Since Putin launched the Russian invasion of Ukraine early on the morning of 24 February 2022, the Russian military operation has proceeded in several tactical phases. The initial Russian plan of blitzing to Kyiv along the shortest routes out of southeast Belarus and Russia’s Bryansk Oblast failed. Ukrainian resistance, Russian logistics difficulties, and terrain difficulties have turned the larger fight around Kyiv into a slow-motion slog in which Russian tactical victories are difficult to exploit and easy to counterattack.
Along much of the rest of Ukraine’s northern border, the Russian invasion had better success advancing into Ukrainian territory by bypassing cities, focusing on rail lines, and seeking to surround Kyiv itself and the Ukrainian defenders of Chernihiv by approaching west to Brovary and to threaten the mass of the Ukrainian Army in the Donbass by approaching south to Izyum and Severodonetsk. These advances have yet to pay dividends as Ukrainian territorial defense forces continuously harass Russian logistical access to forward positions. Furthermore, Russia responded to Ukrainian refusal to surrender the cities of Sumy, Akhtyrka, and Kharkiv with continuous rear-area bombardment to enable a switch to an occupation force accomplishable by less capable Russian units. In the Donbass itself, Ukrainian defenses prepared for eight years, effectively managed to stall a Russian offensive for weeks, though the line has begun to crumble under continuous pressure combined with pincers coming from the north and south.
This southern approach out of Crimea has given Russia the biggest territorial gains of the war with Moscow claiming to be in control all of Kherson Oblast with other advances northeast to the Donbass, north to about 50km short of Zaporoizhzhia, and northwest toward Mykolaiv. This last direction has been the most active area of movement in the past two weeks with the Russians and Ukrainians exchanging control of much of the 60km highway between them several times.
In short, the Russian invasion has divided into five separate campaigns: (1) a floundering offensive northwest of Kyiv; (2) brutal sieges of Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol; (3) tactical advances hounded by logistical harassment moving west through Sumy Oblast and south from Belgorod Oblast; (4) a World War I-style breakthrough operation in the Donbass; and (5) low-density and relatively high-speed exchanges of territory in the south.
The Russian Armed Forces seem to be pivoting from an early bet of a war of destruction to the war of attrition. These two variants of war as described by Soviet military theorist Aleksandr Svechin refer less to operational style than to the political oversight of conflict. Whereas a war of destruction seeks a rapid outcome through force of arms, a war of attrition requires greater patience but drives at exhausting and capturing the enemy’s means of resistance.
After the initial days of the conflict in which the Russians attempted to capture strategic points to deny external lines of communication to Kyiv, the effort shifted toward capturing power plants and water plumbing facilities. After some initial successes in this regard, Russian offensive strength to capture these points ebbed and so the emphasis was shifted again to destroying Ukrainian infrastructure not acquired in those days. This pattern suggests a conscious shift toward attacking the Ukrainian ability to resist rather than directly defeating them militarily on all sections of the different fronts.
Some portions of the front line, especially the Donbass, remain conventional offensives in which the Russians are tactically advancing and aiming to destroy their opposition. These offensives are frequently bypassing cities such as Mariupol and Chernihiv, leaving behind sufficient forces to surround and besiege but not storm them. In most other sections of the front, however, it increasingly seems that the Russians are at least temporarily pivoting to entrenching positions and forcing the tactical burden of the offensive to the Ukrainians seeking to evict the invaders.
The Ukrainians have had marked success in conducting counterattacks against Russian advances, especially in the battles west of Kyiv, but they have yet to score any significant rollback of Russian positions held for two weeks or more. This may change over time but with much of the Ukrainian Armed Forces located in the Donbass facing the heaviest assault and being pushed back, the resources for a major Ukrainian offensive will not be available anytime soon.
The Russian shift in tactics suggests several possibilities for the near-term conduct of the war. Firstly, the Russian conventional push in the Donbass is likely to continue. The Russian political investment in the Donbass in domestic media makes this the highest priority and that the Kremlin would attempt to realize within a couple weeks.
Secondly, by switching to a war of attrition in which civilians’ condition will be the chief measure of success, Russian political pressure falls less on the central government in Kyiv and more on local mayors and city councils. Local Ukrainian politicians have proved resilient in resisting Russian intimidation in the first month of the war, but this may be severely tested if the war does not end within coming weeks.
Thirdly, with a war of attrition Russia would attempt to grind down Ukrainian resistance and insurgency. The first month of the war saw Ukrainians successfully defend their territory against widely predicted odds, boosting morale among soldiers and civilians alike. Behind the current front lines, Ukrainian protests against the occupation have been frequent. A slow war may test the activated Ukrainian patriotism as the tangible results of resistance shine ever more bleakly against the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe and depopulation of the country. Russian political victory at this point would require extremely brutal suppression campaigns and forced population transfers of a scale that would almost certainly undermine the political stability of the Russian Federation as a whole. The economic damage to Russia from sanctions will be extreme even if China and India remain favorable to Moscow as the Russian economy of 2021 remains established as a giant commodities distributor for Western markets far more than Asian ones. Reconfiguring the flow of goods from west to east and south will be a large-scale undertaking that will almost require mortgaging more control of Russian infrastructure to Chinese and possibly Indian interests. Amidst these maelstroms, the Ukrainians will have more than a fighting chance to convince Russians that Putin’s imperial gamble is not worth the reward.