By Maj Gen PK Mallick, VSM, (Retd)
Russian air and land forces are pressing into Ukraine from three sides. The three-way Russian advance is being contested but moving ahead. A US senior defence official told reporters in Washington on Thursday, “It is likely that you will see this unfold in multiple phases. How many, how long, we don’t know. But what we are seeing are initial phases of a large-scale invasion. Thus far, we have seen an advance on what are essentially three main axes of assault. One is northward from Crimea toward Kherson; another southward basically from Belarus to Kyiv; and the third from Belarus southwest toward Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. These three axes are what we believe, clearly designed to take key population centers. I’m saying they’re making a move on Kyiv…They have every intention of decapitating the government and installing their own method of governance. We see the heaviest fighting in and around Kharkiv, right now.”
Based on OSINT, Dr Seth Jones and his team has brought out Russia’s options and its likely courses of actions in Ukraine. Somehow, it has an uncanny similarity with what is being unfolded currently.
It was presumed that with thousands of troops stationed in Belarus, less than 200 kilometers to the northwest of Kyiv, Russia could mount a multipronged, simultaneous attack, sending mechanized forces across the country’s flat frozen countryside. A key target would be Kyiv, which the Russians could attack from both sides of the Dnieper, as well as from the air.
Russian forces would take a similar approach to other key urban centers, such as Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, located in the northeast of the country less than 50 kilometers from the border.
Russia had three options:
A full-scale invasion, thrusting deep into Ukraine to seize the capital, Kyiv and overthrow the government.
Annex more territory in eastern Ukraine, carving out a corridor linking Russia with Crimea.
A small war, in which Russia “saves” Kremlin-backed separatists in Donbas, an eastern region of Ukraine, from supposed Ukrainian atrocities and degrades Ukraine’s armed forces.
Seth Jones makes the argument that, if Russia decides to invade Ukraine to reassert Russian control and influence, there are at least three possible axes of advance to seize Ukrainian territory:
A northern thrust, possibly attempting to outflank Ukrainian defences around Kiev by approaching through Belarus.
A central thrust advancing due west into Ukraine.
A southern thrust advancing across the Perekopisthmus.
Russia hadencircled Ukraine on three sides with a conventional invasion force, which poses an imminent threat to Ukraine. Russia has prepared Russian air and naval forces to support a possible ground invasion.This is given in the figure below:
Russia may also carry out widespread irregular operations in Ukraine, including cyber operations, subversion and sabotage by Russia’s intelligence services and special operations forces. These actions could extend far beyond Eastern Europe, such as Russian cyberattacks against U.S. critical infrastructure and sabotage operations against undersea fibre optic cables.
The operations would commence with cyberattacks to degrade Ukraine’s military command and control systems and public communications and electrical grids. After that kinetic operations will begin with air and missile strikes against Ukraine’s air force and air defence systems. After air superiority is ensured, Russian ground forces would move in, a little preceded by special operations forcesto degrade further command and control capabilities and delay the mobilisation of reserves by conducting bombings, assassinations, and sabotage operations.
Northern Route.Russia can advance toward Kiev along two routes:
Moving through Novi Yurkovich i( Russia), Chernihiv( Ukraine) and into Kiev( Ukraine) all of 150 miles by road.
200-mile thrust through Troebortnoe( Russia), Konotop and Nizhyn ( Ukraine) into Kiev.
With the use of its road and rail networks of Belarus the Russian army could outflankUkrainian defences around Kiev via a 150-mile axis of advance from Mazur( Belarus)to Korosten( Ukraine) and finally to Kievand approach them from the rear.
Central Route: Russia could also advance due west along three routes:
A 200-mile axis that moves through Belograd and (Russia),Kharkiv andPoltava(Ukraine) finally to Kremenchuk(Ukraine).
A 140-mile thrust through Donetskand Zaporizhzhya (Ukraine) and probably another thrust from Donetsk to Dnipro, Ukraine.
Along the coastline toward Mariupol, Berdyansk and the Perekop isthmus connecting Crimea to Ukraine.
Southern Route. Russia can progress operations across the Perekop isthmus to take the source of freshwater for Crimea,Kherson, and concurrently toward Melitopol to link up with Russian forces advancing along the coast of the Sea of Azov. It would be toughest to sustain logistically due to the lack of a railway running along the Sea of Azov coast.
The Figure Below highlights possible invasion routes. Except the coastal axis all of these routes are parallel to existing rail lines. This is important since Russian army logistics forces are not designed for large-scale ground offensives far from railroads.
If Russia wants to deny future access to the sea to Ukraine, it has to take hold of Odessa. This can be done via amphibious and airborne landings near Odessa and link up with mechanized forces approaching from the east. If Moscow wants to conquer the entire Ukraine, it would have to seize Odessa. The port facilities would help Russian logistics.
Russian army will have to cross the Dnepr River at quite a few points to march and fight further west, an additional 350 to 700 miles to occupy all of Ukraine up to its borders with Poland, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Moldova.
Russian Prospects of Success.
Russia has enough troops, firepower, logistics, time, and national will, to grind forward until its military achieves its political objectives. Russia’s armed forces outnumbers Ukraine’s military in the air and on the ground, Russia has wide experience in conducting combined-arms operations in Syria. The terrain favors offensive mechanised warfare. However, there are several intangiblesthat may play a significant role in the initial stages of a warlike weather,logistics, urban combat, command and contro, and moral. The true calculation of military success canbe taken only after a clash of arms begins.
(The author is Indian Army Veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).