A Blog by Jonathan Low


Dec 19, 2022

Why Russia's Failure To Keep Captured Territory Doomed Its Ukraine Invasion

Putin's invasion strategy was predicated on a lightning strike by a relatively few troops. It did not include plans for a lengthy occupation for which substantial numbers of soldiers would be required. 

When that approach proved disastrously wrong and Ukrainian resistance - then counter offensives, proved successful - Russia had neither the troops, the supplies or the capability to get more in order to hold what they had taken, leading to Ukraine's ability to recapture much of its territory. JL 

Michael Schwirtz and colleagues report in the New York Times:

Russia managed to take territory, frequently at enormous cost. But how to keep it was an afterthought. Even as tens of thousands of Russian soldiers massed ominously along Ukraine’s borders, the Kremlin had not sent enough to occupy the entire country. The Russian war plans for signaled: Expect no reinforcements. Russia came to rely on battered, inexperienced troops after months of tactics that more closely resembled 1917 than 2022. Generals positioned themselves near communications arrays, making them easy to find. “Our battalion (went) more than three weeks without receiving ammunition from the army.”

His mission seemed clear enough. With his marksman’s rifle, bundle of papers and copies of his Russian passport in his pack, Ruslan was one of thousands of poorly trained, underequipped men asked to defend a huge swath of territory that Russia had seized in northeastern Ukraine.

By summer’s end, Russian leaders had sent their best troops far to the south, leaving skeleton crews behind. So when the Ukrainians swept in and attacked the northeast, hoping to recapture occupied land, soldiers like Ruslan were cut down or melted away in a chaotic retreat.

Military analysts had warned of such a danger before the invasion. Even as tens of thousands of Russian soldiers massed ominously along Ukraine’s borders, they said, the Kremlin had not sent enough to occupy the entire country. The Russian war plans for the 26th Tank Regiment signaled the same problem: Expect no reinforcements.

Russia managed to take territory, frequently at enormous cost. But how to keep it was often an afterthought.

“The army, the generals, the soldiers weren’t ready,” said Mr. Tsaryov, the man American officials identified as a puppet leader the Kremlin could install in Ukraine.

He said the Russian Army had spread itself so thin across Ukraine after invading that it “would move through cities and not leave behind even a garrison, even a small one to stick up a Russian flag and defend it.”

In the northeastern region of Kharkiv, Russian commanders put men like Ruslan at roadblocks and moved on.

He had little else besides the printouts in his pack, which Ukrainian soldiers recovered with what they believe to be his body in September. The rifle next to him suggested he was a sniper. But while snipers in modern militaries often go through weeks of additional special training, Ruslan’s teacher appeared to be the internet.

“Hello dear soldier!” read the unsigned letter in his pack. “You have to risk your life so that we can live peacefully. Thanks to you and your comrades our army remains so strong, mighty and can protect us from any enemy.”

More than 50 pages of Russian documents, collected from three towns in the Kharkiv region and reviewed by The Times, show a timeless truth: Foot soldiers bear the outsize burden of combat.

The documents — shared with three independent military experts, who considered them credible — detail how Russia relied on bedraggled backup forces, many of them separatist fighters from Ukraine’s long conflict in its divided east, to hold territory as the regular Russian Army fought hundreds of miles away.

The 202nd Rifle Regiment of the Luhansk People’s Republic — Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine — was one of them. It had nearly 2,000 men, but was almost completely dependent on foot soldiers.

More than a dozen pages of its rosters detail the particulars of the unit’s suffering, down to a lack of warm clothing and boots.

Several of its soldiers were in their 50s, including one who experienced “cardiac failure,” while one of its youngest casualties, a 20-year-old named Vladimir, endured “frostbite of the lower limbs.” Yet another complained on a phone call intercepted by the Ukrainians that he had no armored vest and a helmet from the 1940s.

“Our battalion, for instance, has already gone more than three weeks without receiving ammunition from the army,” the pro-Russian militia commander, Mr. Khodakovsky, said on Telegram in September.

In an interview, another soldier described having only the vaguest sense of how to use his weapon.

He recounted being advised to fire judiciously, one round at a time, rather than blasting his rifle uncontrollably. But he wasn’t sure how to do that. So, shortly before going into combat, he said, he turned to a commander and asked how to switch his rifle off fully automatic.

Russia came to rely on such battered, inexperienced troops after months of tactics that more closely resembled 1917 than 2022. Commanders sent waves of troops into the range of heavy artillery, eking out a few yards of territory at grievous tolls.

When one Russian unit arrived in eastern Ukraine, it was quickly whittled down to a haggard few, according to one of its soldiers.

During fighting in the spring, he said, his commanders ordered an offensive, promising artillery to support the attack. It never came, he said, and his unit was devastated.

Yet commanders sent them right back into the melee all the same.

“How much time has passed now? Nine months, I think?” he said. “In this whole time, nothing has changed. They have not learned. They have not drawn any conclusions from their mistakes.”

He recounted another battle in which commanders sent soldiers down the same path to the front, over and over. On each trip, he said, bodies fell around him. Finally, after being ordered to go a fifth time, he and his unit refused to go, he said.

In all, he said, his unit lost about 70 percent of its soldiers to death and injury, ruining any faith he had in his commanders.

“Nobody is going to stay alive,” he said. “One way or another, one weapon or another is going to kill you.”

American officials realized early on that they had vastly overestimated Russia’s military. The morale of rank-and-file soldiers was so low, the Americans said, that Russia began moving its generals to the front lines to shore it up.

But the generals made a deadly mistake: They positioned themselves near antennas and communications arrays, making them easy to find, the Americans said.

Ukraine started killing Russian generals, yet the risky Russian visits to the front lines continued. Finally, in late April, the Russian chief of the general staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, made secret plans to go himself.

American officials said they found out, but kept the information from the Ukrainians, worried they would strike. Killing General Gerasimov could sharply escalate the conflict, officials said, and while the Americans were committed to helping Ukraine, they didn’t want to set off a war between the United States and Russia.

The Ukrainians learned of the general’s plans anyway, putting the Americans in a bind. After checking with the White House, senior American officials asked the Ukrainians to call off the attack.

“We told them not to do it,” a senior American official said. “We were like, ‘Hey, that’s too much.’”

The message arrived too late. Ukrainian military officials told the Americans that they had already launched their attack on the general's position.

Dozens of Russians were killed in the strike, officials said. General Gerasimov wasn’t one of them.

Russian military leaders scaled back their visits to the front after that.


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