President Vladimir Putin had to abandon his Plan A, but satellite photos show that a new phase of war is about to begin.
No surrender. Without going back. President Vladimir Putin’s “Plan B” is to concentrate his forces in one brutal and overwhelming push. Will Ukraine be able to bear it?
Putin’s “Plan A” has been abandoned. He believed that his tanks and troops could roll virtually unopposed through the Ukraine and toward the capital, kyiv.
It resulted in a humiliating defeat.
Now Russia has a “Plan B”. It’s what “Plan A” should have been in the first place. And that has dire implications for Ukraine’s weary defenders.
But doubts remain that the Kremlin has the capacity, and the will, to pull it off. International analysts believe that President Putin continues to demand a quick victory.
May 9 is the anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany in World War II.
Russia played a dominant role in that defeat.
And the traditional military parade through Moscow each year to celebrate that date would be the ideal moment for Putin to declare victory over his “new Nazis.”
But, after nearly two months of war, his troops have yet to capture a single major Ukrainian city.
They have lost a major warship. They have lost hundreds of tanks. Thousands of soldiers are dead.
So you need a quick hit.
And the main candidate is the besieged city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov.
But the city of 500,000 has defied all expectations. Its defenders hold on despite heavy Russian bombardment. Now Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky is calling for urgent assistance to help them maintain their defiant stance.
Newton’s third law
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It is a hard and unnecessary lesson to relearn. But Russia’s military appears to be going back to first principles.
Concentrate forces on an intimidating spearhead. Give him an achievable goal. Give him the support and supplies he needs to reach that goal.
The battered Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) that withdrew from kyiv are now resting, repairing and replacing losses behind the front lines in Belarus and Russia itself.
New forces are massing in eastern Ukraine, targeting the Donbas region.
“Plan A” had been divided among several different generals, each under remote control by Putin.
Now, for the first time, Russia’s war plans are being coordinated by one supreme commander: Colonel General Alexander Dvornikov.
“The Russians will have a single command staff to coordinate and try to achieve a single focused and seemingly realistic operational objective, rather than three separate competing north, south and east,” says Mr. Ledwidge.
But the heat is on.
“The Russians want quick battles of annihilation,” says Frank Ledwidge, senior lecturer in law and military strategy at the University of Portsmouth.
“What they will get is a war of attrition.”
Choosing the terrain
The defenders of Mariupol surrender. Isolated pockets of marines and militiamen are running out of ammunition and food.
They have been fighting since the first day of the war.
“They shelled us from planes, they fired at us from artillery, tanks,” says a publication of the 36th Ukrainian Naval Infantry Brigade. “We kept up the defense…doing the impossible. But any resource has the potential to run out.”
It may be a sign of things to come for other cities in Donbas.
Russia appears to be preparing to seize the fields around them.
The prime minister of neighboring Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki, warned: “The most decisive battle is about to begin and, at the same time, the largest tank battle in this part of the world since World War II.”
Putin’s new focus is near the Russian border. It is a region where Russian troops have been fighting covertly since 2014. It also has the support of local separatists determined to bring their homes under Moscow’s control.
The wide, flat terrain also gives Russia an advantage when it comes to their favored fighting methods. Tanks can advance, protectively surrounded by troops, following a rolling curtain of massive artillery fire.
“The battle for Donbas will remind you of World War II, with its huge operations and maneuvers, the involvement of thousands of tanks, armored vehicles, planes and artillery,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told a meeting of NATO ministers.
Russia’s decisive move
The Donbas is used to war.
It is where the best and most experienced units of the Ukraine are entrenched.
But his fight will be against a more focused Russia.
“The battles to come will be more like the maneuver battles of World War II than those fought in the cities of kyiv, Mariupol and Sumy in the six weeks the war has lasted so far,” Ledwidge warns.
“However, the Russians are unlikely to prevail.”
Commercial satellite photos show Russia once again massing troops, armored vehicles and equipment on the border with Donbas, Ukraine. Convoys of Russian vehicles advance towards the city of Izyum, in central-eastern Ukraine.
“These forces are launched against the Ukrainian defenders deployed in various ledges or ‘bulges,’ areas surrounded on three sides by Russian-backed separatists,” says Ledwidge. “Throughout military history, these have offered the ability to trap enemy forces in pockets.”
US military analysts say the Ukrainian defenders of the cities of Izyum and Sloviansk are likely to be the first targets of Russia’s new encirclement tactics. This will allow them to do the same with the city of Dnipro, a central hub on the Dnieper River.
Once such ledges are surrounded, they can be starved into submission or annihilated by air and artillery power.
“Ukrainian commanders fully and completely understand from bitter experience the risks of being surrounded,” says Ledwidge. “Even better, they know what’s coming. NATO air and space reconnaissance and surveillance, as well as Ukraine’s own intelligence capabilities, will ensure there are no surprise attacks.”
Through glass, darkly
“The next battle will start within the next two weeks,” says Ledwidge. “Attempting to predict its precise course is ultimately useless. Not even the enemy generals know.
But there are signs. Russia’s problems are systemic. It faces chronic problems of corruption, training, morale and leadership.
“These issues are not going to go away and will not be resolved by a change in command or operational focus,” says Mr. Ledwidge.
Ukraine’s forces may be tired. But they are fighting with determination.
“People are more motivated to defend their turf when it’s their turf than to attack it,” says Gideon Rose, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). “You can see that the soldiers and mercenaries on the Russian side are not particularly motivated, while the Ukrainians defending their homes are.”
They know the streets of the city. They know the roads of the country.
But the successful ambush tactics used against Russian armor in the early stage of the war are unlikely to continue if Russian forces act together.
And that is why Ukraine advocates heavy weapons, like tanks and artillery, from the West.
The fight will probably be prolonged. It will be carried out over long distances in the open field.
It could come down to who can continue to hit the other the longest.
Finally, President Putin remains a wild card.
“Putin is likely to keep fighting until he gets through all five stages of mourning,” Rose told NPR.
“The denial, the anger, the bargaining, the depression, the acceptance. What ultimately has to happen is that Putin has to accept defeat and choose to walk away, choose to walk away. And that is something that is a psychological process, not just a strategic process.”