Ukraine: What We Are Likely to See in the Coming Weeks
By Joseph Fisanakis: “There are decades where nothing happens – and there are weeks where decades happen”. These words by the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin offer a fitting description of the cataclysmic events witnessed since February 24. In the early hours of that day, the largest country in the world launched a strategic ground offensive against the largest country in Europe. What began as a “special military operation” in Ukraine has now escalated into the most extensive military conflict in Europe since World War II. It is clear that Russia’s original plan for this war collapsed within hours of the initial attack. But the correlation of forces continues to overwhelmingly favour the Russian side. Moreover, the bulk of the Russian forces are heading for Kyiv. This could result in the largest and most deadly urban battle since World War II.
Russia’s Original Strategy
The Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine was premised on a rapid military campaign, which was designed to trigger the collapse of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration within about a week. The original plan appears to have rested on quickly introducing non-conscript military units inside Kyiv, in order to force the government to flee to Lviv.
Russian strategy collapsed within about 72 hours. Not only did Ukrainians refuse to surrender, but they consciously began to barricade themselves inside major cities.
At the same time, elite formations from the Main Directorate of the Armed Forces General Staff (GRU) and Spetsnaz (special operations forces) were sent to the capital of Ukraine to assassinate leading government figures.
Based on that assumption, Russia’s original strategy was to avoid engaging in clashes in major urban centres, barring those that are located along key transportation routes. That is because urban terrain heavily favours the defender and tends to result in mass invader casualties. The Russians can’t afford too many of those, given that the Russian expeditionary force of about 150,000 non-conscript troops is grossly insufficient to conquer—let alone occupy—a country the size of Ukraine, with a largely young population of well over 40 million.
It is clear that the original plan proved absurdly unrealistic. In fact, the original Russian strategy collapsed within about 72 hours. Not only did Ukrainians refuse to surrender, but they consciously began to barricade themselves inside major cities. At the same time, they quickly relied on force generation (acquiring war materiel from allies), such as mass quantities of man-portable air defence systems. They used those to effectively sabotage Russian efforts to encircle major cities in the north and northwest of Ukraine.
Most importantly—and arguably to the surprise of everyone, including themselves—Ukrainian elite forces, supported by Territorial Defense Forces units, managed to beat back a major Russian heliborne assault on the Antonov Airport in Hostomel, northwest of Kyiv, which took place during the opening hours of the invasion.
Facing fierce Ukrainian resistance, the Russians sent in their 11th and 31st Guards Air Assault Brigades—roughly equivalent to the United States’ 82nd Airborne Division—but still failed to secure the airfield. The latter continues to be contested, as the Ukrainians are launching regular counter-offensives in the wider vicinity.
The failure to secure Antonov Airport in Hostomel in Ukraine was nothing short of disastrous for Russian war planners. It meant that Russian forces were unable to quickly fly in troops and vehicles, which in turn prevented them from realizing their original goal—namely having their forces in downtown Kyiv by the afternoon of February 25. That crucial delay gave the Ukrainians time to prepare their defences and barricade themselves around numerous zones in Kyiv. Equally importantly, the Ukrainians were able to keep relatively calm during the crucial opening phases of the war. They withstood the inevitable initial shock and were able to quickly regroup and organize urban defences.
Reality Strikes Down Russia’s Original Plan
While putting up fierce resistance in the vicinity of Hostomel, the forces of Ukraine refrained from launching major defensive operations against Russian troops advancing from the north and east. As a result, the invading army made rapid advances in the first 48 hours of the offensive, taking observers by surprise. In fact, so rapid were those advances, that the front-line troops of the expeditionary force essentially separated themselves from logistical units and from other critical supply components. The latter remained many miles behind.
The early lack of co-ordination between units surprised even seasoned Russia military watchers, as they saw small detachments of Russian troops wandering around Ukrainian suburbs without being part of larger combined-arms formations. Essentially, what the world witnessed in the first week of the war was a Russian strategic ground offensive that was being conducted more like a limited “special military operation”, as the Kremlin keeps referring to it. By the time Russian war planners realized this major deficiency, it was too late. Having failed to secure supply lines, the Russian troops found themselves cut-off from logistical support units, as the latter began suffering guerrilla-style attacks by Ukrainian forces.
SafeSubcribe/Instant Unsubscribe - One Email, Every Sunday Morning - So You Miss Nothing - That's It
The Ukrainians were substantially aided by Russia’s failure to make use of its air power in the crucial opening stages of the war. Surprisingly, it was only after several days of fighting that Russian forces began to launch tactical air bombing raids, aimed at targets of immediate military significance. Even now, the Russians have made surprisingly sparing use of precision-guided munitions. It is difficult to ascertain why that is; the most likely explanation is that the use of such expensive armaments is being withheld as a last resort, or perhaps against a more powerful potential adversary, such as NATO. As a result, Ukrainian air defence systems remain surprisingly intact, though they have recently begun to sustain heavier damage.
What We Are Likely to See in the Coming Weeks
The Russian forces are engaged in a strategic ground offensive but have a combat logistical mind-sets that are not designed to sustain this type of operation—especially in such an extensive operational terrain. However, experienced armed forces like Russia’s are not strangers to having to quickly adapt their tactics in order to meet strategic goals. It is evident that the Russian forces are doing just that: their behaviour is steadily becoming more rational and is beginning to resemble what one would expect from a joined military operation using combined-arms tactics. Despite suffering early setbacks, the Russian troops continue to have the upper hand, as the correlation of forces continues to overwhelmingly favour their side.
The world will witness scenes of urban warfare that have not been seen since the Battle of Berlin
More importantly, the bulk of the Russian forces is heading for Kyiv. This is undoubtedly very concerning for Ukrainian leaders, as they prepare their forces to defend the city against large-scale siege warfare. If the Russians decide to take Kyiv—and there is growing evidence that they will—the world will witness scenes of urban warfare that have not been seen since the Battle of Berlin. The only time we have witnessed anything comparable in the postwar setting was in 2016 and 2017, during the Battle of Mosul. In the nine months of that battle, between 4,000 and 12,000 Islamic State fighters faced a combined multinational force of around 120,000 troops. What ensued is widely seen as the most extensive urban warfare campaign since World War II. Mosul had a population of about 700,000 people, most of whom were civilians and did not fight. Kyiv has a population of over 4,000,000 people, with many tens of thousands of civilians who are willing and able to defend the city. These militia members are determined to fight alongside professional soldiers in armoured and artillery units, which the Islamic State did not have. Such numbers of urban combatants are unparalleled in the postwar history of warfare.
Projecting to the Months Ahead
Even if Kyiv falls and the Ukrainian government goes into exile, it is virtually certain that the population will mount a war of national resistance. This will very quickly turn into a large-scale insurgency against whatever puppet government the Russian occupation forces install on occupied lands. Given the proximity of NATO borders, a Ukrainian insurgency will have little trouble securing the supplies it needs for a prolonged guerrilla warfare campaign. Under such conditions of heavy attrition, the Russian forces are going to find it progressively difficult to maintain control across Ukraine’s vast urban and rural terrain. Russian forces are already having to rely considerably on conscripts and auxiliary forces like the Rosguardia (Russian National Guard), or even financially motivated foreign mercenaries, who are the combat equivalent of scraping the bottom of the barrel.
It should be noted that Russian military planners are far more comfortable than their Western counterparts in treating tactical nuclear weapons as types of artillery that are usable in combat.
The combat effectiveness of Russian troops will continue to be challenged in this war. Moscow’s efforts to replenish its increasingly combat-fatigued forces at a steady pace will prove logistically difficult, even for an army the size of Russia’s. These pressures will increase substantially for the Kremlin if the war becomes mostly urban. However, this will not come without significant cost in lives for the Ukrainians. The number of casualties could multiply significantly if the Kremlin decides to make tactical use of weapons of mass destruction. These could include chemical and even radiological or nuclear weapons, which could be used against entire city blocks. It should be noted that Russian military planners are far more comfortable than their Western counterparts in treating tactical nuclear weapons as types of artillery that are usable in combat. All that is to say that the months ahead are likely to involve significant casualties, for which the Ukrainians, and the world as a whole, should prepare.
For nearly 20 years, the Russians have relied on an incremental, ambiguous and low-profile approach to fighting wars. This phenomenon gave rise to numerous discussions in military circles about the dawn of so-called “liminal”, “hybrid”, or “grey-zone” conflict. If nothing else, Russia’s fully conventional invasion of Ukraine points to the importance of military strategists to continue to think about—and plan for—conventional combat challenges, posed by Russia or by others. The era of conventional warfare is clearly still with us.
Few would challenge the statement that Russia’s performance in this war has been unimpressive. However, conclusions drawn from this war are not easily transferable into other combat settings, and observers should be very wary about making generalizations about the Russian military’s capabilities. The words of Carl von Clausewitz that “Russia is never as weak or as strong as she seems” ring especially true in this case.
The solution will depend on which of the two leaders, Volodymyr Zelensky or Vladimir Putin, will remain in place in the coming weeks and months
Ultimately, like many wars, the war in Ukraine is highly unlikely to lead to a military solution. The solution will almost inevitably be political. It will largely depend on which of the two leaders, Volodymyr Zelensky or Vladimir Putin, will remain in place in the coming weeks and months. Zelensky may end up perishing in the front lines in defence of his country. Putin may meet his political end when his fellow countrymen and women realize they can serve him or Russia, but not both. In the meantime, the possibility for unprecedented levels of mass casualties in war-torn Ukraine is now higher than ever.
JOSEPH FITSANAKISis a Professor of Intelligence and Security Studies in the Department of Intelligence and Security Studies at Carolina University. Prior to joining, he built the Security and Intelligence Studies program at King University, where he also directed the King Institute for Security and Intelligence Studies. An award-winning professor, Dr. Fitsanakis has lectured, taught and written extensively on subjects such as international espionage, intelligence tradecraft, wiretapping, cyberespionage, and transnational crime.