A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 3, 2022

How Russia's Problems In Ukraine Far Outnumber Its Strengths

Russia has lots of old equipment and ammunition. It can keep firing for weeks, maybe months. 

But beyond that, in an era where combined arms - effectively coordinated ground, air, artillery, intelligence, logistics - appears to be beyond its capabilities which are still grounded in 1945, but are less adept. JL  

Peter Olandt reports in Daily Kos:

Russian supply dumps are far behind the lines due to HIMARs, stressing truck supply. Their troops in the Kherson oblast are in danger of being (cut off).  They need to put 60 year old T-64s in the field instead of 40 year old T-72s instead of 30 year old T-80s. Their Air Force is mostly defensive. Guided munitions are dwindling and not replaceable. Their Baltic fleet is vulnerable to anti-ship missiles. Resupply in the south comes through 3 ports and one rail link over the Kerch bridge. Artillery barrels are low quality, (wearing out) at a quicker rate than expected. Troops are deserting and recruitment is difficult. At some point the critical piece will fall.  Which army is getting better and which is getting worse?

We’ve come a long way in 6 months.  At the start of the war in Ukraine, people in the comments section commonly made statements that Russia would win as a matter of course and not bother to back up their statement why.  Thankfully, that has shifted considerably.  A rare few persist, but the more common pessimist refrain has now shifted to “it’s going to be a long war” often without support beyond “Russia hasn’t collapsed yet.”  This comment often comes after criticizing other people for wishful thinking.

So where is that Russian collapse I and others have been predicting?  Armies are designed to be robust organizations with redundancies and clear means and procedures for continuing even as key pieces are removed.  Death is expected and planned for.  The captain is shot?  Who’s next in the chain of command?  The radios don’t work?  Send a runner.  Not enough APVs?  Use some pickup trucks.  Armies are meant to take a beating and keep working, even the Russian army.

Destroying an army can be a little bit like destroying a house with a sledgehammer.  You can start taking out walls but in balloon construction the house will keep on standing for a while.  The first wall taken out will rarely cause a collapse unless the house was already compromised in serious ways.  Start taking out walls and sure there will be creaking, bending, and maybe even a partial collapse.  But the remaining walls continue to support the structure.  Until they don’t.  Eventually you take out a wall and the whole thing caves in.  Now you may think that last wall was the most important. But in some construction, it really wasn’t.  You could have taken out a different set of walls never touching the wall that made it collapse the first time, yet still get the house to finally collapse.

Military historians often like to focus on a single cause or “turning point” to explain why certain battles and wars happened the way they did.  Some times they are right to focus on a single point, more commonly they are really just highlighting one of many causes for a battle or war to go a certain way.

Because of redundancies with people and weapons you usually can’t just remove a single facet of the unit and have it collapse.  Russians treat conscripts like a disposable commodity.  Grab random bodies, send them off to do cannon fodder stuff.  Are you a liaison for the Air Force and aren’t coordinating any air missions for whatever reason?  You may suddenly find yourself leading an infantry squad.  Run out of a guided missile system?  Use these surplus S-300 SAMs you’re not using much of on ground targets instead.  Not have enough food?  Send the troops out to steal it.  Not getting as many artillery shells as you once did?  Ration them for the most important points instead constant firing.  Bridge out?  Build a pontoon ferry to supply people.  Troops deserting?  Lie to people from disadvantaged groups and force them to fight.

Clearly no one of these things will cause the Russian army to collapse, otherwise it would have already.  As normal fighting progresses both sides take losses.  This is called attrition, and what we currently have in Ukraine is attrition warfare where each side is attempting to wear the other down.  There are still movements and counter movements as each side attempts to gain some advantage.  But we have yet to see a major breakthrough.  

We have seen one (near?) collapse already (something the pessimists tend to ignore).  At the start of the war Russia, assuming the Ukrainians would collapse either through shock and awe, treachery, or assassination of leadership, created large long salients in parts of the north, most noticeably as they tried to surround Kyiv.  The units typically carry three days of supplies with them and moved far beyond the railheads that Russia relies on.  We then heard about these long supply convoys (of doom) that would bring needed supplies to the Russians (which the reports made it sound like they would lead to instant Russian success should they make it there).  These supply convoys were instead ripped apart by relatively few Ukrainian units using hit and run tactics with Javelins and calling in artillery strikes.  Before the Russian units ended up surrounded and captured, the personnel were evacuated leaving behind plenty of equipment.

This early collapse happened because Russia could not adequately supply its units.  Those units were in vulnerable positions and would be in danger if Ukraine brought sufficient force to bear against them.  The positions were predicated on offensive operations attempting to encircle Kyiv, not based on choosing defendable terrain against counter attack.  The Russian Air Force could not safely fly ground assault missions due to lack of air superiority.  All of these things (and probably more) contributed to the full retreat of Russia in the north.  The southern and eastern forces clearly did not retreat.  But that was because they had better positions, more complete, lines, better air cover, better supply, and proximity to railheads.

Since then attrition has been wearing down both sides.  Ukraine has external suppliers of high quality equipment and a highly motivated population with larger effective reserves.  Russia has poor quality stored equipment picked over through theft and corruption and a population which appears mostly resistant to serving in Ukraine.  They are clearly still getting new troops from somewhere, but those troops are poorly trained.  We are beginning to see a difference in the numbers.  Ukraine’s troop disposition is difficult to determine, but they are holding strong along the whole line with no apparent general weakness.  That’s not to say they are winning everywhere all the time, but any Russian gains are minimal.  Ukraine seems to be able to add troops to Kherson without any obvious pulling of troops elsewhere.

Russia has instead needed to start pulling troops back from positions such as around Izyum.  They are giving up places they fought hard to take in the first place and paid dearly for.  We don’t even know for sure where these troops are going.  Into Kherson?  Defending the left bank (East bank) of the Dnipro?  Some other part of the line?  Sending them to Crimea?  The point is, Russia is having to give up something to reposition, whereas Ukraine doesn’t seem to be currently doing that.

This all sounds like a long slog.  And it could be if Russia fixes several deficiencies.  Russia has problems with supply dumps needing to be kept far behind the lines due to HIMARs attacks.  This stresses Russian truck supply.  They have a signifiant number of troops in the Kherson oblast which are in danger of being out of supply if the bridges are cut and the ferries sunk.  They have a lack of replacement tanks, as evidenced by needing to put 60 year old T-64s in the field instead of 40 year old T-72s instead of several thousand 30 year old T-80s they are supposed to have.  Their Air Force is mostly defensive.  Guided munition stocks are dwindling and apparently not replaceable.  Their Baltic fleet is vulnerable to anti-ship missiles and the surface fleet is therefor unable to contribute as much.  Resupply in the south comes through 3 main ports and one rail link over the Kerch bridge.  Artillery barrels are apparently low quality and being run through at a quicker rate than expected.  Troops are deserting and recruitment of new soldiers is difficult.

Ukraine only shares the difficulty of little offensive Air Force and no offensive Black Sea capability.  Ukraine’s T-72s are not replaceable in significant numbers at this point but they should eventually get the Leopard or Abrams tanks which will seriously outclass the Russian tanks when they arrive.  But overall, Ukraine is improving while Russia is degrading.

So will we see a collapse?  Well, at some point Ukraine will kick out the final wall holding the rest of the Russian house up.  Russia can only correct for so many deficiencies.  At some point S-300 supplies will get low compromising both the guided missile capability AND anti-air capability.  They can only pull so many troops from one part of the line before a hole forms.  If Ukraine identifies the hole, accomplishes a breakthrough and gets into the Russian backfield, then Russia will have all sort of problems.  Can Russia keep up with recruitment?  They are taking severe losses and are on track for 100,000 dead per year.  Russian artillery supply is way down greatly reducing Russian combat effectiveness.  What happens if there are more shocks to the supply of artillery?  What happens when Kherson falls?  Can Russia cope with numerous Generals being killed?

I’ve been looking for Ukraine to initiate a large bold stroke to knock Russia out.  But that’s my style, not Ukraine’s.  Ukraine is methodically taking out support after support.  They don’t overcommit or go all in.  Instead they poke and prod while eliminating Russian logistics.  Now they’re making Russia move units.  At some point we will see the final straw that breaks the camels back.

Anyone advocating for a long slog needs to explain how Russia will address all the deficiencies listed above.  It’s not about why hasn’t Ukraine won yet.  At some point the critical piece will fall.  Its about which army is getting better and which is getting worse.  Maybe Ukraine will be slow and methodical enough to slowly drive Russia back foot by foot to 2014 borders and we’ll never see a classic collapse.  I’m fine with that if that’s how they want to run it.  But I imagine at some point, Russia’s position will become unsustainable in the south just as it did in the north.  The factors are there.  It’s just a question of how long will it take for it to happen.  Russia could always pull a rabbit out of its hat and make some fundamental changes to the current dynamic, but I don’t see it.  If you do, please let us know, but justify your position with clear reasoning.


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