Russia’s Inability to Shift Course May Doom It

Its military can’t adapt to the reality on the ground in Ukraine, including poor logistics and deaths of senior officers

Russia’s Inability to Shift Course May Doom It
A Ukrainian soldier surveys destroyed Russian military vehicles in a forest outside Kharkiv / Sergey Bobok / AFP via Getty Images

While the outcome of the Russia-Ukraine War is nowhere near decided, Russian advances have either ground to a standstill or slowed to a crawl. What was intended to be a lightning-fast offensive to seize Kyiv and several other population centers has been blunted and stymied, leaving operational commanders seemingly perplexed about how to regain initiative.

First, the planned encirclement of Kyiv has failed. In fact, it appears for the time being as though the Russian army has abandoned hope of encircling the Ukrainian capital and severing lines of communication to it. Instead, it has settled for merely occupying terrain within indirect firing range to the northeast and northwest of the city. Second, despite all early assumptions, the Russians still have not achieved air supremacy and not even air superiority in many portions of Ukraine. In addition to the efforts of the tenacious Ukrainian air force, Ukrainian use of man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS, has proved incredibly effective, significantly lowering the average lifespan of Russian SU-34 pilots. And throughout the war, Russian formations seem truly outmatched in tactical prowess. Most of their progress seems to have been achieved through sheer might but with significant casualties.

For several reasons, it would be a mistake to read these initial disastrous Russian operations as a definitive predictor of the war’s result. Wars are the struggle to achieve strategic goals, and a country can lose almost every battle and still defeat its enemy strategically (e.g., the North Vietnamese). History is also flush with examples of initial embarrassments that cause armies to adapt and overcome their initial operational and structural failings to achieve victory. Before D-Day, there was Kasserine Pass. Before Zama, there was Cannae and Lake Trasimene.

But Russia does not seem predisposed to the kinds of changes necessary to seize victory from the jaws of defeat. Unlike the examples above, there does not appear to be an emerging Russian Marshall or Scipio, leaders who could potentially make the required structural or operational changes to the Russian military. In fact, President Vladimir Putin’s paranoia and byzantine structures of patronage and control make it less likely for a radical reformer and innovator to make the necessary modifications to Russian operations. Further, to do so would require a more open admission to the Russian people about the nature of the war in Ukraine. It would be hard to explain a mass mobilization like the ones the United States and Rome had to undertake after their initial failures while telling the Russian people that “all is going according to plan” in a war where official casualty reporting may reflect 10% or less of the actual number of Russians killed. Instead, Putin seems to have favored calling on militias, outside forces and allies like Kadyrovite Chechens, Assadist Syrians and Dagestani recruits. The fact that Putin continues to pressure an indecisive President Alexander Lukashenko for Belarusian troops suggests the Russian president lacks confidence in his own forces’ ability to achieve his goals on their own.

Russia is also losing forces that can’t be easily replicated. In leading the invasion with the most nominally elite forces conducting wildly unsuccessful and costly operations, Russia has paid a disproportionate cost among their VDV (Airborne), GRU (military intelligence) and Spetsnaz (special) forces. These were specially selected Russian forces that, before the conflict, had been the best trained, best equipped and most motivated. This isn’t merely a matter of high losses in these formations, but in some cases — as with reports of the 331st Guards Airborne Regiment — these units have ceased to exist. Units with storied traditions and histories going back to World War II have been wiped out. Even if Russia were to increase its domestic recruitment, these new forces would be, at least initially, less prepared and effective than the forces that have already incurred heavy losses and proved relatively ineffective throughout Ukraine.

Moreover, the Russian mid- and senior-level officer corps is being killed at a rate unseen in modern conflicts. These officers have been trained and educated, have held various lower levels of command to prepare them for higher responsibility and have years or decades of experience. These commanders were leading units that trained with a model of centralized, officer-directed leadership as opposed to the U.S. model of mission command, initiative and tactical execution by a strong and professional corps of noncommissioned officers (sergeants). In many ways, while history remembers the Eiseinhowers, Bradleys and Pattons, U.S. victory in World War II was achieved by sergeants and corporals who understood the mission’s intent and executed accordingly when communications were unreliable, when drop zones or beachheads proved to be incorrect or when commanders were killed. The Russian army cannot rely on the tenacity and adaptability of such junior leaders. They are losing the very leaders who could potentially exercise the decisions required to regain tactical and operational initiative and do not have a culture of quickly adapting to those losses.

On top of all of this, Russia has done little to overcome the much-reported logistical problems that have plagued them. Despite having months over the winter to stage forces and pre-position required stocks, Russia has proved incapable, in many cases, of maintaining a steady flow of fuel, food and ammunition a mere 60 miles from its own borders. Even if Russian combat arms units are capable of extending their progress further into Ukrainian territory, every mile of progress is another mile of vulnerable lines of communication that requires more fuel to move supplies and remains susceptible to attacks from the very capable Ukrainian special operations forces currently hunting Russian vehicles and armor along the country’s roads.

Even if Russia can develop a system to effectively move supplies throughout the Ukrainian theater of operations, it is not entirely clear that Russia has the supplies it needs on hand. The fact that Russia appears to be begging China for prepackaged meals to supply its forces in Ukraine isn’t a good sign for its forecasted quantities of basic items that would be essential to sustain the war. Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces seem to have an incredibly high ratio of anti-tank missiles per soldier and a steady supply of Western aid, both lethal and nonlethal, continuing to flow.

All this is to say the Russians have lost the initiative, and regaining it when battered, demoralized and increasingly frustrated at failed results takes an incredible amount of competence, focus, planning, synchronization and, potentially, national will. As of yet, there have been few to no indicators that the Russian military seems capable of achieving the majority of these goals. It is possible that Russia has a handle on the final component, as purportedly evidenced by a staged pro-war rally and polling by Russian media. But this inflated support (if true) currently exists in an environment in which Russians do not yet know, or willfully reject, the facts about how badly their military is performing. With every prisoner of war the Ukrainians allow to call home, with every 19-year-old conscript who has suddenly stopped writing to their family, with every Russian protest, while still small, there will be a growing understanding of what is happening.

It is also possible Russia will try to regain the initiative by attempting to open either a single or series of new fronts to increase pressure on Ukrainian forces. Russian maritime forces in the Black Sea have been making moves that tease an amphibious landing in the vicinity of Odesa, potentially as an attempt to unify their southern axes. This would extend their current unified efforts from Crimea and Donetsk, which have converged to besiege Mariupol, continuing along the Black Sea coastline and attempting to link with Russian forces in Transnistria. Additionally, if Belarusian forces were to enter the war, this would present a northwestern front for which Ukrainians would have to shift forces to defend, potentially weakening the defense of Kyiv. If one or both of these are attempted, however, these would likely be more Gallipoli than Inchon. Russian inability to synchronize and lead more routine combined arms operations thus far does not augur well for its ability to pull off a forcible amphibious entry. Even if Belarus is persuaded to support its Russian ally, it’s difficult to see how less capable Belarusian forces with lower morale and more open opposition to the war would fare better against the Ukrainians than the Russians already have. Add to this, Lukashenko faces a less secure position at home than Putin and would be unable to absorb the same rate of casualties and subsequent domestic unrest merely to repay a favor to his fellow autocrat.

So the war seems to have arrived at a point where neither military has a decisive advantage to defeat the other outright, but the Ukrainians have a constant flow of supplies coming into the fight and are mobilizing new forces in the form of territorial defense units, expatriate Ukrainians returning home and foreign volunteers (although the numbers of the last two categories are unknown). And for the Ukrainians, not losing is winning. The same cannot be said for the Russians. The Ukrainians are fighting for the existence of their country, and recent polling suggests Ukrainian resolve to fight on has only solidified with more Russian attacks against civilians. The Russians, however, are racing against a clock that will run out when they can no longer supply their forces, mobilize fighting formations, or when the domestic population or security apparatus is no longer willing to support the human and material costs of continuing the war.

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