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"I am in awe of the sheer ruthlessness of Russia's withdrawals"
Russia has abandoned its failed, non-military Plan A for a by-the-books Plan B
NOTE FROM EDWARD: Your humble Moscow correspondent asked his dear friend, Marko Marjanović, to comment on the current military situation in Ukraine. He agreed.
By Marko Marjanović, Editor of Anti-Empire.com
Several days ago I reported that Russia was withdrawing in a number of places to free up units for the key battle against the large Ukrainian army in Donbass.
Most notably the Russians abandoned the blockade of Sumy, and withdrew from much of the right-bank Ukraine in the south around Nikolayev (where I all along wondered why they ever crossed the river since they clearly didn’t have the numbers to do anything strategically productive).
As it turns out that was only the beginning of Russian withdrawals to beef up the Donbass operation as they are now also withdrawing around Kiev.
Yurasumy reports large Russian movement past Konotop going east and Russian war material from Ukraine being moved through the Bryansk border region with Belarus.
The Ukrainians confirm they have been able to enter a number of settlements around Kiev previously held by the Russians. (Here, here, here, here, here, here…) From the footage it looks like they are entering them unopposed with, at the most, the Russian rearguard harassing them with artillery fire.
It remains to be seen how extensive the withdrawal will be. For example, will they evacuate the entire force west of the river that is relatively isolated from the rest of the Russian army and probably outnumbered? (“The only bastards on the ‘wrong’ side of the river in the entire north” as I deemed them.)
That there is a Russian pullback from Kiev is not good news for Ukraine. The Russian forces in the Kiev operation had reached their culmination point. Having advanced over 300 kilometers they had gone as far as they could go with the numbers they had. Overstretched they could move no further. However they had stalled out before taking their strategic objectives. They were sitting next to Kiev but without the strength to encircle it and provide strategic payoff. They had taken themselves out of influencing the outcome of the war. They were harmless.
Now they are presumably being moved to Donbass where they will have the chance to exert major influence on the war if they are able to speed up the Donbass operation and make the victory there more dramatic and decisive.
In other words, Russia pulling units from everywhere to make Donbass a by-the-books operation with a massively positive correlation of forces is not good news for Ukraine. It was far better for Ukraine when the enemy was spread out over numerous axes, none of them strong enough to deliver a decisive blow.
I wrote that the danger for the Russian side was that it would become a hostage of its almost-success at Kiev. Logic dictates that an operation that has stalled and where chances of success are low should be scaled down and cannibalized to beef up more promising operations. But its forces having advanced so far and having come so near, it wouldn’t be an easy decision to pull them back.
And yet that is exactly what the Russians have done. They have made the tough call.
It is the correct call but it surely wasn’t easy to make. To voluntarily relinquish territory your forces had bled to take — that can’t be easy, no matter how strategically justified.
I am in awe of the sheer ruthlessness of Russia’s withdrawals.
The Sumy ambition abandoned. The Nikolayev ambition abandoned. The Chernigov ambition abandoned. The Kiev ambition abandoned.
I have been writing for three weeks now that Russia’s effort was very cleary too diluted over too many axes and sectors. (I would have started even earlier but early on there were so many other things that were also wrong.) I wrote that single-minded focus on the Ukrainian military center of gravity (which happens to lie in the Donbass) offered the best chances of success. These radical adjustments are evidence that Russia’s generals thought the same.
It took a few weeks but now Russia’s application of logic and military 101 is ruthlessly total.
This withdrawal from the Kiev outskirts also solves the mystery of why the Russian MoD presented a map last week that actually greatly underplayed the extent of its gains in NE Ukraine.
White lies for domestic consumption. It is easier to relinquish territory if you downplay how much you held in the first place.
Not done with ruses the MoD even made the claim it was scaling down around Kiev as a confidence-building measure to “increase trust” (and not at all to free up units for the key battle ahead).
Of course the explanation of Russian MoD spokesmen as to why the Russians were ever heading for Kiev was rather peculiar as well. They explained this was to degrade the Ukrainian military which would prevent it from reinforcing Donbass.
Well, what were they supposed to say instead? The truth?
Everyone old enough to remember February 24 will remember that the war kicked off with the Russians fighting in kid gloves. Airstrikes were nearly absent, there was no targeting of barracks with cruise missiles, and the units racing to Kiev were trying to avoid fighting wherever possible, bypassing resistance rather than confronting it. That the initial Russian effort, of which the drive on Kiev was the centerpiece (tying up as many Russian units as all the other efforts combined), was primarily concerned with degrading the Ukrainian military (the strongest grouping of which lay far away in Donbass) is nonsense. It was exactly the other way around. The initial plan was focused on testing if the Ukrainian state could be made to unravel without having to go after its military and killing tens of thousands of Ukrainian servicemen.
If MoD was truthful it would have said:
“We tried something (politicians/ideologues made us). It didn’t work. So now we’re going to make radical adjustments and try something else.”
But that wouldn’t have exactly pacified the homefront, would it?
In many years of following the war in Syria I have consumed my share of MoD releases and I can tell you the Russian military uses press conferences exactly as you would expect it to — as a weapon in the information war.
I said that the Russian focus on reinforcing the Donbass operation is now absolutely ruthless but there is one qualification. So far Moscow continues to insist that no conscripts are in Ukraine. That no conscripts will be sent to Ukraine. And that the currently serving conscripts will not have their terms extended.
Putin has signed the order to start the regular spring draft of 135,000 men and the document includes the provision to start releasing conscripts drafted last spring. If followed the Russian military will lose up to 135,000 trained servicemen in the next 3 and a half months.
Doubtlessly conscripts whose 12 months are nearing are being lured to stay with better-than-usual bonuses but will that be enough?
There may be an aspect where the juggling of Russian forces in Ukraine from one front to another is as aggressive as it is because there is such reluctance to generate reinforcements the simpler way — by the greater reliance on conscripts.
In the sense that Putin is still refusing to place the homefront on a war footing the “special military operation” remains a halfway war for Russia.
If you want to read up on the saga of how the Russian forces were overextended along too many axes and concentrated against the wrong target (Kiev rather than Donbass) you can go through these:
If you wish to refresh your memory on the early-war head-scratchers you could consult these:
The unforced Russian withdrawal around Kiev has pro-Ukrainian Westerners seeing Russians “pushed back” and even a “Russian rout”. They will be surprised when Ukrainian gains in the north are not followed up by Ukrainian gains in the south but by Russian gains and forced Ukrainian retreats.
They do not seem to fully understand that what is happening is Russia switching from a fanciful non-military Plan A (which indeed failed), to a by-the-books Plan B, and that this demands radical redeployment of troops to correspond to the shift of focus from the political to the military center of gravity.
Meanwhile, pro-Russian Westerners have similarly discredited themselves. It wasn’t so long ago that “former CIA” Larry C Johnson was telling us that “the Ukrainian army has already been defeated. What’s left is a mop-up.”
No. Exactly wrong. The Ukrainian military has not been defeated. That is exactly why the Russian military is having to be recalled from Kiev for Donbass. To create a grouping of forces strong enough to decisively defeat the large Ukrainian military concentration there.
Johnson’s fellow fantasist Scott Ritter didn’t opt for blowing up Russian success beyond all proportion. Instead, he moved the goalposts so far as to still be able to proclaim the failed Russian drive on Kiev a 5D success.
He spins a tale where “200,000 Russian attackers” faced “600,000 Ukrainian defenders” and therefore needed a Kiev “feint” to prevent the Ukrainians from moving their allegedly ginormous forces to where Russia didn’t want them.
First of all this is pure revisionism. Nobody in the first week of the war, when the Russians were clawing ever closer to Kiev and were making a point of calling Zelensky illegitimate, thought the Kiev operation was about anything other than Kiev. All this stuff about a “feint” only ever hit the light of day when the effort stalled and failed.
Secondly, it is dishonest arithmetic. It is comparing apples and oranges. You can’t take just the forces actually committed for one side but the theoretical total for the other. The 100,000 Ukrainian territorials do not venture outside the oblasts they are raised in. Likewise there are still plenty of Ukrainian brigades, active-duty and reserve, in western and central Ukraine that have not been committed. Moreover the reserve is supposedly over 200,000 strong but that is a paper strength and it is unclear how much of that can actually be constituted and in what timeframe. Zelensky only issued the order for the reserve to mobilize on February 23 so when the Russians rolled in precisely zero of that reserve was in the field. The Russians were absolutely not outnumbered 3 to 1. In the border areas where battles were taking place they were the more numerous ones.
Ritter claims the Russians needed the “feint” against Kiev to break out from Crimea and isolate Mariupol but that was accomplished in all of 5 days (before Ukraine could even stand up its reserves). Yet the Kiev “feint” continued for weeks after that. *Why?* (You could make the claim it continued on to discourage Ukraine from reinforcing Donbass but then why is it being radically scaled-down now? The Donbass battle is still ongoing and the Ukrainian communication lines to Donbass are still open as their force there remains un-encircled. How does withdrawing from around Kiev *now*, and even telegraphing the reduced posture in advance, possibly square with the notion that sitting outside Kiev was absolutely vital to prevent “the more numerous” Ukrainians from reinforcing Donbass??)
Of course, a diversion is always useful and tying down enemy forces in the Kiev area would have been welcome, but there is no need to devote 50 percent of forces to a “feint” as the Russians devoted to Kiev. Whoever heard of a “feint” composed of as many of your forces as all your other operations combined? Nor would have tying down enemy forces around Kiev required sacrificing everything for speed and paying a high price to attain it as the Russians did initially, especially on the Kiev axes. A slower more deliberate advance or just parking forces in Belarus opposite of Kiev would have worked to tie down enemy forces as well and without all the pitfalls of mad dashing.
In reality, if the Russians absolutely wanted to preclude reinforcements to the southeast they would have used the 50 BTG tied up in the Kiev operation to run past Kharkov down to the Dnieper and made reinforcements as well as supplies a physical impossibility.
*Most importantly* the idea that being outnumbered 3 to 1 calls for taking exterior lines, aggressively dividing your forces, and sending them to advance along axes of advance 700 kilometers apart that can not support the other is the stupidest thing I have read this week. That is precisely what a smaller force must not do. If the Russians actually were outnumbered 3 to 1 (which they absolutely were not) it would have been all the more critical for them to concentrate their forces, stick to interior lines, and keep axes of advance to a minimum. It’s common sense. When you have little it is all the more important to keep it all together.
Moreover with his notions of “600,000 Ukrainians” and the notions of having to “tie them down” Ritter paints a fraudulent image of the battlefield. Except in Donbass where the Ukrainian army was concentrated in mass before the war, and where it is relying on fortifications built over eight years, this is not a symmetrical fight where Ukrainians can trade punches in the open field. Russians have more firepower and better ways of delivering it precisely. There aren’t huge Ukrainian units in the field that need to be tied down lest catastrophe strikes. On the contrary, the Ukrainians have made the correct but difficult choice that when sizeable Russian forces appear they retreat into the cities. If anything the Russians have had the opposite problem of how to lure Ukrainians out into the open.
The Ukrainians are doing well because they have been uber-realistic and have made the difficult choice to give the enemy free run of the countryside and seek shelter in cities challenging it to fight numerous protracted sieges.
The Russians have not done well given their advantages because they rolled into Ukraine under a plan that was as far from realistic as you can possibly get. They rolled across the border on February 24 like they were performing Anschluss and not starting a war.
However, the Russians have not stood still. A month into it I can no longer find a fault with anything they’re doing. They are now as ruthlessly pragmatic and doctrine-driven as the Ukrainians. With the exception of their refusal to mobilize the homefront this is now every bit by-the-books warfare from the Russian side as it is from the Ukrainian.
It is difficult to know who is more delusional. Conventional Westerners who fail to see that early Russian setbacks and headaches were due to them temporarily abandoning their doctrine and every military commandment but that they have now adjusted. Or the contrarian Westerners who take all the insane and shitshow-causing mistakes of the original plan *that the Russian military has since moved away from* and proclaim them nothing less than 5D brilliance.
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