TLDRUpFront: A MegaMullet review of Russia Ukrainian war from invasion through this week. Includes review of mid-game forecasts made in March and how the “most likely” Scenario #1 is very close to where we are today.
Most likely, Scenario #1, from mid-March compared to the current state of the conflict.
Click here to scan InfoMullet coverage of 2022-Current Russian-Ukrainian War.
Click here for a single background post reviewing Ukrainian politics 2004-2019.
Click here for Historical Mullet coverage as it happened 2014-2015 during Euromaidan/Dignity Revolution and start of Russian-Ukraine conflict.
Russia’s Slow-Cook Offensive
It took the Russian Armed Forces 85 days of brutal effort and some 15,000 troops to capture Mariupol. The city was geographically important – the last holdout from the initial invasion push to create an east-to-west land bridge from the Donbas connecting Crimea and Kershon. Mariupol was also strategically important as both a port on the black sea and with vital steelworks that pre-war supplied Ukraine up to a 1/4th of its steel output. Russia prevailed – but at the cost of leveling the entire city.
After Mariupol, it took the Russian Armed Forces only 50 days of brutal effort and some 15,000 troops to capture Sieveriedonetsk, the battle of which began the day after Mariupol fell. Unlike Mariupol, Sieveriedonetsk has almost no strategic importance, and its only geographical significance is that it fills in the map for Russia seizing the Luhansk Oblast and its associated Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), the ‘liberation’ of which was a key political aim of Putin’s demilitarization effort the Monday before the invasion.
At this rate of westward advance, Russian forces should take the important military city of Dnipro in the center of the country around the same time President Putin’s constitutional limits to hold office kick in, or about 2036.
Feb-May War in Review: Amateurs debate strategies and Putin was an amateur.
The current approach is Russia’s fourth Putin-tative strategy in Ukraine. From the invasion until May, Putin’s grand strategy had three main territorial objectives. In the north, take or destroy the arc of cities, including Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, and Kharkiv. In the east, advance westwards to the Dnieper, taking all of Luhansk and Donbas. In the south, create a land bridge from the Donbas west through Mariupol, connecting Crimea to fresh water supplies in Kherson and continuing towards Transdniestria with the capture of Kherson Mykolaiv and Odessa. Had this strategy worked on all three fronts Russia would have sealed Ukraine off from any Black Sea access, taken the industrial-rich eastern half of the country up to the Dnieper, and likely forced a government in exile to flee into the mountains of western Ukraine. A military objective was to ‘demilitarize” Ukraine.
However, the reason professionals talk logistics over strategy was put in stark terms as a failure of logistics, among other failures, doomed these strategies.
The war in the north began with ill-advised “Thunder Runs”. In the second Gulf War, the US used “Thunder Runs” of flying tank columns driving into the heart of Baghdad well in advance of the main force, putting a pin on the general collapse of the Iraqi Army and, with it, Saddam’s regime. Putin’s attempt looked less and more like throwing logs into a woodchipper,,,.
Isolated and unsupported units of air assault, armor, and even lightly armored paramilitaries tried to take strategic airports or drive through city centers only to get savaged by waiting for Ukrainian forces. Unable to be resupplied – what units did not succumb to firepower became combat ineffective due to breakdowns, lack of fuel and ammunition, and even desertion of Russian troops. Taking Chernobyl was a rare spot of strategic insight – allowing Russia to insert troops just 40km north of Kyiv with a direct shot straight south towards the capital. In the south, Russia initially succeeded in taking all of the southern coastlines except for Mariupol and capturing Kherson.
The failure of Thunder Runs led to the first change of strategy to more traditional maneuver warfare. Russian forces advanced on multiple fronts to encircle and cut off the northern cities. Taking these cities would have isolated Ukrainian forces from their resupply and allowed Russian forces to implement Grozny Rules. Unrestricted bombardments on the cities until they capitulated. However, even here, logistics proved the Achilles heel. It took troops north of Kyiv weeks to advance the 40km from Chernobyl, and Kyiv lost any element they may have gained of strategic surprise by advancing through the exclusion zone. Resupply and maintenance issues continued to devil Russia as the UAF and partisans armed with high precision weapons targeted with Baktyar drones began picking apart every effort to get close and encircle the cities.
Held up around Mariupol, Russian forces had to implement Grozny Rules on the city, taking it to block by destroyed block, which prevented them from advancing north or westwards within Donbas. Furthermore, in the west, Kherson would be the last major city captured by Russia. Ukraine forces rebuffed repeated forays towards Mykolaiv by Russia. Moreover, though Odessa seemed continually under threat of amphibious assault, without taking Mykolaiv and having a land supply route, that threat appeared more of a bluff.
The failure of maneuver warfare led to the second shift to a strategy of investing in the “Belts”, the outer suburbs around cities, where Grozny Rules could be implemented at range by Russia’s artillery and rocket systems. A belt strategy also shortens and protects supply lines at this point; however, the true failure of Russian military logistics was becoming apparent. Even with the shortened and protected supply lines, maintaining three distinct fronts and the multiple investitures of cities simultaneously was too much.
The grand shift to the final strategy began around the May 9th Moscow Victory Parade. While breathless prognosticators were reaping engagement metrics with dire predictions of “shit is about to get real,” and that Russia may escalate with false flag chemical or nuclear attacks, Putin was signaling abandonment of two of the three key objectives.
A grand retreat of all military out of the north signaled that the northern cities were not at risk, at least not from that front. They withdrew slowly into Belarus, and then, those units still combat effective or restored to readiness, rotated to the eastern front where they have rejoined through the Donbas/Luhansk axis. In the southwest, Russia established a security buffer on the northern shore of the Dnieper outside of Kherson but abandoned serious efforts to take Mykolaiv, let alone Odessa. Even the capture of Mariupol a few days before the Victory Day Parade proved pyrrhic. Not much is left of the city, and its capture did not strategically adjust any of the fronts.
Currently, Russian forces, in their fourth strategy, are now stretched along a single 800km+ line shown below. This front runs from the Kershon redoubt in the southwest, following the southern side of the Dnieper back eastwards towards just south of Zaporizhzhia. From there, it runs east, south of the N-15 through Donetsk, north through recently captured Sieverodonetsk, and then northwest to a thin remaining buffer between Ukrainian-held Kharkiv and the Russian border.
Putin’s Crock Pot Approach can still Cook Chili – Given Enough Time
While taking 50-85 days to take each city feels “slow” to a maneuver-minded west, it is in line with the artillery doctrine approach. Moreover, given time it can be effective. Russia outnumbers Ukraine in artillery, rockets, and other long-range fires. It can slowly chew up Ukrainian forces and defense positions. Although Russia outnumbers Ukraine in artillery, their quality is much lower. Modern warfare has shifted to precision weapons under the simple math that 10,000 rounds with a 1% kill rate are half as effective as 1,000 rounds with a 20% kill rate. Precision also matters against entrenched defenses. Having failed to take strategic objectives when they had a surprise, every line of advance along this long front is now heavily fortified.
At this point, the war will look more akin to the Korean War or even World War I. A single long snaking front. Advances or retreats along this line will be incremental – salient captured or lost. It is unlikely there is an undefended flank left to turn or that capturing one point will result in a rapid breakthrough advance. Capturing Sieveriedonetsk allows Russia to move on to Lysychansk, a smaller town in the same urban area as Sieveriedonetsk. Not exactly a lighting advance. Wars like this can last for years with little progress in either direction.
Time is not on Russia’s Side
However, I do not believe the time is on Russia’s side, or it has years to give. On the military front entering the war, the Russian military faced logistics problems, endemic corruption, low readiness, and unreliable access to trained forces. Those were the good old days. The Thunder Runs described above were most costly to the units Russia could least afford to lose – special forces, helicopters, and front-line armored units. With soldiers’ contracts and Putin refusing to recognize this as a war and authorize mobilization, Russia has to rely on lesser-quality troops. These include newly contracted soldiers and significant contingents of militia from the Donbas People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic (LDNR collectively). The Russian military is trying to incentivize retired veterans back into the fight. Tactical logistics – the resupply of parts, fuel, and ammunition- has improved with the single front. The limits of that improvement are demonstrated by the inability to attack deeper into Ukraine systemically. The strategic goal of demilitarizing all of Ukraine with barrages of intermediate-range ballistic missiles and air strikes is now largely limited to harassment strikes periodically on symbolic targets, such as Kyiv and Kharkiv, earlier this week. These may be lethal strikes where they hit schools and malls but will not put a dent in Ukraine’s military response as earlier strikes on barracks, resupply points, and railroads would.
Ukraine is not faring great either. The attrition style of warfare is grinding their manpower down. On the equipment front, they must hobble together mixed weapons platforms based on whatever the west has given them.
However, as long as this military resupply continues to flow from the west – the attrition calculus favors Ukraine over Russia. Under the premise that both sides have enough population to continue to throw manpower at the problem, it will come down to the availability of heavy, modern equipment. Russia’s arc here is downwards, increasingly fielding decades-old platforms like the T-62s just to put something on the line. Ukraine’s trajectory is upwards, with the scope of armaments increasing as the war has rolled on. What started as largely soldier-based systems: MANPADS and Javelins, has now expanded to include precision howitzers and HIMARS. The former targets individual Russian tanks almost like a 155mm sniper and the latter reaches deep into Russian resupply and C2 elements far distant from the front. As the war continues, Russia is going to look more and more like a WWI power with the ability to mass heavy firepower on the front line, but not much deeper. And without much accuracy. Ukraine, on the other hand, will increasingly be more and more able to conduct a more modern conventional full-spectrum with precision strikes at the front and into the rear.
Outside of the military context – Russia’s geopolitical standing is mixed and leaning towards the negative. The debt default earlier this week was not catastrophic as many rating agencies had already declared Russia in “selective default” when it paid international debts in rubles rather than dollars. However, the holes in the sanctions regime that allowed the continued sale of Russian gas and oil is closing. That starved the Russian war machine of the revenue it would need to offset losses from other sanctioned trade it had with Europe.
Putin and his keyboard warriors have leveraged anti-US and anti-western sentiment in South America, Africa, and the Middle East. A close look at the memeology of this space shows that while Ukraine dominates the information space in the west, Russia dominates in these other oft-overlooked regions. Playing on traditional and valid concerns over western and US hegemony, public support is much higher in these areas. However, markets will not replace those in Europe closed anytime soon. Worse, the exodus of technical know-how from Russia under sanctions and voluntary company closures of operations presents a real problem. They may be able to repurpose Mcdonald’s as Tot Smayi, but the software that runs the information technology of the food chain, whether it is Microsoft or Oracle, is no longer being updated .
Forecasts in Review
Before the war, on 15 FEB, my forecast was that Russia’s strategic goals with conventional conflict, assuming they didn’t take diplomatic concessions, would be limited. Control of eastern Luhansk and Donbas separatist provinces while securing a land bridge connecting Crimea to Transdniestria.
More recently, on 16 MAR, among five scenarios I rated as “most likely” a scenario where Russia’s advance into mid-May was no further than Luhansk and Donbas on a line along the N-15 to Zhapriszo.
The five scenarios of the Mid-Game, #1-#5, from most likely to least likely.
(Check out this Jim Rutt Podcast show for a 45minute discussion of the march Five Scenarios of the Mid-Game.)
I was wrong that Russia could hold onto the belts and continue Grozny Rules to turn the northern cities feral. Besides that, as shown in the comparison image below of my mid-March Scenario #1 forecast, which was the “most likely”, the map earlier this week from Al-Jazeera is not far off.
Russia has not taken the full Donbas and is still struggling to reach the N-15 line to Zhapriszo. But we are still closest to scenario #1 from the mid-game. Russia has not even come close to capturing Odessa or holding a Chernobyl redoubt north of Kyiv (Scenario #2), and Ukraine has not even come close to forcing Russia to withdraw to its pre-war lines (Scenario #3). With those scenarios increasingly unlikely, the even more remote probabilities of Ukraine collapsing Russian positions and pushing them outside of the country (Scenario #4) or Russia taking all of eastern Ukraine to the Dnieper and accomplishing regime change (Scenario #5) look even less likely. Here is a more detailed map of the entire country
Summer/Fall Forecast – Same as the old Forecast
The problem with a good set of forecasts – as long as the trendlines remain the same, there is not much need to update them. The change in contingencies should spark an update, not just a passage of time. This is one reason why I have not done as much updating between mid-March and now. (Defending my Ph.D. dissertation also played a role, not going to lie.) But settling on the conventional Korean/WWI fixed line strategy will not be a war of rapid changes or advances and withdrawals as it was in the first few months. Russia may round out the holdings in Luhansk by closing the Sieveriedonetsk-Lysychansk pocket, but with two months to prepare for the fall of Sieveriedonetsk, Ukraine’s Armed Forces are well entrenched at the Bakhmut-Siversk line, as depicted in detail below:
Therefore my forecast for the war into the summer and fall is still the map from Scenario #1. There are a few contingencies that could shift the war into Scenario #2 or #3, and even those are unlikely I’ll review them in the next post.
Most likely, Scenario #1, through Summer/Fall if Russia and Ukraine’s capabilities stay approximately where they are now.
 Click for Video https://twitter.com/ralee85/status/1496807049203642375
 Click for Video https://twitter.com/ralee85/status/1497922624495751173