As I was drafting this article, British politics went through an extraordinary period of turmoil, and Boris Johnson’s government started to collapse. The dust still hasn’t settled. I will not attempt to comment on developments just yet, though. The war in Ukraine grinds on, and this article is as relevant as ever.
BBC reporting on Ukraine is a faithful representation of the zeitgeist in journalistic circles. It reflects mood swings and momentum rather than a sober reflection of the facts. That mood has recently swung to pessimism (on Ukraine’s behalf) as Russia has completed its conquest of the Luhansk oblast. Is this a fair assessment of the facts?
Beyond the mainstream media reporting, I have found two sources particularly useful to try and get an understanding of what is happening. The first is The Economist (which manages to be both mainstream and fringe at the same time), and especially the weekly summaries in its print edition. The paper tries to get behind the headlines a bit – though it can repeat some silly tropes put about by military experts. One was that the fighting in the Donbas would start to resemble battles fought over the same area in the Second World War, with the use of mass tank formations across open country in particular (this one was repeated by a BBC correspondent). That was always going to be nonsense: the scale of the conflict is dramatically smaller, and modern technology has transformed warfare – not just in weapons, but in logistics. Instead we have seen battles with incremental gains based around towns and highways – with artillery playing a dominant role. Another trope was the repetition of the idea that “in theory” an attacker should have a 3:1 numerical superiority over the defender to succeed. Repetition of this idea (which dates back the General Montgomery in WW2) is sure sign of somebody talking well beyond their expertise. The odds needed by an attacker are completely dependent on context: sometimes 3:1 is not nearly enough, at others 1:3 is perfectly adequate. Still there is a lot of value in The Economist‘s reporting. This week it has a very good assessment of the two sides – concluding that it is too early to tell who is winning, and it will take a long time to tell.
My second source are the daily bulletins from the American think tank the Institute for the Study of War. This body is by no means impartial – littering its references to Russian activity with such adjectives as “illegal”. It has been quite dependent on briefings from the Ukrainian military – and it tends to talk up the idea of “false flag” attacks by the Russians. Its daily reports are a bit formulaic as well. But it tries to give a sober assessment of what is happening. It has improved its coverage significantly by reporting on what it calls Russian “milbloggers” – Russians with military connections reporting on their own assessments of what is going on. These are often very critical of the Russian leadership, while supporting the “Special Military Operation” overall. These sources are often the first to report Russian successes – and they help give the ISW reporting better balance.
So what do I glean from all this? Russian tactics have switched to something that plays much better to their strengths – with the use of heavy artillery bombardments and incremental territorial advances, trying to surround and then reduce Ukrainian strongpoints, tempting the enemy to reinforce a “cauldron” of partially surrounded troops into a killing field. This approach accounts for their recent success in Luhansk. But how successful have they actually been? Some suggest (including from the Russian side) that Ukraine has been playing a cleverer game here – forcing the Russian side to expend copious resources for marginal gains, and then retreating before it is too late. Well, maybe – but Ukrainian casualties have been heavy too. Most people expect the Russian military efforts to pause while they rebuild their forces after suffering heavy losses. Building new cauldrons will be harder as they push into Donetsk.
A second point to make, which you won’t hear on on the mainstream reporting, is that there has been significant action outside Donbas. In particular Ukraine has made some successful counterattacks in the south. It is very hard to know what is actually going on here. The Economist has an online article on this (which I haven’t read – you can get too obsessive…I wait for the weekly printed edition). The ISW reports are patchy. It seems that the Ukrainian military don’t particularly want to draw attention to it, and Russia’s milbloggers aren’t very interested.
Looking deeper, there two aspects on the battlefield that will prove critical. First is logistics. The Russians are burning through an enormous amount of materiel. This is clearly limiting when it comes to the more advanced equipment – precision munitions in particular – but they seem to have deep stocks of less advanced equipment, and plentiful supplies of of low-tech ammunition. I have speculated that China might be helping them with this. On the other hand the Ukrainians have used up most of their Warsaw Pact era supplies, and are now dependent on supplies from their Western allies. And here they are being supplied faster than the materiel is being manufactured. This means that the Ukrainians cannot copy Russian tactics of mass bombardment. They need to use the more sophisticated capabilities of this weaponry to their best effect. To listen to some Ukrainian officials appealing for more firepower, focusing on the disparity of quantity, is not reassuring. But The Economist suggests that Ukrainians do understand this dynamic and are not trying to match the Russians for volume of fire.
The second critical aspect is morale. Here it is the Russians who have the disadvantage. The quality of Russian troops and training was always exaggerated by Western experts (and their own, it seems) – but heavy casualties have made things worse, as well as a neglect for the welfare of frontline soldiers that goes back centuries in Russian military tradition. This could come to matter a lot if Russians are put on the defensive. Strong physical defences are all very well, but defence requires grit. If Ukraine can find tactics that exploit this weakness, while not burning up too much ammunition, they may be able to see the initiative, especially away from Donbas.
A further aspect to think about is support for the war both within Russia and amongst Ukraine’s Western allies. At first sight things seem to be going Russia’s way here. The Russian economy is apparently holding up well, and the government’s has a strong grip on the narrative. Support for the war remains widespread and dissent rare. The most conspicuous sign of Russian economic success is a trade surplus, and a Rouble that has recovered from its earlier troubles. And yet this is not the success it seems. Clearly Russia is having success at exporting raw materials. But a surplus (and even a high Rouble) is a sign that it is struggling to import it needs. Sanctions are clearly hurting. And the Russian regime is worried enough about the Russian public not to declare a proper war, which would unlock mobilisation. This is something that puzzles the milbloggers.
On the Western side, Russia’s stranglehold on natural gas looks scary, and high petrol prices are causing widespread hardship. Problems with a liquid natural gas terminal in Texas, amongst other mishaps, mean that plans to substitute for Russian gas are behind. Western leaders are staring at a bleak winter. Pro-Putin populists in some countries are recovering their poise. It is no wonder that the thoughts of some leaders remains on how to bring the war to an end. Russians, Chinese, jihadi terrorists and others sneer at the ability of Western democracies to withstand pain – but this is always a mistake. It helps that many of the panful adjustments required are this that are needed to combat climate change.
What next? We may soon be moving into a new phase of the conflict. Ukraine is likely to move onto the attack. But in order to turn the tide properly they will have to cause something of a panic amongst the Russian troops. That is possible. But come the winter exhaustion will set in – and thoughts will turn to a ceasefire. Before then the Ukrainians are not ready to contemplate such a thing, while advanced Western weapons flood in. Neither will Russia, who doubtless think that logistics are on their side, and that Western patience will not last. A grim summer awaits.