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Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine is now entering its third week and the much-anticipated fall of Kyiv, estimated by various Western officials last month to be likely within the space of about 72 hours, has not yet occurred. Nor has Russia managed to sack any major population center. The one city it “holds,” the provincial capital of Kherson, is restive: Ukrainians turn out daily to protest their armed occupiers, and now fresh reports are trickling in of mass arrests of civilians and anyone thought to have been associated with Ukrainian authorities.
One country in Europe has been bolder in making projections that this war will not end in Putin’s favor: Estonia, for which Russia has historically been the overriding national security and military preoccupation at all levels of government. On Feb. 28, Mikk Marran, the head of Välisluureamet, Estonia’s foreign intelligence service, told New Lines that he didn’t believe Putin could “keep up an intensive war for more than two months” and that ultimately “Russia will not win this war.”
A senior Estonian analyst with years of experience tracking Russia’s military affairs concurs with that assessment but doesn’t even think it’ll take another two months to bear fruit — it already is doing so.
As this source asked to remain anonymous, we will refer to him as “Karl.”
“If Russia does not achieve a remarkable advance by the end of this week, it is difficult to see how [the advance] should come at all,” Karl said late this week.
The Russians, he added, have not made any serious encroachments for the past few days. However, the situation remains delicate. According to national security reporter Jack Detsch, a senior U.S. defense official said March 11 that Russian forces have made “additional advances” toward Kyiv in the past 24 hours and that Russian troops are less than 10 miles northwest of the capital’s city center and 20 miles east in Brovary.
But the Ukrainians have started to go on a mildly successful counteroffensive north of Kyiv. According to their defense ministry, they recaptured the town of Baklanova Muraviika, thus halting Russian efforts to take Chernihiv. Moreover, Russia’s losses in firepower also tell a story of squandered manpower. As of this writing (late on March 11), the popular, open-source intelligence analysis blog Oryx has verified at least 171 pieces of abandoned Russian equipment and 464 pieces of captured equipment, ranging from tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery and even sophisticated air defense systems. All of this materiel was once manned by Russian operators who have either been taken as prisoners of war or simply deserted and wandered into the Ukrainian countryside.
Karl specifically indicated to New Lines the “massive” fatigue of Russian units as a reason for the sluggish pace of their movement.
“A third of the units have been replaced [as of now], but incoming units have even worse quality. Another third has been destroyed, killed or wounded. Re-formation of units doesn’t have a good impact on combat capability.”
Russia has several options, according to Karl, as to how to try to regain the momentum, but none of them sounds very feasible. First, they could announce a mobilization in Russia and call in reserve troops. Here, the problem is a lack of training that the reservists have received.
“The possibility of mobilization was supposed to be last on the agenda of the Federation Council and the Duma last Friday [March 4],” Karl said, referring to both chambers of the Russian Parliament. “But allegedly high-ranking military officers convinced Putin of its negative effects.”
Russia rarely includes reserve units in its large-scale military exercises, where generally only a few thousand reservists participate alongside at least 100,000 troops. “The officers complain about the reservists messing up the exercise,” Karl told New Lines, adding that the military can’t even find suitable uniforms for mobilized units and might have to resort to arming them with light rifles.
On March 11, Putin met his Belarusian counterpart — in reality, his satrap — Alexander Lukashenko in Moscow. The question as to whether Lukashenko will directly intervene in Ukraine is hotly contested. Kyiv has advanced the allegation that Russian aircraft fired into Belarusian territory on March 11 to create a pretext for invasion by blaming the Ukrainians for the attack. The United States, however, has told reporters that it sees no untoward activity on Minsk’s part, suggesting such an invasion is not imminent.
“Belarusian troops’ motivation is even lower than that of the Russians,” Karl said. “And the western Ukrainian — the probable approach line of Belarusian units — nationalist and anti-Russian sentiment would make the terrain very hostile toward them.”
Yet another possibility is Moscow sending Syrian pro-Assad soldiers and militiamen to Ukraine. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced March 11 that as many as 16,000 of these “volunteers” could be fielded for combat duty in Europe.
“The very idea of bringing in Syrian fighters is extra desperate,” Karl said. “It is one thing to fight in the narrow streets of Arab cities. It’s something else in Kyiv or Kharkiv, where the boulevards are 100 meters wide. The cold climate doesn’t suit them, and their morale is low as well.”
If Russia doesn’t achieve remarkable success in the next few days, it would leave the door open for Ukrainian troops to start large-scale counteroffensives. The first aim would be to drive Russia out of the country in the north around Kyiv and Kharkiv.
It would be more difficult to regain territory in the south because the terrain there is mainly steppe, where Ukrainians would “be an open target from air.”
The southern line of Russia’s offensive has split into two axes, with one advancing east toward Mykolaiv, the other north to Kryvyi Rih. “This is a serious risk to Russian forces as the supply lines, which we already know are crap, will be dragged even longer. This leaves the Ukrainians plenty of chances to beat them to pieces.”
Still another problem bedeviling Moscow is its arsenal, which also seems to have been largely the product of Potemkin imagination, according to Karl. “Putin was told he had [something like] 10,000 missiles. In fact, he had 1,000. It’s peculiar that he didn’t remember how he was lying to his own bosses as a young KGB officer. Such lying is common in the culture.”
Karl is not alone among analysts expecting a grinding path for the Russians from here on.
“If you add up even the cautious casualty estimates, the Russians are trending to 10% out of action,” said Eliot Cohen, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and previously a counselor in the U.S. State Department. “That’s usually considered heavy casualties normally, maybe not enough to render you combat-ineffective but close. Particularly if there are disproportionate losses to the front line as opposed to support forces.”
Cohen, too, thinks other indicators speak ill for Putin’s war machine, including abandoned equipment, Ukrainian counterattacks and evidence of lousy Russian communications security. In one stark example, Ukraine’s military defense agency, the GUR, claimed to have intercepted an FSB (the Russian security agency) officer calling in the death of Maj. Gen. Vitaly Gerasimov near Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine, the chief of staff of the 41st Army, using a common cellphone and a Ukrainian SIM card. (Ukraine’s armed forces have also confirmed the killing of another Russian major general, Andriy Kolesnikov, who was commander of the 29th Combined Arms Army.)
“The morale is predominantly on the Ukrainian side,” Cohen added, “and it would appear most of the skill as well.”
Gen. Mark Hertling, the former commanding general of U.S. Army Europe and Africa and the 7th Army, told New Lines that he isn’t surprised the Ukrainians have defended well, having worked with their military leadership for more than five years so they could incorporate into the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
”But their desire to defend their country and their freedom from Russia has contributed to their fighting spirit,” Hertling said. “Having seen Russian army exercises and training events, and observed the poor leadership and corruption of their generals … I knew they weren’t very good. But I didn’t think they would be as bad as they have shown themselves to be.”
Mike Martin, a fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, thinks that another problem is that Russia is attempting to bite off more than it can chew by opening new fronts when it doesn’t have enough troops to fight the ones it currently has while also suffering from very poor logistics. “This, to me, smacks of a breakdown at the political-strategic level where Putin is pushing for quick victory still, which he needs before casualty figures leak out,” Martin said. “His generals can’t tell him no, but ultimately they are compounding their errors by further spreading their combat troops and logistics.”
Earlier on March 11, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, two Russian investigative journalists specializing in the country’s spy agencies, announced the frustration Putin feels against the FSB’s foreign intelligence arm, the Service of Operational Information and International Relations, known more commonly as the Fifth Service. Soldatov said, referring to sources inside the FSB, that Putin had placed the head of the service, Sergey Beseda, and his deputy under house arrest.
The reasons for the arrest, according to Soldatov and Borogan, were “allegations of misusing operational funds earmarked for subversive activities and for providing poor intelligence ahead of Russia’s now-stuttering invasion.”
They named the Fifth Service as responsible for providing Putin with intelligence on political developments in Ukraine on the eve of the invasion: Clearly that intelligence was gravely flawed. “It looks like two weeks into the war, it finally dawned on Putin that he was completely misled,” Soldatov and Borogan wrote. “The department, fearful of his responses, seems to have told Putin what he wanted to hear.”