Two hundred and sixty-first day of the war: the state of forces and prospects
The Russian command has just announced that all its forces have withdrawn from the Dnieper to the left. More precisely, Vladimir Putin accepted the proposal of his generals to withdraw the 49th Army and the 22nd Army Corps from this unbearable position, which must have been very old. Perhaps he had the decency to wait until after the American election to avoid indirectly offering victory to Joe Biden’s Ukrainian policy.
Thus, Putin abandons the idea of one day conquering Odessa and accepts the insult of abandoning Kherson, which was declared “forever Russian” some 41 days ago. To declare the inviolable Russian land as a territory that we are about to lose is to raise the political stake sharply with a weak military game on our hands and without the excuse of not knowing the other’s game. So he should have expected to lose face in proportion to the volume of his speech.
Precisely in an attempt to save face, this withdrawal was accompanied by a justification maneuver – a diversionary maneuver, not meant to save the lives of the population and its soldiers, but to entertain. The methods of distraction are now well known. The most classic procedure is the accusation of doing or preparing something very dirty with the evidence of “arrival”. This out-of-a-hat accusation preoccupies the media and the mind as long as it’s terrible, even if it’s far-fetched. We can even combine high art, acquittal, and accusation, as when we declare that we want to protect people from Ukraine’s project to destroy the Kakhovka dam (read: “steal the entire population and loot everything that can be looted”). More tragically, the diversionary maneuver resembles repression, for example by greatly increasing the dose of missile and drone strikes on the population’s residential infrastructure. We will also probably see a maneuver to soften the defeat with the idea of a ruse, either by explaining that the enemy was fixated on the initial attack on Kiev (a ruse the Russian military never recovered from). inflicted objective and heavy losses. As long as the withdrawal maneuver is well executed, it may even be possible to turn all this into a quasi-defensive victory against NATO’s superior forces.
Note, however, that this unprecedented Russian innovation of announcing a tactical maneuver in advance on television is a withdrawal maneuver that is also difficult to manage and depends on good planning and surprise for success. Of course, it was about putting the weight of the unfortunate decision on the minister, and not on Vladimir Putin, who suddenly distanced himself from the media, and conveying the messages described above to the population. True, the retreat had already begun anyway, and there were no surprises for a long time.
Tactically, retreating under fire is not an easy maneuver. So far, the Russians have done this very well on a very small scale on Snake Island, from the part of the city of Kharkiv they occupied, and of course from the north of Ukraine until the end of March. Northwest of Kiev, the 35th and 36th armies were sometimes crushed. The clearance of the Kherson bridgehead has been in preparation for weeks and many heavy assets have already been moved to the other side. Therefore, we will undoubtedly witness a classic braking maneuver based on mined obstacles, delay units and artillery strikes along the river to checkpoints. Defenses at these checkpoints, especially Kherson, could be tightened to cover the Dnieper crossing operations – which would undoubtedly constitute the most dangerous phase of the maneuver.
In any case, this complex maneuver will constitute a “crash test” of the strength of the Russian army. If the retreat is carried out in good order, without too many losses and without abandoning equipment, it will show that the retreating Russian army can carry out complex maneuvers and maintain its unity. Otherwise, the blow to morale and even potential will be very strong if we witness a disorderly escape formation, massive equipment, or worse, the capture of many fighters, as in the Kharkov region breakout.
A large-scale encirclement mode of operation would encourage Ukrainian forces to apply maximum pressure on the Russians as they withdraw, logically to turn good order into a mob. However, it is also a subtle maneuver that requires exposure on the attacking side and is costly against a less skilled opponent. In the retreats already noted around Kyiv, the Ukrainians were quite cautious in the pursuit – no doubt the same will happen in the Kherson region. If they can, they must break into the city and rely on internal resistance to facilitate the arrival of maneuver brigades, a priori the 28th Mechanized Brigade.
It is with this pursuit that the concept of “trap” is born the word This moment can only make sense outside of the catastrophic scenarios of floods, dirty bombs, or even the use of nuclear weapons that we want to wave around. The ruthless defense of the city by the Russians, the “Stalingrad on the Dnieper” style, no longer seems relevant. It was, in any case, a suicidal mission and, in fact, a trap for the Russians leaning against the river. The Ukrainians worked hard in Severodonetsk and quickly surrendered.
We also sometimes imagine the excessive bombing of Kherson by the Russians, which was once occupied by Ukrainian forces. We will go over it thinking that it is worthless to turn a city that the Russians declared Russian into ruins. The city is the place where a person is best protected from artillery. You’d have to put hundreds of shells in there to hope to kill a person. Artillery can destroy well-placed positions or equipment, for example in the context of a counter-battery, it can kill people en masse in the open, but for the rest its role is neutralization where possible in coordination with ground maneuvers, otherwise limited. interest Temporarily neutralizing enemy troops by forcing them to hide and take cover is of interest only if accompanied by maneuver. In short, yes, Russian missiles will fall on Kherson and the surrounding areas, and maybe there will be airstrikes as well. This will lead to a long firefight in which the Ukrainian artillery, which will have free time to approach the Dnieper River, can hit a large part of the southern zone occupied by the Russians with HIMARS. On the edge of Crimea.
On the other hand, the maneuvers are likely to stop there. While it is interesting to allow the force’s transition threat to remain in the air, one must understand the difficulty of an exercise that resembles a large-scale amphibious landing operation across a river. At its limit, a real amphibious operation would perhaps be easier to approach south of Kherson through the Dneprovska Bay and the leading point of the Heroiske nature park. In any case, it will take a lot of effort and risk to create a fragile bridgehead.
It is more beneficial to shift forces from both sides. Fourteen Ukrainian brigades, about one-fifth of the available combat units, are currently concentrated around the bridgehead. Four or five, especially the territorial units of the National Guard, to occupy the left bank of the Dnieper. And eight maneuver brigades are the main resource that can be decisive at another point after replenishment and rest. General Surovik clearly shares the same logic with what will be left of the forces of the 49th Army and 22nd Corps after the transition is complete. The 5th Army, already present on the left bank, could hold the line, and the remaining forces, smaller than the retreating forces and in worse shape than the Ukrainian forces, could be deployed elsewhere.
If we take a broader view, on November 11, the war is still going on in the order of 1918. The Ukrainians still have an operational strategy of hitting the front with attacks of 10-15 brigades and, at best, “personal operations”. to destroy the Russian army under strikes or, in the worst case, to gradually withdraw the enemy from all the territories it occupies during 2023. The Russian-Ukrainian border or Russia’s acceptance of defeat through a peace treaty.
On the Russian side, we are playing a general defensive position on the front, which we hope will allow the situation to reverse: we are squeezing the Ukrainian population with an “energy campaign” so that they even put pressure on their own government. , influence Western public opinion to end support for Ukraine, and finally change the Russian military sufficiently through partial mobilization to disrupt Ukraine’s momentum. In 1944, we will celebrate the last hopes of Germany: miracle weapons, separate peace with the West, the Volkssturm. At this point, the preservation of the achievements of the conquests would certainly be regarded as an acceptable victory by the Russians.
In the conflict of these strategies, therefore, everything is a matter of economy of forces. And here the transfer of maneuver brigades from Kherson can have a strategic effect either by entering another battle, or by sending them north with the cover brigades that will be engaged. The main task is for the Ukrainians to maintain their advantage in the number of combat units of a good tactical level and thereby increase the number of victories in the shortest possible time. The Allies needed twelve successful offensives between July and November 1918 to completely crush the German army and precipitate political change in Germany. Until the arrival of the 200,000 men prepared in Russia, if possible, it will take less time, perhaps five or six, to destroy the Russian army.
Taking the victory in Kherson for granted, the Ukrainians won two in three months. Therefore, if they allow the Russian army to break, there are still three or four major battles to be won between now and spring, regardless of location. As in November 1918, it would not even be necessary to enter the territory to win. Alsace-Lorraine was liberated not by invasion, but by the collapse of the German army. In this context, organic strategy is as important as operational strategy. The one who best deploys his forces wins the one who is most capable of creating, training, rebuilding, changing his forces, for example, the “Alpine Army” for the winter. Five Ukrainian victories to come in six months are now forged behind.