Russia’s military may have announced a change of plan at the end of last week to focus on the “liberation of Donbas”, but the apparent decision reflected the reality that Moscow’s initial multi-front invasion plan has failed in the face of dogged resistance from Ukraine .
The advance on Kyiv became bogged down after less than a week, particularly to the north-west of the city. If Ukraine’s declaration that it has retaken the heavily contested town of Irpin’ on Monday is correct, the advance may now even be going into reverse.
But the capital, for all its political significance, has not been the focus for a week or more. Russia has already refocused its efforts on the east, recognizing that its forces were too spread out, that morale is tumbling and that it is sustaining heavier than expected losses.
Western officials estimate that Russia has lost at least 20 battalion tactical groups – the smallest operating unit of its forces, with an average size of 800 at full strength – out of an original invasion force of 115 to 120. They are “no longer combat- effective”, one said on Friday.
Already, day after day, Russian forces, with Chechen fighters at the forefront, have been grinding forward into the ravaged southern port city of Mariupol, where perhaps 160,000 residents are enduring the worst of wartime conditions.
“Mariupol will fall,” said Mathieu Boulegue of the Chatham House thinktank. “And this will probably happen in a few days.” His comments from him reflect the grim reality of Russia’s encirclement of the city, whose defenders are gradually running out of food and ammunition.
For Kyiv is it is an alarming prospect, which is partly why the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, said Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, had pleaded at Thursday’s Nato summit for gifts of tanks to “try to relieve Mariupol and to help the thousands of Ukrainian fighters in the city”.
A Russian victory in Mariupol would in turn free up about 6,000 troops to turn to what could be the defining objective of the war – encircling Ukraine’s best military forces to the north.
These are the Joint Forces Operation (JFO) units, 10 brigades at the start of the war, which have been facing the occupied Donbas region since 2015. That includes occupying a network of first world war-style trenches along the “line of contact” at Ukraine’s eastern edge.
To some extent, the effort has already begun, with Russian forces trying to bypass the already besieged city of Kharkiv to the north, and break through by capturing Izium. Boulegue, however, believes that Russia’s forces are sufficiently exhausted from the first phase of fighting that they will need “a phase-two pause” before trying “phase three, the pincer”.
Russia is trying to generate reinforcements both from remaining military reserves, forces brought in from Syria, Armenia and elsewhere, plus fresh conscripts, whose operational usefulness is limited. These may amount to 10 battalions, western intelligence estimates, or half of those lost.
There is also evidence that other Russian forces, the “most battered units deployed to Ukraine”, are now being withdrawn from the battlefield and sent to Russia to recover, according to Konrad Muzyka, an open-source intelligence analyst.
One example was revealed by satellite imagery, he said, which showed there were “no Russian troops at Hostomel airport” – a heavily contested military base north-west of Kyiv still under Russian control.
Russia will slow its tempo in the east only for as long as it is forced to. The key question is whether it can succeed in enveloping Ukraine’s land forces in due course. Nick Reynolds, a land warfare analyst at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), questions whether Moscow’s forces can do so given their halting performance so far, and the defensive success Ukraine has had with anti-tank and other weapons it has received from the west.
“Even by revising their military objectives to be more modest, it isn’t clear whether they can successfully encircle Ukrainian forces of the JFO. In fact, I consider it unlikely,” Reynolds said.
His Rusi colleague Jack Watling said in a recent paper that to survive in the east, Ukrainian forces needed to “prevent the Russians from being able to concentrate their efforts on one axis at a time” by continuing to counter-attack in and around Kyiv.
In other words, Russia’s new strategy is to try to concentrate its forces to achieve a breakthrough. Ukraine, meanwhile, has to find a way of making the invaders’ original multiple-front offensive continue to work against itself, by keeping the fighting spread out.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism