Worrying signs for Ukraine as Russia slowly but surely turns the screw

Victory had to be quick. Instead, the invasion got off to a bad start. The Russians massively underestimated the resistance and soon found their positions and supply lines harassed by an elusive adversary.

But finally, after months of bitter warfare, Russia won the ‘Winter War’ against Finland in 1940 – a campaign of attrition which analysts say could be a model for the end of the war in Ukraine. .

The outcome is still far from certain more than three weeks after Russia launched its campaign, according to a growing number of Western defense officials. While Ukrainian successes blocked Russia’s advance, American and British military leaders remained largely silent on kyiv’s military problems.

This is a major question that haunts assessments of the battle for Ukraine, given the lack of information on Ukraine’s attrition rate.

Moreover, although the Russian military has performed poorly, its forces are regrouping and there is no indication that Vladimir Putin is reducing his strategic goals.

“The Winter War is a very interesting analogy. The Russians did poorly, but they got a very favorable peace thanks to their ability to counter escalation and sustain attrition,” said Sidharth Kaushal, a military analyst at the British think tank Royal United Services Institute.

He added: “We have to remember that there are quite significant challenges facing Ukrainians.”

Most Western analysts agreed that an equivalent loss rate for Russia was plausible, equivalent to around 10% of Ukrainian troops.

As Thierry Burkhard, France’s chief of defense staff, warned in an interview with Le Monde this month, Russian forces could still “cheat” the Ukrainian resistance.

Kyiv says it lost 1,300 troops to around 7,000 killed, wounded or imprisoned for Russia, according to US estimates. But Western officials and analysts said Ukrainian losses were likely to be much higher: Most agreed that an equivalent loss rate for Russia was plausible, equivalent to around 10% of Ukrainian troops.

Hundreds of Ukrainian tanks and vehicles were also destroyed, a NATO official said. “I can tell you that Western arms deliveries to Ukraine are absolutely critical at this point,” he said. “Without them, I think we would be in a very different place, despite the incredible heroism of the Ukrainians.”

Even the current level of supply may be insufficient.

“Senior [Ukrainian] I have been told by officials that supplies of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons have slowed and stocks are running out,” said Paul Grod, head of the Ukrainian World Congress, a nongovernmental organization. “This must be resolved as soon as possible – otherwise Ukrainian fighters will meet Russian tanks with only machine guns.”

Crippling Manufacturing

Recent airstrikes hit Antonov aircraft factories and the Artem arms factory near kyiv and an aircraft repair plant near Lviv, indicating that Russia intends to cripple the manufacturing capacity of ammunition from Ukraine.

Ukraine’s information dominance has masked its losses: Thousands of open-source images of Russian armor being blown up have been taken by Ukrainian civilians, who are unlikely to post similar images of their own side’s casualties . This has led to a natural bias in the online content reviewed by many analysts.

Russian troops, meanwhile, have had their mobile phones confiscated by commanders – a lesson from its covert invasion of Crimea in 2014, and intended to give Russia greater control over information. Instead, it left a void that was filled with Ukrainian content.

Moscow is also paralyzed by its inner need to maintain the fiction that the war is a limited “special operation”, meaning it cannot broadcast images of Ukrainian casualties on television that might indicate otherwise.

For Russian forces in the east and north – where logistical problems have been most acute – there are signs of regrouping

The Kremlin nevertheless repeatedly insisted that its operations were going to be planned. “I have seen no evidence that his overall intent has changed,” a Western defense official said.

To the south, Russia has had some success. Heavy Ukrainian casualties were suffered when Russian forces overran positions defending the land bridge from Crimea. On flat and open ground, the Russian battle groups were also able to deploy and advance more easily. At least one brigade of Ukrainian marines – the 36th Naval Infantry Brigade – is trapped defending the besieged city of Mariupol.

Anti-tank obstacles line a deserted street in central Odessa, Ukraine on Thursday. Photography: Nathan Laine/Bloomberg

For Russian forces in the east and north – where logistical problems have been most acute, as supplies come from depots in Belarus via narrow and vulnerable roads, not by rail – there are signs of regrouping .

This has been aided by the increased use of drones over the past week, according to a Western military official. Dozens are flying over Ukraine and are being used to hit targets and provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to Russian battlegroups.

Meat grinder

There is also no indication that Russia is scaling back its plans, despite supply issues.

“They haven’t determined that they need to move into a defensive position, which is the first thing they would do if they were really worried about supplies,” said Kusti Salm, permanent secretary at the Estonian Ministry of Health. Defense. “Until that happens, the Russian meat grinder will continue to grind.

Moscow is also looking to replenish its forces with troops from eastern Russia and foreign fighters. On April 1, conscripts’ current service will end and they may be pressured to register as regulars, which would allow their continued deployment.

“In mid-April, we could see the resumption of full-scale Russian military operations,” said Gustav Gressel, a Russian military analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank. “Of course, Putin has to think carefully about national opinion, but in theory this is a force of around 100,000 people he can lean on.”

Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz saw destroying armies rather than capturing cities as the quickest route to victory

Perhaps Ukraine’s greatest tactical vulnerability is its Joint Forces Operation (JFO), where the bulk of Ukrainian military assets are deployed just west of Donetsk and Luhansk. Russia is seeking to encircle Ukrainian troops, Western officials said, cutting them off from kyiv and drawing them into open combined arms combat, which plays into the superiority of its battlegroups.

Crushing Ukrainian forces in this way would be as much a victory as capturing kyiv, some analysts have said, citing Carl von Clausewitz, the military theorist who saw destroying armies rather than capturing cities as the quickest route to victory .

Anyway, few people think that the fight in Ukraine will end soon.

“Even on the best assumptions, it will be a war with many operational pauses,” Kaushal de Rusi said. “A bumpy war that will probably drag on for a long time.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022