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Tom Clonan: Putin's running out of conventional military solutions to impose his will on Ukraine

The security analyst writes that on the other hand, the Ukrainian motivation to fight is high.

Tom Clonan

AS PUTIN INTENSIFIES his partial mobilisation, the Ukrainian military is seeking to exploit Russian military weaknesses on the ground in Donbas.

Across all four of the provinces annexed this week – Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk – Ukrainian forces are re-taking territory. In the coming days and weeks, before winter sets in, Zelenskyy’s forces will use this window of opportunity to seize as much ground as possible.

Ukraine’s most dramatic advances have been on an axis south and east of Kharkiv. In the last two weeks or so, the Ukrainian operation to capture the vital Russian-held hub of Izyum was characterised by surprise and speed. Approximately 6000 highly mobile Ukrainian tank units and armoured infantry smashed their way through – relatively – lightly defended Russian positions through Shevchenkove to Kupyansk and on to Izyum.

There was no Russian counter-attack or even a fighting withdrawal. Putin’s army fled east towards the Oskil River and the Russian border. This rout was made possible by the deception plan employed by Zelenskyy’s forces. Supporting the 6,000-strong vanguard in this operation, there would have been at least a further 30,000 or so logistics, headquarters, air defence and artillery units. These assets were assembled not far from Russia’s borders – literally under Putin’s nose – without being detected by Russian air, satellite or intelligence assets.

It was most likely during this rapid offensive that Irishman Rory Mason (23) lost his life. A member of the International Legion for the Defence of Ukraine, he died during an operation that liberated thousands of square kilometres of territory from Putin’s occupation. His tragic loss of life is undoubtedly one among many hundreds – if not thousands – men and women who will have become casualties in Ukraine’s dramatic counter-offensives.

Re-taking Lyman

Further south, the operation to re-take Lyman is an entirely different matter. Unlike the advance on Izyum, the encirclement of Lyman has been a much slower and deliberate affair. This incursion into the Donetsk Oblast has been a painstaking advance by probing forces supported by long range precision artillery – including US supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS).

Ukraine’s axes of advance here have been determined by precise intelligence supplied by western allies through ‘national technical means’ – including satellite imagery and data gathered by high altitude over-flights.

By these means, the Ukrainian military have meticulously destroyed Russian supply lines, ammunition and fuel dumps and have used artillery – in the harassment and interdiction mode, ie periodic firing on trails where the enemy is believed to be – to deny Putin’s forces use of their main routes in to and out of this area. Following a slow build-up of momentum, the Ukrainian military have cut off and encircled a large number of Russian troops, weapons and equipment in this area.

Unlike the collapse of Izyum, not all of Putin’s forces will be able to flee the Lyman ‘pocket’. There is a risk that large numbers of Russian troops will be destroyed – in detail – by the Ukrainian pincer movement. This speaks volumes about the Russian military’s capacity to fight. Data from open source intelligence sources along with intercepted communications indicate that Putin’s forces – despite the risk of being surrounded – are incapable of a coherent response. They appear to be unable to mount a credible counteroffensive, or indeed a break-out from the area.

Morale and command and control

The performance of Putin’s forces in these circumstances demonstrate poor morale, poor or non-existent command and control and an inability to react to a rapidly changing battlefield environment.

This is characteristic of a ‘closed’ military system, with an authoritarian, hierarchical command model that denies initiative to junior officers and local commanders. In response to sudden reversals and attacks, Russian commanders appear unable – or unwilling – to independently problem solve and to use initiative and leadership to fight back. This inability to fight inexorably leads to panic and flight – a recurring feature among Russia’s troops thus far. Putin’s forces in the field are close to exhaustion – depleted by shockingly high casualties and a lack of reinforcement and re-supply.

The Ukrainians on the other hand have a temporary advantage. Their motivation to fight is high – they are defending their homeland and now turning the tables on the Russian invader.

Over the last eight years, the Ukrainians have also transformed their command and control structures along standardised NATO lines. Trained by western forces, local commanders and senior enlisted personnel are encouraged to exploit the fluid nature of the contemporary battlefield and to use their initiative to maintain their momentum in attack. Unlike their Russian counterparts, they do not have to wait for orders or sanction to act from a General many kilometres to the rear.

Zelenskyy’s forces are also making significant gains in the Kherson counter-offensive. In the last 24 hours or so, they have taken ground along the banks of the Dnipro River north and east of Kherson at Dudchany in the Russian Berislav Sector. Using the same concept of operations as at Lyman, the Ukrainians are using long-range weapon systems to disable and isolate Putin’s forces from re-supply and reinforcement.

Zelenskyy will hope to liberate Kherson before winter – and possibly even to cut Putin’s newly acquired land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula. Whilst – wildly – ambitious, recent Russian setbacks suggest that such an outcome is at least theoretically possible.

Putin has reacted to these developments by sacking more generals. The latest to be sacked is Colonel General Alexander Zhuravlyov. The Russian general staff must be uneasy at the numbers of very senior officers relieved of their commands in the field – whilst those responsible for major intelligence failings at the Kremlin remain in post, presumably to continue repeating their errors.

The approach of winter

As winter approaches, Putin is running out of conventional military solutions to impose his will on the ground in Ukraine. Even if 300,000 conscripted reservists arrive in Ukraine in the coming months, they will not change the battlefield dynamic. Putin’s declaration that parts of Donbas are now Russian soil is a dangerous development.

Defence of the Rodina or ‘Motherland’ allows for the ‘first use’ of ‘low yield’ nuclear weapons. It is reported that an armoured convoy of the Russian 12th Directorate – Putin’s nuclear forces – is on its way toward Ukraine.

If true, this is a very provocative move on Putin’s part. As his conventional forces fail to deliver him a ‘victory’ in Ukraine and as Zelenskyy’s forces threaten to humiliate him, Putin may be tempted to ‘escalate’ to ‘de-escalate’.

In other words, he might be tempted to use a 1 kiloton nuclear device – or threaten to do so – against a target in Ukraine such as Kramatorsk or Slovyansk. The destruction of one of these Ukrainian strategic military hubs would halt Zelenskyy’s forces indefinitely. However, NATO’s response would be immediate and would represent a catastrophic escalation in this war. For Russia, for Europe and globally.

This is another dangerous moment in this war. Facing humiliation and possible removal from office, would Putin be tempted to give the order to deploy a nuclear weapon? Would his orders be carried out? What would the consequences be for Ukraine and how would NATO and the world respond? These appalling questions need to be considered in the context of a man who has used chemical weapons and other dirty weapons in the past and who has explicitly threatened to use nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine.

 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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