BY SETH CROPSEY, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR – 08/04/22 9:30 AM ET
THE VIEWS EXPRESSED BY CONTRIBUTORS ARE THEIR OWN AND NOT THE VIEW OF THE HILL
As the Russo-Ukrainian war grinds into its sixth full month, we must reckon with strategic reality. Russia is losing ground, and its strategic position will only deteriorate in coming months; further military reversals will intensify its strategic quandary. Three possibilities exist — revolution, a palace coup, or horizontal escalation — and the United States should prepare for each.
Russia faces a structural strategic impediment that goes beyond war-planning errors and the inefficiencies of an authoritarian kleptocracy. It simply lacks the manpower and capabilities to conquer Ukraine, or even to hold its current strategic position.
Russia’s military planned its invasion poorly because of a series of flawed assumptions. Its high command believed Ukraine was brittle and feckless with a divided, poorly coordinated army; it assumed the West had no stomach for even a brief confrontation. Hence, only a push would be needed to topple resistance: A multi-axis invasion would overwhelm Ukraine and the West, President Volodymyr Zelensky would flee Kyiv, and — by May 9 — Putin could announce the reconstitution of the Soviet-Russian Empire, Belarus and Ukraine included.
In the event, Ukraine fought with skill and tenacity. Russia’s greatest success came in the south, where it appears Russia compromised Ukrainian intelligence chiefs to facilitate its rapid capture of Kherson, Melitopol and Berdyansk. Russia’s invasion force, however, was too small to sustain a broad-front offensive for more than a few days. Although it captured much of Kherson and southern Zaporizhzhia oblasts, and took Mariupol following a vicious two-month siege, its momentum was spent. It withdrew from the north, abandoning its thrust towards Kyiv.
Since then, Russia has been stuck in an increasingly insoluble bind, stemming from two structural factors. It possesses tens of thousands of artillery pieces in various calibers, ranging from the 1960s-produced D-30 and 2S3 to the more modern Msta-b and 2S35, along with various multiple rocket launcher (MRL) systems. These systems are relatively inaccurate – Russian MRLs lack the precision guidance of Western-designed HIMARS and M270s, while Russian barrel artillery cannot match the American M777, French Caesar or German PzH-2000 with modern shells.
Still, many Western analysts and the Kremlin’s propagandists insisted Russia would shatter Ukrainian defenses if properly concentrated. And Russia did concentrate: It amassed well over half of its deployed combat power in the Donbas. But observers who predicted Ukraine’s collapse after an attritional conflict in June forgot the Great War adage, “Artillery conquers, infantry occupies.”
Short of nuclear bombardment, infantry are needed to take even destroyed cities and pummeled fortifications. Russia lacks trained, disciplined infantry and the command structure to coordinate multiple assaults, break through and then encircle defenders. Its solution was to increase artillery bombardment while restricting its infantry assaults. Casualties remained high, but Russia avoided the loss of ability to conduct offensive operations due to unit overextension and exhaustion.
However, Russia’s artillery-heavy strategy is increasingly ineffective. Ukraine’s Western-provided precision weapons have methodically destroyed Russian command posts, logistics hubs and ammunition depots throughout the occupied east and south.
Russia’s logistics system remains manpower-heavy, rail-dependent and centralized. Hence, pressure on it exposes its frailty: Russia’s military is intellectually and materially incapable of redistributing its supply depots and replacing rail with road transport. This has led to an appreciable drop in artillery fire in the east, where Russia benefits the most from a dense rail network, and in the south, with much longer logistical lines.
Manpower and logistical constraints prevent Russia’s military from regaining the operational initiative and make it severely vulnerable to even moderate Ukrainian pressure, which is building. Ukraine’s counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast is underway, although it remains in the “shaping” phase. It is dividing the Russian bridgehead on the Dnipro River’s north bank into segments and using long-range fire to disrupt logistics; over time, it will degrade Russian combat power. Ukraine’s hope is that Russia will cut its losses and withdraw, much as it did around Kyiv and from Snake Island.
A more consolidated Russian position in the south remains extremely vulnerable, too. Its logistics lines are long, and it must police significant territory for Ukrainian special operations and partisan activity. Ukraine, meanwhile, operates on interior lines, allowing it to shift forces far more rapidly and dictate the pace of operations. Moreover, given Russia’s manpower constraints, force shifts will be necessary to maintain even the more consolidated position; they have begun, but not in great enough numbers to stabilize the south or to counterattack.
The current Kherson counteroffensive is only the beginning. Ukraine will reset after driving Russia from the Dnipro’s north bank; continuing an offensive after this into Kherson Oblast is possible but difficult. The Dnipro is wide; crossing it would require a large-scale bridging operation that Russia would oppose — and even if it succeeded, losses would be high. Ukraine would then need to push towards the Crimea Canal, Russia’s second defensive line, assaulting fixed Russian positions for the first time.
More viable may be an offensive in Zaporizhzhia Oblast. The ground is wider, partisan activity appears more intense, and Russian logistics are more exposed, given Ukrainian firing positions. Ukraine can mask a buildup because of its forces in the east; new units could be used for the Donbas and Kharkiv, forcing Russia to guess Ukrainian intentions and risk redeploying incorrectly. Moreover, a Ukrainian counteroffensive that reaches Melitopol, or simply maintains fire control of the M14 Road and attendant railways, would threaten all Russian forces to the west with logistical collapse, especially if Ukraine can disable the Kerch Strait Bridge. This would construct the war’s long-awaited first cauldron.
Regardless, Ukraine has a solid chance of retaking the south, or at least pressuring Russian positions hard enough to induce another controlled retreat to Crimea.
Despite prognostications on the failure of sanctions pressure, Russia’s economy is nearing implosion. Russia cannot sustain its economic interventions, and its industry is entirely starved of foreign-produced high-end equipment. Oil revenues alone are insufficient to prop up Russia and cannot procure necessary Western technology. A precipitous decline is probable between October and December — just as the purported Russian “commodity strategy” will bite the hardest, with the West placed under the greatest energy pressure.
Putin’s options are, therefore, limited.
Mobilization remains far too dangerous; arming tens of thousands of young Caucasian, Central Asian and Siberian Russians and shipping them through Moscow to Ukraine is a recipe for revolution. But seeking a limited peace, in which Russia retains the Donbas and Crimea regions, does not solve Crimea’s vulnerability nor save Putin’s domestic credibility. Most likely, the Kremlin will take this peace and Putin’s security services will batten down the hatches, hoping to outlast the economic downturn and maintain power.
The military, however, will be disillusioned. It will have completely eviscerated its combat power, and for what? A small bit of land in eastern Ukraine and some looted household goods. Russia’s piddling incentives for combat service, along with high casualties, will create a toxic domestic environment. We may very well witness the reassertion of an old Soviet dynamic that pits the security services against the military, which brought Nikita Khrushchev to power and eliminated Lavrentiy Beria in 1953.
The greatest danger, therefore, comes after a successful Ukrainian push. At this point, Putin will feel the most domestic and psychological pressure, or finally will come around to the military’s argument for either mobilization or extension of the war.
The U.S. and its allies must prepare accordingly and expect a confrontation in the next six months. Four steps are necessary:
First, the West should expand and diversify weapons deliveries to Ukraine. HIMARS and other long-range artillery systems are necessary, but aircraft should be included — both fighters and manned or unmanned aircraft with anti-submarine capabilities to undermine Russia’s Black Sea Fleet even further. The greater the military pressure Russia experiences, the more likely the failure of Putin’s twin attacks on Ukraine and the international order.
Second, as Putin becomes more desperate, the U.S. and willing allies should prepare to impose a no-fly zone in western Ukraine. Unlike earlier in the war, this is not to ensure Ukrainian civilians are safe from Russian bombardment. Rather, it would be to call Putin’s escalatory bluff, while deterring any attempted Belarusian intervention.
Third, the U.S. should apply pressure to those corporations still doing business in Russia. Putin’s regime is increasingly isolated and approaching economic collapse; more departures will accelerate its implosion. Inflation Reduction Act puts our oldest climate-fighting technology to workIntelligent life in the universe may be extremely rare — we should look for it anyway
Fourth, the U.S. should encourage Turkey, through positive and negative inducements, to permit a NATO or U.S. naval mission into the Black Sea. Ukrainian grain exports have resumed, though time will tell how much Russia allows to exit the country. Nevertheless, now is the time to push Russia’s naval position the hardest; absent control of the Black Sea, Russia’s position in southern Ukraine becomes untenable. This would not involve active combat operations, simply a demonstration of presence and force.
As the war continues, the opacity of Russia’s weaknesses is replaced by transparency. The West should take the fullest possible advantage.
Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of “Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy” (2013) and “Seablindness: How Political Neglect Is Choking American Seapower and What to Do About It” (2017).
Seth Cropsey made some very interesting observations and has some great ideas.
1 “First, the West should expand and diversify weapons deliveries to Ukraine. HIMARS and other long-range artillery systems are necessary, but aircraft should be included…”
>diversity and sheer quantity, and yes finally give UAF the planes, and helicopters they want and need so urgently to every pilot that is so trained and capable. Ukrainians are highly motivated and skilled to be able to put many new types to excellent use. They have shown themselves to be smart and highly adaptive even making improvements on newly received kit.
2 “…the U.S. and willing allies should prepare to impose a no-fly zone in western Ukraine”
>They should have done that in the beginning and I hope that they are already prepared for such an endeavor. But lets do it now at least in west Ukraine, and Sumy region. Call putler’s bluff and deter projectiles from being launched from belaruZZian soil.
3. “Third, the U.S. should apply pressure to those corporations still doing business in Russia.”
>Finally declaring them to be a state sponsor of terror would do wonders in applying pressure. In spite of what Anthony Blinkalot says.
4. “Fourth, the U.S. should encourage Turkey, through positive and negative inducements, to permit a NATO or U.S. naval mission into the Black Sea.”
>A carrot stick approach may be best with Turkey since they want to play both sides. UK and U.S. should already have a major naval mission, a massive show of strength helping UAF to test ruZZian black sea fleet’s buoyancy and structural integrity. The west should take fullest possible advantage of every ruZZian weakness.
Har, har, har! 😁
I think one aspect that is missing is the other occupied regions have THIS chance to return their lands. This chance may never be any better. At a minimum this would be the two occupied regions of Georgia, the Transnistria region in Moldova and the Kuiril islands of Japan that have been in dispute since 1945. Why on earth they aren’t speaking is beyond me. Maybe I’m dreaming…
“Second, as Putin becomes more desperate, the U.S. and willing allies should prepare to impose a no-fly zone in western Ukraine.”
This is actually a sad statement … willing allies. Not allies, but willing allies. This means that, despite the horrors unleashed by mafia land, despite all the war crimes that it committed, the lies it constantly vomits … there are “allies” who we cannot depend on. I wish for this reason alone to get a POTUS who deals with such “allies” accordingly.
“Fourth, the U.S. should encourage Turkey, through positive and negative inducements, to permit a NATO or U.S. naval mission into the Black Sea.”
The US doesn’t need Turkey’s permission for this. We only need a real POTUS who doesn’t come groveling to everyone for the smallest thing.
“As the war continues, the opacity of Russia’s weaknesses is replaced by transparency. The West should take the fullest possible advantage.”
Is there anyone in the West who will take the fullest possible advantage of mafia land’s weakness?