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Ukraine: Could seaborne assault signal beginning of the end?

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IN these pages last week I asked the question, where is the rest of Russia’s army? I suggested that while everyone was focusing on the situation around Kiev, airborne formations co-operating with the maritime forces would envelop Odessa and then, moving through the Russian-occupied Transnistria region of Moldova east of the Dniester River, might seize the rest of that country. 

The initial elements of that prediction seem to be developing.  A seaborne assault is about to be mounted from ships in the Black Sea, as reported here. 

This move comes as the Russian army’s first operational echelon, having made very heavy weather of its advance over the past three weeks, has in effect run out of momentum. In order to continue an advance, as I explained last week, there will be an operational pause while the second echelon – the formations we have not yet seen – is brought forward. The pause cannot be too long, however, because international sanctions mean that Putin is fast running out of money to fund the war and it cannot continue for much longer without either Chinese support (with all that means for China versus the West), dumping gold on the Dubai market, or robbing the Russian people.

So, what next? The context is the peace negotiations and the more nuanced Russian position over the last days. First, Kiev. The city is likely to be surrounded soon. As I have said before, a Russian advance and a battle in the built-up area is highly unlikely – the Russians do not have the manpower, the munitions or the morale for such a bloody struggle. Kiev, too, is hugely important as a cultural symbol of Russian Orthodoxy and the threat of force, bombardment and starvation are more likely to be used. Furthermore, the Ukrainian government can have a pistol held directly to its head without obliterating the city. In other words, Kiev is a bargaining chip to force a quick result in the negotiations. 

Next, Odessa. It too is hugely important in cultural terms to Russia as well as to Ukraine; and it is also Ukraine’s major port, without which the country is land-locked. Odessa, too, therefore, is likely to be invested and used as another bargaining chip, giving Putin a pretty strong hand. A landing at Odessa will be linked to the corridor along the Black Sea and Sea of Azov coasts, using troops from the second operational echelon. These troops can then swing north, cutting Ukraine’s supply routes to the West and cutting off the flow of munitions. The recent cruise missile attacks at Yavirov have already made a difference here, for reports suggest that these have been highly successful in destroying equipment and killing people – far more so than is being admitted.

A swing north could either, as I have suggested, be directed through Moldova and the Transnistria, or else move north from Yuzhne, the naval base where the Ukrainian fleet’s flagship lies scuttled, and Mykolaiv, on the western side of the Pivdennyi Buh River. If the bridges over that river were to be dropped, then as well as cutting Ukraine’s westward line of communications, the Russians have also severed any line of withdrawal for the Ukrainian army and completed an operational/strategic envelopment of Kiev.

One final consideration is that, when looking at the Dnieper River which cuts off eastern from western Ukraine, neither side has destroyed any of the bridges. These are substantial structures which would take multiple-stage demolitions involving large tonnages of explosive to demolish; moreover, they would take much time and effort to replace. The Ukrainians, we must presume, wish to keep these bridges intact for their own use and the Russians also may need them. We can therefore postulate that the Ukrainian armed forces may be trapped between the two rivers by Russian formations, linked by the corridor along the south coast.

Might we also guess the Russian bargaining position in the peace talks, given that a quick – and perhaps imperfect – resolution is required? Odessa and Kiev in return for a referendum in the Donbas; the Crimea, the land corridor to it and its water supply; and a binding promise by what is left of Ukraine to adopt neutrality perhaps?

This could end the war, but it will not end western sanctions. But, even with what might be spun as a win in the war, Putin can never win the peace. 

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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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