Ukraine: can Russia still win the war?

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Russia has been at war in Ukraine for almost five months but “has not started anything in earnest yet”, President Vladimir Putin said last week just days after his troops seized Lysychansk, the last city in the eastern Luhansk province still under Kyiv’s control.

The capture of the town was an important milestone in Putin’s campaign to take the whole of Ukraine’s Donbas region. It was also a much-needed morale-boosting victory. While some of Moscow’s forces were rewarded with a rest, others were ordered into the next offensive — a three-pronged attack from the north, east and south-east towards the important Donbas cities of Slovyansk, Kramatorsk and Bakhmut.

It took the Kremlin almost three months to take the last fifth of the territory in Luhansk province after refocusing its war in the east of the country in mid-April. Its failure to encircle and capture Ukrainian forces — part of the initial plan to overwhelm the Donbas — caused delays and provoked a change in Russian tactics.

They deployed an unrelenting bombardment, using up to 50,000 shells a day, pulverised Ukrainian positions and forced them to retreat. Kyiv lost between 100 and 200 troops a day, including some of its most capable soldiers, and its once armour-plated morale has taken a battering.

After Russia’s failed assault on Kyiv and its advance through Luhansk, the war in Ukraine is entering a third phase where exhaustion of each side’s forces is the critical factor. Russia’s unstoppable artillery machine could continue to inch forward and eventually deliver full control of the Donbas — it controls about three-quarters at the moment. At that point, Putin could declare victory and sue for peace on terms favourable to Moscow, with western capitals under pressure from Russia’s energy squeeze, pushing Kyiv to cut a deal.

“The most interesting question is not who is capturing 5km [of land], [or even] where but what are the long-term prospects for the two forces,” Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at the CNA military think-tank, told the War on the Rocks podcast. He argues that the focus on territorial gains in eastern Ukraine obscures the bigger picture. And that the scale of losses and the ability of both sides to replenish forces is now critical.

An animated map showing the area of Ukraine under Russian control since February. After a retreat from Kyiv, Russia has concentrated on the east and south of the country in a slow war of attrition

Ukraine has in the past few weeks acquired long-range rockets from the US, potentially allowing it to cut Russian supply lines and stymie its artillery. How Kyiv uses the new offensive capability in the next few weeks could be pivotal in determining the outcome of the conflict.

The Russian steamroller has to a degree made up for the shortcomings of its ground operations exhibited in its botched attack on Kyiv earlier in the war. And it is still grinding inexorably forward. If Slovyansk, Kramatorsk and Bakhmut fall within Russian artillery range, they could be impossible to defend even though they are heavily fortified.

Despite its fitful progress and own heavy losses, Russia could use its massive artillery superiority — Ukrainian officials say there are 10 Russian canons for every Ukrainian one — to inflict defeat on Kyiv in a slow war of attrition.

Cadets of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic stand next to remains of a rocket shell in the city of Lysychansk, Luhansk
Cadets of the Luhansk People’s Republic, the Kremlin proxy regime, stand next to remains of a rocket shell in the city of Lysychansk, Luhansk © Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

“Russia could still wear down Ukrainian ammunition stockpiles, its reserve of skilled troops and the patience of the international community to slowly claw back a path towards meeting its aims,” wrote two researchers, Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds, in a report for the London-based Royal United Services Institute last week.

As well as a chronic shortage of artillery ammunition, they highlighted multiple other Ukrainian weaknesses, including a lack of skilled infantry and armoured vehicles to conduct offensive operations, a shortage of secure radio equipment and an inability to detect and take out Russian electronic warfare capabilities.

Nikolai Patrushev, Putin’s national security chief, was sufficiently emboldened by recent battlefield successes to revive the Kremlin’s original war aims of removing Ukraine’s leadership and “de — Nazifying the state”.

Ukrainian soldiers from the 14th Mechanised Brigade sit on their T-72 tank on the frontline near Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine
Ukrainian soldiers from the 14th Mechanised Brigade sit on their T-72 tank on the frontline near Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine © Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

Yet the bravado belies Russia’s own military vulnerabilities as it runs short of manpower and modern armour, say Ukrainian officials and western analysts.

The “basic maths” favours Kyiv, says Kori Schake, director of foreign and defence policy at the American Enterprise Institute, referring to Moscow’s struggle to recruit enough experienced troops to replenish its forces and on the other side the flow of advanced weaponry from the west to Ukraine.

To the fury of nationalist military commentators in Russia, Putin has so far refused to call a general mobilisation — a call-up of all those of fighting age who have previously served in the armed forces. Such a move would probably be highly unpopular and imply that his limited “military operation” in the Donbas region had been a failure.

“[Some] 80 per cent of his army is already fighting in Ukraine, exhausted and making very little progress,” says Schake. “Unless Vladimir Putin really intends a nationwide mobilisation . . . these symbolic successes [in Luhansk] don’t add up to a strengthening strategic position and even if they were to effect a nationwide mobilisation, it would take months to muster everybody, months to train them. Ukraine has a window of opportunity in about the next six months to win this war.”

Fatigue sets in

Moscow has lost 37,400 troops in the war so far, according to Ukraine. The British government puts the number at 25,000. Whatever the true figure, Russia has struggled to reassemble depleted units and is having to offer big cash inducements to persuade former soldiers to sign new contracts. Much of the fighting in Luhansk was carried out by soldiers conscripted or press-ganged in the Russian-backed separatist regions of Ukraine.

Russian armour — tanks and armoured vehicles — has been so degraded that its forces are using T-62 tanks, a machine dating from the 1960s, and armoured personnel carriers from the 1950s. A Ukrainian official says Russian troops in the south of the country are using S-300 air defence systems that are normally employed to shoot down aircraft and missiles to hit ground targets, suggesting a shortage of other rockets.

“They are still very dangerous. When you think of those 25,000 dead, any other system would have just given up,” says Ben Wallace, the UK defence secretary. “But they’re just grinding. They are grinding at first world war levels of advancement, you know, metres, not kilometres, a day. Maybe they’re capturing a few empty villages. And then sometimes they get pushed back. They are losing an awful lot of equipment and people in doing so.”

A bomb crater in the village of Mykolayiv in May
A bomb crater in the village of Mykolayiv in May © Laine Nathan/ABACA via Reuters

Kofman agrees: “In general it looks like Russian forces are making incremental progress. But I’m very sceptical they have the ability to take Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. Those are heavily fortified areas and at this rate Russian forces may become exhausted before they can mount successful offensives there.”

One senior British official estimated that at the end of June both sides were “near exhaustion”. However, in recent weeks the arrival of western-supplied longer-range weaponry has begun to make a big difference to Ukrainian operations, first helping Kyiv retake Snake Island, a strategically important rock in the north-western Black Sea, and now striking ammunition depots deep behind Russian lines.

Lawrence Freedman, professor emeritus of war studies at King’s College London, says the war has entered a transitional phase where the Russians are looking to advance but also may have to defend positions, while Ukraine is gearing up to launch counter-offensive operations.

The key difference has been the arrival in late June of US-supplied multiple launch rocket systems, known as Himars, which have a range of between 70km and 80km and GPS-guided munitions for pinpoint accuracy. “The Ukrainians didn’t have anything to do serious counter battery work,” says Freedman. “Now they do.”

The impact has been immediate. In the past two weeks, the Ukrainian army has used Himars to strike numerous Russian ammunition depots, fuel storage, command centres and even soldiers’ barracks, says Petro Pyatakov, a former deputy head of Ukraine’s missile forces and artillery.

Residents use water buckets to extinguish a fire after multiple rockets hit a residential area in Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine, on Sunday
Residents use water buckets to extinguish a fire after multiple rockets hit a residential area in Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine, on Sunday © Mauricio Lima/New York Times/Redux/eyevine

“The disrupted supply system significantly reduces [Russia’s] firepower,” says Pyatakov. “[It has] turned the enemy’s existing artillery into scrap metal without ammunition.

“[This] led to a significant reduction in the combat potential of the Russian troops and provided opportunities for the [Ukrainian] armed forces to more effectively repulse the enemy’s offensive,” he adds.

In one of his regular addresses to the nation last week, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hailed the deployment of Himars, saying it “significantly reduces the offensive potential of the Russian army. The losses of the occupiers will only increase every week, as will the difficulty of supplying them.”

The arrival of the Himars

Ukraine has so far taken delivery of eight Himars from the US and has been promised another four by Washington and four more by the UK. But it would need dozens to make a decisive difference in the war. And Russian forces will probably adapt their tactics and logistics in light of the new Ukrainian threat.

The deployment comes as Kyiv tries to turn up the pressure on Russian forces in the south of the country where it has been retaking enemy-held territory around the city of Kherson, the largest to fall to Moscow since the February invasion began.

Situated at the mouth of the Dnipro river, a vital economic artery, Kherson is arguably strategically more important than the cities of the Donbas region, much of which is a smoking ruin thanks to Russia’s scorched earth tactics. The Kherson region also controls the supply of water to occupied Crimea.

Kherson is an important test of Ukraine’s ability to retake occupied territory in a protracted war, says Kofman. If it fails, it would suggest there is limited hope of Kyiv pushing Russian forces back to their pre-February 24 lines.

Ukrainian forces fire a French field gun towards Russian positions at a front line in the Donbas
Ukrainian forces fire a French field gun towards Russian positions at a front line in the Donbas © Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

Ukraine’s unproven capacity to mount large-scale counter-offensive operations is its biggest challenge, says Freedman. It has lost some of its best trained men in the Donbas fighting and is increasingly reliant on its volunteer territorial defence forces.

Western training of Ukrainian infantry is probably as important as the supply of weapons. A British programme to provide compressed basic training to 10,000 Ukrainian troops every three months began last week. It is designed to help Kyiv build a second echelon or back up force for a counter-offensive later in the year or in 2023, says the UK official.

Even without a successful counter-offensive, Ukraine can still steadily degrade the Russian military. “Putin’s biggest issue is maintaining the integrity of his armed forces,” says Freedman. “Ukraine has only one job to do which is to defend its territory.”

Gas and Russia’s hybrid war

Russia’s strongest position lies off the battlefield. With its blockade of the Black Sea it has a stranglehold on the Ukrainian economy with global reverberations in terms of rocketing food prices. Its bombardment of Ukrainian infrastructure — in the past few weeks it has struck a shopping centre, a resort complex and several apartment blocks — is also designed to undermine morale.

Ukraine’s fiscal crisis is getting worse, because of the collapse in economic activity, the precipitous fall in tax revenues and the loss of hard currency inflows from exports of steel and grain. The central bank burnt through 9.3 per cent of its foreign exchange reserves in June alone.

Oleg Ustenko, an economic adviser to Zelenskyy, says the country now needs $9bn a month from the west to plug its budget shortfall. It had previously pleaded for between $5bn and $6bn. “Without financial support from our allies,” adds Ustenko, “it will be not [just] difficult to do, it will be next to impossible to do.”

The US has disbursed $4bn in economic aid to Kyiv and expects to distribute a further $6.2bn by September. The EU has scraped together only €1bn of the €9bn it pledged in April amid disputes over whether it should provide grants or loans.

A Russian Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack jet fires rockets on a mission at an undisclosed location in Ukraine
A Russian Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack jet fires rockets on a mission at an undisclosed location in Ukraine © Russian Defense Ministry/AP

Russia meanwhile has Europe in a chokehold by reducing flows of gas this summer and threatening to turn it off altogether, pushing up household bills and potentially shutting down energy-intensive industries across the continent if supplies run short this winter.

“Russia’s hybrid war has increased during the kinetic war, and we have lost sight of that,” says a western defence adviser. “If the Russian ground offensive does pause this summer, or even go on the defensive, that’s OK from Moscow’s perspective. In the meantime, its hybrid and economic war can be ramped up.”

Ukrainian officials say that Putin is counting on the economic pain from inflation and gas shortages to force European capitals to lean on Kyiv to end the war on terms favourable to Moscow.

The Russian leader may underestimate western resolve just as he also assumed western capitals would not rally to Ukraine’s support after February, says Schake.

“To their great credit, the peoples of all of the countries that have lined up on Ukraine’s side are actually willing to bear some burden for Ukrainian sovereignty,” he adds, “and that’s a great thing. But it’s going to be hard work keeping it.”

Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Brussels and John Paul Rathbone in London

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