Following the Initial Scenario analysis, JCOT tries to analysis the tactical situation and its strategic consequences. Contradictions and errors are to be expected.
Interim analysis of strategic positions within Russia - 2023.01.10
Special JCOT analysts have come up with the question if certain elements on Russia's side share the same central objective as Putin. We would identify two such groupings, the Wagner forces and the Kadyrovski.
Wagner stands for a large part of the militarily active right-wing Russians, well connected with the political hard right in Russia. They have been observed to expand their influence, with Wagner-linked officers placed in command of the invasion army. Wagner forces are also those pushing towards Bakhmut (with high losses). Prigoshin might bet on a situation where he is successful at that front, whereas other fronts have crumbled or will crumble. This would give him a chance to gain power, possibly even replacing Putin. Therefore, his interest is to win locally around Bakhmut, with reduced interest in other fronts. Also, survival of a high number of officers is important, while soldiers, often ex-prisoners, do not count. Their death works as a bloody sacrifice to confirm allegiances within the organisation. The question is if the Wagnerites would dare to challenge Putin after a new Russian offensive will have failed, or if they simply will wait until the war is completely lost.
Kadyrov and his Chechen forces might have a completely different interest. For the time being, they need to be seen as loyal to Moscow. But Chechen history and their position in the center the northern Caucasus region imply that they would strive for regional suzerainty, maybe in the form of an independent Caucasian Federation, ruled by Kadyrov. For this, the Russian army would have to be crushed, losing the war, while Chechen and possibly allied forces would need to get sufficient battle experience without incurring high losses. The roles of Chechens in this war, as a kind of "military police" and as occupation forces, point to such a scenario. In a last, chaotic phase, their task would be to collect as many heavy and light arms as they are able, transporting it to depots in the Caucasus.
In any case, we do expect a phase of instability within Russia, as both soldiers returning from war and especially non-participant supporters of the war tend to have a high level of aggression after a lost war, ref. after WW I the "Freikorps" forces in Germany and the Russian civil war. After losing the war, Russia will become an even more dangerous region than it is now. This aggression might turn to the inside, destroying families and civil society, but could also be used by politicians of all kind to win power in civil or secession wars.
The military situation has remained more or less unchanged since the Russian withdrawal from the western bank of Dnipro. Russian forces are slowly advancing towards Bakhmut and Soledar, and there has been fighting on islands and spits in the Dnipro delta. Russia has conducted a number of massive long range attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, but has now used up most of their Cruise Missiles, midrange rockets and Iranian drones. The attack freqency and the number of heavier systems used have gone down significantly. At the same time, Ukraine was able to attack troop concentrations and depots in the occupied territories, with e.g. a double strike on New Years eve. Also, as expected, traffic nodes around Crimea were attacked with HIMARS and similar systems.
Most significantly, France, the U.S. and Germany have agreed to deliver relatively modern Western Infantry Fighting Vehicles in larger numbers to Ukraine, as well as two modern Patriot systems, one from the US and one from Germany. Those deliveries and the required training will take time, though, arriving in the spring / summer timeframe.
Both sides claim to prepare for larger new offensives. Russia tries to appear like they will attack from Belarus, but this is still seen as a feint. The weather is remaining relatively warm, making a crossing of the swampy border region difficult. And the Belarusian army is not seen as able to take part in the war, especially as ammunitions and some systems have reportedly been transferred to the Russian army.
Only two days after Russia's defense minister S. Shoigu announced the withdrawal from the region on the western bank of the river Dnipro, after Russian forces had been under pressure from Ukrainian forces and also suffered by a lack of supplies. Today, faster than expected by many, the withdrawal has been completed, with an unknown number of Russian soldiers captured during the final rout. Although this has been propagandistically prepared by Russia, it will add up to the long list of failures, putting additional stress towards the Russian war effort.
The expected further progress in the north east has not yet taken place. The situation there currently remains a stalemate, but with much higher Russian losses than in earlier months due to the insertion of untrained and badly equipped new recruits.
The new Ukrainian positions at the north western bank of Dnipro can be used to attack Russian supply lines on the eastern bank with artillery, although the access points to Crimea cannot yet be reached with standard artillery. MRLS systems could now be used to control those points, though. It is probable that Ukraine will repeat the successful tactics of the last months, trying to cut off the supply lines of major Russian forces to isolate them and force them to flee or surrender.
An open question is if Ukrainian forces will try to conquer a bridgehead at the eastern end of the Kakhova dam. A destruction of the dam will flood large parts of the eastern and also western bank of Dnipro.
We expect Ukraine to use the now unbound forces for concentrated attacks in less well protected areas of the frontline. Russia is expected to continue to attack in the Bakhmut area and other parts of the Donbass, wasting their ressources. Ukrainian landing operations on the eastern Dnipro bank could be used for distraction. Russian supply lines along the Azov sea are long and could be cut at several points, with Melitopol a key traffic node.
JCOT is not able to predict how intensively the conflict will continue during winter. In southern Ukraine, there is usually not enough cold to freeze the ground. In spite of this, we expect Ukraine to execute major operations as described above, but it will take time to assemble the necessary forces. We do not expect an attack from Belarus, though, as the Russian troops assembled there lack heavy equipment.
In our "Initial Analysis" , we distinguished between Russian "Consolidation", "Reinforcement" and "Shock Attack" options. The drone and rocket attacks plus the limited draft orders are part of a continued "Reinforcement" approach, while the Kherson rout led to the occupation area expected in the "Consolidation" scenario. The "Reinforcement" approach will continue to fail. Therefore it is still possible that Russia will use a "Shock Attack" approach with the goal to force Ukraine into a "Consolidation" armistice.
We now hold it for less probable that Russia would try to cut Ukraine's supply lines with such a "Shock Attack", but maybe it will be used against Ukrainian army concentrations on the southern frontline. A limited Nuclear attack might be combined with an armistice offer at the current front line. Ukraine must make sure that there are no such concentrations of forces which would lend themselves to such an attack.
Today, the Kerch bridge connecting Crimea to Russia has been partly destroyed, with one lane destroyed and a fuel train on the railway track exploded. This will massively restrict transport to Crimea and is also a psychological blow to the Russian occupation forces.
Russia has now formally annexed the occupied territories, although larger areas in the Kherson region and the town of Lyman in the Donezk region have been liberated by Ukrainian forces. It is assumed that Ukraine will attempt continue its progress until the autumn rains make ground movement difficult. Russia is continuing to "steal" people from Ukraine - there are reports that school children from Kherson are being "evacuated" to Crimea, probably meant as a one way voyage.
The usage numbers of Iranian drones have risen, including drone swarm tactics. But attacks are mostly reported against civilian infrastructure targets, without much military value.
JCOT expects that Russian troops in the south west will be pushed back to the surroundings of Kherson city, and may be forced to retreat or capitulate there. Kherson is surrounded by rivers, canals and swamps which makes it easy to defend, and Ukraine would not be willing to destroy the city with artillery. In the east, we expect an attempt to encircle Sievierodonezk / Lysychansk from the north and east, also with the goal to break the Starobilsk supply line. Also, attacks on the Russian supply lines going through Mariupol and Melitopol are to be expected.
The discussions on nuclear arms usage have now reached the highest levels in the West, including the US President. JCOT analysis is ongoing as the situation is complex. In Russia, the pressure on Putin and his entourage is mounting. A coup or at least coup attempt might occur sooner or later, especially if Putin orders the preparation of a nuclear strike.
The situation has changed rapidly since the last entry. Ukrainian forces have liberated most of Charkiv oblast, up to the Oskil river, crossing it at Kupiansk. Russian forces have been routed in the region, leaving back a high volume of arms and ammunition. In the Kherson region, progress has been much slower, but Russian troops west of the Dnipro are now more or less isolated after the destruction of the bridges and of ferries crossing the wide river.
Yesterday, Russia has announced referenda in the next few days in all of the occupied areas to prepare their annexation, and today Putin announced a partial mobilisation of 300'000 reservists, combined with threats of usage of nuclear arms. It seems that hardliners have successfully exerted pressure on Putin to escalate the war. Also, reports are coming in that the Iranian drones delivered to Russia are being used with some success. This will lead to more military pressure on Ukraine, but also probably to enhanced Western support.
Regarding the use of nuclear arms by Russia, JCOT sees the risk rising again. The partial mobilisation will raise internal pressure in Russia to end the war quickly - reservists are not as easily used as cannon fodder as DPR / LNR, provincial and penal "volunteers" are. Their losses will shake Russian society to its roots.
In the last 2 weeks, a limited Ukrainian counter-offensive has started. As predicted in the 2022.06.30 entry, Ukraine has severely damaged all bridges over the Dnipro. In the region west of the Dnipro, Ukrainian forces have liberated some villages while focussing on disrupting Russian supply lines and splitting Russian battle groups. This has forced Russia to move troops into that region, opening other regions for Ukrainian operations. The town of Balakliia, south east of Charkiv, is now almost encircled by an Ukrainian surprise attack, with several villages in the vicinity already liberated. This attack also threatens Russian supply lines going through Kupyansk.
Also, due to the Ukrainain counter-offensive, the Russian annexation referendum of the Cherson / Zaporizhzhia region has been postponed. Ukrainian guerilla attacks on facilities linked to this are ongoing.
Russia is now reported to receive supplies from Iran (drones) and North Korea (artillery and ammunition). This is a sign of desperation. Financially, Russia is still in a comfortable position due to high fossil fuel prices.
As autumn and winter are now approaching quickly, we believe Ukraine is trying to reach positions from which they are able to use the seasons to their advantage. Units require more supplies in winter, but supply lines are more bound to roads and railroad lines when rain and snow make fields and forests impassable. This will create supply problems for the occupation forces and makes it also highly improbable that Belarusian forces would enter the war and open up a new front in the north. For Ukraine, one option is to try to break through at some point north of the Azov coastline, to come into artillery range of the coastal highway. This position would be difficult to hold, but could help to stop the flow of Russian supplies and troops.
Two months later, the conflict is still deadlocked. Russian troops have progressed a bit in the Donetzk region, while Ukrainian forces have attacked a large number of Russian ammunition depots and also military and air force bases via undisclosed means. We assume that drones, long range artillery, local resistance forces and special commandos have been used. Most importantly, the 3 bridges over the Dnepr have been damaged. Although Russia is trying to repair them and use other means of transport over the river, it is probable that supply to the occupied territory around Kherson is now severely restricted.
Critical events are occurring around the Nuclear Power Plant in Zaporizhzhia. Today, Russia has cut the connection to the Ukrainian grid on a pretext. Currently there is only power supply via a heating plant and the local diesel generators. If power supply to the plant stops completely, the cores will melt quickly and an immeasureable catastrophe will occur.
The war situation has only slowly changed in the past month. A cruel war of attrition is taking place, with between 100-200 fallen soldiers on each side per day. Ukraine has finally withdrawn from Sievierodonetzk and continues to be pushed back in the area, while managing not to leave troops enclosed in pockets like in Mariupol. In the Kherson region, Ukrainian forces have pushed back the invasor on some fronts, but not yet reached the boundaries of the city. One major success of Ukraine, partly due to Western long range weapon systems, was announced today, as the last suriviving Russian troops left Snake Island (Bile).
The main political issue of the following weeks will be the transport of Ukrainian wheat to the world markets via ship. Here the liberation of Snake Island might help.
From the view of the military, the critical factor is ammunition - Soviet calibre now almost used up, and the number of Western artillery systems not high enough to counter the Russian onslaught in Donbas. There might be some surprising action on Ukraine's side to extend their supply of Soviet ammunition. But in sum, Western military aid has not yet turned the situation into Ukraine's favour, especially in Donbas. We do not see the expected breakdown of Russian forces yet. It may yet come, depending on the efficiency of the delivered modern artillery systems. The Snake Island victory is a good sign.
Another target of those systems might be the two bridges and the dam crossing over the Dnepr, at Antonivka / Prydniprovske and Kosazke. Destroying them or making them inoperable for larger transport will efficiently break Russian supply lines for the Kherson area. Similar strategic chokepoints exist at the ends of the Crimea peninsula and through it the resupply lines to the Zaporizhzhia region.
Strangely, both Russia and Ukraine have not yet tried to turn their economies into "war economies" of the WW variant, although it is obvious that for both sides losing the war would be an existential threat (for Russia, at least for the Putin nomenklatura). The intensive exchange between Ukraine and the West should make sure there will not be a "sudden death" like breakdown of Ukraine - supply programs will be ramped up in case of emergency.
For Russia, one target line could be the occupation of Slovyansk, Kramatorsk and Bakhmut in Donbas. But even if they succeed here, it will take two months at least. This is in line with the announced 2022.09.11 "referendum" planned to annex the DNR / LNR and maybe other regions. Assuming though that Russian forces will be put under severe pressure west of the Dnepr and possibly in Zaporizhzhia oblast by that time, if not outright driven away, these referendums might be postponed.
We currently estimate the risk of a nuclear attack on Ukraine as not very high. The flow of western arms is not strong enough to really impress the Russian command, while the potential reaction of NATO, soon to be strengthened by Sweden and Finland, must be expected to be robust. As long as Russian forces advance in Donbas, it would not be "necessary" in Russian eyes to take such a risk. Similarly, a confrontation with the West at the Suwalki corridor would take too much preparation to be invisible and would also be too risky. These calculations would change with larger Ukrainian successes.
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