How Ukraine wins

Andrew Tanner. Jan 26

With allied arsenals finally opening for real, Russia’s war on Ukraine is utterly doomed.

The Leopards are free at last! Abrams and Challengers, maybe even French Leclercs, will begin to equip Ukraine’s armored forces in the coming months.

Basic plan for how Ukraine wins in 2023, even if Russia opens a new front. Base image from Liveuamap

Fighter jets seem likely to follow in the coming weeks. Like a glacial outburst, the yearlong hesitation by Ukraine’s allies has transformed into an all-out push to rebuild its battered armed forces.

And not a moment too soon. In fact it’s likely already too late to prevent thousands of Ukrainian casualties in the upcoming months. Ukraine’s partners have only ever escalated their deliveries of modern kit when a Russian offensive was imminent, and now appears to be no different.

In the month before Putin’s forces launched their bum rush on Kyiv, Ukraine got Javelin and NLAW portable anti-tank systems. It was only a few weeks before Russian forces began their artillery-led push across the Siverski Donets at Sievierodonetsk that Kyiv began to receive its own modern artillery and, most famously, rocket systems.

A lifetime of close study of military campaigns and the dynamics of strategy have convinced me that Russia is about to unleash a new offensive that corrects many of the mistakes that plagued the assaults last February. I strongly suspect that Russia will strike with all its remaining power well before Spring.

Ukraine’s leadership has already said that it appears Russia wants to launch a new round of major assaults between January and March, so it is very odd that articles keep talking about upcoming Spring offensives. Heavy combat and the rapid movement of military forces is extremely limited in this part of the world by the rain and mud common in the months of April and May.

Based on the time it takes to build out the training and logistics infrastructure Ukraine will have to establish to support all the new gear it is slated to get, it will be June before Ukraine can mount a major push. Likewise, based on the amount of time training courses for Russian draftees appears to last, the end of January probably marks the first moment Russia can amass sufficient bodies and equipment massed to launch a major attack of its own.

While Ukraine might certainly pursue localized counteroffensives against Russia now that it knows resupply is coming, most of Ukraine’s troops still appear to be fighting near Bakhmut at the moment. The final offensive that will decide this war will almost certainly come during the summer of 2023 and no sooner.

Meanwhile, the strategic position for Russia has now, at last, deteriorated to the point Putin has to secure major gains his forces can then try to hold through a long, blood-drenched summer and beyond. Though the effects of sanctions have been dramatically overblown, and there is no real hard evidence that Russia is actually short of standard military supplies like artillery ammunition, it is still true that Russia can’t churn through bodies — or cruise missiles — forever.

As tightly as Putin clings to power, his position ultimately relies solely on terror. He keeps subordinates squabbling with each other, just like Hitler did, to avoid anyone else consolidating a following.

He survives on the illusion of invincibility, which the debacle in Ukraine has mostly shattered. Putin has just one chance left to prove Russia has the might to beat Ukraine, or else it will become questionable as to whether it can even survive NATO hostility in the coming years no matter if it manages to secure the territory it has stolen from Ukraine.

Putin now needs to secure a victory of sufficient magnitude over Ukraine, in terms of additional territory seized and casualties inflicted, to avoid being toppled after a ceasefire is called. Donbas and the land bridge to Crimea may not be enough at this point even if Ukraine were to cede them.

By June, if not before, Russia will be forced to turn almost entirely to defense across the whole front. Ukraine will never stop trying to liberate its lost lands, so the absolute best case scenario Moscow can hope for is to stalemate Ukraine until its foreign allies lose the will to back it.

Luckily, Europe appears to be withstanding Russia’s energy war better than expected. Economic weapons once again prove far less potent than military ones in decisive moments.

So even when the United States eventually turns inward and consumes itself, the will clearly exists in Europe to support Ukraine until Russia’s aggression ends. The threat Putin’s Russia poses to all its neighbors won’t be ignored again, and at best can hope to become a resource colony for China going forward.

More likely, it will descend into civil war and split into city states. Not because of any dastardly NATO plot — America and NATO are far too incompetent to pull off any grand scheme like that — but because the logic of Russia as a nation itself no longer holds.

After a year of writing obsessively about the Ukraine war, it is both gratifying and terrifying to be proven mostly right. I did underestimate Ukraine’s ability to resist, though not nearly as much as most American and western European professionals. But overall, looking back at the book’s worth of pieces I’ve moved over to Rogue Systems Recon on Substack, my systems paradigm is proving to be rather powerful.

I believe it is now possible to predict, within certain bounds, how the war will go in 2023 — and how Ukraine wins its fight for freedom.

Part 1 — Russia Strikes Back

Whether to achieve its minimum aim of taking the territories it has annexed from Ukraine or Putin’s true long-term goal of destroying Zelensky’s regime, the Russian military must defeat Ukraine’s. When Clausewitz famously said that war is politics continued by other means, he was hinting at a systematic unity between politics and war that more or less boils down to the two being the same exact thing.

Violence is a tactic, not the essence of a conflict. Once strategic goals are set, operations unfold to carry the intent of the leadership towards a logical conclusion. If Putin could have sent police into Kyiv to arrest Zelensky on day one without bombing anything, he would have.

But Ukraine has agency too, and both its officials and people rejected Putin’s claim to the right to do that. They fought back, so to achieve his goals, Putin chose to embrace the brutal violence we have all witnessed this past cruel year.

This basic situation remains — Putin has been unable to succeed, and now trapped by his own investment and rhetoric he cannot lose. Escalation until Putin’s inner circle or military turns on him is his only way out barring a Russian victory no one can now tolerate.

Ukraine is set to grow stronger and its forces ever more modern, while Russia is basically reverting to a 1970s Soviet war machine augmented by nuggets of high technology. More and more this year, the Russian Army will start to look like Iraq’s did in 1991.

The nature of the situation dictates that Russia must secure what wins it can while it can. As winter can only be relied on to last until late March, that means February and March are going to be hot, in military terms.

I expect to see every asset at Russia’s disposal leveraged in a brutal, shock and awe style assault designed to surround Ukraine’s main fighting forces in the east and cut them off from supplies. Only by defeating or holding them hostage, in addition to credibly threatening to take more territory even than Russia has claimed, can prevent Ukraine’s summer counteroffensives from reaching the Azov Sea and eventually isolating Crimea.

Russia’s basic plan for winter… not that different than the one from last year, though better prepared, I fear. Base image from Liveuamap

The only question that remains is where Russia will commit the 100–200,000 soldiers who have been training and re-equipping in Russia and Belarus over the past three months. Wagner has been used as a kind of meat shield for the regular Russian army, holding Ukrainian forces down along the Bakhmut front so they can’t quickly deploy elsewhere.

My personal suspicion is that Russia will strike west of Kharkiv, where there are few Ukrainian units deployed, intending to steamroll all the way to Dnipro in order to threaten Ukraine’s main supply lines heading east. However a simpler and perhaps sounder, though less ambitious, stroke could instead fall east of the city, pushing to reclaim Kupiansk and Izium.

This would only restore the same lines Russia had held back in September and which it had proven incapable of breaching. It would, however, directly support the frontal assault through Bakhmut, while a move west of Kharkiv would be its own separate operation.

I don’t believe that Russia can win whatever it does though, and expect Ukraine to bog down and defeat whatever attack comes by early summer. Putin’s goal will be to force Ukraine to expend vast amounts of blood and equipment just to reverse Russia’s gains in February and March, hoping this will lead to a reduction in supplies from abroad and a chance to stalemate Ukraine’s advances during summer.

Part 2 — Ukraine Takes Revenge

The basic flaw in Putin’s assault on Ukraine has always been the idea that Russia could simply absorb a hostile neighbor without destroying itself in the process. While being forced to wage an insurgency would have been effectively the same as a loss for Ukraine, Russia has always lacked the troops to lock down a country the size of Ukraine.

In the end, Putin would have had to partition Ukraine to control what he could, and likely now aims to seize everything east of the Dnipro for Russia. This means that no matter what strategy he adopts, it will always fall apart eventually because the costs of occupying a hostile land are just too high to sustain.

Ukraine, therefore, will take back its lands —it’s only a matter of time and cost. Armed with up to ten brigades worth of modern equipment, It will be possible by June to concentrate the majority of them along a vulnerable sector of the front and smash it completely.

To defeat Russia and force Putin’s successor to commit to meaningful negotiations and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine’s 1991 borders, Ukraine must surround and defeat a major Russian military formation, ideally forcing thousands of Russian soldiers to surrender. Actually liberating territory is secondary to the basic task of proving the Russian military incapable of achieving the goals Putin sets for it in Ukraine, whatever these are.

Wars are not won by occupying territory, but by destroying the opponent’s ability to resist. Once Russia’s munitions and morale are spent, throwing manpower into the meat grinder won’t work anymore because explosives can kill with far greater efficiency than fleshy bodies can make it through a barrage.

Because Putin places such a premium on controlling Crimea, Ukraine likely does not have to fight its way through the urban terrain of Donetsk to end this war. All Kyiv has to do is effectively cut Crimea off from Russia and secure several beachheads on the peninsula to induce total panic on the Russian side.

This is best accomplished by a drive from Zaporizhzhia province to the Azov coast. Subsequently, an operation can disable the Kerch Strait Bridge, totally isolating Crimea. Over time, naval drones can be used to strike at ferries bringing equipment and supplies.

Once sealed off, Russian forces in Crimea and south Kherson can be slowly ground down until they have to surrender. Ukraine’s main mechanized forces will redeploy east, with isolating Mariupol and driving north towards Donetsk to unseat Russian forces holding the line of contact there being the primary goals.

At this point, it is almost certain that Putin will either have to escalate to the nuclear level or agree to negotiate. Using nuclear weapons will be intended to provoke a direct NATO military response that allows Putin to claim that Russia is under existential threat. The threat of open nuclear conflict will be leveraged to force NATO into talks over the suspension of weapons supplies.

So long as they refuse, Putin’s last card will have been played. Nuclear weapons cannot win a ground war, and using them will be an open declaration by Russia that it has lost. Putin should then find himself swiftly toppled as Russia’s elites move to protect themselves from the consequences of a nuclear exchange.

Part 3 — Dispensation Of Justice

Actually retaking Crimea and Donbas will require that Ukraine expend a truly vast quantity of blood if Putin’s regime is not toppled. And a problem with liberation is this: administering territories under Russian control for almost a decade will be incredibly dicey.

To avoid a Russia-backed insurgency from continuing the fight against Ukraine after liberation, some level of autonomy as envisioned in the original Minsk Accords is going to be necessary. Not of a kind that allows Russia any say in what goes on, but under the surface of this war remains the difficult truth that society in Ukraine will be affected for generations.

You don’t have to feel any sympathy for pro-Russian people on Ukrainian territory to know that pushing them into any kind of insurgency is a recipe for the war starting up again in ten or twenty years. This would be a tragedy on top of so many others, because in the wake of this war Europe may finally have a shot at a truly lasting peace.

The military gear being used up in Ukraine may never have to be replaced. Europe is an extremely secure part of the planet so long as its leaders are going out looking for trouble and starting colonies that make people want revenge.

What happens to Russia after the war is an open question. Whether Ukraine will receive reparations or any kind of human rights tribunal is set up to try war criminals are both impossible to know.

Frankly, the ultimate form of justice for Russia will probably come as a result of its own people demanding something new in the coming years. Already there are reports of anarchist groups cropping up in Russia to oppose Putin’s regime, and regionalism is as strong as Russia as it is in the USA, where accents mark out a person’s place of origin.

I believe it is now Russia’s fate to divide. What that looks like and how much bloodshed is required for this historic process to complete is unknown.

What I can say with certainty is this: the old gods have blessed Ukraine, and its victory is now assured. Even if Putin and Biden dramatically miscalculate and wind up in a limited nuclear exchange, Ukraine will survive.

And Europe will too. The one silver lining in this war is that it might just be the very last Europe ever sees.

And all because the people of Ukraine looked a thug in the eye and spat in his face. Then followed up with a sucker punch and a boot to Putin’s jaw.

Justice is coming soon — in truth, it has already begun.

Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes!

May someone in Russia get wise and end this misery sooner rather than later. After all, it takes only a single bullet to change the world.

One comment

  1. An insurgency can be prevented by a fairly simple move – anyone that accepted a Russian passport leaves for Russia. Anyone that gave aid an comfort to the occupation goes. They chose to be Russian, so they move to Russia. No pity can be shown. They go.

    Once Russian simps are gone, then the regions can be repopulated by loyal Ukrainians.

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