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By John Helmer, Moscow

This is not, repeat not, the tar baby story of the Afro-Americans and American Indians. The US and NATO allies aren’t the fox, Russia isn’t the rabbit, except that the Ukraine is the tar baby.  

The reason US commanders were confident Russia would move into the Ukraine when they did was that they made certain the Russian General Staff understood that if they failed to move west, they would be attacked themselves east across the Ukraine front, north against Belgorod and Voronezh, south against Crimea and Rostov;  and at the same time the US would launch its blitzkrieg to destroy the Russian economy. The Ukrainian plan of land attack was the feint; the sanctions war was the main thrust at Moscow.  

In last year’s manual of what is called the Russian Strategic Initiative of the US European Command in Stuttgart, the Russian Army’s strategy of “active defense” was reported to start with “preventative measures taken before a conflict breaks out, to deter it”.  Thereafter  would follow “a defensive-offense that envisions persistent engagement of an opponent throughout the theatre of military action to include critical infrastructure in their homeland, executing strategic operations that affect an adversary’s ability or will to sustain the struggle.”  Aiming at “achieving surprise, decisiveness and continuity of strategy action”, the US command has been expecting Russian “warfighting defined by fire, strike and maneuver where tactical formations engage each other at distance”.

The Russian “calculus”, according to US Army figuring, “is that the center of gravity lies in degrading a state’s military and economic potential, not seizing territory.”

Since the war plan for the US to destroy Russia required eight years of fitting out the Ukraine as a gunship, what has been surprising in the first phase of the war? What can be anticipated to happen next in Phase 2, then Phase 3, and Phase 4 – that’s the long war President Biden, Chancellor Scholz, and Prime Minister Johnson think they can sustain in the belief the Russians cannot?

The method of armchair warfare starts with knowing what to read, at what speed, and what not to read at all.   

This is because in information warfare the targets of the mainstream and social media are the domestic audiences on each side: they must be convinced they are winning and the price they pay will be brief and worth paying. The money is misspent: there has been no success of the western media inside Russia, and no success of the Russian media outside Russia.

Instead, credible evidence of the daily battlefield operations is being documented painstakingly by several Russian language sources which can be followed in part with automatic translation programmes. They include Boris Rozhin’s Colonel Cassad  and Yury Podolyak’s The World Today.  

Sources:  https://colonelcassad.livejournal.com/ and https://t.me/s/boris_rozhin and https://www.youtube.com/.
 Aggregators of these materials mapping and publishing in  Russian and in English include Andrei Martyanov  and Andrei Raevsky.

The next step in armchair warfare is to ask simple, naïve questions, and compare the answers you get.  For example, how many forces have the Russians deployed against how many Ukrainians?

In US Army warfighting doctrine,   it has long been conventional to estimate that an attacking force should outnumber the defending force by a ratio of 3 to 1. In counterinsurgency operations and in the Vietnam War, the US command calculated that on the attack against the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army, the US forces should outnumber the Vietnamese by 10 to 1. This ratio was adjusted downward to about 5:1 taking into account the US superiority in firepower — bombardment from artillery, air bombing,  and helicopter gunships.

More recent US military computer simulations, based on the Arab-Israeli wars, US operations against Iraq, and NATO wargames, have included more  into the force ratio calculation to be required for NATO against Russia, or to be anticipated for Russia against NATO.


Source: US Department of the Army, Army Field Manual FM6-0, Commander and Staff Organization and Operations (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2016), Table 9-2.  

How then to explain that in Phase 1 of the Russian special military operation against Ukraine, between 40,000 and 50,000 Russian forces have been deployed against roughly 80,000 Ukrainian forces in the Donbass, a force ratio of significantly less than one Russian in offence to one Ukrainian in defence?  

A well-informed Moscow source with close contacts in the Donbass answers:  “On troop strengths, we have to compare apples with apples. We also have to look at the wider map and see that the whole of southwestern Russia is the theatre of operations and not just Ukrainian territory.  Within this theatre Russian troops have clear numerical superiority. Naturally, all of them would not be committed at the start on February 24, risking worse bottlenecks of the kinds we have already seen. 

Not all Russian troops in the wider theatre can be offensive troops. They were required to form a wide, deep and complex defensive line and rear. They had to cover more flanks than the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians definitely had a defensive advantage as they were very well dug in in Donbass. They would have had the disadvantage had they been the invading force. The local battle group numbers, therefore, do not tell much.

What none of the analysts has considered yet is that the Russian General Staff realized there were serious risks of a Ukrainian offensive – that’s to say, an attack across Russian borders, not merely counterattacks against initial Russian manoeuvres. There was every possibility of an Ukrainian battle group breaking northward toward Voronezh and then taking cover in civilian areas for an advance to include a swing southward  towards Rostov, with the aim of encircling  Donbass.

Why does everyone assume that the Ukrainians were planning for defence only? A major Ukrainian offensive on Crimea was imminent. The Russians, therefore, had to have a big defensive force in position until all the Ukrainian military infrastructure had been taken out.

What none of the analysts has considered is that the Ukraine  was not being prepared by the US for a defensive war. In British military colleges, there has always been the belief that tactically the Soviets lost the Battle of Kursk. We all seem to forget that European, American and British understanding of the World War II battles is that they believe they can win in direct war with Russia on precisely that battleground.

The key is not to get bogged down in cities but to use the cities as a shield. Other than that,  the terrain from Kharkov in the north towards Belgorod and then towards Voronezh lends itself to that kind of a plan if the attacking force  is well equipped in anti-tank weapons and can limit the ability of the Russian air force to bomb the army as it moves across from city to city. The Ukrainians were prepared exactly for that — to attack swiftly with infantry in highly mobile units armed with MANPADS [man portable air defense systems].  

The Russians have been well aware of the possibility of this US plan of attack.  I, therefore, do not see the Russian move into Kiev, the paratroop drops into airfields, the destruction of airfields, stockpiles and garrisons in the west, and the many special ops in Galicia, between Kiev and Lvov, as either a waste of Russian resources or a mistake. I see them as a necessity to pin down the Ukrainian command and threaten Kiev and the whole leadership if they made the move they had planned into Russian territory. Absolutely necessary, in fact.

So then, having achieved the Phase 1 objectives of destruction of infrastructure, pinning Kiev down, and taking control of the Black Sea and the Azov Sea coastline, the Russian objective has been to defend and expand the Donbass lines. The Russian army had to ensure the Ukrainians could not  break through towards Donetsk. Worse case – if they had managed to encircle Donetsk, it would have been a catastrophe.  All in all, the Ukrainians should be seen as a very mature army directed by able US and NATO staffs, armed with their best weapons. We should have no illusion that the Ukrainian force dug in along the contact line was a defensive force waiting to kill the invading Russians.

Once the risk of a Ukrainian breakout eastward has been eliminated by Phase I, we can see that in Phase 2 there will be large new Russian reinforcements coming in.

Certainly, the Russians appear to have underestimated Ukrainian strength in the northwestern  line between Kharkov, Sumy and Kiev, as well as in the south in Mariupol. The Russians also underestimated, more acutely, the Ukrainian defensive capabilities in the Donetsk region. They were not expecting such heavy resistance. The Ukrainian forces present in Kharkov and Sumy appear to have been a very mobile infantry trained for guerrilla operations, fast reaction, merging into civilian areas and attacking at will.

Map of force disposition as of March 17, 2022 – Institute for the Study of War (US).

The Ukrainian mistake seems to have been political, and also underestimating the Russians. The first attack in Kharkov should have been a sign to them. But they have repeated the mistake of combining mercenaries with Azov territorial battalions in locations the Russians have been able to target again and again. This contributes to the western media propaganda narrative but doesn’t avoid the certainty of their defeat and destruction.”

A second question: if Ukrainian military preparations were sophisticated and well informed by US intelligence, and if American warnings of imminent Russian attack were genuine, how come the Ukrainian command and their forces appear to have been taken by surprise; to have lost their navy, air force, and much of their military command-and-control within the first 48 hours?

A Canadian military veteran with NATO warfighting expertise answers: “The Ukrainians were prepared to fight the war the US and NATO wanted them to. Surprise was never part of the equation as the whole country was set up as a weapon to play its part in the larger war against Russia. It’s hard to surprise a land mine.

That said, the surprise has more to do with the Russian long game than with the initial destruction of Ukrainian command and control, air or naval assets. The war the Ukrainians were set up to fight has turned out not to be the war which the Russians intend to win. I’m calling this the Long Game Surprise.

Ukrainian forces were dug in at points along the routes of suspected Russian advances and they made sure to turn key cities into fortresses. The US intel was good. They knew, despite Zelensky’s whining in the days leading up to the operation that the attack was coming. The US wanted it to come. A Russian attack was part of the US strategy to beat Russia.

Everyone on the Ukrainian/NATO/US side understood quite well that the Russian military was going to try to avoid civilian casualties while, at the same time, work at taking the key urban areas — Mariupol, Kherson, Izyum,  etc. The Ukrainian navy and air forces never really had a big role to play in this scheme other than as a means to harass or disrupt Russian forces and score propaganda points when possible. Key ideologically motivated units, such as those in the territorial battalions like the Azov, Aidar and Donbass outfits, along with crack regular units like the air assault or mechanized brigades we are seeing on the Donetsk front, received the bulk of their training to a NATO standard.  It was these formations which Ukrainian/NATO/US planners anchored their strategy on. It’s clear that their role was either to launch an attack on the DPR/LPR [Donetsk, Lugansk People’s Republics] as evidenced by the increased shelling and other aggressive moves in the weeks leading up to February 24; or to drag the Russians into a war of attrition along largely static lines of defence  if the Russians opted to move first. The plan included laying up supplies within urban defence zones, and well prepared fortifications in the Donbass countryside. Command and control was set up in bunkers and headquarters nearer the front. The theatre or national levels were not that much of an issue because the eastern formations were intended to fight largely local battles without counting on a lot of intervention by the wider Ukrainian military – especially east of the Dniepr. The eastern region  command and control (C2) structures appear to have been designed to weather initial Russian attacks better than the central ones in Kiev. 

Of course,  Russian attacks on aerodromes, headquarters, air defence radar complexes were important and they made a large impact on the Ukrainian ability to fight the war in the near term;  but that capacity was not all that sophisticated or necessary to begin with – it wasn’t designed to be. Again, it was readily apparent that the main US effort in terms of preparation went into Ukrainian ground forces to ‘slug it out’ with the Russians on ground of Ukrainian choosing. The Ukrainian force posture was dictated by an awareness that large-scale manoeuvre warfare, which requires strong C2 capability, was largely beyond possibility, as the Ukrainians/NATO knew. Still, they underestimated the Russian capacity for interdiction.  

There were some who didn’t get the memo. The Ukrainian mechanized/motorized units, for example, especially around the Kharkov area, attempted to intervene against the Russian advance, or re-deploy to bolster the defences within and around the city. They then found out the hard way that it would have been much smarter to remain in place. Staying put, or limiting movements to small units in wheeled vehicles, is part of the NATO standard for NATO forces which are expected to fight without the benefit of a US air superiority umbrella and all that entails.

So we got the Siegfried line, the fortresses, and the stay-behind Operation Werewolf  on steroids, armed with old Tochka U missiles to make things more ‘fun’. I suppose the Ukrainians could have moved their assets, such as MiG 29s, out of the country or redeployed their fleet (such as it was) to friendly ports in the Black Sea, but then the propaganda value of myths such as the ‘Ukrainian Ghost of Kiev’  would have been forfeit. The disposition of these assets, however, was a sideshow because the Ukrainian/NATO plan was anchored on the ground elements I’ve mentioned.   

So why did they set things up this way? I think they believed that the Russians would not have the staying power to carry on for weeks or months in order to achieve their goals. It seems they assumed that if they inflicted casualties and held up the Russian advance, then the US economic war and the global propaganda would do the rest in short order.  This is where the surprise lies —  they didn’t and they won’t. Notwithstanding all the talk about turning the Ukraine into an Afghanistan for the Russians, by the time it started to dawn on Kiev, Brussels and Washington that Russia was much more resilient and more determined than they had  imagined and in it for the long haul – Ukrainians, Europeans, Americans,  and Canadians are not Afghans —  it was too late. Also, as usual, the Americans over-estimated their own capabilities while at the same time projecting them on to the Ukrainians.

There were serious miscalculations and straight-up failures on the Ukrainian, NATO, and US side from the start. The Russian advances along the southern axis and their ability to cross the Dniepr and seize Kherson off the march, shows ill preparation and, in my opinion, incompetence on the part of Ukrainian and NATO staff planners and commanders. Across the spectrum of western defence analysts there has been consensus that Kherson would be a major objective for Russian forces moving from Crimea. What happened instead? Incompetence on the Ukrainian side.  Maybe their planners expected Mariupol to be rolled up first.

As for the latter,  Mariupol has gone exactly as I expected it to —  right down to the Nazis taking up the positions they did and the Russian/DPR tactic of breaking them up into smaller pieces to be chewed one by one.  As for the NATO personnel who may have been trapped in the area, I only know what I’ve read from the Russian reports. Did someone expect relief from Kiev, hung on for too long, only to be disappointed and trapped? This is where Russian destruction of Ukrainian C2 capabilities may have taken a toll. But that’s to assume the political will to send assistance existed and then was trumped by the Russian moves. Maybe it was a combination of both. As the long game unfolds, creating the fortresses inside the other urban centres has proven to be a dead end. They have been turned into death traps for the Ukrainian forces inside and around them.

Satellite image of damaged buildings in western Mariupol, March 12, 2022.

To make things worse for the Ukrainians, NATO and the US, the Russian command in Moscow and the Russian forces in the field have shown no hint of getting tired of the fight. Quite to the contrary, they’re moving into Phase 2, and are preparing to destroy Ukrainian forces east of the Dniepr down to the last man.  If any corridors remain open to Ukrainian reinforcements they are only left as a pathway into the giant Russian cauldron the Russians are set to close east of the Dniepr.   Once this task is completed, the question has to be what will Phase 3 (and 4, 5 etc.) look like?

Just as importantly, the Russian population grows more enthusiastic for the operation as time goes by – they understand what’s at stake and want the Ukraine sorted out. Look at how they reacted last week at just a hint of loss of Russian commitment during the  negotiations in Istanbul.

For more on this story, click.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the population becomes more and more disgruntled with the impact the war is having on their lifestyles. In the US and Canada (the latter more than the former), it’s all ‘Slava Ukraini’, but inflation is growing;  $7.20/gallon-$1.90/litre for fuel along with increasing prices for groceries, housing and everything else, will cool enthusiasm for the cause; couple that with the inability of the western states (unlike the Russians) to get anything done in terms of national programs to shift economic priorities toward keeping people employed, housed and fed. Couple all of this with the very different approach toward the situation displayed by China and  India,  and it’s not too hard to see how the long game surprise may play out.  

The Ukrainians were set up to be used as the means to bleed the Russian military while warfare on another level was conducted against the Russian state and people. The strategy was Siegfried/Festung at the front, economic sanctions and propaganda Blitzkrieg in the rear – which is part of the front anyway. The way Ukrainian forces have been deployed and employed displays their role in the wider war against Russia — that is going to end up costing them at least half of the country to no good end.”

A third question: what does the majority of Russians think?

By the end of March, Levada Centre, the independent Moscow pollster,  reported that “the share of those who believe that things in the country are generally going in the right direction increased significantly to 69% compared with 52% in February. The share of those who believe that the country is moving on the wrong path was 22% in March; in February it was 38%.”  Compared to the same poll taken last November, public optimism has jumped by 23 points.


KEY: black=right direction; blue=wrong direction. The Levada Center survey was conducted on March 24-30 on a representative all-Russian sample in urban and rural areas of 1,632 people aged 18 years and older. The study was conducted at each  respondent's home by a personal interview.  The question asked was: “Are things going in the right direction in the country today as a whole, or is the country moving on the wrong path?” The answer options were: in the right direction; on the wrong path; difficult to say. Source: https://www.levada.ru/

This optimism has also substantially boosted the job approval ratings of President Vladimir Putin and other government officials. Putin’s score has jumped from 69% in January to 71% in February, and 83% in March. It has not been so high since late in 2017, when his retirement age and pension changes ran into stiff public opposition; read for more details.  


Source: https://www.levada.ru/

By the way, in the ending of the 1881 Uncle Remus tale of the fox, the rabbit and the tar baby, the rabbit successfully deceives the fox, and luring him into the briar patch, the rabbit escapes the trap — “he skip out des ez lively ez a cricket in de embers. ”

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