National Security Brief – Ukraine

Politico – 19 April

“As Russia starts Phase 2 of its war on Ukraine, a European official provided a comprehensive briefing to reporters about the Kremlin’s goals and the current state of the battlefield. We found it helpful, so what follows are our main takeaways from the session the official’s government insisted remain on background.

Russia’s four objectives: Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN ’s forces in Ukraine’s south and east are looking to 1) capture all of the Donbas; 2) build a land bridge from the Donbas to Crimea via Mariupol; 3) control Kherson, which is crucial to securing freshwater canals to Crimea; and 4) seize additional territory to use as a buffer zone and/or use them as bargaining chips in a future negotiation with Ukraine.

‘Complete destruction’ of Mariupol: Russia wants the takeover of Mariupol by May 9 — Victory Day in Russia — to sell as a big win for Putin’s campaign. Russia will continue to use artillery and long-range bombings while pushing out civilians to achieve that goal. “We do expect the complete destruction of the city and many civilian casualties,” the official said. “My fear is that it is going to be worse than Bucha,” the Kyiv suburb where Russian troops allegedly committed war crimes by killing civilians on their way out and throwing dead bodies in mass graves.

Ukraine will employ similar tactics: Don’t expect a major change in the way Ukraine has fought this war: The official said the resistance will pair mobile, agile forces with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles to generate Russian attrition. They will further “harass” Putin’s forces to prevent further territorial gains.

Foreign fighters: Russia has deployed between 10,000 and 20,000 foreign fighters from Syria and Libya into the Donbas region in addition to Wagner Group mercenaries. All of them will fight as infantry, the official said, as they don’t operate heavy weapons.

Lack of airpower: Russia has yet to achieve air superiority in the Donbas, so Moscow’s troops can’t expect to have permanent close-air support once they meet stiff Ukrainian resistance. “This is really important,” the official asserted.

Logistical problems? Russia’s new commander for Ukraine, Gen. ALEXANDER DVORNIKOV , is fully aware he must vastly improve his military’s handling of logistics and communications — a point of weakness in the first phase of the war. But the official said a newfound focus on that issue doesn’t negate the fact that Russia is heavily dependent on railroads for resupply and other needs. “The train network has been targeted many times by the resistance,” the official said, and expects such operations to continue. That could complicate Dvornikov’s goal of establishing reliable logistics lines.

Low morale vs. high morale: The morale of Russian forces remains low despite the new phase, the official said, because troops “don’t like the idea of killing people who speak Russian.” Meanwhile, Ukrainian morale is “very high, in particular after the destruction of the Russian Navy cruiser.”

How the war might end: The official expects we’ll see a stalemate in four to six months as Russian troops control the Luhansk region, a part of the Donbas, and a small land bridge. This will lead Putin to conclude he’s protected the regional Russian population in the summer. By the fall, both Russia and Ukraine might agree to comprehensive negotiations in hopes of finding a diplomatic solution by winter.”

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