Thursday, March 30th, 2023 02:11:58

Has Russian Juggernaut Bogged Down In Ukraine?

By Colonel Utkarsh Singh Rathore
Updated: April 4, 2022 1:01 pm

With an area of 603,628sq km, Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe after Russia. It shares its 6,993-km long land border with seven countries, of which 1,974 kms is with Russia. Its 2,782-km-long coastline along the Black Sea and Sea of Azov is studded with some of the best ports in the region. In terms of strategic depth, it is 893 kms north to south and 1,316 kms east to west. A large number of rivers and rivulets flow from north to south; east to west and vice versa dissecting the landscape into various corridors of access. The riverine terrain and the approaching spring when the frozen soil begins to thaw present varying degrees of operational challenges to an attacker.

Kyiv, the capital city, lies 100 kms south of the Ukraine-Belarus border. Spread over an area of 840 sq km, it is the largest city of Ukraine. Kharkiv, the second largest city and an industrial hub, is located just 35 kms from the Ukraine-Russia border. Other population centres of prominence like Chernihiv and Sumy are also located in the show window.  Vulnerability of the port cities of Odessa, Kherson and Mariupol had increased with the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014.

Forces’ Balance

A glaring asymmetry between Russian and Ukrainian land forces existed right from the beginning. The Ukrainian air force and navy was no match to their Russian counterparts. Post-2014 annexation of Crimea and Russia encouraged and supported an armed separatist movement in the Donbas region (Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts) against the Ukraine’s rule, which compelled Ukraine to grant the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts some autonomy. Besieged by external and internal turmoil Ukraine was forced to raise its defence spending and pay attention to the training and operational readiness of its army. Ukraine’s army was already entrenched against the rebels along a line of defence within the Donbas region to prevent their further advances.

Russia had started posturing for attacking Ukraine in Sep-Oct 2021. Under the watchful scan of USA and other NATO member countries satellites, Russian formations were concentrating for training maneuvers in the western and southern military districts and in neighbouring Belarus. A conflict seemed imminent. All the spotlight and encouragement that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky was receiving from the NATO countries probably made him hopeful of NATO’s direct intervention in case of a war with Russia.


Special Military Operations

Russia launched its “Special Military Operations” against Ukraine on 24 Feb 2022 with an apparent objective of capturing Kyiv and replacing the Zelensky-led government. It was delivered in three major thrusts. The Kyiv axis, passed through Belarus, an ally of Russia in the conflict, was the shortest to Kyiv. River Dnieper and its reservoir located north of Kyiv presented a major obstacle forcing the thrust to be divided into north-western and north-eastern thrusts. North-western thrust passing through Chernobyl made swift advances and reached the western suburbs of Kyiv. The north-eastern thrust could not progress as it got embroiled in the defences of the border city of Chernihiv. Similarly, a thrust from the east which was to ultimately bolster the north-eastern thrust in surrounding Kyiv from the east also met with stiff resistance from the enemy at Sumy.

The Kharkiv thrust had a wider area to traverse. It was to pass through between Sumy and Kharkiv and Luhansk and advance eastwards to establish a link up with the Crimea thrust and or situation permitting with Kyiv. The thrust got embroiled in fighting in and around Kharkiv, Donbas and Mariupol.

Through the Crimean Peninsula, the thrust was to advance up north and establish a link up with Kharkiv thrust or situation permitting with Kyiv. Russian VDV (airborne) formations organic to this thrust were meant for special operations in the vicinity of the capital city or in central Ukraine. The thrust, though made better progress than the other two, lost valuable time in fighting in the port cities of Kherson, Mykolaiv, Melitopol, Berdyansk and Mariupol.

The order of battle for the operation had tank/motorised brigades grouped with artillery, air defence, missiles, engineers, reconnaissance, anti-tank, communication and logistics regiments/ units with matching mobility under Combined Arms Army (CAA) concept. Considering the size of Ukraine, the Russian intent of capturing Kyiv and other key cities in one lightning move was unrealistic and the force levels applied for the operations proved grossly inadequate later on.


Folly of Fighting in Built-up Area It will perhaps remain a mystery for military professionals and historians as to why Russian army chose to fight through the built-up areas  and that too in the big cities like

Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, Kherson, Mykolaiv, Melitopol, Berdyansk and Mariupol. World over, the armies avoid fighting in the built-up areas to minimise their casualties and collateral damage. Armoured and mechanised columns though bestowed with immense fire power are unsuited to operate in built-up areas as there could be tank hunting parties lurking around at any road bend or block of houses. Traditional infantry is considered to be most suitable for the clearance of built-up areas and in the Russian order of battle no infantry was grouped with the formations undertaking these operations. Whenever, their mechanised or motorised infantry was pressed into attack their armoured personnel carriers became a prime target of the tank hunters.

Although NATO did not intervene personally in the conflict, its member countries provided copious help in terms of surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank missiles, communication equipment and other military hardware to Ukraine. Density of surface-to-air missiles and anti-tank missiles in a tactical battle area tilted the balance in the favour of Ukraine. Russian aircrafts, especially the helicopters and transport planes are wary of entering the Ukrainian airspace.

Although the exact casualties suffered by warring sides may never be known, it is widely believed that Russia has suffered more casualties of its troops and military hardware while fighting in built-up areas than Ukraine.

There is a famous military maxim, “Do not reinforce a failure”. This fatal mistake appears to have been repeated on all three thrusts. Otherwise, how does one explain the repeated attacks on Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, Mariupol and Mykolaiv, which are still going on without any tangible results.

The Russian army, which is organised on the concept of CAA, has not been able to achieve desired success in the operations where its battalion sized tactical groups are employed. India is also trying to introduce integrated battle groups in the operational doctrine.May be there is a merit in studying the Russian operations in detail for doctrinal refinement.


Mid-Course Correction

On 25 Mar, Russian General Staff, while briefing the Russian press claimed that Russian forces have completed “the main tasks of the first stage of the operation,” i.e. degradation of the Ukrainian military and now onwards Russia will focus on the “main goal” of capturing Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

Prior to this announcement, the Ukrainian forces had wrested control of the city of Irpin and part of Brovary from the Russian forces on west and east of Kyiv. Russian forces were seen withdrawing from Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy giving rise to the speculation that these forces would be employed for clearance of Mariupol and capture of Donbas region.

In the sixth week of operations, the Russian army has captured large swathes of territory in the south and east but its stated objective i.e. capture of Kyiv remains elusive.

By Colonel Utkarsh Singh Rathore

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