On this evening of February 27th, the Russian Federation has prosecuted roughly 96 hours of warfare in the Ukraine. I’ve seen an absurd amount of propaganda on the war, ranging from fake news (propaganda) to fake fake news (counterintelligence). I’ve also seen hot takes analyzing the failures of Russian strategy, especially in how they have failed to achieve something like a 72-hour victory.
Here’s what we know about Russia’s strategic aims:
1) Russia cannot countenance NATO combat forces, especially nuclear weapons, stationed in the Ukraine, within 35 minutes strike distance of Moscow for ICBMs.
2) Russian security depends on access to the Black Sea via Sevastopol. Russia had already de facto annexed the Crimea to this end.
3) Russia desires that the Ukraine functions as a “defense in depth” area to keep NATO at arms reach (or more) from Russian territory.
Russia has determined that the Ukraine will inevitably end up in NATO due to precedent NATO expansions, and lack of guarantees to the contrary. Therefore, there is no diplomatic answer to this fundamental security concern. Military force is the only option that was left on the table to Russia. Backed into a corner, they have determined to act now, rather than later. Russia already acted militarily in a limited manner in 2014, so further limited military activity is not really on the table either.
Given that Russia has decided to prosecute a full-scale war, we can analyze their actions at the operational level. I have seen very little reporting on the actual order of battle in this conflict. From viewing maps of the conflict, the Russian invasion seems to be divided into four operational groups. We’ll go off of this Institute For The Study Of War graphic:
Group Kiev’s goal is to encircle and capture Kiev. Group Kharkov’s goal is to capture the city and oblast of Kharkov, and approach Kiev from the east to complete the encirclement. Group Donbas is to control the two newly recognized sovereign regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and to link up with Group Kharkov and Crimea to form a united front and supply line. Group Crimea will encircle and capture Kherson and Mariupol, link up with Group Donbas so that its logistic are connected to the mainland, and then move up the Dnieper river and west to Odessa.
Strategically, Russia wants to limit the damage caused by the war. Russia will pay a high price in prosecuting the war no matter what. Russia has determined that the price will be lower than not going to war. This is something to be analyzed later, but we can look at what they must achieve operationally in order to fulfill this strategy.
In addition to limiting the material damage to the Ukraine, Russia must hold as high a standing as possible in the so-called “court of world opinion” by making it clear that Russia is not at war the the Ukrainian people, but the NATO-friendly Ukrainian government. The rules of engagement Russian forces must operate under to prevent this are very strict, which explains why their advances have not been the “blitzkriegs” that so many commentators seem to expect. I rarely self-congratulate, but I think my immediate reaction to the announcement of war more accurately set expectations than the lightning-war advocates:
If I may expand on these predictions (made having imbibed a significant quantity of wine), by “peacefully” I meant “with minimum possible aggression.” Secondly, it seems that the Russian strategy was hopeful that country-wide surgical strikes and limited group invasion would prompt the Ukraine to come to terms; As I said, this was dependent on the Ukrainians, who have not made terms, although apparently there is some attempt to do so that is being blocked in some capacity by NATO. Nevertheless, negotiations should beginning on February 28th in Belarus.
Given all this, our analysis of Russia’s success should account for the following:
1) Russia will pay a high price for this war no matter what.
2) Russia must avoid civilian casualties as much as humanly possible.
3) We don’t know the precise goals Russia has for the Ukraine. These will reveal themselves through negotiations and military successes.
Again, through the operational lens, we can say that Russia is progressing at a steady pace toward its obvious objectives. Most of the cities I mentioned are either encircled or nearly encircled, which essentially consigns them to their fate. The encirclements will be completed, and the cities will surrender. The only question is the timeline. Russia has three metrics by which to measure success – decisiveness, speed, and minimizing civilian casualties. Currently, the former seem to be giving way to the latter. This may change, but it is obvious that the Russians are succeeding on this front, because all of the anti-Russian propaganda is focused on how slowly and ineffectively the Russians are moving, as opposed to the amount of damage to infrastructure and civilians. There has been very little reporting on this save that one apartment building that was struck by a missile, and a few other incidents. This should tell you something about how the Russians are proceeding.
The next few days will reveal the operational effectiveness of the Russians as they complete the encirclement of Kiev and other cities, and generally overtake Ukrainian forces in the east. If the Ukrainian government is unable to negotiate an end of the war, Russia’s military will truly be tested. Remember to focus on the operational aspects of the war rather than the strategic aspects, until those strategic victories or defeats reveal themselves, when you are analyzing this war. If anything particularly interesting occurs, I’ll post again in a few days.