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Why the Russian military should be very worried

As Ukraine targets ammunition depots, Putin’s forces may be approaching a crisis point.

By Lawrence Freedman

In my last piece I asked whether Ukraine could win its war with Russia, to which I answered that it could, although it was not yet clear whether it would. In this piece I want to expand on one of the reasons I came to this conclusion.

I suggested that the Ukrainian forces would not follow the same tactics as the Russian ones, and would instead seek to exploit the accuracy of the long-range artillery delivered by Western countries. They would concentrate “on supply lines, bases, and command centres, making opportunistic advances, using guerrilla tactics in the city against the occupying forces, leaving Russian troops uncertain about where the next attack is coming from”. All these things have been happening over the past week.

I went on to suggest that this could start to pose awkward choices for the Russian high command. It would need to consider its long-term position and how to maintain its forces to deal with future threats, other than Ukraine. Russia would not be able to “afford an inch-by-inch retreat to the border, taking losses all the way”. This is the point I wish to explore further.

On 7 July the Russian Ministry of Defence announced that after recent exertions in Luhansk province, in the east, its forces needed a pause to “replenish their combat capabilities” before moving on to the next stage of the war. Vladimir Putin took the opportunity to exude optimism and to insist that there were no grounds for concern. “Largely speaking,” he said on 7 July in a meeting with parliamentary leaders, “we haven’t even yet started anything in earnest.” He returned to his familiar themes that it was Western support for Ukraine that was prolonging the war, and that economic pressure on Ukraine’s backers would see Russia through this conflict. “We are hearing that they want to defeat us on the battlefield,” said Putin. “Let them try.” His courtiers talk of fulfilling the original goals of the special military operation. Putin’s old comrade, Niko­lai Pa­tru­shev, the head of Russia’s security council, still claims that the aim is to “demilitarise” all of Ukraine.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, explained that his boss was simply reminding everyone that “Russia’s potential is so great in this regard that only a small part of it is now involved in a special military operation…  And therefore, all these statements by the Westerners [to the effect that the Russian armed forces are facing shortages of men and equipment] are literally absurd. They are absurd and they simply add grief to the Ukrainian people.”

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This boosterism may be designed to deter Nato countries from even greater engagement and also to reassure a domestic audience, although the more discerning will find such reassurances deeply worrying. Why are the armed forces only using a small part of their capabilities when they need to get the war over as soon as possible? What are they waiting for? Why are they deploying old tanks and old soldiers? The British Ministry of Defence observed that while in February 2022 the “first echelon assault units were equipped with BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles… featuring armour up to 33mm thick and mounting a powerful 30mm autocannon and an anti-tank missile launcher”, many of the reinforcements now coming in to service “are ad hoc groupings, deploying with obsolete or inappropriate equipment”.

Claims that Russian forces have barely got going will come as news to Putin’s generals, who have witnessed the loss of a third of their combat capability and possibly more. They needed more than two months to take the final pockets of Luhansk, while half of Donetsk still needs to be conquered to fulfil Putin’s minimal objectives.

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Contrary to Putin’s claims, Russia’s armed forces may instead be approaching a crisis point, not only as they face an increasingly challenging fight in Ukraine but because they risk the long-term degradation of their capabilities.

[See also: Nato’s “comeback” pivots on America’s troubled politics]

There are three aspects of the current situation that will be worrying the Russian high command:

First, manpower shortages. Putin has still not ordered a general mobilisation, probably because of concerns over its unpopularity, economic impact and a limited capacity to train those with no previous combat experience. Instead, the Russian army has been scrambling around to bring in recruits wherever they can be found. They are seeking to entice veterans, conscripts and poor youngsters into service by promises of good pay. There are images of relatively elderly men in uniform preparing for battle, and reports of prisoners with military service being released to fight. But the stories coming back from Ukraine are sufficiently grim to discourage new recruits and few of those coming out of their contracts are likely to want to sign up for more. There are regular, if difficult to confirm, reports of units refusing deployment orders to Ukraine.

Second, inadequate equipment. Open-source intelligence puts cumulative losses of equipment (destroyed, damaged, abandoned or captured) at 4,658 items, including more than 850 tanks. The lack of components, including microchips, is causing difficulties with much Russian defence production. They are now thought to be facing problems in repairing damaged equipment, preparing stored equipment to be brought into use, and manufacturing new equipment. As old weapons are being brought into service there appears to be a lack of precision guided systems, which is why missile strikes are inaccurate. There are suggestions that S-300 surface to air missiles are being used in a surface to surface role, for which they lack accuracy. They are also expensive. Even with artillery shells, of which the Russians have massive stocks, and which have been essential in all their operations thus far, the rate of usage has meant those stocks being depleted faster than they can be replaced. This problem is now being aggravated by Ukrainian strikes against Russian ammunition dumps.

Third, by way of contrast, the accuracy of Ukrainian systems is starting to tell, especially in attacks on these ammunition dumps. Now that the Ukrainians have long-range systems, such as the American Himars, available, accurate attacks can be launched over distances of more than 60km. The strikes are following a deliberate strategy, making it extremely difficult for Russia to manage further advances. One report on 9 July referred to four strikes across the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Chornobaivka areas (the latter target being an airfield). They are causing serious problems for Russian logistics, which are already slow and inefficient.

The supply chains are manageable so long as Russian forces can fight close to railheads but become increasingly problematic as the hubs are moved closer to the border where the materiel has then to be loaded by hand onto trucks for what can be hazardous journeys to the front. Igor Girkin, the candid Russian nationalist critic of the Kremlin’s management of the war, has complained that the failure to disguise, protect or take “basic safety measures” with these sites represents “outstanding sloppiness” by commanders.

Another military blogger has lamented the “untrained morons” leading the Russian army, imagining their disastrous strategy: “Despite the absence of any military secrecy around supplies to Ukraine of modern long-range artillery and MLRS, continue concentrating artillery ammunitions at large and unfit for purpose industrial facilities in the range of reach by the enemy rockets and artillery. Lose one by one all the depots. As a result, lose the ability to properly advance at least the way they were advancing before. Create out of nowhere a wild ‘shell hunger’ in conditions where the enemy has received and trained on those new artillery and MLRS.”

Less dramatic, because they do not lead to large fires and explosions, have been attacks on Russian command posts. Ukraine claimed that two had been hit on 8 July in Kherson, the region which is now likely to become the main focus of attention. If air defences are also being struck, that would enable Ukrainian aircraft to fly more sorties into the occupied territory.

The impact of these attacks on core Russian capacity will be felt when Ukraine seeks to retake Kherson, a province vital to its economic well-being. This has long been identified as a promising area for a counter-offensive, although it is not the easiest terrain. Ukrainian authorities have been urging residents of the occupied areas to leave the region and those that cannot to “prepare for hostilities, seek shelter, water and food”.

[See also: Russia’s threat to the global economy could be an opportunity for change]

Although I have concentrated on Russian deficiencies here, I would not play down the casualties taken by Ukraine or its forces’ dependence on Western countries for continuing supplies of equipment and ammunition, or ignore the concern that they still do not have enough. Their performance in the coming battles will be watched closely for evidence that they can take the initiative in the next stage of the war, requiring Russian commanders to concentrate on a defensive battle in Kherson instead of more offensives in Donetsk. If they fall short in this effort then the debate in the West will continue to be dominated by the question of how to cope with a long attritional war with little movement.

As it is, the regular predictions of stalemate reflect doubts, even among those who agree that Ukraine’s relative military position is improving, that it will be able to push the Russians back to the border any time soon. There is also a widespread assumption that Putin is too stubborn and determined ever to concede that the war is lost, and that such a powerful state as Russia always has something in reserve with which to turn any battle round. These assumptions cannot be easily dismissed. This is why the conclusion to this post may well be contested.

The simplest explanation for the Russian pause is that one would be expected after a major operation such as the Luhansk campaign to enable forces to recuperate and regenerate. This is consistent with Russian forces continuing to shell Ukrainian positions, presumably with the objective of deterring them from taking too many initiatives before Russian commanders are ready to make their next advances. But a better use would be for Russia’s military establishment to take stock.

Ukraine’s armed forces have one task, to defend their homeland, for which they are fully mobilised and highly motivated. By contrast, Russia’s armed forces have many tasks. They share borders with a number of Nato countries, now deemed irredeemably hostile and increasing in number, as Sweden and Finland join the alliance. They have units committed to the so-called “frozen” conflicts in Moldova and Georgia, are keeping the peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and are still supporting the Assad regime in Syria. The Wagner group, a private military contractor, has played an outsized role in the fighting in Ukraine, after being used as an instrument of Russian strategy in many places, notably in North Africa recently.

In recent wars, up to this one, they have served Putin well. The revitalisation and modernisation of the military has been a feature of his leadership and features heavily in the symbolism of the Russian state. These wars have provided a showcase for the Russian arms industry, whose customers may now be a tad concerned that not all systems are performing quite as advertised. This war, thus far, has been far more difficult. The military has suffered heavy losses at the hands of a supposedly inferior state. Its ability to reconstitute, at least in the short-term, is limited. Even in the best-case scenario from the military’s perspective it will have to provide the troops for an occupying army that can expect to be harassed and ambushed for the indefinite future.

If the commanders can still find ways to advance and keep Ukraine on the back foot then they will carry on. But should a time come when the positions have been reversed and retreats are becoming routine, then the high command will have to ask what losses are acceptable to maintain its honour and that of Putin, and how much of its future should be mortgaged in the Donbas. Of course, whatever happens in this war Russia will still have a large military establishment, and will remain a nuclear power, but in the worst case the military will be composed largely of depleted and demoralised units with vintage equipment which they are unable to replace over the next few years.

The Russian military has shown that it is ready to withdraw from beleaguered positions – most seriously when it gave up on Kyiv and most recently when it abandoned Snake Island. Giving up on all of Ukraine would be a far more significant step, and no doubt this will be resisted for as long as possible. Russia may even hope that withdrawal can be managed with some dignity as part of a negotiated settlement.

The point of my stress on the threat posed to the institution of the Russian military is that it redefines the challenge facing Ukraine. It is not necessary to think in terms of pushing Russian forces right back to their own border, although some pushing will be required, but to concentrate on continuing to undermine the capabilities and reputation of the Russian military, and consequentially its role in the Russian state.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. This piece originally ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.

[See also: Which countries bordering Russia might Putin invade next?]

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