The Russians have had a tough time combating the Ukrainian conventional forces as they wisely dispersed prior to the Russian invasion. These forces are now being used to launch hit and run raids against the Russians. An outmatched Ukrainian military has sought to avoid pitched battles which they could easily lose.
The Russians have now recognized this and seem to be pursuing a fairly clear strategy. The Russians will surround the major cities between the Donbas and the Crimea to create a land bridge between their occupied territories. They are already implementing this strategy in Mariupol. They will likely do the same in Kharkiv and Kyiv, although either may be flattened to secure the surrender, capture or death of the government’s leaders.
The Russians are attempting to implement a second cease fire with humanitarian corridors so as many civilians as possible can flee. This is important politically for the Russian because they plan to surround the cities and and choke the life out of them. Once the cities are surrounded the Russians will cut off power, communications, food and water supplies. The remaining population will die of hypothermia, starvation and lack of water.
When the Ukrainians explain the Russian are, once again, killing civilians by these starvation efforts, the Russian will respond that the civilians were already allowed to flee. They will argue the only ones being killed are armed combatants in the surrounded cities. The Ukrainians, who will be almost completely cut off from communicating with the outside world, will not be able to release a counter argument. Yet the cities will likely have civilians suffering in underground bunkers and subway stations who gambled they would be safer staying underground than trying to escape. This too has been observed in Mariupol.
Counterinsurgency expert Stephen Biddle worked with Generals Petraeus and McCrystal and is now a professor at Columbia. He has spoken about how the Russians might act to break a Ukrainian insurgency campaign.
Biddle has said the Russians will avoid street to street urban combat at all costs. He explained the Russians would need 900,000 troops to fight an insurgency campaign like the US did in Iraq. The Russians do not have this availability. He suggested the Russians could use more brutal anti-insurgency tactics. But the downside, he explained, could further enrage the domestic and international population to the point it creates a far larger and better equipped insurgency. This could be similar to what the Soviets faced in Afghanistan. The Russians are more likely to surround cities, cutting them off from life-sustaining supplies until they surrender or die.
Politically, the Russians would prefer to evacuate the civilian population, but it will not stop their military onslaught. In Mariupol an attempted cease fire failed as the military fighting continued. In the short term it may be safer for civilians to shelter in place. In the long term this strategy is doomed. The best case for sheltered civilians would be a surrender by the regional Ukrainian armed forces. This could allow them to surrender and survive if the Russians resupply them with water and food.
The Russians still hold the high cards. The international community is working aggressively with the wise and courageous leadership of Ukraine. But they will both need a few breaks to prevail in this conflict. While harsh economic sanctions could provide this break, it is difficult to calculate how deep and sustained their damage could be to the Russian military.