Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently issued an open threat to the US and NATO that their latest pledges to send Ukraine heavy offensive weapons with which to fight Russia in the next stage of the war could prompt Russia to begin using its nuclear arsenal. Speaking during a broadcast interview on Russian TV, Lavrov insisted that, “The risk is serious, real. It should not be underestimated.” By sending more arms to Ukraine, he said, “NATO is, in essence, going to war with Russia through a proxy and arming that proxy.”
The latest NATO country promising to send heavy weapons to Ukraine is Germany, which announced this week that it will contribute about 50 refurbished German-made antiaircraft cannon tanks known as the Flakpanzer Gepard. Just last week, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said his government was treading carefully to avoid a nuclear war.
Meanwhile, two British government officials said publicly that their country no longer objects to Ukraine’s use of British-supplied weapons to attack legitimate military targets inside Russian territory.
Speaking at a meeting in Germany with NATO and other countries’ defense ministers to discuss Ukraine’s increased military needs, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced that the US has delivered more than $5 billion worth of military equipment to Ukraine since the war started in late February. The previous day, Austin publicly said that the US wants to see Russia’s military capacity degraded to prevent it from launching any more attacks on neighboring countries.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter that Lavrov’s nuclear threat was a scare tactic that “only means Moscow senses defeat in Ukraine. Therefore, the world must double down on supporting Ukraine so that we prevail and safeguard European and global security.”
WHY HAS THE RUSSIAN MILITARY PERFORMED SO BADLY?
Meanwhile, more than two months into the war in Ukraine, military experts are still amazed at how poorly the Russian invasion was planned and executed.
The Russians squandered their initial advantages in manpower and firepower, as well as an initially lukewarm Western response to urgent pleas for help from Ukraine’s embattled President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Despite year-long preparations for the initial offensive, during which Putin positioned huge military forces on three sides of Ukraine’s border, the Russians wasted the advantage by striking widely-separated targets instead of concentrating their attack on a single strategic objective to achieve a decisive early breakthrough. Their material was in a bad state of repair, their supply lines were poor as was the morale of the soldiers. Putin thought he would march over the Ukrainian defenders and earn a quick and glorious victory.
The unexpected delay in the quick Russian victory enabled President Zelensky to rally the Ukrainian people, and eventually the entire free world, against Putin. The resulting rising tide of military support enabled the Ukrainian forces to halt the initial Russian advance toward the capital city of Kyiv, inflicting heavy losses on Russian troops and materiel. Eventually, Russian forces were forced to withdraw from that battlefront to avoid being surrounded and captured, while Putin struggled to avoid publicly admitting that he had suffered an embarrassing defeat.
His solution was to reduce the initial goals of the invasion, which was the quick capture of Kyiv and decapitation of the Zelensky government. Putin’s new goals for his “special military operation” in Ukraine were more modest: to secure Ukraine’s largely Russian-speaking eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which have been partially controlled by Putin-backed Russian separatists since 2014 and cut Ukraine off from its access to the sea.
PUTIN’S NEW WAR GOALS
To accomplish that, Putin went about crush the remaining resistance in the strategic Ukrainian port city of Mariupol. Following its capture, Mariupol would be a crucial link in the continuous land bridge Putin wants to create linking the Russian region of Rostov with Crimea, which Putin seized from Ukraine in a nearly bloodless invasion eight years ago.
To achieve those more limited goals, Putin redeployed his badly battered Russian forces from the north and east of Kyiv to use as reinforcements to complete the takeover of Donetsk and Luhansk, where the frontlines have hardly moved since the first days of the invasion.
US officials estimate that Russia has now deployed 78 battalion tactical groups (about 75,000 troops) in eastern Ukraine, with more reinforcements on the way from other Russian border regions. But while the Russians have done a better job of concentrating their forces in the east, they are still using the same old battle tactics which failed them when the invasion started in February. These include the massive and indiscriminate use of artillery, rocket systems, and missiles, followed by poorly maintained and supplied armored columns and truck convoys advancing with insufficient air cover.
Since the second phase of the war in the east started, the government-held cities in the Luhansk province, such as Severodonetsk, Popasna, and Rubizhne, have been reduced to rubble, with power, gas, and water supplies destroyed. But the frontlines remain largely static, and Russian progress on the ground has been modest, at best.
RUSSIAN FORCES HAVE NOT HAD TIME TO RECOVER
Part of the problem, according to the Institute for the Study of War, is that Putin did not give the redeployed Russian battalions adequate time to recover from the beating they took while trying to conquer Kyiv in February and March. US and British military and intelligence sources estimate that Russian forces had lost up to 25% of the combat firepower they had before the invasion, and suffered as many as 15,000 troops killed. The demoralized and defeated survivors of those units are unlikely to be of much use to the Russians as reinforcements in the renewed battle to conquer the Donbas.
The military situation in the surrounded remnants of the city of Mariupol hasn’t changed much in recent weeks either. Most of the surviving Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are trapped in bunkers beneath the sprawling Azovstal steel plant. Still refusing to surrender, they have already inflicted far more damage on the Russian forces than anyone had expected. Western military officials estimate that there were about 12 Russian battalion tactical groups (totaling 8,500-12,000 soldiers) still fighting in Mariupol last week, but the losses they have suffered have badly depleted their battle readiness.
BESIEGED UKRAINIANS IN MARIUPOL STILL FIGHTING
Mariupol came under attack on the first day of Russia’s invasion two months ago. Totally surrounded by Russian forces for more than 50 days, it has been the scene of some of the most intense fighting of the war. Ukrainian forces have been credited by western military analysts with killing several high-ranking Russian officers and many members of the most elite Russian fighting units. Some Ukrainian fighters are still emerging from cover despite the siege on the steel plant to continue to ambush and attack Russians entering the city.
To avoid even more Russian casualties in the final assault, the Kremlin declared a premature “victory” in the now-ruined city last week. Putin then ordered his forces not to storm the steel plant, but rather to block it “so that a fly cannot not pass through.”
According to the British military defense intelligence agency, Putin’s order to blockade the plant “likely indicates a desire to contain Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol and free up Russian forces to be deployed elsewhere in eastern Ukraine.”
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said that the Russian army had made it clear that they would not let about 1,000 trapped civilians, mostly “women, children and the elderly,” leave the plant unless the remaining Ukrainian soldiers inside surrender first.
PUTIN’S MILITARY STILL REPEATING THE SAME MISTAKES
While Putin’s current military objectives are far more modest and realistic than his initial expectations of another quick victory over the Ukrainians without a serious fight, he is still depending on obsolete Soviet-era military tactics from World War II which rely on brute force, overwhelming numbers, and fixed battle plans.
On February 24, Russia launched its offensive on three fronts simultaneously. A total of 150,000 invading Russian troops were spread out and moved in different directions, unable to give one another support.
In the north, two columns of Russian troops moved towards the capital city of Kyiv in broken terrain which was ideal for the Ukrainian defenders.
In the east, the Russian invaders were met with strong resistance by some of Ukraine’s most seasoned fighters, who had been fighting Russian-supported militias in the Donbas region since 2014.
In the south, the Russians came up against the legendary Ukrainian Azov battalion, which continues to hold out in Mariupol against overwhelming odds and firepower. The strategic port city, which numbered more than 400,000 residents before the war, has been reduced to rubble. More than 90% of its buildings have been destroyed or badly damaged by merciless Russian bombing, rockets, and heavy artillery, and Ukrainian officials can’t even estimate the size of the gigantic civilian death toll. Yet the survivors of the Azov battalion, along with about 1,000 civilians, are still entrenched in their steel mill fortress, fighting on and refusing to surrender.
Because the invading Russian forces were so dispersed, Ukrainian commanders were able to withstand the initial onslaught, carrying out tactical retreats where necessary to preserve their forces for successful counterattacks on the advancing Russians where the terrain and conditions were most favorable. The counterattacks succeeded in forcing the Russians to withdraw from the Kyiv front, after suffering devastating losses in men and equipment.
COMMAND AND CONTROL PROBLEMS AND MISSED OPPORTUNITIES
The Russian offensive suffered from an embarrassing lack of communication and coordination due, in part, to the lack of a central chain of command. Poor planning for adequate resupply of the advancing Russian troop and armored columns led to critical shortages of fuel and breakdowns of military equipment due to poor maintenance. Long convoys of Russian trucks, tanks, and other armored vehicles bogged down on the roads, becoming easy targets for Ukrainian troops firing US-made Javelin anti-tank missiles with devastating effect.
Most surprising of all, the Russians failed to take advantage of their single greatest battlefield advantage: one of the world’s largest air forces.
“Gaining supremacy of the air is the 101 that shapes everything else in a modern conflict,” said a French pilot. “They should have knocked out Ukrainian fighter planes, radars, ground-air systems, landing strips.”
The 500 Russian warplanes mobilized prior to the attack could have easily established complete air superiority by wiping out Ukraine’s air force and anti-aircraft systems before the ground invasion, and then given their troops on the ground close air support, largely eliminating the threat from the Javelins. Instead, the miles-long Russian tank columns rolled into hostile Ukrainian territory without adequate air cover. This needlessly exposed them to the attacks from Javelin missiles and Ukraine’s small, Turkish-made Bayraktar tactical drones which are invisible to most Russian radars.
UNDERESTIMATING UKRAINE’S WILL TO RESIST
The most important factor in the war to date was the failure by Putin and his intelligence services to foresee the high level of Ukrainian resistance, in sharp contrast to what happened during Russia’s invasion of the Crimean Peninsula eight years ago, which the Russians won without a fight.
“Russia’s political leaders imposed on the military command a completely absurd scenario where everything would proceed like in the annexation of Crimea in 2014,” said Russian military expert, Alexander Khramchikhin, deputy director of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow.
“They thought that the Russian army would be welcomed as the liberators of all of Ukraine, except for the territories in the west. It is clear that the Russian military command was not prepared for such resistance on the part of the Ukrainians,” Kramchikhn noted. “The only part of the operation that was thought of as a war operation was the raid on Hostomel airport (on the outskirts of Kyiv) and the attempt to decapitate Ukrainian power.”
Elite Russian paratroopers were dropped into the Hostomel airport without air support, where they met stiff resistance from Ukrainian defenders who had been forewarned of the attack on the airport by shared US intelligence.
“The other Russian troops entered the country as if they were going to take possession, and with too many objectives, they were completely dispersed over the entire territory,” Kramchikhn said.
RUSSIA’S TANK FORCES WERE SITTING DUCKS
The failure of the huge Russian tank force to achieve its objectives in the first weeks of the war was another surprise for military analysts. Some of the Soviet Red Army’s greatest victories over the Germans in World War II were the result of large-scale tank engagements. The Battle of Kursk, for example, in the summer of 1943, was the largest tank battle in history. It involved a total of about 6,000 tanks, 4,000 aircraft, and 2,000,000 troops from both sides. The Red Army’s costly tank victory in that battle marked the end of the German offensive on the Eastern Front.
But according to William Alberque of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, the failure of Russian tank forces in Ukraine does not signal “the end of the tank era” in modern warfare.
“Armored vehicles work well [only] when combined with artillery, infantry, and air support,” he explained, and the absence of those elements during the first phase of the war in Ukraine was why the Russian tanks performed so poorly.
Russia will have a difficult time replacing its losses in Ukraine, because its military-industrial complex is no longer as productive as it was during the Soviet era. It is also now highly reliant on the imports of computer chips and other high-tech components which Russia can’t make by itself, which are essential for the production of its most advanced weapons.
US military experts say that those precision weapons now in the Russian arsenal are not nearly as accurate as their US and NATO equivalents. They estimate that only 50% of Russian cruise missiles that were fired at Ukraine actually struck their intended targets.
SUPERIOR UKRAINIAN PREPARATION AND TACTICS
On the other hand, according to a European military expert, “the Ukrainians were remarkably well-prepared” for the invasion.
Instead of deploying their key ground and air military assets near their borders, within easy range of artillery fire from inside Russian territory, the Ukrainians regrouped them in the cities, putting them in a much better position to slow and then block the Russian offensive, the expert said
After a month of hard fighting, high losses, and repeated failures to encircle, besiege, and conquer Kyiv, Putin was forced to change his strategy and focus instead on the conquest of the Donbas region in the east, an area immediately adjacent to Russia’s border which was already partially under Russian control even before the invasion.
According to Alberque at IISS, the Russians now seem to have recognized and tried to correct some of their initial invasion planning mistakes. Since then, “we’ve seen some consolidation,” Alberque said. “We finally see a unified command and a more unified objective.” Nevertheless, Alberque predicted continued trouble for the Russian military in a “bitter battle over difficult terrain [for tanks] dotted with rivers and forests.”
A high-ranking French military officer agreed, saying, “The Ukrainians have the advantage in this field. They will fight a battle of the roads to complicate Russia’s maneuvers and supplies.”
RUSSIA’S ADVANTAGES IN EAST UKRAINE
On the other hand, the shift of the major battlegrounds to the eastern border of Ukraine, surrounded by Russian territory on three sides, will make it more difficult to keep Ukrainian fighters well supplied.
Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe, after Russia, and 1.5 times the size of California. The distance from Ukraine’s western border with Poland, which is where most of its arms enter the country, to its eastern border with Russia, is almost 800 miles. By far the most practical way to send to the front the heavier armaments that Ukraine now needs from the West, such as artillery pieces and tanks, is via railway.
In an effort to halt the flow of heavy weapons to Ukraine’s fighters, Russia has recently redirected some of its artillery and missile barrages from civilian targets to train depots and critical railroad junctions.
Russian missile strikes have also continued to hit Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.
However, in what may have been a Ukrainian response in kind to those attacks, Russian state media reported large fires of unknown origin which broke out at fuel-storage facilities in the Russian region of Bryansk, some 60 miles from the border with Ukraine, as well as at a nearby military fuel depot.
That report follows by less than a month an air strike carried out by Ukrainian helicopters on an oil depot in Russia’s Belgorod region, also along the border with Ukraine.
SENIOR BIDEN CABINET OFFICIALS MEET WITH ZELENSKY IN KYIV
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin paid a visit to Kyiv last week to meet Ukrainian President Zelensky. It was the highest-level visit of US officials to Kyiv since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
Indicating the Biden administration’s recognition of Ukraine’s growing need for more weapons at the start of this new stage in the war with Russia, the cabinet officials announced $322 million in new US military assistance to allow Kyiv to buy the weapons it needs most.
The US will also send another $391 million to 15 other NATO and non-NATO partner countries as compensation for agreeing to supply Ukraine with critical military supplies out of their own military inventories since the war with Russia began.
The new money for Ukraine arms purchases announced by Blinken and Austin, along with the sale of $165 million in non-US-made ammunition that is compatible with Soviet-era weapons the Ukrainians use, brings the total amount of American military assistance to Ukraine to $3.7 billion since the invasion.
And last week, Biden announced yet another arms package for Ukraine that included heavy artillery and drones. Last month, Congress approved $6.5 billion for military assistance to Ukraine as part of $13.6 billion in spending for humanitarian and other needs in response to the Russian invasion.
DEFENSE SECRETARY AUSTIN CALLS FOR A UKRAINIAN VICTORY
Following his meeting with Zelensky in Kyiv, Defense Secretary Austin declared that, “we want to see Ukraine remain a sovereign country, a democratic country able to protect its sovereign territory. We want to see Russia weakened to the point where it can’t do things like invade Ukraine… We believe that [Ukraine] can win if they have the right equipment, the right support…”
“He has the mindset that they want to win, and we have the mindset that we want to help them win,” Austin told reporters in Poland, the day after the three-hour face-to-face meeting with Zelensky in Ukraine. “The first step in winning is believing that you can win. We believe that they can win if they have the right equipment, the right support, and we’re going to do everything we can … to ensure that gets to them.”
Speaking about the Ukrainian president, Austin added, “While he’s grateful for all the things we’re doing, he’s also focused on what he thinks he’ll need next in order to be successful.”
Austin explained that the nature of the fight had changed now that Russia has withdrawn from the wooded northern regions to focus on the open eastern areas of Ukraine’s industrial heartland of the Donbas. As a result, Zelensky is now asking the US and its allies to supply more tanks, artillery, and other heavy munitions.
“RUSSIA IS FAILING. UKRAINE IS SUCCEEDING.”
In his own comments on the meeting with Zelensky, Secretary of State Blinken said, “We had an opportunity to demonstrate directly our strong ongoing support for the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people. This was, in our judgment, an important moment to be there, to have face-to-face conversations in detail.
“The strategy that we’ve put in place — massive support for Ukraine, massive pressure against Russia, solidarity with more than 30 countries engaged in these efforts — is having real results. When it comes to Russia’s war aims, Russia is failing. Ukraine is succeeding. Russia has sought as its principal aim to totally subjugate Ukraine, to take away its sovereignty, to take away its independence. That has failed.”
Blinken also told reporters that he had spoken to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who told him he would send a “clear, direct message” to Putin during his visit to Moscow, on behalf of most of the world, that Russia should agree to a ceasefire, provide needed aid to civilians, and stop the war.
However, Putin had just rejected the UN Secretary General’s latest appeal calling for a four-day Orthodox Christian holiday truce for the evacuation of civilians from frontline towns and the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Meanwhile, in a statement posted on his website, President Zelensky said the $3.4 billion in defense support provided by the US so far has been the biggest contribution to Ukraine’s defense efforts, adding that he had also discussed sanctions on Russia, financial support for Ukraine, and security guarantees with the visiting Biden cabinet secretaries.
UKRAINE STILL ASKING FOR MORE AND BETTER WEAPONS
However, in response to a question from reporters, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that “as long as Russian soldiers put a foot on Ukrainian soil,” the West must do more to help Ukraine fight back.
“We appreciate everything that has been done, including by the United States,” Kuleba said, “but this is not enough as long as the war continues.” He warned that if Western powers want Ukraine to win the war and stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from going “deeper into Europe,” then they must speed up the delivery of the new weapons requested by Ukraine, adding that it takes longer for Western partner nations to decide to provide Ukraine with the most sophisticated equipment than it does for the Ukrainians to learn how to use it.
“It will be true to say that the United States now leads the effort in ensuring this transition of Ukraine to Western-style weapons, [and] in arranging training for Ukrainian soldiers,” he added. “I only regret that it didn’t happen a month or two months ago from the very beginning of the war.”
Blinken and Austin also said after meeting with Zelensky that the US would soon reopen its embassy in Kyiv. The White House then announced that President Biden will submit for Senate confirmation his nomination of Bridget Brink, the current US ambassador to Slovakia, as ambassador to Ukraine.
ORGANIZING MORE NATO SUPPORT
Later last week, Secretary Austin met with other more than 20 other NATO defense ministers, as well as Ukraine’s Oleksii Reznikov and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, at the Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. They shared the latest US intelligence from the battlefield in Ukraine and discussed additional security assistance for Kyiv and plans to strengthen NATO’s defense-industrial base in the long term to provide sufficient continuing support for Ukraine’s defense.
One specific problem they addressed was Ukraine’s continuing need for more Soviet-era ammunition and weapons systems which can only come from the inventories of former Soviet-dominated countries which are now members of NATO. The Soviet-era weapons systems of those NATO countries which they have given to Ukraine will now have to be replaced with NATO equipment to become compatible with the standard weapons and ammunition the rest of NATO uses today. For example, standard Soviet heavy artillery pieces fire 152-millimeter diameter canon shells, while equivalent NATO artillery pieces fire 155-millimeter shells.
The ultimate outcome of the new phase of the fighting in Ukraine is likely to depend upon the ability of the US and its NATO allies to keep Ukraine constantly resupplied with sufficient weapons and ammunition. The Russians will keep trying to interrupt that flow by attacking the lengthy and vulnerable supply lines which run from one end of Ukraine to the other, and to protect those shipments, Ukraine will need more anti-tank weapons and mobile air defenses.
Commenting on the resupply problem, a senior US official told reporters last week that the government is working “around the clock” to get the weapons to Ukraine at “unprecedented” speed. The statement was confirmed by reporters visiting a facility in Poland which receives US weapons and other military supplies to be transferred to Ukraine, who noted a significant recent increase in the pace of those shipments and an upgrade in the quality of the weapons being sent.
RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR PROTESTS US ARMS DELIVERIES
In response to the latest announcements of US weapons transfers to Ukraine, Russia’s ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, demanded that Washington stop supplying weapons to Ukraine. In a diplomatic note, reported by Russian news agency RIA, Antonov said such arms deliveries, aimed at weakening Russia, were escalating the conflict in Ukraine while undermining efforts to reach a peace agreement.
“What the Americans are doing is pouring oil on the flames,” Antonov said in a Russian TV interview. “I see only an attempt to raise the stakes, to aggravate the situation, to see more losses.”
The Russian diplomat said that in the note, “We stressed the unacceptability of this situation when the United States of America pours weapons into Ukraine, and we demanded an end to this practice.”
RUSSIA’S HUGE LOSSES SO FAR
Now, well into the third month of what Putin had expected to be a quick and easy military operation, Russia has expended a large part of its huge military arsenal, including some of its most modern equipment. It has fired huge quantities of missiles, rockets, and artillery shells, and is now believed to be running short of its newer, precision-guided munitions, which it will have difficulty in replacing.
Russia has also lost more than 3,000 pieces of large equipment in battle, according to Oryx, an open-source intelligence tracker. The tally, which was based upon photo, video, and satellite surveillance images of the battlefronts, includes more than 500 battle tanks, 300 armored fighting vehicles, 20 jet fighters, and 30 helicopters.
Russia, in recent years, has produced around 250 tanks and 150 aircraft annually, according to Mark Cancian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. That means Ukrainian forces in two months have destroyed the equivalent of at least two years of Russian tank production.
For now, Russian forces in Ukraine can be resupplied from Russia’s enormous stockpiles of basic military equipment, include tens of thousands of military land vehicles, so the current rapid rate of depletion is unlikely to have an immediate effect on the battlefield. But the number of older vehicles and other weapons in Russia’s military inventory that can actually be used in battle is unknown. Their performance in Ukraine since the invasion suggests that many of them require major maintenance or repair, and that a large portion have deteriorated to the point that they can be used only for spare parts.
RUSSIA RELYING ON ITS HUGE STOCKPILES
Russia, and previously the Soviet Union, based their military strategies on their ability to use huge quantities of fairly basic weapons, such as tanks and heavy artillery, to overwhelm their enemies on the battlefield, even at the cost of sustaining huge casualties among their own troops. Russia is still relying on its huge stockpile of mostly Soviet-era weapons and the relatively primitive components and technology needed to manufacture them.
By contrast, the US military and its NATO allies have focused on developing fewer but far superior weapons designed to inflict maximum damage on the enemy while being better equipped to better survive in battle.
After the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the Russian military began to import many Western weapons systems and components to upgrade their military capabilities, but remained at least a generation behind the latest US military technology. In 2015, after the West imposed sanctions over Putin’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, the Kremlin announced a program to make it self-sufficient in weapons production once more by 2025 by putting Russia’s “military-industrial complex on a new technological basis.”
RUSSIA CAN’T PRODUCE ITS NEWEST WEAPONS SYSTEMS
At the time, Putin told his Military-Industrial Commission that “import substitution in the defense industry is a serious challenge that managers, engineers, designers, entrepreneurs, and scientists must answer.” But since then, the Russian defense industry has failed to meet that challenge. Blaming production bottlenecks and foreign sanctions, the industry has been unable to put into mass production some of its most advanced and highly-touted new weapons systems, including jet fighters, tanks, and a new airborne early warning radar system.
The Russian defense industry hasn’t been modernized since the Soviet era. It is still using obsolete technology and has remained heavily dependent on foreign components and electronics in many of its current weapons systems which are no longer available due to the sanctions imposed since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. As a result, it will have a difficult time replacing the weapons that Russia has already lost on Ukrainian battlefield.
The industry does have some stockpiles of critical foreign components still on hand, but Russian arms production is likely to grind to a halt if the fighting in Ukraine continues on the current pace much longer.
“The real test for the industry regarding inputs probably will occur in the coming months or next year” as stockpiles of components with sanctioned content get depleted and Russia runs low on foreign-made microchips now used in most military hardware, Tomas Malmlof, a senior military analyst at the Swedish Defense Research Agency, told the Wall Street Journal.
RUSSIA’S DEFENSE INDUSTRY ALREADY IN TROUBLE
The collapse of the Russian defense industry will also have severe economic consequences. Russian arms exports rank second only to its energy and natural resources as a source of foreign currency. Russia currently sells military equipment to over 45 countries and has controlled 20% of the global arms market since 2016.
The Ukraine-related sanctions on global financial transactions with Russia has made it impossible for Russian arms manufacturers to collect payments from some of their largest clients, including Egypt and India.
In March, Russian tank manufacturer Uralvagonzavod announced that it was laying off some of its workers because US and European sanctions had cut off its access to critical foreign-made components, making it impossible to fulfill the orders from its clients.
The relatively poor battlefield performance of the latest Russian weapons being used in Ukraine is also likely to hurt their future foreign sales even after the war comes to an end. According to Scott Boston, a senior defense analyst at Rand Corp., the success by Ukrainian forces in the large-scale destruction of Russian military equipment using Western-supplied drones, artillery, and portable missile launchers has led to “a general perception that maybe this equipment isn’t that good.”
The limited availability of spare parts has always been a problem for Russia’s defense industries, even during the Soviet era, and the Wall Street Journal writes that the situation has not improved since the fall of the Soviet Union, according to people who have recently worked with Russian arms factories. As a result, the Russians may be forced to abandon equipment damaged during the fighting in Ukraine, which could be easily have been repaired if the parts were available.
A TEST OF WILLS AND ENDURANCE
As the war drags on, the rapid consumption and destruction of Russia’s best military equipment and ammunition, coupled with drag of Western financial sanctions and export restrictions on the Russian economy, not to mention growing casualty lists, will impede Vladimir Putin’s capacity to continue the fighting without endangering his domestic political base of support.
Analysts say that Putin’s immediate goal is to deliver some tangible sign of military progress in Ukraine by May 9, when Russia celebrates its annual Victory Day, recalling the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. But if the current military standoff in the Donbas continues for the next two weeks, Putin may have to settle for his clearly premature claim of victory last in Mariupol.
A more important question for Ukraine and its Western allies is how long they will need to keep fighting the grim war of attrition as the conflict continues into the summer months. In the end, it will become a test of whether the West will run out of determination to save Ukraine before the cost to Putin’s military and political costs of continuing the war becomes unsustainable.
The US and the NATO allies continue to upgrade the quality and quantity of the arms they are sending Ukraine. They have even found the will to quietly re-equip Ukraine’s depleted air force with replacement used Soviet-era warplanes that Ukrainian pilots know how to fly, and in sufficient numbers to prevent the Russians from establishing clear air superiority over the battlefields.
Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute in London writes that a once unthinkable Ukrainian victory in this conflict is now at least possible: “Ukraine’s defiance has bought time and an opportunity not only to stave off further Russian gains in the Donbas, but also to shape the battle beyond it. If Ukraine’s allies act today, they may deter or at least prepare for a summer offensive.”
Watling says that to win, Ukraine will require the immediate delivery of more capable Western offensive military hardware, including heavy battle tanks and tactical mobile air-defense systems which would “allow Ukraine to maneuver near the Russian border and retake towns while raiding Russian supply lines.”
RUSSIAN GOALS IN THE DONBAS
The current Russian strategy is to complete the conquest of the Donbas region, which it already controls on three sides, cutting off the Ukrainian forces from receiving reinforcements, weapons and supplies now coming in from the West, or the possibility of retreat. While the Russians have noticeably picked up the pace of their attacks on government-held towns and cities across the Donbas, they have not yet conquered much new ground.
According to an ISW assessment, that is because the Russian military has not yet “addressed the root causes [of its previous failure in the Kyiv region] — poor coordination, the inability to conduct cross-country operations, and low morale.”
SUPERIOR UKRAINIAN TACTICS
By contrast, Ukraine’s military leaders continue to show themselves to be the superior battlefield tacticians in this conflict, ceding territory to preserve resources and using their superior knowledge of the land and their mobility to inflict disproportionate losses on Russian units.
Ukrainian units withdrew whenever confronted with overwhelming Russian firepower. In the town of Kreminna in the Luhansk region last week, they prudently decided to preserve their fighting forces with a tactical retreat. But the Ukrainian troops have also shown the ability to block and successfully counterattack numerically superior Russian forces using a flexible mobile defense. They will withdraw from less vital terrain while still hitting the Russians as they fall back, and then set up new defensive lines in terrain of their choosing.
Simultaneously, the Ukrainians will attempt to disrupt the Russian supply lines, using armed drones and Special Forces raids on strategic Russian military targets just over the border inside Russian territory.
The Ukrainians have also become experts at foiling Russian attacks on cities such as Sloviansk, whose surrounding territory includes forests, rivers, and marshes. The terrain makes it difficult for Russian tanks to avoid counterattacks by the Ukrainian drones and Javelin anti-tank missiles.
In recent days, small Ukrainian attack units have made significant gains east and south of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, threatening the supply lines for the Russian troops still attacking the city.
SPECIAL FORCES AND SUPERIOR MOTIVATION
Some of the recent attacks by Ukrainian Special Forces have been unannounced, such as the demolition of a road bridge in Ukraine on a main route leading to Russia, and damage to a railway bridge inside Russia, on the edge of Belgorod. The Russian military relies heavily on its railways to deliver most of its logistical support for its military units in the field.
The Ukrainian military command structure has evolved over the past decade, due to NATO training, from the rigid, traditional top-down approach of the Russian army, which discourages lower ranking officers from taking initiative on the battlefield. Instead, the Ukrainian military has now adopted the more flexible NATO system which encourages officers and soldiers alike to take advantage of battlefield opportunities without always having to wait for approval from their senior commanders.
Finally, the Ukrainian troops and militia volunteers have the advantage of superior motivation. They are fighting to protect their homes and families, as well as their country’s freedom, while most Russian soldiers have been deliberately misled by their commanders and political leaders, and don’t really understand what the war is all about.
Even though they may face the prospect of inevitable defeat at the hands of vastly superior Russian forces, as is the case in the doomed and mostly destroyed city of Mariupol, the Ukrainians appear to be increasingly determined to keep fighting and die, if necessary, for their cause.