ukrainian army was pinned in the east opposite Donetsk and Luhansk, this is unlikely to remain the case. Even under best-case assumptions (from a Russian perspective), it is unlikely that Kyiv will be taken soon.
However, it is worth considering that there is a second Ukrainian centre of gravity – alluded to by Vladimir Putin in his pledge to ‘demilitarise’ Ukraine – the regular Ukrainian army, most of which remains near Donetsk and Luhansk under the aegis of the Joint Forces Operation (JFO).
The position of this force is looking increasingly precarious as Russian forces advance to encircle it on three axes. Russian forces of the 58th Combined Arms Army and 22nd Army, pushing north from Crimea, have commenced assaults on Beryslav along the Dnieper, and appear likely to link up at Polohy with Russian separatist forces and the Eighth Combined Arms Army advancing from Donbas. Elements of the First Guards Tank Army and Sixth Combined Arms Army advancing past Kharkiv also appear to have largely eschewed attempts to take the city – focusing instead on reducing it with artillery while bypassing it as they advance south and west past Poltava, cutting the JFO off from escaping northwards. Finally, in the southwest, Russian forces of the 20th Guards Motor Rifle Division appear similarly intent on bypassing Mykolaiv but, notably, may not be advancing on Odessa. Instead, they appear to be advancing north, which could suggest a desire to seize the western banks of key crossing points over the Dnieper.
Viewed in conjunction, these advances present a troubling picture whereby the Ukrainian forces opposite Donetsk and Luhansk are at risk of encirclement on the eastern side of the Dnieper.
If this is indeed the focus of Russia’s approach, then the emphasis on Russia’s ability to take major cities as a metric of success will have been an analytical error, as Russia appears more intent on pinning Ukrainian forces in cities like Kharkiv while it bypasses them. Indeed, preparations for an amphibious assault on Odessa may have been a feint, given that the ground forces such an assault could have linked up with appear to be moving north.
For Ukraine, this represents a critical moment. The encirclement and destruction of a large part of the country’s regular armed forces could represent a victory condition for Russia in two ways. First, we might consider what figures like Jomini and Clausewitz postulated in the context of their own time: that armies and not cities are a nation’s centre of gravity. The destruction of armies tends to lead to a broader collapse of will that makes sieges unnecessary.
In 1940, for example, German forces did not besiege Paris; having encircled the French army in the field and decisively beaten it, this became unnecessary. To hold Kyiv and other major cities at the cost of allowing the forces of the JFO to be encircled could prove disastrous. Even if Ukrainian will did not collapse following the encirclement and destruction of the JFO, the elimination of this force could lead Russia to claim it had achieved its goal of demilitarising Ukraine and would enable an annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk at a minimum.
Finally, it is worth considering the importance of regulars in any post-war campaign mounted against Russian occupation. Compound warfare, involving both regular and irregular formations, tends to have a good track record of eventually defeating occupation by a stronger force, with examples including the Peninsular War and Chinese Civil War. It is, in many ways, preferable to a pure insurgency strategy. While irregulars can raise the costs of occupation and harass supply lines, they require a regular force to both pin the attention of an occupier and conduct eventual counteroffensives. The survival of the forces currently in the east of Ukraine would therefore be critical to an insurgency’s success.
Withdrawing will both prove difficult and entail the politically painful decision to abandon Donetsk and Luhansk. Despite this, however, it remains necessary to withdraw the force to the west both to ensure its immediate survival and, moreover, to enable Ukraine to exploit its major geographical advantage – interior lines of operation – by concentrating counteroffensives on select axes against locally inferior Russian forces.
Russians caputered Kamyanka,surrounding small number of Ukrainians in southern part of Izyum.Clashes continue in orange villages pic.twitter.com/zR7vSzxizV
— ZOKA (@200_zoka) March 16, 2022
Lessons for Analysts and Planners
Though it is too early to predict the outcome of a dynamic conflict, if Ukrainian forces do risk encirclement, this will be a salutary lesson for analysts in several ways. Firstly, our initial focus on Kyiv, despite the Russians pursuing this objective in tandem with a much broader encirclement, highlights the risk of tunnel vision, whereby specific objectives are viewed in separation from their context. Secondly, an emphasis on the impressive results achieved by Ukrainian forces at the tactical level, and the immense losses sustained by Russian ground forces, may have come at the expense of a focus on the operational level of warfare. This overemphasis on tactical-level results has historically been a challenge – one that bedevilled Cold War plans such as the active defence concept – and should be guarded against by analysts and planners in the future. It is apparent from the operational situation discussed above that the Ukrainian forces are suffering setbacks, and open-source evidence of this is lacking.
It follows that the situation is at best being misrepresented, and that a balanced assessment in this case will require a degree of patience from analysts.