In the two months since my last update on the Ukraine Way in September, the steady and continuing retreat of the Russians has continued, with the Ukrainians last week finally retaking all the territory north of the Dnipro River, including the city of Kherson.
The two maps to the right, created by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and simplified, reduced, and annotated to post here, show these gains, with the top map from their September 11, 2022 analysis and the bottom from their November 16, 2022 update. Pink areas are regions controlled by the Russians. Blue areas are regions retaken by the Ukraine. Red-striped areas are regions captured by Russian in its 2014 invasion. Blue-striped areas are regions inside Russian-occupied territories that have seen strong partisan resistance. The green lines in the top map mark the locations of important rivers.
Overall, the military actions of the Russians have continued to be haphazard, poorly thought out, and inexplicable, as they have been from the start of this war. For example, even as the Ukrainians were continuing their steady gains in the north, the Russians seemed relatively uninterested. Instead, it continued its attempts to gain ground in the middle, near Donetsk, as indicated by the two green circles. The Russians have been attempting for months to make gains in this area. Though they have captured some territory, those captures have been tiny and very costly. Nor have these captures done anything to impact the Ukrainian gains elsewhere.
Similarly, after each major Ukrainian victory, the Russians have responded by launching a fleet of missiles and drones at scattered targets across the Ukraine, attacking its major cities such as Kiev (or Kyiv in the recently imposed more politically correct spelling) as well as much of its infrastructure. While intended to invoke terror and lower morale, these missile attacks have instead solidified the Ukrainian determination to fight, even as the attacks contributed nothing to the Russian military effort. They are reminiscent of Hitler’s use of his Luftwaffe in World War II and the Battle of Britain. Rather than plan a ground invasion to actually defeat his enemy, the Germans tried to terrorize the British into surrender by bombing its cities. Instead, the attacks energized the British, and since the attacks did not generally target military resources, it did nothing to weaken Great Britain in the long run.
Likewise, Russia has essentially wasted its high tech missile resources while doing nothing to weaken the Ukraine’s military forces or their advances. The result: Continuing steady gains by the Ukrainians.
In fact, every aspect of the Russian attack from day one has followed this same pattern. The initial invasion, designed to conquer the Ukraine quickly, badly overestimated the Russian capabilities while underestimating the Ukrainians. It quickly failed, forcing the Russians to abandon in April almost all their initial gains or risk losing their armies entirely.
The Ukrainians meanwhile have maintained a sustained and rational military policy. At first they focused on stopping the Russians, with the limited resources available. Later in August they used disinformation and careful planning to convince the Russians the next big Ukrainian effort would be near Kherson. The Russians thus put all their best resources there, and were caught flat-footed in September when the Ukraine instead made a big push in the north.
In the south the Ukrainians have used the missile resources provided by the West with care and intelligence. Rather than bomb indiscriminately, as Russia has done, they aimed these missiles at the bridges and ships used by the Russians to convey supplies and troops across the Dnipro River to the north. With their resources limited, the Russians finally realized they could not hold this ground, and retreated quickly last week.
What happens next remains of course unclear. What we have learned however about the Russians’ military and political leadership has been striking. Its military is poorly maintained, badly manned, and does not plan its campaigns well. Its politicians, led by Putin, are ill-informed and have been willing to push foolish goals that are counter to the interest of their nation and themselves.
If Putin remains in power, this war will not end soon. He has made it clear he will not back down, even as his armies continue to lose on the battlefield. He knows that Russia is big enough with enough resources to drag out this war for years.
Will he remain in power however? One factor that suggests the Russian power structure is soon going to go through major changes is the decision by Putin to give significant independent power to private military warlords in order to replace the failures of his own military. In addition, Putin has increased his reliance on Iranian support, a deal that certainly carries with it enormous risks. Neither these warlords nor Iran are really interested in Russian interests. Both could eventually move to grab power and thus help tear Russia apart.
The Ukraine meanwhile has no motive to negotiate a peace, as long as it continues to gain ground. Right now its leadership and people seem determined to push the Russians completely from the Ukraine, including recapturing the territory Russia grabbed in 2014. The 2022 invasion has given them the determination to fight that they did not have in 2014.
The situation on the battlefield is now such that the Ukraine have a number of strong military attack alternatives. Even as they continue their steady push in the north, a close look at the geography suggests their next advances in the south could come from several different directions, all of which will be difficult for the Russians to defend. We must also remember that the Russians are the invaders here, interlopers who have proved it by behaving generally like barbarians in the territories they have conquered. The local populations have generally been hostile, which makes it even more difficult for the Russians to hold their gains.
I must point out that this analysis is not intended as a endorsement for more western aid to the Ukraine. Though I strongly want the Ukrainians to push the Russians out, I also see this as a regional war that has only limited concerns to the United States. Providing them some financial and military aid is reasonable, but we must be careful not to become too involved. This is not really our fight, and we must not make it so.
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