The Russian army has withdrawn from the north of kyiv: Defeat or tactical retreat?

After almost a month and a half of conflict, despite the innumerable destruction and losses that Ukraine has suffered, Russia still denies having started a war there, thankful only to carry out a "special operation" aimed exclusively at "Nazis".

In parallel, the talks Russian-Ukrainian disputes continue in Turkey, in a particularly tense atmosphere. At the end of March, during a previous round of negotiations, two members of the Ukrainian delegation, as well as the oligarch Roman Abramovich, present in as an intermediary, would have suffered a attempted poisoning who, however, did not endanger their lives. Since then, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, not allowed its delegates to drink or eat anything, and even advises them to avoid touching the surfaces of the room.

On the western side, after the massive bombardments of Mariupol which destroyed nearly 95% of this large city in southeastern Ukraine, some hopes were born from the Russian commitment to “fundamentally reduce military activity”. Hopes dashed by subsequent bombardments in western Ukraine, which notably targeted Lviv. Nevertheless, the pace of the conflict is slowing down in terms of Russian movement; but is this for all that a sign of Moscow's desire to move towards a ceasefire? Nothing is less sure.

Withdrawal or redeployment?

How to interpret the current maneuvers of the Russian army? Are we witnessing a withdrawal which could be the prelude to a cessation of hostilities, or a redeployment aimed at stabilizing the conquered areas and restructuring and supplying forces exhausted by nearly a month and a half of fighting in the face of a Ukrainian resistance much stronger than expected?

Ukraine notes the “rapid withdrawal” of Russian forces from the north of the country (France 24, April 2, 2022).

In addition, a large part of the disinvested territories has been the subject of mines, and the Russian "retreat" has been accompanied by sinister discoveries. as in the city of Boutcha, northeast of kyiv, where many bodies of civilians killed by bullets were found, some with their hands tied behind their backs. Ukrainian authorities accuse Moscow of "genocide", while the Russians affirm in return that it was the Ukrainians themselves who perpetrated and staged these killings.

In any case, the Russian withdrawal, effective around kyiv, is not so obvious in the North-East of Ukraine. Further south, pressure remains strong on Mariupol, almost razed, but still not completely conquered, while Kherson (further west, about a hundred kilometers north of Crimea) remains in the hands of the Russians, who still have troops on the right bank of the Dnieper.

These latest withdrawal movements also mark a desire to strengthen the positions won by Moscow in the East. This approach would allow the Russians to adopt an "active defence" in the form of a war of attrition - that is, a war in which the strategy is to achieve victory by long use of forces and resources. enemy reserves – a practice more familiar to the Russian army than operations aimed at gaining territory.

Nevertheless, in the Donbass, two cities which have still not fallen under Russian control, Slaviansk and Severodonetsk, carry a strong symbolic charge, as they have been disputed for a long time with Ukraine by the separatists. A Russian offensive may soon take place.

If this withdrawal (which constitutes, paradoxically, the best Russian military operation since the beginning of the conflict) could allow Russia to regroup its forces and restructure its troops, one can legitimately think that Ukraine will do the same. and that the departure of Russian soldiers from the outskirts of the capital could strengthen the fighting spirit of the Ukrainian military and population. This is probably one of the aspects that motivated the in-depth strikes which notably targeted fuel depots in the city of Lviv, where many refugees are gathered.

One element is particularly to be taken into account to assess the possible developments of the conflict: the human resources available to Russia and the political agenda of the Kremlin, which absolutely wishes to be able to announce a victory to its population in the fairly short term.

The issue of conscription and the dilemma of war recognition

the 1er April started in Russia a conscription period which should last until mid-July and involve 134 young people.

Since Russia has not declared war, it will not be able to retain conscripts against their will for reasons of state – at least not officially. However, it is still possible to put pressure on conscripts to sign “volunteer” contracts that allow them to be sent to the front.

Russia: does the 2nd army in the world still have the means of its ambitions in Ukraine? (RFI, April 1, 2022). 

Moreover, since it refuses to recognize that it is at war, Russia thereby forbids itself from initiating martial law. It is therefore impossible for him to proclaim a national mobilization and to raise men in a massive way and to make assume a war effort in the country to produce the necessary material.

This does not mean, however, that Russia is at the end of its resources; only that the continuation of the war on a large scale will be difficult to hold.

The presence of "auxiliary troops" such as the Syrian mercenaries or the men of the private military company Wagner could be part of this need to benefit from additional troops. In addition, the representatives of these formations killed in combat are not counted in the official balance sheets of the Russian army, which allows the Kremlin to officially minimize its losses and not to assume the financial cost from the families (those of the fallen soldiers being compensated).

For the Kremlin to declare a state of war, it would have to be able to gauge the popular support that such a decision would enjoy. However, in a context where the expression of any criticism with regard to the actions of the army in Ukraine is severely repressed, it is today very difficult not only for outside observers, but also for the Russian authorities, to have relatively reliable elements as to the true feelings of the population. Many sources report a disastrous morale within the Russian army. Here again, it is difficult to pronounce with certainty as to the reality and extent of this state of affairs.

On the Ukrainian side, the daring operation of the 1er April, when two helicopters, after a low flight, targeted one of the logistical weaknesses of the Russian army in destroying oil depots in Belgorod, in Russian territory, shows an ability to hit Moscow's military Achilles' heel. It should however be underlined that this attack could allow Vladimir Putin to declare a state of war by placing the responsibility, at least from a rhetorical point of view, on kyiv.

Russia accuses Ukraine of an attack against its territory in Belgorod, Le Parisien, April 1, 2022. 

One thing is certain: to be able to continue the fight, the Ukrainians will need arms and ammunition, even mechanized equipment in order to carry out a counter-offensive. Without the material support of Americans and EU members, especially those who can provide Soviet-engineered equipment (which the Ukrainians have been trained to use), the reversal of the conflict in favor of Ukraine will be difficult to achieve. operate.

May 9, a deadline?

For Moscow, two main axes therefore seem to be taking shape: bringing the conflict into a phase of attrition and attrition, or succeeding in presenting what has been achieved militarily as a political victory to put an end to the offensive.

In terms of political victory, being able to announce the success of "denazification", for example through the total capture of Mariupol (even if it were completely razed) or the conquest of all the oblasts of Donetsk and Lugansk (including the separatists of the DNR and the LNR only control a part) could perhaps appear acceptable.

Remember that May 9, the day of the commemoration of the Soviet victory over the IIIe Reich in the "Great Patriotic War", is a very important symbolic date for Russia. It will be difficult to carry out these commemorations without being able to advance, at least, a victory if only in rhetoric against a Ukraine constantly assimilated to Nazism in Russian propaganda.

In both cases, waiting for the end of the new wave of conscription (and its potential signatures of commitment) would make it possible to reorganize or even reinforce the forces present, while trying to join forces with auxiliary forces without completely depriving the areas where the latter were previously based (notably the Central African Republic and Mali for Wagner's men). A withdrawal to the regions where Russia has obtained its greatest territorial advances, therefore the Donbass, in order to deploy an active defense there and stabilize its achievements there would not seem unreasonable. Such a scenario would not prevent the Russian army, in the long term, from carrying out localized thrusts that could serve strategic purposes, in particular around Odessa, an important city in Russian historiography and in terms of access to the Black Sea. , but whose grip seems difficult to reach in the current state of things.

It appears that, in the current situation, none of the parties involved has a sufficient advantage to engage in negotiations from a position of sufficient strength. The prospect of the end of the war, not to be confused with a ceasefire, therefore seems unfortunately remote.

Christine Dugoin-Clement, Geopolitical analyst, associate member of the IAE Paris – Sorbonne Business School Research Laboratory, University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, “standards and risks” chair, IAE Paris - Sorbonne Business School

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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