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Ride Across the River
I'm a soldier of freedom in the army of the man
And we are the chosen, we're the partisan
Well the cause it is noble and the cause it is just
We are ready to pay with our lives if we must
Gonna ride across the river deep and wide
Ride across the river to the other side
─ Mark Knopfler, 1985
The following is a speculation; a flight of fancy, if you will.
Beginning no later than the waning autumn of 2022, observers of the ongoing war in Ukraine have been anticipating a major Russian offensive to be launched. The extremely costly late summer Ukrainian “counter-offensives” in the Kharkov and Kherson regions had ground to a halt against impenetrable Russian defensive lines east of the Oskol River in the north and along the Dnieper River in the south.
Meanwhile, the Russians executed a substantial mobilization which has added upwards of 400,000 effectives to their forces. Contrary to almost-universal predictions that Russian armaments would have long-since been exhausted, and their economy crumbled under the weight of western sanctions, neither has occurred.
From a military standpoint, the Russians have adopted a resolute strategy of attrition, most exemplified by the relentless meat-grinder of Bakhmut, which has become not only the single largest battle of this war, but the bloodiest battle seen on the European continent since the Second World War.
The Armed Forces of Ukraine are now a depleted shell. The tally of soldiers killed in action is almost certainly at least 150,000 – and very arguably in excess of 200,000, with the irretrievably wounded likely double the number of killed.
The Ukrainian Air Force is a non-factor. Ukrainian tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery pieces have been reduced to a minute fraction of what they were a year ago plus what they have received from NATO since then. Ammunition shortages have become acute.
The Ukrainians are quite literally groveling for more of everything from their NATO handlers. But the NATO armaments cupboard is now bare. And despite grandiose pledges of large new shipments of NATO equipment, the reality is proving to be a pale shadow of the promises.
Even so, the AFU manages to supply still-formidable garrisons of the “fortress cities” they constructed over the course of the years preceding the war. Despite the impending fall of the key strategic fortress of Bakhmut, several strongly fortified towns stand in the way of a successful Russian liberation of the remaining Ukrainian-occupied areas of Donetsk, Zaporozhye, and Kherson oblasts.
I have previously considered that the logical Russian solution was to mass forces to launch “big arrow” offensives south from the general direction of Belgorod and north from the general direction of Zaporozhye; cut off Ukrainian supply lines, and then simply starve the Ukrainian fortress cities into submission.
Something along those lines could very well still be the Russian plan. But these would be inherently risk-laden maneuvers. Big arrow moves necessarily mean exposed flanks and very long and highly vulnerable lines of communication.
And the simple fact of the matter is that a large-scale pincer movement such as I envisioned would require at least a million combat effectives, with more than sufficient equipment and ammunition to supply them for an extended campaign.
Of course, Russian commanders could just as likely have a plan armchair generals like myself haven’t considered.
Or, perhaps most likely of all, the plan is simply to continue their methodical war of attrition until it results in a front-wide collapse of the AFU, at which point they will move forward effectively unopposed, dictate peace terms that formally establish new Russian borders, and then sit back and watch as the NATO military alliance and the European Union crumble in massively weakened disarray.
But there is another option that occurred to me today – give the Ukrainians and their NATO overlords exactly what they appear to desire most: the chance for a gloriously triumphant counter-offensive.
What is NATO’s fondest dream? To drive the Russians from Crimea! It is and has always been the summum bonum of this entire war; the ultimate objective of the creation of the Mother of All Proxy Armies.
So manufacture a sequence of developments such that both the Ukrainians and the damn fools running NATO can persuade themselves it's a bona fide window of opportunity!
Feign exhaustion. Let the AFU mass the bulk of their remaining offensive potential for a thrust towards the Crimean land bridge. To do so, they will need to drain a substantial portion of the garrisons in their remaining fortress cities west of Donetsk. They will need to hoard and then concentrate every piece of equipment and all the ammunition they receive from NATO over the next several weeks.
So let them.
Oh, sure, interdict some of it; hit a few targets during the course of the concentration. Make a convincing show of depleted but still occasionally potent resistance.
But otherwise let them assemble largely unhindered.
I guarantee the western military brain trust is fully capable of erroneously interpreting a significant reduction in fire rates as – finally! – the fulfillment of their longstanding prophecies that Russian ammunition stocks would soon be exhausted.
Give them the fleeting satisfaction of believing they were right all along. Let them build whatever force they can muster over the next 8 – 10 weeks. As matters currently stand, simple arithmetic dictates that they cannot possibly build a third Ukrainian army nearly as powerful as the second, which itself was only a shadow of the first.
So let them build it.
And then, as they apparently desired to do all along, permit this army to push a last-gasp salient towards Crimea. Let them advance a good distance towards Melitopol.
Oh, I’m telling you, the Slava Ukraini crowd would erupt in orgasmic glee. The Russian doomers would sink into unprecedented fits of despair and fault-finding. Calls for the heads of generals and deposing the Putin regime would explode from every Russian doomer Telegram channel. Russian apologists like me would be ruthlessly mocked from every quarter.
And THAT is the moment when the Russian high command should move with the most overwhelming concentration of force and firepower they have yet fielded in this war – including a significant portion of the substantial air power they have assembled in the theater.
They ought to be able to converge on this putative Melitopol salient simultaneously from Kherson, Mariupol, Donetsk, and Crimea – move hard against the Ukrainian flanks; cut off their rear all the way to the river.
If the Russian generals can’t somehow put together a couple hundred thousand well-equipped combat effectives to execute such a move … well then the naysaying western “experts” and the Russian doomers were probably right all along: Russia is little more than a gas station masquerading as a country, led by incompetent politicians and generals, and the Russians should make no further pretensions to geopolitical relevance and strategic acumen.
Of course, this is all simply a thought exercise; a rumination, if you will. It may contain logical flaws and evidences of logistical ignorance I have not perceived.
That said, if I were calling the shots, it is a plan I would seriously consider.