• Despite Russian military difficulties and in spite of talks, it is unlikely that Russia will withdraw or seek a political solution in the next two weeks.
  • The encirclement and isolation of Kyiv is highly likely to be the Russian Main Effort and it is a realistic possibility that key Ground Lines of Communication into Kyiv will be cut off within the next 96 hours as the initial phase of encirclement.
  • It is highly likely the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, particularly in besieged cities, will worsen in the short term as medical facilities are overwhelmed, supplies run out, and infrastructure is targeted by Russia.
  • In spite of well-publicised logistics and morale issues within the Russian invading forces, it is highly likely that Russian forces in theatre are sufficient to seize and control major urban areas, including Kyiv – achieving their assessed initial objectives.
Figure 1 – Situation as at 2000Z 2 March 2022 – Credit: Institute for the Study of War
(https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-march-2)

Military round-up and latest hightlights

Current Situation

On 24 February, the Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) began (or resumed) their invasion of Ukraine, opening the conflict with a series of cruise missile, ballistic missile, and air strikes against Ukrainian targets2. The initial target list included military garrisons, airfields (including military aircraft on the ground), critical infrastructure, and government locations in Kyiv. Russia reportedly launched approximately 86 strikes overnight in the opening gambit, raising to approximately 200 strikes in the first 24 hours. For comparison, the United States (US) launched over 800 Tomahawk missiles against Iraqi targets in the 2003 invasion. Average speeds for territory conquered are also similar between the RFAF Ukraine Operation and the US invasion of Iraq – approximately two kilometres per hour (kph). Following the Russian strikes, a ground invasion was launched across four axes; the current understanding of the Forward Line of Enemy Troops (FLET) is shown in Figure 1 above (graphic is credited to the Institute for the Study of War). Between 28 February and 3 March, the RFAF have taken little additional ground, instead likely focussing on replenishment, reorganisation, and encirclement of defenders at key terrain. There have been two meetings between the Ukrainian and Russian governments since the beginning of hostilities on 24 February, however, there have been no tangible diplomatic outputs.

Northern Axis (Main Effort)

The sequential encirclement and attack on Kyiv are almost certainly the Main Effort (ME) of Russian forces in Ukraine. RFAF have projected south towards Kyiv from both Belarus and Klintsy on both sides of the Dnieper River.

To the northwest of Kyiv, RFAF elements occupy suburbs outside Kyiv and have seized Antonov airfield after a second attempt. Lead elements are reportedly in the vicinity of (IVO) Irpin and Bucha, approximately 25km from the centre of the Ukrainian capital.

The northern axis has seen no major movement of RFAF towards Kyiv for the past two days, with reorganisation and resupply likely underway.

A significant RFAF convoy (reportedly up to 800 vehicles) is likely to be a concentration of smaller convoys compressed due to poor management of logistic and limited access to paved routes. Convoys have also been slowed by some targeting and strikes by Ukrainian Bayraktar TB2 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles3 (UAVs) procured from Turkey.

Russian military presence along the east bank of the Dnieper river has been established, with a narrow front in place which possibly extends to Kovolets, Bobrovytsya and Makiiv, approximately 70km north-northeast of Kyiv centre. To the east of the Dnieper River, the advance of RFAF elements has stalled IVO Chernihiv.

The failure to take Chernihiv has led to significant RFAF bombardment, including civilian infrastructure, over the last 48 hours, likely in an attempt to force the city to surrender.

Only Russian reconnaissance and irregular elements have been observed operating in Kyiv City. They have operated in civilian attire or Ukrainian uniform – likely searching for President Zelensky or other Hight Value targets (HVTs).

North-eastern Axis (Supporting Effort)

This axis is primarily attacking west towards Kharkiv and Sumy from Kursk and Belgorod with the bulk of RFAF forces consumed by the encirclement of Sumy and Kharkiv, with limited incursions.

As with Chernihiv and Kyiv, the failure of RFAF to seize and occupy quickly has almost certainly led to increased use of strikes against civilian areas, causing significant civilian casualties (CIVCAS) and destroying residential and commercial properties alongside critical infrastructure.

Elements of the 4th Guards Tank Division are moving northwest IVO Trostanyets, likely seeking to approach Sumy from the southwest to complete the encirclement.

The thrust west in between Sumy and Chernihiv through Konotop, Bakhmach and Pryluky is a supporting effort for the ME against Kyiv and is likely seeking to move deeper into Ukraine to the outskirts of Kyiv and assist in the encirclement from the east. The distance required to be covered by these forces will likely leave flanks and logistics tails exposed to Ukrainian raids and ambushes and is therefore relatively high-risk for RFAF.

Eastern Axis (Supporting Effort)

This axis is attacking west and north from Donetsk Peoples’ Republic (DPR) and Luhansk Peoples’ Republic (LPR). LPR based units have moved northwest, towards Starobilsk and Nova Astrakhan, but have faced localised counterattacks on their western flank by UAF elements defending Slevlerodonetsk and Lysychank. It is a realistic possibility that the advances north on the eastern axis seek to link up with additional RFAF units crossing the border from Pelahiivka and Prosyane.

As of 2 March, units securing the east side of Mariupol were linked up with elements from the southern axis, completing the encirclement of the city. Russian Led Separatist Forces (RLSF) and RFAF units in southern DPR have attacked west along the coastline towards Mariupol.

It is likely there are still some escape routes to the north-northwest of Mariupol; however, these are likely too restrictive for an evacuation and are likely to be cut off by RFAF within the next 24 hours.

RFAF strikes are reportedly targeting civilian infrastructure, including power and water plants servicing Mariupol, to deliberately create a humanitarian crisis and force the city to surrender. This tactic has previously been observed during Russian military operations in Syria.

Southern Axis (Supporting Effort)

Crimea based units advancing north split into two axes; one advancing northwest towards Kherson, and one east along the coastline towards Melitopol and Mariupol. Within the first 36 hours of the conflict, the RFAF advanced into the Kherson region and destroyed the Ukrainian dam which had stifled 85 percent of Crimea’s fresh water supply since it was built by Ukraine in 2014.

The north-western axis reportedly managed to take Kherson town (the regional capital) on 3 March, whist concurrently assaulting Mykolaiv further northwest. If Kherson, Mykolaiv, and their major bridges fall to the RFAF, this will open up the route west towards Odessa.

It is a realistic possibility that once the eastern approach becomes tenable, the RFAF will launch an amphibious assault force IVO Odessa and begin the encirclement and isolation of the city – likely backed up with the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) to enforce maritime restrictions.

Issues with the RFAF Advance

The Russian invasion has not shown the rapid success many predicted, nor have RFAF adhered to understood Russian Large-Scale Conventional Operation (LSCO) doctrine or tactics. The table below highlights RFAF issues and the likely contributing factors. Despite these difficulties, the RFAF has by no means been defeated and is unlikely to sue for peace or unilaterally withdraw in the short term.

Assessment

It is likely that major towns and cities currently besieged by the RFAF will come under significant bombardment. The targeting of infrastructure such as utilities and medical facilities will continue, and it is a realistic possibility that EW will be used to push IO messaging as a form of psychological warfare operations (PsyOps) to besieged civilians to lower morale and encourage surrender. It is likely Russia will increase CAS sorties against urban areas using dumb munitions. It is likely that remaining PGMs will be saved to use against HVTs – with President Zelensky near the top of the targeting priority list.

Despite the issues highlighted above it is likely that the reporting of Russian military failures and Ukrainian success are being deliberately amplified by western media and governments. This will be in order to dominate the information battlespace and galvanise further public and international support for sanctions against Russia and the provision of aid to Ukraine. The failure of the initial rapid thrusts to secure Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Kharkiv has led to a slower more deliberate advance by the RFAF, who almost certainly still have ample forces to complete these initial objectives. The current RFAF reduction in pace of advance is likely to allow for traffic jams to clear, logistics to be routed, and supplies distributed prior to the resumption of offensive manoeuvre. Stockpiling of munitions and fuel is also essential for besieging armies to maintain a sufficient level of kinetic strikes that demoralises defenders and creates a situation too challenging for local authorities to sustain. Assessed Most Likely Course of Action (MLCoA)

Outlook – Immediate Term (72hrs)

It is likely that RFAF will maintain an average speed of approximately 2kph overall, indicating that the initial phase of the encirclement of Kyiv will occur within the next 96hrs, blocking major lines of communication to the west and east of the city. Subsequent operations will likely complete the encirclement and isolate Kyiv within a week. This may be delayed if Russian forces have to swing further west towards Zhytomyr due to stronger-than anticipated UAF defences to the west of Kyiv. It is likely that reconnaissance and irregular elements will continue to infiltrate the city throughout the period to provide targeting information, Battle Damage Assessment (BDA), and conduct sabotage/assassinations. It is possibility that Russia will target convoys heading east towards Kyiv in the hope of disrupting aid and arms convoys and subsequently lower the inventories of weapons and ammunition available to Kyiv’s defenders. It is also possible that humanitarian convoys will be targeted, or accidentally misidentified.

Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, and Mariupol are likely to remain under siege by RFAF; however, it is unlikely that the RFAF will launch direct assaults onto the cities in the immediate term. The bombardment of utilities, residential spaces, and critical infrastructure are likely to endure. In coastal towns such as Mariupol this may also consist of naval blockade and bombardment by elements of the BSF. It is likely that UAF units may conduct localised counter-attacks against besieging forces, but a breakout of existing forces in any of the above towns/cities is unlikely. It is highly likely the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, particularly in besieged cities, will worsen in the short term as medical facilities are overwhelmed, supplies run out, and infrastructure is targeted by Russia.

It is likely that RFAF will isolate and seize Mykolaiv within the next 48 hours. This is likely to precipitate an amphibious invasion against Odessa. An amphibious operation against Odessa is likely to consist of a coastal bombardment from BSF vessels prior to landings on beaches to the east of Odessa which can subsequently be supported by heavier ground forces coming through Mykolaiv. It is likely that concurrent to the amphibious assault, air assault and airborne elements will insert to the west of Odessa to isolate the city. There has been no reporting to indicate that the Operational Group of Russian Forces (OGRF) based in Transnistria will contribute to the encirclement from the north.

Outlook – Short Term (One to Two Weeks)

Once Kyiv has been successfully isolated, it is likely that a period of intense strikes and shelling will precede the break-in to the city. It is a realistic possibility that the Chechen Army units on the northern axis will be used to conduct the initial phase of the assault due to their experience in urban warfare, and also because their strong religious beliefs provide an additional element of fearlessness.

It is possible that Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) units will move towards surrounded cities in preparation for the ensuing occupation free up combat forces for subsequent operations. RFAF and Rosgvardia are likely to provide security and authority to what will likely be pro-Russian LN government figures installed by the occupiers.

It is a realistic possibility that Mariupol will be seized within the next two weeks. Mariupol has a significant number of Azov Battalion fighters present, and it is likely that if captured these forces will be used for Russian propaganda to highlight ‘Nazis’ in the UAF and legitimise their “special operation” to invade and control Ukraine. It is also a realistic possibility that Russian forces will reach and begin to strike into Dnieper within the next 7-10 days, after isolating Zaporizhzhia. However, territory east of the city which is not directly under Russian occupation is likely to subject to Ukrainian operations that target rear-area units, logistics, Command and Control (C2) nodes in an attempt to stymie the advance.

It is highly unlikely there will be a cease-fire or Russian withdrawal within the next two weeks. It is becoming a realistic probability that the conflict will drag on for a protracted period, possibly more than six months.