We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

Daniel Ceng Shou-Yi

Tom Clonan A turning point has been reached in the invasion of Ukraine

The security analyst looks at the past few days of activity and peace talks and what that tells us about the future.

THE INVASION OF Ukraine has reached a turning point. In recent days, the Russian general staff announced that they would concentrate their activities in the ‘special military operation’ in the Donbass in Eastern Ukraine.

On Tuesday afternoon in Istanbul, Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister, General Alexander Fomin announced a ‘reduction’ in military activities ‘towards’ Kyiv and Chernihiv. The Ukrainian delegation have confirmed Russian troop withdrawals from positions north of the Capital Kyiv.

Both sides in the peace talks in Istanbul have expressed cautious optimism about the talks, with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevut Cavusoglu stating “we are extremely happy to see an increased rapprochement between both sides at every stage”.

The hope is that the Istanbul talks may lead to a possible meeting between Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Russia’s Sergei Lavrov. Ultimately, the goal would be a face-to-face meeting between Volodymyr Zelenskyy and President Vladimir Putin.

Whilst the diplomatic and political ground appears to be shifting, the military situation on the ground has remained somewhat static. Russia’s advance on Kyiv – and on Zelenskyy and his government – has failed.

Putin’s intelligence assessment presumably led him to believe that his massive armoured column (stretched out over 40 miles) would roll into Kyiv city centre within 24 hours of crossing the start-line. In the early hours of the invasion – in a parallel operation – a ‘kill team’ of Russian special forces was dispatched to Kyiv to capture or kill Zelenskyy and other key members of his cabinet and senior military leadership in order to effect a swift regime change and surrender.

However, Russian forces failed to take the airport at Kyiv and none of the elements of their original plan survived contact with the Ukrainian military. Over a month after the invasion, Kyiv remains intact and Zelenskyy remains at large – leading Ukrainian resistance against Putin’s aggression.

In the east and south of the country, Russian forces have managed to consolidate their grip on the Donbass region. Critically, Russian troops have – slowly but surely – fought their way from the Crimean Peninsula towards Luhansk and Donetsk. If Mariupol falls in the coming days, the Russians will have succeeded in establishing a land corridor from Crimea through Donbass to Russia proper.

Heavy fighting continues around Kharkiv and Sumy to the north and east. The Russians may – in the coming days – seek to bypass Kharkiv and drive a pincer movement south, through Izium towards their forces in Mariupol in order to seize a broader strip of eastern Ukraine.

However, their capacity to do so is constrained by their losses in combat and by the length of time their forces have been deployed in combat. Estimates of Russian combat losses vary wildly. The Russians have stated losses of around 1,300 troops killed in action. US and Ukrainian sources claim Russian combat deaths of between 10,000 and 17,000 respectively.

My estimate is approximately 8,000 Russian troops killed in action – the mid-range value between Russian and Ukrainian claims. If this is the case, it is a shockingly high level of military casualties for Russia. To put the figure in context, the Soviets lost 15,000 troops in nine years of combat in Afghanistan. To lose 8,000 Russian soldiers killed in one month in Ukraine represents a catastrophic attrition rate.

For every Russian soldier killed in action (KIA), there will be approximately three wounded in action (WIA). This would bring the total number of casualties to approximately 8,000 KIA, 24,000 WIA. It is not known how many Ukrainian soldiers have died in the conflict. However, the ceiling figure for Russia – at approximately 32,000 casualties, represents one third of the combat troops committed to the war in Ukraine.

Normally, in conventional combat, such losses are simply unsustainable and represent a definitive tactical defeat. With no key objectives achieved – such as the capture of major cities or regime change – the situation on the ground in Ukraine represents a tactical and strategic defeat for Vladimir Putin.

‘Liberation of Donbass’

shutterstock_2133927693 Shutterstock / Drop of Light Shutterstock / Drop of Light / Drop of Light

In this context, the Head of Russian General Staff’s Operations Directorate, General Sergei Rudskoi has announced that Russian forces will concentrate on the ‘liberation of Donbass’.

In tandem with the operational pause outside Kyiv, this signals a significant recalibration and downsizing of Russian strategic objectives in Ukraine. As the diplomatic and political choreography plays out in Istanbul and on the wider global stage, the Russian military may seek to reinforce what they hold in Donbass whilst securing and consolidating their newly acquired land corridor from the Crimean Peninsula to Russia proper.

For Ukrainian civilians – of whom thousands have been slaughtered in Russia’s targeting of civilian infrastructure – the killing will continue. Russia has continued to target civilian areas in cities such as Mariupol and Kharkiv, in relentless, grid patterned artillery, air and missile strikes.

This represents the deliberate, block-by-block, street-by-street destruction of civilians and civilian objects in order to ‘neutralise’ these targets. Those in the Kremlin who direct such operations ought to be pursued for war crimes in the aftermath of this conflict.

Russia’s immediate intentions are evident in their current re-organisation and re-grouping phase. Russia is reported to have deployed approximately 1,000 mercenaries from the ‘Wagner Group’ to the Donbass region in recent days. These hired soldiers – mostly Russian ex-military – are believed to be financed by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, an associate of Putin.

Organised along lines similar to self-styled ‘security contractors’ in the US, such as Blackwater Security, these mercenaries have been active in Ukraine since the invasion of Donbass in 2014. Their current deployment – many of them are reported to have senior command and control experience – may be designed to reassert coherence and leadership among battle weary and demoralised Russian military units in the Donbass region.

However, their presence may also be designed to further terrorise the remaining civilian population – persuading them to flee Russian-controlled areas in a form of ethnic cleansing similar to that employed during the war in the former Yugoslavia. Members of the Wagner Group have been associated with war crimes and human rights abuses in Ukraine, Libya, Syria, Central African Republic, Sudan and Mozambique.

However worrying the Wagner Group deployment may be, it is unlikely to impact on the overarching strategic military situation in Ukraine. Russia’s capacity to conduct offensive ground operations in the region is seriously compromised.

politics-ukraine PA Images PA Images

Out of a total of 100 or so Battalion Tactical Groups – available to Russian commanders at the outset of the invasion – approximately 20 have been lost or rendered ineffective. Based on western intelligence estimates, the Russians will struggle to replace 10 of these in the coming operational pause. This being the case, the Russians will continue to use air and missile strikes in their war of attrition on Ukrainian population centres – targeting civilians in the absence of a decisive conventional military victory.

The Ukrainian military will be very hard pressed to maintain their operational momentum on the ground also. After one month of sustained combat operations, re-supply and reinforcement of Ukrainian forces will be a vital factor in their continued fighting effectiveness.

To this end, Ukraine’s European partners need to keep supplies of weapons, ammunition, medical supplies and aid to the Ukrainian military at a very high tempo – not as an insurgency, but as a full-scale combat operation.

For its part, the Ukrainian military must keep its western approaches open. It must be wary of any renewed or surprise Russian offensive aimed at cutting off Kyiv. It must also avoid its forces in eastern Ukraine being cut off or surrounded by a north-south pincer movement of Russian troops attempting to connect or seize new territory between Kharkiv and Mariupol.

Whilst all of this plays out on the ground in Ukraine, the Kremlin will be carefully constructing a political narrative to pluck some face-saving victory from its tactical and strategic military defeat in Ukraine.

The peace talks represent a – perhaps brief – moment of opportunity for Ukraine and Russia to bring the current fighting to an end. Any negotiated outcomes may prove highly problematic – as an alternative to escalation to a wider European war.

Whatever the outcomes, they will be temporary. For the medium to long term, the conflict will force Europe to consider its value consensus and its collective resolve to protect those values in the future, on a broad spectrum of existential challenges.

Dr Tom Clonan is a 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.

download (11)

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel