“What we are seeing now is a shadow play that should lead to panic and despair among the Russians”

The Ukrainian encirclement of Bachmut, pro-Ukrainian rebels in Russia, it could all be a smokescreen for the real spring offensive. So says Tom Simoens, lieutenant colonel at the Royal Military School. “We’re going to see some strange things.”

Bruno Struys

With Russia appearing to have control of Bachmut after nine months of fighting, Ukraine says it remains the epicenter of the battle. Do the Ukrainians mean that, because everyone expected a spring offensive?

“Russia is proud of the prize it has won and Ukraine will certainly not give it up easily. While the city is taken, Ukraine tries to make progress through the city’s flanks, but that also fits in with a strategy of deception. The Ukrainians suggest that they are going to surround that city. If they get the chance, they will, but their primary concern is to divert Russian troops from other fronts to Bachmut. That way they can strike elsewhere. That Ukrainian plan seems to be working.”

Distracting the Russian troops, is that also what is happening in the region of the Russian Belgorod? There the ‘Russian Volunteer Corps’ and the ‘Freedom for Russia Legion’ captured four villages.

“In the run-up to the spring offensive, we are going to see really strange things, such as now indeed these pro-Ukrainian Russians. With or without resources from Ukraine, they could invade that region. That is part of a shadow play that should lead to panic, despair and uncertainty on the Russian side. Only then will the great spring offensive begin, with the Leopard and Abrams tanks and Bradley vehicles.

“Note, the involvement of Ukraine in the attacks in the Russian province of Belgorod has yet to be proven. Those Russians who fight Putin have also been in the media with their actions, but this is much stronger. Is this really a Russian resistance movement, or something Ukrainian?

“Diplomatically, it would be a dangerous move by Kiev to take Russian territory. Until now it was not so difficult to defend Western arms support, because it served to liberate occupied territory. International law also provides for this. With the UN Charter on our side, we were able to prove that we are doing the right thing there. An invasion of Russia seems to me to be a move that could lead to confusion not only on the Russian side, but also on the Western side. It may lead to more restraint in some countries.”

And then you get people who, for example, question the delivery of F-16s?

“You can already see analysts scaring people about those F-16s. They could force Putin to escalate, it sounds. But which escalation? Killing civilians? He already does. Torture camps? He already has it.

“Those F-16s have to operate over Ukraine, far from the frontline and certainly not over Russia. We must be humble about the effect they will have in this war. That is why this will not mean an escalation.”

Where will the spring offensive come from, if all this is a distraction?

“Impossible to say, although there are some logical contenders. The most obvious, but therefore also the most difficult, because Russia is prepared for it, is to advance to Melitopol via Tokmak. That would be a strategic victory on several fronts.

“It amounts to liberating the nuclear power plant, it cuts the land bridge between Crimea and Donbas, it obliges Russia to evacuate Kherson and it puts Crimea in range of Ukrainian artillery. That would be a real game changer in this war, but Russia has greatly strengthened its defenses there, including with minefields.

“Easier is the option Luhansk, more to the north, but now that I see how they seem to lure Russian troops to Bachmut and Belgorod, an attack in the south might make more sense.”

An offensive in the south, but not the expected attack on Melitopol?

“If you see the axis between Mariupol and Berdiansk: you don’t have those heavy Russian defense lines there like around Melitopol. And yet you get the Crimea within firing range of the Himars. For example, you are on the Black Sea and you may be able to force the Russians to evacuate that southern part of Ukraine at a certain time. Then negotiations could finally start.

“That would be a major spring offensive, and I expect crazy things in the run-up to it, including fake news. I think Ukraine plays the media and social media well. You have to surprise your enemy with timing and place, and that’s what we’re seeing now.”

How strong are the Russians? Their victory in Bachmut is presented as almost negligible in the West, but perhaps this proves that despite all Western support, Russia can still win.

“Putin said earlier: ‘The whole Donbas by the end of March’. Then he can’t be satisfied now. Bachmut is the only prize of General Gerasimov’s winter offensive. They have deployed hundreds of thousands of soldiers and the front line has barely moved.

“Russia probably has about 150,000 combat soldiers to man the entire front from Kupiansk to Kherson. That’s hundreds of miles, so that’s a relatively low number. They will have to rely on artillery and minefields to stop the Ukrainians.”

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