The current Ukrainian advances will be the ones to push Russian ground forces completely out of Ukraine, leaving any remaining combat to take place on or just over the border with Russia or with longer-range systems, ending major ground combat operations on Ukrainian soil
By Brian E. Frydenborg (Twitter @bfry1981, LinkedIn, Facebook) October 6, 2022; *UPDATED October 8, 2022 to reflect that my earlier April 24 Crimea article that predicted then the destruction of the Crimean Kerch/Strait Bridge by Ukraine, which began today; updated version published by Small Wars Journal on October 12 as Impotent Missile Strikes Can’t Reverse Russia’s Losing as Beginning of the End of the War Unfolds; see related articles from September 27 Why Putin Has Doomed Himself with His Ukraine Fiasco and September 10 Russian Army Collapses—and Revolution—Near-Certain as Russia Loses War: When/Where Harder to Predict; also, since the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded on October 7 to Ukrainian activist Oleksandra Matviichuk and her organization the Center for Civil Liberties, listen to my April podcast with her here discussing war, Russian war crimes, human rights, and democracy in Ukraine.
SILVER SPRING—Since early march, I have been bullish—very bullish—on Ukraine’s prospects for victory, but even I am continually thrilled and elated at how often Ukraine surprises me by exceeding even my high expectations. And, after the latest events, it is clear to me now that in many ways, we are seeing the beginning of the end of the war, at least in terms of major ground combat operations in Ukraine not on the border with Russia. I don’t mean to imply that this is soon, but that these current operations will lead to and include both the climax and most of the denouement, even if it takes months, half a year, or longer.
How I Got to Here
Back in April, after Russia had collapsed quickly on the Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy fronts, I realized that if (when, for me) Ukraine could retake Kherson City and the rest of the west bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast, that would mean that the bulk of Russian forces would have been exhausted, weakened, damaged, or even destroyed, with little to stop for long a determined Ukrainian advance along the additional sixty-ish miles to the northern border of Crimea with Kherson Oblast.
While in April I was focused on the eventual coming of Crimea into play (*UPDATE October 8: including how Ukraine would very likely take out the Kerch Strait/Crimean Bridge)—itself inspired by my piece analyzing how anti-ship missiles would soon sideline or even destroy the Russian Navy (and in which I was probably the only person, at least in English, to predict the sinking of the Moskva in an article before it happened)—by late July, with Russia having stalled in a spectacularly pathetic fashion, I was focused on explaining why Ukraine will win and then, in early August, the logical follow up:how Ukraine will win.
At the time, Russia had already begun moving significant numbers of troops—including some of its remaining better-quality troops and equipment that hadn’t yet been destroyed or routed—from the eastern theater to the southern theater, from the Donbas line running through the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts, mainly to Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts, neither of which were fully under Kremlin control (indeed, the regional capital city of Zaporizhzhia Oblast was and still is not under Russian control).
I noted then that this was taking troops from more easily defended terrain and more entrenched positions and moving them to less defensible terrain and less dug-in positions. Furthermore, just as strikes with advanced recently supplied precision Western weapons—designed specifically in years past to counter the very weapons Russia was deploying against Ukraine—had decimated Russian logistics, ammunition dumps, command posts and headquarters, and communications on the Donbas front (both on the front line and well-behind the front in the Russian rear) to the point that Russia had lost all major offensive capability there, that had all also started to happen on the Kherson front in the south. In fact, even before Russia’s reinforcements began arriving in the south, these attacks were so effective that damage to key regional bridges across the Dnipro River along with all the other attacks had effectively trapped thousands of Russian troops on the west bank of the Dnipro and largely cut off their escape and resupply.
Knowing how poorly-led the Russians were, Ukraine took its time, announcing far ahead of time that they were coming large, hard, and fast for Kherson, baiting the Russians into committing more troops into an easily-cut-off position so that they added thousands more to the troops stuck on the west bank of the Dnipro River, waiting to more severely disable all the bridges so that now, there are as many as 25,000 Russian troops that are effectively cut off and in the process of being encircled.
And, in a masterstroke the type of which I anticipated (but not its location), while all this was unfolding, Ukraine saw a major target of opportunity in the Kharkiv sector and smashed Russia’s entire Kharkiv front back literally thousands of square miles in a just days. I had noted in my early August piece that Russia’s redeployments from the east to the south would weaken its strength there and provide just such targets of opportunity, on which I fully expected Ukraine would sniff out and capitalize; it was somewhat mathematical.
The intrepid and swift Ukrainians exceeded even my expectations, though, with this Kharkiv sector smashthrough (“breakthrough” doesn’t really do it justice) and it continuing through to the important nearby Russian logistics hub of Lyman in Donetsk and beyond. Both a tertiary-, relatively-sideshow front compared to the Donbas and Kherson fronts but also and extension of the Russian Donbas line, the Kharkiv front presented the Russians to the Ukrainians at their weakest, with the Ukrainians completely surprising and outmaneuvering them. Throughout the Kharkiv sector fighting, it was clear that advanced Ukrainian weaponry supplied by the West, which had destroyed Russian air-defenses and also gave Ukraine effective air-defenses, had actually given Ukraine air superiority—and not Russia—on the front lines (still one of the great ongoing stories of this war). Thus, during these offensives, Russia has been unable to provide effective air cover or reconnaissance for its inferiorly-equipped troops (who have far less night-vision equipment than their Ukrainian counterparts). All these and other factors explain why the fighting has been so one-sided of late.
Thus, Ukraine’s Kharkiv offensive was a total rout of the Russians. But even more importantly, it allowed Ukraine to take most of its forces from the Kharkiv front and position them to be able to join the northern Donbas front and hit the Russian lines there in such a way as to push back and take out its northern sector, eventually outflanking and hitting the rest of the Donbas front from the side and/or rear. We are seeing that play out now, and, at the same time, this is happening just as the Kherson front is also beginning to collapse.
The timing could not be worse for Russian President Vladimir Putin, coming days after his farcical moves to annex these regions, perhaps the first time in history a nation formally annexed territory it did not fully control and then proceeded to lose control of significant parts of that territory in the very first days immediately after a big annexation ceremony.
Pathetic as a label does not do this performance of Russia’s justice.
I did not anticipate such a bold, major breakthrough actually being able to threaten the entire Donbas line from the north through breaking the Kharkiv line; indeed, I had expected that Ukrainian forces from the south would eventually be able to join the southern Donbas front in Donetsk, after moving through Kherson and pretty flat and open Zaporizhzhia Oblast separating Kherson Oblast and Donetsk Oblast.
Now, instead, this process has begun first from the north, but it is a long line and there may be plenty of time for the units on Ukraine’s Kherson front to be able to still push through and join the final major battles in the east.
Retaking Crimea a Second Priority to Reinforcing the East
While most of the Ukrainian forces breaking Russia’s Kherson line would try to push through Zaporizhzhia to liberate the part of that oblast occupied by Russia and to link up with Ukrainian forces on the southern part of the Donbas line in Donetsk, along the way, Crimea, to Kherson’s south, can easily be sealed off with a minimal number of troops. These troops can dig in and deploy heavy equipment, enabling them to turn any Russian counterattack coming out of the narrow entryways of the Crimean Peninsula into suicide, all while they keep striking at Russian positions in Crimea with artillery and rockets, drones, and perhaps even airstrikes. This would create both a sort of siege and a second pocket like the one on the west bank of the Dnipro in Kherson, easily sealed off (the only land route after sealing off Crimea’s northern border is the Kerch Strait/Crimean Bridge into Russia and, especially if Ukrainian units have boxed in Crimea from its northern border, missile systems in possession of Ukraine could hit the bridge easily).
Also like the situation with the west bank of the Dnipro River, it may make sense for Ukraine to allow Russia to reinforce through the Kerch Strait/Crimean Bridge so as to trap more Russian military forces on the Peninsula before damaging the bridge enough to prevent such reinforcements from entering Crimea. While keeping the bridge operational, it will allow the Russian Federation on the other side of the bridge to keep supplying its forces and bases in Crimea with men and equipment that can then be cut off. As for naval resupply, because of Ukraine’s anti-ship missiles, any such effort on the part of Russia is risky and risks a repeat of something like the embarrassing sinking of the Moskva (this is why much of the Russian Navy is now avoiding Crimea and it main naval base of Sevastopol, even submarines); and, as far as air resupply, Ukrainian air defenses moved to the northern Crimean border the southern coast of the Sea of Azov once that area is liberated can make that risky, and, along with precision destruction of Russian air defense systems in Crimea by HIMARS strikes or special operations or partisan sabotage efforts, Ukraine’s air force may also be able to threaten any air resupply. Thus, as I noted all the way back in April, the isolated peninsula is quite vulnerable to being cut off and big questions the answers to which will be interesting to learn will be if and when Ukraine ends up taking out the Crimean/Kerch Strait bridge, Europe’s and Russia’s longest bridge and one of Putin’s grandest achievements as leader of Russia (that almost makes it too tempting to not attack it for the Ukrainians).
A main reason for Ukraine besieging Crimea and continuing with most of its Kherson-area troops east is that there is no real Crimean front, but many Ukrainian troops are fighting and some dying in the east. Bringing as many reinforcements to there as possible will minimize casualties on that Donbas front and maximize casualties for the Russians, as that combined Ukraine force operating in sync on that front would be overwhelming for any Russian defenders left at that point. And such overwhelming force would shorten combat in what seems to have been the deadliest theater of the war for Ukraine and basically end the bulk of the fighting while the smaller Ukrainian force sealing off the norther Crimean border can mostly safely sit in entrenched positions and dare the Russians to attack them from a position of relative safety. If any assault is necessary, the Ukrainians, like they did on the Kherson front and have been doing on the Donbas front for months, can take their time weakening and degrading the Russian rear and Russia’s supply, ammunition, command, communication, and other bases in Crimea. Sealed off and seeing their fellow Russian soldiers to their east in Zaporizhzhia and the Donbas losing to the Ukrainian onslaught, they may well surrender, or at least a good many of them.
But, in the end, Crimea can be a second priority, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has himself repeatedly stated the war will end in Crimea: “This Russian war against Ukraine and against all of free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea—its liberation” and “It started in Crimea, and it will end in Crimea, and this will be an effective revival of the international legal order.” For all these reasons, expect Ukraine to focus on liberating its east before liberating Crimea.
Finishing in the South or East First?
How would that final fighting in the east look?
First, we have to figure out how things will get to that point.
I want to say that it is less likely that the current forces there, including those coming from the Kharkiv front and about to flank Russia’s northern Donbas line, will be able to turn, smash, or compel to retreat that entire line before Ukraine’s southern forces are able to link up with the Ukrainian units in Zaporizhzhia, smash or push back the Russian lines there then push with the linked-up forces into southern Donetsk to the south and even rear of the main Russian line there—Russia’s southern flank of its entire Donbas line—but Russian performance is so bad that I do not want to rule that possibility out. Certainly if Russians on the Donbas front faced major attacks on their front and that outflanked their line to the north and south—the latter including combined forces coming off success in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia—that would be a disastrous situation for Russia.
Winter weather will certainly slow troop movements, but it will also exacerbate Russia’s catastrophic logistics situation. So I am not sure if Russian troops can hold out that long in the east even for those Kherson and Zaporizhzhia troops to join assault on the eastern Donbas line, and while I don’t expect any kind of epic Russian resistance through Zaporizhzhia, I also don’t know if we are talking weeks or a few months in terms of how long that part of the campaign will take.
Maybe Ukraine will surprise me, and the eastern forces will be so successful that they can finish in the east, then a large part of them can turn south and west to join the fight there. But, especially as the border with Russia is in the east, and factoring in how there still could be much fighting in the east, plus not being sure about what kind of winter storms will or won’t happen, I think it will be more likely that Ukraine’s troops from the south will reach the east and join the fighting there than the reverse. And even now, there are rumors (discussed below) that a new Ukrainian offensive in central and/or western Zaporizhzhia may be coming, further complicating gaming out these theaters…
Another note: defying sanity, Russia has continued fruitless and costly attacks farther down the Donbas line against Bakhmut. This is one of the best symbolic examples of sheer Russian incompetence: facing collapses the south and on the same line to the north, instead of conserving lives and resources, instead of further digging in and playing to a defensive advantage, or instead of using troops that were used in the failed Bakhmut attacks to reinforce the northern Donbas line that is facing a critical test it is near-certain to fail, the Russians sent troops to their deaths, time after time again in the context of these other developing catastrophes, against the well-positioned Ukrainians in Bakhmut to little or no avail. It’s as if there is no major coordination, as if Russian commanders are simply fighting in vacuums and not as part of an army, another reason I don’t think we will see massive, energetic, organized redeployments. We have had reporting telling us that Putin is micromanaging this war and taking decision-making away from commanders on the ground, so that would help to explain this, but to what degree it is hard to tell; what is not hard to tell is that these repeated Bakhmut attacks carried out while other fronts are collapsing are insane.
Gaming Out the Endgame in the East
How will the fighting in the east wind down? Right now, Ukrainian troops have pushed through Russian hubs in Izyum, Lyman, and Kupiansk and towards positions at the northern end of the Donbas line in southern Luhansk in a way where they are threatening already problematic Russian supply, logistics, command, & communications lines (indeed, Ukrainians have already severed the main direct connections between Belgorod—the main Russian staging hub for the region on the Russian side of the border—and the Donbas line, and will likely soon do the same for a secondary hub on the Russian side, Valuyki; Belgorod is itself subject to repeated Ukrainian strikes). As a result, Ukraine’s forces will soon be able to hit a now-more poorly-supplied northern flank of Russia’s Donbas line, or even maneuver further to hit it in the rear (or from multiple sides simultaneously).
Russia is left with two bad options here: withdraw and leave well-entrenched positions or stay and face attacks from multiple directions at once. Even if they try to extend or bend the line, they will not have much time to dig in. So the collapse or abandonment of the line in the north is imminent, basically as soon as Ukrainian forces can regroup and amass after their smashing of the through Lyman and other nearby towns, but some of the troops will likely also continue into central and northern Luhansk and liberate the easily-maneuverable territory along with its people. Perhaps Ukraine will consider focusing on liberating as much of those parts of Luhansk as possible—most of its defenders will be the survivors of the smashed Kharkiv/Lyman front and will have difficulty putting up much of a fight or reorganizing into a strong line, as they are pursued closely by Ukrainian forces. But flanking the main Donbas line in Luhansk’s south will almost certainly be too tempting a target to avoid, especially as giving too much time to the even incredibly slow and dull Russians could allow them to reposition themselves.
Whether there is more of a focus on pushing directly east on that vector into northern and central Luhansk first, an equal focus on that and collapsing the northern Donbas line in southern Luhansk, or more focus on that northern Donbas line remains to be seen. But sometime soon, we should see the hammer come down on the northern Donbas line in southern Luhansk and see it rapidly smashed. Russia’s only hope is if it suddenly becomes magically competent and pulls back those troops and forms something of an east-west- or northeast-southeast-running line from those northern-Donbas-line troops, or to pull back to previously constructed lines form earlier fighting or from the stalemate lines from before February 24, 2022, to avoid being outflanked. Yet even that would present problems and the existing Ukrainian forces facing them directly across the line now could then pursue and disrupt such a move if the move was not conducted quickly and secretly, something difficult given Ukraine’s seeming air superiority there and superiority with night-vision and logistics.
So, yeah, bet on that part of the Donbas line in Luhansk collapsing soon. This will be happening while Ukraine is retaking Kherson, first the west bank of the Dnipro, including Kherson City, then the east bank and the rest of Kherson Oblast to the northern Crimean border.
I can’t tell you if the Russians will wise up during this and do something other than just mostly stay in place, mostly stay in place and retreat in panic when it is too late to do so in good order and without suffering heavy casualties, or at some point realize most of the line is not defensible from the flank and rear and adjust further down the line ahead of time with at least some time to do so in an orderly manner and to reform a solid defensive line, but whatever the Russians choose, they are in an forceful and determined Ukrainian assault they will not be able to stop. And they will know while this is going on that their brothers in Kherson are being defeated and defeatedly.
Panic can be sudden in armies, loss of morale spreading like a wildfire, entire or nearly-entire armies breaking in something of an instant; if both of Russia’s main fronts in Ukraine are losing badly (and they are), it’s possibly at any time one or both fronts may just break and run or even mass-surrender in disastrous routs. Obviously, if this happens it will speed things up.
So it is hard to tell how long it will take for Ukraine to roll through southern Kherson on the east bank of the Dnipro, but one thing I am confident in predicting is that Russia will not empty whatever troops are still in Crimea to hold southern Kherson because that would make it too easy for Ukraine to recapture Crimea, which is far more important to Russia than Kherson. Thus, whatever reinforcements come from whatever is left in Crimea would be minimal, and whatever troops are sent from Zaporizhzhia will make that oblast’s defenses that much weaker when Ukraine does start to come through there. Again, since it is low-lying coastal steppe with no forests, it is not particularly defensible, especially compared to the hillier Donbas.
A wise Russian commander with actual authority would abandon both Kherson and Zaporizhzhia to reinforce positions in Crimea and/or the Donbas, the idea being to buy time so that, in theory, troops being mobilized in Russia now can arrive over time and, in theory, stop the Ukrainian advance.
In practice, the Russian military has shown an inability to cuts its losses and redeploy at the right time to avoid heavy losses, and, instead, has kept pressing ahead on multiple fronts, destroying many units and persisting in this until whole fronts break; it has happened before, it is happening now, and, as I have noted before, it will happen again. So I don’t expect any rapid or clever moves by Russia; I do expect more of the same: keep on fighting until its too late and the line is routed.
Also in practice, Putin’s mobilization is a farce: throwing unwilling troops into the field without proper training, equipment, food, or ammunition. As I argued in detail, it will harm Putin at home more than any kind of help it gives Russia on the battlefields of Ukraine, as such troops will be practically useless and are more likely to just surrender (we are already seeing this) or even defect or revolt, lowering Putin’s standing even more than it has been in the eyes of the Russian people. As far as any possibility of whole new formations being able to be assembled inside Russia to counterattack somewhere else on the border—say, towards Kharkiv—even if such a force could be formed and led and attack, it is likely to be little more than unwilling rabble, as poorly trained and equipped and as badly treated as the other mobilized troops. And Ukraine as well as powerful Western intelligence agencies will be keeping an eye on what’s going on over the border with Russia, so there will not be some sudden surprise attack from across the border that catches Ukraine unawares.
So even if Russian commanders on the Donbas line in Ukraine miraculously reposition competently because they are able to wise up and/or are allowed to make their own decisions, the idea that they can buy time and that any major level of reinforcements of any degree of competent skill-level are coming from the mobilization in the next few weeks or even the next couple of months that can halt the Ukrainian advance or even reverse it is absurd. There is no way these new troops will be as good as the ones currently fighting on the Donbas line, where most of Russia’s troops and most of its best troops and best equipment are deployed; they are certain to be worse, and likely far worse (not that the current troops are anything special). But some of the Russian troops in Ukraine, desperate for any semblance of hope, may delude themselves into fighting on and holding on as hard as they can so that the mobilization can save them (it won’t). Yet still, as we are already seeing plenty of Russian troops break and run during Ukraine’s latest offensives, I think that is what will happen more often than not.
On the Timing of Joining Fronts and Zaporizhzhia
So the northern Donbas front is about to be smashed by Ukraine. At some point after that, Ukraine’s forces will have taken care of Kherson and will push east into the Russian-occupied parts of Zaporizhzhia. If Ukraine doesn’t take the bold but riskier move to actually seriously try to assault Crimea as soon as they are able, the main question is, what Russian forces will remain in Zaporizhzhia and what kind of fight and defense can they put up? I expect Ukraine to be able to push through no matter what the Russians do there, but another question is, how much time will it take Ukraine, because the question after that will be: what will the state of the Donbas line be by the time Ukraine’s forces that are currently in Kherson make their way through Zaporizhzhia into Donetsk and link up with Ukraine’s forces now on the southern Donbas line in Donetsk? Will any of that line as is be intact by then? Again, because of the sheer concentration of Russian troops and equipment there, I think it will take some time for the whole line to be rolled up and that, therefore, there is a decent chance that Ukraine’s troops coming from the west will be able to join the fight in Donbas.
Maybe the whole Russian line will have fallen back by then, or maybe the southern Donbas line in the Donetsk will still be intact. The current line does not go all the way down Donetsk to the coast: it bends to run to the west through northwestern Donetsk and into Zaporizhzhia Oblast.; that means that, again, unless Russia starts repositioning large portions of its line, the Ukrainians troops pushing into Zaporizhzhia will hit many of the Russian forces on the flank and in the rear and disaster for the Russians in the form of rapid collapse will ensue. However, because the Russian line in western Zaporizhzhia follows the southern bank of the Dnipro River there, if they were to choose to redeploy many of those troops into a new north-south axis, the could prepare a better line to meet the Ukrainian troops coming from Kherson head-on and avoid being outflanked by them; Ukrainian troops on the other side of the Dnipro will not be able to easily pursue as the Russia troops would reposition as the river is at least over two miles wide (often more) throughout this area and there are no bridges across there, either. So even the incompetent Russians will likely reposition themselves at least partially, but who knows how well and how far ahead of time they would do so.
Unfortunately for the Russians, there is no more Dnipro River as a barrier in the rest of Zaporizhzhia Oblast beyond the western part, as the river comes from the north to bend west in western Zaporizhzhia, and there are Ukrainian forces right across the land from the Russian lines there. So withdrawing from there, as with the Donbas line, is fraught with peril, and it is likely the line will eventually be hit from the side and rear as the Ukrainian forces now in Kherson eventually make their way there.
Further complicating the situation are that, as alluded to earlier, rumors of an impending Ukrainian counterattack are apparently spreading through Russian sources. If those rumors turn out to be true, it could be another Kharkiv-like breakthrough in a sector that, though Ukraine has made some slow, minor gains, had not been the focus of the heaviest fighting recently. Or, this could also be a ploy to weaken Russian positions that would move to reinforce the area, to keep troops on Russia’s Zaporizhzhia line pinned there and unable to leave their east-west axis so as to render them unable to effectively redeploy in time to avoid being hit from the side and rear by the Ukrainian troops coming in from Kherson, or to sow general confusion in the south; even the appearance of just some reinforcements there could reinforce this rumor and make it more damaging. Or it could be that both attacks are coming. Time will tell, but if there is a Kharkiv-like breakthrough in this part of Zaporizhzhia towards Melitopol or Berdyansk, that would be another of the great Ukrainian surprises of this war and would totally muddle up the positioning of Russian troops in the south. If such an attack succeeded, it could case a collapse of the whole Kherson front as Russians would race to avoid being cut off from the rest of the Russian army and supply systems in the east and/or join a desperate attempt to stave off Ukrainian success in retaking either Melitopol or Berdyansk. It would be another crushing blow of a psychological and substantive nature for the Russian military, the Russian people, and the Putin regime.
Climax: The Comin Merging of the Fronts by the Ukrainian Armed Forces
New counteroffensive from the north in Zaporizhzhia or not, once those Russian troops in Zaporizhzhia are beaten back and are broken or flee from whatever direction the attack or attacks come—and it is unlikely they will be able to establish any kind of a solid defensive line where the line in Donetsk breaks west, to form a new line running south to the coast—that means that the Ukrainian forces moving east originally from Kherson and now Zaporizhzhia will be able to come into Donetsk below the Russian line and hit it from the side and/or even maneuver through the south and turn north into the rear of the Russian line.
Again, if the Russian line is still where it is there now, this will mean the south of the Russian line is being hit on the flank and rear even as the rest of the line will have been suffering defeats and losses by the Ukrainian forces coming from the north and from the Ukrainian troops that have been facing off against those Russians this whole time on the north-south Donbas line. Pressed hard from the north, west, south, and perhaps even rear, the whole line is likely to collapse or be (mostly) encircled, suffering from mass casualties. They will be driven back, most likely unable to reform any strong positions as they are hotly pursued by Ukraine and hit by its precise Western artillery and rocket systems, save for perhaps a few pockets that will not last.
This will essentially end major ground combat operations in Ukraine (save for whatever may happen in Crimea, if it not itself retaken already by this point).
If the line is not where it is now in southern Donetsk and the Russians adjust or pull back their line in advance of the Ukrainian onslaught from the southwest, there is a risk that HIMARS, M777s, and other advanced Western systems in possession of the Ukrainians can inflict heavy casualties on Russian forces as they are moving and more vulnerable. And even if they are able to reposition, they will still be facing an overwhelmingly superior combined Ukrainian force, qualitatively better and better-equipped man-for-man, with far higher morale, more firepower and precision, and they will not be able to stand long against such a force.
This, too, would end major ground combat within Ukraine (save possible, again, for Crimea).
Either way, the Russian army could be essentially destroyed or, in a best-case scenario, just a mere shadow of its former self. Either way, the end is the same: once Russia’s final line (or main formations if that line is broken into piece) are broken, all Russian forces that aren’t killed, wounded, taken prisoner, or that defect will be pushed to and across the Russian border with Ukraine. There may be some fierce pockets of resistance, but those are likely to be surrounded amidst the general defeat; the best outcome for those pockets is that they are able to fight their way out, or surrender intact.
Denouement: The Light at the End of the Tunnel and Driving the Russians into Russia
Once Ukrainian forces reach the border, they can drive Russian forces further away with their precision longer-range weapons, even taking out air defenses so that Ukraine’s air force can help enforce the de facto no-man’s-land that is sure to emerge on the Russian side of the border. That no-man’s-land extending miles into Russia is simply going to be the natural outcome: Ukraine can stop its advance on Russia’s border, dig in, and the aforementioned weapons systems can kill and destroy any Russians that get too close, which will force them back, and, additionally, those weapons can destroy ammunition depots, command centers, etc. as they did in Ukraine to make at least the first few dozen miles into Russia unsafe and unusable for Russians. That will also severely limit Russia’s ability to set up any counterattacks against Ukraine. For any such attacks to have a chance, it would take not weeks but months to properly set up a force that could break through in any lasting way what will be a very strong line. But, Russia being Russia, Putin will probably pressure his people or order them to put together attacks far too prematurely, meaning there will be a decent number of suicidal attacks across the no-man’s-land. Eventually perhaps Russia may penetrate the line, but it should be relatively easy for Ukraine to counterattack and plug any temporary holes in the line.
While all this is going on or perhaps soon after, at some point, Crimea surrenders or is stormed successfully and that ends that. The war will de facto be over save for long-range Russian missile attacks and border skirmishes, perhaps occasional border battles. But the line in the east should hold.
If, somehow, the southern Ukrainian force is still fighting its way to Donetsk when the eastern Ukrainian forces rout the Russians out of Ukraine there, a lot of those troops can stay to secure the border while the rest swing south and west to hit the Russians the southern Ukrainian forces are fighting from the rear. Although at that point, cut off from their own country and facing overwhelming odds, they may surrender en masse before those forces coming from the east would join the fight. In the unlikely event that Putin holds on and amasses a considerable force in the future, he will run into a wall of Ukrainian—and perhaps some allied—steel on the Ukrainian border; a second invasion would fail with a Ukraine only far more prepared this time, with a first-class army equipped with first-class weapons under first-class leadership waiting for hapless Russian troops.
Whether any formal peace or cease-fire emerges is harder to tell, but those would be doubtful if somehow Putin manages to stay in power (but, for reasons I discussed in my last piece, it is hard to see how that will happen). We may for some time—years, even—end up with a Korean-like DMZ, the conflict frozen in time.
Two x-factors, the first far, far more likely than the other: if Putin is overthrown, there could a negotiated, peaceful withdrawal of Russian forces (not along Elon Musk’s absurd lines; and I am convinced that when Putin is gone, Russians will be exhausted and will just want to be done with this war), or it could be because the Russian army or parts of it had mutinied and marched on Moscow to overthrow Putin amidst massive unrest in Russia. And frankly, as things keep getting worse for Putin, Putin should be overthrown, one way or another. It may be in the form of an announcement that Comrade Putin has died peacefully in his sleep as internal Kremlin dynamics remove him the way the ancient Roman Praetorian Guards would remove a mad emperor; it may be massive unrest in the streets and a storming of the Kremlin; it may be a brief civil war or military or security service revolt; whatever way it transpires, Russia cannot long endure Putin, as his staying in power will see its army and maybe even its state disintegrate. Whether all this happens during what I described or after Ukraine secures its eastern border and/or takes Crimea is hard to predict and depends on how long all that takes.
Another x-factor would be Putin using a tactical nuclear weapon, but I seriously doubt this will help Putin, as, while I won’t go into detail on this, it would simply mean his swift end, let alone not actually help Russia alter the outcome of the war, and could kill or expose to fallout many Russians, Belarusians, Turks, Caucasians, or Europeans living in NATO countries, all of which would produce severe reactions not in Putin’s interest of self-preservation and that would see the Russian forces in Ukraine annihilated quickly by international forces.
Anyway, that’s how I see the different options for how this war ends and their likelihood of happening. It’s hard to see anything dramatically different from happening. What is certain is that Russia will lose. It was clear the southern rebel army was beaten and both the German and Japanese armies beaten for years before the war ended: loses fighting a losing war when there is no hope of victory is not a rarity in history. But lose they will, and Ukraine will be free and strong, able to keep Russia at bay, its friends standing behind it all throughout.
What remains to be seen are how long this takes, when these different events happen relative to each other, and how many people have to die, how much destruction occurs between now and the end. What’s sad is how pointless so much of this is on the Russian side, but, as I noted back in early March:
I’m optimistic like never before that Putin’s end is coming and coming soon even as that optimism is surrounded by the dread of an increasingly bloody and lawless conflict. I truly think this is the last gasp for a very long time of the Great Power conflicts on European soil, of the major wars that have been constant on the continent since the ancient Greco-Persian wars through today, with the two main exceptions being the Pax Romana and the Pax Americana.
Putin sought to drag Europe and, indeed, the world back to an era of no-holds-barred, naked colonialist imperialism, of mass atrocities and war-crimes being a normal tool of war, to the nineteenth-century, not the twenty-first. He sought to destroy much of what the post-World War II international order led by the U.S. stood for, even if imperfectly and consistently, since 1945. He has failed and the future, in spite of all the blood spilled and yet-to-be-spilled, looks brighter for Ukraine, Europe, and the world as the end is sight and it is Ukrainian victory over Russia, democracy over fascism, freedom over fear.
See all Brian’s Ukraine coverage here
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