Ukraine: Keep an Eye on Kupyansk

Russia May Soon Shift its Strategy

3 mins read
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (l) with Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov (Source: US Embassy, Kiev)

It is still to early to say whether the direction of the Ukraine war has changed, but there is increasing evidence that Ukraine’s inability to penetrate Russian defenses along the southern line, and challenges in the directions of Kupyansk, Lyman and Bakhmut suggests the entire war could be reaching a decisive conclusion.

It is, for that reason, that the Biden administration is asking Congress for $20 billion for Ukraine.  The idea seems to be to provide psychological support to both Zelensky and the Ukrainian army.  This time, however, Congress may not rubber stamp this outlandish money request.  It is not clear why $20 billion is needed, and sentiment in the US and Europe is starting to shift toward finding a solution to this costly and  difficult war.  Concerns range from depleting US strategic reserves to prolonging a conflict that increasingly looks like it will end up badly in a Ukrainian defeat.  While opposition is well short of a majority, further battlefield setbacks could lead Congress to change its mind on financial requests that break the bank.  One thing is certain: it is unlikely that any Washington politician can mobilize public support for the war.

Information about Russian operations, particularly in the Kupyansk direction, is hard to come by.  The Russians are not calling their operations an offensive, although unconfirmed reports say that Russia has mustered 100,000 or more troops for their operation in this area, and have moved in a lot of heavy equipment.  Most revealing was a convoy of BM-21 multiple rocket launchers, seen heading to the area.  There also have been reports of Ukrainian units refusing to fight, and while information on such mutinies has been suppressed, it seems to have happened in the past days.

Zelensky is hoping to retake Bakhmut, his key objective before he lost the city to Wagner forces.  At the moment Bakhmut city is not threatened.  Instead, the Ukrainians have been trying to take back settlements to the north and south of the city.  The latest information is that early Ukrainian advances in both directions have been repulsed, and that any hope Zelensky may have of creating a victory on the ashes of Bakhmut seems to have failed to materialize.  

The Bakhmut venture, once it sorts itself out finally, could create a huge internal problem for Zelensky.  He is about to fire his Defense Minister, the guy who fronted for him in getting arms from Europe and the United States, and anticipated replacement candidates are, for the most part, inexperienced and unconnected to the war.    Oleksiy Reznikov, the sitting Defense Minister, may be tipped to be sent to the UK as the Ukrainian ambassador.  No one can say for sure whether Ukraine’s military still supports Zelensky, but as more and more cracks appear in Kiev it is a good bet that they may take matters into their own hands.  Should that happen, Zelensky will likely be deposed.

Ukraine has brought up reserve units, many NATO trained, to try and head off any big Russian advance.  But committing these reserves leaves Ukraine with less trained brigades for the future, since Russia’s primary strategy has been to let them come in fairly close and then pound them with artillery, air strikes, and aerial mines.  It is now reported that Ukraine has ordered a mass evacuation, while at the same time mining bridges and roads to slow a Russian advance.

The Russians have been fairly clever in managing their war front.  Few attacks have been made on Kiev, excepting one more than a month ago on Ukraine’s intelligence center in the city.  Little is said in the Russian press about the top Ukrainian commanders, Valerii Zaluzhny and Oleksandr Syrskyi, other than to note that the Ukrainian army operates in a professional manner.  This may suggest the Russian door is open to dialog with Ukraine’s military.

Meanwhile it is reported that the Wagner troops in Belarus are starting to return to Russia.  The immediate cause is that Belarus has refused to pay them, leaving them without salaries for their troops or money to purchase equipment.  It is possible that some of them will be shipped off to Africa.  While Russia has not supported the coup in Niger, that disclaimer does not necessarily apply to Wagner.  The recent decision of ECOWAS to agree to putting together a military operation to “restore democracy in Niger,” offers Russia and Wagner a significant opportunity.  ECOWAS troops are nearly as bad as Niger’s.  They lack transport, communications and supplies. Any war there, without an outside stabilizing force, is likely to become a war of atrocities.  No one knows whether Putin will tip his hat to Prigozhin and fly them into Niamey.  

Niger, of course, is a sideshow and Ukraine is the main event, with significant geopolitical implications.  The Russians have been holding out instead of starting a big push to finish the war, trying to wear down the Ukrainians and split support for the war in Kiev.  But war planners in Moscow know how to count, and it could be they now see opportunities for a big offensive.  If it materializes, keep an eye on Kupyansk. 

Stephen Bryen

Stephen Bryen is a former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense and is a leading expert in security strategy and technology. Bryen writes for Asia Times, American Thinker, Epoch Times, Newsweek, Washington Times, the Jewish Policy Center and others.

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