Russia begins to gain upper hand, at substantial cost
Fighting in Ukraine has begun to turn in Russia’s favour, with Moscow making strategic gains in the past few months. The probability that Russia will win the war, albeit at substantial cost to itself, is steadily increasing based on Moscow’s advantages in artillery, manpower and increased tactical efficiency. The root cause of the war is NATO expansion to Russia’s border.
The city of Bakhmut, a crucial transport hub has fallen, while a much-publicised de facto NATO offensive against well dug-in Russian forces in Zaporizhzhia oblast has failed to make substantial headway. Furthermore, social media images of burning Western armoured vehicles such as American Bradley infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) and German Leopard tanks during the offensive, will tarnish the reputation of Western arms manufacturers.
NATO’s deployment of airborne surveillance systems in Poland made it very difficult for Russia to achieve operational surprise in its original offensives into Ukraine. The NATO-Russia tussle has demonstrated the critical strategic importance of electronic intelligence gathering in the modern battlefield. While the Russians cannot achieve the ability to surprise NATO without shooting down NATO electronic intelligence aircraft, they have instead turned to a war of attrition. Russia enjoys a marked artillery advantage over NATO forces in Ukraine, sometimes up to 10 to 1. This is inflicting horrendous losses on the Ukrainians. While Ukraine is also inflicting losses on Russia, it cannot match Russia’s population and successive waves of mobilisation attest to its own serious losses.
Russian defences breaking the NATO offensive and then launching a powerful counteroffensive of their own is a real possibility. There is historical precedent for this kind of outcome at the Battle of Kursk in 1943, which saw the Soviet Army absorb a German offensive then launch a massive counter-attack of its own, leading to the destruction of the Germany Army. NATO was unwise to delay the offensive till mid-summer, giving the Russians time to prepare for it. It is difficult for NATO to neutralise Russia’s artillery advantage without an unlikely direct intervention. For all the talk in the Western media of Putin being crazy, his military intervention was the result of years of Russian opposition to NATO expansion. Neutral observers may not agree with the rationale or morality of Russia’s war, but the vast majority of countries did not lose over 20 million people fighting fascism in the Second World War – Russia did.
The Russian aim is clearly not to try and conquer all of Ukraine, but to hold the ethnically Russian parts of it and also to deny Ukraine ports and industry. This also creates a buffer zone against a NATO military presence if successful. Effectively, Putin is trying to turn Ukraine into a liability for NATO, which cannot be easily supplied and is therefore not a threat to Russia. Western Ukraine, with its Catholic and Polish roots, are antagonistic to Russians. In any case, Moscow has not mobilised enough men to take all of Ukraine, only the East and the major port areas.
This is quite costly to the Russians, with estimates of casualties in the tens of thousands. The initial Russian performance was quite underwhelming, and NATO advances in places like Kherson last autumn further dented Russia’s image as a great military force. Support for the war in Russia appears to be solid but not hugely enthusiastic. However, reports suggest the number of Russians volunteering for military service in Ukraine is increasing. If so, the evidence of a NATO proxy war may have started to convince the Russian public that Putin was right to go to war. Domestic political divisions are beginning to emerge over the conduct of the war, as Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed mutiny against the Russian military leadership shows. It is important for Western analysts to understand that any political division in Russia is between right-wingers and hardline ultranationalists who want an even tougher approach to the war. If an ultranationalist were to replace Putin, the outcome may well be the use of nuclear weapons against the West, leading to catastrophic nuclear war.
Warnings over NATO’s long expansion to Russia’s border are not new. Many Western officials privately complained about the policy. In Russia, Gorbachev objected to the idea, as did Yeltsin. Putin ultimately acted. It was the reddest of Russian red lines, and this was ignored by a hubristic establishment in Washington and the UK. The outcome will likely be a devastated Ukraine devoid of significant industry, with Russia controlling key ports and holding a sizeable buffer zone. The human cost on both sides will be tremendous, with increasing political uncertainty in Moscow.
There are several questions that only time can answer. Will the West, struggling with economic challenges agree to rebuild Ukraine? What will be the political impact on Putin of Russia’s initial military underperformance and mounting losses? Most importantly, the West especially the US is also grappling with the rise of China. While Russia and China have aligned against the West, it is clear that Moscow also has apprehensions about China’s ascent. Russian investments in India and arms sales to China’s neighbours demonstrates an effort to keep Beijing away from the long Siberian border. This keeps the door slightly ajar for a more conciliatory tone from the West towards Russia in future. Nonetheless, NATO and Russia face years of hard fighting and negotiations ahead.