A total Russian collapse is surprisingly close


Ukraine can retake Crimea and bring about the total implosion of Putin’s forces, but only with our support

Richard Kemp

28 February 2023 •

As Moscow’s latest offensive in Ukraine slowly but bloodily cranks up, the next phase of this ghastly war has well and truly arrived. Contrary to expectations, the Ukrainians are bravely, and successfully, resisting the tens of thousands of fresh Russian recruits being thrown at them. Nevertheless, according to many Western observers, the chances of a total Russian collapse in the coming year are slim.

I am less certain; we could be surprised. Far from being cowed, Zelensky’s government is emboldened. Kyiv is openly preparing its own major thrust against Russian ground forces in the spring. Vadym Skibitsky, Ukraine’s deputy military intelligence chief, said this week that this counter-offensive will aim to “drive a wedge” between Crimea and the Russian mainland. The Ukrainians are determined to, in his words, “liberate all occupied territories – including Crimea”.

Now, General Ben Hodges, former commander of US forces in Europe, has devised a strategy he believes would not only enable Ukraine to retake Crimea, but would precipitate a total Russian military implosion.

His suggestion is as follows: isolate the peninsula by precision strikes against the two land routes connecting it with Russian territory – the Kerch bridge and the corridor that runs along the Azov sea. Then follow up with a large-scale armoured drive towards the Azov, penetrating Russian defences north of Crimea, bringing rocket and artillery systems into closer range. Russian air, ground and naval forces in the peninsula would then be reduced by precision strike and bombardment, until the point when Ukrainian forces could launch a ground offensive along the Perekop Isthmus and into Crimea.

This concerted attack against the peninsula – isolating it, neutralising and inflicting severe damage against its military infrastructure by long range strikes – would be a major blow for Russian morale. In the absence of decisive battlefield success elsewhere, it would represent a defeat for Moscow that it could not disguise, and could lead to collapse of Russian forces in the field and even to Putin’s downfall.

I agree that this is desirable. But – as so often in this war – without boosting our support, it is unachievable. Even this more limited operation would demand massively increased Western assistance, including many more tanks than have been promised, much larger quantities of ammunition, as well as long-range missile systems which so far have not been provided at all. This additional support would have to be sustained and that would mean stepping up defence industrial production in the US and Europe beyond what has been contemplated so far in this war.

To achieve this is a question of political will on the Continent, one that remains shaky. There are signs now of European leaders pushing Zelensky towards peace talks with Russia rather than the defeat of Moscow’s invasion. That was the message delivered directly to the Ukrainian leader in Paris recently by President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Both their countries have said they will not be providing new types of weapons this year. All talk at the moment is of future security assistance and guarantees to Ukraine from Nato after the war ends, as a means of pressuring Zelensky into an accommodation.

Putin recognises this wavering of Western support for Ukrainian offensive action and will be encouraged to press forward his own offensive to maximise territorial gains in advance of any potential negotiations. He is unlikely to achieve his full objectives on the battlefield, but neither will he willingly surrender what he now holds, which is significantly greater Ukrainian territory than when the war began.

With Ukraine denied the resources for decisive success, the scene would then be set for a period of relative quiet followed by the next round of Russian aggression. General Hodges’s plan for Crimea may be overly optimistic, but he is absolutely right to suggest that long-term peace is contingent on Russian battlefield defeat. The scenario that Nato leaders are now planning equals the vanquishment of the West and the emboldenment of both Russia and China. It is a crying shame when the possibility of a total Russian collapse remains within reach.

Colonel Richard Kemp is a former infantry commander


  1. Selected comments from DT readers:

    Tom Archer
    “The Franco German approach is massively behind the curve. One by one, countries that have previously sat on the fence are now betting against Moscow. In the past week Thailand has supported the UN resolution, despite a lot of Russian tourist revenue, and Saudi has sent a top level government member to Kyiv with a promise of half a billion in assistance.
    On the other hand, the Biden administration’s continued attempts to spoil for a scrap with China continue unabated and are really unhelpful. Their latest accusation, that China is planning to supply Moscow with military kit, has been vocally rubbished by Ukraine’s head of intelligence, who says the only country shipping arms to Russia is Iran, with a few minor items coming from N. Korea.
    China has no interest in supporting Putin’s war, and their twelve point plan for ending it, which was prematurely rubbished; only fell short on the matter of reparations and a lack of clarity as to how the principles it set out would apply to Taiwan.
    In terms of strategy, isolating Crimea has a lot of virtue, but the civilians who live there must not be left to starve, as that could sway overseas opinion in Russia’s favour. Destroying the Kerch bridge now would be a good move, as Putin sets a lot of personal store by it (the previous explosion was almost certainly caused by a badly loaded Russian munitions truck, rather than a targeted attack)
    Once the perception gains traction in Russia that the war is going to be lost, the chances of the military ousting Putin will rise dramatically.
    Russia’s armed forces have been massively embarrassed by this conflict, and will doubtless want to pin the blame on government failure to adequately equip them rather than their own lack of discipline.”

    William Stewart
    “General Mark Milley is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. According to the New York Times, Milley has argued in internal meetings that Ukraine was unlikely to make substantially greater battlefield gains and should move to the bargaining table. There is also pressure on Biden to clarify the lengths of his support for Ukraine, and whether he would back Zelensky if he tried ti retake Crimea. Americans are almost evenly divided on the question of whether the US should support Ukraine for “as long as it takes” or urge Kyiv to settle for peace “as soon as possible.”

    Andrew Landriani
    “Absolutely right! Russia must lose absolutely, and be seen to lose absolutely! Otherwise a new european war is inevitable. By funding Ukraine’s liberation from Russian occupation the west would be avoiding that war and its consequences, as well as – in all likelihood – avoiding a war in the South China Sea (the Chinese Communist leadership arent stupid)!”

    Reply to Andrew Landriani
    From John Radford
    “And Russia must be identified as the parish international state that it is : no rapid reintegration into the international community, and full reparations to Ukraine and the West.”

    Gary Simeral
    “As a US taxpayer, I want to know why my country is supplying more aid than all of Europe combined. Europe needs to step up to plate and open up their treasuries and the EU must start providing financial aid.”

    Reply from Kathy Charlton
    “To be honest, a lot of people over here agree with you. Macron and Scholz are clearly Russian useful idiots, one deluded into thinking he’s a world statesman and the other addicted to Russian Gas.”

    Reply to Gary Simeral
    Andrew Landriani
    “Great Britain was the first to provide critical aid, and in significant quantities, when all that came out of Washington was platitudes. The US has now caught up, thankfully, and so the comparisons must be considered in that framework.”

  2. “A total Russian collapse is surprisingly close”

    This reminds me of a few other pipe dreams, like putler being close to croak due to illness, the people starting demonstrations due to growth of poverty, the infighting getting out of hand, and so forth.

    • It’s quite possible that a collapse is coming soon. I don’t see a way to accurately predict when, however. As the old joke goes about bankruptcy, it happens slowly then suddenly, no one knew that the USSR was about to collapse when it did.

      With Putin spending men like water, something may happen soon. Emphasis on “may.”

      • I know that I called it a pipedream, but I dream this scenario, nevertheless. I hope you’re right!

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