Potemkin’s Armies: Russia’s Final Defeat in Ukraine

Recent developments led me to split this article in two parts. The first centers on the situation in the field, trying to understand the problems faced by Russia since the beginning of the “special military operation” and the ramifications of Ukraine’s ongoing summer counteroffensive. The second part will occasionally dabble in speculation and will consist of considerations on Russia’s long-term future and preparations for it. Said second part will be published soon. Throughout the writing of this article, besides real time events, varied opinions of specialists and, mostly, the daily reports of the Institute of the Study of War (ISW) on the Russo-Ukrainian war, were held in consideration.

Russia lost the war in Ukraine. The pomp and circumstance held in Moscow on the last week of September is but a smokescreen that’ll hardly rebalance the forces on the battlefield, much less turn the tide in favor of Vladimir Putin. These are bold statements, it’s true. For decades, Russia’s carefully built image as a resurgent military power, with its tentacles spread all around the world, poised to reclaim its place in a new multipolar world was spoon fed to a Western audience by a legion of analysts. With the rhythm of Russian troops marching on Red Square still stuck to their ear, said audience was ready to accept February’s invasion as the enthronement of the new Tsar and the resurgence of his empire. And then Ukraine fought back.

The signs were all there, for those who wished to see them. Quoting Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke, no plan resists contact with the enemy. Adapting to circumstances is key, however one shouldn’t analyze Russia’s actions by blindly accepting their propaganda in search for a nonexistent equilibrium. Oleksandr Hruzevych, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Command of the Ground Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, revealed in April that the invading soldiers carried parade uniforms. This brought to light the reigning certainty in the Kremlin’s military circles that the initial force of around 150 thousand men would be enough to carry a lightning offensive. It was hoped that the taking of major urban centers and Volodymyr Zelensky’s capitulation would take place in about 72 hours. That did not happen. As written by Margarita Konaev and Kristin Braithwaithe on Foreign Policy, urban warfare are always scenarios to avoid for any armies, due to the defenders’ advantage granted by urban infrastructure that prevents the concentration of armored vehicles and leads to the dispersion of infantry. Louis DiMarco highlights for the Modern War Institute that an invading force must possess a 3 to 1 ratio to beat their adversary. Regarding urban warfare, that ratio increases to 6 to 1. The battle for the Ukrainian capital in March saw Russia charging with a 12 to 1 advantage and even that didn’t secure their victory. Their widely documented failures both logistics and tactical wise reveal their total incapability to overcome these barriers.

On March 29th, the defeats both North and Northeast were reappropriated by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine to symbolize a change in strategy. The new goal would be a focus on the Easternmost region, namely the Donbas, in which Russia was faring better. However, between August and September, Ukraine launched its counteroffensive. With Western aid in the form of arms, training, and intelligence, approximately 6 thousand square kms of Northeastern territory were recaptured, namely the towns of Kupyansk, Balakliya and Izyum. The latter holds particular relevance not only due to its train station’s strategic importance, but for the discovery of almost 500 bodies on a common grave, most of them revealing traces of violent death caused by the Russian occupiers. Ukraine’s advance is also felt both South and East, in the territory of the Donbas puppet republics. Their latest victory came about the circling and retaking of the city of Lyman, in Donetsk. Between September 30th and October 1st, around five thousand Russian soldiers were forced to retreat in order to prevent their entrapment on all directions. This achievement, alongside the destruction of communication lines in Drobysheve-Lyman, places Russia’s standing in northern Donbas in serious risk. Initially centered around the destruction of military, logistical and transportation targets, Ukraine’s southern push recently caused the retreat of Russia’s forces into the city of Kherson. Ukrainian governmental sources reveal that around 50 settlements were liberated, without specifying when.

Russia’s defeat is visible in its catastrophic losses of military equipment. Since February, Russia has lost over 1200 tanks, 52 helicopters, 136 drones, 60 airplanes, 164 command posts and communication stations, almost 1400 infantry combat vehicles, 101 and 218 towed and self-propelled artillery, respectively, among others. Of a total of 6722 pieces of Russian lost equipment catalogued by the military blog Oryx, 4094 were destroyed, 159 were damaged, 306 were abandoned and 2163 were captured by Ukraine. The military aid given by the international community, mostly by the West, has been precious, namely the sending of modern artillery and HIMARS light multiple rocket launchers. These have been crucial in the destruction of logistical targets, like bridges, ammo depots and train tracks, thus preventing Russia’s resupply of their growingly exhaust forces.

Simultaneously, of the around 200 thousand troops on the ground since the invasion’s start, Ukraine’s armed forces estimate that 61 thousand were killed and 183 thousand were wounded, counting also with a thousand prisoners of war. One must note that the logistical losses registered by Kyiv’s official sources are overall higher than those previously mentioned. These losses become harder and harder to replenish, as trained conventional battalions give way to inexperienced recruits and volunteer-based irregular groups, including convicts. The defeat in Kharkiv, the first recognized by the Kremlin, has served as motivation for new recruitment efforts, but the ISW believes that these new units add little to nothing to Russia’s military effectiveness. Worse, it suspects them being a symptom of a growing rift between Putin and the military high command and predicts the deterioration of the discrepancies regarding training, objectives and command structures between the Russian armed forces, irregulars, Chechens and conscripts from Donetsk and Luhansk. As Ruslan Leviev states for the organization Conflict Intelligence Team, as quoted by the Washington Post, Russia no longer has the means to recuperate previous territorial losses.

Military failings aside, the Russo-Ukrainian War has buried the Western cliché of assuming that Ukraine’s linguistical division translated in an irreconcilable national polarization, as if the population of the Americas claimed in unison to rejoin their respective motherlands, following the same train of thought. Kyiv’s own 1991 independence referendum demonstrated that even the often presumed more Russophile regions – Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk – voted yes, with 54,14%, 83,86% and 83,9%, respectively. In Taras Kuzio’s view, the invasion brought forth an overwhelming convergence of interests by the Ukrainian populace in matters of national identity, language, geopolitical standing and, above all, “derussification”. In other words, Ukraine will never again willingly join Russia’s imperial project. At the same time, Western unconditional support to Kyiv, as well as the latter’s candidacies both to the EU and most recently NATO, leave their immediate postwar intentions clear.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is in a race against time. First, it needs men to adjust for their losses in the field. Second, it needs to consolidate their conquests to ensure continual internal support for the war and partly justify their failings so far. Third, since the awaited waning of external support to their enemy didn’t materialize, it needs to force the West’s hand in agreeing to negotiations that freeze the conflict and allow the Kremlin to lick its wounds. It is in this context that “partial” mobilization, the Southeastern “annexations” and the harshening of tone in nuclear threats. None of these new factors, however, will be enough to turn the game in the favor of Moscow’s regime.

Let us address mobilization. The decree came in September 21st, officially targeting only 300 thousand men with previous military experience. As expected, the Kremlin’s actions didn’t match their words. Sources opposed to the regime, such as Novaya Gazeta, mention plans for approximately a million mobilized and innumerous reports demonstrate that the limits imposed on pensioners and individuals without experience or with health problems are not being respected. Using very simple terms, Putin wants to throw men at the problem. Presently, this strategy can be viewed through two lenses and neither paint a positive scenario for the Kremlin. The first centers around the theater of war itself. Again, mobilization is a race against time, as the Russian dictator expects the number of mobilized soldiers outweighs Western aid to Kyiv. Reality has other plans. These new recruits will also need weapons, equipment, supplies, etc., but mostly they will need training. Training that will require time. Time that the Kremlin isn’t willing to cede. This situation stands in sharp contrast with Ukraine, whose 200 thousand active troops on the start of the war have been strengthened by volunteers and new recruits trained both nationally and in partner countries, like the United Kingdom and Poland. Taking for example the Russian 3rd Army Corps, this unit composed by 10 thousand soldiers had been formed during summertime and sent to the front in Kharkiv. It lasted five days, being obliterated by the August counteroffensive. The second lens risks incurring in error, as it follows a rationale that might not exist. The high number of losses expected to be suffered by new Russian recruits will hardly result in military victories or either in getting back recently lost territories, but what if that isn’t the plan? Moscow’s war machine has been fed mostly by ethnic minority soldiers, to which the army is the only exit from a life marked by poverty and discrimination. This preference (or lack of option) for, frankly, colonial troops is once again felt these past few days, with the mobilization decree affecting disproportionally regions like Buryatia, Dagestan, or Yakutia, as well as occupied territories like the Donbas or Crimea. With this is mind is easy to rationalize that the decree serves as an ethnic cleansing by proxy, as Zelensky advisor Mikhailo Podolyak accuses.

On September 30th, Russia proceeded with its illegal annexation of four Ukrainian territories, adding the oblasts of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk to the previously (also illegally) annexed autonomous republic of Crimea and city of Sevastopol. The farce happened after a “referendum” the week prior. In this process, Russian soldiers in occupied regions went door-to-door and, with the usual kindness of the barrel of a gun, convinced the inhabitants to vote on their future. It’s irrelevant to mention concrete results, it’s safe to assume that they are predetermined. Thus, said process must be understood not even as an illusion of democratic legitimacy, but as an affirmation of the true objective of the invasion: the annihilation of Ukraine as an independent entity detached from Russian visions of empire. It is, in the end, a filtration: Ukrainians are coerced to return to colonial subjugation to Moscow or they are destroyed. Why annex these territories in particular? Because Russia doesn’t hold the others. Why now? Because three of the four “annexed” territories are not completely under its control. In his infinite military genius, Vladimir Putin allowed Kyiv to occupy so-called Russian territory overnight. The pinnacle of this absurdity came with the admission, from Kremlin spokesman Dimitry Peskov, that Moscow literally does not know where its international borders are. In sum, Russia sought to justify in part its mobilization decree and, mostly, mitigate their losses by halting the counteroffensive, something it cannot do through conventional means.

What leads us to the nuclear question. Is Russia willing to resort to its nuclear arsenal to consolidate its progressively meager territorial gains? Listening to Putin’s speech in the “annexation” ceremony, the Institute for the Study of War claims in its special report on the subject that the former did not diverge from the Kremlin’s usual rhetoric, because the fluctuation of controlled areas do not allow him to set clear red lines regarding land he claims as Russian. Had he done so, Putin would already have multiple pretexts, considering Ukrainian attacks on Crimea or Belgorod or, more recently, advances on Lyman and Kherson. Vague nuclear threats have as their goal dissuading the West to cease its support to Ukraine and compel the latter to begin negotiations. This, in theory, would allow the conflict to be frozen, the military-administrative consolidation of the “annexed” areas and a much-needed recuperation of the Russian armed forces, before a renewal of the offensive in a later date, like the Second Chechen War. But is Putin set on following through? Former American ambassador Michael McFaul wrote that a nuclear strike serves no military goals and the ISW corroborates said opinion, referring to strikes plural to even contain Ukraine’s counteroffensive. Besides this, it’s easy to assume that the already ill-equipped Russian armies would not be capable to advance on eventual nuclear bomb targets post-detonation. Zelensky’s government did not delay in its response, by completely rejecting future negotiations while Putin rules Russia and formalizing an accession request to NATO. One can presume, therefore, that even the use of a nuclear bomb would not break the Ukrainian will to fight. Lastly, a direct and conventional intervention by the US (or NATO) on the conflict, more specifically the neutralization of the Black Sea Fleet and of Russian military forces in Ukraine, would most likely take place after the first detonation.

A Ukrainian army mobilized since day one, counting on billions of dollars in Western funding, weapons and equipment, plus Western style reforms, emphasizing initiatives from individual units or from on the field commanders, in contrast with the rigid and antiquated methods of Moscow, stuck to Soviet and Tsarist tenets, lead officers like the American general and former head of the CIA, David Petraeus, to conclude that Putin is on an irreversible course towards defeat. Its vices include a wave of widespread corruption, an excessively top-down chain of command and a fear of failure that results in immediate scapegoating and eschewing of responsibilities. This later aspect translates into a metaphorical hot potato between higher circles, coexisting with a blind obedience to orders overall. At the top of this pyramid lies Vladimir Putin. Lawrence Freedman writes on Foreign Affairs that the Russian president’s presuppositions on the state of Ukraine’s army led him to plan for a quick victory. This certainty blinded him to see his international credibility, as well as his negotiating power, fading quickly. Mobilization arrived too late, looking at the insufficient initial wave, plus the lack of equipment and training could very well prove disastrous once winter sets in. What little they have is progressively abandoned as Ukraine pushes, holds, or pulls back at will. Supposedly the world’s second military power and with the largest nuclear arsenal in its pocket, Russia sees itself in a defensive position, merely reacting to Kyiv’s offensives.

Between 1904 and 1905, Tsarist Russia sought a quick win over the emerging Japanese empire. This country, despite its extremely quick industrialization, was still seen as an exotic curiosity or a culturally inferior realm. Russia’s defeat and subsequent humiliation, one year later, could demonstrate that History does not repeat but often rhymes. Putin can’t lose this war, as is commonly affirmed, but for Ukraine and the West as a whole, it is imperative that he does. What economic, political, internal, and external ramifications would such a defeat entail? More and more it becomes important to envision a concrete scenario. That will be attempted on the second part of this article.

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