Russian forces have reached the edges of the city of Dnipro, Russia claims. Sitting as it does on the elbow of the Dnepr River, this news would indicate that Russia is now in practical occupation of pretty much all of Trans Dnepr Ukraine, apart from the pocket in which about a dozen brigades (60,000 men) of Ukraine’s best troops are now trapped facing LDNR. Surrounded and cut off from fuel, food and ammunition, this force now has a choice of whether to fight to the last round or to treat for terms.
In Mariupol the Azov Battalion will be given no such choice. With de-nazification front and centre of its war aims we can expect Russia to take no (Azov) prisoners. Azov’s fight to the death, reportedly using civilians as cover wherever it can, is causing the reduction of Mariupol that we are now listening to (but not seeing – most of the film crews are in Kyiv).
With its arrival on the Dnepr Russia’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine is approaching its end, successful in military terms but a disaster by any other measure. Which makes now a good time to think about whether and how the war might end.
Look back in (partial) satisfaction
Before I do that, now also seems like a good moment to reflect on the analysis of a possible war I wrote a month ago. The Ukrainian trope is that Russian forces have performed catastrophically badly. What do the last two weeks tell us about the fighting capacities of Russia’s ground and air forces?
In that analysis I anticipated that Russia’s first step would be to take control of the air, which I thought would take no more than a couple of days, beginning with cruise missile strikes on airfields and infrastructure. That part was 100% correct: Russia’s first move was to hit airfields, airfield fuel depots and aircraft on the ground with a salvo of around a hundred cruise missiles, mostly Kalibrs.
From that point on we have seen two competing narratives. The Ukraine narrative is that the Ukraine Air Force continued to fly, inflicting disproportionate losses on Russian aircraft. The Russian narrative is that Ukraine delivered few or no air attacks, having lost most of its aircraft and drones to the initial attack. Russia’s Ministry of Defence, for example, claims that 89 combat aircraft and 57 helicopters were destroyed in the Kalibr offensive, and that part of the surviving balance retreated to Romania.
Observation tends to show which story is correct. What we can see and hear in all of the interviews and reports broadcast from throughout Ukraine is the almost complete absence of air activity of either side in the background. Ukrainian positions are not devastated by air attack, and nor are Russian ones. Russia’s static column north of Kyiv has sat in the open largely unmolested by aircraft. We can also see President Zelenskiy pleading for a no-fly zone and for the loan of Polish MiG-29s, which combine to suggest that the Ukrainian Air Force has become non-functional.
At the same time, Russia’s air force has been conspicuous by its almost complete absence over the multiple Russian fronts.
Russia’s air force stays well grounded
A handful of informed Western analysts have described problems with the Russian Air Force which were previously unacknowledged (including by me). These include a lack of precision strike weapons (the equivalent of the Hellfire and Brimstone missiles, with 8kg warheads) and JDAMS (250-500kg iron bombs with precision guidance package attached)). We can see evidence of a lack of precision in videos posted by Russia’s Ministry of Defence of bomb strikes in Syria. Here iron bombs are dropped on targets held in drone camera views, and we see repeatedly that they miss by dozens of metres. A few dozen metres matter little in a desert, but a lot in Mariupol, so bomb strikes have been remarkably rare.
Sources also refer to poor co-ordination between air and ground assets, which generates a real fear of blue-on-blue strikes on the ground and accidental shoot-downs of Russian aircraft by their own SAM systems. Unwilling to fly high for fear of their own SAMs, Russian planes would fly low and strike with rockets rather than bombs, but Ukrainian ground forces have been rapidly supplied with MANPADs (man-portable air defence systems, for example Stingers), which can keep close air support at bay if the balance of numbers lies in favour of defence.
These gaps, multiplied by a clear Russian policy of avoiding strikes on civilians as far as possible, appear to have deprived Russia of close air support from both fixed-wing and rotary-wing assets. That is what we are seeing in the limited video reportage – almost no presence of Russian ground attack aircraft over the various fronts, no reports of strikes on Ukrainian logistics in rear areas, and practically none at all on Kyiv.
A charge or a walk?
The second part of my analysis was to ask how long it would take Russian forces to occupy Eastern Ukraine.
Russia began with a choice of over 500km of border from which to advance. Partnership with Belarus (which I did not anticipate) added another 500km west of the Dnieper River. I concluded that Russia would need a swift unequivocal victory, and that the best chance of getting one was to attack from north to south on a 250-km front, with all of the twenty brigades (100,000 men) immediately available, giving each brigade a front of about 12km. I anticipated a rate of advance of 15km per day. I also suggested that simultaneously a Russian force would strike north from Crimea to seize the Antonovsky Bridge over the Dnepr at Kherson.
A violent assault on a narrow front would concentrate force against a thinner Ukrainian defence, allow resupply from the east as it advanced, prevent Ukrainian resupply from the west by blocking Dnepr river crossings, and with sufficient shock reduce Ukrainian resistance to an armed headlong retreat. I thought that we would see the Ukrainian army effectively destroyed in the first 30 days, and in full retreat for another 30 until the east bank of the Dnepr was fully occupied.
What Russia actually chose to do was to attack from both north and east on a 500-km front, while also diluting the attacking force by poising a strike column on the west bank of the Dnepr aimed but not fired at Kyiv. Russia’s choices multiplied its fronts from 250km to some 700 linear km (including Kyiv and Crimea), while diluting the strike power of the main attack force so that a brigade front grew to 35km. In parallel with the northern attacks, Russian forces in Crimea did what I expected and seized the Antonovsky Bridge.
Dilution of the attack slowed Russia’s advance on all fronts and caused higher than expected losses of men and equipment to capture, because on a wide brigade front there is ample scope for defenders to ambush and encircle elements of the of attacking force. Two thirds of Russian vehicle losses have been to captures.
Those captures are probably not material in terms of hard fighting power but have been crucial in feeding the Ukrainian narrative of an attack which is bogged down and failing. That narrative has in turn been a major strategic informational win for Kyiv, brought European public opinion firmly on side, and has emboldened Mr Zelenskiy to refuse any settlement at the Belarus talks.
But less ground to cover
Nevertheless, the northern arm of Russia’s attack has moved at close to my anticipated 15km per day, and most contact lines of the northern attack are now 200km inside Ukrainian territory. Russia’s choice of routes diluted the force of its attack, but it also reduced the distance to cover, from 1,000km between north and south, to only 250-300km to the Dnepr River.
The southern thrust also advanced at 15km per day, even though it diluted its own “schwerpunkt” by sending a part of its force north-east to Mariupol to face down the Azov Battalion. Meanwhile, LDNR forces on the Donbas line of contact sat still, preventing the 60,000 men of the Ukrainian army from withdrawing and turning to face one of the two Russian thrusts north and south.
Tank losses have been lower than they appear
I anticipated that Russia would pay a price in blood for an attack – “Working from prepared positions and from cover defenders would be able to inflict considerable damage on Russian forces moving in the open”. That has happened. I anticipated that Ukraine would receive rapid and generous resupply of Javelin missiles (“the Western powers would provide a generous supply of powerful infantry weapons (especially Javelin missiles)” but these arrived even faster than I anticipated, along with a miscellany of smaller anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs).
I anticipated that a very large proportion of ATGMs would not find a tank target, or indeed any target, and Russian losses of tanks, tracked infantry vehicles and a miscellany of soft-skinned vehicles have been far smaller than Ukraine’s war narrative suggests, but pretty close to my forecast.
We can see a sound indication of loss rates in the daily-updated reports from Oryxspioenkop.com, which verifies losses by cross-checking and de-duplicating photographic evidence. Oryx reports that so far Russia has lost 49 tanks to complete destruction (90% of them old T72s and T80s). Another 100 have been reported as abandoned or captured – evidence of the thin nature of the Russian contact line.
In my article “Ukraine – Blunting the Javelin” I anticipated that an attack from north to south would see 150 Russian tanks destroyed by Javelin attack in the 30 days leading up to collapse of Ukraine’s defence. We are currently fifteen days into the war and have seen one third of that number destroyed – slightly fewer than my forecast, but not by much.
As I anticipated, large numbers of ATGMs have been fired at soft-skinned targets (Oryx noted 140 of these destroyed by Ukrainian fire). Most of Russia’s losses have been to captures – a feature of a porous wide front in which attacking units become isolated from their own forces.
Oryx data is not definitive since it includes only equipment which Oryx has verified by photograph. Equipment damaged (or captured by Russia) will typically end up behind the Russian front line, where it will not be available for a photo-shoot. That suggests that losses of tanks and other vehicles by both sides are probably higher, and closer to my estimate.
As have civilian and military deaths
Loss rates of men are, frankly, unknown since both sides will undoubtedly be lying enthusiastically. Ukraine has claimed 5,000 to 10,000 Russian dead (but how would Ukrainian sources know?). The Russian Defence Ministry claimed on day 9 that 498 Russian military personnel had died so far, which is probably below the actual number. I anticipated a mortality rate for attacking forces of 0.5% of engaged forces per month, which would be around thirty per day and 450 by now, well below the 1,000 per day claimed by Kyiv.
I anticipated that Ukrainian mortality rates would be higher, 5-10% of engaged forces per month, for a variety of reasons. Only two thirds of Ukrainian ground forces (100,000 men or less) have been actively engaged (the Donbas front has been quiet and stable since the start of the war). Kyiv is silent on Ukrainian military deaths, but Moscow claimed 2,870 last as of last week (again, how would they know?), a rate of about 5% of engaged forces per month.
Civilian deaths have occupied a prominent position in the Western headlines and news channels. In my analysis I said “Russia would thus be seen not only to be conducting a highly illegal invasion of a sovereign state but also carrying out a near genocide”. That is exactly what has happened, but not because of actual slaughter.
United Nations reports count 474 civilian deaths as of 7 March, very far from genocide, and fully consistent with an effort by attacking forces not to kill civilians. Video reportage from Kyiv and other centres has consistently shown Ukrainian civilians making close contact with Russian army units and being left completely unharmed, even when actively obstructing the movement of Russian tanks and armoured cars. In one remarkable video the civilian occupants of a car actually threw a Molotov cocktail onto a Russian tracked infantry vehicle and were then allowed to drive away unharmed.
The exception to this observation is the situation in Mariupol. Here the Azov Battalion of around 3,000 men has, according to Russian reports, forced the civilian population to remain in the city, and apparently even in the same buildings as Azov fighters, to serve as human shields. On one video we see Azov Battalion men dragging civilians who are trying to leave Mariupol from their cars and shooting them dead. Russia claims that it was the Azov Battalion that mined an evacuation route from Mariupol. We may expect to see many hundreds, even thousands, of civilian deaths before Mariupol falls.
Whatever the truth, Kyiv’s narrative of Russian civilian genocide has become so established as to be unarguable. One excitable US General interviewed this week anticipated that Ukrainian civilian deaths would reach one million, unchallenged by his interviewer.
While Russia has been charged, tried and convicted of genocide in the media (and indicted at the ICC) the media narrative has continued to ignore the civilian death-toll in LDNR since 2014, caused by Ukrainian shellfire, and enumerated by United Nations observers at 3,106 excluding the passengers and crew of MH17.
We are where we are
So far, apart from wrongly concluding that Mr Putin would not start a war at all, my analysis of how a war would proceed has been reasonably close to events.
Sources conflict violently as to exactly how far the Russian advance has progressed. Maps provided by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and widely used in media reports are in complete disagreement with those provided by other sources. The ISW, a Washington-based NGO which presents itself as non-partisan but is in fact strongly neocon, presents maps which consistently present the Russian advance as stalled. The ISW map released on Friday night of 5 March, for example, placed Russian forces 100km south of Zaporozhiye, at a time when YouTube video showed Russian parachute flares landing in the power plant’s car park. The plant fell to Russian control next morning.
For a more realistic appreciation of the pace of Russia’s advance we need to look at Moscow’s own map, displayed on Russian state TV a couple of days ago and screen-grabbed by an attentive observer. This shows Russian forces in occupation of some 90% of the territory east of the Dnepr and with only 80km of space between the front at Poltava and the river before the whole of Trans-Dnepr is occupied.
It also shows that the spearpoint of Russian forces is poised to connect behind Ukrainian positions on the LDNR line of contact from both north and south, to form a closed “cauldron” around those forces. A second map, released by the pro-Ukrainian OSI website Cybershafarat (run by ex-US forces intelligence officer Jeff Bardin) details Ukraine’s Donbas force by brigade and location. Twelve Ukrainian brigades (some 60,000 men, plus supporting formations) are located on the line of contact, held there by an unrealised threat from forces in LDNR.
The Russian TV map showed the two Russian fronts approximately 150km apart on Monday 8 March. At 15 km per day, approaching from each end, that would suggest the cauldron would seal by this weekend.
Moving to the Odesa front, a similar cauldron appears to be forming, enclosing Odesa and its environs. The Russian media map suggests that the gap between Russian forces moving west and forced from Transnistria moving east has fallen to about 50km.
And, returning to more recent news, Russian forces are now enveloping Dnipro on the river Dnepr. The picture that is emerging is not one of Russian stalling and defeated, but of Russia steadily taking territory.
Which begs the question “why?”
In earlier articles I anticipated that Russia would inflict serious self-harm if it carried out an invasion, unifying Nato and Europe, triggering painful sanctions, and betting “an unknown stake for an unknown prize subject to unknown risks”.
In my wildest dreams I did not picture the scale and intensity of the pain that is now landing on Russia’s head. Ukraine and Nato have won the information war so comprehensively that there is now almost no economic pain that the peoples of Europe and the US will not suffer to punish Russia, with the UK enthusiastically joining in. Europe’s economy runs on Russian gas and Russian oil (3.5-4mn bpd – about a third of consumption). With widespread sanctions on any organisation capable of delivering those fuels, European energy prices are now rising rapidly and painfully. Europe’s sanctions appear to have formed a circular firing squad.
It’s not just energy
European energy is only one part of the sanctions piece. Financially Europe and the US have frozen deposits of euros, dollars and sterling held by Russia’s central bank, cutting Russia off from a large part of its net reserves. In manufactured goods Russia is now isolated from spare parts supplies for Boeing and Airbus aircraft and for almost every private car in Russia. Russia is also cut off from new supplies of servers (cloud computing cannot expand capacity), software and a range of high-end chips which Russia cannot yet manufacture.
Some commercial software (particularly in the oil and gas industry) only operates with regular provision of unlock keys, which will not now arrive. Some millions of Russian employees of Western companies are now functionally unemployed, while all Russians are now cut off from travel to Europe and North America. Imports of western goods of all kinds to Russia are now stalled for lack of sanctioned shipping, while exports of oil and metals are under threat from sanctions on shipowners.
This is not to say, as some commentators would have it, that Russia’s economy will collapse. In reality most of an economy, most of all economies, are domestic in nature, and carry on more or less regardless of events in trade markets.
Secondly, Russia’s sanctions are very directional – to and from the West. Trade will carry on with the rest of the world (35 nations abstained from the UN’s resolution condemning the invasion, representing 52% of the world’s population), and grey imports of spare parts for cars and planes and of chips and IT equipment will eventually find their way to Russia via those economies, but the degree of economic pain will nevertheless be intense.
Ukrainian nationalism resurges
Meanwhile, inside Ukraine Moscow’s attack has thrown a ship-load of fuel onto the smouldering fires of Ukrainian nationalism and has made being “Russian” in Ukraine an unacceptable admission. Millions of mixed ethnic Ukrainian/Russian citizens of Ukraine who might have been persuaded to accept Russian suzerainty in exchange for peace and prosperity now dare not even think that thought, much less live it.
The reason why
Some of these consequences were foreseeable, and some not. The foreseeable ones alone were sufficient to dissuade a rational thinker from an invasion, so why on earth did Mr Putin decide to invade?
The emerging most likely answer to that question is that he shared the hope of many past aggressors – that a sharp violent shock would precipitate a speedy collapse of the opposing regime followed by a peace conference on advantageous terms. Supporters of this answer cite the Belarus/Kyiv component of the invasion as evidence. That would be more compelling if the Belarus/Kyiv component had not spent two weeks studiously not advancing. It would also be more compelling if the attack had been conducted with full kinetic force (not worrying about civilian deaths) and on a narrower front (to concentrate the shock effect). Perhaps Mr Putin had an unfounded belief in the blitzkrieg capabilities of Russia’s ground forces.
A small piece of external evidence in support of the “sudden shock” thesis emerged briefly on the website of RIA Novosti the day after the invasion, in the form of an announcement that “…Ukraine has returned to Russia. This does not mean that its statehood will be liquidated, but it will be restructured, re-established and returned to its natural state part of the Russian world. Within what borders, in what form will the union with Russia be consolidated (through the CSTO and the Eurasian Union or the Union State of Russia and Belarus)? This will be decided after the end is put to the history of Ukraine as an anti-Russia. In any case, the period of split of the Russian people is coming to an end.”. The announcement was almost immediately taken down, but not before it found its way here. It’s not conclusive – it would be as meaningful a year in the future as three days after the invasion – but it can be read to corroborate the sudden shock thesis.
Against the sudden-shock thesis we have the visible evidence that the Belarus/Kyiv attack stopped of its own volition 30km from Kyiv, that the stated war aims are much less than an occupation of Ukraine, plus the truth (anticipated by my analysis) that 15km per day is not a blitzkrieg.
Was Kyiv planning an attack on the Donbas?
Evidence for a second reason to attack is now dribbling into the light. This week Moscow announced its troops had captured plans for a forthcoming attack by those 60,000 men on the line of contact on LDNR, scheduled for early March. The plans may be genuine, or may be a provokatsiya, only time (and a lot of it) will tell, but some corroboration can be found in the hard fact that in the week leading up to Russia’s invasion Ukraine increased its bombardment of LDNR from a sporadic twenty shells per day to 1,500 to 2,000 (evidenced from OSCE daily reports). More corroboration can be found in the number of men stationed on the line of contact – the best third of Ukraine’s armed forces in fact – rather a lot to hold 15,000 lightly-armed rebels at bay.
At the end of the day we are unlikely to know the real reason for decades, if ever. All we have is the fact that the attack was launched. Which brings us to the question of what might Mr Putin do next?
How does Russia end the crisis?
I see that question through a dual lens: one showing the coming economic pressure on Russia and the other showing the coming threat to Mr Putin’s status as president of Russia and indeed to his life.
Western sanctions are imposing enormous pressure on Russia’s economy. Momentum alone will carry Russia for a while, as long as it has stocks on hand of money, spare parts, spare computers and phones, sophisticated chips and other key manufactured goods. How long? Maybe a month or two. For that month or two Moscow can present sanctions as “not disastrous” to the Russian people, but after that parts of life will start to shut down in an obvious and painful way.
On a personal level, Mr Putin is, like all autocrats, at risk of removal by his close colleagues if he begins to look vulnerable. All autocrats are surrounded by a small elite of competing potential replacement autocrats (the “princes” to Putin’s “king”), many of whom live in hope of an opportunity to take power for themselves. That is the ironic fate of dictators.
A prince will not act until the king is truly weakened, and even then must collect allies and resources, which means money. Russia’s oligarchs have little political power (they ceded that to Mr Putin in exchange for being left alone after Khodorkovsky was broken and imprisoned) but they do have enough money to influence, even to buy, those close enough to Putin to instigate a de-throning. And they are somewhat motivated – sanctions are swiftly confiscating their yachts, homes, cash, investments and even their football clubs, and having their children thrown out of private schools. If he listens carefully Mr Putin will be able to hear the knives being sharpened in and around the Kremlin.
By actively seeking an end on acceptable terms
Mr Putin therefore needs an end to the war, and fast. Evidence is appearing that he is starting to work on that end. Two days ago Mr Lavrov spent 90 minutes with Ukraine’s foreign minister in Turkey. No progress was announced, but that doesn’t mean progress wasn’t made. Significantly, in an interview following the talks Mr Lavrov explicitly referred to Ukraine as a (continuing) state – a clear signal that destruction of the state is not an agenda item.
But what would the end of the war look like?
Here the question gets muddy. If Russia had simply aimed at the Dnepr River it would now have an opportunity to reach a clean end – stop at the river, cease fire, capture, disarm and send home the 60,000 men of Ukraine’s Donbas army, declare future referenda on autonomy in the Trans-Dnepr oblasts in a year’s time and start a peace conference in which Crimea is ceded to Russia and Ukraine declares neutrality (Mr Zelenskiy has already hinted at a willingness to do both).
However, Russian forces have gone well beyond the Dnepr (they are on the point of surrounding Odessa) and are poised around Kyiv. If they stop where they are they would be left in occupation of a part of western Ukraine with no natural frontier or barrier on which to base an armed border. Wherever they stop they will end up with a 300km frontier of open country between Moldova and Kyiv.
The part of Ukraine left in Ukrainian control would quickly become a base for future operations against Russia and ethno-Russians in the independent oblasts. These would certainly include partisan-style incursions and attacks on occupying troops and pro-Russian civilians. They might even scale up to a formal attack supported and supplied by the West to recover the lost territory.
Those possibilities would demand the presence of large Russian occupation forces in occupied western Ukraine, and the use of regular oppressive violence against Ukrainian nationalists. Russia has been there before, in Afghanistan, and did not enjoy the experience.
One step to prevent nationalist incursions would be the recreation of something like the Inner German Border between East and West Germany, guarded actively and expensively for a generation. Even that would not work well, since normal flows of goods across the border would provide ample scope for the smuggling of people, weapons, ammunition and explosives with the enthusiastic help of Washington and Brussels.
A third option, even less attractive, would be to continue its attack until the whole of Ukraine was occupied by Russian forces.
But time is running out
At present Mr Putin’s most critical resource is time. Each passing day contains the risk that sanctions become visibly and critically painful, fostering popular unrest. It also contains the risk that Mr Putin is removed in a coup.
Scariest of all each passing days contains (and increases) the risk that some event pushes the peoples of Europe, the UK and the USA over the brink of active participation, to a full-blown Nato declaration of war. We can already see US news channels and government spokespeople, supported by UK sources, working to manufacture consent for that based on a chemical attack.
Mr Putin needs peace fast. To get it he will have to make some large concessions to future Ukrainian statehood. Two concessions are already open to him – withdrawal of the forces on the Odesa front east of the Dnepr, and withdrawal of forces around Kyiv back to Belarus.
Those moves might look sufficiently like a Ukrainian win: to have found a peace deal in which Crimea is recognised as Russian, the right to self-determination is granted to all Trans-Dnepr oblasts, Ukraine is declared as neutral with written security guarantees from both Russia and Europe, perhaps underwritten with a UN protection force provided by both sides to act as a tripwire against a future attack. Ukraine would retain access to the Black Sea as an export route, and Russia would pick up the (large) bill for civil reconstruction in Trans-Dnepr Ukraine.
Brussels would see a peace deal in that shape as a huge relief, providing an escape route from the circular firing squad that it has formed with its energy sanctions against Russia.
As I said in an earlier article, wars are easy to start but hard to finish. Moscow is facing a set of unpleasant choices as to how to finish this one. If it does not end it, and fast, then the next step we see may be an all-out war between Nato and Russia. Time for peace is running out.