If anybody remembers, it has been nearly three months since my initial post signaling the beginning of the Russia – Ukraine conflict. I correctly predicted the war’s outbreak, and looking back on my predictions of how it would take place, I can say I am both satisified and not. We’ve all been hearing a lot about how the war has been an alleged disaster for the Russians, how the Ukrainians have killed tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, how the Russian army was just a paper tiger all along, etc etc, but is any of it actually true? Why is this war still going when everybody, even including myself, thought it would be over in a few weeks at most? Is Russia actually losing?
The answer to the second question is in my opinion, no. But it may seem that way to everybody who had the expectation that this would be a very rapid war. Why this turned into a multi-month long conflict as opposed to a something lasting more than a few days simply comes down to the fact that Ukraine actually fought back. I’m assuming that going into the conflict, the Kremlin had a Plan A and a Plan B. Plan A was simple: bum-rush the Ukrainian capital on the shortest axis of advance, and hope that the Ukrainians just folded in the realisation that a protracted war against the Russian federation would be hopeless. I highly doubt the Kremlin was so arrogant in their expectations that this could have been the only possible outcome, merely, it was a (relatively) high risk, high reward strategy that would have resolved the conflict with a minimum of losses. However, on the event that this did not transpire, the Kremlin moved to Plan B: destroy the Ukrainian army in the field, and this is exactly what we seeing attempted right now in the Donbass region.
If you don’t know, the Donbass is a portmanteau of Donets Basin, a region of eastern Ukraine populated by ethnic Russians. It’s a big, densely populated urban agglomeration with lots of interconnected cities. Ukraine has been fighting a low-level civil war there against Russian separatists (specifically the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic) since 2014, which was one of the main, if not the main reason (not the NATO membership) why Russia went into Ukraine this year in the first place. A large proportion of the best of Ukraine’s forces are concentrated there, specifically in three settlements; Severodonetsk, Lysychans’kand Kramatorsk. Russia wants to destroy these forces, because if it does, it will cripple the Ukrainian army. Ukraine’s capacity to continue the war without these units will only backwards-snowball from there, allowing the Russians to continue advance westward across the country.
So why do people think Russia is losing?
First and foremostly are people misunderstanding Russia’s objectives, and their overall strategy so far. This applies to the Russophiles as well in my opinion. I’m sure everybody reading this heard about Russia’s abandonment of the area around Kiev, which has been touted endlessly as proof that Russia is unable to defeat the Ukrainian army and is badly losing the war. In reality, and note what I wrote previously before, capturing Kiev with the forces Russia actually had around it was practically impossible unless Ukraine actually capitulated without a fight. This brings me to the most important point here, that few Western commentators and media followers actually understand:
Russia’s army in Ukraine is small.
This explains practically every move they have made in the conflict, and every withdrawal they have made following the initial phase when the Ukranians were shell-shocked and disorganised, and Russia was expecting little resistance. Russia’s army in Ukraine (which is by far not the totality of the Russian armed forces and its reserves) is small, and is significantly outnumbered by the Ukrainians. I think the force ratios, even when the Donbass militia armies are included in the count, is about 3:1 in favour of Ukraine. Why Russia has chosen to fight the war in this way is beyond my understanding, but it does place significant constraints on what they are able to achieve simultaneously. In total I believe they have somewhere around 200,000 men. Compare this to Army Group Centre , the grouping of the German forces that advanced across Ukraine in 1941. It had around 1.5 million (!). So the withdrawal from Kiev, given that Ukraine never gave in as was hoped, made perfect sense. Many pro-Russian commentators considered the Kiev front a ‘feint’; I do not, I just think that it was a gamble that didn’t pay off. Logically, withdrawal made perfect sense, as it allowed those forces to be aligned in the Donbass where they are needed to achieve Russia’s objective of destroying the Ukrainian army in the field.
The second reason people think Russia is losing is because Ukraine’s allies control the international channels of communication, including social media platforms. If you’ve ever been on Twitter and read some posts about Ukraine you would notice a deluge of really suspicious accounts with few followers that are following many multiples of accounts themselves posting content intended to be demoralising to the Russian war effort. Often these are bots, sometimes they are real people, and a lot of the time they’re just paid troll-farmers intended to create some sort of artificial consensus. ‘OSint’ (open source intelligence) accounts and talking heads regurgitate and repurpose content intended to weave a narrative of Russian losses; often destroyed Ukrainian vehicles and planes are claimed as Russian, and nobody really knows what’s true, which is the point in the first place.
Beyond social media, Ukraine has been claiming (or outright fabricating) many stories of their own, from the ‘Ghost of Kiev’ pilot who allegedly shot down 40 Russian planes (admitted to be a lie), to the Snake Island hold-outs who told a Russian warship to ‘fuck off’ rather than surrender. Turned out, they actually surrendered. Amusingly enough the Ukrainians very recently attempted a (apparently disastrous) amphibious operation to take back Snake Island. As Snake Island is nothing other than a strategically meaningless rock in the Black Sea, I could only assume this mission was for propaganda purposes only.
So how is Donbass going?
Russia needs to win in Donbass to have any hope of continuing its campaign without additional force inputs; In my opinion, it will. The first thing you will notice about how their campaign in Donbass has proceeded is how cautious it has been. Ukraine’s army in the area is heavily entrenched, with makeshift fortifications and dug-out trenches resembling those that were constructed on the Western Front in WW1. The Russian army consequently has proceeded carefully, expanding its axis’ of control while ensuring it does not dangerously over-extend and leave itself open to encirclement. Significantly it recently captured the town of Popansaya, which the Ukrainians had been aggressively contesting since the war began. Popansaya is a big deal because it occupies an elevated position in the Donbass, allowing Russia to easily shell Ukrainian positions throughout the area.
It is also on the road to Lysychans’k. Russia has (only today) recently broken through to Severodontesk as well, bypassing Ukranian forces held out in the industrial regions of a town called Rubizhne. All of these portend to Ukraine’s inevitable defeat in the area.
I also do not believe the Ukrainans’ will withdraw from any of these places, even if seriously threatened with encirclement such as in Mariupol, as this will harm their propaganda image.
You won’t and don’t hear about any of this in Western media, with dwindling reporting focusing on the tactically less meaningful advances of Ukranian forces North-East of Kharkov (the second largest city in Ukraine), which the Russians are mostly withdrawing from for the same reasons they left Kiev. I consider this a sideshow to the real main event occurring in the Donbass, as Ukraine simply cannot afford a multi-encirclement of its forces there, regardless of how much junk Western countries continue to ship to them.
What’s Russia’s Main Advantage?
You might have noticed how I talked about how Russia’s army is actually quite small in manpower terms (too small IMO) for this operation, and indeed is smaller than Ukraine’s total defensive forces. This is where my prediction from February has come in clutch; Russia has overwhelming artillery advantage, and artillery is the single most deadly actor on modern battlefields. Russian and Soviet military doctrine has long-emphasised artillery as the cornerstone of its arsenal, and this war has been no exception to that. Russia has been shelling the fuck out of Ukraine’s army, with anecdotal reports from Ukrainian soldiers saying that their guns operate on a 24 hour basis, day and night. I do not think it is unreasonable to believe Russia is achieving 3:1 kill ratios in Donbass with the help of its artillery forcces, but probably more than that.
Like LSWSHP said however, artillery and long-range forces (such as Russia’s equally exceptional Strategic Rocket Force) might be deadly, but manpower and infantry are needed to hold and take ground. As long as Russia’s army in Ukraine remains deficient in infantry, it can only advance slowly, and achieve objectives singularly rather than simultaneously. I have little doubt however that the Donbass offensive will be an eventual success, and many Western commentators and politicians will be shell-shocked to realise that all the billions we are throwing at Ukraine was an exercise in futility.