War in Ukraine – from the point of view of the Russians

Image: Serguei Velov
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By GAIUS BALTAR*

If Ukraine's conflict is viewed from another perspective, what would its movements reveal?

I recently heard an “expert” air the opinion that Vladimir Putin and the Russian military made a serious mistake in organizing the “special military operation” (SMO) in Ukraine the way they did. It would have been much better just to send the army to the oblasts separatists from Luhansk and Donietsk to defend them, rather than making a reckless push towards Kiev.

Rather than take that expert's belated advice, the Russians opted to advance quickly into the north and south of Ukraine. Why did they do this? There are many theories; some good, some illogical and some completely incoherent. I thought it would be a good idea to step back and analyze the situation facing the “special military operation” from the Russian point of view.[1] Russians tend to be practical and logical people, and the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces probably more so than most. Their plan must have logical reasons, based on what they saw at the time. So how did the Russians see the situation before the “special military operation” at the end of 2021? Let's put ourselves in their shoes and come up with a theory. Note that this is not a theory of what happened, just a theory of what the Russians may have thought would happen when they planned their "special military operation".

The defensive lines and the siege of Donbass

The first thing the Russians must have noticed was the construction of the huge Ukrainian defensive lines around what would become the republics of Lugansk and Donietsk. The government of Ukraine has made no secret of its plan to capture the republics, and the Ukrainian army was supposed to have an “offensive stance” rather than a defensive one. It makes perfect sense to build defensive lines while planning an attack, in the sense of avoiding disruptive counterattacks, but the Ukrainian defenses went far beyond that. They were really huge and built over a period of eight years. We now know how strong they were, because it took the Russians over a year to break through them.

The Russians must have taken a look at these defenses and come to the following conclusion: their objective is, if necessary, to contain the Russian army – and not simply the militias of the Donbass republics – even if a large part of the Russian army is used against them. .

The second thing the Russians must have noticed was the absolute determination of the Ukrainians to attack those republics, even if doing so – ostensibly overthrowing the Minsk Accords – made a Russian response safe. We saw this determination when the Russian government recognized the independence of the Donbass republics shortly before the start of the war. According to the OSCE artillery monitoring map (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe), Ukrainian artillery attacks on the republics declined shortly after Russia's recognition of their independence, but increased again shortly thereafter, presumably following orders from Kiev to resume them. At that time, Russian involvement was already assured, but the Ukrainians still continued to attack the republics.

The Russians would have linked these two things: the determination to attack and the massive defenses. They must have come to the following conclusion: “They want us to attack through the Donbass, and so they will use these defensive lines to contain us. Why?"

the trap

Having observed all this, the Russians must have started thinking about Ukrainian plans. They would have assumed that these plans were not just Ukrainian plans, but also NATO plans. So what are the Ukrainians and NATO planning?

The Russians must have made the following deduction: “The Ukrainians and NATO want us to attack through the Donbass and hit these lines. Why would they want that? It must be because it's a precondition for some kind of plan on their part, some kind of bigger plan. What is this greater plan?”.

So they must have thought of what it would take to meet the Ukrainian army in Donbass and take the defensive lines. What would that require? This would require great strength and a lot of time. This would mean that a considerable part of the Russian army would be trapped there for a long time. Is this perhaps the precondition for the larger Ukraine/NATO plan? So maybe the whole thing boiled down to forcing the Russian army to attack in the Donbass, to take the defensive lines, more specifically to tie it up, to keep it busy, while the Ukrainians and NATO carried out the rest of their plan?

After thinking about it, Russians must have asked themselves: “What do Ukrainians and NATO want more than anything?” And since, in fact, it is the Americans and the British who run the Show, “what do the Americans and the British want more than anything?” The question is not difficult to answer. What the Americans, the British and the Ukrainians wanted most of all was Crimea. Crimea is the key to “dominating” the Black Sea, and capturing it would be a dagger in the belly of Russia.

After going through this logic, the Russians would have come to the conclusion that the Ukrainian attack on the republics of Donbass, as well as the defensive lines, was a trap to arrest them. So they started planning countermovements.

the russian plan

The first thing the Russians may have thought of when planning the counterattack was the weather. How long after the start of the conflict would Ukrainians move to the Crimean peninsula? They would not do this immediately, because they would like the Russian army to be really and intensely engaged in the Donbass before they make a move. They would also not want to alert the Russians, assembling a large force near the Crimea before the Russians engage the defensive lines in the Donbass. This would mean that the area north of Crimea, i.e. the oblasts from Kherson and Zaporozhie, it would be lightly defended for a while.

Having reached this conclusion, the Russians devised a plan to pre-empt the Ukrainian/NATO plan. The plan had a main objective and two secondary objectives.

Objective 1 (main objective): Capture the oblasts from Kherson and Zaporozhie to create a buffer zone between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine. This objective had to be achieved extremely quickly, while the area was still lightly defended. This operation would be very important at that time, much more important than anything happening in Donbass or the Kiev region. The capture of Kherson was not enough to create the buffer zone because the Ukrainians would have to be stopped from attacking the Crimean Bridge. The coastline of Zaporozhie is only 150 kilometers from the bridge, so the region from Zaporozhie also had to be taken immediately.

Objective 2 (secondary objective): While a large part of the Ukrainian army was stationed in Donbass, there would still be a large force held back, possibly destined for the operation in Crimea. This part of the Ukrainian army would have to be stopped from facing Russian forces advancing on Kherson and Zaporozhie. The only way to do that was to threaten something that needed to be defended at all costs, even at the expense of the Crimean plan. There was only one place that Ukrainians would defend at all costs outside Donbass: Kiev itself.

The Russians therefore decided to advance on Kiev in an extremely threatening manner. The forces they used were not enough to take Kiev right away, but enough to secure the area north of the city and seriously threaten it. The Ukrainians would have had no choice but to take this threat seriously and move forces towards Kiev, including forces earmarked for the Crimean operation. This would prevent Ukrainians from responding to the Russian occupation of the oblasts from Kherson and Zaporozhie.

Objective 3 (secondary objective): Force Ukraine to negotiate peace on Russian terms. The Russians probably assumed that if the Kherson/Zaporozhie buffer operation was successful, the Ukrainians might want to negotiate. They would like to negotiate not only because Kiev was threatened, but mainly because their main objective, the capture of Crimea, had been thwarted. This part of the plan was partially successful because the Ukrainians were ready to sign a treaty, until the Americans and the British intervened.

The conclusion of this (perhaps dubious) reading of the Russian General Staff's mind is that the main objectives of the initial Russian operation were Kherson and Zaporozhie, not the Donbass, Kiev or a treaty with the Ukrainians. When negotiations broke down, the Russians reverted to their contingency plan, with the main objective of destroying the Ukrainian army.

It's important to keep in mind that this is not a theory designed to explain what happened. It's just a theory to explain the Russian plan based on what the Russians might have been thinking at the time. It is highly speculative and perhaps misleading, but it explains a lot, including Ukrainian and Western reactions to the Russian operation.

the ukrainian plan

Let's describe the Ukraine/NATO theoretical blueprint before proceeding. The plan, according to this hypothetical pre-war Russian theory, would have had three main objectives: (i) to tie up the Russian army in Donbass, using the massive defensive lines and a good part of the well-trained and well-equipped Ukrainian army; (ii) carry out a surprise attack on the Crimean peninsula, occupy it and turn the Black Sea into a NATO-controlled area ― putting massive pressure on Putin, as a bonus (for this, a significant part of the Ukrainian army was withheld from Donbass) ; (iii) bog down and bleed the Russian army in Donbass, with the aim of engendering regime change in Russia; The blitz of sanctions was planned as an integral part of this objective.

It is already April 2023 and so far none of these goals have been achieved. Let's assume that this theory is correct and that this was indeed the plan. And let's see what the Ukrainians and the West have done since its failure. Again, this is highly speculative.

The obsession with the plan

If we look at what the Ukrainians and the West have been doing in this war, a pattern seems to emerge: they still seem to be carrying out the initial plan, even though it failed. Almost every decision they make seems to go according to plan, or more specifically, according to a pathological denial of the plan's failure. Let's look at some examples.

Crimea obsession. The Ukrainians and the West still plan to take Crimea, although this is impossible. Still, the dream of capturing Crimea lives on in their minds and is taken as a realistic option. Volodymyr Zelensky even went so far as to say that Ukraine had initiated the “liberation” of Crimea… “in their minds”. Occupying Crimea was part of the plan. Abandoning it means the plan has failed.

The attack on the Crimean bridge. Destroying the bridge was part of the plan, and even after Crimea was beyond Ukraine's reach and the Russians secured an overland corridor to Crimea, the bridge was still a priority. It had to be attacked because that was part of the plan. This obsession has been rehearsed, and so far they haven't had the need to try again.

The obsession with Bakhmut (Artemovsk). The Ukrainian army probably lost something like 40 soldiers defending Soledar and Bakhmut. The pocket is a kill zone for Russian artillery, where the Ukrainians supply cannon fodder non-stop. Even the Americans are doubtful that holding the city is the right option, but the Ukrainians may even be willing to sacrifice their spring offensive to hold on a little longer. More and more military experts are shaking their heads and treating Bakhmut as nothing more than a Ukrainian obsession, which it is. Keeping Bakhmut prevents the last part of the plan from failing, namely keeping the Russian army on the other side of the defensive lines. If the Russians break them, the plan will have failed entirely. Therefore, Bakhmut must be defended.

The obsession with sanctions. One of the biggest shocks of the war was the failure of Western economic sanctions. The West's response to the failure was interesting. He didn't cancel the sanctions, or freeze them, or rethink them. Instead, the West continues to sanction everything and everyone, even though it is clearly pointless and even counterproductive. The situation is becoming more and more surreal, but the West cannot stop. If it stops, the plan will have failed.

the initial panic

There is another issue that the failure of the Ukraine/NATO plan may explain. Every important person in the West expected the Russians to invade Ukraine before that happened. This was, in fact, what many of them wanted. One would expect them to show indignation, condemn the brute Russians, and so on. The initial reaction from the West, however, went far beyond this. There was extreme anger, panic and hysteria. There were even threats to use nuclear weapons. It is to be assumed that such reactions were much more extreme than the Russian invasion warranted. Why completely lose your mind over something you knew was going to happen? One suspects that all the anger, panic and threats were due to the fact that the Russians had actually thwarted the Western plan for Crimea. The West wanted to deceive the Russians, but the Russians deceived them.

The anger and obsession with the failed plan in both Ukraine and the West is undoubtedly a result of the incredibly uniform psychology and personality of the Western and Ukrainian ruling classes: they do not easily accept personal failure or the intrusion of reality. in your plans. But that is the subject of another essay, and a very long one.

Finally, remember that this is all speculation, a thought exercise if you will, but who knows…?

*Gaius Baltar is the pseudonym of an independent geopolitical analyst who writes for blogs such as The Vineyard of the Saker and Inside the Vatican.

Translation: Ricardo Cavalcanti-Schiel.

Originally published in SONAR.

Translator's note


[1] This title has been preferred as a sports paraphrase (literally, to the Garrincha) to a formula with which anthropologists are very familiar, evoked from Malinowski to Geertz, which is the advice to seek to understand other realities from “the native's point of view” (“from the native's point of view”). This formula has received a good number of paraphrases in the anthropological literature, all of them with the most suggestive connotations, such as that of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, whose translation of his ethnography on the Araweté was published by the University of Chicago publishing house under the title From the enemy's point of view (a perspective exercise, by the way, of which the political West is usually quite incapable). In keeping with the “Russian point of view”, the spelling of toponyms in this translation is done according to their phonemic realization in Russian.

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