What next in Russia's Ukraine strategy?
POLITICAL AND LEGAL DISCLAIMER. Just because in any article we describe current or likely military or political events, this should not be taken as an expression of support or objection to any particular current or future events. In our writing we aim to be strictly neutral, as we have already explained.
THIRD UPDATE 27 MAY 2022
Severodonetsk is now encircled by the Russian Armed Forces and will no doubt fall imminently.
Russian forces now control some 95 per cent of Luhansk oblast.
With this the battle for Donbass is mostly concluded. The fall of Lysychansk and Sloviansk both now appear inevitable.
Hence the question arises what the Russians will move onto next, a subject we discuss below.
SECOND UPDATE 27 MAY 2022
It has emerged that Russian Armed Forces seized the northern Donetsk oblast strategic railhead of Lyman on 25 May 2022 or 26 May 2022. At the time of writing they have Lyman up and running as a logistics point for their further advancement in the Donbass.
The remainder of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts under the control of Free Ukraine may fall to Russian control soon.
UPDATE 27 MAY 2022
We have been asked whether it is a Russian strategic objective to take Kharkiv. We do not know. It seems at the current time not to be a priority. It is a large city and it is infiltrated by Ukrainian Armed Forces. Hence at the current time the Russian Armed Forces seem to have taken the tactical decision to keep Kharkiv under pressure, using cruise missiles and shells to strike Ukrainian Armed Forces positions; but they are not taking steps preparatory to seizing the city.
In the longer run, there are two competing considerations. One is that Kharkiv is a large city and hence its domination will require considerable Russian force. Given that the Russian army is a bit clapped out, sparing the resources to seize Kharkiv would be a substantial undertaking. On the other hand the city lies on the Russian border, which allows for the possibility of her encirclement and siege at any time the Russians consider that they have adequate spare resources to achieve that. Moreover there is logistical sense to seizing Kharkiv, an industrial city at the northern apex of the commodity-rich Donbass region.
Kharkiv is currently tolerably safe; but depending on Russian strategic military decisions that cannot be predicted in form or timing, this may take a turn for the worse at any moment.
At the time of writing, Russia is completing her Luhansk operations. These involve the shelling and, if necessary, destruction of the twin cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk located opposite one another on each side of the Donets river in the Luhansk oblast.
The seizure of these cities is following the Mariupol model (and a well-established Russian military model more generally): Krasnodar laser-guided shelling of the cities until the Ukrainian Armed Forces capitulate and surrender, or flee; and then tank-based entrance to the cities.
Once this is completed (and it is a matter of weeks at most), the Russian Armed Forces will be in a position to encircle Sloviansk, a city based upon heavy industry in Donetsk oblast; and Lyman, a Donetsk oblast railhead. At this point, Russian capture of the entirety of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, and hence the entirety of the Donbass (save the frontline free Ukrainian cities of Zaporizhzhiya and Dniepropetrovsk) will be complete.
What will Russia do next? She has two remaining strategic priorities:
Emptying the free Ukrainian cities of Zaporizhzhiya and Dniepropetrovsk of persons who support the government of free Ukraine, and thereby bringing those two cities under the Russian yoke; and
Concluding the domination of Nikolaev and Odessa, thereby securing a riparian corridor all the way to Tiraspol in Pridnestrovia (the Russian-controlled slice of Eastern Moldova that lies directly to the west of Odessa).
Which strategic goal will Russia pursue first? It is our tentative view that she will conclude arrangements for the southern Ukrainian riparian Black Sea corridor. Here are our reasons why we think she will prioritise that.
Russia has already established an unbroken rail and road corridor between Odessa (in southwestern Ukraine) and Melitopol (to the west of Mariupol, in Russia-occupied Ukraine). Indeed by road one can travel as far as Donetsk. The Mariupol railway branch ought to be working again shortly.
Nikolaev is discreetly under Russian FSB control. Ukrainian Armed Forces are dug in to the north of Nikolaev but they are subject to relentless Russian Armed Forces Krasnopol shell bombardment. To drive out Ukrainian Armed Forces from northern Nikolaev suburbs is just a matter of intensity of bombardment.
The Melitopol to Donetsk railway appears to be under reconstruction. There are rumours that Russian Railways is contemplating a through rail service from Simferopol to Donetsk via Mariupol and/or Melitopol. If that is right, then it can be a matter only of (several) weeks to completion.
Odessa appears to be surrounded by Russian armour from the Pridnestrovian garrison. Outstanding Ukrainian Armed Forces positions around Odessa are under relentless bombardment by Krasnopol shelling. Snake Island, the Black Sea island important for controlling what goes in and out of Odessa port, seems now to have been definitively seized by the Russian Navy.
Ukrainian Armed Forces personnel appear not to have penetrated central Odessa. We speculate that this is because Odessa is so heavily pro-Russian a city amongst its civilian population.
With the capture of Odessa comes the entirety of Budzhak and Bessarabia, the oft-forgotten peninsula of Odessa oblast that hangs down as western Black Sea riparian territory adjacent to Romania.
Hence the work necessary to secure the south Ukrainian riparian corridor appears to be mostly complete. The explicit seizure of Odessa would be a game changer for both Russia and Ukraine in the war.
To defend Odessa, the Ukrainian Armed Forces would have to redeploy troops currently defending Zaporizhzhiya and Dniepropetrovsk, leaving those cities open to exposure of attack: a colossal disaster were Russia to make progress there. The balance of Ukrainian Armed Forces personnel appear committed in Donbass, shortly to be encircled and then they will be faced with the choice between surrender and fighting to the death, much as in Mariupol.
Once the rail links between Donetsk and Mariupol and Crimea are restored, Russia's crowning glory is to reopen the short railway line between Odessa and Tiraspol, Pridnestrovia (100km) and create an uninterrupted logistics route between Russian mainland territory and her westernmost possession, Pridnestrovia.
Once this is achieved, the taking of Zaporizhzhiya and Dniepropetrovsk, two cities in central Ukraine, that would join up the infrastructure and industrial capacity of Eastern and Southern Ukraine, is an optional extra. But the completion of the southern corridor is essential.
The military work to complete the southern and eastern corridor may take twelve to eighteen months' more work at the fairly leisurely speed at which the Russian Armed Forces operate. Nevertheless something can be done by Russia to soften up the front line in central Ukraine, by turning off the Enerhodar-Dniepr Power Crossing that runs north from the massive power station complex in Enerhodar (the biggest in Europe) across the Dniepr and then east, to provide electricity to Zaporizhzhiya and Dniepropetrovsk via the Zaporizhzhiya tri-pylon electricity transport hub, a tactic about which we have already written.
This may cause those cities to empty; and Ukraine may either attempt to reconnect them to Ukraine's national grid via other means or it may tacitly abandon those cities. Or Ukraine may approach a peace agreement with a view to turning the Enerhodar power connection to central, northern and western Ukraine back on as one of the peace terms. So either Zaporizhzhiya or Dniepropetrovsk may become a border city between Novorossiya (that is to say, Russian-occupied Ukraine) and a rump free Ukraine.
Given the efforts that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are making to dig themselves into trench positions just south of Zaporizhzhiya, the Ukrainians clearly anticipate an eventual Russian assault on Zaporizhzhiya, the Russians thereupon taking the remainder of Zaporizhzhiya oblast (they already control 90 per cent of the geographical provincial area of the oblast, the city of Zaporizhzhiya itself being the only area outstanding). A few months of no electricity may soften up the citizens and defenders of Zaporizhzhiya to the idea of Russian occupation, so we may anticipate an electricity blackout (already threatened) while Russia completes the work on her south Ukrainian corridor.
At some point, Russia will stop and survey her work, and invite the Ukrainians for negotiations. The terms they demand will be approximately the following:
Partition of Ukraine into two countries / territories, which we might for the sake of placeholders call Free Ukraine and Novorossiya.
A power arrangement for electricity supply to Free Ukraine by Novorossiya.
(Former) residents of Novorossiya entitled to apply for Russian nationality.
Access of Free Ukraine wheat sales to the 'Free Port of Odessa' (controlled by the Russian authorities of Novorossiya).
Freedom of movement of peoples within the confederation of Free Ukraine and Novorossiya, subject to some sort of painful Russian bureaucracy.
Arrangements for the movement of third country citizens across and between territories.
Disarming of Free Ukraine, and a permanent commitment not to join NATO. (The NATO issue is much less controversial than most people appreciate, because no country may join NATO with contested borders. That is why there are so many 'frozen conflicts' around the former Soviet Union: to prevent NATO expansion. The Russians read the NATO Charter.)
Floating currency exchange between the currency of Free Ukraine (presumably the Gryvna) and that of Novorossiya (presumably the Russian ruble and possibly also the Pridnestrovian ruble in Bessarabia).
Arrangements for cross-border confederal transit, e.g. trains, buses, aeroplanes and private vehicles.
The Russians will not negotiate anything for the lifting of sanctions, which will prove to have been a total failure of policy.
If the Ukrainians do not agree, the Russians will simply impose similar or substantially worse terms.
What we are heading towards is a Bosnian 'Entities' arrangement.
That, very roughly, is what Russia's idea of a peace agreement is going to look like. It is a much worse peace agreement (for Free Ukraine and her western backers) than one that was available only 30 days ago. That is because there have been Russian advances; western media fatigue; American financial fatigue; European refugee fatigue; and NATO military assistance fatigue.
The terms of a final de facto or de jure peace agreement are just going to get ever worse as the war, on its current dynamic, proceeds. And clearly the West is not going to implement the radical policies that might change the balance of power (such as activating NATO or strangling all Russian hydrocarbon pipes and shuttering the straits of Bosphorous to Russian merchant shipping vessels), or it would already have done so.
We have a lot to learn about Russia, that we have blankly forgotten.
I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest. It cannot be in accordance with the interest or the safety of Russia that Germany should plant itself upon the shores of the Black Sea, or that it should overrun the Balkan States and subjugate the Slavonic peoples of South-Eastern Europe. That would be contrary to the historic life-interests of Russia.
I feel also that their word is their bond. I know of no Government which stands to its obligations, even in its own despite, more solidly than the Russian Soviet Government.
From what I have seen of our Russian friends and Allies during the war, I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than weakness, especially military weakness.
Everybody has always underrated the Russians. They keep their own secrets alike from foe and friends.
Never forget that Bolsheviks are crocodiles….I cannot feel the slightest trust or confidence in them. Force and facts are their only realities.
The machinery of propaganda may pack their minds with falsehood and deny them truth for many generations of time. But the soul of man thus held in trance or frozen in a long night can be awakened by a spark coming from God knows where and in a moment the whole structure of lies and oppression is on trial for its life.
We have a long Second Cold War ahead of us.