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Tom Clonan Russia cannot ‘win’ this war on Ukraine - so what can we expect in 2023?

Escalation won’t alter the fact that a Russian victory is not possible, security analyst Tom Clonan writes.

RUSSIA INVADED UKRAINE in February of this year. Putin had a wildly ambitious plan – to decapitate Zelensky’s regime in a lightning attack on Kyiv.

In an incredible intelligence failure, Putin and his generals anticipated the complete collapse of Zelensky’s government and the swift capitulation of Ukraine’s armed forces.

It was intended to be a three-day war. Ten months later, we are now at day 302 of a bitter, costly and drawn out conflict.

Over-confident from the start, Putin committed a relatively small invasion force. To defeat and occupy a country with a population of approximately 40 million citizens, the Kremlin assembled an invasion force of just 150,000 troops. Putin then promptly split these forces and launched attacks on three separate axes of advance.

His armoured advance from Russia and Belarus to Kyiv was a spectacular failure. It was intended to be a blitzkrieg manoeuvre – tanks and armoured infantry units charging south from Belarus to the exposed Ukrainian capital.

With a distance of around 150 kilometres to the target, Putin’s generals expected their cavalry and mounted infantry units to roar into downtown Kyiv within 24 hours. Russian special forces carried out a simultaneous attack on the strategic Antonov Airport at Hostomel, on the outskirts of the capital.

However, that attack failed. Local Ukrainian units repelled Putin’s special forces from the airport and the vicinity of several government buildings. It was an action that would become emblematic of Russian failures in the field.

The armoured advance also stalled, with an extended column of Russian armoured fighting vehicles and tanks, halted and strung out over 64 kilometres on the road to Kyiv.

This armoured column was repeatedly ambushed and attacked by highly mobile Ukrainian units, leading to a collapse of the invasion on that front and a hasty withdrawal.

As Putin’s defeated vanguard retreated, they left behind them evidence of the indiscriminate killing of civilians and war crimes in towns such as Bucha and Chernihiv.

As the war ground on in the southern and eastern axes of advance, Putin destroyed the city of Mariupol and secured a land corridor from the annexed Crimean Peninsula – through newly captured territory in the Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk oblasts – to Russia proper.

As Putin’s forces – advancing north from Crimea and west from Russia – linked up, they captured a series of strategic towns and cities. Kherson – captured in the opening days of the conflict – was the only regional capital captured by Russian troops during this opening phase of the war.

This phase of the war – from February to April – signaled to the world that Putin’s military forces had been either defeated, or contained in the field in Ukraine. Unlike Putin’s 2008 invasion of Georgia which lasted just 12 days and resulted in Russian control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the war in Ukraine would turn into a war of attrition.

Second phase 

In the second phase of the war, from April to August – Ukraine consolidated its defence and began to inflict incremental losses on Russian forces. By the beginning of September, Russian casualties, killed in action or seriously wounded are estimated to comprise approximately 50% of the original invasion force.

As I write, after 10 months of combat as many as 30,000 young Russian soldiers have died in Ukraine – with perhaps twice that number seriously injured with life altering and life limiting injuries. This compares with just 15,000 Soviet troops killed in combat in Afghanistan in the 10 year period from 1979-1989. In other words, in just 10 months in Ukraine – Russia has lost more than twice the number of troops it lost during its 10 year invasion of Afghanistan. These losses are unsustainable and offer a hint as to what may happen next during Putin’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.

The third phase of the war in Ukraine began in September with Ukraine taking the initiative in the Kharkiv region. In a surprise assault across the Siversky Donets River, Ukrainian units surged south and east in the Kharkiv oblast, taking the strategic town of Izyum and driving Putin’s forces east of the Oskil River towards the Russian border.

In this lightning advance, Ukraine managed to manoeuvre three brigades – 6000 combat troops – deep into Russian held territory. It was a rout with no fighting withdrawal. Putin’s troops literally fled from their defensive positions.

Ukraine’s counter-offensive in the Kherson Oblast in the south was a very different strategic operation. It was a slow, attritional full frontal assault on Kherson carried out in full view of Putin’s generals. Kherson was a well defended Russian position – with defence in considerable strength and depth. However, Ukraine used superior battlefield technologies – drone and missile systems supplied by the west – along with superior tactical strategies to cut Russian supply lines and to comprehensively defeat them in the field.

There was no surprise element in Kherson – and it proved that Ukraine is capable of defeating Putin’s forces in every aspect of the field army in the artillery, armoured and infantry domains.

russia-ukraine-war Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko poses for photos with supporters during the inauguration of a Christmas tree decorated with the colours of the Ukrainian national flag in Kyiv on Monday. Vasilisa Stepanenko Vasilisa Stepanenko

What next? 

This all begs the question – what will happen next in Ukraine?

As winter sets in, Russia faces two major Ukrainian threats. From the Kharkiv region to the north, Ukrainian forces are seeking to probe and exploit weaknesses along the Luhansk and Donetsk fronts – in a line from Svatove and Kremina to Bakhmut.

Russia is attempting to hold the line here with constant shelling along the entire front to shore up defences manned by recently mobilised reservists. Russia’s relentless assault on Bakhmut is designed to prevent a Ukrainian break-through in this area of the front.

In the south, Ukrainian forces may seek to advance further east from Kherson towards Melitipol and Berdyansk in order to sever Putin’s land corridor from Crimea to Russian territory.

Putin and what remains of his general staff will be mindful of this risk with Russia’s Defence Minister suggesting that he will widen the mobilisation and increase the draft age for conscription from 27 to 30.

However, given their losses and given their performance to date, it is unlikely that Putin’s forces can change the facts on the ground in Ukraine this winter – using conventional military means. Hence Putin’s recent reliance on massed cruise missile and drone attacks on civilian infrastructure in major civilian centres throughout Ukraine.

The mobilisation of 300,000 reservists has assisted Putin with reinforcement in parts of his defensive line. However it has not resulted in the materialisation of a renewed, competent and capable offensive force.

In the absence of a coherent, well equipped and re-organised order of battle – it is unlikely that Putin can launch a meaningful Winter ground offensive in Ukraine in the coming months.

Ukraine has enjoyed a number of key advantages in this conflict. This has included a military that is well led – along NATO lines – and highly motivated to fight in defence of their homeland and in order to protect their people from war crimes perpetrated from the very outset of this conflict.

Principal among its advantages however has been the extensive support it has enjoyed from the US, EU and NATO member states. This support in the form of missile, drone and armoured fighting vehicle and weapons technology has enabled the Ukrainians to regain territory.

It also suggests that Ukraine – unlike Russia – could mount a Winter Offensive, seizing the initiative before Putin has the chance to re-group and re-organise for a renewed Spring campaign.

For this reason, it is no coincidence that Zelensky visited the US during Christmas week – calling for renewed support from his principal western ally. During that trip to Washington President Joe Biden committed nearly $1.8 billion in military supplies to Ukraine including, for the first time, the Patriot missile defence system.

Putin has warned that this would represent a potential ‘escalation’ and widening of the war.

The US and NATO appear steadfast in their support for Ukraine and may call Putin’s bluff. Thus far, Putin has played a losing hand in every aspect of this conflict. In the meantime, NATO has expanded its operational presence in the region.

As of December 2022, NATO has deployed Multinational Battle Groups and NATO Force Integration Units to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria.

Whilst it is difficult to anticipate with any certainty what will happen next in Ukraine – the evidence thus far suggests that this conflict will continue well into 2023. The evidence also suggests that Ukraine will continue to gain ground and will continue to inflict ever more casualties on Putin’s hastily assembled reinforcements.

Putin’s intelligence blunders include his failure to correctly anticipate the willingness of Ukraine to fight – along with his serious under-estimate of the coherence and unity of the US, NATO and the EU.

This war was unnecessary and in my view was based on the fragile ego and brittle ambitions of Vladimir Putin and those who empower him in the Kremlin. The principal victims of this war are the people of Ukraine and all those who have suffered its wider consequences. Tens of thousands of Russia’s most disadvantaged citizens have also needlessly lost their lives in Ukraine – at the behest of the world’s wealthiest oligarchs.

Based on the evidence, Russia cannot ‘win’ this war. Escalation will not alter this fact and will not benefit Russia or Putin’s cronies.

My hope for 2023 is that common sense and humanity will assert itself – somehow – and that this war will be brought to an end.

A great deal of energy and wealth is being invested in waging this futile war. A similar – greater – effort, needs to be invested in ending it.

Dr Tom Clonan is a retired Army Officer and former Lecturer in TU Dublin. He is currently an Independent Senator on the Trinity College Dublin Panel, Seanad Eireann. 

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