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Post-Bakhmut, What is Russia’s Endgame in Ukraine?

Abhyuday Saraswat

26 May 2023

Russia has reportedly won the symbolic Battle of Bakhmut, as Wagner mercenaries bid a slightly unpleasant adieu to their Russian comrades. A focal point in the Russia-Ukraine war, the Battle of Bakhmut has been termed a ‘meatgrinder’. In winning the same, Russia has employed an array of tactics purportedly dictated by the Gerasimov Doctrine.

Post-Bakhmut, What is Russia’s Endgame in Ukraine?

The year-long battle for Bakhmut has been reported to have ended in a costly victory for the Russians, while an adamant Ukraine has continued to deny the capture of the town. Russia began its ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine on 24 February 2022. A salt mining town located in the Donbas region, Western analysts note Bakhmut to have no particular strategic significance. Its significance instead lies in symbolism. Volodomyr Zelenskyy has described the battle as a “symbol of defiance” against Russia. For Vladimir Putin and the Wagner Group on the other hand, Bakhmut is a meatgrinder, intended to bleed the Ukrainian side dry.


The period following August 2022 has witnessed fire and fury pound the city. Russia’s win in Bakhmut has been made possible by the Wagner Group’s meatgrinder tactics. As the Wagner mercenaries bid adieu to Ukraine, important questions linger in the minds of many: what will be the endgame in the war? And could Bakhmut be a stepping stone towards further escalation?


Putin’s ambition to re-establish the Soviet sphere of influence and return Russia to its glory days has cost the world heavily and disrupted global supply chains. Russia has in effect turned into a supervillain in 21st Century international affairs. The United States and the West have imposed severe technological and economic sanctions on the Kremlin and its cronies. Meanwhile, the West has repeatedly decried the stance adopted by India, a traditional friend of Russia. The legitimacy and morality of India’s practice of strategic autonomy has been put on the spot once again.


Ukraine, on the other hand, has declared Russia a “terrorist state”. It has continued to seek weaponry from the USA and its allies including tanks, missiles and fighter aircraft, as the conflict is spiralling into a modern-day proxy war. But is Russia solely to blame for the war or is this the effect of containment or isolation? More importantly, what could guide Russia’s military doctrine and strategy post-Bakhmut?


7 Days to the Rhine


‘7 Days to the Rhine’ or ‘Operation Ryana’ was a hypothetical military scenario that gained attention during the Cold War. It refers to a theoretical plan attributed to the Soviet Union, suggesting that they could rapidly advance through Western Europe and reach the Rhine River within seven days. The concept emerged during the 1970s and was primarily a topic of discussion among military analysts and policymakers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The scenario served as a basis to assess the potential vulnerabilities in relation to NATO forces response capabilities in the event of a Soviet invasion.


The scenario entailed in Operation Ryana drew from the Red Army’s ‘Deep Battle’ doctrine. Envisaged by Soviet strategists in the 1930s, the Deep Battle doctrine seeks to render the Russian Army into a ‘sledgehammer’ through striking quickly and deeply into enemy territory. A Soviet attack as per this doctrine could entail a massive employment of armoured and mechanised force to launch a surprise attack. It could then use its numerical advantage and concentrate military power to swiftly overrun NATO defences.


The Rhine River was considered a strategic landmark because it marked a significant obstacle for an advancing force and was a crucial defensive line for NATO. The scenario led to the development of defensive strategies such as ‘Airland Battle’ and ‘Flexible Response’. These doctrines focused on reinforcing NATO’s conventional forces and integrating air power with ground forces to counter the Soviet threat. Moreover, they sought to delay and disrupt the Soviet advance, allowing NATO forces to regroup and mount a more effective defence.


It is important to note that ‘7 Days to the Rhine’ was never realised outside of simulations. It served as a catalyst for military planning, force modernization, and enhancing NATO’s fighting readiness during the Cold War. Since the end of the Cold War and particularly during the first two decades of the 21st Century, the strategic landscape in Europe has significantly changed. While Russia has re-wired its military strategy to operate effectively in an informatized environment, NATO has also shifted its focus to new challenges and threats. The ‘7 Days to the Rhine’ scenario is now primarily studied as a historical reference and a reflection of Cold War military thinking.


Gerasimov Doctrine: Russia’s modern-day military playbook


Russia’s military operations under Putin are largely guided by the Gerasimov Doctrine. Named after Valery Gerasimov, Chief of General Staff, Russian Armed Forces, the doctrine has been equated to hybrid warfare. Gerasimov detailed the elements of the doctrine in a 2013 article published in a Russian defence journal. The doctrine entails a combination of hard and soft power elements and draws from a whole spectrum of power capabilities to shape the battlefield to Russia’s military advantage. Gray zone tactics such as disinformation, economic manipulation and employment of proxies has formed the essence of the doctrine in practice. Irregular warfare involving private military contractors such as the Wagner Group and pro-Russian separatist groups further allows Russia to maintain strategic ambiguity. The adversaries on the other end are left confused as to how to respond.


The Gerasimov Doctrine has imbibed the Deep Battle doctrine in how military operations are conducted, albeit under modern conditions. For instance, Battalion Tactical Groups (BTG) has emerged as an important component of Russia’s striking power in recent times. BTGs are constituted around motorized rifle or tank battalions and are equipped with capabilities including electronic warfare and Man-Portable-Air-Defense-Systems. BTG units can penetrate deep into the rear of the enemy territory, while posing a high-risk to assets including aircraft.


However, wars in practice hardly follow grand scenarios of victories or defeat envisaged in military doctrines. Russia has showcased its military power through instances including the 2014 annexation of Crimea. However, the current experience in Ukraine may have forced a reality check on the Kremlin. A war that Russia thought it could win through a few quick offensives has now become protracted with no particular end in sight. While Bakhmut does represent a symbolic victory, whether Russia can implement an Operation Ryana type of scenario remains to be seen.


The Endgame?


The tumultuous events in Ukraine have resulted out of post-World War II geopolitics. Bakhmut represents a significant advance for Russia in the prolonged conflict. The enduring stalemate in Bakhmut had caused observers to term it as ‘The World War I of the 21st Century’. The state of war can be expected to continue as diplomacy is yet to move into the fore as a resolution for the conflict. On the other hand, quarters within the West have started to feel the pinch of supporting Ukraine’s fight against Russia. In this background, there is a possibility that the fighting may wind down in the near future. A relatively weaker state like Ukraine will run out of resources soon. Ukraine’s friends in the West may also get exhausted once their own strategic priorities grow incompatible with Kyiv’s.


The dynamics of the Russia-Ukraine war are clearly more complex than those envisioned in the Operation Ryana scenario. The war is akin to a proxy war and involves a mix of irregular forces, political manipulation, information warfare and limited conventional military engagements. Whether Russia ends up stronger or weaker for it all, the course of geopolitics may have altered for decades to come.


Disclaimer:The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.

Abhyuday Saraswat

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Abhyuday is pursuing an MA in Defense and Strategic Studies from Bareilly College, M.J.P. Rohilkhand University, Bareilly. His areas of interest include defense affairs, international relations and geopolitics. His writings have appeared at The Kootneeti, The Indian Defence Review ,Defence and Security Alert, Global Strategic and Defense News Analysis and Defence Research and Studies.

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