Russia’s Withdrawal from Kyiv – what it means and what’s likely to come next – Over the weekend Russia surprised many analysts by entirely withdrawing from large sections of Ukrainian territory north and west of Kyiv. The move was widely hailed as a victory for Ukraine and Russia’s withdrawal as a “retreat.” While Kyiv’s heroic defenders deserve considerable praise for their impressive performance, the war is far from over and Russia’s redeployment of forces toward the Donbas front may ultimately expose Ukraine to greater danger.
Russia’s failure to quickly seize Kyiv can be attributed in the main to a deeply flawed strategy from the outset. One of the worst mistakes a military can make is to disperse its combat power. That is exactly what Russia did. What would have made strategic sense would have been for Russia to designate a primary theater objective and then mass its troops and firepower on attaining that goal. But in invading one of Europe’s largest countries, Moscow only allocated 200,000 troops – and then dispersed them in four separate axes of invasion.
Putin’s troops simultaneously attacked towards Kyiv, Kharkiv, the Donbas, and Kherson in the south. Though we don’t have exact numbers of troops Putin used in each axis, that would put roughly 50,000 troops towards each attack – a grossly insufficient number for any attack, especially for the capital city with its nearly 3 million residents. That dispersion of effort gave an enormous boost to the defenders.
Had Moscow designated at least one of the objectives as primary and allocated the majority of troops to that fight, they would have had a chance to overwhelm the defenders in the opening round. As it was, Putin’s strategy ensured that Ukrainian troops in each of the four axes had enough troops to blunt all four advances. Added to the strategic failures, however, was also tactical blunders that are hard to fathom.
There are so many battle studies from Russian armored warfare experiences in World War II that would have clearly taught the Kremlin’s forces how to effectively conduct tank warfare in the modern era. They could also have studied in detail American operations in Desert Storm in 1991 and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Even the Armenia-Azerbaijan War of 2020 offered stark lessons in how to – and how not to – fight contemporary battles. Russia seems to have ignored them all.
They did not coordinate their assaults even within individual battle groups, much less between their air force, army, and missile forces. Tanks were sent into areas without infantry support and poorly coordinated attacks – something Russia did to horrific results in the first Chechen War in 1994. Their communications gear is vastly inadequate and Russian logistics systems were poorly designed (and performed badly in any case).
With access to so much historical experience and many years with which to prepare detailed plans for attacking specific targets in Ukraine, it is difficult to understand how Russia could have made so many avoidable errors. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Ukraine’s admirable performance thus far, coupled with Russia’s withdrawal from Kyiv, indicates that that President Zelensky’s troops are in position to win the war.
It now appears that Russian leaders are belatedly recognizing their many strategic and tactical mistakes and are making adjustments for the next phase of the war. Moscow now appears has prioritized the Donbas front as the number one priority. All other fights have been either abandoned or moved to secondary status. This fight, in fact, is shaping up as potentially decisive and could have significant ramifications for how the entire war will play out.
The armored units withdrawing from Kyiv are heading towards the Donbas. Moscow’s troops are on the verge of completely capturing Mariupol in the south and will soon turn their attention to the Donbas as well. Since the opening salvos of the war, Russian troops on the Donbas front have been slowly making progress against the frontline units of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF). There are reportedly 40,000 or more Ukrainian troops in a pocket forming on the western side of the Donbas front. If Russia succeeds in encircling the UAF troops, they can be systematically cut off and either starved of supplies or destroyed over time.
The Russian armored troops that left Kyiv and environs are likely headed to attack the norther wing of the UAF defenses around Donbas and the Kremlin’s troops leaving the Mariupol fight will likely attack the southern wing of the UAF positions. Zelensky, meanwhile, recognizes the looming danger and has reportedly ordered reinforcements to drive east from Kyiv to join the UAF defending the Donbas. It will be a race and contest of wills to see which side can prevail.
As has been well chronicled, Russia has suffered egregious levels of casualties in both troops and equipment. Their striking power has been greatly diminished from that which they had at the start of the war. For the Russians to launch a new offensive against the north and south wings of the Donbas front, the troops coming from Kyiv and Mariupol will need at least a week to 10 days to rest, resupply, and conduct maintenance on its equipment. The entire Donbas strike group will need additional resupply for the major push. The Ukraine side, however, has challenges of its own.
Ironically, the lines of communication and resupply routes are easier for the Russians than the Ukrainians in their own country. Russia’s logistic supply lines run through friendly lines and have thus far been completely free of enemy interdiction. Ukraine has to send reinforcements and logistics across hundreds of kilometers to get to the front, and every part of the journey is subject to Russian air attack, drone strikes, and long-range rocket fire.
Many in the West are also unaware that Ukrainian combat losses are at least equivalent to Russian losses, but in some categories are worse, because Russia still has greater ability to fly fighters and bombers, and definitely has an advantage in heavy artillery. It is also unclear how many trained troops Ukraine has to reinforce their side of the Donbas front as compared to what Russia can bring to bear.
In all likelihood, the battle for Donbas will kick into a higher gear in the middle to latter part of this month. Putin appears to now recognize his entire operation hinges on winning at Donbas and cutting off those 40,000 Ukrainian troops. Zelensky is definitely aware of how precarious his position would be if he loses the Donbas. Both sides will be fighting with a sense of desperation. The devastation inflicted on the Ukrainian countryside may exceed that of Irpin and Mariupol.
While I have been outspoken in my contention that the best course for all involved would be to seek an immediate ceasefire and eventual negotiated settlement, all evidence points to the likelihood that Zelensky believes he has a chance to eventually wear down Russian troops. He may resist reaching an immediate agreement in the belief he can gain more territory in a settlement if he wins Donbas. Putin almost certainly is in no hurry to negotiate, in the belief he’ll be in the superior negotiating position if it is he who wins the Donbas battle.
— Elvan Katmer (@ElvanKatmer) April 2, 2022
It is uncertain at this point how the Donbas and eventually the war will play out, but one thing is very certain: more Ukrainian territory will be destroyed, more Ukrainian civilians, and many more troops on both sides of the line are going to die as a result. It is a tragedy of the highest order because it is a certainty that this war will end in a negotiated settlement of some sort. It is likely that the final terms won’t be much different than those that both sides might have reached to avoid a war prior to February, and likely won’t be much different regardless of who wins the next major battle. It is painful to watch as more and more people die for a war that almost certainly won’t solve anything, for either side.
A 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him Twitter: @DanielLDavis1.