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It’s when, not if, the Russians will strike


IN PREVIOUS articles for TCW I have set out the evidence that the Russians intend to move to the offensive and do so while the ground is hard. Yet so far there has been no big push and readers will no doubt be asking ‘Why?’ Many may feel that I have misread the situation and that the old boy is losing his marbles. Well, no. Russia is on the offensive on sea, land, in the air and in cyberspace, conducting what in the trade are known as ‘shaping operations’. 

The Russian navy and air force continue their increasingly better targeted missile bombardment – better targeted for reasons I have laid out here. To this, Ukraine has no reply. 

On the ground, Soledar was captured on January 15, clearing the way for an advance to the north to threaten Siversk and south to hasten and increase the isolation of Bakhmut. Here, operations are already accelerating to ensure the encirclement of the city. In parallel, assaults towards Chasiv Yar, north-north-west of Bakhmut, are making some progress while Avdiivka is also close to being encircled.

The fighting around Bakhmut may well have been designed to draw in the Ukrainian regular army and bleed it to death. Attrition has a bad name in the West, but if it works for you, it is a perfectly respectable strategy.  As the Bakhmut-Siversk Line collapses, the Ukrainians have only the Kramatorsk-Slovyansk defensive line left and this is not yet well fortified. However, there will yet be many months of bloody attritional battles before the last line is pierced – unless, of course, the Big Push overtakes all that. On that matter, the comments of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) are interesting. 

Western, Ukrainian and Russian sources continue to indicate that Russia is preparing for an imminent offensive, supporting ISW’s assessment that an offensive in the coming months is the most likely course of action. Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated on January 30 that there are no indications that Russia is preparing to negotiate for peace and that all indicators point to the opposite. Stoltenberg noted that Russia may mobilise upwards of 200,000 personnel and is continuing to acquire weapons and ammunition through increased domestic production and partnerships with authoritarian states such as Iran and North Korea. Stoltenberg emphasised that Vladimir Putin retains his maximalist goals in Ukraine. Head of the Council of Reservists of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, Ivan Tymochko, reportedly stated that Russian forces are strengthening their grouping in Donbas as part of an anticipated offensive and noted that Russian forces will need to launch an offensive due to increasing domestic pressure for victory.

Stoltenberg’s and Tymochko’s remarks support those of us who have warned that Russian forces are preparing to launch an offensive in the coming weeks, possibly in Luhansk Oblast, but that the required conditions and the necessary resources have not yet been assembled. Russian chief of staff Valery Gerasimov will take no chances here.

On the Ukrainian side, it is of interest that President Zelensky appears to have sacked a third of his cabinet, citing corruption. Those purged, it seems, are British-trained, while their replacements are White House protégés.The purge followed the visit of the Director of the CIA and was in progress when Boris Johnson appeared in Kiev.

After the shakeup, the general expectation was of a hard-line approach to the prospect of negotiations or compromise but no sooner was the purge completed than US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s usually hard-line deputy, Victoria Nuland, began talking up negotiations. Why? And what was Johnson doing there? Cynics might suggest he had been sent at Washington’s behest to deliver some hard facts to Zelensky and in the margins of that meeting he took time to smooth the ruffled feathers of the outgoing British set. He covered his tracks by publicly talking up the need to support Ukraine militarily and using the opportunity to rubbish his successor, Wishi Wetpants – oops, that’s Rishi Sunak. It is noteworthy that Johnson went almost straight from Kiev to Washington

The focus in the West is, of course, on the supply of main battle tanks to Ukraine. The predictable cries that ‘the day of the tank is over’ are, it seems, once again premature. If the war lasts two or three years, these vehicles and other systems being supplied, such as infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), artillery and air defence systems, may make a difference. However, no one should expect quick results. Having commanded a combined arms battlegroup, brigade and division, I can explain why. 

First, as Patrick Benham-Crosswell has written in TCW,  Ukraine already has several types of former Soviet tanks and IFVs and will now receive at least three more different types of tank: Leopard 2, Abrams and Challenger 2. This means three different types of ammunition and three different sets of spare parts, complicating an already extended line of supply. The maintenance crews will need considerable training, as will the commanders, drivers, gunners and signallers and this alone will take months. The matter of fuel supply is also an issue, for these beasts are gas-guzzlers extraordinary, especially the Abrams with its gas turbine engine. It is not a matter of miles per gallon with these vehicles, but of gallons per mile. This means more fuel tankers and crews as well. 

Having mastered the vehicle, it is not simply a matter of driving into battle. Tanks operate in combined arms formations and the training of these formations – their component units, the commanders, the staffs – takes around a year to produce a battlegroup and two years to produce a brigade or division. Having laughed at the Russians for making such a poor show of combined arms performance, it must be assumed that Ukraine and the West will not replicate their mistakes. The training required cannot take place in Ukraine, for it would be immediately visible to Russian air and space surveillance and attract a heavy response. The equipment may well reach Poland, where there are Nato training areas, and get no further. Perhaps that is where it is really meant to go? Last but not least there is the practical issue of weight, not considered much since the British and other armies ceased to carry out the sort of large-scale tactical exercises that were the bread-and-butter of us old Cold War warriors. Modern Western tanks come in at around 70 tons, fully bombed up. In eastern Europe, there are many rail, road and river bridges. The weight classification of most of these is designed for Soviet era tanks, which weigh around 40 tons. So what happens when a column of 70-ton tanks rolls over a 40-ton bridge? Answers on a postcard, please.

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Jonathon Riley
Jonathon Riley
Lt Gen Riley is a former commander of British Forces in Sierra Leone and Iraq and Deputy Commander of all Nato forces in Afghanistan.

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