The Russian military has continued its unsuccessful attempts to encircle Kyiv and capture Kharkiv. The Russians continued to attack piecemeal, committing a few battalion tactical groups at a time rather than concentrating overwhelming force to achieve decisive effects. Russian commanders appear to prefer opening up new lines of advance for regiment-sized operations but have been unable to achieve meaningful synergies between efforts along different axes toward the same objectives. They have also continued conducting operations in southern Ukraine along three diverging axes rather than concentrating on one or attempting mutually supporting efforts. These failures of basic operational art—long a strong suit of the Soviet military and heavily studied at Russian military academies—remain inexplicable as does the Russian military’s failure to gain air superiority or at least to ground the Ukrainian Air Force. The Russian conventional military continues to underperform badly, although it may still wear down and defeat the conventional Ukrainian military by sheer force of numbers and brutality. Initial indications that Russia is mobilizing reinforcements from as far away as the Pacific Ocean are concerning in this respect. Those indications also suggest, however, that the Russian General Staff has concluded that the forces it initially concentrated for the invasion of Ukraine will be insufficient to achieve Moscow’s military objectives.
Russian forces are completing the reinforcement and resupply of their troops north and west of Kyiv and launching an envelopment of the capital likely aimed at encircling and ultimately capturing it. This effort will likely accelerate in the next 24-48 hours. Russian operations against Kyiv are Moscow’s main effort. Russian troops are also undertaking three supporting efforts, one to seize Kharkiv, one to take Mariupol and secure the “land bridge” connecting Rostov-on-Don to Crimea, and one to secure Kherson and set conditions for a drive west toward Mykolayiv and Odesa. The three supporting operations are active, with the operation against Mariupol making the most progress in the last 24 hours.
The Russian military is reorganizing its military efforts in an attempt to remedy poor planning and execution based on erroneous assumptions about Ukrainians’ will and ability to resist. Russian operations around Kyiv remain limited as logistics and reinforcements arrive but will likely resume in greater strength in the next 24 hours. Ukrainian military leaders said that they have used the pause to strengthen Kyiv’s defenses and prepare to defend their capital in depth. The Ukrainian military likely cannot prevent Russian forces from enveloping or encircling Kyiv if the Russians send enough combat power, but likely can make Russian efforts to gain control of the city itself extremely costly and possibly unsuccessful.
The Russian military has likely recognized that its initial expectations that limited Russian attacks would cause the collapse of Ukrainian resistance have failed and is recalibrating accordingly. The Russian military is moving additional combat resources toward Ukraine and establishing more reliable and effective logistics arrangements to support what is likely a larger, harder, and more protracted conflict than it had originally prepared for. The tide of the war could change rapidly in Russia’s favor if the Russian military has correctly identified its failings and addresses them promptly, given the overwhelming advantage in net combat power Moscow that enjoys. Ukrainian morale and combat effectiveness remain extremely high, however, and Russian forces confront the challenge of likely intense urban warfare in the coming days.
Russian forces largely conducted an operational pause on February 26-27 but will likely resume offensive operations and begin using greater air and artillery support in the coming days. Russian airborne and special forces troops are engaged in urban warfare in northwestern Kyiv, but Russian mechanized forces are not yet in the capital. Russian forces conducted limited attacks on the direct approaches to Kyiv on both banks of the Dnipro River, but largely paused offensive operations in northeastern Ukraine. Russian forces likely paused to recalibrate their – to date largely unsuccessful – approach to offensive operations in northern Ukraine and deploy additional reinforcements and air assets to the front lines.
Russia will likely attack Ukraine before February 21, 2022. The Kremlin has deployed sufficient military forces and set informational conditions to conduct offensive operations including limited incursions into unoccupied Ukraine, a comprehensive air and missile campaign, and large-scale mechanized drives on Kyiv and other major Ukrainian cities.
That there has been no major war in Europe since 1945 isn’t an accident. It is because that generation of American leaders — political, diplomatic, economic and military — came together to defeat Adolf Hitler’s expansionist, war-crime-filled aggression. This same set of leaders then designed a set of structures that (a) provided near-term stability in a very turbulent and quite violent post-fighting Europe that (b) laid a foundation for a long-term peace — NATO and the European Union — from which almost four generations have benefitted. That is, until Russia invaded Ukraine.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is calling for a decisive NATO response against Russia after the Kremlin began a large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Turkey has been prioritizing its bourgeoning defense and diplomatic partnership with Ukraine in recent years—an action that the Kremlin perceives as a challenge to its sphere of influence. Ukraine is not the first theater of conflict where Turkey and Russia have opposing interests, which they often have been able to compartmentalize. Turkey has challenged Russia’s sphere of influence in various theaters—including Libya, Central Asia, Syria, and the Caucasus—while maintaining its close coordination with Russia in its efforts to diversify its relations toward non-NATO states. However, Ukraine is likely the most significant challenge to date to Turkey’s bid to balance its NATO membership with its fragile partnership with Russia. Turkey has become increasingly reliant on Russian cooperation in various conflicts and key industries like energy and tourism.
We cannot seem to believe the raw, extreme realism by which Russia’s Vladimir Putin is acting against Ukraine. Raw realism is so abominable to American thinking that we would rather believe he is crazy. Yet raw realism is what we are seeing in Ukraine: Putin has the might, so he is intent on making the right. He is sure that the West will not intervene militarily, which is not hard to conclude since the U.S. position has been stated, publicly, multiple times. He has made Russia resistant to sanctions in the near term and concluded that, by the time sanctions take full effect, Ukraine will be his. Further, he has judged that Europe is too dependent on Moscow to continue sanctions in the long term. Putin also knows that once force is used, only an equal or greater force will stop him. He knows that sanctions alone are not that equal-or-greater force. He has already escalated his use of force in Ukraine — and has very publicly put his nuclear deterrent forces on high alert — until he gets what he wants, because he’s convinced he can.
Helping Ukraine liberate its people and territories is the only way to stop Russian atrocities and prevent future ones. The West must rush the military support that Ukraine needs to do so.
Russian forces are conducting a cohesive multi-axis offensive operation in pursuit of an operationally significant objective for nearly the first time in over a year and a half of campaigning in Ukraine. The prospects of this offensive in the Kharkiv-Luhansk sector are far from clear, but its design and initial execution mark notable inflections in the Russian operational level approach.