As a stage-setter for this analysis of Russia’s looming winter offensive, I have previously evaluated limited objective options Putin might choose, and then the likely preparation phase of an all-out war scenario. In this final edition, I will lay out what I contend is the most dangerous course of action Ukraine could face: a ground campaign to deprive Ukraine of its lifeblood from the West.
(Watch the author of this Ukraine war analysis, U.S. Army LT. Colonel (Retired) Daniel Davis. Davis is a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.)
As a disclaimer right up front, I will concede that I have no knowledge of any secret Russian plans and have no idea if this is what Putin will do. What I represent in this analysis, however, is that given the force dispositions of both sides, the geography of Ukraine, Russia, and Belorussia, and the current status of each side’s army, what follows represents the gravest danger to Ukraine and one possible scenario; there are a virtually unlimited number of alternatives.
At a minimum, however, Kyiv must account for the possibilities described below in its winter defensive plans.
Triple-Axis Advance in Ukraine
Aside from insufficient troops numbers in February, Russia’s biggest strategic mistake was attempting to invest Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, and Kharkiv simultaneously in the north. The only chance that had of success would have been if Zelensky panicked and surrendered merely at the sight of Russian tanks. When that didn’t happen, the initial Russian plan was doomed. In this scenario, Putin recognizes that the number of troops he has for the task remains insufficient to capture large cities – and that he doesn’t need to capture major cities to succeed.
Instead, what he may seek to do is identify and then take out the Ukrainian center of gravity. This is a term made famous in Western military circles by Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. In the early Nineteenth Century, von Clausewitz wrote the book On War in which he defined the center of gravity as being “the hub of all power and movement (of the enemy), on which everything depends.”
Meaning, in war, the overall objective should be to deprive the enemy of the one thing he must maintain to win the war. A belligerent’s objective in war, von Clausewitz explained, must be to strike his enemy “using superior strength” against his enemy’s weakness, “constantly seeking out the center of his power.” Only by “daring all to win all,” he concluded, “will one really defeat the enemy.”
In my assessment, Ukraine’s unquestioned strategic center of gravity is its western corridors to the Polish border where the vast majority of its war support enters the country. Their operational center of gravity is their resupply lines emanating eastwards from Kyiv to Ukraine’s various frontline positions. Without those two corridors, it would be nearly impossible for Kyiv to sustain wartime operations for more than a few weeks.
Putin, therefore, may calculate the best use of those 218,000 additional troops will be to launch a three-pronged axis to cut both of those supply routes: the priority effort in the west out of Belarus with the objective of Lviv, a supporting effort to the northeast in the Sumy direction, and supporting axis from the east to reinforce the current offensive in the Donbas.
Lviv Axis (Main Effort, 40% of available troops)
A Russian attack out of southeast Belorussia with the objective of Lviv would represent the greatest strategic threat to the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF). Virtually all of the UAF’s weapons, ammunition, and repair parts enter the country from Poland through several land routes towards Kyiv. If Russia were to cut these routes off by attacking along the Polish/Ukraine border down to Lviv, Russia could cut off the majority of the shipments of war material from the West, without which Kyiv would not long be able to sustain its forces at the frontlines in the eastern part of Ukraine.
There are available rail lines in Belarus that could transport and then sustain a Russian incursion there, and already there have been reports of Russian forces building up in the Brest region. At the moment, the vast majority of Ukraine’s combat forces are concentrated in the southeast (near Zaporizhia), the east (Donbas) and northeast (Svatavo). If Russia made a major unexpected push, with up to 75,000 combat forces, they would have a real chance at plunging roughly 250km to Lviv.
If Russia attained strategic surprise, Ukraine would have to try and hold off the Russian advance with whatever forces it could muster from the west of the country, as it would likely take weeks to move meaningful combat power from the east of the country to the west (and as described in the section below on Donbas Axis, putting combat troops from the eastern fronts would risk a Russian breakthrough from the east) – and that would imply Kyiv would have the capacity to move troops across country, as Russia has already severely disrupted Ukraine’s energy system and any new missile attacks could outright destroy it.
Russia would not intend to attack Lviv, but rather isolate it by creating a blocking position east of the city to cut off the M10 Highway and prevent any supplies reaching the UAF from the Polish border. If properly resourced and sufficient strategic surprise is gained, this axis would have a reasonable chance of successfully attacking to blocking positions west of Lviv. The bigger challenge for Russia would be to keep the corridor from the Belarus border secure and its forces supplied, however, as Ukraine would no doubt throw everything it had to cutting off the penetration. To limit Kyiv’s ability to focus all its reinforcements on the Lviv Axis, Russia would simultaneously launch an axis in the Sumy area.
Sumy Axis (Supporting Effort, 40% of available troops)
Russia made an initial assault in the Sumy region in February, and Ukraine currently mans newly created defensive barriers to slow down any future Russian advance in this direction. Moscow would either choose less densely manned entry points or plan on a major push through contested zones near the border. The initial push in this axis would be similar to the February path, which will create uncertainty in the Ukrainian Command as to the objective of this axis.
Initial penetrations will put Russian columns on a route that could lead to Kyiv. It would be very difficult for the Ukrainian authorities to conclude anything besides it being a new push on the capital, and they would likely send whatever reinforcements that were available in the region racing to defend Kyiv. But once Russia’s leading elements reach somewhere around the town of Pryluky, about 150km from the capital, they would turn south, with the objective of Blahodatny, on the northern bank of the Dnipro River.
As with the Lviv axis, the Sumy axis will be composed of approximately 75,000 troops with the ultimate objective of creating a corridor to the Dnipro River so as to cut off all connections and resupply routes with Kyiv and its forward armies in the Kharkiv, Donbas, and Zaporizhia fronts. Also, as with the Lviv axis, the Sumy axis will seek to bypass or block access to major cities. It will only seek to capture those areas necessary to ensure security of the corridor and provide security for the Russian line.
Donbas Axis (Supporting Effort, 20% of available troops)
Simultaneous with the launching of the Lviv and Sumy axes, Russia would send a major force to supplement its existing offensive in the Donbas. The intent would be to send about 40,000 of the newly created mechanized units, along with about 10,000 Russian troops freed up after withdrawing from Kherson, to attack the weakest identified flanks of the UAF in the Donbas region. The purpose of this attack will be twofold.
First, to the extent possible, the inclusion of major additional forces on weak flanks could help break the stalemates roughly existing in the Bakhmut/Adveevka direction, and possibly force Ukraine back to Seversk and Kramatorsk. But more importantly second, would be to fix all the Ukrainian troops in the Svatavo, Donbas, and Zaporizhia fronts in place so they are not able to withdraw in an effort to blunt Russia’s Lviv or Sumy axes advances.
Should Ukraine seek to thin their lines in order to send reinforcements west, they would run the risk that Russian mechanized forces accomplish a breakthrough. One of Russia’s biggest failures in the opening invasion was not to mass forces at key and decisive locations and did try to attack cities with woefully insufficient numbers of troops. That lack of mass and mutually reinforcing actions allowed Ukrainian forces to isolate the Russian advances in each area and bring the invasion to a standstill in less than three weeks.
If Russia employs a three-axes advance with its newly mobilized combat forces, added to the roughly 200,000 troops already engaged – and critically, avoids trying to invest cities – they will have a chance to focus their combat power where Ukraine is weakest, and in ways that are mutually reinforcing to other axes. This course of action would represent great risk for Zelensky’s troops, but it isn’t without significant risk for the Russians either.
Russian Risk in Ukraine
In war, nothing is guaranteed and nothing is ever easy. Despite the months of building up of combat power around Ukraine’s borders in the months prior to February, Russia still caught Ukraine by surprise when the invasion actually took place. Other than the elaborate defensive positions constructed over eight years in the Donbas, there were little other barriers to Russia’s entry on February 24. That will not be the case for the troops launching Putin’s winter offensive.
Ukraine continues to man and expand on the defensive works in the Donbas but are now constructing new defensive positions and barriers in the Sumy, Kyiv, and Lviv areas to the north along the Belarus border. Though the border between Ukraine and Belarus is more than 1,000km long, Zelensky’s forces will seek to build fortifications and barriers along the most likely routes of entry and will make use of all natural barriers (such as rivers, marshes, or lakes) to channel Russian forces into preplanned “kill zones” or block their paths.
Some of the Russian troops that enter the fight will be trained fighters with combat experience. But meaningful numbers of the troops will be raw recruits who have never been under fire. Even in my own experience in armored warfare in Iraq, I observed how there can sometimes be significant differences in the skills and quality of different units of the same army.
The disparity in the Russian army, however, could be dramatic, in that some may be good while others may fail abysmally. It is uncertain, therefore, that Russian ground forces would be able to successfully penetrate Ukrainian border defenses and drive 100 or more kilometers to the south and seize their objectives on the Lviv and Sumy axes.
As has been extensively covered, Russia’s logistic system was inadequate at the start of the war. Logistics and resupply could again be a major constraint for Putin’s winter offensive, as the farther away from Russian or Belarussian rail lines his army gets, the more difficult it will be to sustain the forward units. A long corridor of troops also has built in vulnerabilities to Ukrainian interdiction and flanking attacks.
If Russia attains strategic surprise in the location of its primary two axes of advance, Ukraine may not have sufficient combat strength in the region to stop Russia. But over time, Kyiv may have success in building combat power in the Ukrainian interior and strike at weak points along Russia’s support corridors, preventing supplies and reinforcements from reaching the frontline troops.
Bottom line: war is hard, all the time, and rarely do initial plans work out. The enemy is always devising new and creative ways to frustrate one’s own objectives. As with all wars, the winner in this one will be determined by which side does the best to cope with the unexpected, reacts the best and quickest, and proves to be the most resilient. It is impossible, at this point, to predict which side that will be, as both Ukrainian and Russian militaries have shown flashes of brilliance, courage, and stamina.
In addition to the risk that will be faced by the Russian army, we must consider Putin’s personal risk. Many have long argued that Putin desires to be a modern-day Peter the Great. He wants to be remembered in Russian history as a great statesman and military leader. It is possible that in pursuit of that goal, he may use every conventional tool in his military chest to subdue Ukraine. If he succeeds to any degree, he will likely remain in power for some time. If he fails, he may not last much into 2023.
If Putin’s mobilization and winter offensive stall out and make little to no dent in the current front lines, the risk of his running afoul of Russian public opinion will be great. Russians have long rallied behind strong men who succeed and strengthen their country. They have sometimes driven from power those that fail. Putin is painfully aware of Russian history and realizes what is at stake for his country generally and his life specifically in this war.
We will have a much clearer picture of the level of risk Putin is willing to take when we see which path Putin takes in the coming winter offensive. He will lean towards pursuing the limited objective paths of options 1 and 2 if he is uncertain about the quality and capacity of his ground forces. If he is willing to risk his regime and his life, and has sufficient confidence in his army, he may engage in all-out war to subdue eastern Ukraine, using his entire force and arsenal short of nuclear weapons.
Ironically, it might be better for European and NATO security if Putin chooses either of the limited objective options, as doing so would result in Russia on a firm defensive footing for the foreseeable future. If he goes for all-out warfare and succeeds – conquering all of Ukraine east of the Dniper and imposing a negotiated settlement on the rump western Ukraine on terms favorable to Moscow – Europe may face the prospect of a larger, experienced, and successful Russian army on its eastern flank.
Given the stakes, it might make more sense for the West to use all its diplomatic tools to get both sides to end this war as soon as possible, with neither side getting all it wants. Holding out in hopes of draining Russia with a drawn-out stalemate runs the risk that Russia defeats Ukraine, leaving Europe with a much less favorable security environment.
Also 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 @DanielLDavis.