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Op-Ed: Ukrainian offensive is achieving far more than it appears

The smart move would be for Russia to get out of Ukraine ASAP. There’s been nothing smart about Rus

Black smoke rises at the front line in Mykolaiv, northwest of Kherson region, where Ukraine has launched a major operation to reconquer lost territory
Black smoke rises at the front line in Mykolaiv, northwest of Kherson region, where Ukraine has launched a major operation to reconquer lost territory - Copyright AFP TANG CHHIN Sothy
Black smoke rises at the front line in Mykolaiv, northwest of Kherson region, where Ukraine has launched a major operation to reconquer lost territory - Copyright AFP TANG CHHIN Sothy

For a “special military operation”, Russia’s disastrous military situation is a historic failure. Russia has done very little for months. As its ammo dumps and airbases burn,  yet another senior commander has been fired. The Ukrainian offensive compromises the Kherson region as the first attacks on the Crimean peninsula strike effectively.

The thing is – There’s no real news about the offensive. The headlines are barely above gossip level. They’re more like weather reports. Ukraine, quite rightly, has put an embargo on all operational information. President Zelensky made a statement two days ago requesting citizens of Crimea to avoid Russian bases and other targets.

So what’s actually happening? Much more than it seems.

Ukrainian moves toward Kherson are steady but not hurried. These are good tactics. They’re also symptomatic of the military reality. The Russians have been progressively less able to counter Ukrainian attacks on any level, including precision artillery strikes from HIMARS, ground and air attacks.

The Ukrainian air force is flying again, which it wasn’t able to do when Russia had air superiority. Russian artillery dominance is much less of a factor outside of Donbas. The much-predicted big Russian pincer attack in the east never really happened.  Those troops are still in those positions, but there’s no future in the attack anymore.

A bogged-down Russia fighting a much more agile and far more active Ukraine can only have one outcome in military terms. The initiative is well and truly Ukraine’s. The extremely patient demolition of Russian supplies by Ukraine is clearly paying off. This has been done at a relatively extremely low cost to the Ukrainians and a very high price to the Russians.

Map showing the situation in Ukraine as of August 26 at 0800 GMT — © AFP

The most obvious sign of rot in the Russian ranks is the total lack of ideas. A few random missiles and shells fired at civilian targets make no difference at all. The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is the issue making the big news, but it’s just a local issue in context with the war.  

What’s happening in Kherson? A virtual synopsis of the war.

The Kherson attack is surprisingly but quite rightly systematic and methodical. While territory is the overriding issue of the war, in this case holding territory is an ongoing liability for Russia. The arthritic, battered, and not-very-good Russian support systems and very iffy troop strengths don’t help the Russians.

Troop strengths are a major issue. After months of total failure and tactical stagnation, troops are known to be moving from one part of the front to another. This blatant shuffling means the Russian frontline capacity is strained severely.

It is standard practice to move troops from quiet zones to support hot zones. It’s not standard practice to move them from multiple offensive zones to prop up other zones.  The Russians have been doing this regularly since Mariupol, and not much has changed. Clearly, Russian troop strength is well below inventory. The famous 120 Battalion Tactical Groups of three months ago are barely mentioned now.

Nor does the excuse “rearming and refitting” work anymore. Rearming and refitting what, with what, exactly? What about the requirement to occupy specific areas? None of this “military creative accountancy” could work even if it were credible, which it isn’t and never has been.

Projections

The likely future of this messy war has multiple possible outcomes:

  1. The Russian army simply breaks down. This will be due to its ever-increasing overdoses of multiple impossibilities. Local commands won’t be able to cope and the situation deteriorates. This is the most likely scenario, backed up by months of abysmal performance. The Ukrainians can simply wait, while continuing their eradication of Russian assets.
  2. A negotiated settlement of some kind. This is looking increasingly less likely, and wasn’t likely to start with. Ukraine has said it will not accept Russian presence anywhere within the original borders pre-annexation of Crimea. That pretty much shuts down negotiations.
  3. A typical UN-backed peace initiative. UN troops in theory could demilitarize some areas and create buffers. Ukraine may not accept this option. That’s for the very good reasons that it leaves any significant part of their territory in limbo and gives the Russians breathing space on the ground.
  4. Some internal event in Russia ends the war. Regime change is the default and a much too simplistic scenario. This has been talked about for months, and nothing’s happened. It’s possible but more likely that the rotten structure will collapse in an unscripted, disorganized way. Russian regime changes throughout history are never simple, never quick, and often extremely messy. In this case, with no clear future government in waiting, it would have to be the same.  

Russia cannot win or achieve any of its stated or even implied political objectives. The attempt to stop the expansion of NATO has failed dismally, with Sweden and Finland now joining NATO.

The Russian army is literally dying before the world’s eyes on a daily basis. Russia’s military credibility, particularly as an arms supplier, has been catastrophically damaged beyond repair. “Mobilization” is meaningless; what are they supposed to mobilize, to start with? More museum pieces? The ground war is effectively lost, just on logistics alone.

Politically, the situation is no better for Russia. The world, particularly the West, will never recognize any part of Ukraine as part of Russia. Economic sanctions will continue. The West can continue to isolate Russia. Russia also has progressively less leverage around the world. Diplomatically and in terms of influence, the war has gutted Russia’s soft power base.

The physical situation is as bad or worse. The Donbas and Luhansk, Russian-occupied at the start of the war, have been virtually obliterated. These areas are total physical liabilities to Russia, requiring perhaps a decade to restore to functionality. The separatists in both regions aren’t happy and have taken appalling casualties. These two disaster areas are likely to be completely dysfunctional and unmanageable for at least a decade to come.

The Ukrainians are undeniably winning. They first outfought, then outfought and outclassed, the Russian army. Ukraine can strike anywhere at will. (That’s a real tactical “game over”.) They have the strategic initiative and the Russians can’t change that fact. Time is very much on Ukraine’s side.

When Ukraine joins the EU, the political, trade, and economic situation becomes truly impossible for Russia. They obviously can’t do business with the EU if they’re invading an EU member. That shuts them out of the world’s biggest trading bloc, creating a sort of “Rexit” situation they can’t manage.

The Ukrainian offensive is simply proving all these points.  The Ukrainians don’t even have to hurry. The Russians can barely even claim to be hitting back. The longer Russia remains in Ukraine, the more Russia will lose.

The smart move would be for Russia to get out of Ukraine ASAP. There’s been nothing smart about Russia’s conduct of this war, though. All they’ve done is make it worse for themselves at an incredible cost in lives and material. They also can’t hold on to an isolated Crimea. They can’t push in the east, because they’ve already tried and failed.

The end has begun. The only question now is when it ends.

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Disclaimer
The opinions expressed in this Op-Ed are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Digital Journal or its members.

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Written By

Editor-at-Large based in Sydney, Australia.

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