Yves here. We have not written much about Ukraine for a while, in part due to the genocide in Gaza and the slow escalation by the Axis of Resistance having the potential to precipitate a regional war if the US continues to fail to restrain Israel. Another reason for neglecting this front is that the fighting continues to be a slow grind, just as the Russians prefer.
But as Herbert Stein famously said, that which can’t continue, won’t. Ukraine can’t sustain its defense against the Russia meat-grinder. It was already running short of men and its Western backes are running short of materiel. At some point, Ukraine will start to break, whether it comes via a government collapse, infrastructure failure, or the military buckling in so many places that a lwo-cost Russian advance becomes possible.
There is evidence of accelerating Ukraine decay on the Ukraine. The military death tolls appear to be rising from their already high levels. The Ukraine leadership has become embroiled with infighting, with the immediate dispute being over military chief Zaluzhny’s refusal to take ownership of the need to mobilize another 500,000 to shore up the weakening front line. We’ve had the spectacle of president Zelensky unable to get Zaluzhny to resign, and also unable to get someone to agree to take his place if Zelensky dismissed him. One Alexander Mercouris source told him that the reason was that Zaluzhny had the loyalty of the military was that he, as a hard core Banderite, had been favoring those units (estimated at 25% of the total forces) who were dominated by those of Nazi persuasion, with more supplies and postings typically behind the line of contact.
However, despite well-warranted reluctance in Ukraine to cross this fabulously brutal faction, Zelensky looks to have prevailed due to the intervention of Victoria Nuland. However, her press presentation was so clearly improvised as not to be confidence-inspiring. In fact, making a presentation in an empty square, at night, conveys the impression either that she is not safe in any of the grand official spaces in Kiev or that they are too damaged to serve as a suitable backdrop. I assume neither is actually the case and this is instead an attempt to evoke Victoria Nuland in Maidan Square handing out cookies as port of the 2014 coup, but with no crowds or even big name company. It’s a messaging backfire:
🇺🇸🇺🇦‼️🚨 Victoria Nuland came to Kiev and promised “surprises” for the Russian president.
-> In reality, she had to come quickly to mediate in the internal wars between Zelensky and Zaluzhny. pic.twitter.com/2XyfI4zqFw
— Lord Bebo (@MyLordBebo) February 1, 2024
The rising death toll Helmer describes below is due in part to the slow-moving operation around Adiivka in Donbass. It was something of an embarrassment that the Russian forces had not captured it sooner, since it was one of the main outposts Ukraine used to shell civilian targets in Donetsk city. Adiivka was extremely well fortified, and has like Bakhmut proven to be a hard nut to crack. Again, like Bakhmut, Ukraine has considered it to be strategically important (many contend if Russia takes Adiivaka, it will collapses the last defenses in Donbass, facilitating a big Russian advance) and has fought tenaciously to keep it. But if you look at the new short segment at Military Summary, you can see a cauldron-type substantial encirclement. Russia looks to be repeating its Bakhmut playbook, refusing to close the cauldron so that Ukraine will keep feeding more men and equipment in. Oh, and if I understand the terrain correctly, Ukraine is in even worse shape than it appears, because Russia has captured the heights and the largely-encircled area is lowlands.
Adiivka has gotten a lot of attention due to it being a hard slog, but Russia has also been imposing substantial losses on Ukraine in other key points, such as the Bakhmut environs and Kupiansk in the north, in Kharkiv oblast.
An open question still is where does Russia want this conflict to go. As we and many others have recounted, Putin has been signaling greater territorial ambitions. This is not IMHO due to success going to Russian heads but Russia having to rethink what a final map will need to look like to provide for Russian security needs. Given the paranoid screeching from EU and NATO leaders, this translates into more acquisition than they deemed necessary before.
I believe it was Lavrov who said early on that if the West started deploying longer-range missiles, Russia would need a bigger security zone to protect Russian territory (which now includes the absorbed oblasts). We and others assumed Russia would probably need to take the Black Sea coast to assure economic control of whatever rump Ukraine was left west of the Dnieper. Putin has also been talking fondly of Ancient Rus (admittedly if you look at this speeches, an established theme, then presumably to suggest Russians and Ukrainians ought to be able to get along). That has been taken to mean that he deems capturing Kiev to be necessary. I hope he has taken note from the Israel case study as to how corrupting it is to be an occupier, and comes up with some other long-term solution. We warned from the outset that Russia could win the war and lose the peace. That remains a real risk.
By John Helmer, the longest continuously serving foreign correspondent in Russia, and the only western journalist to direct his own bureau independent of single national or commercial ties. Helmer has also been a professor of political science, and an advisor to government heads in Greece, the United States, and Asia. He is the first and only member of a US presidential administration (Jimmy Carter) to establish himself in Russia. Originally published at Dances with Bears
When the General Staff have been discussing with President Vladimir Putin the timing of the Russian offensive to force the Kiev regime into capitulation, it has been agreed, understood, and repeated that the strategic reserves of the Ukrainian forces should be destroyed first, together with the supply lines for the weapons and ammunition crossing the border from the US and the NATO allies.
This process, they also agreed, should take as long as required with least casualties on the Russian side, as determined by military intelligence. Also agreed and pre-conditional, there should be no repeat of the political intelligence failures of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) which precipitated the failed special forces operation known as the Battle of Antonov (Hostomel) Airport from February 24 to April 2, 2022.
Taking account of the mistakes made then by the SVR director, Sergei Naryshkin, and the subsequent mistakes of military officers around Yevgeny Prigozhin, the General Staff has also accepted that their tactical operations must run least risk of Russian casualties through March 17, the final day of the presidential election.
This week military sources believe there has been a turning point – on the Ukrainian battlefield, and on the Russian clock.
The daily Defense Ministry briefing and bulletin from Moscow reported last Thursday, before the Friday weekly summary, that the Ukrainian KIA (killed in action) for the previous twenty-four hours totaled 795, with the ratio of offensive tactics to defence, 3 to 3. On Monday, the KIA total was 680, the ratio 4 to 3. On Tuesday, KIA came to 885, the ratio 5 to 1. The casualty rate is unusually high; the shift to offence is recognizably new, if not announced.
The “Stavka Project”, a military briefing which is broadcast by Vladimir Soloviev, confirms the positional breakthroughs this week on several of the fronts or “directions”, as the Defense Ministry calls them, along the Donbass line; click to watch (in Russian).
In Boris Rozhin’s summary of the Defense Ministry briefing materials, published before dawn on Wednesday morning, the leading Russian military blogger (Colonel Cassad) identifies “small advances”, “slight movements”, some positional “successes”, other positional “counter-fighting”, and “no significant progress yet”. The adverb is military talk for timing.
According to a military source outside Russia, “the Russian breakthrough is beginning to happen now. It’s being coordinated with strikes and raids along the northern border. The commitment of the ‘crack’ Ukrainian brigades at the expense of other sectors shows how desperate [General Valery] Zaluzhny is to plug the holes. He knows that the target is the isolation of Kharkov, the establishment of a demilitarized ‘buffer zone’, as well as the development of a situation whereby all Ukrainian forces east of the Dnieper are threatened with being cut off… and he’s quickly running out of ammunition, not to mention cannon fodder.”
“By the end of the winter,” the source has added overnight, “the Ukrainians will barely be able to move along the roads they use to feed the front due to the Russian drone, missile, conventional air, and artillery strikes. Once they can no longer plug the gaps with mechanized units acting as fire-fighting brigades, it’s just a matter of time before the big breakthroughs and encirclements begin. At the current burn rate of Ukrainian forces, I imagine we’ll start seeing Russian tanks with fuel tanks fitted for extended range appearing and Russian airborne troops making air assaults in the Ukrainian rear within weeks.”
In yesterday’s edition of the Moscow security analysis platform Vzglyad, Yevgeny Krutikov, a leading Russian military analyst with GRU service himself and GRU sources for his reporting since, published a report entitled “What does the offensive of Russian troops in the Kharkov region mean?” “Russia is creating a new strategic situation in the Kharkov region,” Krutikov concluded, “threatening to dismember the Ukrainian defence up to the Donetsk agglomeration.” A verbatim English translation of this piece follows.
January 29, 2024 – 19:10.
What does the offensive of Russian troops in the Kharkov region mean?
By Yevgeny Krutikov
“The settlement of Tabayevka in the Kharkov region has been liberated,” the Russian Defense Ministry says. We are not just facing the capture of a village: Russian troops are now hacking into the contact lines, which have not budged for a year. Russia is creating a new strategic situation in the Kharkov region, threatening to dismember the Ukrainian defence up to the Donetsk agglomeration.
First, Krakhmalnoye, then Tabayevka – Russian troops have advanced in the Svatovo direction (Kharkov region), pushing the enemy to a new line of defence (to the village of Peschanoye). Slightly to the north, already close to Kupyansk, the enemy’s positions are also gradually moving to the west and southwest.
Along the way, forests are being cleared, which the VSU [Ukrainian Armed Forces] is turning into fortified areas, even giving them names (“Alligator” and “Woodpecker”). The enemy is losing the old lines of trenches, the first line of contact has been destroyed. Something similar is happening directly near Kupyansk, but there the advanced fortified lines in Sinkovka are being held still by the VSU, though the positions on the flanks have gradually begun to sink.
At first glance, we are looking at isolated episodes of positional warfare, since the big, iconic and recognizable geographical names do not appear in the information releases. But this is not quite true.
Firstly, even in this scenario as published so far, strategic threats arise for the Armed Forces of Ukraine, for example, in the possible drive of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation to the Oskol River which has far-reaching prospects. Notwithstanding, it is still impossible to predict when this will become possible in practice.
Secondly, the enemy has been demonstrating a systemic defence crisis in the Kupyansk direction during the past week. The defence of Kupyansk has been under construction by the Armed Forces of Ukraine since the spring of last year, when the decision was made in Kiev on a ‘counteroffensive’ in the southern direction. New brigades with western armoured vehicles were sent to the southern section of the contact line, and Kupyansk and the area around it were designated for defence with the rest of their forces.
In Kiev, they were convinced that Russian troops were forming an offensive group in the Kupyansk direction, and so the VSU began to wait there for a frontal assault. However, as a result, the Russian Army did not undertake anything of the kind in this area. Instead, the Ukrainian units were gradually ground down by the Russian army in positional battles, while the Kupyansk group of the VSU had to be replenished with whatever troops were left.
Now Ukrainian sources are complaining that as a consequence, a combination of lines has formed in the sinkhole areas (that’s the same Krakhmalnoye and Tabayevka). Into these lines the VSU has herded separate battalions from different units, with the result that unified management and command have been lost, and the performance quality of the troops has left much to be desired.
As a result, the VSU is considering the possibility of transferring the remnants of those forces which participated in the failed ‘counteroffensive”’ to Kupyansk from the southern direction. Before that, they had been sent in great haste sent to Avdeyevka.
But this is already a systemic problem for the Armed Forces of Ukraine, since there is trouble in the southern sector. The Armed Forces of the Russian Federation have gradually regained some of the positions which were left during the so-called counteroffensive, and these forces continue to move forward. We are even talking about possible threats to Orekhov, a rearguard city for the VSU, from which all the communications and command of the ‘counteroffensive’ had been carried out.
Behind the defensive fortifications of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, an open field for tens of kilometres opens up on a whole group of sites. Kiev’s military reserves are gradually being squandered, and there is practically no human materiel left to plug the holes. Related to these problems there are the panic campaigns in Kiev about total mobilization.
There is another problem: the attrition of officers. Western military personnel cannot replace this crucial resource — they can only be used to service technically complicated weapons systems such as air defence or long-range artillery. Along the line of contact, foreign officers are more likely to interfere due to their ignorance of the language and misunderstanding of the mentality of the [Ukrainian] subordinates.
There are other factors weakening the Ukrainian defence, but they are not directly related to military operations. For example, the Western sponsors are really concerned about the corruption of the Ukrainian leadership. The inspections and audits which are taking place in Kiev on this issue right now are preventing Ukraine from building new defensive lines swiftly enough.
Another non-military factor: political discord among the various factions of the Ukrainian authorities. The premonition of defeat is triggering a drop in morale, not only in the troops, but also in the elites.
All this in general creates a strategic opportunity for Russia to seriously change the situation on the line of contact.
Partial tactical successes must at some point turn into a major breakthrough in the enemy’s defence. Moreover, we are talking about such a breakthrough that will not stop in just two or three days at the next defensive line, but will lead inevitably, precisely, to the collapse of the front. This is exactly what the efforts of the Russian Armed Forces are now aimed at, probing for the weaknesses in Ukrainian defensive positions.
The liberation of Tabayevka is an example of just such an approach. Sooner or later, the VSU will not have time to create a new defensive line behind a particular settlement. And then we will see how the special operation will break the current positional deadlock.