Half-Time reminiscence: guesses about Russian vision at the start of the war

Part 1. The pre-war.

I possess an opinion, that Russians were basing their political and military actions at the start of the war on some practical and reasonable, but non the less wrong assumptions. The basis of their assumption was the obvious military supremacy of the Russian Armed Forces over the Ukrainian’s. Logic dictated for the Ukrainians not to engage in fights against Russian Army.

So, just before the start of the conflict, Putin has announced that Russian Federation is now recognizes the break-away Donbass Republics as independent from Ukraine. He also suggested that Russian troops would enforce the sovereignty of those Republics against Ukraine’s military actions, if needed.

Following this announcement, Ukrainian troops (not the national battalions etc., but the Army) positioned in Donbass were reportedly confused as to their coarse of action henceforth. The slow-burning artillery duels against the Donbass militias has stopped. For the soldiers, entering the direct fighting with Russians was almost unimaginable, and their immediate officers on the ground had nothing to tell them this way or the other.

In the following hours after the Russian recognition, there was some confusion in Russian media about the borders of this recognition. In lack of direct instructions from the Russian’s president, some were speculating about the recognition in the oblast (region) administrative borders of the Donetsk and Lugansk Republics, which stretched far behind the territories actually controlled by the militias. Others talked about possibility of recognition along the current contact line. Finally Putin clarified, that Russia recognizes these Republics in their borders, as defined in the Republics constitutions, i.e. in the administrative oblast borders.

Now the problem has become: “what to do with the territories of Donetskiy Basseyn (colloquially known by its shortened name ‘Donbass’), which are still controlled by the Ukrainians?” About in the same time, the artillery duels between Ukrainian forces and militias started, with much greater intensity.

Here, I will made a guess, as for Russian reasoning and vision of how the things will unfold. They probably assumed, Ukrainian forces would be given an order to retreat behind the administrative borders of the Republics, as to not to start the hot war with Russia. Because, as I said earlier, the outcome is obvious and pretty much predetermined – Russia will win. So, in order to prevent military defeat and the probable resulting destruction of the Ukrainian state, the logical thing would be to retreat. Donbass was as good as lost to Ukraine, in the moment Putin has recognized it, and dispatched Russian troops to its assistance.

Chapter 2. The start of the conflict.

As I already mentioned above, instead of retreating, or, at the very least, forbidding the return of fire on the militia or Russians, Ukrainian forces engaged in the intense shelling of the Donbass. I don’t know who started first, and it really isn’t important. The fact was that Ukraine entered into war against Russia.

Of course, Russian should have some contingency plans, in the event this would happen. The plan they started to implement was synchronous invasions from the south (Kherson and Zaporozh’e), the East (Sumy and Kharkov) and the north (Kiev), (That’s the big picture, at least, I didn’t consulted any maps etc., because the details are don’t really matter here), while reinforcing the militias in Donbass.

So far I heard two versions, explaining the Russian strategy in the northern and eastern offensive. One talks about this as the operation intended to pin down the Ukrainian forces available, away from the main theater of operation — the Donbass. This point was heavily promoted by Scott Ritter, for example. The second version, as expressed by Jacob Dreizin, talks about the operation as mainly psychological one, intended to break Ukraine’s will to fight, and downthrown the current regime.

Obviously, nothing of this has happened. Regime took forceful actions against any opposition that may have led the revolt against Zelenskiy. And even after the withdrawal of those forces in the north and East of Ukraine, the Donbass haven’t received any significant reinforcements. Firstly because, as I assume, all or the combat ready forces were already at or near Donbass. Secondly, because this initial Russian offense actually managed to inflict significant losses on Ukrainian troops (while having significant losses and, maybe even worse, prisoners of war on the Russian side). The third reason is that the absence of troops on the ground near major cities isn’t necessary for pining down the Ukrainians. The mere prospect of Russian landing in Odessa, or second invasion from Belarus towards Kiev is enough, to keep those cities garrisons at place.

So if we consider those two versions, in any rate Russians weren’t successful. At least not to a degree one would expect from such a major offensive (comparative to the total fighting Russian forces in Ukraine). That is why I’m interested in finding another possible explanation for this “deep strike” ground operation. Not because I can’t accept Russian misjudgments and errors — I fully accept there are plenty of those. But because I would expect more thought on the part of military professionals.

If so, there are two goal this early operation achieved:

1. creating an interdiction force near the logistical center of the country, in the event the West would have decided to intervene. As I believe, the first Russian strategic consideration in this war, is to have a working solution in the event of NATO intervention. Because this is the only thing (excluding the nuclear option and regime change scenarios) to change the balance of power.

2. Destroying or disabling a significant portion of Ukrainian military hardware and (to lesser degree — personnel) that can be used to reinforce Ukrainian forces in Donbass. Destroy or disable, as opposite of just pinning them down. We can see from the official Russian MoD reports, that the great chunk of Ukraine’s weaponry was destroyed very early in the war, and not in the Donbass (since the main Ukrainian defenses in the Donbass are mainly still there).

Phases “one”, “two”, “three”…

This is probably what Russians cryptically calling “phase one” — the disarming strikes and attacks, deep in the Ukraine’s territory. The regime change was, probably, only secondary objective of opportunity, and not the main one.

So the “phase two”, as generally accepted, is the liberation (for the sake of the readers, if there ever be any, who view the Russians as the menace in this conflict: “liberation”, in quote marks) of Donbass. While, apparently, the “third phase” is already far ahead of the second: the annexation of Kherson, Zaporosh’e, and in the future most likely also Nikolaev, Odessa and Kharkov regions. Speaking of which, the Russian strikes on the bridge in the Odessa region makes me to think that landing in the western Odessa region is in plans for the near future. Providing there will be enough available Russian forces for this operation, of course. This will cut of the Ukraine from the Romanian border, and allow Russians a land bridge into Transnistria. Thus cutting any possible Romanian or Ukrainian plans to open a second front in Transnistria, or to control lines of communications to Ukraine in this region. If western Odessa region will be taken, only north-western borders to NATO countries (Poland, Hungary and Romania) would remain. The short land way from the southern, central and eastern parts of Ukraine to the Romanian ports on the Black Sea would thus be cut out, living the much longer road from the western Ukraine, along the Carpathian mountains, and into the Black Sea ports.

The “final phase”

I expect the end goal of this operation, unless some unforeseen diplomatic solution would emerge, is to control the entirety of Ukraine. While conquering Ukraine wasn’t ever a plan (as it seems to me), the control of what is going on on the ground is absolutely crucial to complete the “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine, as stated by Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. So Russian “peacekeepers” all over Ukraine are needed to implement this plan. Either that, or a regime change, and the new government, which will be willing and able to cleanse all its government and otherwise public organizations from the ultra-nationalists and persecute them in the court of justice. In this case, a small para-military Ukrainian force would be allowed by Russians to exist, providing almost no heavy weaponry, and absolutely no foreign military infrastructure.

Any other outcome will be viewed by the Russian public as a betrayal of national interests, national dignity, and the fallen and disabled soldiers. It would probably end Putin’s career. Only a full and decisive victory would be accepted.

So the question remains: what about the Ukraine territory after the end of the war? Obviously, much of it would be disconnected from the Ukrainian state. Donbass, Kherson, Zaporozh’e are already a done deal. Odessa, Nikolaev, Kharkov — almost certainly will follow, buy force or by the referendum under Russian supervision, if Ukraine’s government will capitulate.

My prediction is Poland won’t receive a single inch of the western Ukraine. If any Polish or Romanian forces would try to enter and occupy any regions in Western Ukraine, they will be engaged by Russians with as much force as realistically possible. Russians have a shortcut way into north-western Ukraine via Belarus against Poles, and into south-western Ukraine via Transnistria against Romanians. Of course, for this to happen Russians need Belarus’ approval (which they undoubtedly should receive), and a bridge head in western Odessa region (which is, as I assume, is already in the early stages of implementation — Zmeiniy Island and the bridge which took four cruise missile hits to be destroyed, if I’m not mistaken).

In other circumstances, Poland would definitely have a chance for a piece of Ukraine. If only they were on the opposite side of the Russophobic spectrum, more like Hungarians, for example). It is possible Hungarians could receive some Ukrainian lands, if they are ready to support Russia in spite of EU and NATO (which seems impossible, to tell the truth).

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