I have been commenting on the progress of the Russo-Ukraine warn for over a year now, getting about eighty per cent of it right and the rest of it wrong. Which is a pretty good result although I say it myself, because predicting the course of a war is fraught with difficulty. No plan survives first contact with the enemy, as we military types are wont to say. Be that as it may, I think it is high time I put my money where my mouth is and describe how I would go about winning the war, from the Ukrainian side of course, if I were the Chief of Staff of the Ukrainian armed forces.
First of all, though, we need to put it all in context. The circumstances would be much as they are at present; Ukraine holding firm across the front, struggling a bit around Bakhmut, and reliant on the continuing supply of weaponry from the west. Meanwhile the Russians are desperately trying to maintain some momentum whilst recruiting and re-equipping to make up for their losses to date.
Both sides seem to be building up for their long-mooted Spring offensives. Indeed, some say the Russians have started their offensive already, but I’m not so sure of that. It’s likely that movement will be limited on both sides until the ground firms up sometime in late March or early April.
How do the Ukrainians win this war? Well, if it was me, I’d be telling them to take the following actions. First of all they need to define what an acceptable end state of the war might look like. My personal view is that the recapture of Crimea might allow at least the consideration of a negotiated settlement with Russia.
Crimea is the overall strategic prize, the key terrain if you like, because control of Crimea brings with it control of the Black Sea and the entrance to the Sea of Azov via the Kerch Strait. The Russians will be loath to give it up so Ukraine will have to take it by force. And I reckon that, no matter what various US generals may think, the Ukrainians might well be able to do just that.
A prerequisite, of course, is that the UkrAF are able to conserve and build up their offensive forces while at the same time resisting Russian attacks elsewhere, no easy ask. Above all else they need the precision long range guided missiles and artillery shells to strike deep into their enemy’s rear areas and disrupt lines of communication and destroy supply dumps. The Ukrainians have proved to be rather successful at this to date and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t continue to be so, dependent of course on supplies from the west.
Plus they need the means to establish at least local air superiority in the area where they choose to strike. Without it manoeuvring land formations are terribly vulnerable to air attack. Neither side has been able to establish it so far, hence the current stalemate. Ukraine really needs those F-16s Zelensky has been pleading for over the past months.
However, if they do manage to get all their ducks in a row, then I would direct their Spring counter-offensive south from Zaporizhzhia to Melitopol and beyond to the shores of the Black Sea, thereby cutting the major Russian supply line to Crimea and the Kherson Oblast south of the Dnipro. Then, holding the line to the east, they can roll up Russian forces to the west without need for a difficult and tactically fraught crossing of that mighty river.
This would be a major undertaking and not without risk. But if the UkrAF can achieve it then Crimea could well lie at their mercy. The territorial gains would bring more or less all of the Russian bases on the peninsula within range, and if long range attacks on airfields, supply dumps, and the naval base at Sevastopol are combined with continual disruption of the Kerch Bridge then the Russian position on Crimea might well become unsustainable even before a costly land invasion is launched.
All of this is easier said than done, of course, and there’s many a slip between cup and lip. But the retaking of Crimea might, and I say might, just begin to set the parameters for a negotiated peace. Of course large parts of Ukraine will still be under Russian control in Luhansk and Donetsk, but a combination of compromise, reparations, and possibly internationally conducted plebiscites might decide the future of those areas to the satisfaction of those concerned.
That’s how I would be looking to end this war, but sadly there are no indications that either side wants to come to the negotiations table yet. Meanwhile the death and destruction grinds unremorsefully on.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk
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