In my previous work at 19FortyFive examining the range of possibilities for Russia’s upcoming winter offensive, I examined the low-risk and medium-risk options. This segment will consider the Kremlin’s third option of a high-risk/high-reward attack. If Putin selects some version of this course of action, he will face the potential for a major military victory – or lay the path to his fall from power.
(Watch above as 19FortyFive Contributing Editor and author of this piece, retired U.S. Army LT. Colonel Daniel Davis discusses the Ukraine war.)
When Putin and his military commanders contemplated the possibility of launching a major second offensive, they would likely have conducted a private and brutally honest assessment of what went right and what went wrong with the opening invasion in February.
If the Russian general staff develop a new plan that has a chance of success, they will have to acknowledge and rectify their past failures, account for the current state of their armed forces (after suffering significant battle losses and now fielding a largely conscript army) and come up with a new plan of attack. The scenario that follows does not consider the political and military factors that would lead Putin to selecting the all-out war scenario, it will only look at the planning factors and potential objectives if he did.
Russia’s Entry Mistakes and Putin’s Adjustments
Russia’s biggest strategic and operational mistakes in the opening rounds were that Moscow based its entire campaign on attaining a series of best-case-scenarios, all of which would have needed to come to pass. Virtually none of them did, and thus their gambles all failed, resulting in the disaster of the April withdrawals from all of Kyiv and Kharkiv regions. Had the Kremlin assumed things would go wrong, that the enemy would fight tenaciously, then they likely would have adopted more modest initial goals – which, given the amount of troops allocated for the task, might have proven strategically successful.
It was clear from the outset that when Putin only sent 200,000 troops, he would not have sufficient manpower or firepower to take even one major city, much less multiple cities. Spreading his thin number of troops out over four axes, into a country of 41 million, ensured that Russia would not have sufficient power to subdue any area by force if Ukraine chose to resist.
For Putin’s initial plan to have succeeded, Zelensky would have had to panic and give up without a fight. While that was at least theoretically possible, it was strategic malfeasance to risk the entire operation on the necessity of every key factor attaining a best-case-scenario outcome. By merely contesting the invasion and refusing to surrender without a fight, Zelensky’s troops doomed Putin’s invasion to failure.
To make matters worse for himself, Putin also went light with the initial air and missile attacks. Had he chosen a massive “shock and awe” type barrage, like what the United States used at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, Putin could have destroyed all of Ukraine’s air defenses, crippled their electric grids (on which the majority of their trains ran), and destroyed much of the military infrastructure required to sustain and move the UAF to move about the battlefield.
Instead, Russia went cheap on the missile density, hitting some of those targets, but not destroying any. As a means of comparison, the United States and its allies launched 2,000 bombs and missiles in the first four days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. By the end of the 10th day of its war against Ukraine, Russia had fired a paltry 600 missiles.
For the all-in scenario, Putin will likely avoid repeating the major mistakes made in February, choosing to concentrate his new strike forces where they are most needed, and unleash a devastating and concentrated air and missile attack preceding the ground assault. The big question, however: does Russia have enough cruise missiles and bombs in its inventory to conduct any version of a ‘shock & awe’ bombardment?
It is unclear at this point how many missiles Russia has left in its inventory, given they have fired several thousand missiles from its inventory since last February. It is likely, however, that Putin always kept a strategic reserve in the event NATO ever got involved, and in any case, Russia’s military-industrial complex has significantly ramped up production and is reportedly producing new missiles. Whatever the number of assets Putin has to employ at the start of his offensive, however, the Ukrainian air defense system and energy infrastructure will already be in a degraded state.
In retaliation for the attack on the Kerch bridge linking Crimea to Russia in October, Putin unleashed a torrent of rocket and missile strikes against Ukraine, targeting military and especially civilian energy infrastructure. By early November, more than 40% of Ukraine’s electricity capacity had been knocked out and a considerable number of its remaining air defense missile inventory has been depleted. That capacity has been even further gashed when Russia launched the largest ever missile strike against Ukrainian targets on November 15, knocking some entire cities into darkness.
Putin Strikes Ukraine: An All-Out Attack
If Putin orders an all-out attack, it will most likely start with a massive air, missile and drone attack to complete the destruction of the Ukrainian electric grids, substations, fuel storage facilities, rail yards, diesel locomotives, and communication facilities. Intent will be to make it intensely difficult to support the UAF, complicate communications, make intra-country movement of troops much harder, diminish their capacity to logistically support troops in disparate fronts with food, water, medicine, ammunition, and spare parts.
By increasing the burden on Kyiv to take care of the civil population throughout the country, there will be yet fewer resources to allocate to supporting the war. If Kyiv prioritizes supplying the combat units, civilians could freeze to death or starve as a result, putting the government in a terrible no-win situation.
Russia will seek to saturate the airspace so that what limited air defense Ukraine still has left, it will be quickly overwhelmed. Subsequent waves would be launched so that what few missiles Kyiv had, would have been used up, so that the third or fourth wave may encounter no air defense at all. If Russian strikes cripple the air defense system, especially in the forward battle areas, the for the first time in the war Putin’s forces will be able to make tactical use of their air force fighter and bomber fleets.
The objective of this opening phase of the campaign will be to gain air superiority so that Ukraine can’t use its air force, can’t stop Russian fighters from supporting the ground troops, and to degrade Ukraine’s system of supporting and transporting combat troops within the battle zones that the UAF will find it hard to sustain high intensity combat operations in any one place over time. To whatever degree this phase of Putin’s plan is successful, the next phase will be striking with new formations on the ground.
Available Ground Forces
As mentioned earlier, one of the biggest failures of Russia’s February invasion was that it allocated too few troops to accomplish the tasks assigned and then dispersed along too many axes. Russia will not likely repeat that mistake. In an all-out winter offensive, the Kremlin will likely prioritize one main effort and only two supporting efforts, concentrating the highest percentage of troops to the top objective. The intent will be to bring the highest number of Russian troops to bear against the smallest number of Ukrainian troops, and strike in an area where Kyiv least expects it.
Putin officially mobilized 300,000 troops, 82,000 of which were reportedly immediately sent to the existing fronts to shore up the line and prevent any other large-scale losses to Ukraine. With a few volunteers, Russia is currently training about 218,000 total new troops (added to the roughly 200,000 still fighting in Ukraine).
Even if Russia had a total of about 400,000 troops, that would still not be enough to directly destroy the Ukrainian military or seize by force more than one or two of Ukraine’s many large cities (such as Mykoliev, Odessa, Kharkiv, or Kyiv). The key to understanding what Putin’s objectives may be is to assess what an additional 200,000 troops could reasonably accomplish in Ukraine: a three-pronged axis of advance designed to sever Ukraine’s life blood – the supply corridor from the Polish border through which all NATO supply and equipment enters Ukraine. Tomorrow’s edition will focus on what the Russian campaign might look like.
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.