There is a strategy.
Whether it’s a strategy with a plausible chance of success is above my pay grade. But if I understand Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba correctly, Ukraine is hoping to be in a position to execute a gigantic pincer movement along the eastern front. One pincer is in the Donbas, where shipments of high-tech western artillery will — hopefully — turn the tide and force the Russians to begin retreating. The other pincer is in the south as the Ukrainians attempt to dislodge Russia from Kherson, the city they’ve occupied since practically the start of the war.
Pressure on both fronts against a Russian army that’s battered and undermanned (at least with quality troops) means something’s got to give. In theory.
In the east, Ukraine can gain the upper hand with more advanced heavy weapons, allowing us to gradually stall Moscow’s crumbling invasion in the Donbas. (The Kremlin’s gains in this region may make headlines, but it is important to remember that they are limited and have resulted in extremely high Russian casualties.) The pivotal moment will come when our armed forces use Western-provided multiple launch rocket systems to destroy Russia’s artillery, turning the tide in Ukraine’s favor along the entire frontline. Afterward, our troops will aim to take back pieces of land, forcing Russians to retreat here and there.
On the battlefront in the south, the Armed Forces of Ukraine are already carrying out counterattacks, and we will use advanced weapons to further cut through enemy defenses. We will aim to put the Russians on the edge of needing to abandon Kherson—a city that is key to the strategic stability of Ukraine. If we advance in both the south and the east, we can force Putin to choose between abandoning southern cities, including Kherson and Melitopol, in order to cling onto the Donbas, and abandoning newly occupied territories in Donetsk and Luhansk so he can hold the south.
Those multiple-launch rocket systems are now in the field and ready for combat, apparently. We’ll know in the next few weeks if there are enough of them to make a difference on the ground:
HIMARS have arrived to Ukraine.
Thank you to my 🇺🇲 colleague and friend @SecDef Lloyd J. Austin III for these powerful tools!
Summer will be hot for russian occupiers. And the last one for some of them. pic.twitter.com/BTmwadthpp
— Oleksii Reznikov (@oleksiireznikov) June 23, 2022
What happens if the Ukrainians pull it off and go on offense in both theaters? Putin will negotiate, says Kuleba — maybe:
When we reach this moment, Putin will likely become more serious about cease-fire negotiations. Our goal will still be to get Russian forces out of Ukraine, and keeping up the pressure may push Putin to accept a negotiated solution that entails Russian troops withdrawing from all occupied territories. Putin, after all, pulled Russian troops from the areas around Kyiv after encountering enough setbacks at the hands of our forces. If our military grows stronger and more successful, he will have good reasons to do so again. For example, it will be easier to present a retreat as an act of goodwill before further negotiations, instead of as an act of embarrassing necessity, if it is organized rather than hasty. Putin could even claim that the “special operation” has successfully achieved its goals of demilitarizing and denazifying Ukraine, whatever this means for him. By publishing images of destroyed Ukrainian units and equipment, Putin’s propaganda machine will reinforce a message of success. Propaganda can also help Putin present the withdrawal as a sign of his humane treatment of Russian soldiers and as a wise step toward peace in general.
Let’s back up. Is it true that Russia’s gains in the Donbas are “limited”? In the big picture, yes:
This map shows how little territory has changed hands in Ukraine over the past month. The fighting has shifted to very slow and grinding advances, reliant on artillery more than maneuver. Russian gains are in purple, Ukrainian gains in yellow. pic.twitter.com/yzg97kJAfX
— Nathan Ruser (@Nrg8000) June 21, 2022
Progress is also being made around Kherson, if slowly:
Otoh. the Ukrainians have retaken basically as much land as they have lost in the Donbas in the last 4 weeks in their offensive towards Kherson. This is as important as the offensive in the Donbas, but you dont read stories of Russians struggling in this front. pic.twitter.com/XSi3zfccTd
— Phillips P. OBrien (@PhillipsPOBrien) June 15, 2022
Kyselivka is contested as 🇺🇦 continues its push towards the city of Kherson.
Kherson is just over 10km SE of Kyselivka. pic.twitter.com/pGiVh3JrpM
— Ukraine War Map (@War_Mapper) June 18, 2022
But in the last few days the fight has begun to get away from Ukraine in the northeast around Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, where the two sides have been battling for weeks. Russia is getting closer to sealing off that salient and encircling Ukrainian troops:
Not good at all — Russians have made some dangerous territorial gains south of Lysychansk, getting further to closing the Zolote pocket and also threatening the Severodonetsk grouping’s rear.
The fight continues. pic.twitter.com/hU9JgvIUvH
— Illia Ponomarenko 🇺🇦 (@IAPonomarenko) June 21, 2022
Yesterday the Times reported that Ukraine was digging in for a “last-ditch” defense of the area, which could lead to them seizing the entirety of Luhansk province. “The prospect of a Russian takeover of the embattled cities, Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, left Ukrainian commanders with the stark choice to stay and fight, risking severed supply lines and the encirclement of thousands of defenders, or withdraw and forfeit the last major urban centers in Luhansk, part of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region,” the paper claimed. One Ukrainian soldier said of Lysychansk that “it will be very hard here, a lot of good guys will die.” What’s the point of losing men to defend a city that’s destined to fall anyway, knowing you’ll need them for an offensive along the eastern front later?
All I can think is that the Ukrainians have made a grisly calculation that it’s worth staying put and sacrificing troops in order to bleed the Russians. The artillery war has been a turkey shoot for Putin’s army thanks to their superior cannons. Close combat urban warfare at least gives the Ukrainians something to shoot at. And by all accounts, the Russians have lost a ton of men and materiel: British military intel estimates a 55 percent casualty rate among Russian separatist forces in Donetsk and the Pentagon believes 20-30 percent of all Russian armored forces have been demolished.
Maybe Ukraine’s strategy is paying off. “The Russian military is getting weaker by the day, with little prospect of overall replenishment or meaningful reinforcement,” said one senior American intel official recently to Newsweek. “Meanwhile, Ukraine is holding on … [and] standing on the brink of major western augmentation of its offensive capability.” He predicted that “Even if Russia manages to take all of Donbas in the coming weeks, we’ll still see a standoff where Ukraine increasingly has an advantage.”
That’s encouraging, but remember that the two sides are in a race. Ukraine is trying to break the Russian army before its western sponsors lose interest and/or run out of money and weapons. Russia is trying to drag out the war towards the same end, believing that time is on its side. And they may be right. Read this thread in full, but here are the key bits:
The food crisis precipitated by Ukraine's inability to export grain due to the blockade is likely to cause famine in some regions, contribute to global geopolitical instability and further exacerbate already rising inflation https://t.co/mFnU5kF4lW
— Dmitri Alperovitch (@DAlperovitch) June 20, 2022
At the same time, due to Russian gas cutoffs (for refusal to pay in rubles or pipeline 'maintenance'), EU gas storage inventories are at 50% capacity and continuing to drop as EU taps into them
Prospect of rationing of gas this winter seems very likelyhttps://t.co/QEE4kH3PJJ
— Dmitri Alperovitch (@DAlperovitch) June 20, 2022
A long war will be more painful for Russia but much more painful for the west. Alperovitch believes Putin will eventually demand territory from Ukraine and an end to western sanctions this winter as minimum conditions for lifting a blockade of the Black Sea and allowing Ukrainian food exports to leave the country. He’s certainly ruthless enough to do it.
Bottom line: If Kuleba’s pincer strategy is going to work, it had better start to work soon. Rumblings in Washington lately suggest that the Pentagon too is coming around to the idea that Russia will gain territory from the war, albeit only at the price of a long, bloody stalemate. “Probably in the next two months, both forces will be exhausted,” said one analyst. “Ukraine has a deficit of equipment and ammunition. Russia has already lost a lot of its combat power, and its force is not well suited for a sustained ground war of this scale and duration.”
I’ll leave you with this clip of Kuleba. In spite of everything, the Ukrainian leadership is happy today as they’ve just become a candidate for EU membership. Now that that’s official, it’ll be harder for other European countries to cut their support if the war drags on into winter.
Ukraine will prevail. Europe will prevail.
Today marks the beginning of a long journey that we will walk together.
The Ukrainian people belong to the European family. Ukraine’s future is with the EU.
We stand together for peace.
— Dmytro Kuleba (@DmytroKuleba) June 23, 2022