From Republic.ru, Jan. 4, 2023, https://republic.ru/posts/106737. Condensed text:
Editors’ Note. – Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine [see Vol. 74, No. 8, pp. 9‑13], political analyst Nikolai Mitrokhin has been watching what is going on. . . . This article seeks to analyze the true causes of the war, the main reasons for the Russian Army’s failures, the fundamental problems of the Russian military-industrial complex and the Kremlin’s possible responses to its increasingly obvious loss.
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The causes of war.
The war between Russia and Ukraine was not caused by any objective problems. The frozen conflict in the Donetsk Basin and Russia’s occupation of the Crimea remained a grave problem in relations between the [two] countries, but overall the intensity of fighting (mostly sniper fire, rare exchanges of gunfire and shelling, and even rarer sabotage operations) along the line of contact significantly declined from 2015 to 2021. This is borne out by data on the number of casualties, including among Ukrainian military service personnel. The first two years of [Ukrainian President] Vladimir Zelensky’s administration were characterized by attempts to find common ground with the Russian authorities, pull back troops [and] provide more conducive conditions for the transit of civilians across the line of contact.
However, the Kremlin continued to believe that it had the right to interfere in Ukraine’s domestic policy and exert military pressure. From all indications, the point of no return in the new round of the conflict and in the preparation for military intervention was essentially passed when Zelensky rejected [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s previous behind-the-scenes agreements with [former Ukrainian] president [Pyotr] Poroshenko and the Kremlin’s semi-official representative Viktor Medvedchuk. He destroyed the media empires of both oligarchs and the chances for success of Medvedchuk’s Opposition Platform for Life party, which could have vastly outperformed [Zelensky’s] Sluga Naroda [Servant of the People] party in the upcoming Supreme Rada elections (as well as in regional elections) and exerted far more significant influence on Ukrainian politics than before.
The set of arguments for the invasion that Putin presented in his speeches at the start of the armed aggression might have been broader or narrower, [and] they might have been different, but the root cause of the war was the realization that all of Russia’s aces in Ukraine’s domestic policy had been trumped and that the country was irreversibly on a path toward NATO and the European Union.
The general course of the war.
At the same time, the Russian and Ukrainian Armies were preparing to wage two entirely different wars. Russia intended to take advantage of its numerical and technical superiority by carrying out a blitzkrieg. It attacked from approximately 20 different directions, including in unexpected places, such as the Chernobyl [nuclear power plant] area, using classic airborne assault operations against major airfields, massive missile and air strikes, and the Black Sea Fleet’s assets and capabilities. Not only did military service personnel of the Russian Armed Forces and security agencies participate in the offensive, but also “people’s militias” of the Donetsk/Lugansk people’s republics, as well as private military companies.
In keeping with this concept of the Armed Forces, Russia was developing all branches of service, but paid special attention to various categories of special forces, armor, Air Force and missile subunits. They were provided with new weapons and equipment as a matter of priority.
The Ukrainian Armed Forces were clearly bracing for a repeat of Russia’s August 2014 or January 2015 offensive on the Donetsk Basin, but a beefed-up version. In other words, the Ukrainian command thought that Putin intended to seize only the Donetsk Basin (readers are reminded that two-thirds of Donetsk and Lugansk Provinces remained under Kiev’s control) by trying to breach the front through the efforts of “people’s militias” followed by Russian armored troops and other assault elements. Therefore, for eight years Ukraine engaged in building a massive defense line (to be more precise, defense lines) in the Donetsk Basin. Fighting along these defense lines is continuing to date. At the same time, [Ukraine’s] borders with Belarus and Russia – even in the Crimean isthmuses – remained effectively unreinforced. . . .
Based on this concept, the Ukrainian Armed Forces made a bet on developing mobile infantry, reconnaissance, communication, artillery and air defense systems that were intended to protect all of that against Russian aviation. The Ukrainian Armed Forces pinned high hopes on Turkish-made Bayraktar drones, which are considered to be universal strike and reconnaissance machines, and [US] Javelin portable missile systems – effective “tank killers” in the hands of infantry.
In addition, Ukraine has done two other important things. Since 2018, it has thoroughly renovated its road network, making all roads across the country passable (and safe for traveling at high speeds). In 2021, a territorial defense network was created to function as a reserve for the Ukrainian Armed Forces and to protect the rear. It included veterans of the war in the Donetsk Basin and various categories of patriotic activists. They went through the first stages of combat teamwork and coordination training in the fall and winter of 2021-2022.
By launching a large-scale invasion with practically all available forces and assets, Russia compelled Ukraine to respond according to the logic of a “full-scale war.” And although Russia achieved significant successes in southern Ukraine during the first stage of the war (in February and March) and in the Donetsk Basin at the second stage (April to June), overall the course of events developed along the lines of the Ukrainian strategy of containing and wearing out the enemy first in the fields and then on urban terrain. At the same time, Ukraine remained cohesive in terms of military and civilian logistics and network-centric in terms of command and control, which made it possible to liberate roughly 40% of the occupied territories at all stages of the war, primarily the first and fourth stages (September to November).
Disappointment with the Russian war model.
After the Crimea, the Donetsk Basin (2014-2015), [the war in] Syria and the quelling of mass riots in Kazakhstan, the Russian Armed Forces viewed themselves as a high-tech and mobile modern army and the Ukrainian Armed Forces as some sort of post-Soviet aberration that the West was trying to turn into something battleworthy. However, it turned out that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are a modern, highly mobile army and the Russian Armed Forces are a colossus with feet of clay. Putin and [Russian Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu effectively acknowledged that at a Defense Ministry board meeting in late December.
Conceptually, after [former defense minister Anatoly] Serdyukov’s 2008-2012 reforms, it was expected that Russia would be able to conduct combat operations against neighboring countries with its own professional Army. In 2014-2015, it seemed that this idea was confirmed in practice. However, a full-scale war has shown that this is absolutely not the case, especially in terms of the Army’s numerical strength. Even for a war with Ukraine, whose population is three times smaller than Russia’s, the [Russian] Army must be more than 50% larger.
The Russian Navy, primarily the Black Sea Fleet, has proved especially unsuccessful militarily. It has been left without support from other fleets, because when the war broke out, Turkey blocked Russian warships from passing through the [Dardanelles and Bosporus] straits. It was clear to experts that since the “potential adversary” acquired antiship missiles, the Black Sea Fleet had been unnecessary for many decades. However, it has served as an important symbol for the Russian military leadership, which never forgot about the Black Sea Fleet’s glory in the 19th century. Predictably, in this war the fleet lost, first, its flagship [see Vol. 74, No. 17, pp. 13-14] and then the only territorial gain made during the war – i.e., Zmeiny [Snake] Island, and then shut itself up in its port [Sevastopol], which is also coming under shelling attacks, as well as direct attacks from the sea. Essentially, the fleet is unable to perform any missions except launching missiles. But this can be done far more easily and more cheaply using aviation.
The hopes pinned on the unquestionable superiority of Russian aviation also faded by the summer. It turned out that with Ukraine’s air defense system intact and Ukrainian infantry amply supplied with man-portable surface-to-air missile systems, it was not difficult to shoot down Russian aircraft and helicopters. By April, [Russia] had to abandon the idea of directly bombing Ukrainian cities. [Russia] generally abandoned the active use of helicopters to support troops on the ground by June, when most of its helicopters proved unable to approach the line of contact closer than eight kilometers. As a result of the destruction of [Russian] aviation in the air and Ukrainian attacks on aircraft parking areas in the rear (since July), Russia has lost a significant share of its operational air fleet and trained pilots (up to one-half). The remaining aircraft, when they attack Ukrainian targets, do so at a considerable distance from the front line.
The impact of the war on Russia’s security.
On the whole, this war, which began under the slogans of pushing back the threat from the Russian border and with the intention to “take Kiev in three days,” turns out to have broken the mold that Russians were used to (“a war that my government is waging somewhere”) and become a direct threat to Russian civilians, including those living in previously quiet provinces such as Belgorod, Bryansk and Smolensk, and even in inner regions (Kursk, Orel, Moscow, Ryazan or Saratov Provinces).
By now, Ukrainian missile and artillery strikes, mortar shelling, drone attacks and proven acts of sabotage have affected no less than 15% of Russia’s own regions, not counting the occupied territories. Shelling and drone attacks in three regions – Belgorod, Bryansk and Kursk Provinces – have become almost everyday reality. Their populations have already been relocated from border areas.
Ukrainian acts of sabotage, such as the Crimean bridge explosion [see Vol. 74, No. 41, pp. 3‑7], the explosive demolition of attack helicopters stationed for repairs in Pskov Province, the killing of Darya Dugina [the daughter of Russian ultranationalist thinker Aleksandr Dugin; see Vol. 74, No. 34, pp. 3-8 – Trans.], and numerous explosions on railway bridges on the Russian side of the border demonstrate the amazing helplessness of Russian special services that for two decades have been pumped full of money, personnel and equipment, and also received additional extraordinary powers just before the war. Although the Russian leadership toughened penalties for acts of sabotage up to and including life imprisonment, clearly that will be of little help.
The issue of mobilization has become an additional destabilizing factor for the domestic situation: Russian citizens generally did not want this war and did not actively support it when it began, but took it in stride, since it did not seem to directly affect “ordinary people.” After “partial mobilization” was announced [see Vol. 74, No. 38, pp. 3‑6], it turned out that the war had actually touched those who wanted no part in it. The ham-fisted mobilization only intensified these sentiments.
After protests started, the government backed off somewhat, halting the call-up, but the “social contract” was broken. New plans for building up the Army and drafting at least twice as many conscripts clearly show that the problem has not gone away. As for military registration and enlistment offices being set on fire (no fewer than 60 instances since February), this speaks to the fact that grassroots action groups are also ready for radical protests.
So far, it is unclear how international economic sanctions will affect Russian stability. The Russian leadership did not expect that so many countries would stand up for Ukraine and that this would create large-scale problems in the economic and technological sectors. The war has destroyed entire sectors – such as the auto industry and outbound tourism, as well as some segments of the commodity market – but most importantly, it has made people poorer. On the other hand, it has proved impossible to completely exclude Russia from the global economy, since supplies of certain types of resources are important on the global level and are affecting domestic markets in many countries. So some sanctions were eased, but others were toughened. The decision by the European Union and the US to end Russian energy imports (so far not completely, but significantly) has made the biggest impression.
Arms production problems and technological backwardness.
Russia acted on the assumption that its stockpiles of weapons and especially ammunition were infinite and [their] production sufficient to meet any military needs. This proved not to be the case. Ammunition depots and reserves of military equipment were depleted six months after the start of intensive combat operations.
The barrage fire tactics that Russian artillerymen liked so much completely destroyed Ukrainian cities and ploughed through fields and forests, ensuring the slow advance of Russian troops in the Donetsk Basin (especially during the second stage of the war). However, they used up 60,000 rounds of ammunition a day. . . .
Prior to that, in the summer, Russian forces became aware of a rapidly growing shortage of heavy weapons, especially modern armor and aircraft. The equipment brought out of dry storage is not simply obsolete – it is immeasurably more poorly protected against modern weapons systems than new equipment.
The Russian military-industrial complex proved unprepared to supply the Army at war, even despite the huge resources sunk into it. It turned out that despite the upbeat reports, an insufficient number of modern weapons had been produced in peacetime. And now, amid the war and sanctions, it is impossible to dramatically ramp up production within a reasonable time frame.
One aspect that has proved critical is the general technological backwardness of Russia’s military-industrial complex compared to the West’s, which the war has brought to light. While the Russian leadership was flaunting new nuclear-powered delivery systems and prototypes of new aircraft, armor and missile systems, the rest of the world took another technological leap forward. Importantly, this concerns both individual weapons and equipment (man-portable missile systems, gear [and] communication systems) and the entire complex of heavy weapons and reconnaissance systems.
For now, Ukraine is fighting the Russian Army with mostly earlier-generation Western military hardware (from 1980s Stinger [man-portable surface-to-air missile systems] and British armored personnel carriers from the 1960s to Gepard [self-propelled antiaircraft guns], HIMARS [high-mobility artillery rocket systems] and Patriots1). But next-generation weapon systems, even those delivered just one at a time (such as Germany’s IRIS air defense system), are showing extremely high effectiveness, partly due to Russia’s technical backwardness.
1[Sic; no Patriot systems are being used yet. The US announced $1.85 billion in additional security assistance for Ukraine, including a Patriot air defense battery and munitions, on Dec. 21, 2022; according to media reports, the Patriot system is unlikely to be operational until late winter or early spring. – Trans.]
How Russia intends to fight real “NATO forces,” especially US forces, is a theoretical question.
This is vividly demonstrated by Russia’s attempts to destroy Ukraine’s energy system, 70% of which are being blocked by Ukrainian air defenses, which increasingly include Western systems. This is evidenced on the battlefield by Javelins that are easily and successfully destroying Russian tanks beyond repair.
All of this has enabled the Ukrainian Armed Forces not only to stop the Russian offensive but also to reverse it. The Ukrainian leadership’s plans for 2023 are to completely liberate Ukraine’s territory from Russian troops, including the Donetsk Basin, and to use military-diplomatic means to liberate the Crimea.
Indeed, if the Ukrainian Armed Forces take control of the Azov region, they will be able to effectively engage or destroy the Crimean bridge and sea crossings from Krasnodar Territory, without which – especially in the absence of direct air links with the Crimea – the peninsula will not hold out very long, even if it uses Black Sea ports. Today, Ukraine has naval drones that can deliver 50-100 kilograms of plastic explosives to any vessel leaving the Black Sea ports of Krasnodar Territory and the Crimea. Then Russia would really be forced to repeat the “Kherson scenario” [i.e., the retreat from Kherson in November 2022 – Trans.] in the Crimea.
What response does the Russian leadership have to imminent defeat in the war?
The first option is that Russia hopes to win this war by sharply building up the Army’s numerical strength and boosting the defense industry. Right now, this is the main priority on a practical level. This is the focus of the Army reform, the implementation of which, however, is dubious on the declared scale.
The problem is not how to round up one or two million Russian men and send them to the trenches. This is quite possible, although fraught with politically unpleasant consequences in the medium term. Arming them is problematic, since very little is left at [arms and ammunition] depots, and the production of new weapons still largely depends on components supplied from the West and industrially developed countries of the East, which do not support this war. Meanwhile, the lack of one or two critically important components or microchips is enough for an aircraft not to be able to fly or a tank to remain blind and deaf.
The second possible response is based on primitive threats. Russian politicians and propagandists are glibly promising to respond to NATO with “strategic weapons.” Threats of “nuclear apocalypse” have become a matter of routine and ceased to be a sensation, which is actually scary. However, there are doubts about whether the Russian military would really want to carry out these orders. At a matter of fact, there are no fervent supporters of the war as such among [the Russian military], and there are apparently no fanatical proponents of the idea of launching a nuclear strike on a “potential adversary.”
The third possible response is less linear but can be gleaned from the Russian leadership’s rhetoric and, most importantly, its actions. It is to compel Ukraine by any means – not necessarily on the battlefield – to recognize [Russia’s] rights to the occupied territories and the portions of Donetsk and Zaporozhye Provinces that have not been occupied but that Russia considers “its own” as a result of pseudo-referendums (although they were not even held on those territories).
War objectives: from fighting NATO near Russia’s borders to holding on to the occupied territories.
It would seem that Russia’s military-political and diplomatic leadership should have anticipated that the declared war with NATO would prompt more countries to join that military-political alliance. In 2022, two more of Russia’s neighbors – Finland and Sweden – joined it [sic; applied for NATO membership]. Whereas before the war, there was an absolute minimum of NATO troops near Russia’s borders, now two full-fledged groupings are being deployed there, not to mention reconnaissance, monitoring [and] communication systems.
However, as fighting in Ukraine unfolded in 2022, the Russian authorities switched to openly imperialistic, land-grabbing rhetoric toward Ukraine. A case in point is [Russian Security Council deputy chairman] Dmitry Medvedev’s (Nov. 20) remarks to the effect that Kiev “is just a Russian city where people have always thought and spoken in Russian. Just so that it’s all perfectly clear what should be taken back and how.” Such a complete denial of Ukraine’s national independence has made it clear that anti-NATO rhetoric is just a cover for [Russia’s] land-grabbing plans.
This was established on a practical level by holding pseudo-referendums in Ukrainian provinces. At the same time, the Russian authorities did not even try to lend such polls an air of legitimacy. For example, how can one half of Zaporozhye Province vote for the entire region to join Russia while ignoring the other half of the province and the regional center? What’s more, the organizers of the “referendums” arbitrarily moved the regional borders: For instance, the occupation administration of Kherson Province ruled to incorporate a couple of districts in Nikolayev Province where Russian troops were deployed, and on that basis [the districts] “joined Russia.”
All of this has shown neighboring countries (which were willing to listen to arguments about countering NATO) that the Russian leadership could grab what it considers “Russian” at any moment and that all references to the “Kosovo scenario,” “precedents” in international politics and other pseudo-legitimate arguments are no longer relevant.
In reality, this jeopardizes the territorial integrity of Russia itself. To be more precise, it undermines the legitimacy of its internationally recognized borders.
The last question is: Exactly how is the war supposed to end, according to the Russian leadership? Putin himself has long stopped talking about the stated goals, such as “denazification” and “demilitarization” [of Ukraine] and even about preventing NATO from strengthening its presence along the borders. He is confining himself mostly to rhetoric about protecting Russia and its newly incorporated territories. As mentioned earlier, Dmitry Medvedev is dreaming of a “Russian Kiev.” [Russian Foreign Minister] Sergei Lavrov remembers the original slogans and sometimes repeats them. At the same time, Russian troops are destroying Ukraine’s energy infrastructure to force Ukraine to sit down for negotiations that are supposed to begin with the recognition of Russia’s land grabs and are therefore impossible by definition.
It seems that the political coterie within the Russian leadership that initiated the war – concealing its intentions not only from the “enemy” but also from the Russian people, Russian parliamentarians and the overwhelming majority of representatives of the state apparatus – is still confident that this war can be won or at least a positive outcome for Russia achieved by military means, even if this “win” is ensured by attacks that are considered war crimes under international law. This means that the war will continue for at least the next six months and will stop either after the Russian Army suffers major defeats or when the military resources run dry. Both scenarios are equally likely and interdependent.