Relief for Kyiv but other Ukrainian cities still in peril

Dr Rod Thornton teaches at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London. He is a former soldier who has also lived and worked in both Kyiv and Moscow and provides his insight to ITV News' Briefing Room on the changing nature of the conflict.

Russian forces are now seen to be pulling back from Kyiv and Chernihiv. It seems the General Staff - if not Putin himself - have realised that the Russian army, notably its ground forces, cannot continue to operate effectively on the original numerous axes of advance.

Two factors have caused this re-think. First, the Ukrainian defence has been unexpectedly stout and, second, the energy has gone out of the various advances as both logistics problems and a process of attrition have blunted Russian combat power. The General Staff’s plan now appears to be to concentrate forces on fewer lines of advance – notably in the Donbas region. Here the major aim is to capture Mariupol. 

Mariupol, a major port city on the Sea of Azov, is vital to the Russian strategy of creating a land corridor that links Crimea (annexed by Russia in 2014) with those parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (in the Donbas) which were seized by Russian separatists/troops also in 2014. The creation of this land corridor would ensure a series of strategic advantages for Moscow; not the least of which is the control of the entire coastline of the Sea of Azov. 

Mariupol has seen some of the worst fighting of the war Credit: AP

Although Mariupol is currently still in Ukrainian hands, it seems inevitable that it will soon fall. The city has been virtually destroyed by Russian firepower and the 150,000 or so civilians still trapped there will be in a desperate situation – brought about in large part by a shortage of food and water.

And while Russian forces will continue to bombard the city they will make occasional offers to allow for the evacuation of civilians. These offers will then mostly be withdrawn as part of this army’s traditional tactic of gaining psychological advantage – when besieging cities – of raising the hopes of those trapped, only then to snatch them away.

This was a tactic employed in Syria whenever Russian forces invaded a city there, notably in Aleppo. The Russian military logic is that it is the plight of the civilians that will create pressure on the defenders of any city – in this case in Mariupol – to surrender in order to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. 

Having taken Mariupol, Russian forces could then move north to create a pincer movement that would trap the Ukrainian army’s best troops – those in the Joint Forces Operation operating close to the Donbas region.

The Russians could also push west to try and seize what would be Ukraine’s only remaining major port on the Black Sea, Odesa. The Ukrainians, though, will put every effort into protecting this city: once Mariupol succumbs, Odesa will be the country’s only means of exporting, among other vital goods, wheat. 

When looking at the pull-backs from around Kyiv and Chernihiv they are, though, not full withdrawals. Large numbers of Russian troops will doubtless remain, not only to provide harassing shellfire but also to fix large numbers of Ukrainian troops in situ. These would be needed to protect these cities. Moscow does not want such forces to be released, so that they are free to operate against Russian forces elsewhere in the country.    

Ukrainian troops in Kyiv. Credit: AP

Still, though, Ukrainian forces have been making advances at various points recently. But is this a question of Ukrainian advances or Russian withdrawals? Indeed, a question now being raised is can the Ukrainian military be as effective on the offence as it has been in defence This is a moot question.

Offensive operations are much more complicated than defensive actions – requiring coordination of movement, sequencing and all has to be guided by significant command-and-control capabilities. The offence also means exposing forces to Russian defensive fire. Russian forces can dig in and create significant defensive positions that would not be easy to break down.     

As befits an army that appears to lack discipline and general professionalism, the Russian troops withdrawing from Kyiv were seen to be taking a considerable amount of war booty with them, not least a large number of civilian trucks, buses and cars.

Indeed, the overall morale of the Russian troops seems to be generally poor. Casualty rates, of course, have been extremely high, even by conservative estimates. Conscripts, of which there seem to be quite a few within the Russian Ground Forces units (contrary to Russian law), will be particularly vulnerable to losing the will to fight.

Moreover, a large number of conscripts were due to be released from service on 1 April. But circumstances will likely dictate that those in Ukraine will have to stay at their posts. This will doubtless add to the morale problem. And it is not just the conscripts who may be losing the will to continue fighting. Even those considered to be highly professional, such as the Airborne Forces, have been seen recently to simply abandon their vehicles and to take flight on foot 

A Ukrainian soldier walks past debris of a burning military lorry, on a street in Kyiv, Ukraine Credit: Efrem Lukatsky/AP

How will this war end? If the morale of the Russian military totally cracks (which is not inconceivable) then there could be, as soldiers vote with their feet, a disorderly pull out from the entire country.

This could be one hoped-for scenario for both Kyiv and the West. There may also be a ‘palace coup’ in the Kremlin and Putin could be replaced by leader anxious to cut the costs of both the war and the sanctions on the country.

A peace deal could be struck. But we are, however, and in reality, probably in for a long period of stalemate – relatively fixed positions will come to be held by the two protagonists and a ‘frozen conflict’ will ensue.  

There may be some relief in the coming weeks for Kyiv itself but not, going forward, for the country of Ukraine as a whole.