As a major literal and figurative barrier is crossed by Ukraine, it’s time to take stock of the course of the war
By Brian E. Frydenborg (Twitter @bfry1981, LinkedIn, Facebook) April 24, 2023; because of YOU, Real Context News surpassed one million content views on January 1, 2023, but I still need your help, please keep sharing my work and consider also donating! Real Context News produces commissioned content for clients upon request at its discretion.
SILVER SPRING—As it quite credibly seems Ukraine has finally established its “presence”* over on the east/south bank of the Dnipro River across from Kherson City, liberated by Ukraine from Russia earlier this past November, now is a good time to take stock of where the Ukraine war has been, is now, and is going, with my past work serving as an excellent guide to understand all this.
While there is an infinite amount of drama in war—life and death struggles, emotional and harrowing experiences short of life-and-death that are still hard to put into words, and the dreaded waking reality of being aware than any calm can be shattered at the speed of a missile strike—when viewed from afar, some phases can be seen as more “eventful” or “important.” But what is often not clear from afar is that without the less-“eventful” and “important” phases, you wouldn’t have the other more momentous phases. For example, there is no D-Day in 1944 in World War II without the massive supply operation transferring troops and resources to the United Kingdom during key parts of the Battle of the Atlantic beforehand, nor any Yorktown in 1781 in the Revolutionary War without the many skirmishes and smaller battles leading up to that fateful siege.
More so than any other pieces I have written about Ukraine, the following two explain how this relates to Ukraine.
Late in December, amidst all sorts of talk of “stalemate” and concern that Ukraine’s war effort was flagging, I noted how the war had then taken on (Russia-Ukraine War Settles into Predictable Alternating Phases, But Russia’s Losing Remains Constant, December 26, 2022) a clear dynamic (and had since fairly early in the war) of alternating between two major phases: one in which Ukraine was prepping for major successful offensive action and one in which it was executing such action, with Russia stupidly and rather unproductively continuing across both phases its costly assaults that made little to no progress, Putin too proud to know when he should play defense and too callous to care about wasting many thousands of his countrymen’s lives to take insignificant amounts of territory near strategically insignificant places.
To get into more details on why this is playing out this way, another piece of mine from the summer (Ukrainian Prudence Meets Russian Limitations: Explaining the Current Pace and Nature of Russia’s War on Ukraine,August 23, 2022) explains how Ukraine cares deeply about its soldiers and takes great effort to preserve their lives and use them efficiently; this, of course, means that Ukraine does not mindlessly throw its troops into battle with few or no supplies as Russia does, so this in turn means that Ukraine takes more time in planning its attacks and setting them up for success. At the same time, Russia’s limitations mean it is barely able to advance or unable to advance at all. This gives the impression to impatient twitterati, journalists, and analysts that there is a “stalemate,” but, in reality, it is simply Ukrainian prudence meeting Russian limitations, with Russia’s spread-out, poorly-led, poorly-equipped, and poorly-armed forces being able to be targets over time as Ukraine precisely strikes repeatedly against them on and behind Russian lines until they have hollowed out, weakened, and demoralized the Russians, Ukraine striking in full after—not before—reducing Russia’s defensive capabilities so it gives its own troops a better chance to survive a major offensive rather than attacking in full earlier without degrading Russia’s military positions. Since I wrote that, this dynamic has been repeated and now we find ourselves in Ukraine’s preparation-for-offense phase and at perhaps the beginning, perhaps even farther into, the transition to a major offensive, an alternation the previous article discusses.
Now, for some further explorations of mine.
The best exemplification of Ukraine patiently and prudently allowing Russia to degrade its own military while prepping for a counteroffensive is Russia’s Pyrrhic Bakhmut campaign, which I discussed in January (Russia’s Pyrrhic Advances at Soledar Near Bakhmut Setting Up Ukrainian Counteroffensive, Not Russian Victory, January 13, 2023; I even pointed out in a brief offshoot-piece how just looking at the control maps: THE TWO MAPS SHOWING WHY RUSSIA’S BAKHMUT CAMPAIGN IS UNDENIABLY A MISERABLE FAILURE [including Soledar], January 14, 2023, tells you so much about how much “progress” Russia had made over month after month of wasting lives in trying—and failing—to take the small, strategically insignificant city of Bakhmut. In short, Bakhmut Holds!). And Ukraine decided to hold onto Bakhmut despite heavy costs for Ukraine because Russia was pouring nearly all of its ground offensive capabilities there to the point of imbecilic distraction from nearly everywhere else and because Ukraine could continue to defend the city at an exponentially higher cost for Russia, denying Russia any morale boost or ability to control the battlefield narrative while whittling down Russia’s already severely degraded and depleted military, all while Ukraine continues to make preparations for a far sounder offensive or offensives than Russia’s (a very recent and fine article for The Atlantic by Dr. Phillips O’Brien—one of my top five accounts to follow on the Ukraine war—and Mykola Bielieskov makes a similar case as to why holding Bakhmut is incredibly useful for advancing Ukraine’s war goals).
So yes, we are in a relatively “less-eventful” phase of the war for now, but as those above pieces explain, this is part of the strategy, tactics, and dynamics that will lead to the next spectacular Ukrainian victories as they have in the past led to other spectacular Ukrainian victories. Most recently, in February I discussed eight main dynamics driving why Russia’s current offensive was going to be a miserable failure (Offensive Smensive: 8 Reasons Why Russia’s Expected Offensive Cannot Succeed, February 16, 2023). Those dynamics—
- Recent and cumulative tends
- Who has gained/lost territory and when
- Russia’s ridiculous casualties
- That Russia already failed with a much better military early in the war
- Ukraine’s increasing capabilities alongside Russia’s decreasing ones
—are all overwhelmingly in favor of Ukraine and it is not even close. Throughout the period prior to my writing this, much of the conventional wisdom was that this Russian offensive should be greatly feared, casting doubt at to whether Ukraine could weather through it, let alone the winter, another bad take that I demolished (Winter War in Ukraine: Seeing Through the Blizzard of Bad Takes, November 28, 2022).
Specifically, as Russia has shown itself unable now to keep Ukraine from penetrating the east/south bank of the Dnipro River across from Kherson City and has destroyed much of its own offensive capability assaulting Bakhmut, Russia’s position is ripe for failure and to allow Ukraine to dictate the pact and location of fighting, as well as to bait and switch Russia’s forces, which happened in the late summer and the fall as Ukraine took massive amounts of territory on two separate fronts and managed to take smaller amounts of territory on a third front (relevant discussion of mine: Russian Army Collapses—and Revolution—Near-Certain as Russia Loses War: When/Where Harder to Predict, September 10, 2022, and in an updated/expanded excerpt, Why Is Russia Losing on 3 Fronts? Math [the Short Answer], September 7, 2022, from an earlier predictive piece; that earlier piece of mine was a general “how” prediction of the course of the rest of the war: How Ukraine War Will Likely Go Rest of 2022, or, Kherson: The Beginning of the End for Russia, August 3, 2022, itself the natural follow to a “why” piece on the deep-dive of the dynamics of the war: Russia’s Defeat in Ukraine May Take Some Time, But It’s Coming and Sooner Than You Think, July 30, 2022. The “how” piece I wrote a second, updated version of a few months later: This Is the Beginning of the End of the War, October 3 [note I said beginning and I writing in terms of how the paths of the major campaigns were being set]).
In both those “how” pieces, I noted how once Ukraine crossed the Dnipro near Kherson, that would put it just some sixty miles to the northern border of Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Crimea, the spiritual heart of Russia’s grand imperialist designs for Ukraine (and I had noted Crimea’s eventual extreme vulnerability—being an isolated peninsula—a year ago today: How Ukraine Can Take Back Crimea from Putin’s Reeling Russian Military, April 24, 2022). This means not only the rest of Kherson Oblast (province) is in play, but also soon Crimea and Zaporizhzhia, as the farther into the part of Kherson Oblast south and east of the Dnipro River Ukraine proceeds, the further its HMARS, M777s, and Caesar precision artillery can hit the key positions and logistics hubs supporting Russia’s occupation of those regions, including, eventually, the Crimean/Kerch Strait Bridge and Russia’s main regional naval base at Sevastopol—both of which Ukraine has already demonstrated it can target more creatively, if less easily, with other types of attacks, and the latter of which was just hit again by Ukraine as I was writing this.
And as I noted in some of my aforementioned earlier work, Putin and the Russian military are damned no matter how they react to Ukraine’s crossing of the Dnipro: the war is not going well for Russia anywhere, so it if take troops from or diverts reinforcement going to one sector to reinforce the other, it leaves the first sector even weaker and more vulnerable to counterattack while also exposing the troops being moved over long exterior lines to Ukrainian strikes en route and additionally forces those new troops to acquaint themselves to unfamiliar situations. But if Putin does not reinforce or divert troops to Kherson Oblast, he also hastens the demise Kherson oblast and the opening of new fronts in Crimea and Zaporizhzhia. And you can be sure that Ukraine has multiple plans in place depending on what Russia does and does not do, plus, it must be remembered that since Ukraine has shorter interior lines and that Russia lacks the abilities to overcome Ukrainian air defenses or precision artillery—systems that are only increasing in quality and quantity for Ukraine—it is far easier for Ukraine to rapidly redeploy troops from one position to another, increasing its ability to fake out, deceive, or surprise Russia.
Indeed, history may be repeating itself and setting Ukraine up for another major delayed-two-pronged offensive, as most of Russia’s reinforcements have already been directed towards Bakhmut but have been exhausted, depleted, and/or destroyed in that Pyrrhic campaign even as Ukraine has now crossed the last major natural barrier—the Dnipro River—before Crimea and being able to seal off Crimea from the north, what could be the first step in the Siege of Crimea if Ukraine does not knock out the Kerch Strait/Crimean Bridge first…
Yes, that Dnipro crossing is a big deal.
And the wider geopolitical context? After Ukraine’s next offensives, we will be much closer to the implosion of Putin’s regime and a free Ukraine, something I discuss in detail here (The Post-Putin World Will Be So Much Better than This One, February 28, 2023) but a likelihood I acknowledged elsewhere before in early March 2022, for Small Wars Journal and in related expanded/adapted and original work for my own site.
So, even if it seems to some that almost “nothing” has been or is happening except for Russia’s Pyrrhic and suicidal assaults and nihilistic, terroristic air strikes against civilians, you now know better: Ukraine is getting ready for even more major victories, moving its pieces into place and biding its time for phenomenal effect as it has repeatedly before. Think of this piece as less a victory lap for my own analysis, though, than a victory lap for Ukraine and for freedom-loving people the world over (ok, one more shameless plug but one that focuses on expanding on that sentiment: Capturing the Unique Inspirational Quality of Ukraine’s Fight Against Russia via Two Writers, October 31, 2022).
*Correction appended to reflect a “presence” and not firm bridgeheads
Brian’s Ukraine analysis has been praised by: Mykhailo Podolyak, a top advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky; the Ukraine Territorial Defense Forces; Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, U.S. Army (Ret.), former commanding general, U.S. Army Europe; Scott Shane, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist formerly of The New York Times & Baltimore Sun (and featured in HBO’s The Wire, playing himself); Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), one of the only Republicans to stand up to Trump and member of the January 6th Committee; and Orwell Prize-winning journalist Jenni Russell, among others.
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Also see Brian’s eBook, A Song of Gas and Politics: How Ukraine Is at the Center of Trump-Russia, or, Ukrainegate: A “New” Phase in the Trump-Russia Saga Made from Recycled Materials, available for Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook (preview here).
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