Can Russia win this war in Ukraine?

As the war in Ukraine enters a new, potentially crucial phase, the big question is whether the Russian military will prove as bad as it did in the first phase of the war.

Control of Donbass — Ukraine’s easternmost region bordering Russia — should be more achievable for Vladimir Putin and his generals than their initial goal of seizing control of the entire country and ousting Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president Kyiv. Many believed that the Russians would achieve this goal in weeks if not days. That was not the case.

Instead, the Russian invasion stalled almost immediately for three reasons: Ukrainian soldiers fought harder and smarter than expected, they had support from Europe and the United States (who provided them with weapons and intelligence), and, perhaps most importantly, from Russia Military proved particularly incompetent for offensive warfare.

As some have pointed out some time ago, this last point is not really surprising. The Russian army – like the Soviet army before it – was never good at managing long supply routes. Hence the many reports of tanks running out of fuel or Russian soldiers running out of food.

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The Russian Army has always had a top-down command structure that prevented junior officers from taking the initiative (leading to disastrous failures when things didn’t go exactly to plan, and the deaths of several Russian generals who had to rush on frontline to regain control of operations). Besides, she didn’t have any never did nothing as complex as this invasion, which required the simultaneous coordination of land, air, and sea operations in the east, west, and south.

As Napoleon Bonaparte said: “In war, three quarters are moral matters; the balance of real forces is only enough for another quarter.” The Ukrainians who fought to save their homeland were stronger than the Russian soldiers who invaded foreign territories, often without knowing what they were fighting for.

In addition, the West provided the Ukrainians with very good material. The light, man-portable anti-tank missiles were very effective against Russian tanks, as were the shoulder-fired Stingers, which brought down several helicopters. The Americans provided the Ukrainian command with information about the location and weaknesses of Russian supply lines almost in real time.

Russia entered the war with a considerable advantage in terms of firepower, but the fighting spirit of the Ukrainians combined with excellent intelligence and the use of weapons ideal for ambush tactics more than made up for this in battle.

The Donbass File

Russian troops have now withdrawn from the Kyiv region and are expected to regroup in the Donbass alongside pro-Russian separatists already fighting there – even as Russia continues to shell Ukrainian towns and villages from afar to continue its campaign of terror against civilians and to force the Ukrainian army to keep at least some troops in place.

The Russians are far from the three-quarters advantage to beat the Ukrainians, to use Napoleon’s quote.

Will Russian officers at least learn from their mistakes and then use new tactics? Are the retreating Russian troops really capable of regrouping coherently? The Russian military command is currently calling on reservists to reinforce the ranks. Can these little or no trained soldiers really be integrated into active units? There is only one answer to these three questions: maybe, but unlikely.

John Pike, director of research firm GlobalSecurity.org, believes the reserves are “too weak or unable to make a difference in Donbass”. He adds that the soldiers coming from the Kyiv region to be transferred to the Donbass are tired and demoralized. All of these weaknesses didn’t bring the Russians anywhere near the three-quarters advantage, to use Napoleon’s quote, that they would need to beat the Ukrainians.

Ukraine will also face a problem in the coming battle. His army also suffered casualties. And the arms and ammunition provided by Europe are slowly running out. Little is known and nothing has leaked out about the speed at which the latest shipments of weapons (tanks, drones, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles… and the rest) are being made, or at what speed they can then be transported towards the US front in the east of the country (between Lviv and Donbass there are more than 1,000 km).

Before the main battles begin, there will no doubt be more battles (with attacks on roads, railroads, and other supply infrastructure) to get into position as quickly as possible.

Fighting in Donbass has been going on for more than eight years since Russian-backed militias declared a separatist war on the Ukrainian authorities and military. A few days before invading Ukraine last February, Putin also recognized the two oblasts (administrative units) of Donbass as independent republics: Donetsk and Luhansk. The reason for his invasion was initially given, the Russian-speaking population of the region before a “Genocide” (more than 14,000 people died in this war and it had started long before the invasion).

And now?

While fighting has raged around Kyiv, Odessa and other parts of Ukraine for the past six weeks, fighting has continued in Donbass – the difference being that Russian soldiers are now openly fighting alongside separatist militias (Putin denied that Russian troops had ever went there to Donbass between 2014 and early this year). Surprisingly, however, the lines barely moved.

Nobody can predict what will happen now. This could turn into a terrible war of attrition.

Before the invasion, the two oblasts of Donbass were, in short, divided in two: the eastern halves were occupied by pro-Russian separatists and the western halves controlled by Ukrainian soldiers. Since then, Russian soldiers have advanced in Donetsk, but the Ukrainians have held their positions in Luhansk. Moreover, while many, if not most, eastern Ukrainians were sympathetic to Russia prior to the invasion, after seeing their homes destroyed and their neighbors killed, many have become hostile to Russia.

Nobody can predict what will happen now. This could turn into a terrible war of attrition. But the longer it goes, the more it will look like defeat for Putin. In fact, by May 9, a date known to all Russians as Victory Day, the Russian President wants to achieve some sort of victory, evoking the day in 1945 Nazi Germany surrendered to Soviet forces in Berlin.

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To have conquered (or, to use his terms “denazified”) Ukraine on that day would be a symbolic triumph for Putin. Today, however, it seems unlikely that he can conquer Donbass, the modest region just on his border, so quickly.

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