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2019 Russian President Vladimir Putin Alamy Stock Photo
VOICES

Tom Clonan Time is running out for Putin in Ukraine and this makes him dangerous

The security analyst says that having seized all of Luhansk, Putin will now turn his attention to Donetsk.

TODAY, 24 JULY marks five full months of war in Ukraine. Putin’s February 24 invasion has followed a number of distinct phases. The first operational phase lasted approximately seven weeks from the invasion start date until the first week of April. In this initial assault, Putin divided his forces – a grave strategic error.

In one offensive from the north and east, he attempted to take the Ukrainian capital Kyiv in order to decapitate President Zelenskyy’s government and collapse his administration. This offensive failed spectacularly with an extended Russian armoured column stalled outside the city for weeks, constantly ambushed and out-manoeuvered by a highly mobile and agile Ukrainian defence.

In the east, the Kremlin poured its invasion force into the newly-declared People’s Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk to reinforce pro-Russian separatist forces who had been holding ground there since 2014.

Initial failure

This Russian invading force failed to fully break out of previously held territory in the north east towards Kharkiv and Sloviansk. Their offensive was brutal but indecisive, failing to seize the full Luhansk Oblast. The Kremlin’s forces in the south east – some crossing the border from Russia proper and others moving from bases in the Crimean Peninsula managed to link up and seize ground, surrounding cities such as Kherson and Mariupol.

Putin’s initial gamble – based on faulty intelligence and modelled on the Kremlin’s spectacular ‘success’ in its two-week invasion campaign in Georgia in 2008 – failed in all of its objectives. Putin failed to take Kyiv and install a puppet regime. Putin also failed to seize all of the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts.

Moscow’s intelligence failings went beyond the battlefield in Ukraine. Post Brexit and post Trump’s presidency, the Kremlin appear to have assumed that the EU and NATO would be incapable of collective purpose and action. Putin – a former intelligence officer – seriously misjudged the unity, coherence and strength of NATO and the EU’s response to his ‘special military operation’.

Faced with this initial humiliation, Putin consolidated his forces in April and commenced the second operational phase of the war, which has culminated in the recent seizure of all of the Luhansk Oblast. Having abandoned Kyiv as an objective and re-organised and concentrated his forces in the Donbas region Putin began a brutal attritional war on civilian targets in Luhansk and Donetsk.

‘Scorched earth’

Contrary to the laws of armed conflict and the Geneva Conventions, Russian forces began to use concentrated artillery, missile and air strikes against civilian targets – villages and towns such as Izyum, Severodonetsk and Lysychansk – completely destroying them in a scorched earth campaign, in order to ‘liberate’ them. Further south, Russian forces have used the same tactics to submit towns and cities such as Kherson and Mariupol to total destruction in order to secure a land corridor from Russia, through the Donbas to the previously annexed Crimean Peninsula.

After 12 weeks of a slow, grinding ground assault, Putin can now claim that he has ‘liberated’ all of the Luhansk Oblast. However, he has done so at an almost unimaginable cost. Up to 15,000 Russian troops have been killed in action with a further 45,000 seriously injured. Thousands of innocent Ukrainian men, women and children have been butchered in the Kremlin’s onslaught with over 2 million Ukrainians removed to Russia by way of filtration camps – a form of mass ethnic deportation not seen in Europe since the Balkan conflict, but on a scale similar to that of World War Two. Putin’s invasion has also reinvigorated the term, ‘Urbicide’ to describe the complete destruction of towns, villages and civilian infrastructure – a strategy to hold territory by destroying it.

Having seized all of Luhansk, Putin will now turn his full attention to the destruction and seizure of all of the Donetsk Oblast. This will involve a major offensive toward Sloviansk and Kramatorsk – following the fall of Lysychansk. As I write, Russian artillery and missiles are pounding these towns along with smaller targets such as Bakhmut.

This signals the beginning of the third and probably – for now – final phase of Putin’s campaign in Ukraine. Based on the timeline for his destruction of Luhansk – Russian advances have been very slow – it may take until the end of September for Putin to achieve his ‘victory’, the total occupation and annexation of the Donbas region.

Mercenary

However, there are major challenges for Putin in this regard. Russian losses have been catastrophic and in order to continue his ‘special military operation’ Putin has had to orchestrate a ‘shadow mobilisation’ of Russian troops in order to reinforce his combat operations in Ukraine. Stopping short of a full declaration of war against Ukraine – and a general mobilisation and conscription of Russian citizens – the Kremlin has embarked on a widespread campaign of recruitment of ‘contract’ soldiers or mercenaries to fight in Ukraine.

Focusing on economically deprived territories such as Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kalmykia in the North Caucasus, thousands of ex-military personnel have signed on for limited contracts of service to fight in Ukraine. As a consequence, the majority of Russian casualties in this war are from impoverished and far-flung Russian Republics – with lower casualty rates in the urban centres of Moscow and St Petersburg.

However, despite these reinforcements, Putin and the Kremlin will eventually run out of troops and will not be in a position to supply sufficient military manpower to sustain combat operations in Ukraine indefinitely. The clock is ticking.

President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian military have exploited their defence to its maximum capacity in attempting to erode and degrade Russian military capability. They have done so at a huge cost to Ukraine – thousands of Ukrainian soldiers, young men and women have been killed with multiples of that number seriously wounded and maimed for life. In recent weeks and months, the west has stepped up the supply of long range weapon systems in order to counter Putin’s onslaught.

Weaponry

These include heavy artillery systems such as French and US Caesar and M77 155mm howitzers, along with the US manufactured M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System – HIMARS. These long range heavy weapons have allowed to Ukrainian military to respond to the Russian military’s massed artillery and missile attacks on Ukrainian urban centres and defensive positions.

It has allowed the Ukrainians to project force up to 70km behind the Russian line of advance – and with the help of drones, to seek out and destroy Russian artillery positions, ammunition depots, supply lines and command and control centers. In this way, the Ukrainian military have killed dozens of very senior Russian ground commanders – from Colonels up to members of the Russian General Staff.

This has threatened to stall Putin’s last-chance, all-out assault on Donetsk – which he must achieve before the arrival of Winter, in order to frame his assault on Ukraine as a great ‘victory’. The threat posed by western supplied long range weapon systems has already prompted a tactical and strategic response from the Kremlin.

This week, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov stated that Moscow’s ‘objectives’ will expand further, if the west keeps supplying Kyiv with long range weapons such as HIMARS. In effect, Lavrov has stated that Putin will not tolerate the presence of such weapons within range of their newly ‘liberated’ Donbas region.

To this end, Russia has stepped up its attacks into the Kherson, Mykolaiv and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts – further and further west in Urkrainian territory. If this offensive pivot continues, there is the risk that Russian forces might begin to encroach on port city of Odessa – intensifying their air and missile attacks there. Already,

Putin has signalled his frustration with the west’s support of Zelenskyy by renewed missile attacks on Kyiv in recent days. In order to thwart the continued supply of western weapons – which threaten in turn to thwart or delay Putin’s ‘victory’ in Donbas – the Kremlin may also target other western Ukrainian cities such as Vinnitsya and Lviv in the coming days and weeks.

Ukrainian response

Against this backdrop, there is also the possibility of a major Ukrainian counter-offensive in the coming weeks. Zelenskyy’s Defence Minister, Oleksii Reznikov has stated that he will arm up to ‘one million’ Ukrainian troops to re-take the southern territories seized by Russia. Ukraine does have approximately 400,000 personnel – with some combat experience post 2014 – that could conceivably be mobilised as part of a major counter-offensive in the closing weeks of Summer and Autumn.

This is a critical moment in the war in Ukraine. After five months of war, another turning point has been reached – with both sides desperate for a victory of sorts. Putin will do everything in his power – including turning off all gas supplies to Europe – in order to achieve his ‘victory’.

If Putin fails to seize the Donbas – at whatever cost – he will eventually lose his position as Russia’s President. If he succeeds, he will survive to fight another day. For Ukraine, this would probably represent a further expansion of Russian force towards Odessa, Transnistria and Modova.

For now, Ukraine relies on the support of the west – militarily and politically. Admission to the EU will dramatically improve Ukraine’s chances of long-term survival as a democratic state. The further supply of weapons will inhibit Russia’s actions in the region – but at a horrific cost to the Ukrainian people.

The clock is ticking for Putin, for his ‘victory’ in Ukraine and for his own survival. In this context, there is the unique risk of escalation of this war to a much wider conflict – either intentionally or unintentionally. The Russian Duma will meet in an emergency session on Monday to discuss the current crisis. World leaders need to work hard to bring an end to this conflict – one way or another.

Dr Tom Clonan is an independent Senator and former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter.

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