Russia: Winter War


December 16, 2022: For the first time in a decade, Vladimir Putin is not holding his annual news conference where he reports on Russian accomplishments over the past year. This year Putin does not believe he can turn the disastrous war in Ukraine and the debilitating foreign economic sanctions into anything positive to report on during the annual news conference. Putin was getting more criticism from Russians, including many Internet-based commentators who supported the war but reported accurately what was going on in Ukraine and the sorry state of the Russian military effort. Opinion polls showed that support for Putin was shrinking faster than support for the war. Putin decided to declare violence against the war effort inside Russia was domestic terrorism and recalled Russian personnel who were dealing with the remaining Islamic terrorists in the Caucasus and told them to go after Russians who were violently opposing the war effort.

With the regular Russian forces in a shambles, Putin found that the only military organization he could depend on was the Wagner Group. This military contractor organization was authorized by Vladimir Putin in 2014 with trusted associate (and self-made millionaire) Yevgeny Prigozhinin in charge. Prigozhin assigned his corporate security chief, Dmitry Utkin to run the operation. Utkin is a former special operations officer who used the call sign “Wagner'' while in the army. Prigozhin and Utkin report directly to Putin and Wagner Group often carries out special tasks for Putin. Until 2022 Wagner only operated outside Russia and was only in Ukraine briefly between 2014 and 2017 to oversee organizing Russian-backed separatists. This often involved killing particularly difficult local military leaders. Between 2015 and 2022 Wagner operated overseas as military security contractors for pro-Russian foreigners with enough money to pay. This included Syria, Libya, Sudan, Central African Republic, Madagascar, Venezuela, Mozambique and Mali. In Africa Wagner made a lot of money and got involved in the illegal minerals and diamonds trade. Africa has been very lucrative for Wagner and Putin. By late 2021 Wagner had about 8,000 personnel, who were largely former Russian soldiers, many of them from airborne and special operations units. The Wagner supervisors (officers and NCOs) were also veterans and all were paid very well and on time. Then came the Ukraine invasion and when it was clear that the Russian army could not handle the Ukrainians, Putin called on the Wagner Group to help out. By the end of 2022 Wagner had recruited about 30,000 men for the war in Ukraine. Recruiting was difficult because the pay was not as lucrative as overseas and casualties were higher, much higher. Ever resourceful, Putin allowed Wagner to recruit from prisons and offer inmates freedom after serving six months in Ukraine for Wagner. These men were paid and equipped but few were veterans and training was brief, often just two weeks. These Wagner forces were sometimes called “penal battalions”, something that was used by Russia during World War II for very dangerous missions. As with the original penal battalions, discipline was harsh and those who tried to desert were executed, often in a brutal fashion. In one case the deserter was beaten to death with sledgehammers. These Wagner troops were more reliable than the new recruits the Russian army was conscripting but the Wagner men soon discovered that the promised high pay was not being delivered and a growing number were getting killed before the end of the six-month contract. Inside Russia the idea that these felons would be free once their contract was completed was very unpopular. The government announced that none of these Wagner men would be allowed back in Russia but would serve in overseas Wagner operations. That was also untrue. Ukrainians began capturing some of the penal battalion men and considered them POWs (prisoners of war), where they were safer than in Russia or working for Wagner. These POWs were willing to give detailed accounts of their experience with Wagner. The overseas Wagner operations remained fully staffed. In early 2022 some overseas Wagner personnel were brought back to organize and lead the Wagner expansion in Ukraine. These men were trusted Wagner veterans who were Russian patriots but also quickly saw that the Russian war effort in Ukraine was a mess. In the end, Putin was only able to get limited help from Wagner because even Wagner vets saw that the Ukraine operation was going badly. Currently, the primary task for Wagner is attacking Bakhmut City in Donbas. Wagner has been taking heavy losses here with little to show for it. The Ukrainian forces are the defenders and content to inflict large casualties on the Wagner forces. Ukrainian intelligence believes that Russia is trying to train and equip a new force of capable and well-armed troops in Belarus and then launch another offensive south from Belarus to nearby Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. The Ukrainians seem to have good information on Russia's plans and this prediction makes sense because many Belarussians are pro-Ukraine. While revealing Russian plans regularly, Ukraine is very secretive about its own operations and manages to keep those secrets secret. Commercial satellite photos do show Ukrainian forces assembling for what appears to be another offensive to seize all of Kherson province and cut off Crimea from vital supply lines from Russia. That could coincide with the Russian offensive out of Belarus, which the Ukrainians appear to be ready for.

Russia is still trying to adapt to the unexpected situation in Ukraine. A year ago, Putin described Ukraine as an artificial nation that rightfully belonged to Russia and should be reunited with Russia. He said the people living in Ukraine had no true sense of being a separate nation and were unwilling to defend their deplorable state. This became the justification for the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Within weeks it was becoming obvious the people defeating the Russian invaders thought of themselves as Ukrainians and were willing to fight, and defeat any invaders. It took a few months for the Russians to realize that not only were the Ukrainians better armed, organized and led, but the initial Russian defeats were also due to serious effects in the Russian military.

The problem was that Russian tactics, training and leadership had not changed much since the Cold War despite multiple reform efforts after 1991. For example, NATO used “mission orders” in combat. Senior commanders gave mission objectives to subordinate commanders and expected them to work out solutions to whatever obstacles they encountered. Russia was still using the same Soviet-era centralized command and control. This worked in World War II when the Russians were significantly superior to the Germans in numbers of troops, weapons and ammunition. Those victories came at a very high cost in personnel and weapons. Russia attributed this to the fact that “quantity has a quality of its own”. This is true to a certain extent but in the last two years of World War II Russia had a growing number of combat-proven officers and NCOs (non-commissioned officers). Such was not the case during the Cold War and by the 1960s Russian generals were complaining that their troops were less capable because Russian training was unable to regenerate this wartime experience. NCOs were once more eliminated after World War II and the number of officers expanded to make up for the loss of NCOs.

Western forces developed more realistic training and personnel methods and, in the 1980s and early 1990s, demonstrated that their approach was effective. Western nations were also more effective at testing and improving their weapons. This was also demonstrated in 2022. Ukraine adopted the Western approach not just to spite the Russians, but because their NATO neighbors (Poland, the Baltic States and Romania) had already made the switch and agreed that NATO practices and standards were superior to Russia’s. NATO’s methods were also more expensive and some new NATO members were still using conscription. The British went all-volunteer in the 1950s and the United States did so in the 1970s. After 1991 most NATO nations ended conscription. Even with conscription, Western nations developed better training methods than the Russians ever did. It helped that the West still maintained a large and experienced force of NCOs. Russia tried to do that but had limited success because there were so many other problems with military service in Russia. Without a lot of NCOs, Russia had no way of quickly replacing heavy officer losses by promoting able NCOs to officer rank.

The Ukrainian quickly adopted Western tactical, organizational and training methods and this gave Ukrainian forces a substantial edge in defeating the 2022 invasion. Now the better trained, led and equipped Ukrainian forces are continuing their offensives to clear all of Ukraine of Russian forces. These have been underway since late August and the Russians have not found a way to stop them.

Ukraine also made many innovations, which included establishing an International Legion for defending Ukraine. So far about 20,000 foreigners have enlisted, most of them veterans of their own governments’ armed forces, and some were special operations veterans. There are international and national prohibitions against unofficially participating in another country’s war, though this has been pretty much constant for five thousand years. This doesn’t stop the most determined volunteers, many of them willing to fight and not just provide support as trainers and advisors.

The foreign advisors include support for the Ukrainian Special Operations Command, which is now the fifth branch of the Ukrainian military. The Ukrainians recognized an opportunity and recruited several hundred foreign special operations veterans to serve in a branch of Ukrainian Special Operations. Russia also obtained some foreign fighters, most of them foreign mercenaries already working for the Russians in foreign wars. Ukraine attracted far more foreigners who traveled to Ukraine at their own expense and worked for nothing. The volunteers were housed, fed and otherwise supported but were not, in the classical sense, mercenaries.

Some of the International Legion volunteers had been active members of foreign militaries and served in Ukraine between 2014 and 2021. These volunteers were particularly valuable because they had been part of the NATO effort to turn Ukrainian forces into a NATO compatible force. This is a process that continued after the invasion and is one reason NATO nations so quickly, massively and continuously supplied Ukraine with weapons, supplies and other essentials after the invasion. Nine months into the war that aid amounts over $100 billion, with most of it already in Ukraine or on the way. In 2021 the Ukrainian defense budget was about $600 million. In 2022 it is nearly three billion dollars because of foreign assistance.

The Russian national budget increased by $80 billion (to $480 billion) since 2021, its defense budget has nearly doubled, going from $57 billion to $83 billion, and the budget for the national police and other internal security forces has gone from $47 billion to $77 billion. Some of this is spent in Russian-occupied Ukraine, especially Donbas and Crimea. These two areas were illegally annexed and have growing problems with local security, not all caused by Ukrainians. For 2023 Russia plans to spend $132 billion. This defense spending growth was made possible by borrowed money. These loans had to be made at very high interest rates because the domestic and international financial industries agree that Russia is currently a bad credit risk from massive international sanctions and its military defeats in Ukraine.

Military reform has never come easily to Russia and usually occurred when a particularly strong and harsh ruler was in charge. In modern times Russia has undergone four periods of major military reform. The first was in the early 18th century, under Czar Peter the Great. The next was under Field Marshall Milyutin in the late 19th century. In the 1930s over a dozen daring reformers made the military ready for modern warfare. Most of the latter were executed by a paranoid dictator, Josef Stalin, just before World War II. For over 60 years there was not much real reform, until 2008, when Defense Minister Serdyukov sought to make the Russian military similar to what the West had long possessed. This meant fewer officers and conscripts, more NCOs and volunteers, plus new equipment, weapons, training methods, and tactics. Serdyukov made a lot of enemies in the military with his reform efforts and was replaced in 2012. One of Serdyukov’s most unpopular moves was to shrink the size of the officer corps. Despite the fact that most of the officers being let go were not really needed, this elicited a lot of protests from active duty and retired officers.

Despite the complaints, the mass officer firings continued. Shrinking the officer corps saved money but did not improve the quality of officers much because most of the good officers had left after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Russian military’s budget was slashed by 80 percent.

Building an NCO corps of long-serving soldiers was difficult because the 1930s reforms eliminated them as a potential source of revolutionaries. Officers, all members of the Communist Party, were considered more politically reliable than NCOs. Another big problem was the collapse of the Soviet-era military industries. With orders from the Russian military disappearing in the 1990s, many of these firms disappeared or switched to civilian products. Those that survived did so because of export orders. The defense industries also lost their best people, who left for better paying jobs overseas or in new non-defense firms in Russia.

Then there's corruption, which expanded in the military in the 1990s when the size of the force shrank over 70 percent. Officers and troops sold off a lot of unneeded military equipment and officers stole money they had control over. This caused all sorts of problems, from lack of equipment, maintenance and barracks to shortages of food or fuel to stay warm during the severe Russian winter. These food shortages caused hunger and even some starvation deaths among lower-ranking troops. After 2000 military prosecutors have been busy sending some corrupt officers to jail, but that did not even begin to eliminate such misconduct. Low troop morale remained a problem. It was not surprising that the government gave priority to keeping nuclear weapons, and the missiles that deliver them, in good shape. As for the rest of the armed forces, change kept coming very slowly but persistently. The ancient Russian army traditions are gradually being peeled away and the Russian army is slowly evolving into a 21st century force. The new Defense Minister Shoigu didn’t halt the reforms, he just made them more palatable for the traditionalists and made it clear that the big changes were here to stay. Shoigu was a loyal and often effective associate of Vladimir Putin. Unfortunately, Shoigu slowly became more compliant than effective and was a major supporter of Putin’s claim that Ukraine was really part of Russia and most Ukrainians secretly agreed with that. When that proved to be false during the first weeks of the 2022 invasion, Shoigu got behind the fantasy that Russians were actually fighting NATO troops in Ukraine and that this explained the failures of the new BTGs (Battalion Task Groups) and the Russian military in general. Preaching fantasies like this united Ukrainians and NATO nations and caused them to increase efforts to get the Russians out of Ukraine and Putin out of a job.

December 13, 2022: Ukraine believes that Russia still has several hundred cruise missiles for use against Ukraine. IN the last few months Russian factories used available components and some smuggled in from China or the West to build nearly 400 Kalibr and KH-101 cruise missiles. In addition, there were over a hundred older Kh-55 air-launched missiles with nuclear warheads that Ukraine surrendered, along with its nuclear weapons in a now infamous 1990s agreement where Ukraine gave up these weapons in return for a guarantee that Russia would never seek to annex any part of Ukraine. The nuclear weapons were taken apart and nuclear material reprocessed as power-plant fuel. The air launched nuclear cruise missiles were given to Russia where they had their nuclear warheads removed under American supervision but the rest of the missile was put into storage by Russia. Now these old Kh-55 missiles have been taken out of storage, equipped with a warhead and used to attack Ukraine.

December 12, 2022: Before 2022 Russia had a reputation for being a formidable threat as a practitioner of Cyber War. So far in 2022 the Russian reputation as a military power has been much diminished along with their standing as a Cyber War threat. While Russian military activities were widely reported on by the media, much less attention was paid to the similar defeats Russia suffered as they sought to carry major Cyber War campaigns against Ukraine even before Russian troops crossed the border. The Cyber War defeats continued throughout 2022. Russia had a formidable arsenal of Cyber War weapons and pre-planned attacks, especially against Ukraine.

Like many other capabilities, that reputation was tarnished and diminished during the recent war in Ukraine. For Russia the defeats were frequent and victories few in this network battle space. Russian defeats began the day before Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border and continued during the first months of the war as Russian unleashed most of their pre-planned attacks designed to do maximum damage to Ukrainian networks and Internet-based capabilities. Ukraine knew what its key Internet vulnerabilities were and, with the assistance of “Cyber NATO'' and the major American Internet services and security providers, the Russian efforts were blocked. China, the other Cyber War threat to NATO and the West, took note.

This sort of large-scale coordinated Internet defense was always theoretically possible and now the main Cyber War threats (Russia, China, North Korea and Iran) saw it in action. That changed the Cyber War strategies of all these aggressor nations. At the moment, the best the Internet threat nations can hope for is that the defense coalition grows less effective over time because the defenders might believe they have the problem solved and major investments of time and effort in defense are no longer necessary. That would be a mistake because the benefits of effective Cyber War weapons expand as more of the world becomes dependent on Internet based services.

December 11, 2022: When the Russians invaded in 2022, the Ukrainian armed forces had nearly a quarter million personnel on active duty. Since then, Ukraine has added over half a million more personnel (volunteers and conscripts) and, unlike Russia, most of the new personnel did not go into combat units but were instead assigned to support units. These troops were often armed, because they frequently operated in a combat zone getting needed supplies of fuel, food and ammo to the combat units. The troops were also kept supplied with adequate cold-weather uniforms and other items that maintain health and morale. This included medical care and rapid movement of severe casualties to hospitals. The lightly wounded were treated and allowed to rejoin their unit. This is a common reaction of combat troops and Ukraine supplies the medical care that can determine which wounds are not debilitating and allow soldiers to quickly return to their units. Many combat injuries consist of concussions or flesh wounds that can be diagnosed and treated quickly.

Unlike the Russians, Ukraine support troops used forklifts to move ammunition and other supplies onto and off trucks. The Russians still do it by hand, which often means that it doesn’t get done if there are not enough troops to do it. The invading Russians forces had few or none of the support services Ukraine provides for its own troops. This has provided Ukrainian troops with a major advantage. Unlike Russian troops in Ukraine, Ukrainian soldiers suffer less from malnutrition, cold weather, and untreated wounds. This Russian logistics weakness gets worse during the cold weather months because Ukraine pays more attention to attacking Russian fuel shipments and stockpiles. That’s because during cold weather fuel for heating in the combat zone is important. Russian troops lacked adequate cold weather clothing and received inadequate quantities of food and medical supplies. The worse these shortages become the less effective the poorly trained Russian soldiers are in combat. Ukraine lets Russian soldiers know that Russian POWs (Prisoners of War) receive better food and heated living quarters far from the combat zone.

During the first few months of the war the Ukrainians had to improvise but they did so with the intention of keeping their casualties lower than what the Russians were suffering, and seeing to it that new or existing troops got the training and logistical support they needed to be most effective. Russia went in the opposite direction, providing less training and logistical support for new troops sent to Ukraine to replace their heavy losses. The Russian reinforcements suffered heavy losses from this lack of supplies, medical care and leadership. Many of these Russian troops surrendered or deserted at the first opportunity. Russian efforts to remedy this were disrupted by prompt and precise Ukrainian attacks on their supplies. Ukrainian troops survive longer in combat and suffer fewer casualties, which means the average Ukrainian combat soldier is more experienced, trained, led and supported than their Russian counterparts. Ukrainian forces are prepared for a winter campaign and Russian forces are not.

December 2, 2022: Russia recently announced the formation of its first Su-57 stealth fighter unit. This unit, the 23rd Fighter Aviation Regiment, is based in the Russian Far East near the Sukhoi factory that produces Su-35 and Su-57 aircraft. This facility includes an aircraft test and evaluation center. Production of the Su-57 began twelve years ago when the first test and evaluation aircraft were built and tested. Veteran fighter pilots are undergoing transition training so they can handle the Su-57. At the moment the training is in the classroom. The pilots won’t get production model Su-57s until sometime in 2023. The Su-57 won’t be combat ready until 2025. At least that is the plan. Development of the Su-57 has been long and troubled. There have been a lot of false starts. If this first Su-57 unit is another false start, it will be a major embarrassment for Russia.




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