As the Ukrainian spring bloodily transitions into summer, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Generals are trying to manage a stalled, if not, failed winter offensive in the Donbas that has left as many as 75,000 Russian soldiers and Wagner Group mercenaries dead. As the Kremlin’s overall casualties continue to mount, upwards of 200,000 according to the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense, it is becoming increasingly clear we are likely seeing the beginning of the end of Putin in Ukraine – especially as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his Generals draw nearer Kyiv’s much-anticipated counteroffensive.
Ukraine is a vast Texas-size country. Kyiv’s counteroffensive could come from anywhere and everywhere. Given the vast expanse of land, Russian General Valery Vasilyevich Gerasimov is facing a similar pivotal task to that of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in World War II in defending Nazi-held France and Norway against an allied invasion of Europe. The ultimate outcome, like that of Normandy and Operation Overlord during the summer months of 1944 into fall, will likely dictate the outcome of Putin’s ‘special military operation.’
The question then becomes one of where, and how does Gerasimov set his defense: Donbas, Crimea, or elsewhere? Part and parcel to that question is also one of will Russian forces put up a fight, surrender, or simply lay down their arms and return to Russia? Thus far, the Russian military has not demonstrated a propensity to defend well. The nature of the battles waged in the Kherson Oblast in the fall last year may be a good indicator of future Russian battlefield performance in the defense – and influence when and where the point of Ukrainian attack.
The Kremlin, at least outwardly, is signaling they believe the Ukrainian counterattack could come in Crimea. Commercial satellite imagery captured by Planet Labs and Maxar Technologies clearly show defensive fortifications and a vast network of trenches being rapidly built and prepared in the Perekop Isthmus. Moscow is heavily fortifying this strategically advantageous narrow land bridge that connects Crimea to the heart of Ukraine’s interior. These newly erected strongholds also tie into natural obstacles and are being hastily constructed along the beachfront to prevent any amphibious landings.
If Crimea is where a present-day D-Day is launched, then this battle has been fought many times on this same land before dating back to Roman times, including most recently in World War II when the German Army invaded Soviet-held Crimea in 1941. Much can be learned by Kyiv from the lessons the Soviets took away after losing that battle, then recapturing the peninsula in 1944 – a defense in depth, with an emphasis on maintaining Sevastopol and Kerch to sustain their forces.
The Russian defensive strategy is to slow down the rate of movement, bottleneck and channel armored formations into kill zones, then destroy them with direct and indirect fires. Imagery depicts Moscow’s intended means of doing so: trenches, tank traps, ditches, and dragon’s teeth barriers. The employment of BTM-3s, a Soviet era trenching machine that can “dig straight, zigzag or curved trenches” is expediting their completion. The BTM-3 can “dig 3½-foot-deep basic trenches or 5-foot-deep full-size trenches … with a width at the bottom of the trench of about 2 feet.” These defensive measures are emblematic, if not defining, of the overall Russian way of war – create static targets, then destroy them with artillery.
Maintaining control of the Crimea Peninsula, and by default, influence over the Black Sea region in the event of a Ukrainian counteroffensive, makes its defense strategically crucial to Russian national security. So much so, that the Kremlin declared a red line on any potential invasion of the peninsula, and shot down a United States surveillance drone flying off its coast. Retired Army Lieutenant General and former Commander, U.S. Army Europe Ben Hodges sees it this way as well. Hodges correctly emphasizes the “liberation of Crimea” is key to Ukraine winning and therefore, as such, is “decisive.” The Kremlin’s ongoing elaborate defensive preparations are evidence Russia came to the same conclusion.
The Russians, however, have a problem. Neither Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi nor Commander of Ukrainian Ground Forces Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi will allow Kyiv’s assault to get caught up in the web of defensive preparations in Crimea built by its Russian defenders. Putin’s defensive fortifications, much like the French Maginot Line of World War I, are static, vulnerable to interdiction of supply lines, and can be bypassed. The peninsula itself, much like an island, can be isolated and besieged if Ukraine chooses to destroy the Kerch bridge and deny Black Sea ports at Yalta, Feodosia, Kerch, Sevastopol, Chornomorske, and Yevpatoria. If so, then from there, it becomes a battle of the wills, something Putin, the Kremlin, and his pro-war milbloggers may possess, but less so the mobilized soldier or conscript on the ground directed to ‘hold at all costs.’
The Ukrainian counteroffensive will likely begin in the Donbas, where Russia is militarily at its weakest, but it will conclude in southern Crimea with a resounding defeat of the Russian army and the likely collapse of Putin’s regime. As Hodges clearly articulates, Ukraine will need to make the Crimea Peninsula ‘untenable’ methodically and incrementally with precision deep strikes on key military facilities, military headquarters, and the Kerch bridge – the primary military supply chain lifeline back to Russia.
Ukraine will not become decisively engaged with an entrenched Russian army; rather, they will set the conditions of the battle at a time and place of their choosing, maneuver, and then defeat Russian ground forces. As Kyiv advances into Crimea, they will target and interdict troop formations, airfields, supply and ammunition depots, and the military headquarters commanding and controlling the Russian defense. The key to Ukrainian success is to rapidly breakthrough the Perekop Isthmus defenses, which will require extensive artillery preparation of the objective and suppression of Russian artillery formations supporting its defense, then a robust engineering effort to create lanes to pass through the armored formations quickly.
Russian ground forces will likely be overwhelmed as, to date, they have proven themselves inept at change. There has not been a “branch or sequel” to execute or fall back on since their failed invasion launched on February 24th, 2022. There is no reason to believe one exists today either, other than the oft-repeated threat of nuclear escalation.
The Biden administration has needlessly made this task harder by denying Ukraine deep strike capability in the form of ATACMS and F16 fighter jets, but through Kyiv’s brilliant ingenuity, adaptation and resourcefulness, Zelensky’s team will find a way. Throughout Germany, Poland and Ukraine, Ukrainian troops are training on individual and collective tasks. Crews are rapidly mastering warfighting skill sets ahead of pace on newly acquired weapons systems provided by NATO countries. Combined on the battlefield, they will likely overwhelm an exhausted, demoralized, and ill-equipped Russian army. Planners are ensuring the operation is synchronized, supported logistically, and rehearsed ad nauseum. This is the beginning of the end, one way or another.
As Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers once sang, “waiting is the hardest part.” Mykhailo Podolyak, advisor to the head of the Ukrainian presidential office, said on March 3rd the spring counter offensive could be “as early as the next two months.” Then, in a likely attempt to keep Moscow guessing as to when and where, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov followed up that statement on March 29th declaring, “Ukraine will launch a counteroffensive during April-May, attacking Russian forces in several directions at once.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine is giving the Kremlin’s soldiers time to consider their fate. In a message to the Russian troops on April 3rd, Zelensky said they “still have time to leave – otherwise we will destroy them.” Given Russia’s heretofore massive losses in Bakhmut, the outskirts of Kyiv last March, and in capturing the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works in Mariupol, Putin’s troops would do well to consider whether the beginning of the Russian president’s end is worth their own. Ukraine’s D-Day, after all, will soon be at hand.
Jon Sweet is a retired U.S. Army colonel with 30 years of experience as a military intelligence officer.