After three weeks of the most brutal and extensive war we have witnessed since World War 2, Western media has been reporting extensively on human tragedies behind the lines in Ukraine and Russian state media has been spinning fake news on a scale that makes Trump seem a paragon of honesty. Never has the aphorism “the first casualty of war is the truth” seemed more apt.
It is true that reporting from the thick of the fighting is both difficult and dangerous, but, as neither side seems to have reporters “embedded”—i.e. eating and living with front-line troops themselves, news in the West has been confined to presidential bulletins, defiant statements from talking heads in various Ukrainian cities and the plight of swelling numbers of refugees struggling to leave the country.
Hard news from the front itself is entirely absent in Russian media and reduced to large-scale maps showing red splodges in Western media. Viewers are left in the hands of “experts” theorising why the red splodges do not seem to be growing fast and how plucky outnumbered Ukrainians can possibly be holding off an army five times their size that has already crushed resistance in Chechnya, Georgia and their own Crimea and Donbas regions. What follows is no more than informed speculation but may provide answers unavailable from either of the protagonists.
A Little Background
Russia and Ukraine have much in common, both tracing their origins to Kiev Rus, founded by Viking traders on the Dneipr River 1,200 years ago. Subject to various invasions from all directions, Ukraine in particular has a complex history but was swept up into the Soviet Union a century ago. Along with their Russian brothers, it suffered the German invasion of 1941 and supplied four Fronts (Army Groups) of the Red Army. By 1944, these had swept the Germans out of their homeland, and went on to bring down the Rumanian, Bulgarian and Hungarian Axis allies to end the war at the gates of Vienna.
Despite being kept on a tight leash by Moscow, Ukrainians never lost track of their culture, language and identity, much of it intertwined with those of the Russians. But the opportunity to realise their own state afforded by the collapse of the Soviet Union was seized with enthusiasm.
As might be expected of people suffering centuries of rule by someone else, there were political mis-steps. The 2004 presidential election was claimed to be marred by massive corruption, voter intimidation and electoral fraud. The Orange Revolution deposed Viktor Yanukovych, perceived to be Russia’s preference. He was returned in 2010. Being seen to be too like the Russian puppet Lukashenko in neighbouring Byelorussia, he was, in tun, ousted from power four years later.
Russia’s Putin saw this act as an affront and a hindrance to his plans to cultivate supine neighbours. His response was an invasion of Crimea (ostensibly to protect the isolated Russian naval base at Sebastopol) and sponsor rebellions in the industrial Donbas, where a Russian-speakers majority. The present conflict can be seen as an extension of this policy after a hiatus of eight years.
From Tsarist, through Soviet times to the present day, the Russian Army could be characterised by two things: 1) massive manpower and 2) unsubtle employment of brute force. And, since the Soviets took on and defeated the best the Wehrmacht could do, they have been wedded to mechanised formations, spearheaded by tanks and supported by copious artillery.
During WW2, units that distinguished themselves were given extra equipment and designated “Guards”. Although the 1st Guards Tank Army was recently re-constituted, current Russian army doctrine is to operate in “Battalion Tactical Groupings” (BTGs), which generally consist of a mixed group of tank and mechanised infantry companies, with attached artillery, signals and support, totalling 800-1,000 soldiers. Estimates made in early 2022 were that they could deploy 170 BTGs, containing around 280,000 front-line combat soldiers.
These are augmented, as in other armies, with a myriad of support troops providing artillery, engineering, repair, supply, rocket, anti-aircraft, heavy artillery, etc. In addition there are specialist combat units, which include speznatz (~SAS), parachute and marine units, all manned by tough professionals. But, though the Russian Army is 1 million strong, with another 2 million reservists, half of the regular army and all of the reserves are one-year conscripts. All males are obliged by law to serve 12 months between age 18 and 27. Unit morale and competence varies with the proportion of conscripts.
While the Russians claim to deploy 16,000 armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs), there is doubt all are both modern and serviceable. Much Soviet-era equipment deteriorated from neglect during the 1990s.
The Russian Army is backed up by a large air force of some 1,200 war planes and 900 helicopters, plus a Navy of some 70 ships.
Like the Russian forces, originally part of Soviet Forces, much of the original equipment and doctrine were the same. Ukrainian forces also deteriorated from neglect and they gave up a powerful nuclear arsenal in 2004 in exchange for a now-clearly-worthless guarantee from Russia on the integrity of its borders. The ease with which Russia took over Crimea and disorganised the Donbas was a wake-up call.
At the start of this conflict, Ukraine deployed 196,000 mycg better tained personnel in its armed forces, manning 3,300 AFVs and with 900,000 personnel as reserves.
Ukrainian air power is considerably weaker at 130 warplanes and 50 helicopters and its navy is negligible.
How They Match Up
“No plan survives contact with the enemy.”—On War, Carl von Clausewitz
There is a saying among soldiers that victory does not always go to the big battalions—but that’s the way to bet. It is a fair assumption that a lot more people than just the Kremlin bet that way on the Russian Army.
Seen strategically, Ukraine was in a hopeless position, surrounded on three sides by a more powerful enemy in a situation analogous to how the Wehrmacht overran Poland in a couple of weeks in 1939. Indeed, the Kremlin had been pumping out propaganda predicting Ukraine would not resist a Russian invasion and even encouraging its own troops to believe they would be welcomed as liberators from fascist oppression. That this was pure disinformation was only the fist setback suffered by Russian forces invading on Thursday February 24th. The others included:
- Dissipation. While some 200,000 troops were concentrated, many more were occupied in other military districts from the Baltic to the Sea of Japan. The Russo-Ukraine border stretches over 2,200 km and the country covers a quarter million square miles. This means barely 10 soldiers per km along the border and the prospect of q per square mile, should they have to occupy it.
- Doctrine. When the Russian Army beat up the Chechens, Georgians or Syrians, their BTGs were suited to the myriad small-scale actions against poorly armed opponents involved. The Ukrainians are bigger and tougher, requiring dynamic co-operation among multiple units, in which the Russians have little practice.
- Logistics. Although most Russian commanders did not expect the walk in the park Putin was selling, they had not anticipated weeks of tough fighting that burns up fuel, stores and (especially) ammunition, for which too little provision had been made.
- Rasputitsa. Although the mud of Spring thaw is part of their military history, the difficulty of off-road maneuver of heavy vehicles explains the 40-mile-log column stuck north of Kyiv for a week.
- Ukrainian Tactics. Unlike the unskilled amateurs brushed aside in Crimea in 2014, Ukrainian troops have been studying their mistakes and the unsubtle manner in which Russians tend to maneuver and the most effective way to counter their ponderous use of heavy armour.
- Ukrainian Chutzpah. One bitter lesson learned by the Germans from their WW2 foray into Russia was the bitter resistance of people defending their homeland against a merciless enemy and who therefore have nothing to lose. The Russians had apparently forgotten this themselves and are getting a crash course from indomitable resistance by Ukrainians.
- Crisp Western Response. Putin cannot have expected timely shipments of modern anti-tank and anti-air weaponry from the West to Ukraine any more than unexpectedly harsh sanctions holing his economy below the waterline. Even his main income from oil and & exports are being throttled off.
- Endgame. Having failed to learn their own lesson from a futile decade-long folly in Afghanistan, the two-decade one NATO found there, or the outcome of two Gulf Wars, the Kremlin seems to have given little thought to what happens if the Ukrainians don’t rill over at the sound of the first tank. The way they are currently blindly bombarding civilians means Putin has never heard of Calgacus: “They make a desert, and they call it peace”.
Indeed, it is not easy to see how Putin extricates himself and his country from this super-SNAFU of his own making. And time is not on his side for a variety of reasons:
- Indiscriminate bombardments—especially by missiles and jets—are expensive
- Casualties are mounting by the day and already approach the Afghan tally
- Morale is dropping, specially among units with conscripts
- Number of body bags (incl. 3 generals) cannot be hidden indefinitely
- Imminent bank defaults and economic contraction will fuel unrest
- Absolutely no sign of Ukrainians wavering in their doughty resistance
- Losses, while not catastrophic, are difficult to explain or justify
|Category||Losses to Date|
Three weeks in and the horror of street fighting has yet to begin. Many Russians know the history of Stalingrad and know this exceeds all other combats for drawn-out, bitter intensity. The Ukrainians are making shrewd use of the weapons sent to them by the West against typically clumsy Russian maneuvers.
Who’ll Blink First?
Given all of the above, it is not easy—short of assassination—to see a quick way out of this. Putin would lose face, and probably his job, if he backed down. Even if he wins he’ll be a pariah, unable to hold down the wasteland his army has created. And even he is not deranged enough to press the nuclear button.
The most likely scenario is a Spring of costly, slow Russian advances wirth decreasing success against stubborn Ukrainian resistance until ordinary Russians are having trouble making ends meet, finding food in the shops and growing even more angry as brother/son/father fails to return home.
Then there will be more people on the streets of more cities than Putin’s stooges can round up and jail. Whether he goes quietly or not won’t matter. I hear St Helena works well in accommodating failed dictators. Let’s hope the Russian people, long betrayed by despot after despot, will finally take a lesson from their Ukrainian brothers, halt this fratricide and re-mould their country into a future of which all can be proud.