EIGHT days into the Russian onslaught into the Ukraine and things look like they’re not quite going to Vladimir Putin’s plan. Of course, nobody apart from Putin and possibly a handful of his senior political and military advisers actually knows what the plan was, or is, but it certainly appears to be failing.
Let’s for a moment speculate that, based on the premise that the Ukrainians would shrug their shoulders when presented with long columns of Russian military vehicles on their roads and whistle blithely as they sped on their way to Kyiv to unseat their government, Putin expected little resistance. Accordingly he led with his lighter reconnaissance units and spetznaz and left heavier forces following on behind. Most importantly in retrospect, the Russians did not establish air superiority before their ground troops moved in.
It would appear they were taken aback by the ferocity and determination of the Ukrainian defenders. The media is awash with videos and stills of burnt out Russian vehicles and, all too often, the corpses of their servicemen, which should never be celebrated no matter whose side you’re on. Death is death is death, and pretty final I’m afraid.
That said, it would appear the Russians have been unsuccessful it what we assume they would have hoped to have achieved to date. Their penetrations into Kyiv, Karkhiv and other towns and cities have either been repelled or have stalled, and the price they have paid has been heavy. Claimed successes in Kherson and Mariupol are disputed. What will happen now?
Well, we’re seeing the beginnings of it already. There appears to have been what we might call an operational pause, during which they will have re-thought, regrouped, and replenished. Their second echelon forces are now being gradually introduced, and whilst much of the media is agog at the reported 40-mile column of vehicles now heading towards Kyiv from the north, it comes as no surprise to me. That’s the sort of territory that major military organisations take up when they move en masse.
I have said oftentimes, in the flurry of interviews that all ex-military men like me get in such times, that the Ukrainian defence forces were on a hiding to nothing if they tried to fight the invaders in open, conventional warfare in the countryside. They are too vastly outnumbered in men and material for that to be anything but a forlorn hope, their obvious courage and tenacity notwithstanding.
Their main chance is to resist in the towns and cities. All armies try to avoid fighting in built up areas if they possibly can, and for obvious reasons. First of all, a superior force like the Russian invading army has many of its advantages negated by fighting in urban environments. The generally accepted rule of thumb is that attacking forces should ideally have a force ration of 3:1 vis a vis the defenders in open conflict to maximise their probability of victory.
In urban settings, however, the ratio for probability of success changes to 5:1. All the advantages migrate to the defenders, and to take a city in the face of tenacious defence sucks in huge numbers of troops and logistic support. Combat can be house to house, or even room to room, and is the very epitome of grinding, attritional warfare. Because attackers and defenders can be so close, sometimes tens of metres away from each other, artillery and air power is emasculated for fear of hitting your own troops. Historical examples like Stalingrad or the Battle for Berlin in 1945 are illuminating.
So the Ukrainians are wise to eschew open warfare and to retire to their town and cities. Major routes should be barricaded and blocked, channelling the attackers into areas of the defenders’ choosing which are best located to bring their weaponry to bear. In this context, the West’s donation of anti-tank ordnance will be most welcome. Britain’s gift of the NLAW anti-tank missile, for example, is ideally suited to this sort of warfare. Able to be launched from inside buildings thanks to its soft-launch design, it has a range of up to 600 metres and is capable of destroying most armoured fighting vehicles in the Russian inventory.
The downside of choosing to fight in conurbations is that it is likely to result in catastrophic destruction to buildings and services and, sadly, to widespread civilian casualties on a major scale. Whether it is worth it or not is a question for the Ukrainian people, but they seem pretty stoic and resolute as far as I can tell. What price freedom, you may ask, but only those who are there can truly answer.
In the final analysis, it seems to me the Ukrainians will win if they manage not to lose, and the Russians will lose if they fail to win. The Russians window of opportunity is limited by how long they can sustain their armed forces in the field and by how long they can resist international sanctions and disapprobation. Being the world’s pariah state is never a comfortable place to be.
As for Ukraine and its brave defenders, all they have to be able to do is hang on and not allow themselves to be beaten into submission. They have to outlast the Russians, easy to say but so difficult in implementation. But they can win if they keep the faith.
© Stuart Crawford 2022