15 Months into a War — Recap. Part 2.

(Continuing Part 1)

The Russian government was sure the Ukrainian defences will start to collapse as soon as they’ll see Russian military coming. In many respects that is what happened initially. Low and mid rank Ukrainian soldiers and officers had no idea what is expected from them. They couldn’t believe they are expected to hold against the invading Russian Army.

As the result of this situation, and the general assessment that regular Ukrainian military isn’t ready to die for the unpopular Ukrainian regime, as well as some signals coming from Ukrainian officials in nearby territories, the Russian MoD presented a plan of blitzkrieg offensive. The three main parts of this plan were the seizure of territories around Donbass (including the creation of the land-bridge to Crimean peninsula) from the eastern Ukraine, the move towards Kiev from the north, and a sea landing operation towards Odessa from the south.

The Ukrainian military prepared extensive defense lines around Donbass, with maybe a 100,000 well equipped troops manning the fortifications. Mariupol’ was serving as a base for the nationalists of the “Azov Battalion”, which were the most motivated to fight Russians due to their extreme anti-Russian ideology. They were best trained and equipped, it seems, although they were lacking the heavy weaponry of the military, serving the role of the regime’s Guard and an Nazi ideology inspired occupation force in the Russian-ethnic territories of East and South-Ukraine. This direction proved the most difficult one for the Russian forces.

The Donbass offensive was maid a responsibility of the Donetsk and Lugansk militias reinforced with Russian Guard service, with Russian military providing some support. They couldn’t break through the Donbass defense lines in the western direction, which were concentrated around Slavyansk and Kramotorsk. Simply put they were overwhelmed by the advantage in quantity and quality of manpower and weaponry, multiplied by the advantage of a defensive posture. A general rule of 3 to 1 advantage needed in offensive against fortified enemy wasn’t implemented. To match the ~100,000 Ukrainian soldiers holding Donbass, Russia needed to put ~300,000 soldiers and 3 times tanks, artillery, aviation etc. (which is significantly more than Russian military had in Ukraine in the first months). But, since the expectations were that the defenders will surrender in mass rather than fight, the assumption was made that much smaller force would suffice.

Other directions of the Donbass front proved to be more successful. Russian Army made swift advances in the south-eastern direction, surrounding Mariupol’ and clearing the way to Crimea. Parts of Kherson and Zaporozh’e were swiftly occupied by Russian Army with little resistance.

On the Kiev direction, a massive airborne operation was executed in order to capture the large and strategically important airfield north of the capital city. Yet something went wrong: the enemy seemed to be alerted in advance, and paratroopers met a strong resistance. Meanwhile, the main Russian force that was expected to arrive shortly to relieve the paratroopers was delayed. After days of defending the captured airfield, the paratroopers were forced to abandon the airfield. This pointless operation came with high cost in manpower and aircraft.

The main Russian force heading to Kiev got stuck somewhere in the forests north of the capital. After it encountered the unexpected resistance of the Ukrainian Army, it turned out this force wasn’t ready for the offensive operation. Also, at that time it started to become clear that on other directions the offensive was pushed back. Again, with high cost in manpower and military hardware. Not able to capture Kiev with that they had, this force was recalled back to reinforce other directions.

The most problematic offensive after the Donbass was the north-eastern one. Offensive in Sumi and Kharkov regions was so sloppy and purely managed, that it only brought unjustified and high losses with nothing meaningful to show for. While the actual details are still not being published, my understanding is that the main force what was tasked with the offensive north of Donbass and south of Kiev was the 1st guards tank army. This force imploded for no good reason. All the commentators that risk talking about it, point to the extreme corruption and incompetency of the generals in charge. What was suppose to be the pinnacle of Russian Ground Forces, the 1st guards tank army, seemed to be the most rotted one. Eventually, the “Kharkov flight” was for the same reason — the implosion of the 1st guards tank army.

The landing operation in Odessa was eventually abandoned, due to the imbecilic loss of the Black Sea Fleet flagship, the Moskva missile cruiser, the damage done to some of the landing ships, and general impotency of the Black Sea Fleet to implement such operation. After getting almost to the shores of Odessa, the Black Sea Fleet is now mainly hiding from drones and anti-ship missiles in Crimean ports.

After initial shock has passed it became obvious to the Russian General Staff that the first stage of the Ukrainian offensive has failed. Due to political reasons, the military was limited to “Special Military Operation”. No conscripts were allowed to take part in the war. No mobilization was permitted. No mobilization of economy or industry took place. Army was given an option to contract additional soldiers and raise volunteer units to reinforce itself. It was also given tens of thousands of Russian Guard soldiers. But that wasn’t enough.

At the midst of uncountable failures, the contract soldiers has started to flee the Army. Without any legal basis to prevent it from collapsing the Russian forces entirely, the government devised a scheme: announce a “one time limited” mobilization and recall all of those contract soldiers who fled the service back. Another scheme was to allow hard criminals to volunteer into service with the Wagner Group, for the promise of pardon to those who will survive for half a year.

The first scheme turned out to do more harm than good. The MoD offices and officials responsible for the mobilization made a mess. Not competent enough to mobilize only the ones with relevant and recent combat experience, they started to send the draft orders to any random people so to fulfill their quotas. It created a sense of panic among many of the young professionals, who then fled to any country they could in order to escape this madness. The ones that already had families, have escaped with them. In a very short period of time, Russia lost hundreds of thousands of now highly needed professional workers.

On the other hand, the ones that got mobilized, were often unfit for the task. Too old, or with health issues, or ones that manned critical job positions (including defense industry), were now expected to turn into combat soldiers. Often they lacked even the most basic equipment and supplies, they were left without orders of commanders, stuck without papers in random places…

On the other hand the recruitment of criminals went much smoother under the management of Wagner’s head, Evgeniy Prigozhin. The government is obviously happy to use them in the most dangerous situations — in their eyes it is a win-win. The Russian MoD doesn’t count non Army casualties. The Russian penal colonies have less mouth to feed. They aren’t being paid and could expect only the minimal health or death insurance. Around 50,000 convicts were drafted into Wagner, according to Prigozhin. Around 10,000 of them were killed. At least twice that number (or probably more) are either missing in action or wounded. And the supposedly volunteer nature of their recruitment can’t be independently verified. It is easy in a place like a penal colony to create such conditions that people will have no reasonable choice but to sight a contract. After that, they are outside of Russian judicial or military jurisdiction. They have no rights and no other choice but to obey their master Prigozhin of be executed by Wagner in any way Prigozhin like.

The “success” of this scheme was such what now MoD has taken over the prisoner “utilization”, leaving Wagner Group unable to replenish their casualties and the flight of soldiers who signed a contract with Prigozhin. As such, they are now left the frontline in order to try and rebuild their significantly diminished capabilities.

To summarize, while the first scheme arguably created more harm than good, the second bought some time for Russian MoD to prepare the mobilized. Yet due to a severe lack of weaponry, ammo, equipment and competent commanders, the mobilization still didn’t seem to bring the Russian Army capabilities to the level of the start of the war. While formally there should be more soldiers in Ukraine than in the first months of the war, the exhausted arsenals and troops moral is much worse. It is maybe similar to the situation on the other side of the frontline, with Ukrainians still having a nominal advantage in personnel.

Going a little bit back in time, to the summer of 2022, it became clear to the Russian government and the military that the situation is becoming critical. After the Kharkov flight and the Kherson retreat, the only Russian military objective was to stabilize the frontline. This objective has succeeded — the Russians are holding the front. That being said, Russian Army has lost any ability to advance and inflict unproportionable damage to the Ukrainian Army. Maneuver warfare is no longer an option — only the WWI-stile positional warfare and occasional frontal assaults, resulting in heavy casualties and no meaningful progress. If situation doesn’t change, it could very well continue for years.

The open question remaining is the true numbers of casualties on both sides so far. It seems to me on the Russian side combined (MoD, Russian Guard, Wagner, militias, volunteers, etc.) the dead are tens of thousands. Only in Wagner, 20,000 DIA. In militias the numbers could be similar. Together with the rest, I expect around 50,000 dead personnel. Another 100,000+ wounded, many of them will remain invalids. Probably thousands of Russian, Donbass and civilians from annexed territories killed, or heavily wounded. On the Ukrainian side the situation may very well be even worse, with 100,000+ killed and many more wounded. This is much worse than anything past WWII. Afghanistan cost Soviet Union (with ~300 million population) about 15,000 dead. That fiasco served as one of the reasons for its collapse. It seems to much or surpass the casualties of the Russo-Japanese war, with the Russian Empire’s population at that time larger than the current Russian population. That defeat was one of the reasons for the October Revolution.


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