Recently I heard an “expert” offer the opinion that Putin and the Russian Army had made a serious mistake when they organized the “special military operation” (SMO) in the Ukraine the way they did. It would have been far better to just send the army into Lugansk and Donetsk to defend them rather than make an ill-advised dash toward Kiev.
Instead of following this belated advice from that expert, the Russians chose to move fast into northern and southern Ukraine. Why did they do that? There are many theories; some good, some illogical, and some completely incoherent. I thought it might be a good idea to step back and look at the situation before the SMO from the Russian point of view. Russians tend to be practical and logical people and the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces probably more so than most. Their plan must have had logical reasons based on what they saw at the time. So, how did the Russians see the situation before the SMO, at the end of 2021? Let’s put ourselves in their shoes and come up with a theory. Note that this is not a theory of what did happen, only of what the Russians may have thought that might happen when they planned their SMO.
The defensive lines and the siege of the Donbass
The first thing the Russians must have noticed was the construction of the massive Ukrainian defensive lines around the Lugansk and Donetsk republics. The Ukraine Government had made no secret of their plan to capture the republics and the Ukrainian Army should have had an “offensive posture” rather than defensive. It makes perfect sense to construct defensive lines while planning an attack to prevent disruptive counterattacks, but the Ukrainian defenses went far beyond that. They were truly massive and built over a period of 8 years. We know how strong they were because it has taken the Russians more than a year to break through them.
The Russians must have taken a look at those defenses and reached the following conclusion: Their purpose is to contain the Russian Army if necessary – even if a large part of the Russian Army is used against them.
The second thing the Russians must have noticed was the absolute determination of the Ukrainians to attack the republics, even if this ensured a Russian response. We saw that determination when the Russian Government recognized their independence just before the war started. According to the OCSE artillery monitoring map, Ukrainian artillery attacks on the republics decreased right after the recognition of independence, but then increased again – most likely after having received orders from Kiev to keep going. At that point in time Russian involvement was ensured, but the Ukrainians still kept attacking the republics.
The Russians would have connected those two things; the determination to attack and the massive defenses. They must have come to the following conclusion: “They want us to attack through the Donbass, and then they are going to use those defensive lines to contain us. Why?”
Having observed all this the Russians must have started to think about the Ukrainian plans. They would have assumed that those plans were not just Ukrainian plans, but NATO plans as well. So, what were the Ukrainians and NATO planning?
The Russians must have made the following deduction: “The Ukrainians and NATO want us to attack through the Donbass and clash against those lines. Why would they want that? It must be because it is a precondition for some kind of plan on their part – some kind of larger plan. What is that larger plan?”
Then they must have thought about what it would take to confront the Ukrainian army in the Donbass and take on the defensive lines. What would that require? It would require a large force and a lot of time. That would mean that a considerable part of the Russian Army would be tied down there for quite some time. Was that perhaps the precondition for the larger Ukrainian/NATO plan? Was the whole thing perhaps about forcing the Russian Army to attack through the Donbass and taking on the defensive lines – specifically to tie it down – to keep it busy while the Ukrainians and NATO carried out the rest of their plan?
After having considered this, the Russians must have asked themselves the following question: “What do the Ukrainians and NATO want more than anything?” And since it’s actually the Americans and the British running the show: “What do the Americans and the British want more than anything?” The question isn’t hard to answer. What the Americans, the British, and the Ukrainians want more than anything is Crimea. Crimea is the key to “dominating” the Black Sea, and capturing it would be a dagger into the belly of Russia.
After having run through this logic, the Russians would have come to the conclusion that the Ukrainian attack on the Donbass republics and the defensive lines was a trap to tie them down. Then they started planning countermoves.
The Russian plan
The first thing the Russians may have thought about when planning the countermove was timing. How long after the war started would the Ukrainians move on the Crimean peninsula? They wouldn’t do it right away because they would want the Russian Army to be well and truly engaged in the Donbass before making a move. They would also not want to tip the Russians off by assembling a big force near Crimea before the Russians engaged the defensive lines in the Donbass. This would mean that the area north of Crimea, i.e. Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, would be lightly defended for a while.
After having reached this conclusion, the Russians put together a plan to preempt the Ukrainian/NATO plan. The plan had one main objective and two secondary objectives.
Objective 1 (main objective): To capture Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts to create a buffer zone between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine. This objective had to be reached extremely fast while the area was still lightly defended. This operation was all-important at that point in time, far more important than anything happening in the Donbass or the Kiev area. Capturing Kherson was not enough to create the buffer zone because the Ukrainians had to be prevented from attacking the Crimean Bridge. The Zaporizhzhia coast line is only 150 kilometers from the bridge so Zaporizhzhia oblast had to be taken immediately as well.
Objective 2 (secondary objective): While a large part of the Ukrainian Army was positioned in the Donbass, there was still a large force kept back, possibly for the Crimean operation. This part of the Ukrainian army would have to be kept from engaging the Russian forces going after Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. The only way to do that was to threaten something that had to be defended at all cost, even at the cost of the Crimea plan. There was only one location the Ukrainians would defend at all cost outside the Donbass – Kiev itself. The Russians therefore decided to advance on Kiev in an extremely threatening manner. The forces they used were not sufficient to take Kiev outright but enough to hold the area north of the city and seriously threaten it. The Ukrainians would have no choice but to take the threat seriously and move forces toward Kiev, including the forces intended for the Crimean operation. This would prevent the Ukrainians from responding to the Russian occupation of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts.
Objective 3 (secondary objective): To force Ukraine to negotiate peace on Russian terms. The Russians most likely assumed that if the Kherson/ Zaporizhzhia buffer operation was successful the Ukrainians might want to negotiate. They would want to negotiate not only because Kiev was threatened, but primarily because their main objective, the capture of Crimea, had been thwarted. This part of the plan was partly successful because the Ukrainians were ready to sign a treaty before the Americans and the British intervened.
The conclusion from this (perhaps dubious) mind-reading of the Russian General Staff is that the main objectives of the initial Russian operation were Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, not Donbass, Kiev, or a treaty with the Ukrainians. When the negotiations fell through, the Russians moved back to their contingency plan with the main objective of destroying the Ukrainian Army.
It is important to keep in mind that this is not a theory intended to explain what happened. It is only a theory to explain the Russian plan based on what the Russians may have been thinking at the time. It’s highly speculative and perhaps wrong, but it explains a lot nevertheless – including Ukrainian and Western reactions to the Russian operation.
The Ukrainian plan
Let’s describe the theoretical Ukrainian/NATO plan before moving on. The plan, according to this hypothetical Russian pre-war theory, had three main objectives:
- To tie down the Russian Army in the Donbass using the massive defensive lines and a good part of the well-trained and well-equipped Ukrainian Army.
- To carry out a surprise attack on the Crimean peninsula, occupy it and turn the Black Sea into a NATO-controlled area – and putting massive pressure on Putin as a bonus. For this a significant part of the Ukrainian army was held back from the Donbass.
- To bog down and bleed the Russian Army in the Donbass with the goal of engineering a regime change in Russia. The sanctions blitz was planned as an integral part of that goal.
It’s April 2023 and so far none of these objectives have been achieved. Let’s assume that this theory is correct and this was actually the plan – and let’s look at what the Ukrainians and the West have been up to since it failed. Again, this is highly speculative.
The obsession with the plan
If we look at what the Ukrainians and the West have been doing in this war, a pattern seems to emerge: They still seem to be carrying out the initial plan, even though it failed. Almost every decision they make seems to be in accordance with the plan, or more specifically, in accordance with a pathological denial of the failure of the plan. Let’s look at a few examples:
The obsession with Crimea: The Ukrainians and the West are still planning to take Crimea, even though it is impossible. Still, the capture of Crimea is alive in their minds and a realistic option. Zelensky even at one point said that the Ukraine had started the liberation of Crimea … “in their minds.” Occupying Crimea was a part of the plan and abandoning Crimea means that the plan has failed.
The attack on the Crimean Bridge: Destroying the bridge was a part of the plan, and even after the Crimea was out of Ukraine’s grasp and the Russians had secured a land corridor to Crimea, the bridge was still a priority. It had to be attacked because that was a part of the plan. Now that itch has been scratched and they have, so far, not had the need to try again.
The obsession with Bakhmut: The Ukrainian Army has probably lost close to 40,000 soldiers defending Soledar and Bakhmut. The enclosed area is a kill zone for Russian artillery which the Ukrainians supply with endless cannon fodder. Even the Americans have doubts that hanging on to the city is the right option and the Ukrainians may even be willing to sacrifice their spring offensive to hold on to it just a little bit longer. More and more military experts are shaking their heads and talk about Bakhmut as a Ukrainian obsession, which it is. Holding Bakhmut prevents the last part of the plan from failing, i.e. to hold the Russian army on the other side of the defensive lines. If the Russians break through, the plan will have failed completely. Therefore Bakhmut must be defended.
The obsession with the sanctions: One of the biggest shocks of the war was the failure of the Western economic sanctions. The response of the West to the failure has been interesting. They didn’t cancel the sanctions or freeze them or rethink them. Instead they keep on sanctioning everyone and everything even though it is clearly pointless and even counterproductive. The situation is becoming increasingly surreal but they can’t stop. If they stop, the plan will have failed.
The initial panic
There is one other issue which the failure of the Ukrainian/NATO plan may explain. Every significant person in the West expected the Russians to invade the Ukraine before it happened. This was, in fact, what many of them wanted. One would have expected them to show indignation, to condemn the brutish Russians, and so on and so forth. The initial reaction in the West went far beyond that. There was extreme anger, panic and hysteria. There were even threats of using nuclear weapons. I always thought these reactions were far more extreme than the Russian invasion warranted. Why completely lose your mind over something you knew was going to happen? I suspect all the anger, the panic and the threats were because the Russians thwarted the Western Crimea plan. They were going to trick the Russians but the Russians tricked them instead. The Westerners were humiliated and nothing motivates anger and threats of nukes more than humiliation.
The anger and obsession with the failed plan in the Ukraine and the West are without doubt the result of the psychology and personality of the incredibly uniform Western and Ukrainian leadership class. They don’t accept personal failure easily, or the intrusion of reality into their plans. But that is a matter for another essay, and a long one at that.
Finally, remember that this is all speculation – a thought exercise if you will – but who knows…