Analysis on the progress of the second week of war in Ukraine (second part)

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

After having analyzed the developments on the air war front in the first part of our series, let's now move on to see what has happened on the terrestrial ones. As already mentioned in the analysis dedicated to the first week of the war, the Russians are currently attacking Ukraine on four fronts, different in positioning, objectives and number of troops involved. Contrary to what many believe, the author of this analysis is not at all convinced that the operations around the city of Kiev actually represent the most important front from a strategic point of view, even if this opinion is absolutely personal and open to debate. In any case, leaving aside the academic disquisitions, we will now move on to analyze the fronts one at a time according to the order already established in the past.

The "First Front”Of the Russo-Ukrainian War is the one active since 2014 in the Donbass region. At the beginning of the invasion, the Ukrainians garrisoned the area in the shelter of a massive fortified belt comprising a large slice of the territories of the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts facing the enemy lines (the so-called "Line of Control", informally also known as “Zelensky Line”, from the surname of the President of Ukraine). Here Kiev had amassed 125.000 soldiers reinforced by 225.000 reservists recalled immediately before the outbreak of hostilities. The Ukrainian forces were faced by 55.000 soldiers belonging to the "Unified Forces of Novorossiya" backed by 20.000 Russian soldiers.

Immediately before and after the outbreak of hostilities, the authorities of both the Dontesk People's Republic and the Lugansk People's Republic declared the general mobilization (later suspended in early March) "of all men capable of picking up a rifle" who added another 75.000 men to the ranks of the "Donbassians" bringing them to a total of 130.000 armed men.

As mentioned in the analysis a week ago, contrary to what one might have believed, it was the "Donbassians" as well as the Russian soldiers present in this specific front who represented the "hardest bones" in the fighting with the Ukrainians. The reason for all this lies in a very simple fact which is called "field experience". Both soldiers and “Donbassian” reservists have accumulated considerable war experience over the past 8 years and are fighting the kind of conflict they have been preparing for throughout this time frame. The same goes for the Russian troops present there, which had the opportunity and time to acquire valuable operational experience in close contact with the "Donbassians" themselves. Not only that, since the Donbass has been a war area for a long time, the Russians and the "Donbassians" have long since been able to establish efficient supply lines that guarantee their troops to proceed in a methodical and constant manner, having everything available they need to conduct the war there optimally.

Following the progress of operations from the first day of the war up to now, it is clear that the objective of the headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation had been from the beginning to use the Donbass as a "stopping area" to block the area as many Ukrainian troops as possible in order to facilitate the breakthrough on other fronts. This tactic has so far been very successful. Not only has the Ukrainian high command not been able to withdraw a single man from the Donbass area so far but, in order to keep the lines, it has had to send further, very precious, reinforcements of men and vehicles that it would have done better to keep in view of developments future of the conflict.

Not only that, on 2 March Aleksey Arestovich and Igor Zhdanov, respectively adviser to President Zelensky the first and president of the center for political analysis "Open Politics" the second, announced that the Ukrainian army had even taken the offensive on the front of the Donbass, aiming at the city of Gorlovka, and that among the units involved in this operation there was also the 95a air assault brigade, one of the elite units of the Ukrainian armed forces. Unfortunately for the Ukrainians this operation (which officially would still be in progress) has so far failed to produce the desired results and indeed risks accelerating the process of progressive erosion of the Ukrainian forces on the ground. On the contrary, the "Donbassian" and Russian forces continued and strengthened until they reached the breakthrough of the Ukrainian front in two distinct areas; the first located in the north-eastern area of ​​the so-called Lugansk People's Republic, between the towns of Shchastia and Stanitsa Luganska, and the second in the southwestern area of ​​the so-called Donetsk People's Republic, from the town of Volnovakha down to the Sea of ​​Azov in the direction of Mariupol.

The forces of the Donbass front advancing from Lugansk, combined with Russian forces that entered the Ukrainian territory from the Milove area, gradually took control of the entire eastern area of ​​the Lugansk oblast, passing through Starobilsk, up to Svatove and they threaten to join the Russian forces from the Kharkov area, which in the meantime have advanced south to conquer Izyum. By doing so, they can achieve the dual objective of cutting out all Ukrainian forces remaining between the Kupyansk area and the Russian border to the east, and to converge to the south and south-east taking the bulk of the Ukrainian army concentrated in the areas of Severodonetsk, Sloviansk, Lisichansky and Kramatorsk.

The forces advancing from Donetsk have instead pointed decisively in the direction of Mariupol and, after having overcome the Ukrainian defenses, have joined with the troops arriving from Crimea and are currently besieging the city.

The "Second Front”Of the Russo-Ukrainian War which, together with the already described“ First Front ”, represents in my opinion the real area that from a strategic point of view will decide the war, is the southern one. Here the Russians have so far obtained their most appreciable results thanks also to the presence of their best general, Mikhail Stepanovich Zusko.

At the beginning of the hostilities, Zusko's command had about 12.000-17.000 men under its responsibility, a very small force by Russian standards but with the advantage of being directed by a staff that includes several veterans of the Syrian War therefore equipped with considerable experience in maneuvering warfare by means of mechanized units which forms the core of Russian conventional military doctrines.

As stated in the past, the presence of favorable terrain and the intense support received by both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft meant that the Russians were able to advance rapidly in five directions:

- towards the north-west, towards Nova Kakhovka, Kherson and Nikolayev;

- northwards, towards Energodar and its nuclear power plant;

- towards north-north-east, towards Tokmak and Zaporozhye;

- towards the north-east, towards the Donbass;

- eastwards towards Melitopol, Berdiansk and Mariupol.

The Russian advance was not a "triumphal march", however the Moscow armed forces managed to obtain excellent results in relation to the scarce forces employed. Another reason for the Russian success seems to be attributable to the intelligence operations that allowed Zusko to form a "fifth column" on Ukrainian territory involving both members of local administrations and elements of the Ukrainian Armed Forces present there, but these speculations are currently difficult to verify while the battle is still ongoing.

During both the first and second week of the war, the Russian forces engaged in the "Second Front" badly beaten the Ukrainian forces originally present in the Kherson oblast, close to the Crimean peninsula, in particular the 17a armored brigade, forcing them to retreat beyond the Dnieper. Subsequently Zusko directed part of his forces westwards, occupying not without engaging in serious fighting Nova Kakhova and Kherson, thus managing to create a bridgehead across the great river and continuing the offensive up to Nikolayev where the Russians and Ukrainians they are now engaged in fierce fighting. Without waiting for the fall of the city, and given the destruction of the bridges located on the lower course of the Bug river, Zusko then launched an attack towards the north-west, along the right bank of the aforementioned river and, supported by an airborne nucleus, reached the city ​​of Voznesensk, coming dangerously close to the city of Yuzhnoukrainsk and its large nuclear power plant. Also stopped in this new offensive episode, the stubborn general did not give up and, on the contrary, in the last few days he launched his forces again on the attack along the roads of the H14, the H11 and the T1505 with the clear intention of threaten Krivoy Rog and potentially Kirovograd as well.

While such large cities may currently be deemed substantially safe, it is clear that by keeping his troops always on the move, constantly shifting his center of gravity and advancing in multiple directions, Zusko is keeping the Ukrainians under constant pressure and preventing him. to create a coherent front of resistance in the southern part of the country.

In the center, the forces of the "Second Front" moved towards the city of Energodar and took possession of it after a four-day battle (February 28-March 4). In the course of the operations, the Russians also forcibly took control of the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant and the nearby thermoelectric power plant, two of the most strategic infrastructures in the entire country.

The Russian forces' occupation of the nuclear power plant and thermal power plant on March 3 sparked a global uproar with many unwary commentators attempting to stir the specters of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. undoubtedly there was, by carefully examining the films now widely available on the net, we see that the only building hit by the Russians (in a light way) is in no way part of the reactor complex, which, according to the Quartier General of the Russian Armed Forces, "they have never been in danger". Of course, that of the Russians could also have been a comfortable position, given the very delicate circumstances. However, if you want to read between the lines, there is the by no means remote possibility that the frontal attack by Russian conventional forces widely documented by the media was somehow facilitated by a "covert" operation carried out by one of the mysterious "Tiger Teams" (literally “Tiger Groups”), Spetsnaz formations which are themselves part of the "Vympel Group", unit for special operations subordinated to the FSB (together with the much more famous "Alfa Group").

Formations with markedly offensive characteristics, i "Tiger Teams" their only mission is to infiltrate and secure nuclear infrastructures or nuclear weapons depots. Although at the moment there are no certainties in this regard, it is highly probable, given that the taking of this strategic site took place in a non-bloody way and with minimal damage to the infrastructures, that the possibility that this success is due in whole or in part to the action of the "specialists" of "Tiger Teams".

To the east, the troops of the "Second Front" launched themselves in different directions of penetration covering the area between Zaporozhye and the Sea of ​​Azov. Along the coastal strip they have taken over Melitopol, Berdiansk and, after joining forces from Donbass, are now besieging the city of Mariupol where several elite units of both the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the Territorial Battalions (such as the famous “Azov”) have been surrounded and are resisting to the bitter end. Elsewhere the Russians are now on the outskirts of Zaporozhye and, starting with the occupied towns of Tokmok, Pology and Gulyaipolye are aiming behind the Ukrainian defenders on the “Zelensky Line”.

As mentioned, to date the "Second Front" is the one that has managed to obtain the best results thanks to a combination of factors, among which the presence of an experienced and competent general like Zusko who has managed to draw the better both from the troops assigned to him and from the contingent tactical situation and the opportunities that presented themselves.

The real problem for Zusko and his men is that what they have achieved is simply too much for a force that, at the start of the offensive, was estimated at no more than 12.000-17.000 men. It is therefore understood that, in the original plans of the Headquarters, Zusko's force should have played only an auxiliary role and had not been equipped with the "grit" necessary for such an undertaking. As often happens in war however, the original plans do not survive the first contact with the enemy and today the "Second Front", in the light of the successes obtained, seems to have become the new "schwerpunkt" (breakthrough point) and it is probable that this it will also remain in the coming weeks.

Observing the movements of Russian trains and vehicles from the Krasnodar territory to the Crimean peninsula as well as the Transport Aviation (VTA) routes to and from the airports of the peninsula as reported to me by my contact "Vedetta 1" in charge of monitoring the skies in the crisis area, it is easy to guess that Moscow is running a race to 100 meters to reinforce its forces in the south and allow Zusko to keep the pace of operations unchanged. Should the complicated logistical system manage to hold up, the troops of the "Second Front" could keep the pressure on the whole southern area of ​​Ukraine unchanged and plunge it into systemic chaos that could have as its final outcome the fall of the port of Odessa as well as the involvement in the war also of Moldova and the self-proclaimed Republic of Transnistria.

The next battlefields to be analyzed are those that collectively are part of the "Third Front”, An enormous extension that goes from Chernigov to Kharkhov, passing through Sumy. This front (actually a set of multiple commands) saw the greatest commitment from the Armed Forces of Russia (200.000 troops plus 100.000 reservists at the start of hostilities) and caused some of the greatest embarrassment for Moscow.

The first week of the war had ended with very disappointing results for the invading forces, in fact none of the cities of any importance in the area, with the sole exception of Konotop, had fallen into Russian hands and the advance of the soldiers of Moscow had been literally plagued by problems of all kinds, especially logistical, aggravated by a substantial incompetence of the senior officers in charge of the operation.

During the second week things have undoubtedly improved, but not uniformly, and in any case the Russian forces engaged in the offensive are far from the objectives set at the beginning of the advance. The most striking case was that of the city of Kharkhov where the Russians not only failed to carry out any circumventing maneuvers but also suffered violent counterattacks by the 93a Mechanized brigade of the Ukrainian army that secured the city, and managed to drive the Russians out of the nearby town of Chuguev, at least for now. However, the extension of the front, net of the aforementioned logistical difficulties encountered by the Russians, also works to the detriment of the Ukrainian defenders who, having rightly given priority to the defense of Kharkhov, were unable to prevent a part of the Russian troops from being able to break through more to the south until it takes control of Balakliya and Izyum and in collaboration with the troops of the "First Front" in progressive advance from the Donbass it risks bagging the Ukrainian forces in defense of the "Zelensky Line" (but we have already talked about this above).

Further north, the battle for Sumy continues as well as for the twin cities of Trostianets and Akhtyrka. Despite the assaults, Sumy is still in the hands of the Ukrainians but is slowly and inexorably being surrounded. On the other hand, the situation in the two "twin cities" is more complicated. Although at this point in the offensive it seems certain that Trostianets is firmly in the hands of the Russians, the same cannot be said of Akhtyrka who has changed hands several times since the beginning of the war. However, in the last few days, further elements have been added that have made the situation even more complicated and opaque. According to some rumors, in fact, some Russian units would have bypassed Akhtyrka and through the H12 highway they would be heading towards Poltava. If this news is confirmed and the Russians actually manage to swoop down on Poltava before the Ukrainians manage to organize an effective resistance of the city, it would be a disaster for Kiev.

The fall of Poltava (a city of undying fame linked to the great battle that, on July 8, 1709, opposed the Russian Emperor Peter I to the King of Sweden Charles XII) in Russian hands could be more for the Ukrainians a headache since it would cut off all road and rail communications between Kiev and Kharkhov. Not only that, from Poltava the Russians could then continue the offensive towards Kremenchuk located along the course of the Dnieper effectively cutting the country in two. At the moment these are only hypothetical scenarios, but which must be constantly taken into consideration if we want to avoid being taken aback by the development of events.

The situation in the Chernigov area is also very fluid. While the initial attack was bogged down by local resistance, since early March Russian troops have redoubled their efforts and achieved the breakup of the Ukrainian front in several places, but failed to overwhelm it completely. It is extremely difficult to say how the situation on the ground is evolving “to the millimeter” however starting from the river of information (often contradictory) that we receive from both sides in conflict we can present the following (approximate) picture.

The city of Chernigov is still in Ukrainian hands but has been completely cut off from all connections and is constantly being hammered by both artillery and Moscow aircraft. As for the rest of the territories of the homonymous oblast ', as well as the central-northern part of the finite Sumy oblast, we can say that the Russians control roughly 60% or more of the territory including the major communication routes (in in particular the highways M02 and H07) through which they are converging towards Kiev from the east.

The Ukrainian forces that have incessantly engaged in battle with the Russians since the beginning of the conflict have been divided into 4 or 5 large pockets separated from each other by the Russian "languages ​​of advance" but for now they continue to maneuver and fight thanks to the relative abundance of men and means and the Russian difficulty in establishing the strategic priority between eliminating these pockets or continuing the advance towards the capital. In any case, the reaching of the flagship armored columns of the Kiev suburb of Brovary is putting further pressure on the defenders of the city and, having thus reached the point of arrival of their line of advance, both the strategists of the Kremlin and the Field commanders can now reorganize the rear and set up a coherent plan both for securing them and for the systematic elimination of the pockets of Ukrainian resistance they have left behind until now.

The last battle area we have to consider is the so-called "Fourth Front”, That of Kiev, which has so far obtained the greatest international echo, precisely because it concerns the country's capital. The fighting in the area from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone down to the northwestern outskirts of Kiev has so far been some of the most violent of the entire war (with the sole exception, perhaps, of those in the Donbass ) and to reconstruct them is not at all easy also due to the jumble of contradictory statements made by the official bodies on both sides.

In any case, what can be said with certainty is that an initial Russian penetration in the days between the 24th and 27th of February was followed by a Ukrainian counter-offensive from the 28th of February until the 5th of March which forced back the forces. Russians away from the capital to the Dymer area. Subsequently the Russians returned to the attack regaining the lost ground but by 10 March they had again failed in their attempt to take Kiev "by storm". Not only that, the failure in the attempt to conquer the city and the subsequent arrival of the rest of the invasion wave along a narrow front (30.000 men), resulted in the creation of an enormous column of vehicles at least 64 kilometers long. The whole time span was punctuated by several violent battles, some very bloody, such as that of the airport of Gostomel, that of Ivankov, that of Irpin and that of Bucha.

In all these engagements, the Russians suffered heavy losses and, while continuing to advance, they proved unable to overcome the resistance of the Ukrainian forces entrenched in these locations. In the last few days, however, the Moscow armed forces have changed tactics and have begun to widen the front of the offensive aiming at a bypass of Kiev towards the west, in concert with the aforementioned arrival on the Brovary side of the troops belonging to the "Third Front" . Not only that, the news in recent days speaks of a new Russian offensive launched from the territory of Belarus towards the city of Korosten ', perhaps a prelude to a pincer offensive, from north and east towards Zhytomir.

We will know how the situation will evolve on the ground only by monitoring the movements of the troops and following the war operations. What appears clear is that the two contenders and their respective leaderships and military apparatuses are increasingly moving towards a final bloody of the Ukrainian War.

Also read: "Analysis on the progress of the second week of war in Ukraine (first part)"

Also read: "Analysis on the progress of the second week of war in Ukraine (third part)"

Images: MoD Russian Federation / google maps