Russia-Ukraine Conflict End State Scenarios
Russia-Ukraine conflict will soon enterin its fifth week. Punctuated by many tactical pauses and lull in the battles, the offensive seems to have lost its momentum and is seen floundering around the cities like Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, Mariupol, Mykolayiv, Zaproizhzhya and even at smaller towns enroute. The suburbs of Kyiv in the West and East have borne the brunt of attacks but so far protected the capital city from its complete encirclement. Though the Russian formations and units had appeared at the outskirts of Kyiv in the first week of war but the dragnet is still too porous to squeeze the city. A kind of uneasy stalemate exists around the cities and towns and theRussian army is facing stiff resistance. The population centres have been subjected to intense bombardment and shelling and have causedextensive collateral damage to civilian life and property. With each passing day, the Ukranian forces and people are getting their act together in resisting the Russian forces.
Before the war, the Russian army was poised on three major axes and its likely projection area was the capital city Kyiv. The Northern axis, passing through the Belarus-Russia border was the shortest to Kyiv. Demarcated by River Dnieper and a reservoir by the same name, the Northern thrust was delivered in two major prongs – the north-western through Chernobyl and on to the western suburbs and flanks of Kyiv; north-eastern through the city of Chernihiv and on to eastern flanks of the capital. After Chernihiv, the north-eastern prong was to avoid a funnel like north-south corridor formed by Rivers Dnieper and Desna to reach Kyiv east. A thrust coming in from Sumy and Konotop was to compliment Chernihiv thrust. Road Gomel-Chernihiv-Kyiv presented an ideal line of communication to support the Northern thrust.
The Eastern or Central thrust was to pass through South of Sumy, Kharkiv and Luhansk and traverse through the Eastern Ukraine to establish a link up with Kyiv or the Southern thrustcoming from Crimea. Another likely and important task assigned to this thrust may have been to position itself behindthe Ukraine army’sdefences in the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts (now Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republic) contesting the rebel forces. This could have unhinged the Ukranian defences in south-eastern Ukraine, leading to panic withdrawal. The Sumy-Donbas corridor (Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts are geographically referred to as Donbas region) was a yawning gap for the Eastern thrust to fill as it had existing border defences and fortified built-up areas enroute. Kharkiv, the second largest city of Ukraine after Kyiv,is just 35kms from the Ukraine-Russia border. Apart from its industrial and economic significance, it has enormous strategic importance too. The city was seized by the Germans and recaptured by Soviets during World War II. Eastern thrust was ideally poised to seize maximum real estate in Eastern Ukraine, if it could advance in one lightning move to reach Dnipro and Cherkassy on the River Dnieper.
Through the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia had annexed from Ukraine in 2014 the Southern thrust was poised to traverse up North and establish link up with Kyiv. Presence of Russian VDV (airborne) formations in Crimea hinted at likely intent of capturing air fields in the vicinity of capital city or in central Ukraine. Another likely task assigned to this thrust was to annex maximum territory in Odessa, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk oblasts to secure a land corridor as well as fresh water supply for the Crimean peninsula. Russian navy had effectively blockaded the Black Sea and Sea of Azov and anchored landing ships at Sevastopol to support future amphibious operations. Post 2014 annexation of Crimea and brewing of rebellion in the Donbas region, an uneasy calm prevailed in Southern Ukraine. All port cities were gradually fortified against any possible invasion.
The order of battle for the above thrusts 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. 1 Guards Tank Army and 20 Guards CAA from Western Military District; 58 CAA and 8 CAA from Southern Military District; elements of 22 Army Corps from the Black Sea Fleet are some of the main formations undertaking the operations in Ukraine.Considering the Russian intent of capturing Kyiv and maximum territory in the East the force levels applied so far in the conflict has proved to be inadequate.
Another interesting feature of this war is the employment of irregulars. Russia is said to have employed Wagner Group, Libyan and Syrian fighters, fighters owing allegiance to Chechen strongman RamzanKadyrov. Similarly, Ukraine is receiving help and support from retired (and serving) military personnel from Europe and Chechen rebels. As the crisis deepens more and more mercenaries willing to risk their lives for a price would join the either side. Presence of irregulars and mercenaries would make the conflict more unprincipled and brutal. It remains to be seen that how these fighters would be controlled and employed in conflict involving vulnerable civilian life and who would be responsible for their acts?
Ukraine is bestowed with many rivers and rivulets mainly flowing north to south and draining in either Black Sea or Sea of Azov. Its plains are basically the lowlands of the river system. The ground remains frozen till early February, which permits cross-country move of the tracked and wheeled vehicles. In February-March the thaw (Rasputista) sets in and the ground turns in to a quagmire. This ground reality must have been playing up in the minds of Russian Generals when they chose to secure the road axes instead of moving cross-country.
On 21 February, Russia had recognized the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and signed treaties of “friendship, cooperation, and mutual assistance”. War seemed imminent. On 24 February, Russian missiles and air force targeted military and other infrastructure in Ukraine and the much anticipated conflict broke out. Despite the clear edge, the Russian air force could not establish air supremacy over the Ukrainian skies to support airborne operations and tank and mechanised forces’ thrusts.
The north-western thrust made headway towards Kyiv by seizing control of the Chernobyl containment zone – site of world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986. It faced stiff resistance at suburbs of Kyiv. The north-eastern thrust got embroiled in the defences of Chernihiv. Eastern thrusts from Konotop and Sumy also faced resistance from the defender and made slow progress.
These thrusts were to provide secure deployment areas for the formations and units meant for encirclement and capture of the capital city. Due to the stiff resistance put up by Ukranians, operations did not go as per plan. In the second week of operations, a 60-km-long convoy of tanks, Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC) and other vehicles in North remained stranded for good one week. A sneak air attack could have played hell with these vehicle columns.In the meantime, airborne troops were launched from Crimea to capture the airfields of Hostomel (Antonov)and Vinnytsia. Hostomel airport was captured. Lack of link-up from the Northern thrust and hostile enemy air defence compelled Russians not employ airborne forces aggressively.
Despite the severe missile attacks and destruction caused to Zhytomyr, Irpin, Bucha in the east the Russian forces are still 10-15 kms away from the core of capital city. Similar situation is prevailing in the west, where the Russians have managed to reach Brovary while fighting in Chernihiv and Sumy is still going on.
The eastern thrust passing through Kharkivhas met the same fate. The city is still not fully captured. Of late, after breaking out from Kharkivthe Russian army is tackling the defences of Izyum in order to establish a link up with Luhansk enclave. The thrust which was supposed to cross River Dnieper and establish a link up with southern or northern thrust has just managed to penetrate 40 kms inside the Ukranian territory.
The southern thrust, by and large has been most successful. It had captured Kherson, Melitopol and Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Two port cities Mykolaiv and Mariupol in the west and east are under attack. Mariupol is proving to be a hard nut to crack. Time and troops permitting, Russian army would prefer to capture another port city of Odessa. Ukraine’s entire coastline in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov has been captured/ being dominated by Russia.
Though the NATO has refused to interfere in the conflict, but a large number of Stinger surface-to-air missiles, Javelin anti-tank missiles and Turkish Bayraktar armed drones have been provided to Ukraine. Their effect is evident from the mounting losses of aircrafts and tanks and APCs that Russian army has suffered in the campaign. Effective use of these advanced weapon systems points towards the presence of foreign Special Forces in Ukraine. Irked by covert NATO support, Russia fired cruise missiles at the city of Yavoriv on Ukraine-Poland border and Lviv.
Putin cannot take the non-involvement of NATO in the conflict for granted. He should be in hurry to wind up the operations after making some substantial gains on the ground. These could be the annexation of Eastern Ukraine upto the River Dnieper, encirclement of Kyiv or capture of eastern Kyiv and capture of the coastline from Mariupol to Odessa to force Zelensky to sue for peace and yield to his demands.
There have been many rounds of peace talks yielding no tangible results. Zelensky is insisting on restoration of Ukraine’s territory including Crimea and Donbas. That would not be agreeable to Russia. Stalemate is imminent but peace is still elusive.
By getting entangled in the cities Russia needs fresh formations and units to undertake the final phase of the operations. So far, the reinforcements have been in piecemeal making no substantial effect on combat situation.Performance of Russian army at tactical levels has surprised many analysts. A large casualty amongst troops and of military equipment indicates towards poor leadership and cohesion.
By Colonel Utkarsh Singh Rathore