In a scene from the 1994 movie The Shawshank Redemption two prison inmates, Andy and ‘Red’ discuss their future. Red is ‘institutionalized’ and seems content to spend the rest of his life behind bars under the thumb of the Head Warden. Andy, wrongly convicted for the murder of his wife and her lover makes the decision to take matters into his own hands by escaping, and says, “It comes down to a simple choice, get busy living or get busy dying.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made his own decision to “get busy living,” in preparing to move beyond Bakhmut and take the fight to the Russians. Now, with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Spring offensive in the Donbas is nearing culmination, Zelensky draws closer to launching a Ukrainian counter offensive which will ensure that it is the Russian army who has to “get busy dying.”
Rather than just sitting, waiting in their defensive positions in Bakhmut for the next Russian assault Zelensky’s Generals are building combat power, stockpiling ammunition, and training Ukraine’s army to launch its own counter offensive to drive Putin and his generals out of Ukraine. Kyiv’s aim is unambiguous: restore territorial integrity and secure peace for the country on Zelensky’s terms. To achieve that, the two most crucial targets for any counter offensive would be Bakhmut and Crimea.
According to Mykhailo Podolyak, advisor to the head of the presidential office, the spring counter offensive could occur as early as within the next two months. This assessment was echoed by Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov who said, “Ukraine will launch a counteroffensive during April-May, attacking Russian forces in several directions at once.” In the meantime, plans are being finalized and rehearsed. Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi and Commander of the Ground Forces, Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, have shown high levels of strategic and tactical nous, directing an effort almost on the scale and of the importance of the Normandy and Inchon invasions of World War II and the Korean War.
The Bakhmut Scenario
The ongoing bloody battle for Bakhmut continues to defy military logic. Most western military planners and analysts will say the city lacks any strategic value. By definition it is not considered key terrain, yet by the actions of both Zelensky and Putin, it has become decisive terrain. Zelensky declared the need for victory in Bakhmut to be decisive, shortly after the release of a video in early March showing the brutal murder of Oleksandr Matsievsky. Soon thereafter, following a meeting with Generals Zaluzhnyi and Syrskyi, Zelensky ordered immediate reinforcements to defend Bakhmut, proclaiming “there is no part of Ukraine about which one can say that it can be abandoned.”
Zelensky then symbolically planted his own Ukrainian flag in the center of Bakhmut weeks later on Mar. 22 when he pointedly returned to Bakhmut to visit his front-line soldiers. Video, of the Ukrainian president taking selfies and handing out military awards, invoked memories of the image of a poster from World War II that read: “I'm the 82nd Airborne, and this is as far as the bastards are going." The poster showed a dirty, scrappy, tough paratrooper, PFC Vernon Haught, of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment, marching in the dead of that cold, snowy winter on his way to reinforce the retreating American forces in Belgium. His expression left no doubt about his determination. It is the same bulldog sentiment that makes Zelensky and his military so fiercely determined to deny Putin victorying Bakhmut.
The battle for the city has began in May 2022, for which Putin has invested significant human capital and national prestige attempting to capture. According to the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, since Jan 1 , Russian losses, mainly in Donbas, include 66,180 Russian soldiers killed along with the destruction of 579 tanks, 890 armored personnel carriers and 650 artillery systems. The inability to capture the city may have cost him the only winning hand he still had in Ukraine: Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group. Infighting between the mercenary group, on one side and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chief of the Russian General Staff General Valery Gerasimov, on the other has fractured any unity of effort that previously existed. Consequently, Putin’s push into the Donbas has been significantly weakened, and as a result, is now patently vulnerable.
Despite the losses, the Russians keep coming, one human wave assault after another, with little to show for it except for thousands of soldiers returning home in body bags. While reports suggest the situation in Bakhmut is stabilizing, in Ukraine’s favor, the Russians are fighting similar battles using the same antiquated WWI-like trench warfare in other Ukrainian towns: Novokalynove, Lastochkyne, Pervomaiske, Avdiivka, Nevelske, and Sieverne Tonenke.
Frequently, Russian battlefield failures are followed by reprisal ballistic missile and drone attacks on civilian population centers. Despite these crushing setbacks, it does not appear Putin intends to let up. On Mar. 15, the Russian Defence Ministry announced its intent to add an additional 400,000 new recruits to its formations beginning Apr. 1. The Kremlin’s strategy is to continue feeding the
‘Ukrainian meat grinder.’ Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s Press Secretary, essentially confirmed this strategy when he stated, "the hybrid war of unfriendly countries against the Russian Federation will last for a long time.” Ukraine cannot afford a prolonged war, nor can they allow time for Russian forces to regenerate.
The Next Step
During his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Mar. 28, United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Ukraine had a "very good chance at launching a successful counteroffensive during the spring.” His comments were optimistic, and they should be, after all Ukraine is in the process of receiving German Leopard 2 Main Battle Tanks (MBT), British Challenger 2 MBTs, U.S. Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles, artillery systems, ammunition, fresh troops, and trained crews. All tools of the trade necessary to conduct a “limited” combined arms counteroffensive. The U.S. and its “Old NATO” partners, would prefer to see that counteroffensive take place in the Donbas.
But a ‘successful counteroffensive’ in the Donbas, as Retired Army Lieutenant General and former Commander, U.S. Army Europe Ben Hodges has stated, will not win the war. It may, however, bring Russia to the negotiation table, something General Mark Milley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has stated on multiple occasions as being the most likely conclusion to the war. Arming Ukraine to fight a defensive war appears to have marginally transitioned to arming them to retake the Donbas, with the same outcome, a negotiated settlement – not a win.
Hodges correctly asserts, "You could kill every Russian within 200 kilometers of Bakhmut and it would not change the strategic outcome, but you liberate Crimea and then I think you completely change the entire strategic context." He rightly continues to emphasize the "liberation of Crimea" as being the "decisive" end game for the war, concluding “Ukraine wins by liberating Crimea.” If Russia loses Crimea, it will mean a substantial loss of influence in terms of dominance and power projection over the Black Sea region, as well as exposure of Russia’s southernmost borders.
To begin that process, Hodges argues, Ukraine must make the peninsula untenable with precision deep strikes on key military facilities, headquarters, and the Kerch bridge – the military supply chain lifeline back to Russia. Simply put, setting conditions for the eventual assault on Crimea requires the precision deep strike capability of the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and F16 fighter jets. Both of which, presently, Ukraine does not have because of Washington’s hand wringing.
Fear of escalation, once again, is causing angst within the Biden Administration. Playing off those fears, the Kremlin in February declared any invasion of the peninsula to be a red line. Putin then suspended Russia’s participation in the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty with the U.S., and most recently announced the transfer of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus. By caving into these fears, Washington is denying Kyiv the precision deep strike capability it needs to retake Crimea, thereby nudging Zelensky and his generals towards the Donbas and away from Putin’s red line.
The end state in Bakhmut, as Hodges suggests, will not likely determine who will win the war, but may define who can continue to fight it. Resources committed to secure and defend the city by both countries have depleted troop strength, weapon systems and ammunition stockpiles, while exhausting front line soldiers. It will come down to who can get their “second wind” fastest, then who can outmaneuver the other. As it stands now, the advantage goes to Ukraine.
A Donbas First Strategy
Given the constraints imposed upon Ukraine by the U.S., it is likely that, as Reznikov stated, Ukraine will attack Russian forces from “multiple directions” to keep the Russian army off balance. Kyiv, however, will likely implement a Donbas first strategy. The Donbas will be the main effort (ME) initially, with concurrent advancement towards Crimea being one supporting effort (SE), and a second SE would serve as a fixing force along the Belarus border to prevent a spoiling attack on the capital city of Kyiv. Much like the U.S. tactic of ‘shock and awe’, displayed during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Ukraine must rapidly achieve fire superiority, coupled with coordinated maneuver and speed to overwhelm a demoralized Russian army.
Zelensky Will Not Accept Putin’s Crimean Red Line
The SE advancing towards Crimea will become the ME when the Russian army in the Donbas has been defeated and destroyed. As the SE, their task is to create the conditions necessary to assault Crimea. Without the benefit of precision deep strike capability, they will be reliant upon the U.S. supplied HIMARS – with its range of 70 kilometers, to support advancement. Aircraft supplied by Poland and Slovakia, in addition to Ukraine’s current inventory of fighter jets, will be critical in providing close air support in what will likely be the most hotly contested battle of the war.
Any advance into Crimea could bottleneck in the Perekop Isthmus – a narrow land bridge connecting Crimea to Ukraine mainland, then in the restricted terrain to its immediate south where extensive obstacles, tied into several bodies of water, will channelize movement, creating lucrative targets for Russian artillery. Effective targeting, counter-battery firing, extensive engineering support, and speed will be necessary to get through this kill zone quickly, then rapidly maneuver to the southern end of the peninsula to defeat and destroy the Russian defenders.
None of this will be easy. Zelensky will have to be at his finest as an inspirational military commander-in-chief. During the Normandy invasion on June 6th, 1944, U.S. troops from the 29th Infantry Division were pinned down on Omaha beach by withering German fire. To get them moving again, U.S. Army Major General Norman Daniel “Dutch” Cota, Sr. went forward to rally the troops, telling them, “Gentlemen, we are being killed on the beaches. Let’s go inland and be killed.” Zelensky has already had his “Dutch” Cota moment when he returned to Bakhmut to rally the troops and many more such rallying cries will be needed in the months ahead as Ukraine expels Russia.
Like the Warden in Shawshank, the tables will soon be turned on Putin and Gerasimov. For Zelensky and Ukraine, it is time to remind Putin of the Warden’s fate – he killed himself as justice closed in to arrest him. For now, however, it is time for more “busy living” by Zelensky and his wily fighting forces and that means taking the offensive with bold, aggressive, and violent action – the only actions Putin and his acolytes understand.
Copyright 2023. Jonathan E. Sweet and Mark C. Toth. All rights reserved.
Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022.
Mark Toth is a retired economist and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing, and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg, and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL.
The views expressed in this opinion article are those of the the authors and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.
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