ROBERT CLARK April 21, 2022
Whatever happens, the combined efforts of the former Soviet states have destroyed the idea of Russian military preeminence.
Bolstered by the Red Army’s fearsome reputation in World War Two, many analysts believed that the Russian military was comfortably Eastern Europe’s premier military power. This conjecture is now being seriously challenged.
Yes, Russia has a formidable nuclear arsenal, but every other aspect of its military machine – from leadership to hardware – has been severely lacking. Indeed, one could argue that Russia’s star has fallen, and that, in unison, the combined powers of many of its Eastern neighbours, including Ukraine, have put an end to the notion that Russia would ever be capable of a blitzkrieg-style takeover of its former territories.
Following the unsuccessful assault on Kyiv, Putin is desperately searching for a hollow military victory that he can sell to the Russian people before the May 9th Victory Day parade. Incredibly, Russian losses so far in the conflict (potentially up to 20,000 killed) amount to a higher attrition rate than that suffered by the British at the Battle of the Somme.
Putin may have declared his support for the so-called breakaway republics as a not-too-subtle casus belli days before the invasion began, but these Russian-speaking towns and villages have displayed the same stoic Ukrainian national identity as the rest of the country, in the face of growing Russian occupation and barbarism.
Whilst Putin claims that he is helping Russian speaking Ukrainians, in fact it is the Russian speaking towns and cities, including Mariupol, and Kharkiv, which have been hardest hit, in his efforts to erase Ukraine as a modern nation state.
Thus Putin has once more underestimated the pride and heroism of the Ukrainian people, launching his ham-fisted assault this weekend using mainly reconstituted units along a 300-mile wide front, initially concentrating their forces around Izyum, and Severodonetsk.
The support provided by other Eastern European powers has been remarkable. Further to the weapons provided by the UK and the US, Ukrainian forces have been, or soon will be, considerably bolstered by Soviet-designed T-72 tanks and BVP-1 infantry vehicles from the Czech Republic and Soviet-era S-300 air defence missile systems from the Slovakia. Poland, meanwhile, has worked tirelessly taking in millions of Ukrainian refugees, enabling the President Zelensky to focus his efforts on military strategy.
Russian forces have seen some initial success so far in the new battle for the Donbas. Their use of air power has increased by half to include 200 sorties on Monday, and the city of Rubizhne is close to occupation with smaller villages nearby in Russian control. The Russian long-range fires and slow advance has continued.
However, whist these minor Russian gains occur, Ukrainian defences are continuing to hold, and in war, maths is key. Russia simply lacks the numbers to seize by force from a well defended and highly motivated opponent key ground, and then in turn to hold that ground from Ukrainian counter-attacks.
Most estimates place total Russian losses at 25-32% of their pre-invasion figure. With approximately 76 Battalion Tactical Groups (each comprising roughly 800-1,000 soldiers) left in Ukraine, there are another 22 undergoing refit with a further 12 almost combat-ineffective units tied up in Mariupol. This leaves at most 110 BTG available, in time, for the assault in the Donbas. At present its more like 80.
Meanwhile Ukraine have at least the same amount currently in defensive positions across this new front line. An attacking force requires three times the amount of troops, at a minimum. The maths alone spells Russia’s military defeat in the Donbas.
It’s important to note too that Russia has never even exercised this many troops before under a unified command; further logistical and command problems already exposed will be further exasperated.
This next phase of the war in Ukraine will be different: a much heavier Russian reliance on artillery, the intensity of the fighting doubling that of what came before. And double it shall, for Putin cannot afford to lose this battle, desperate to show some significant military success in time for the Victory Day celebrations. He knows that losing the Donbas is likely the only thing to change public opinion back in Russia.
So we are now entering the most critical phase of the war. But whatever happens, it seems likely that Russia will never again restore its former reputation as the strongest power in Eastern Europe. The combined efforts of Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and other former Soviet states, have made sure of that.
Robert Clark is Director of the Defence and Security Unit at Civitas. Prior to this Robert served in the British military for 13 years.