Ukraine Trends and Thoughts

This is a post gathering together various things I’ve been pondering recently.

To start with the most recent, I just watched the very long Perun YouTube video where he covered recent events in Ukraine.

It’s almost an hour and a half long but it is well worth listening to. A couple of things jumped out at me from it. First the Ukrainians are incredibly good at OPSEC and so if multiple sources announce they are planning to invade Crimea then you should assume that a Crimean invasion will be, in part, a feint for something else. However you have to also meet the threat posed because if you don’t they will in fact invade Crimea. Relatedly the Ukrainians have been incredibly tight lipped about exactly how many troops they have lost, where they have lost them and so on. It seems likely to me that they have been killing, wounding and capturing far more Russian troops (including PMCs, Dombass conscripts etc.) than they have themselves lost but while I’m prepared to say their own losses are likely to be of the order of 10,000, my error bars on that number are such that it could be half that or double it. However, the reasons I am confident that Ukraine will prevail derives from a number of things in that video. Specifically the fact that Ukraine’s military commanders are good at both logistics and strategy, as well as keeping secrets, and they have a unified, trained and highly motivated, force under them. Contrast this to the Russians where many of the combatants are poorly trained, poorly led and poorly supplied. Moreover this ISW report notes that Putin seems to be throwing irregular Russian forces of various origins into the war with little or no overall coordination. The quality of these irregulars is also limited and seems, as Perun notes, designed to ensure the majority of them fail because they lack the experienced technicians and mechanics that are required to operate modern communications equipment and repair/maintain modern tanks etc. To that end the loss of all those T-80s and even a T-90 in Izium is no great loss to Russia because they probably can’t get the troops to use them properly if they still had them. Of course those losses are almost certainly literally irreplaceable since Russia’s weapons makers probably can’t make new tanks…

To me it looks like the Russian forces are assuming that their artillery will let them win on the battlefield and that the only thing they need other than guns, rockets and missiles is a large number of disposable infantry to act as forward observers for the guns, provide a screen to protect them and to probe places that the artillery just shelled to see if the defenders are still active. There are a couple of problems with this. First, as Kharkiv just showed, if attackers get past the screen they can take out the guns and then keep moving without much fear of retaliation. [This is also where the Russian Air Force was obviously lacking. Not only were they unable to do the reconnaissance to spot the attackers massing, they also failed to bomb them as they attacked. Perun points out that there’s no good excuse for this as Russia has at least two airfields (Kursk and Stary Oskol) that ought to be able to support lots of combat operations against forces in Kharkiv Oblast] Second, as Kherson seems to be proving, this artillery heavy doctrine is very very dependent on regular resupply of munitions. If (when) the guns run out of ammo, there’s no plan B to stop attackers.

Something else that jumps out of all this is that everyone’s estimate of the capabilities of Russia’s armed forces seem have been massively overstated and that bluff is now going to be called – see Armenia/Azerbaijan etc. The soldiers that ran and left all their tanks behind in Izium were supposed to be one of Russia’s top regiments – admittedly they may be the replacements from when that regiment retreated from Kyiv, but that’s not a good sign of the depth of Russia’s trained and motivated manpower. I suspect that Russian backed regimes nearby are going to be collapsed in fairly short order by whatever forces oppose them. That’s not to say that all Russian forces are corrupt shells, some probably aren’t, but it is the way to bet. I suspect we’re going to see someone test this to the point where we discover how well Russia’s nuclear ICBMs have been maintained and I suspect that the answer to that test is that maybe 10% of them work as intended. Unfortunately when you have several thousand of them, even 10% is a lot and the modes of failure of the other 90% may be unpleasant to both Russia and whatever nation it is trying to target (along with neighbors, nations in the flight path, neighbors downwind and so on).

Talking of mistakes in estimation I also read this excellent article in the Speccie (archive) talking about how Ukraine failed to collapse in February as most people predicted and how it has fought back ever since. In the latter this section about drones seemed particularly interesting:

The data demonstrates that the realities of the war diverged considerably from the public narrative. To take an example, many have speculated that Russian electronic warfare systems – comprising interference with electronic systems – have been ineffective. Just look at the proliferation of uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) throughout the conflict: surely Russian electronic warfare and air defences could have neutralised these technologies. Yet UAVs have proven their usefulness. The Ukrainian military would agree that the overview of the battlefield they offer is vital.

However, the operational data reveals that 90 per cent of Ukrainian UAVs flown before July were lost, mainly to electronic warfare. The average life expectancy of a quadcopter was three flights. The average life expectancy of a fixed wing UAV was six flights. Surviving a flight does not mean a successful mission; electronic warfare can disrupt command links, navigation and sensors, which can cause the UAV to fail to fix a target. Contrary to the narrative, Russian EW has been successful on the battlefield. Instead, what has proved decisive is the sheer number of drones that Ukraine has been able to deploy. The most useful UAVs, according to the data, are cheap fixed wing models. This is not because they are difficult to defeat but because they are inefficient to target, flying too high for short-range air defences while being too inexpensive to engage with medium or long-range systems.

This harks back to one of the points I made in my drone post some months ago, that drones need to be cheap enough and in high enough availability that you can expect them to be lost one way or another. It is possible that Russia’s recent deployment of Iranian drones may be another example of the same thing, and may also showing the threat of a swarm of drones. I find it somewhat amusing (yet also in a way depressing) that so many of the things I wrote in that drone post either have already occurred or there are strong signs that they are about to. It is very very clear to me that every army that wishes to survive is going to have to come up with a cost-effective widely deployable drone defense system – see follow on posts in that twitter thread above – and, as the speccie article notes, a drone deployment doctrine that assumes they are mostly disposable.

By the way it occurs to me that Taiwan would get the biggest bang for its defense budget by concentrating on UAVs of all sorts and then dispersing some of them in small concealed stockpiles all around the island. It also occurs to me that the F-35 carriers of the Royal Navy and Japanese MSDF would be ideal forward drone deployment platforms and that a drone carrier would be a lot more useful than an F-35 carrier given the apparently unimpressive range and combat load of the F-35 (note I’m not an F-35 expert, nor do I play one on the Internet, I’m just basing this off the many criticisms of the F-35 I’ve seen). Drones would also be ideal as anti-piracy defenses for oil tankers and other ships with a flat enough bit of deck to allow for recovery.

Moving back to Ukraine. In the Grauniad (yes I know…) Andrew Roth has a couple of excellent articles about Belgorod’s new fears of Ukraine (archive) and the former Kharkiv collaborators who are now refugees in Belgorod (archive). One thing that jumped out at me from the second one is that Ukraine is going to have to think about how to handle different grades of “collaborators”. Many will not have been enthusiastic, rather they will have been trying to survive and make the best of the situation. Others may have simply believed that Russia was not going to go away and been (not unreasonably) afraid that failure to work with/for the Russian authorities would result in torture and/or death.

From the first one, there is additional confirmation of the utter corruption/incompetence of the Russian military and the occupation forces. For example, the article notes that Russian soldiers are buying their own winter gear to the surprise of Belgorod residents who expected that such items would be issued to soldiers and that Vovchansk, a key rail town on the Russian border, lost its electricity supply and never had it restored during the entire time the Russians occupied the place. If the Ukrainians can restore services in the liberated territories quickly and show some level of basic competence and lack of corruption then they will cement the loyalty of Russophone Ukrainians everywhere in the East by showing the difference between the two governments. If countries like Germany, that seem unwilling to contribute much in the way of military hardware, wanted to help Ukraine without getting cooties from nasty scary bang bangs then one concrete way they could help would be in the reconstruction of the occupied bits. Getting the power running, food and gadgets in super-markets and all that sort of thing is something that Germany, thanks to its experience in rebuilding East Germany after reunification, has institutional knowledge that no one else does.

Talking of Germany and (lack of) support for Ukraine, this Bloomberg article (archive) makes me wonder to what extent even Ukraine’s cheerleaders in the West actually want it to win. Various twitterati (such as Trent Telenko, but he’s far from alone) have suggested that the industrial leaders of Germany and perhaps France would prefer it if Ukraine’s industrial capacity remained broken because it threatens their own enterprises. The Germans/Europeans may not want Ukraine to win because they may fear a resurgent Ukrainian engineering  and manufacturing industry that can compete with German/European industry at a technical level while being extremely competitive on price. The Bloomberg article points out that the US might not want Ukraine to actually win because a win might lead to instability in Russia and tactical nukes etc.

Putting this together cynically makes me think that what a lot of people may have wanted is for a Ukraine to keep Russia occupied while not actually winning. A European version of Afghanistan if you like. I can certainly see a lot of the “Realpolitik” sorts in various foreign ministries, state departments and so on not wanting to face the likely geopolitical upsets that a Ukrainian victory will probably produce. There is some justification for this. After all the collapses of totalitarian regimes in other places (Iraq, Syria, Libya to pick three) have led to mostly failed states (see also Somalia and Afghanistan come to think of it) and a failed state with nukes is not a thing to make anyone happy. But…. it isn’t clear to me that the alternatives are any better.

Keeping Putin or a corruptocrat leader similar to him at the top is only asking for a repeat of the current mess. “Short, victorious wars” are tempting to leaders of all sorts of stripes and a Russia that is forced to give up most or all of its Ukrainian territories is likely to try and flex its muscles somewhere else just to prove that it isn’t a paper bear. So that’s not good. I don’t think anyone expects Russia to suddenly evolve into a real democracy with respect for the law, lack of corruption etc. etc. so we’re stuck with dictatorial power of one sort or another. A corruptocrat is at least unlikely to make Russia an effective military power so the mischief he can cause is limited – particularly if one assumes that Europe learns its lesson and finds other sources of energy. On the other hand a strongman who manages to stamp out the worst corruption would be a bigger threat because Russia is resource rich and thus, if competently managed, could finance a powerful well-equipped military that uses war-fighting technology designed and manufactured in Russia. No one doubts that Russians cannot design good weapons, what we have seen in Ukraine is that corruption and lack of proper QA has meant that the weapons deployed have not been anything like as good or numerous as they should have been given the amount of money spent on them. Likewise the military has not been trained to use them, instead of actual practice, many of the training exercises turn out to have been scripted fakes that look good but don’t teach the soldiers or airmen how to actually fight.

So letting Russia get some kind of face-saving deal doesn’t seem like a real bargain. Plus, given what we are learning about Russia’s mistreatment of Ukrainian civilians, it seems unlikely that Ukraine would accept such a deal except to take a breather while it arms up more and then invades.

Therefore I think the politicians, bureaucrats and business-people who want a managed, face-saving peace deal are misguided and, almost certainly SOL. What they will discover, however, is that Ukraine will remember who they are and take their sliminess in mind when looking at a post-war future.

On the other hand, it is worth thinking what Ukraine will find acceptable and how likely it is to achieve those goals.

From what the President has said I expect the basic demand for Ukraine will be it having its pre-2014 borders (i.e. Ukraine regains both Donbas and Crimea) and having all the various PoWs, children and other Ukrainian residents that Russia has taken from those places returned. It will also, undoubtedly, want ways to guarantee that Russia doesn’t try this again and it will undoubtedly ask for (though possibly just as a negotiation tactic) reparations for the damage caused.

At the moment I can’t see Russia standing for anything like that, but presuming Ukraine continues to be successful on the battlefield, Russia is not going to be able to contest them short of a nuke (and see above about how successful that may be). As I wrote in my previous post, I expect Ukraine to actually invade Russia, and to justify that based on a need to stop Russia from bombarding Ukrainian infrastructure, and perhaps as a negotiating ploy to get the return of it kidnapped citizens. I fully expect that invasion to be completely successful in military terms because Russia won’t have enough available troops capable of stopping them and I strongly expect the seismic shock of having Russian cities such as Kursk, Voronezh or (later) Rostov on Don at the mercy of a Ukrainian army to lead to regime change in Moscow and probably civil war and the collapse of Moscow’s authority over many of the provinces.

It seems to me that people like the Germans might want to plan for this and bear in mind that Ukraine is likely to take control of critical sections of Russia’s gas pipelines to Europe at the same time. Plus, if Russia collapses, then Belarus will likely fall into Ukraine’s orbit as may parts of Russia near the Baltic states – though those parts may be controlled by said states and/or Poland. Not that this will make a huge difference as Poland and the Baltics are strong allies of Ukraine because they know they are likely to be next if Russia wins in Ukraine. The Germans might also want to consider that in a year or so Ukraine is going to have the largest and most experienced army in Europe. It’s going to be an army that is experienced at using (and fixing) equipment from anywhere of any vintage and, apart perhaps from the Azerbaijanis and/or Armenians, it is going to be the only military that has actual combat experience both using drones and defending against them. That’s going to make Ukraine a regional king-maker in the next few years.

At the moment Ukraine is grateful to the EU, US and UK for their assistance but it is also quite clear that some nations (e.g. Poland) have been far more generous and helpful than others (e.g. Germany) and once Ukraine has established security in its own territory it is likely to bear those levels of assistance in mind.


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Francis Turner

Francis Turner has blogged intermittently at various places as "The Shadow of the Olive Tree" or "L'Ombre d'Olivier" for most of the last two decades. As an expat Englishman, he has lived and worked in numerous countries before finally (perhaps) coming to settle down in rural Western Japan.

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