The campaigning season for 2022 is coming to a close (not that modern armies cannot operate in winter), and the war in Ukraine is still ongoing. This is a problem for Russia, because Russia does not have time on her side. Russia is going to have to find a way to end the war soon. Russia is not going to conquer all of Ukraine, or even all of Ukraine east of the Dnieper, and Russia seems unable to rout the Ukrainian army as well. This means a negotiated peace.
First, let’s start with the worst case scenario for Russia. The war in Ukraine has really been going on for more than 8 years already, at least between Kiev and Donetsk/Luhansk. The retaliation by Russia and the two republics was merely an escalation in the already ongoing war. In this escalated state, the worst thing that could happen for Russia is a “frozen conflict.” The previous 8 years were already a frozen conflict, but one without full-scale military operations. Russia cannot afford a frozen conflict at the current levels of combat intensity. The Pentagon is wisely avoiding escalating the war with Russia to achieve a complete blowout, and instead opting to make the war as grinding as possible, which is exactly what will defeat Russia to the greatest extent.
This leaves Russia with the initiative. The Pentagon will react to Russia’s moves, but this reaction will always be delayed. Eventually, this will not matter, because Russia will be outgunned 10 to 1 in a few years. Until the American industrial war machine fully mobilizes, Russia can still decide the war.
In the “bad ending” for Russia, the year is 2025, and the buildup of Americans weapons technology and munitions has reached a critical level in which the Russians are no longer able to mount successful offensives. Kiev will not directly reconquer most of Russian-controlled Ukrainian territory. Instead, the cost of the war will have been so high in Russian blood and money that Russia will have no choice but to conclude a peace that entirely kicks them out of the Ukraine. This is what The Pentagon has declared that it wants. The longer this takes, the better for the American Regime. The Pentagon will be happy to prolong the war indefinitely and allow Russia to futilely attempt to outspend the West.
Any “good ending” for Russia has some bare minimum requirements. Russia MUST at minimum control 100% of Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk, with no possibility of any of that ground being retaken. In all likelihood, they will need to control 100% of Kherson and most of Zaporizhzhia as well. The Russians are not far off from these goals in terms of square kilometers of territory, but this type of measurement is misleading.
The area of Ukraine that Russia is interested in controlling is mostly plains and lightly forested terrain with few barriers in terms of mountains, forests, rivers, and cities. Donbass has some mildly mountainous areas, but Russia started out controlling most of the the harshest terrain with the friendly DNR/LNR forces.
In the early phases of the war, Russia advanced very rapidly. Upon reaching these sparse barriers, wherein their enemy entrenched themselves, the Russians began to slow down. The fact that Russia was able to take control of tens of thousands of square kilometers in days says nothing about what it will take to control the next one hundred square kilometers (the next city). The Russians are also unable to simply advance across open country because the “front line” of the war isn’t really like that. Russia does not have a continuous string of positions across the entire demarcated areas of control, and there is no “line;” there is a deep contested area that spans kilometers.
Russia wins the war by attacking and destroying the enemy army in positions it is known to be in, which are in and around the cities. The Ukrainian army is not simply sitting in the fields; they guarding the most important and difficult to assault areas of the country, the places where most of the population and industry are. The Ukrainians are defending each and every city, and there are several left in Donetsk that Russia must take in order to achieve their minimum requirements.
The current battles as of the time of writing are over Bakhmut and Siversk. These small towns are part of outer defense line for the string of cities behind them—Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, Druzhkivka, and Kostyantynivka. The extent of well-defended territory that Russia much capture in order to secure all of these is vast. This time it will take to capture all of these towns and cities will certainly be longer than the time it took to capture Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. The problem with assaulting Siversk and Bakhmut is that these towns are in a valley, which means that any attacking force will be very exposed. These valleys are not huge—the height differential is less than 1,000 feet—but this is the reason why Russia is stalled at this defense line. You can see that Russia did not have this problem when assaulting Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in the topographical map below:
Russia has to break through the Siversk-Bakhmut line this year or else it is in serious trouble. It has to take Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, Druzhkivka, and Kostyantynivka in the 2022-2023 winter or spring 2023, or else it is difficult to imagine how Russia will manage to control the rest of Donetsk beyond these cities in a timely manner.
You can see the Russian progress over a month in the two images below, roughly covering the same area as the topographical map above:
The successful Ukrainian offensive in Kharkov will increase the difficulty of isolating the four cities, but overall, it is a distraction from the core conflict in Donbass. The Kharkov offensive was a big, flashy battle planned for months to hit Russian defenses at its weakest point for a morale victory (which is important). Despite the Russian loss of a massive amount of territory in Kharkov, Bakhmut is far more strategically important than anything in Kharkov.
As is shown in the graphics, Russia was for a time attempting to capture Siversk. They have since pulled back from Siversk. It is clear that Bakhmut (the larger town) is the primary target for the Russians at the moment. Russia is close to capturing the T0513 highway that runs north-south from Bakhmut and the T1302 highway that runs southwest-northeast from Bakhmut; but there are still two major roads coming into Bakhmut from the northwest and southwest. These highways are essential to Russia’s assault on the four cities behind Bakhmut.
Presumably, the Russia military planners are counting on Siversk becoming isolated and easier to capture once Bakhmut is dealt with. I do not doubt that Russia will be able to capture both towns this year, but with some of their forces now fixed far away in Kherson and Kharkov, it may take quite some time. Note as well the range of artillery on this battlefield: artillery in, or behind the four cities can easily reach the Russians in Bakhmut and Siversk. The Russians cannot just build up a large force and attack the city—it would be obliterated by artillery. The Ukrainians only managed to pull off their assault in Kharkov with the help of American intelligence, planning, and extreme secrecy. You can bet that American satellites are observing any potential assembly area that the Russians could use 24/7. The moment anything is spotted, Kiev will fire American-made missiles and shells on the Russian position.
The Battle for Donbass will be decided by the battle for the four cities Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, Druzhkivka, and Kostyantynivka in 2023. Following the capture of these cities, there will be nothing left in Donetsk Oblast itself that would pose much challenge. This would satisfy the basic goal of controlling 100% of Donetsk and Luhansk. If I were in the Russian Ministry of Defense, what I would be worried about is that even given complete control over Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk, Kiev could still shell all of these territories relentlessly from other parts of Ukraine, basically indefinitely, as they did from 2014 onward. This is the kind of “frozen conflict” strategy I would be going for if I were in The Pentagon. It would essentially be the same as it was in 2014, but with new lines on the map. That being said, Russia would be in a far better strategic position than in 2014.
It has been put forward that Russia will go for Odessa once the conflict in other regions is settled—although it looks like a longshot at this point, it may be necessary for Russia to pull off a favorable peace. If Russia succeeds in land-locking Ukraine, it will have real leverage to use in negotiating an end to those indefinite artillery attacks I mentioned. It may be the only way that Russia will be able to force the Ukrainian government out of the hands of NATO and to the negotiating table to talk real peace terms rather than NATO’s hard lines.
Since this is the first time the United States has gone to war with a peer competitor since 1941, we should observe the conflict very closely. American regulars are not on the ground (but mercenaries are), but its American technology, money, and generals who are running this operation. The Ukrainian men could just as easily be Americans, and little would be different. The big sign to watch out for is the time between Ukrainian offensives. The Ukrainians launched two major offensives after 7 months, and only one succeeded. Can they do it again, more quickly, with more success? This will give us an idea of how long Russia has to solve the conflict.
The outcome of the war is certainly not decided. It is coming into vogue to poo-poo the Russian military performance, but I remind you that when the war commenced, Russia only controlled a portion of Luhansk and Donetsk, and during these past seven months they have quadrupled the amount of Ukrainian territory under their control. These are not mere lines on a map; Russia has demonstrated control in the successful defense of Kherson this month.