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Putin’s main assault is still to come

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IN spite of appearances and the beliefs of many, the main Russian assault in eastern Ukraine has not yet begun.  

Last Sunday, April 24, was Easter Sunday in the Russian Orthodox calendar; the feast lasts eight days until the commemoration of Our Lord’s second appearance to the Disciples after his resurrection and the confrontation with ‘doubting’ Thomas.  

Given Vladimir Putin’s well-documented devotion to the Orthodox religion, we might expect the main assault in eastern Ukraine to begin after that date.  

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s declaration that the offensive had begun was useful to Putin.  It has caused both the Ukrainian people and the West to think that Russian forces are now fully committed. They are not. 

What has begun is the deep attack and the use of deception – two recycled Soviet techniques still in full use. Deep attacks against infrastructure by air and missile strikes and on key targets, including stockpiles of Nato-supplied equipment, air defence systems, airfields and communications are now in progress.   

Preliminary artillery fire on close targets in the Donbas region is also certainly ongoing. In terms of deception, the Russians continue to be poised in the Black Sea threatening Odessa, but with probably insufficient forces to do more than this. However, it is clearly fixing Ukrainian attention, as the 5th (Reserve) Tank Brigade with its 90 T-72 main battle tanks has been moved there.  

For Putin, leaving Odessa as the only operational Ukrainian port will be a valuable bargaining chip once the Donbas operation is complete and he seeks to dictate a settlement. If a settlement is not achieved then this picture changes, more of which shortly. 

So what can we expect to see when the main assault unfolds? First, combined arms assaults against Ukrainian regular forces in the Donbas and elsewhere on the eastern frontier to fix them.  

Zelensky’s statements that Ukrainian reserves are now being committed, including the 3rd (Reserve) Tank Brigade deploying to Izyum, and the 4th and 17th Tank Brigades deployed to Kharkov, may well be a bluff.  

If it is not, then such moves would be premature and play to the Russian script. That said, an encircling movement from Izyum to the south, on the western border of the Donetsk, would be a very clear indicator of the beginning of full offensive operations. 

Operations in and around Mariupol will continue, but only to fix the attention of the West and its media. Mariupol is seen as the key to any corridor to the Crimea – but the route to the Crimea has been fully open since early March with the garrison of Mariupol confined to a small area and helpless to interfere.  

The final surrender or destruction of the garrison will, however, give Russian media the opportunity to trumpet a strategic route between Kherson and the Donbas, probably on May 9.  

The importance of this date, and the need to present a success whilst minimising failures in the north, may well lead to a high degree of political interference by Putin that will constrain Russian commanders and limit their freedom of action. 

So far, the Ukrainian general staff has played a very clever game, not confronting the Russians head-to-head in a contest that would, for them, end badly.  

Instead, in the mainly urban combat in the north, they have adopted the asymmetrical tactics of ambush and infiltration, in which, tactically, they have certainly emerged victorious.  

Although the Russians have moved well and quickly from the Crimea and along the southern coastlines, their fear must be that they could suffer another humiliating defeat in the Donbas.  

Russian commanders are doubtless weighing the force ratios and finding them marginal, both to take the territories and then hold them. Attempts to improve the situation by using irregular forces and mercenaries will not help. 

Now that Nato countries are sending ‘surplus’ tanks and armoured fighting vehicles, the Russians must hope that the Ukrainians will abandon guerrilla warfare and confront them conventionally.  

The arrival of US 155mm artillery with smart munitions, more NLAW (Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapons), and more anti-aircraft systems will, however, give them pause for thought.  

There is, therefore, something of a race in progress to build up strength at a higher tempo than that of the other side – the race between the achievement of operational goals by the Russians on one side and the arrival of more weaponry in Ukraine on the other. 

Strategically, the Russians may well also be fearing a defeat, even if they gain an operational victory. This would hinge around what Putin has always sought to avoid, the further expansion of Nato, beginning with Finland and Sweden. 

A long-running guerrilla war like that in 1980s Afghanistan would also tie down Russian troops for years to come, producing a steady stream of body bags and fuel for Western media.  

It is even possible that the Donbas offensive could be halted and thrown back – something that Putin would find very hard to shrug off, and dependent on who wins the race to build up forces the fastest 

Win or lose, we must expect that this ‘Special Military Operation’ will not be the last. Odessa is valuable as a bargaining chip in the short term, but in perhaps a year or two, it could well be the pivot for strategic operations against western Ukraine.  

Such an operation could involve the Russian garrison in the breakaway Transnistria region of Moldova securing a beachhead to the south-west of Odessa and then linking up with seaborne and air assault forces.  

Odessa would rapidly be surrounded and bypassed before a corridor was opened into western Ukraine, bringing Russian forces right up to the borders of Nato. 

Nato member states do not seem able to take the long view here. We, the British in particular, are busy handing over what few tanks we still have, stripping our stocks of NLAW and Starstreak man-portable air defence systems, abandoning our armoured infantry and close air defence capabilities, closing our major armoured manoeuvre training area in Canada and further reducing numbers when we will need every soldier, tank and gun and many more besides.  

The Ukrainians have done as well as they have because they are a large, well-equipped and well-trained army. Our army is now none of these things. 

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Lieutenant-General Jonathon Riley
Lieutenant-General 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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