Ukraine’s 603,628 square kilometers (2,782 kilometers coastline) comprises two different biomes (bio-geographic areas): mixed forest towards the middle; and steppe towards the Black Sea littoral interspersed with lowlands, uplands, plateaus and basins.
Mostly part of Great European Plain, Ukraine’s fertile steppes/plateaus are crossed by Dnieper, Seversky Donets, Dniester and the Southern Bug Rivers, emptying into Black Sea and the smaller Sea of Azov. Danube River delta in the southwest, forms its border with Romania. Besides, Carpathian Mountains in the west and Crimean Mountains in the extreme south along the coast (of no military consequence in this war), the only formidable obstacle to military movement is the forested, riverine terrain and wetland north of Kyiv (Pripyat and Pinsk Marshes).
Once frozen in winter (upto February), this marshland makes Kyiv vulnerable to any attack from Belarus, a mere 56 kilometers north, as the frozen wetland supports sustained military traffic. Spring thaw and the ensuing low bearing capacity of the ground due to mud, converts it into formidable obstacle, that significantly hindered the Russian offensive against Kyiv. The 1,600-square-kilometer Chernobyl Zone (the site of 1986 nuclear disaster) also restricts movements along this Axis due to residual radioactivity.
Dnieper River compartmentalizes any north-south military offensive into eastern and western halves. Donbas region’s military geography (pro-Moscow separatists) supports Russian military effort from the east, as Russian Army reoriented during the 2nd/current phase of their operations. Sprawling Ukrainian cities/towns pose attacker with a predicament. Mere investment (encirclement) ties down significant forces, let alone clearance that requires a 9:1 numerical superiority over the defender.
Russia’s westward advance from Donbas could be held-up by Ukraine inundating ground, after blowing the massive dam on Dnieper near the southern city of Zaporizhzhya (also causing damage to its own people), like Stalin did to the advancing German forces in World War II.
Black Sea and Sea of Azov in the south are Ukraine’s only sea lines of communications. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea provides it expanded access to the sea. However, Russo-Ukrainian maritime trade, and Black Sea Fleet’s outside forays (supply of rotational troops in Syria through Mediterranean) depends upon Turkish goodwill. Russia did construct a 20-kilometer-long bridge over Kerch Strait (connecting Black Sea and Sea of Azov) in 2018, linking Crimea to mainland Russia, to ease up logistics.
Russian Military is in a relatively conventional conflict on home turf perhaps for the first time since Red Army fought an irregular war in Afghanistan. This article tries to analyze the conflict.
Russian offensive’s initial/first phase comprised a Northern Front, launched out of Belarus to target Kyiv; a Northeastern (NE) Front directed at the city of Kharkov (Kharkiv); a Southeastern (SE) Front within which a Southern Prong was launched from Crimea; and not a very powerful SE Prong directed at the cities within Luhansk and Donbas region/oblasts. In early April, Russian troops in southeastern Ukraine were brought under General Alexander Dvornikov. The Northern Front (after failing to invest Kyiv) and NE Front were subsequently reassigned to the SE Front (fighting in Mariupol) for Phase 2 of the offensive.
Attack against Kyiv under Northern Front comprised a Main Effort striking south from Belarus along west bank of Dnipro (Dnieper) River, to invest the city from the west. The Secondary Effort, along east bank of Dnipro was to encircle Kyiv from northeast and east. Russian Airborne Forces assaulted on 26 February to seize two key airfields around Kyiv, one of them near Vasylkiv Air Base, south of Kyiv. The airborne assaults had mixed results. Spetsnaz forces were infiltrated in Kyiv to link-up with airborne forces and mechanized advance from the north.
The Front had to pass through the radio-actively contaminated ghost towns of Chernobyl and the legendary tough terrain of Pripyat (Pripyat Marshes). Ukraine resorted to partial inundation of the area to impede Russian forces, held-up at Ivankiv, a northern suburb of Kyiv. By early March, the reportedly 64 kilometers-long convoy had made little progress. The Secondary Effort along the Chernihiv (Kyiv Oblast) was also held-up after partial siege of the Chernihiv city.
This entire Effort stalled by 20 March due to armour unable to fanout astride the few roads owing to forests, waterways and what was called the dreaded ‘General Mud’ in World War-II; besides, Russian supply constraints due to long and vulnerable lines of communications (logistics) and dogged resistance by Ukrainian tank hunting parties. Western military analysts also cite Russian failure to low morale among Russian troops (most having some degree of affinity towards fellow Ukrainians), poor performance of Russian equipment and failure of Russian Air Force to provide air cover and favorable air situation. Russian attrition in encirclement battles was also high. On 16 March, remaining Ukrainian forces mounted a counter-offensive with partial success. The Effort, designed for a quick victory was fully retracted by 7 April for resupply and redeployment as mentioned. Thereafter, Russian forces relied upon stand-off weapons including artillery, rocket barrages and missile strikes.
There were attempts – reportedly – to assassinate President Zelenskyy, using Chechen fighters and Wagner Group mercenaries, but suspected tipping by anti-war officials within Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) thwarted these plans.
The NE Front was able to capture Konotop city/other towns (Chernihiv Oblast) and Sumy city (Sumy Oblast) on 24 February. Although Sumy Axis threatened Kyiv from east due to terrain favourable for mechanized operations, NE Front did not press the attack, as it was then depleted by siege warfare. The Front subsequently withdrew by 7 April.
The Eastern Front meanwhile on 1 March, after relatively unimpeded advance, bombed and invested Kharkov City, some 35 kilometers from Russian border. Ukrainian Forces offered stiff resistance and attacked Millerovo air base (Rostov Oblast, Russia) on 25 February using OTR-21 Tochka missiles. On 17 March, Russia captured Izium City (Kharkov Oblast, eastern Ukraine). However, battle for the badly damaged and predominantly Russian speaking Kharkov still rages. Ukrainian government had ordered remaining residents to evacuate west.
Along Southern Front, on 24 February, Russian forces took control of the North Crimean Canal, supplying Dnieper water to Crimea, cut off since 2014. Mariupol was besieged on 26 February simultaneously linking the Front with separatist-held Donbas region. On 1 March, Russian forces resumed their attack on Melitopol, which was later taken. On 25 February, Russian Navy undertook an amphibious assault ashore the Sea of Azov on 70-kilometer coastline, west of Mariupol for expected deployment of marines. A second pincer including 22nd Army Corps developed operation north from Crimea capturing the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant by 4 March. A third prong from Crimea moved northwest towards Kherson and captured the city, the first major Ukrainian city to fall. Mariupol completely encircled by 18 March fell later during Phase 2.
Along Western Ukraine on 14 March (Phase I), Russian forces conducted multiple cruise missile strikes over a military training facility in Yavoriv (Lviv Oblast), close to the Polish border. The missile attack was later expanded to the Lviv oblast. Intelligence suggested that these cruise missiles were likely air-launched from warplanes flying over Black Sea.
In air warfare, Russian Air Force (RAF) attacked Chuhuiv air base on the very first day of their operations; the base housing the Turkish supplied Bayraktar TB2 tactical drones. Thereafter, there were continuing attacks on multiple other Ukrainian air bases. Russia’s initial SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defence) operation had caused extensive damage to many Ukrainian air defence facilities, run-ways, Radar Systems etc. Russia had reportedly used the newly inducted 9K720 ‘Iskander’ missile systems, fired from Belarus on 27 February, against Zhytomyr Airport in Western Ukraine.
The aircraft losses on both sides are, interestingly, almost equal around 55. Russia still has good inventory of fighter jets and helicopters available near Ukraine.
RAF’s relatively poor performance in providing favorable air situation for ground operations and its subdued ‘offensive air support’ is attributed to shortage of precision-guided bombs and relative inexperience of Russian pilots for the kind of support; besides Ukrainian surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries. Ukrainian mid-range SAMs compel RAF pilots to fly low, making them vulnerable to Stinger/other shoulder-fired missiles. So far US/NATO has resisted the Ukrainian demand of establishing a ‘No Fly Zone’ over Ukraine for fear of direct confrontation with Russia.
In Naval Warfare, Turkey invoked the 1936 Montreux Convention, denying passage to four Russian naval vessels through the Turkish-held Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, as the warships were not registered with Black Sea bases as home. Russian Navy shelled and occupied the Snake Island and captured about a dozen Ukrainian ships in Berdiansk (a port city in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast in SE Ukraine), including the Polnocny-class landing ship Yuri Olefirenko. On 13 April, Russian cruiser Moskva, the flagship of its Black Sea Fleet, was sunk under controversial circumstances. The US now claims providing Ukraine with targeting data/other relevant intelligence for the purpose.
The second phase of Russian offensive in Ukraine commenced around 19 April, through an expanded “Eastern Assault” across a 300-mile frontage from Kharkov to Donetsk and Luhansk, with missile auxiliaries simultaneously targeting Kyiv and Lviv (the Western/NATO aid hub) in Western Ukraine.
After the disastrous first phase, and one is surprised at the relative incompetence of the Russian General Staff to have launched a major war on faulty assumptions like an early Ukrainian capitulation; a less resolute US/NATO response; over-rating its own coordination/performance; ignorance of force morale due to Ukrainian kinship; lack of jointness among Russian ground and air forces; besides, neglecting the quintessential lesson of dilution-in-space etc, for example.
Hoping Russian forces have learnt lessons, the current phase of War, according to Russian Ministry of Defence, has four main and modest objectives; a) taking over Donbas (in progress); b) creating a land corridor upto Russian-held Crimea (mainly done); c) blockading Ukrainian Black Sea ports (accomplished); and d) taking control of southern Ukraine and creating an exit to Transnistria (in progress). The political aim, Western officials suspect, still remains toppling of the Ukrainian government, by force if necessary.
The ongoing Eastern Assault under General Dvornikov was launched by SE Front, reinforced by forces withdrawn from N/NE Fronts. Russian ground forces for the reconstituted offensive comprise 1st Guards Tank Army, and full/partial complements from 2nd, 5th, 6th, 8th, 20th, 35th, 41st and 58th Armies, along auxiliaries. They are supported by Donetsk People’s Republic Armed Forces, Luhansk People’s Militia, Wagner Group (militia) and Libyan/Syrian contingents. Ukraine has two tank brigades (4th and 17th), two mountain assault brigades (10th and 128th), four mechanized/motor brigades (24th, 53rd, 56th, 72nd), one airmobile brigade (81st) plus air assault forces and Georgian Legion, territorial forces, foreign mercenaries/volunteers on its order of battle.
By 18 April, Mariupol was almost entirely captured by Russian forces, except the City’s steel plant (Azovstal Iron and Steel Works), now in Russian hands with around 2,000 soldiers as prisoners. Russia suspected many foreign fighters were holed-up in the sprawling factory.
Along the Mykolaiv-Odessa (Odesa) Front, major cities of Mykolaiv and Odessa continue to face Russian missile and aerial attacks, resumed on 24 April. Odesa, the seaport on northwestern shores of Black Sea, is under a virtual blockade. So, the westward expansion of Russia’s battlefront along the northern shores of Black Sea/Sea of Azov would transform Ukraine into a land-locked country. The consequent Russian control over Ukrainian grain exports through sea plus Russian energy monopoly over Europe would further augment Russian leverage in any negotiations. On the Dnipro-Zaporizhzhia Front, key cities of Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia faced general missile attacks and bombardment.
It is the reported Russian interest in the breakaway region of Transnistria on the Moldova-Ukraine border, that seemed to have rung alarm bells in US/NATO, hence the phenomenal spike in material aid and other assistance to Ukraine.
In military parlance, the Russian Main Effort (ME) along eastern Ukraine aims at encirclement of Ukrainian troops in the cauldron between Izium and Donetsk/Luhansk Oblasts; the secondary is poised towards Mariupol/Kharkiv Cities. The remaining two auxiliaries are directed along Southern axis and towards Sumy/NE Ukraine. Russian forces, however lately seem abandoning wider encirclements, opting instead for shallower ones. Russian tactical/operational errors, especially river crossing operations, leave much to be desired; however, mass force application generally overcomes its shortcomings. Russian tactics is still massive use of artillery, rocket systems and missiles, followed by armor advancing in large formations as terrain along Eastern Assault supports mechanized operations.
Russian offensive, contested fiercely by reinvigorated Ukrainian Army, is making slow but sure-footed progress. As Ukrainian Forces grapple with Russia’s decisive edge in long-range artillery and numerical superiority, despite tactical successes here and there.
Ukraine’s Special Forces operating behind enemy lines continue to target Russian railway infrastructure, the mainstay of Russian logistics. Compared to the rigid hierarchy of Russian command structure, Ukrainian troops enjoy more autonomy for on-spot decisions and exploiting fleeting battlefield opportunities.
American officials, meanwhile estimate 25% depletion of Russian combat firepower besides munition shortages. The war, however, is far from over and still can engulf the whole of Europe. The mapping out implications of this conflict would be in the next piece.
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