GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – Why the Russian army can’t deliver what their political masters want!

The recent order for the Russian forces in Ukraine to advance on all fronts demonstrates the disconnect between political goals and tactical reality.  This article argues that we are reaching a critical stage in the war and it looks like Russia has advanced as far as it can in Donbas, without declaring war and fully mobilising. In the coming weeks there will not be significant Russian advances.  Instead it is more likely that the war will either; stagnate roughly along the current boundaries or that Ukraine will start to advance and retake territory.  

After taking Lysychansk, the Russians paused, not committing to large offensive operations and instead reverted to shelling Ukrainian positions and making limited probing attacks.  It needs to be noted that these attacks are small and widely dispersed, 100s of men and tens of vehicles designed to test Ukrainian defences, gather intelligence and to demonstrate that the war is being actively prosecuted to their political masters.

The operational pause was very short, and did not provide time to re-constitute units and based on the information available it seems likely that regardless of their politicians the Russians fighting in Ukraine are running out of momentum.  Evidence for this hypothesis includes:

  • Russian doctrine and political pressure. The essence of both Soviet and Russian doctrine is offensive manoeuvre and although artillery is a key part of this doctrine, it is not the defining feature.  Soviet and Russian armies have lots of tanks and armoured vehicles because their doctrine prioritises fast movement over-long distances, supported by artillery fire.  In Soviet and Russian doctrine the type of grinding combat that we have seen so far in the east is a prelude to offensive action.  After taking Lysychansk and securing a firm base on the west side of the Siverts-Donetsk River the doctrinal next step would be for a reserve echelon to push through and try to manoeuvre around the Ukrainian defences and prevent the establishment of a new defensive line.  Despite Putin’s pressure and Shoigu’s statements yesterday this has not happened.  The fact that even with massive political pressure, the Russians are not manoeuvring doctrinally indicates that they are not able too because they do not have reserves.  
  • The high rate of Russian casualties.  By the end of June, the United Kingdom and United States estimated that about 20,000 Russian soldiers had died. Many more will be wounded. The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence had reported that casualties among Russian and pro-Russian forces were increasing at an unsustainable rate.  Russia started with war with approximately 180,000 soldiers, meaning more than 10% of their force is dead.  Another large percentage is wounded.  Tanks, artillery and armoured vehicles can be replaced, experienced soldiers cannot.  
  • Russia’s ability to sustain military operations.  The first months of the war demonstrated Russia’s poor logistic support.  More recently Russia’s offensives operations are small and closely tied to rail lines. The reasons the Russian army’s sustainment capacity is low are highlighted on ‘War on the Rocks’ blog by commentators Michael Kofman and Rob Lee who argue that the Russian army is designed for short high-intensity operations and cannot sustain a long-term war of attrition, stating “The Russian military doesn’t have the numbers available to easily adjust or to rotate forces if a substantial amount of combat power gets tied down in a war.” This opinion was given more weight when the Russian parliament in late-June and early-July, passed laws waiving recruitment restrictions on soldiers and modifying labour relations and commercial law, increasing the recruitment pool and covertly militarizing industry to repair and replace equipment.  Further, Russia has demanded that its republics provide ‘volunteer’ battalions to fight in Ukraine. The volunteer title providing cover for ‘mobilisation’ without mobilisation!

It seems highly likely that the Russian army is under political pressure to keep moving forwards. Summer is the campaign season and in September or October, autumn will arrive, the rain will start and the ground will become boggy restricting movement. Putin was ‘bullish’ after the capture of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk and politically needs the war to be a success soon. When autumn comes fighting will probably stop until the ground freezes early next year. It is likely that he is pushing hard for further aggressive action. 

However, Russia’s soldiers are human and they suffer the losses of their friends and feel all the normal emotions that men in battle feel.  Many of them have now been in intense and almost continuous combat since February.  It seems logical that the Russians are getting close to exhaustion and that a pause to re-group and re-supply is required.  This process takes time, NATO armies would plan on about six weeks to rest and reconstitute. If Russia had reserves, it seems logical that they would have deployed them by now. So the question is whether Russia can scrape together enough soldiers to re-constitute viable and effective military units to continue the advance from soldiers already in Ukraine, or from barely trained ‘volunteer’ battalions. 

Meanwhile, the Ukrainians have also been absorbing a great deal of punishment.  Some factors make their experience different though.  Generally, the side fighting defensively takes less casualties and Ukraine’s reported casualties are lower. Most importantly their motivation is high. This contrasts markedly with their Russian counterparts, who throughout the war have demonstrated low levels of commitment.

The Ukrainians have pressing strategic problem. Every week that passes Russia takes more control of local infrastructure in the captured territories. Russian workers are being shipped in, collaborators rewarded and the conditions for annexation being created. This is a huge strategic risk.  Any territory that Russia can secure long enough to annex is unlikely to be returned to Ukraine because after being annexed it will become part of Russia, and under their nuclear umbrella.  Ukraine is under pressure to move and appears to be setting the conditions for a transition to offensive operations, drawing Russia into a carefully constructed series of defensive battles that started at Severodonetsk.  

Ukraine continues to deny their airspace to the Russians.  Although the Ukrainian airforce’s impact on the battle is minimal, the widespread use of sophisticated NATO surface to air missiles means that Russia aircraft and helicopters are not influencing the battle either.  The establishment of air parity means that the artillery battle becomes the tactical centre of gravity, it is the key battlefield function that by dominating they can shape the outcome of the campaign.  Ukraine is now deploying NATO’s sophisticated modern artillery systems and is starting to shape the artillery battle.  Over the last week, dozens of Russia’s forward ammunition dumps were destroyed by Ukrainian High Mobility Rocket Artillery Systems.   The United States does not appear to have provided long-range rockets that can strike 3-500 km but even with the approximately 80km range of the rockets we see on social media the battlefield effect of this campaign will be that the Russians need to keep large ammunition dumps out of range and to distribute forward ammunition dumps widely and hide them.  Both effects complicate Russian artillery logistics reducing the amount of ammunition available at the front line.  Russia’s ability to support distributed operations falling short throughout the war and the simple fact is that all the artillery in the world contributes nothing to victory without ammunition. 

After damaging Russia’s artillery supply chain, Ukraine can focus on using its small number of new, longer ranged NATO guns to start ‘picking off’ Russian artillery in key areas. This will be possible because without huge amounts of ammunition the Russians will not be able to saturate large areas denying Ukrainian artillery firing positions. Instead, the frontline artillery battle will be about speed of engagement and accuracy.  Both areas the Ukrainians and their new weapons excel at. Further, without large stocks of ammunition Russia’s frontline artillery will be used more conservatively, it simply will not be possible to obliterate defences. Instead, to take ground the Russians will be forced to use their tanks and soldiers, arms that have already failed in combat.  If Russia’s artillery is successfully targeted, they will not be able to use it to generate the combat power to advance.

 Therefore, it looks increasingly unlikely that the Russians will take much more ground in the east.  Although orders have been given to stop the pause and resume operations, the Russians will not be able to achieve this and the current state of activity will continue and lengthen into weeks because regardless of what Putin and Shoigu think, Russia’s soldiers are exhausted and Ukraine’s artillery war is poised to become steadily more effective.

In coming weeks its is highly likely that the Russians will continue to launch small attacks in the east.  But it is unlikely that they will make significant advances.  In fact if they continue to concentrate their main effort against the fortified lines around Sloviansk they will be playing to the Ukrainian’s strengths. Wasting men and material attacking dug-in Ukrainian forces.  Fighting defensively, will also provide important artillery advantages for the Ukrainians. On their ‘home ground’ forward observation positions can be carefully selected ready for battle; resupply is easier and they know the ground in detail so hiding their artillery and ‘scooting and shooting’ to avoid Russian counter-battery fire is simpler.  If the Ukrainians want to destroy Russian artillery drawing them into a defensive battle is good tactics. At this stage it seems that the Russians will soon culminate, we have seen this before at Kiev.  Although this time it is unlikely that they will withdraw completely, digging in instead. 

The pressing question is what will Ukraine do in the next couple of months. It has spent the months since the war started training soldiers, getting new equipment and repairing and replacing equipment lost in the initial stages of the war.  A large number of Ukrainians have now received training either overseas or in the west of Ukraine about using modern NATO weapons and tactics.  And recently the United Kingdom announced plans to train up to 10,000 soldiers in coming months. Could this be the start of an overseas programme to provide long-term sustainment for the Ukrainians?  

The Ukrainians will definitely stand and fight the Russians in Donetsk. However, can they transition to offensive operations?  This may be a possible, with a good portion of Russia’s combat power effectively fixed in the Donetsk battle, opportunities open up for the Ukrainians to turn the Russian flank in the south. The Black Sea coast has become a hostile place for Russian ships and aircraft so provides a safe right flank for an advance east.  The coastal strip is a long front for Russia to defend and tantalisingly some months ago the Ukrainians took the villages of Vulhedar and Volodymyrivka, 50km north of Mariupol on the Kalchyk River and the H 40 motorway.  If the Ukrainians do go on the offensive in the south, we may see attacks from the north into the coastal strip supporting an advance west and we should watch the south closely.  

The Russian army is a shadow of the Soviet war machine that defeated the Nazis and stood toe-to-toe against NATO for 50 years in Europe. Zhukov, Vasilevsky and the other great Soviet generals must be turning in their graves to see what their military has turned into through corruption and arrogance.  An ineffective army stumbling; and struggling to defeat a much less powerful enemy while thoughtlessly throwing away Russian soldier’s lives.  Let’s hope that Ukraine does have resources and can go on the offensive this summer because it will shorten this war. Finally, NATO and the world need to be ready because as the tactical reality catches up with Putin, we enter a dangerous period during which there will be threats and escalations that will need to be managed. 


Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.

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