Russia is desperate for some good news out of Ukraine, where Russian forces have suffered one failure after another. Sensing an opportunity, Russian forces have suffered heavy casualties trying to push Ukrainian forces out of a few key locations in the Donetsk province, which is part of Russian occupied Donbas. Russia has been using Wagner Group mercenaries for most of the attacks because these troops are more effectively led and willing to continue making seemingly suicidal attacks on Ukrainian forces. The Ukrainian defenders are special operations troops whose orders are to inflict maximum casualties on the attacker while minimizing enemy advances and Ukrainian casualties. In return the Russians can regularly issue press releases announcing continued advances by their troops without revealing that these advances often consist of a few meters in the general direction of the Ukrainian positions. The Russian attacks are supposed to tie down a lot of Ukrainian troops but that does not happen and it is Russia that is losing lots of its most effective troops every week without any useful gains. Some Russian pro-war Internet reporters can get away with mentioning how the “Donetsk Offensive” really works as long as they don’t it too vividly or frequently. Ukrainian leaders offer more effusive and frequent praise for the Ukrainian defenders.
December 29, 2022: Russia fired at least 120 ballistic and cruise missiles at Ukrainian towns and cities. Air defenses shot down 66 of the missiles, most of them the slower cruise missiles. This attack was directed mainly at electricity generation facilities. Most of the missiles used were obtained from Iran.
Iranian pilots and ground crews are in Russia to learn how to fly and maintain the 24 Russian Su-35 fighters that Iran is receiving from Russia. These aircraft were originally sold to Egypt but the Ukraine-related sanctions canceled that and when Russia began buying weapons from Iran they found that Iran would take modern jet fighters, like the Su-35 to pay for the weapons going to Russia.
December 28, 2022: Ukraine reported that at least 620 Russian soldiers were killed or wounded on the 25th. Many of the wounded have since died because Russia still lacks sufficient medical facilities inside Ukraine and lacks the transportation resources to fly casualties to better medical facilities in Russia. Since the invasion began, 102,000 Russian troops have been killed, wounded or reported missing. Ukraine reports a growing number of Russian soldiers surrendering or deserting. These are often returned in prisoner exchanges. A growing number of Russian prisoners of war resist being part of these exchanges because they deliberately deserted and face prosecution and prison if they return to Russia. Some of the Russian soldiers who were legitimate prisoners were prosecuted after being exchanged because the Russian government wanted more former prisoners jailed to discourage surrendering.
The official Russian policy is that they are willing to stop their Ukraine invasion but demand that Ukraine permanently cede territory to Russia. This includes the Crimean province and the portions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia and Kherson provinces they currently occupy. Ukraine is taking back more and more of that territory and wants Russia out of Ukraine completely. Russia implies that even if that happens, Russia will continue to consider Ukraine a lost part of Russia and not a sovereign country.
The current state of the Russian military cannot support any Russian military objectives in Ukraine, or anywhere else. What Russia lost in Ukraine will take years to replace. For example, most of the infantry officers the army had in 2021 have already been killed, captured or disabled in Ukraine. There were no replacements for the lost infantry officers so Russia tried calling up retired officers and transferring non-infantry officers to lead infantry units. That did not work. Another problem is the lack of NCOs. These have been a staple of Western armies for centuries and are often capable of replacing infantry officers lost in combat. Russia abolished NCOs a century ago and has not been able to rebuild that after more than a decade of trying.
Russia is currently crippled by severe economic sanctions imposed because of their Ukraine invasion. According to Ukraine and its NATO supporters, the Ukraine war won’t end until all Russian troops are gone. Any New Russian Army will take years to create and currently the loss of officers and experienced soldiers has Russia depending on Belarussian instructors to train new Russian troops. This is done in Belarus to the extent possible because Belarus’s tiny army has much smaller training capability than the pre-2022 Russian army. Almost all new troops in Russia get no training at all and are just given uniforms, assault rifles and transportation to Ukraine where they find few officers to lead them and not much in the way of supplies, especially food, to sustain them. Because of the dismal current situation, the announcement of a new Russian Army is seen as a morale building exercise for pro-war Russians and the few army personnel who still support the war.
Another myth is that Russia could eventually persuade Belarus to join Russian forces inside Ukraine. The main obstacle to that happening is that Russia wants to annex Belarus as well as Ukraine. Before 2022, Belarus was seen as the next former Soviet territory to be annexed by Russia. The response of Ukrainians to Russian invasion has changed attitudes towards annexation of Belorussia. This is despite the fact that the longtime (27 years so far) Belarus president-for-life Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus as a loyal ally of Russia. That has not helped the Belarussian economy or improved the lives of Belarus voters. A new post-Soviet Union generation of voters has seen how life is better in democracies, especially other former victims of Russian rule like neighboring Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Ukraine. They blame Lukashenko for the poverty and mismanaged economy in Belarus, as well as an incompetent response to covid19.
Since 2020 Lukashenko has faced growing popular protest against government incompetence and decades of rigged elections, corrupt rule, and inability to do much of anything effectively. Since the late 1990s Lukashenko has won reelection with 80-90 percent of the vote in visibly fraudulent elections. Lukashenko is a Soviet era official, who runs Belarus using the Soviet Union as a model. Belarus is a police state, where elections, and everything else, is manipulated to keep the same politicians in power. It's a tricky business, but so far Lukashenko has kept the security forces up to snuff, and on his side. He bribes or bullies key officials to keep the country running. Lukashenko has maintained good relations with Russia, getting him cheap fuel supplies and other aid. Belarus is small (9.5 million people) compared to neighbors Russia (146 million) and Ukraine (42 million) and Russia wants to absorb Belarus and Ukraine to rebuild the centuries old Russian empire that the czars created and the communists lost. Lukashenko, like most Belarussians, opposes annexation by Russia. So far Russia is not actively seeking to annex Belarus or send in security forces to help suppress what has turned into a rebellion against Lukashenko.
Lukashenko is becoming more of a liability for Russia but is currently still a “favored ally.” Russia would like to be rid of Lukashenko but there is no one in Belarus with his skills, experience and pro-Russia attitude. Russia has created a major problem for itself in Belarus. Not as bad as the mess in Ukraine, but still another setback in the Russian effort to rebuild the Soviet-era Russian empire. Lukashenko noted what happened to pro-Russia Ukrainian politicians after the Russians invaded and most Ukrainians joined or supported the fight against Russian domination and any pro-Russia Ukrainians.
December 27, 2022: For unknown reasons, incidents of large-scale fires have recently increased inside Russia. In the last two weeks there have been about a dozen major fires, including oil refineries in Siberia, a petroleum storage site Bryansk province, large shopping centers in and around Moscow, a thermal power plant in Perm, and a fuel storage site at an airfield in Kursk province and one in Bryansk province, which borders Ukraine. Russia blames, without any evidence, Ukrainian sabotage.
December 26, 2022: In Europe, the Falcon Strike 2022 joint training exercise is the European version of the American Red Flag “dissimilar training” exercises. This year the emphasis was on what fifth-generation aircraft like the F-35 could do against an adversary with advanced aircraft and SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles) defending their ground forces. This scenario appears unlikely given what happened to Russia in Ukraine and the impact of sanctions on Russian military production. Yet Russia has formed its first Su-57 stealth fighter squadron, and last year Russian aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi displayed a mockup of its new single-engine Su-75 Checkmate stealth fighter, which is apparently the Russian answer to the similar American F-35. The Su-75 is being developed by the same team that designed the Su-57, the Russian answer to the American F-22. The Su-57 proved difficult to get into service and many key features had to be deleted. The Su-75 appears to be a desperate move to salvage something from all the money spent on developing the Su-57. The Su-75 won’t make its first flight until 2024 and might enter production before the end of the decade. Because of the Ukraine fiasco, it is unlikely that the Su-75 will find any export customers and the Russian air force may not be willing to buy even one. Falcon Strike 2022 takes into account the growing number of F-35s in European air forces. Currently there are 140 but by 2035 there will be over 600 European F-35s. The fighting in Ukraine and positive reviews from current European F-35 pilots led to more European nations ordering F-35s. Germany, for example, recently ordered 35.
December 25, 2022: Despite the war in Ukraine, thousands of Russians want to vacation in Egyptian tourist resorts that cater to Russian visitors. The sanctions imposed on Russia now include bans on providing Russian commercial shipping or passenger aircraft with insurance for movement outside Russia. The airlines needed this insurance to operate outside Russia and this became a problem when Jordan announced it would not allow transports without insurance from using their air space. The only alternative was flying through Syria but the Russian government banned that as too dangerous. Egypt will allow the Russian flights, content with assurances that the Russian government will provide insurance for flights that reach Egyptian air space. Egypt needs the tourist income and many Russians are willing to pay for a temporary respite from the wartime atmosphere back home.
December 22, 2022: NATO nations, mainly the United States, supplied most of the munitions and many of the weapons Ukraine needed to stop the Russians and to push Russian forces out of Ukraine. A key element of this support was the provision of 155mm artillery shells. The Ukrainians found these to be more reliable and effective than the Russian designed 152mm shell they were still using. When equipped with 155mm artillery and ammunition, the Ukrainians found they could match the more numerous Russian 152mm artillery. Then came a crucial Ukrainian artillery innovation. This was the use of Ukrainian developed UAVs customized to locate the Russian artillery and use new Ukrainian-developed communications and fire control software. This combination was able to immediately provide Ukrainian artillery with the target locations. Even unguided 155mm shells could destroy or disable Russian guns, especially if they were firing in large groups from the same location, as Russian tactics dictate. More importantly, the new Ukrainian tactics dramatically facilitated almost instant use of massed fire on newly identified targets by any Ukrainian 155mm guns in range. This is similar to Uber and Lyft software for sharing vehicle rides between drivers and users. Such immediate massed fire by two Ukrainian artillery brigades stopped the Russian attack on Kiev early in the war. The Ukrainians went further and used their superior battlefield surveillance capabilities, some of them supplied by NATO, to locate the Russian artillery munitions storage sites. These stockpiles supplied Russian artillery firing on the Ukrainians. These storage sites were increasingly found and destroyed. The best the Russians could do was move these storage sites further away from the front line. Because of the Ukrainian GMLRS guided rockets, with a max range of 85 kilometers, that meant Russia had to move their storage sites to locations more than 80 kilometers from the Russian artillery. This required more trucks to transport the munitions over longer distances. The Ukrainians identified and destroyed a lot of these trucks during their long journey. What this all meant that was after a few months Russia had lost its artillery advantage and often the Ukrainians had the edge when it came to artillery support.
December 20, 2022: Because Russia has used, or lost to Ukrainian attacks on storage sites, so many 152mm shells, they turned to North Korea for rapid resupply. In the last few months North Korea has received over 500 million dollars in munitions orders from Russia. To speed up this deal, Russia agreed to pau for much of this ammunition with food and other needed supplies sent to North Korea. This exchange arrangement has been going on since October. The food arrives by train while the North Korean ammunition factories work overtime (three shifts a day, every day) to produce artillery, mortar shells and grenades. These munitions are usually shipped in their long-term storage containers because they were part of the army munitions reserve. The military normally uses its older munitions first. This new production was shipped for immediate use and these munitions were apparently going to Russia via the Trans-Siberian railroad. International sanctions on North Korea prohibit the export of munitions or weapons, so it all goes by rail from North Korea to Russia and all the way to the borders of Ukraine. The Trans-Siberian railroad and Russian rail cars have not been maintained well or upgraded during the last two decades and that situation has gotten worse because of the increased 2022 sanctions. This leads to delays that some of the North Korean munition shipments are experiencing while on their way west to Ukraine. Despite the delays, Russia is sending North Korea as much food, fuel and other supplies that they have in the Russian Far East. The thousands of additional workers hired by the North Korea munitions factories are also supplied with more food and fuel to keep production going. It is not known how long these Russian munitions orders will last but the payments in food fuel arrive at a time when they are needed. North Korea is also sending more workers to Russia but not all of them are for enterprises in the Russian Far East, instead most of the additional workers are going to Russian-occupied portions of Ukraine where there is a labor shortage. Many North Korean workers are also going to other areas in Russia where there are also labor shortages. North Korea has long provided workers to Russia, where they are better fed and housed than in North Korea and paid well. The North Korean government keeps most of the wages but enough is passed on to worker’s families to make foreign work tolerable to families. The several thousand workers needed for service in Ukraine and Western Russia are working on two-year contracts and able to keep more of their pay for their families. Even with the better pay, the longer contracts and work in a combat zone discouraged a lot of North Koreans from applying for these jobs. Usually, the government can be selective in selecting men for work in Russia. With these new contracts the government had to accept men who normally would not be considered because they were single and seen as less politically reliable. Those rules have been waived and the first contingent, selected in early November, is already in Russia and two more groups are being processed. Russia is also considering purchasing, via barter, more North Korean military equipment, including UAVs.
December 18, 2022: A few months after the Russians invaded Ukraine, they realized the Ukrainians always seemed to know what was going on in Russian occupied territory. This was possible because of the reliability of the Ukrainian internet. This made the Diia app most Ukrainians had on their phones to store their ID, driver’s license and similar items that verified who and where they were. As soon as the Russians invaded, Ukrainians used their cellphones and the Diia app to report sightings 0f Russian forces. Ukraine quickly added additional capabilities to Diaa that enables users to just point (at Russian activity) and click to automatically report the sighting to Ukrainian intelligence, along with an image and the location of the user and time when the report was made. What made all this work reliably was the willingness of satellite communications entrepreneur Elon Musk to turn on his new Starlink commercial satellite network for Ukraine and let them use it free-of-charge for the duration of the war. The Ukrainians had other communication options. Much of the land-line phone lines were kept operational even though these lines were more difficult to defend. Another separate communications system was operated by the Ukrainian railway system. Each of the nearly 1,600 railway stations and facilities was connected by a land-line system that runs adjacent to the tracks. This is used by railway staff to control traffic and report any problems. Railway staff also have their encrypted apps and this played a major role in keeping the railways operational and able to carry personnel (military and civilian) as well as cargo. It was Starlink that kept the Internet operational everywhere in Ukraine and, in combination with Diia, gave Ukrainian commanders a better picture of where Russian forces were than the Russians themselves had. For that reason, Ukrainians in Russian occupied territory were soon being searched for Diia equipped cell phones. Russia threatened to treat any Ukrainian with Diia on their cell phone as being spies. In wartime, civilians are always an excellent source of information on what is going on in their area. The problem has always been communications and getting that information to those who could use it. Diia and Starlink changed that, as well as how the war was reported. Ukraine was more welcoming for journalists who wanted to visit the troops. Ukrainian and foreign journalists did, as did UN and Red Cross observers who were investigating any war crimes or atrocities. The Russians were often guilty of both and Ukrainian witnesses provided lots of images and videos of who did what, when and where. Reporting from Russian occupied Ukrainian territory or Russia itself was much more difficult. You needed permission and failure to abide by a growing list of things you could not broadcast or publish was illegal.