Russia: Redefining Victory In Ukraine

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March 15, 2023: The war in Ukraine is not going well for Russia. The initial attack in early 2022 was disastrous for Russia, as most of their forces were defeated along with most of their modern tanks. The war continues as a series of small battles with different types of weapons used by the Ukrainian. This means quantity often counts as much as quality and who has the most ammunition. For the last few months, the Ukrainians have been killing lots of Russians who seek to regain enough lost territory to claim a victory. That Russians strategy has failed so far. The Russians don’t have the ability to carry out a large-scale offensive and rely on smaller battles where large numbers of poorly trained and led Russian troops seek to overwhelm smaller numbers of Ukrainian soldiers. Both sides suffer losses, especially from artillery fire. Satellite photos show numerous dead Russians but few of the dead Ukrainian defenders. Defenders have the advantage and the Ukrainians made the most of that to inflict heavy losses on the Russians while suffering fewer losses and falling back slowly.

This is small-scale attrition warfare where the better trained and led Ukrainians are able to keep most of their forces out of combat so they can prepare for a larger scale offensive using Western tanks and longer range guided missiles, bridge building units and mine-clearing troops to overwhelm Russians defenders on a large scale and take back the 17 percent of Ukraine still occupied by Russia. This large-scale offensive warfare is something Russia has never been able to carry out in Ukraine. In late 2022 the Ukrainians carried out two of these operations. The first one started at the end of August 2022 in the northeast (Kharkiv province). By September the Russians were gone because they were taken by surprise and suffered major losses in terms of troops, equipment and territory. In November Russia lost Kherson City in the south, along with half of Kherson province. After these two Ukrainian victories, Russia has only been able to launch small scale attacks.

Since December the Ukrainians have been organizing offensive forces for another major advance. The Ukrainians will not reveal where this offensive force will be used and that uncertainty makes it difficult for Russia to develop an effective defensive strategy. This is a major problem for Russia because the front line in Ukraine is about 2,500 kilometers long. Only a relatively small number of Russian and Ukrainian troops are available to monitor, much less defend, the entire front. Russian forces in Ukraine are insufficient to man a World War I style front line defense with continuous trench lines. During World War I, the front line in east (Russia) was straighter (about 1,300 kilometers) and manned by millions of troops. This is ten times the number seen in 2022 Ukraine. Even then there were portions of the World War I east front that were patrolled but not manned by troops in trenches. World War I also saw the first use of aircraft on a large scale to maintain a better idea of who was where on the ground. Observer reports were augmented by aerial photographs. In 2022 Ukraine has an advantage in terms of aerial surveillance because of NATO assistance (satellite observation and some special aircraft),. Because of NATO assistance Russia has not been able to obtain air superiority over Ukraine. Both sides can carry out airstrikes but must beware of air defenses on the ground and in the air.

Russia has been forced to adopt a new strategy against Ukraine and has come up with a plan to continue attacks against the Ukrainian economy. This deprives more Ukrainians of jobs and homes and forces more to leave the country. Ukraine has already seen about 20 percent of its population flee the country because of dangers civilians face from the Russian attacks on the economy. This strategy is meant to prolong the war and demoralize Ukraine’s NATO allies as well as the Ukrainian population. This Russian strategy of attacks on the economy began a few months after the war began and the Russian forces suffered heavy losses. For most of 2022 Russia was deliberately attacking the Ukrainian economy and the result was that Ukrainian GDP declined 30 percent in 2022. The initial Russian attacks concentrated on Ukrainian defense industries, followed by major non-defense industries and agriculture. Russia deliberately attacked power plants, oil refineries and distribution networks for natural gas. It was these attacks on economic targets that prompted NATO nations to send in anti-aircraft systems. Meanwhile Russia was attacking agricultural production by attacking grain storage silos and agricultural infrastructure. Some crop land was rendered unusable by planting landmines. Russia attacked grain ships operating from Black Sea ports and many of these ships were forced to take shelter in Ukrainian ports. Grain and other foodstuffs are major Ukrainian exports and Russia deliberately sought to shut down these exports. The cost of flour and bread went up worldwide but particularly in countries more dependent on grain imports.

While NATO shipments of weapons to Ukrainian forces receive lots of media attention, there has been an equally large effort to assist the Ukrainian economy. The Ukrainian GDP was $200 billion in 2021 and $122 billion in foreign military and economic assistance in 2022. Repairing the Ukrainian economy cannot begin on a large scale until the war ends. It was hoped this might happen by the end of 2023, but the Russian strategy is to keep the war going for as long as it takes to weaken NATO resolve and enable Russia to declare some kind of victory. This is a victory of the “create a desert and call it peace” variety. So far the destruction is mainly in Ukraine, with Russia threatening to use its nuclear weapons if any large-scale destruction takes place in Russia.

In late 2022 Ukraine estimated that the Russian attacks on the economy would require a reconstruction budget of over $350 billion. As the destruction continues in 2023, reconstruction costs increase as well. That has led to serious proposals to seize $350 billion in Russian assets in the West that have been frozen (kept from Russian control) for the duration of the war. Russia is also accused of more conventional war crimes committed in Ukraine against civilians. Russia is unmoved by the Western threats and accusations and determined to make Ukraine and the West suffer for its role in defeating Russian efforts to conquer Ukraine. The Russian government describes their attack on Ukraine as an effort to defend Russia from NATO aggression. According to Russia their tactics are justified as part of its defensive measures.

March 14, 2023: In Ukraine, off the coast of Crimea, two Russian Su-27 fighters encountered an American MQ-9 Reaper conducting a surveillance mission over international waters. One of the Su-27s deliberately brought down the MQ-9 by striking its propeller. The two Su-27s were observed making several failed efforts to stage an accident that would cause the UAV to crash. This sort of thing is not unusual in the Black Sea where Russia regularly interferes with NATO air or ship operations in international waters or airspace.

March 13, 2023: Efforts to replace the huge (about 100,000 dead) losses in Ukraine resulted in the use of several new methods to find replacements. None of these worked as intended. For example, when Russia “mobilized” additional soldiers in late 2022, they did so in an improvised fashion because there was no precedent for such an action in a peacetime war like the one in Ukraine. This mobilization was left to regional (city and provincial) authorities, who had to select who would go plus provide uniforms, weapons and other basic supplies as well as pay and benefits. This saved the Defense Ministry a lot of money that it didn’t have in the first place. This seemed to be an innovative solution to many problems. It wasn’t. When the Defense Ministry was in charge there was some standardization in the process. In this case there wasn’t. While the provincial governors and mayors of major cities are all appointed by the central government, each city or province has a different political atmosphere. Some are more aligned with what the central government is up to while others are not. There were dozens of local governments running this improvised mobilization and not all of them had the same ability, cash, standards or stamina for the task of sustained support for the volunteers they sent to Ukraine. Having so many regional governments taking care of the troops they mobilized didn’t work in the long term because not all local governments in Russia are the same. Some are more diligent about continuing to support the troops they had to mobilize while others didn’t provide any or had it all just disappear because of corruption.

It was corruption in the national government that led to the effort to have local governments take care of finding troops and then continuing to take care of their basic needs. While the national government was still responsible for producing warships, warplanes and armored vehicles, local governments were expected to provide uniforms, training and protective gear (helmets and vests) as well as assault rifles (also used by local police forces). All the regions were expected to send a certain number (or quota) of troops. There was no effort to impose standards regarding who was available and how well they would be trained, equipped and supported. This mobilization effort was a disaster. That was similar to what happened during the initial invasion, where the Russian downplayed the impact of corruption on the huge Russian force assembled to invade Russia. The invasion force was much less capable than Russian leaders expected and most of it was destroyed or demoralized and retreating within a month.

March 12, 2023: Russia is desperate for some kind of victory in Ukraine and this has led to the Battle for Bakhmut, a town in Donetsk province. Using frontal assaults, often without artillery or armor support, against entrenched Ukrainian defenders, the Russians have taken horrific losses. Most of the 30,000 Russian dead are untrained, and poorly led recent recruits. Many of these are convicts, promised a pardon if they agree to fight in Ukraine for six months. The Ukrainians admit that their defensive tactics are meant to inflict maximum losses on the Russians while losing far fewer Ukrainian troops. Ukraine claims that the Russia is losing seven attackers for each Ukrainian defender. This means that the Russian goal of tying down a lot of Ukrainian troops to defend Bakhmut failed and most Ukrainian troops are busy preparing for another major offensive to drive Russian troops out of Ukrainian territory. This has changed the Russian goals in Ukraine. A year ago, it was to conquer all of Ukraine, now it is to hang onto the remaining Ukrainian territory they occupy and perhaps grab some more.

March 6, 2023: Iran and Russia are becoming closer allies. This includes Russian plans to provide Iran with S400 air defense systems and cooperating with Iran in Syria, where Israeli air strikes have prevented Iran from launching attacks into Israel. At the same time Israel is improving its relationship with Ukraine. This is influenced by its worsening relationship with Russia because of Russia’s closer relationship with Iran. Israel has been sending economic aid to Ukraine but not weapons. So far. Russia is obsessed with conquering Ukraine and failing to do so while suffering enormous losses. and losing. At the same time, Iran remains obsessed with destroying Israel, but failing to do so even after decades of effort. Iran has been supplying Russia with UAVs designed to operate as cruise missiles. A lot of other military equipment has been sent to Russia. In Return Russia is supplying Iran with two dozen modern jet fighters and whatever it has available but doesn’t need in Ukraine. Russia is also delivering to Iran any captured Western weapons in Ukraine. This includes anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.

March 5, 2023: After years of delays, diversions and unexpected difficulties, the last of the failed Russian Typhoon-class submarines are being retired and scrapped. This follows over a decade of efforts to finally get rid of the expensive Akula ("Typhoon" in the West) SSBNs (nuclear powered ballistic missile subs). The Akulas were no longer needed and the remaining three were to be disposed of. That soon changed and one of the Akulas remained in service until 2023.Six of these 24,000 ton Akula “boomers" (missile subs) were built in the 1980s, and three were scrapped between 1999 and 2009. The other three were to be retired because they were too expensive to operate. Two of these were retired in 2006 and 2009. These were the ones that were supposed to be brought back into service to maintain the size of the Russian SSBN (nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine) force. This was delayed for several years as navy officials struggled with the huge costs of putting an Akula back into service. Akulas were the largest submarines ever built and each carried twenty of the huge (16 meters long and 2.4 meters in diameter, 90 ton) R-39 SLBMs (sea launched ballistic missiles). These missiles, the first Russian solid fuel SLBMs, have all been retired from service.

March 3, 2023: Russia is still losing over a hundred tanks a month in Ukraine and is able to produce only about ten a month. Most of Russia’s modern tanks were lost during the first few months of combat. In desperation Russia ordered that 800 T-62 tanks still maintained as a reserve force, be activated for use in Ukraine. Some were first upgraded as T-62M2022 models. These upgraded T-62M2022 tanks soon showed up in combat and some have been captured and examined. The upgrades were not as extensive as expected and, in terms of their fire control systems, are a step backward because now unavailable (due to sanctions) foreign components were responsible for the efficient thermal (heat sensing) capability in their fire control systems. Despite this, the refurbished T-62s are welcome at the front, where Russian forces have had few tanks supporting attacks because most newer tanks have been destroyed, captured or are useless due to corruption. There have been few tank-versus-tank engagements in the war so far and, if there are, the less capable fire control system installed in these T-62s will put them at a disadvantage. The tank that spots the enemy and fires first generally wins. The German Leopard 2s and American M1s the Ukrainians are now receiving have far superior fire control systems and armored protection than any Russian tank, particularly the T-62.

Modern Russian T-90, T-80 and T-72 tanks suffered such high losses during the first months of the Ukraine War that Russia was eventually forced to replace them with T-62s. Some T-62s had been modernized in the 1980s by adding more powerful engines, upgraded fire control systems, and ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor) tiles. Thousands of stored T-62s were upgraded like this and then returned to storage. The success of these T-62s in Ukraine led Russia to take 800 more out of storage and add further upgrades, using items that do not require any imported components. This included a more effective fire control system with improved thermal imaging. The problem was that the improved fire control system relied on imported components and using just locally made components resulted in a fire control system about half as effective as planned. The T-62 is now in great demand because it was discovered that most of the T-72 and T-90 tanks in storage and available as replacements were not fit for duty. These tanks were stored in lightly guarded facilities that usually had no staff to regularly check the readiness of these tanks, as is the practice in the West and Ukraine.

Many if not most of those reserve tanks had been rendered unusable because of theft of key components. Some of the missing items were high-tech components like fire control systems that contained some now unavailable Western electronics because of economic sanctions imposed since they were built. That explains why so many of the replacement tanks are half-century old T-62s. By the end of 2022 over 200 T-62s have been lost in Ukraine. There are a lot more anti-tank weapons at work in Ukraine than in previous campaigns like Afghanistan in the 1980s, Chechnya in the 1990s, Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine from 2014 to 2022. Since the 1970s, T-62s were used by reserve units and paramilitary KGB and FSB units. Over 20,000 T-62s were built between 1961 and 1975. About 20 percent of those are still available for service. Exported T-62s are still used by Syria, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Cuba, Yemen and Angola. Russia remains the largest user of T-62s. Improvised efforts like the refurbished T-62s are better than no tanks at all. There are more T-62s in storage and these can be refurbished and returned to service. Forced to use tanks built over half a century ago pretty much sums up the desperate situation the Russians face in Ukraine.

March 2, 2023: Vladimir Putin has declared it a national priority to increase birth rates and life expectancy. Russia’s post-Soviet population decline is accelerating and Putin wants solutions that do not interfere with his efforts to rebuild the Russian empire by military conquest. Going public with the call for solutions is both a desperate and pragmatic effort to fix the problem. Putin has made open criticism of the war in Ukraine a felony and subject to harsh punishment. It is no secret that the Ukraine War is the primary obstacle to reversing the declining birth rate. Couples are reluctant to have children during a war because of the unstable conditions. Raising children is difficult enough in the best of times and becomes much more difficult during a war. The birth rate cannot be changed with threats of punishment and penalties for those who do not comply. Putin has a very clear preference for more Slavic children.. That means Ukrainian and Belarussian children are acceptable while those from groups that cannot at least pass as Slavic are not. Putin has another problem, there is substantial resistance from military-age Russian men to military service, even if it means leaving Russia to avoid that. Women of a similar age are also discouraged from having children because of the wartime atmosphere and severe economic problems because of Western economic sanctions.

Putin may be out of options here. About seven million Russians have left Russia since Vladimir Putin took power in 1999. The exodus accelerated when he made his rule legally permanent in 2020. The exodus surged again after Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. He described this as the first of several conquests that were necessary for Russia’s national survival. This is not working out well because increased internal repression and external violence have crippled the economy (fewer jobs) while forcing men into the army to fight in Ukraine have led to still more Russians leaving Russia. The departures are substantial and continually reduce the population and percentage of the population that is Russian.

Putin is seeking to increase Russia’s Slavic population and rely less on migrants from former Soviet states in Central Asia to make up the difference in numbers. This is worse because the ethnic Russians have a much lower birth rate than the new arrivals. This lower birth rate is similar to what is happening in most industrialized nations. Despite all this, Putin considers foreign conquests more important than making Russia a place where couples want to have children

March 1, 2023: The war in Ukraine demonstrated how badly corruption and poor leadership had damaged their military. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, half the Soviet population left and formed independent states. What remained was Russia, which also inherited the economic problems that were a major factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia also inherited the mighty Red Army which had defeated the Germans in World War II and remained a large and formidable force as long as the Soviet Union lasted.

After 1991 Russia found that it had neither the manpower nor the money to maintain the Red Army and its armed forces personnel decreased by 80 percent in a few years. It wasn’t just the loss of half the Soviet era population or the post 1991 financial difficulties. There were other problems. The post-Soviet Russians were able to force the government to reduce conscription to one year. The government also noted that the Russian birthrate was falling and that eventually reached the point where more Russians were dying than were being born. This dramatically reduced ethnic Russian military-age manpower and revealed how much Russians wanted an end to conscription. That meant creating an all-volunteer military, something that was common in Western nations, especially after 1991. Russia had a few good years after 1991 but was often short of cash and the attack on Ukraine in 2014 and invasion in 2022 found Russia subject to harsh economic sanctions. Russia is having a difficult time paying for its military, which suffered heavy personnel and equipment losses during the first few months of the Ukraine invasion.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin described the invasion of Ukraine as a defensive battle to disrupt NATO efforts to surround and destroy Russia. NATO was formed seventy years ago as a mutual-defense organization to deal with a Russian aggression and a threatened invasion of Western Europe. Putin needed a reason for the expensive and unsuccessful war in Ukraine and the “NATO is actually attacking us” fable was the best he could come up with. Many Russians believed this until those with family or friends in Ukraine or the West got in touch and Russians learned that they were seen as the invaders by the Ukrainians. Russian soldiers who were wounded and returned to Russian confirmed that. Ukrainians were fighting to defend Ukraine from Russian domination and were not part of some NATO conspiracy against Russia.

Putin continues to claim he was defending Russia in Ukraine but more and more military-age Russians were unconvinced and increasingly resisted efforts to conscript or otherwise mobilize them into the army so they could risk death or serious injury in Ukraine. Before the Ukraine invasion the primary source of Russian military manpower was conscription, which brought in about 260,000 men a year who serve for only one year.

Russia depended on 400,000 contract (or “contracti”) soldiers who volunteered to serve for three year periods at a wage comparable to what they could earn as civilians. Conscripts were paid very little and often had to ask their parents for money. Many of the contract soldiers had initially served as conscripts, were familiar with military service and willing to further serve in peacetime. Fighting in Ukraine was a different matter and it significantly discouraged new volunteers and caused many contract soldiers to refuse to renew their contracts. This became more of an issue when the government tried to force contract soldiers to stay in the military. So many refused that the government could not prosecute them so instead added a comment on their internal passport that they refused to remain in the army. That did not encourage anyone to re-enlist.

In fact, few Russians were willing to serve in the Russian armed forces at a time when they will probably be sent to Ukraine. These risks also applied to the navy and air force because about a third of the air force and a tenth of the navy were ground combat personnel. The government resorted to “mobilizations” that sought to conscript men with military experience or an interest in fighting for Russia. Most younger Russians were not interested and many fled the country to avoid mobilization. Putin then restricted foreign travel for military-age men and that led many of these men to find illegal ways to get out and, if possible, claim asylum in a Western nation. The mobilization did bring in some older Russian men who believed that Russia was being attacked. If they ended up in Ukraine they quickly discovered who was invading who.

Another mobilization ploy was to offer large cash bonuses to those who agreed to be mobilized. Those bonuses were often not paid and when that became common knowledge, there was one more reason not to trust the government on what mobilization was all about. The corruption still common in Russia was responsible for some of those bonus payments not arriving and also for new troops receiving substandard uniforms and other equipment as well as defective or inoperable weapons.

There were also problems creating a reserve of part-time veterans. For over a decade before the Ukraine invasion Russia sought to create a paid and trained reserve force of 100,000 men. In time of war the reserve troops would provide replacements for casualties while some would belong to combat units that also included some active-duty troops and even some conscripts. Not enough former soldiers and officers were willing to join this reserve, even though they were paid for the time they spent training. While Russian leaders praised the glorious history of the Russian military, its personnel had a low opinion of the military because it was run in a haphazard manner in peacetime. The Russian army has a sad tradition, reinforced in its conflicts before (Afghanistan) and after the Soviet collapse (Chechnya) of being unprepared when a war breaks out and taking heavy losses while a more effective force is created while under fire. In the West, new training techniques were developed that produced peacetime combat units that could “fight their first battle and win”. After 2014, many Ukrainian troops and officers were exposed to this new Western training method and adopted it. This played a role in the defeat of the initial invasion and the heavy losses the Russians suffered.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russians were free to express what they really felt about their military and most regarded military service as something to be avoided. Because of this the trained reserves were seen as an effort to get people with previous military training to join a peacetime force, continue training a bit, get paid for that and be eligible for rapid mobilization in the event of a war. Most Russians assumed this would be a war to defend Russia during an invasion, not Russian troops invading a neighbor. The mobilizations to replace early Ukraine war losses were seen as typical of Russian army incompetence and this was another reason why Russians avoided the reserves. The mobilizations found that there were fewer than 10,000 actual trained reservists and most of them regarded the Ukraine invasion as something they had not become a reservist for.

As was historically the case, the Russian army adapted to the mess in Ukraine and developed tactics that made the most of the many Russian shortcomings. This enabled Russian units to be of some use in combat. These improvised units took heavy casualties but the survivors became more capable and effective. This was another Russian military tradition and one that enabled Russia to emerge victorious during World War II. What was not revealed until the Soviet Union dissolved was the true cost of that victory; 13 percent of the pre-war population. That’s over 27 million dead. The Soviets reported lower losses because the true losses were considered bad for morale. When the true extent of the losses was revealed most Russians were not surprised at the higher losses and believed it was more realistic. Most Russian (and Ukrainian) families had a history of heavy civilian and military losses during World War II.

This explains the Russian expectation of high casualties in Ukraine. This was the first major war Russia fought since World War II. Naturally, the poor preparation and high casualty rates were expected. What has changed is that, unlike World War II, Russians have more opportunities to avoid going to Ukraine at all. Post-Soviet Russia no longer had the feared KGB and nationwide network of informers. Also absent was a homicidal maniac like World War II leader Josef Stalin. Putin tried to emulate all these World War II era tools but was unable to do so. One reason the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 was that Russians were fed up the many of the Soviet era military “traditions.” After 1991, school history textbooks were revised to tell the truth about Russian history. While this was not shocking to most foreigners, especially Westerners, it was a surprise to older Russians but the young students accepted the new textbooks because it described a Russia similar to the one quietly discussed among the adults, especially the older ones, in their families.

When Putin took over after 2000, one of his first actions was to bring back the old Soviet-era history textbooks which lied about the Russian military. It was too late. While teachers could be forced to use these textbooks, many of their students knew someone who had used the more honest 1990s textbooks. Not only that, some of those old textbooks survived the Putin purge that was supposed to remove all those accurate history books from circulation. Many survived and continued to quietly circulate. This was another Soviet era tradition, where books from the west were translated into Russia and quietly circulated, often as typescripts. Putin began his career as a KGB officer and knew more about how the KGB tried to control what Russians thought and did than what Russians did to resist all this. That ignorance makes it difficult for Putin to understand the widespread Russian reluctance to participate in his Ukraine war.

February 28, 2023: Russia used one its satellite guided bombs in Ukraine. The 1.5 ton UPAB-1500V GLONASS satellite guided bombs are delivered by aircraft flying at high (14 kilometers/45,000 feet) altitude and can glide up to 50 kilometers to land within ten meters of their targets. The one ton warhead is built to penetrate concrete and explode inside fortifications. Russia has developed dozens of smart (guided) bombs since the 1980s but none were produced in large quantities, like the more than 300,000 American JDAM guidance kits produced so far. There aren’t many UPAB-1500Vs available and now seems a good time to put them to work trying to destroy Ukrainian infrastructure. One attack failed when the Su-34 carrying the bomb was shot down by Ukrainian air defenses. The Su-34’s wreckage had the largely intact unexploded UPAB-1500V still attached. This confirmed that this bomb was being used against Ukrainian targets. When a UPAB-1500V detonates it leaves behind many fragments that have to be collected before the bomb can be identified.

 

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