Ukraine's three likely routes of attack as the brain-dead Russian army collapses


All wars end and most wars end through negotiations. Rarely is there an out-and-out winner courtesy of the battlefield.

This war is likely to be the same, although one factor - largely unthinkable a year ago - has shown itself in recent weeks and could change that calculus: the extraordinary collapse of the Russian army.

We knew this Russian force suffered from poor training, equipment, leadership and morale. We knew it was a brittle shell surrounding a void where other armies would have built a moral core.

Even so, when stress-tested in the white heat of battle, even the most optimistic Ukrainian observers were taken aback at the abject failure of the Russian army to perform. No major objectives have been seized in nearly eight months of hard fighting.

In recent weeks, the momentum has shifted in Ukraine’s favour as its opponent's many flaws have been exploited.

Russia’s failure to establish a credible and coordinated defence in depth to the east of Kharkiv, better to absorb and suffocate any Ukrainian breakthrough, was exposed in all its raw beauty.

Ukraine’s delighted troops bullied their way through gaps as they charged east in a euphoric dash behind the lines. In so doing, they also forced salt into Russia’s many exposed and open wounds.

Soon after, in Lyman in the east and Kherson in the south, weeks of patient Ukrainian reconnaissance paid off. They had refused to become decisively engaged whilst all the time watching, noting and learning about the enemies dispositions.

The Ukrainians bypassed Russian strong points; the towns and villages from which Moscow’s troops ventured only reluctantly, terrified of leaving the relative safety of the home base.

Kyiv’s soldiers presented a terrible choice to the defenders cut off from rescue: fight on all fronts, or flee for sanctuary through a hail of fire.

It is unfair, simply wrong in fact, to say Ukraine has only managed this because of the flow of Western weapons. They have been hugely influential, of that there is no doubt, but training, belief in the military and political leadership and a cause worth dying for are just as important.

It will be months before Putin’s ridiculous mobilisation produces anything other than just more tragic entries on the ever-increasing butcher's bill. Kyiv’s superior tactics in the face of a larger but ultimately brain-dead enemy could show how this war will end.

The question increasingly being asked is: can the Ukrainians keep up this rate of advance? They have a number of options.

First, forget the Donbas. Russian troops are too securely dug-in. Any gains there will be symbolic only, more so in the wake of Putin’s triumphant claims of annexation, and of limited strategic value.

However, the area in Kherson oblast north of the Dnipro River, on which thousands of Putin’s troops are currently camped, is much more fertile ground for a Ukrainian offensive, given the river is to the Russians' backs with few decent routes across.

Kyiv’s soldiers will be reluctant to fight into the city; urban combat delights in chewing up bodies and equipment.

Would the symbolism of taking back the only regional capital to fall to the Russian assault outweigh the cost?

Azovstal steel plant - REUTERS
Azovstal steel plant - REUTERS

Will we see, in its decision over how to retake Kherson city, Ukraine’s likely attitude to Mariupol; a fight yet to come in a coastal city able to boast the historic defence of the Azovstal steel plant?

Alternatively, a push to the coast along the east bank of the Dnipro River, or a dash straight for Mariupol, would drive a wedge between the Russian forces in the Kherson region from those further east.

Such a move would chill hearts in Moscow, as Crimea would be in range of regular artillery as well as the long-range precision kit. Putin’s long-cherished land-bridge to the peninsula would be destroyed.

There is a very long way to go, of course. Much more blood is yet to be spilled, from civilians possibly as much as those in uniform.

But if the two recent startling advances by Ukrainian troops in the east and the south are born of the same inherent Russian weaknesses and elegant Ukrainian operational design coupled with superior generalship, there is a chance this contest could buck the historical trend for warfare and actually be decided on the battlefield.