Today’s update is short, but exciting because it includes a risky prediction. That the Russian army is close to collapse. In recent weeks we have discussed the motivation of the individual Russian soldier, the Russian army’s logistical woes and Ukraine’s effective propaganda campaign and the effects of these factors on Russian morale.
Further, we observed Russian offensive operations grind to a halt in all but two places replaced with bombardments of key areas. Today, two key indicators that the Russians are in trouble appeared.
Looking at the two places where offensive operations are still active, we are starting to see an interesting story unfold. In the south the Russians are no longer contesting the town of Voznesensk, one of two key areas on the River Bug that were attacked last week indicating a push west from Kherson towards Odessa. In the north the town of Obukhiv south of Kiev, that if held allows complete encirclement of the Kiev’s west side by Russia, is no longer being contested and is in Ukrainian hands. Neither of these areas is vital and they are small towns but they may signal a significant change in this war.
Yesterday, retired United States general Ben Hodge predicted that, based on his appreciation of the situation the Russian army had about ten days of combat capability. This seemed like one of many headline seeking predictions by retired generals, however the small changes that I have noted above may be the first indications that General Hodge was correct.
Reports of Russian offensive probes being pushed back may be an early sign that something is wrong. So far, the case for a Russian collapse can be summarised as follows:
- The motivation and training of the average Russian soldier was always suspect. Russian soldiers are mostly short-service conscripts with limited training and operational experience. Historically, Soviet and Russian soldiers demonstrated variable levels of motivation particularly in unpopular operations.
- The initial invasion tried to deploy these poorly trained soldiers in a very complex, highly dispersed ‘net work centric’ warfighting model. Lots of small Russian units operating widely dispersed swarming over Ukraine. Operating this way puts lots of pressure on the individual soldier so if they are not well-trained and experienced it is a risky proposition.
- Further, the total force deployed was too small to achieve the goal if faced with any significant resistance meaning that if they met resistance, they did not have the combat power and reserves to quickly defeat it.
- The small battalion battlegroups did meet unexpected resistance. The Ukrainian’s did not collapse or welcome their liberators. We now have very credible reports of high Russian casualties including lots of lost vehicles. Less motivated conscript soldiers expecting an easy victory are likely to be affected by resistance and more likely to see a drop in morale.
- That the Russian command and logistics system is not working is clear. The inability to destroy the vastly outnumbered Ukrainian air force, the credible reports of supply problems, the video evidence of lost Russian vehicles all contribute to the picture of a poorly trained, equipped and led force trying to do something it can’t.
- The Ukrainians are dominating the information war. Russian soldiers will have phones and be using them to follow the war. The information they are likely to be seeing is that the Russians are bogged down, over extended and losing. Further, they can see surrendering Russians being treated well.
- Finally, Russian offensive operations have slowed down and are now very limited. Yesterday, in the two areas subject to Russian offensives the Ukrainians gained ground.
People that have not served in the military find it hard to understand the loneliness of the modern battlefield. Soldiers today operate in small widely dispersed groups without direct supervision and operating this way is psychologically hard. Professional soldiers find it tough, so for conscripts it must be devastatingly tough, particularly if you are on the losing side.
Essentially, if you were a 19-year-old Russian conscript soldier, standing in the middle of a country similar to yours possibly with friends or family nearby, knowing that if you surrender you will be well treated and looking sideways at your own incompetent command chain would you keep fighting? Russian junior and non-commissioned officers must be tearing their hair out trying to keep their units together, explaining the lack of offensive activity.
It is becoming increasingly likely that Russian morale will break and that we could see a catastrophic collapse of Russian units. This in turn, could lead to even a depleted Ukrainian army starting to take the offensive and push the Russians back. If this happens it unfortunately creates a dangerously unstable situation. If the Ukrainians are pushing Russian forces back, it could provide a causus belli for escalation and the use of tactical nuclear weapons or chemical weapons ‘to defend Russia’. However, it seems that there may be powershifts behind the throne in Moscow and a decision of this nature would need to be supported by the military who will likely to be feeling angry and disillusioned with Putin for committing them to this war and destroying both the Russian economy and their military reputation.
Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.