What is Putin’s military plan in Ukraine? From the failed blitzkrieg to sieges and occupation | International

Ten days after the invasion by Russian forces ordered by Vladimir Putin, Ukraine is ravaged by intense fighting on multiple fronts that is causing a huge wave of refugees. The Russian plan —perhaps the delusional dream— of a blitzkrieg with rapid collapse of the Ukrainian military resistance and government has failed. The conflict has been evolving, with the Russians stepping up the artillery offensive and maneuvering to pin down, possibly besiege, major cities.

The Russian attack has four main axes. Two in the northern sector, to conquer Kiev – the most important impulse – and Kharkov. In the southern sector, another two, to connect Crimea with Donbas, to the east, and with Odessa, to the west. Information from the ground and from Western military intelligence services coincide in pointing out that Russia is making progress in the south while it is substantially stalled in the north.

Here are some keys to follow the military development of a conflict with the potential to produce devastating consequences for the Ukrainian population and international relations.

1. The failed blitz plan

“Looking at how the Russian forces have invaded, the movements of their early days, the troops used, it seems that they had the expectation of winning quickly, of not facing a great resistance”, comments Ruth Deyermond, academic of the Department of War Studies. from King’s College specializing in post-Soviet space security. “They opted for a certain restraint, a military decision that is consistent with the political discourse according to which this was not a war, but an operation to denazify Ukraine, and the Ukrainian people are brothers.” With these political premises, it was difficult to plan a massive attack from the outset, according to the tactic known by shock and awe (literally, shock and fear), whereby an attempt is made to stun the adversary with enormous firepower.

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In the first two days, according to Pentagon counts, Russia fired some 200 missiles. A relevant figure, but not huge. He quickly launched troops into the major cities, but not in massive numbers. The Pentagon estimates that at first only 30% of the accumulated force entered, about 150,000 soldiers, divided into about 120 tactical battalions. That was later increased to the current 90%.

“Instead of doing what their military manuals, and those of any other country, establish —that is, start with salvos of artillery fire and missiles to soften the targets, demoralize the population and destroy command posts and anti-aircraft defense—, they directed quickly his troops to fundamentally achieve two things: overthrow Vladimir Zelenski (the president of Ukraine) by taking Kiev and connect Crimea with Donbas”, says Jesús A. Nuñez Villaverde, co-director of the Institute for Studies on Conflicts and Humanitarian Action. “But the Russians overestimated the capacity of their forces and underestimated the Ukrainian resistance capacity. And now we find ourselves in shocking situations. The most significant is that they have not even managed to achieve air superiority.”

A column of smoke after a Russian bombardment in Mariupol, this Friday. Evgeny Maloletka (AP)

A revealing anecdote of the failure of the blitzkrieg and the passage to another phase is the battle of the Antonov airport in Hostomel, on the outskirts of Kiev. On the first day of the invasion, a group of Russian helicopters landed on the installation, of great interest as a base to launch the assault on the capital. They met fierce resistance from the Ukrainian forces, who managed to regain control for a limited time. They lost it again but the area is still the subject of fighting. The prospect of comfortably airlifting troops within a few kilometers of the capital and entering it without encountering significant resistance failed. Now the airport is a strategic element in the deployment of the huge Russian military convoy that seeks to suffocate Kiev in a massive ground maneuver.

2. Artillery and sieges

“Russian forces are now attempting to subjugate major cities with heavy artillery, in what appears to be the start of sieges, quite in line with tactics used in Chechnya and Syria,” Deyermond notes. The sieges of Grozny (in two wars in the 1990s) and Aleppo more recently have been brutal. There is mounting evidence that, after some initial containment, Russian forces are widening their range of targets, hitting civilian structures, causing enormous suffering to the population. The artillery fire has been intensifying over the days, although a report from the British Ministry of Defense yesterday indicated a slowdown in the previous 24 hours.

This new phase further complicates the Kremlin’s position in an element that is not strictly military but very important in any contest: the narrative. This is not a division that can fight on the ground, but it has enormous influence in many ways: the morale of the combatants, the spirit of resistance of the civilian population, the feeling of international public opinion that can accompany more or less harsh decisions of their governments. On that front, Putin is bleeding to death, and images of cities hit worsen his position.

“Zelenski has won the battle of the story” says Nuñez Villaverde. “He has become a leader of reference, he has largely managed to unite a population that we know has an internal fracture.” Internationally, outrage over Russian aggression is spreading strongly. Internally, Putin’s draconian measures to further prevent any hint of independent information speak volumes.

At least 15,000 Georgians gathered this Friday in Tbilisi to listen to a live speech to the inhabitants of several European cities by the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
At least 15,000 Georgians gathered this Friday in Tbilisi to listen to a live speech to the inhabitants of several European cities by the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
Mijail Vignanski (EFE)

It is in this context that Russian forces are fighting on the ground to achieve their goals. At the maritime level, supremacy is total given Ukraine’s inconsistency in the sector, although Turkey’s decision to close the passage between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea to warships reduces Moscow’s room for manoeuvre. In aerial terms, Western sources insist on pointing out that Russia has not achieved supremacy, that Ukraine maintains both air assets and anti-aircraft defenses. Kiev claims to have shot down 39 Russian planes and 40 helicopters, some just yesterday. Moscow claims to have destroyed 82 Ukrainian planes. In this situation, there is limited use of the air forces, which has led some experts to question the real extent of Russian military modernization in this domain.

In the land section, the most relevant development is the huge convoy, tens of kilometers long, which is heading towards Kiev but has been substantially stalled for several days with many difficulties. “Several elements point to logistical problems, inefficient vehicle maintenance, supply shortages, even lack of food,” says Deyermond.

Some experts believe that such a massive deployment of troops has diluted the ability of the Russian forces to equip each battalion with key elements that provide added value, such as intelligence units to strengthen the ability to detect attacks. Others note with some bewilderment gradual attack tactics instead of further concentrating forces. In addition, the Ukrainian troops continue to put up an effective resistance, blowing up bridges and punctual attacks to stop the advances.

In the cyber section, contrary to what many experts expected, no relevant offensives have been detected. “There may have been a few small things we didn’t see, but nothing significant,” says James Sullivan, director of the cyber department at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank specializing in military issues. “It is being a very traditional campaign and, according to various elements, not very well planned. There are several possible explanations why we have not seen major cyberattacks. Among them, that you have to prepare them well, that the defenses can be good, and that it can be easier to drop a bomb on a TV tower than to annihilate Internet broadcasts. In any case, we are in the early stages and we do not know what will happen. Russia has been very aggressive in this sector in Ukraine since 2014.”

3. Occupation and guerrilla?

Nobody knows what will happen, in the cyber domain, and in the others. Based on the available elements, it is reasonable to think that despite the difficulties and failures, Russia will be able to advance towards its objectives thanks to the superiority of the means at its disposal and the stomach to carry out actions that affect civilians. “The seemingly almighty Russian military machine is not performing effectively. But we cannot be fooled. The proportion of forces is so unequal that we cannot think that Ukraine can win”, says Nuñez Villaverde.

But the fact that it is unrealistic to think that Ukraine can expel Russian forces from its territory does not mean that Putin is assured of a clear victory. One of the key factors is, of course, the supply of weapons from the West. Depending on the quantity and quality of the deliveries, it can give more or less encouragement to the resistance. They will not be able to reverse the balance of forces, but they will contribute to the defense, and inflict serious damage on the Russian forces to influence the calculation of future steps.

“I find it hard to see how Russia could achieve a lasting victory. Because even if he manages to conquer Kiev, Kharkov, Mariupol, he will not be able to hold them if he does not want to deploy a large permanent occupying force. Then you will have to say what to do. Commit a significant part of her forces to occupy Ukraine. Or reach a negotiated settlement,” says Deyermond.

The spirit that can be detected in the vast majority of the Ukrainian population and Western arms support make the prospect that, in the event of a major military defeat, the confrontation could continue in the form of guerrilla warfare very credible. “The Zelensky government has already begun to give weapons to civilians, is releasing prisoners with combat experience, and is trying to organize the formation of international brigades,” says Nuñez Villaverde. The EU has taken the historic step of deciding to supply arms on a community basis. A military victory with the establishment of a puppet government and subsequent withdrawal, therefore, is not a plausible scenario.

“Military manuals indicate that an occupation force needs one force for every 20 inhabitants.” Ukraine has 44 million and a greater territorial extension than Spain or France. A total occupation would therefore represent an enormous challenge. Russia could opt for a limited occupation, limited to expanding the controlled area of ​​Donbas, establishing the corridor from there to Crimea and perhaps from Crimea to Odessa and Transnistria, in Moldova, where it also has deployed forces.

Difficult to make predictions, but it is likely that, as French President Emmanuel Macron pointed out after speaking with Putin, the worst is yet to come.

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