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Military briefing: Russian casualties mask Ukraine’s vulnerabilities

Victory should be quick. Instead, the invasion started badly. The Russians massively underestimated the resistance and soon found that their positions and supply lines were beset by an elusive enemy.

But in the end, after months of grueling warfare, Russia won the 1940 “Winter War” against Finland – a campaign of attrition analysts warned could provide a blueprint for ending the war in Ukraine.

The outcome is far from certain more than three weeks after the start of the Russian campaign, a growing number of Western defense officials have said. While Ukrainian achievements Having halted Russia’s advance, US and UK military chiefs have remained largely silent on Kiev’s military problems.

Given the lack of information about Ukraine’s own attrition rate, this is an important question that must haunt the assessment of the struggle for Ukraine.

Though Russia’s military has fared poorly, its forces are regrouping and there is little evidence that President Vladimir Putin is scaling back his strategic goals.

“The Winter War is a very interesting analogy. The Russians have fared poorly, but they have secured a very favorable peace through their ability to counter escalation and sustain the attrition,” said Sidharth Kaushal, a military analyst at the British think tank Royal United Services Institute.

He added: “We have to remember that Ukrainians face some pretty big challenges.”

As Thierry Burkhard, France’s chief of defense staff, warned in an interview in Le Monde this month, Russian forces could yet “roll over” the Ukrainian resistance.

Kyiv says it has lost 1,300 troops, compared to an estimated 7,000 dead, wounded or imprisoned for Russia. according to US estimates. But Western officials and analysts said Ukrainian losses were likely much higher: most agreed that a corresponding loss rate for Russia, equivalent to about 10 percent of Ukrainian troops, was plausible.

Hundreds of Ukrainian tanks and vehicles were also destroyed, a NATO official said. “I can tell you that Western arms sales to Ukraine are absolutely critical at this time,” he said. “Without them, I think we would be in a very different place, despite the incredible heroism of Ukrainians.”

Current levels of care may also be inadequate.

“Senior [Ukrainian] Officials have told me that shipments of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons have dropped to a trickle and supplies are running out,” said Paul Grod, head of the World Congress of Ukraine, an NGO. “This needs to be addressed as soon as possible – otherwise Ukrainian fighters will only face Russian tanks with machine guns.”

Recent airstrikes have hit the Antonov Aircraft Plant and Artem Arms Factory near Kyiv, as well as an aircraft repair factory near Lviv, suggesting Russia intends to cripple Ukraine’s ammunition production capacity.

Damaged buildings and burning fuel tanks after an attack on Antonov Airport in Hostomel, northwest of Kyiv © Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Tech/AFP

Information dominance of Ukraine has masked its losses: Thousands of open-source images of exploding Russian tanks were taken by Ukrainian civilians, who are unlikely to publish similar images of their own side’s losses. This has created a natural bias in online content, which has come under the scrutiny of many analysts.

Meanwhile, Russian troops’ cellphones have been confiscated from commanders – a lesson learned from the 2014 covert invasion of Crimea intended to give Russia greater control over information. Instead, it left a vacuum that was filled with Ukrainian content.

Moscow is also paralyzed by its domestic need to perpetuate the fiction that the war is a limited “special operation,” meaning it cannot broadcast images of Ukrainian losses on TV that might suggest otherwise.

The Kremlin has nonetheless repeatedly insisted that its operations are going according to plan. “I have seen no evidence that his overall intent has changed,” said a Western defense official.

A destroyed Ukrainian army tank in Gnutovo near Mariupol

A destroyed Ukrainian army tank in Gnutovo near Mariupol © Russian Defense Ministry/AFP/Getty Images

In the south, Russia has had some success. Heavy Ukrainian casualties were sustained as Russian forces overran positions defending the Crimean land bridge. Flat, open terrain also made it easier for Russian battle groups to deploy and advance. At least one brigade of Ukrainian marines – the 36th Marine Infantry Brigade – is trapped defending the besieged city of Mariupol.

There are signs of a regrouping for Russian forces in the east and north – where logistical problems have been most acute because deliveries from camps in Belarus are made via narrow, vulnerable roads rather than rail.

According to a Western military official, this has been aided by the increased use of drones over the past week. Dozens fly over Ukraine and are used to hit targets and providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to Russian combat groups.

There are also no signs that Russia is cutting back its plans despite supply problems.

“They have not decided that they need to move into a defense position, which is the first thing they would do if they were really worried about supplies,” said Kusti Salm, state secretary at the Estonian Defense Ministry. “Until then, the Russian meat grinder will keep grinding.”

Moscow is also striving for this replenish his powers with troops from Russia’s east and foreign fighters. On April 1, the current draft for conscripts ends and they may come under pressure to enroll as regular conscripts, which would allow them to continue serving.

“By mid-April we could see the resumption of large-scale Russian military operations,” said Gustav Gressel, a Russian military analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank. “Of course, Putin needs to think carefully about domestic opinion, but in theory that’s a force of about 100,000 to fall back on.”

Perhaps Ukraine’s greatest tactical weakness is its Joint Forces Operation (JFO), which has the bulk of Ukraine’s military assets stationed west of Donetsk and Luhansk. Russia is trying to encircle the Ukrainian troops, Western officials said, cutting them off from Kyiv and dragging them into open combined-arms combat that will play off the superiority of its battlegroups.

Smashing Ukraine’s armed forces in this way would be as great a victory as capturing Kiev. Some analysts saidciting Carl von Clausewitz, the military theorist who saw the destruction of armies rather than the capture of cities as the fastest route to victory.

Separately, few believe that the struggle in Ukraine will end soon.

“Even under best-case assumptions, this is going to be a war with a lot of downtime,” Rusi’s Kaushal said. “A back and forth that will probably drag on for a long time.”

https://www.ft.com/content/0be1bc1a-6a9e-4ae0-b7d2-1d31018f14ca Military briefing: Russian casualties mask Ukraine’s vulnerabilities

Adam Bradshaw

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