Not Out of the Woods Yet: Assessing the Operational Situation in Ukraine

A frame from footage provided by the Ukrainian military shows an ambush on a column of Russian tanks near Kyiv, Ukraine on 10 March 2022. Courtesy of ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

An assessment of Russian movements and successes in Ukraine indicates that Russian forces are advancing and may still achieve their goals. To survive the next few weeks, Ukrainian forces will need to adopt an operational plan based on exploiting their interior lines.

The war in Ukraine has been dominated by an effective and far-reaching information campaign led by the Ukrainian state. The Ukrainian narrative is dominating both the news and social media cycles, which are now of equal importance in forming public opinion. The narrative is littered with broken Russian convoys, farmers triumphantly towing boutique Russian air defence systems away from their hiding places, and harrowing footage of Russian tank formations being destroyed. And yet, by analysing three maps depicting the operational picture, including one released by the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) and two curated by open-source investigators – the Twitter account Jomini of the West and Konrad Muzyka’s Ukraine Conflict Monitor – it is apparent that Russian forces are making progress.

What the Maps Say

In the north of the country, Ukrainian forces have enjoyed significant successes, many of which have been well-publicised. The advance of Russian forces from the First Guards Tank Army and Second Combined Arms Army through an axis running past Sumy has proceeded on a narrow front with an extended vulnerable line of communications. Russian forces advancing from the north including from Belarus to both encircle Kyiv from the west and conduct a secondary offensive against Chernihiv have, similarly, stalled. Indeed, the inability of Russian forces in the north to make ground after an operational pause has led some analysts to question whether the Russian army can in fact encircle Kyiv at all. In other theatres, Russian forces have made few gains against major cities, having captured only Kherson in the south so far, although it is likely that they will also take Mariupol.

However, an exclusive focus on cities – though understandable – may obscure more than it reveals. Though it seems clear that the initial Russian plan was based around a swift coup de main against Kyiv while the bulk of the Ukrainian army was pinned in the east opposite Donetsk and Luhansk, this is unlikely to remain the case. Even under best-case assumptions (from a Russian perspective), it is unlikely that Kyiv will be taken soon. However, it is worth considering that there is a second Ukrainian centre of gravity – alluded to by Vladimir Putin in his pledge to ‘demilitarise’ Ukraine – the regular Ukrainian army, most of which remains near Donetsk and Luhansk under the aegis of the Joint Forces Operation (JFO).

The position of this force is looking increasingly precarious as Russian forces advance to encircle it on three axes. Russian forces of the 58th Combined Arms Army and 22nd Army, pushing north from Crimea, have commenced assaults on Beryslav along the Dnieper, and appear likely to link up at Polohy with Russian separatist forces and the Eighth Combined Arms Army advancing from Donbas. Elements of the First Guards Tank Army and Sixth Combined Arms Army advancing past Kharkiv also appear to have largely eschewed attempts to take the city – focusing instead on reducing it with artillery while bypassing it as they advance south and west past Poltava, cutting the JFO off from escaping northwards. Finally, in the southwest, Russian forces of the 20th Guards Motor Rifle Division appear similarly intent on bypassing Mykolaiv but, notably, may not be advancing on Odessa. Instead, they appear to be advancing north, which could suggest a desire to seize the western banks of key crossing points over the Dnieper.

Viewed in conjunction, these advances present a troubling picture whereby the Ukrainian forces opposite Donetsk and Luhansk are at risk of encirclement on the eastern side of the Dnieper. If this is indeed the focus of Russia’s approach, then the emphasis on Russia's ability to take major cities as a metric of success will have been an analytical error, as Russia appears more intent on pinning Ukrainian forces in cities like Kharkiv while it bypasses them. Indeed, preparations for an amphibious assault on Odessa may have been a feint, given that the ground forces such an assault could have linked up with appear to be moving north.

The elimination of a large part of the country's regular armed forces could lead Russia to claim it had achieved its goal of demilitarising Ukraine

For Ukraine, this represents a critical moment. The encirclement and destruction of a large part of the country's regular armed forces could represent a victory condition for Russia in two ways. First, we might consider what figures like Jomini and Clausewitz postulated in the context of their own time: that armies and not cities are a nation’s centre of gravity. The destruction of armies tends to lead to a broader collapse of will that makes sieges unnecessary. In 1940, for example, German forces did not besiege Paris; having encircled the French army in the field and decisively beaten it, this became unnecessary. To hold Kyiv and other major cities at the cost of allowing the forces of the JFO to be encircled could prove disastrous. Even if Ukrainian will did not collapse following the encirclement and destruction of the JFO, the elimination of this force could lead Russia to claim it had achieved its goal of demilitarising Ukraine and would enable an annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk at a minimum.

Finally, it is worth considering the importance of regulars in any post-war campaign mounted against Russian occupation. Compound warfare, involving both regular and irregular formations, tends to have a good track record of eventually defeating occupation by a stronger force, with examples including the Peninsular War and Chinese Civil War. It is, in many ways, preferable to a pure insurgency strategy. While irregulars can raise the costs of occupation and harass supply lines, they require a regular force to both pin the attention of an occupier and conduct eventual counteroffensives. The survival of the forces currently in the east of Ukraine would therefore be critical to an insurgency’s success.

Withdrawing will both prove difficult and entail the politically painful decision to abandon Donetsk and Luhansk. Despite this, however, it remains necessary to withdraw the force to the west both to ensure its immediate survival and, moreover, to enable Ukraine to exploit its major geographical advantage – interior lines of operation – by concentrating counteroffensives on select axes against locally inferior Russian forces.

Interior vs Exterior Design

In 1921, Lieutenant Colonel J C Dundas wrote a paper for the RUSI Journal titled ‘The Strategy of Exterior and Interior Lines in the Light of Modern War’. Lt Col Dundas explained that the strategy of interior lines states that a force should be focused on a single line of advance with the goal of decisively engaging and dividing an opponent’s force. In contrast, the strategy of exterior lines holds that the aggressor divides its forces into multiple lines of advance, creating many fronts for the defender. The former brings several benefits: a single point for logistics to focus on, and a rapid and determined advance. However, for interior lines to be successful, they must be superior to the opposing force – if not in numbers, then at least in morale and will – and have short lines of communication.

Exterior lines require lines of operation and communication networks to be ‘as perfect as possible’. The attacking force should ideally be numerically superior to the enemy and the terrain relatively free of obstacles. The strategy also requires the aggressor to maintain constant pressure on the defender. The above is a short synopsis of Lt Col Dundas’ arguments, however, it shows that neither strategy would have suited the Russian forces perfectly. Russia’s lines of communication – the routes over which its logistics must travel – were already hundreds of kilometres long before its forces entered Ukraine. It has also become evident that many Russian soldiers were lied to or misled before entering Ukraine. For example, a first-hand account from a Russian soldier captured by Nicholas Laidlaw states that ‘About half the forces had no idea what they were doing. They were supposed to go to a training site’. It follows that Russia’s planners could not have hoped to have moral superiority given the circumstances under which their soldiers went to war. Because of these two factors alone, a strategy of interior lines may have seemed inappropriate.

An emphasis on the impressive results achieved by Ukrainian forces at the tactical level and the immense losses sustained by Russia may have come at the expense of a focus on the operational level of warfare

A strategy of exterior lines presents challenges too, however, it lends itself to some Russian strengths and is closer in theory to Russian assessments of modern conflict. As observed by Alex Vershinin, Russian logistics are not designed to operate at range from their railheads, and they lack the airlift to overcome short-term deficiencies. Their truck fleet is also limited in its ability to support Russian operations and could be overwhelmed if Russian forces advanced more than 90 km from their staging posts. Exterior lines can address logistics problems by requisitioning and looting the needed supplies from the population, which has been observed in Ukraine. In addition, exterior lines have enabled the Russian army to divide Ukraine’s forces, leading to the diversion of some critical resources such as air defence systems to Kyiv and leaving frontline forces exposed. Using exterior lines, Russia is also better able to concentrate forces to overwhelm and defeat Ukrainian units at critical points. Furthermore, any successes can be reinforced, bringing local numerical superiority that the Ukrainians are unable to match. The movement of elements from the 336th Naval Infantry Brigade into the south of Ukraine is early evidence of this.

Altogether, this suggests that Russia has deliberately pursued a strategy of exterior lines in the hope of dividing and thereby weakening Ukrainian resistance. As stated above, the Russian army has positioned itself to defeat Ukraine’s military in line with the goal of ‘demilitarisation’.

The Ukrainians, given that they are surrounded by multiple axes of advance, are effectively defending on interior lines. The primary advantage of defending from a central position is an ability to exploit shorter lines of advance to concentrate forces against individual pincers of the Russian advance quicker than the Russians – operating on exterior lines – can reinforce them. To visualise this, one might consider how moving from the centre of a circle to two opposite points on its periphery is quicker than travelling along its circumference. In tandem with harassment by irregulars, forces operating on interior lines can achieve decisive results. Irregulars harassing an opponent’s supply routes can exacerbate the difficulties of moving forces between the individual axes of an advance on exterior lines, as well as frustrating attempts to resupply forces. They can thus set the conditions for the conventional component of a weaker force to exploit its ability to concentrate more quickly on interior lines to counterattack decisively on a chosen axis. As shown by examples like the communist campaigns against the nationalists in the Chinese Civil War, this can prove highly effective against materially stronger opponents. However, to do this, forces operating on interior lines need to exploit their shorter lines of advance and be highly selective about where they counterattack. This, in turn, means tactically sacrificing territory on occasion.

Lessons for Analysts and Planners

Though it is too early to predict the outcome of a dynamic conflict, if Ukrainian forces do risk encirclement, this will be a salutary lesson for analysts in several ways. Firstly, our initial focus on Kyiv, despite the Russians pursuing this objective in tandem with a much broader encirclement, highlights the risk of tunnel vision, whereby specific objectives are viewed in separation from their context. Secondly, an emphasis on the impressive results achieved by Ukrainian forces at the tactical level, and the immense losses sustained by Russian ground forces, may have come at the expense of a focus on the operational level of warfare. This overemphasis on tactical-level results has historically been a challenge – one that bedevilled Cold War plans such as the active defence concept – and should be guarded against by analysts and planners in the future. It is apparent from the operational situation discussed above that the Ukrainian forces are suffering setbacks, and open-source evidence of this is lacking. It follows that the situation is at best being misrepresented, and that a balanced assessment in this case will require a degree of patience from analysts.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Sam Cranny-Evans

Associate Fellow

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Dr Sidharth Kaushal

Senior Research Fellow, Sea Power

Military Sciences

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