Russian army makes slow and costly progress on Ukrainian battlefield
Two weeks after Russian forces invaded neighboring Ukraine after months of reinforcement, evidence is mounting that the invasion did not go as planned – and that Russia’s vaunted military may not have gone as planned. be not the formidable force once feared.
“The word I hear from everyone in government watching this is ‘surprising’. My own word is ‘shocking,'” said Barry Pavel, a former senior Pentagon official who is now senior vice “It’s shocking to see how incompetent they are in the bases of joint military operations in an advanced country.”
This does not mean that Russia will not finally take over Kiev and overthrow the Ukrainian government. And that doesn’t mean Ukraine won’t pay a horrendous price in military and civilian casualties, as it continues to do daily.
But the stumbling pace of Russia’s assault since President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into Ukraine late last month – marred by apparent confusion among commanders and viral images of planes and Russian tanks shot down set on fire – reset expectations for how the conflict will unfold.
And that probably increased the ultimate cost – to both Ukraine and Russia – of any eventual Russian victory, especially since Moscow appears to have abandoned plans for a lightning advance, relying instead on bombing besieged cities and the launching of unguided bombs from the sky.
“How many civilians are killed by days and days and days of artillery? Which number leads to a more favorable Russian position? Pavel asked. “I’m really worried about this.”
As the invasion turned into a bloody drudgery in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance, Russian forces continued to slowly advance around several towns, particularly in the south, where several major cities appear in danger of falling in the coming months. days. Only one major city, Kherson, has so far been taken by the Russians.
In the north, progress has been harder to discern.
A long-stranded column of Russian military vehicles north of Kiev moved a little closer to the capital on Thursday, said a senior US defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the question. The main elements of this advance are now about nine miles from the center of Kiev, compared to about 12 miles in previous days, according to the Pentagon.
The official described the column’s movement as “creeping” and said it was “very difficult” to predict how long it would take Russian forces to make a more serious movement. Another advance on Kiev from the east is just under 20 miles from the city center.
As of Thursday, the Russians had launched 775 missiles into Ukraine since the invasion began, the top defense official said. The number continues to climb by a few dozen a day.
But Britain’s Ministry of Defense said on Thursday there had been a “noticeable decrease” in Russian air activity over Ukraine in recent days. During an intelligence briefing, officials said the slowdown was likely due to “the unexpected efficiency and endurance of Ukraine’s air defense forces”.
Officials added that the large Russian column north of Kiev had “made little progress in more than a week and suffered continued casualties”.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told parliament on Wednesday that Russia had almost twice as many battalion battle groups as Ukraine at the start of the war, and that air superiority still tipped the scales. towards an “overwhelming” Russian advantage. But Wallace said nearly all of Moscow’s goals in Ukraine had fallen short.
“President Putin’s arrogant assumption that he would be welcomed as a liberator has rightly crumbled as quickly as the morale of his troops,” Wallace said.
Ukrainian officials have held a series of press conferences in recent days in which captured Russian soldiers said they regretted their role in the war and did not know they would invade Ukraine until the day before it began. of the attack.
Assessing the exact number of Russian combat casualties has been complicated by the fog of war and the difficulty of interpreting a constant series of photos and videos circulating on social media that depict weapons and vehicles seized by the forces. Ukrainians, destroyed or abandoned.
The Ukrainian military posted on Facebook on Wednesday that since the start of the invasion the Russians had lost 12,000 people, 526 vehicles, 335 tanks, 123 artillery systems and 81 helicopters. If these figures are correct, the Russians have lost almost 7% of the 190,000 troops they deployed on the Ukrainian border before the invasion began.
It was not immediately clear whether the troop casualties included both dead and wounded soldiers, as well as those taken as prisoners of war.
On Tuesday, senior US intelligence officials said they estimated that 2,000 to 4,000 Russian troops had been killed, while adding the caveat that they had “low confidence” in those numbers based on the limited information available to them. they dispose.
Even the lowest US estimate would mark an extraordinary loss of life for the Russian military, which was to overwhelm the Ukrainian forces. During the entire 20-year American war in Afghanistan, 2,461 American soldiers died. About 4,500 additional US soldiers were killed in the US war in Iraq from March 2003 to December 2011, according to Department of Defense statistics.
Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at the NAC, a think tank outside Washington, said the US figure is likely closer to the truth than the Ukrainian figure, which he says seems exaggerated. Still, he said, this scale of losses is significant — especially when coupled with the loss of hundreds of vehicles, including about 160 tanks, according to open source reports he reviewed.
“We’ll probably start looking at their strength depletion in the next few weeks,” Kofman said. “They will probably reorganize and restock.”
Resupply is something Russia can still do. After an erratic display by the Russian military during a brief war in the Republic of Georgia in 2008, Putin went on a spending spree. Moscow has spent around $154 billion a year on defense in recent years, according to Russian state media, although analysts warn that corruption and a lack of transparency in the Kremlin make it difficult to assess this figure.
“Yeah, they lost a lot of equipment. But they have a huge amount of equipment to start with, and a lot of the things they lost are actually quite replaceable,” Kofman said, noting that Russia still has the majority of its best jets, all of its pennies. sailors and a variety of other weapons.
The top US defense official said on Thursday that Russia had “more than 90% of its available combat power” still available for use in Ukraine. The official added that the Pentagon saw no sign of Russian reinforcements.
The past two weeks have shown that just because Russia has the tools of war doesn’t mean commanders know how to use them effectively.
Francois Heisbourg, a French political analyst who used to advise President Emmanuel Macron on national security, said Russian advances have been surprisingly limited.
“They only took one regional capital out of the 26 that were free of Russian influence before February 25,” Heisbourg said.
And with combat imminent against Ukrainian troops entrenched in each of the remaining towns, it’s unclear if Russia has the ability — or the will — to pull it off.
“The logistics are terrible. The soldiers are definitely not motivated,” he said. “It’s not what you would call steady progression. There are actually very few occupied lots.
Dominique Trinquand, a retired French general and former head of France’s military mission to the United Nations, said the Russians were mainly gaining ground in southern Ukraine, where there appear to be fewer Ukrainian troops.
The Russians have a strong footprint in this part of the country, including a buildup of tanks, artillery, and protected infantry. “And they are attacking from two sides, from Crimea and from Donbass,” Trinquand said.
He said he expects the Ukrainian city of Mariupol to fall to the Russians within the next four or five days. Other southern Ukrainian cities, including Odessa, are also threatened by Russian advances. “In Odessa they will be able to attack from the sea, from land and from the air,” he said.
Trinquand said Kyiv – where a large-scale evacuation of civilians is underway – will be much trickier. He doesn’t expect Kiev to be bombed the way Aleppo in Syria was destroyed. It is more likely, he said, that Russia will use the military pressure it already exerts on the capital as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Ukraine, “meaning: ‘We captured the south, we are putting pressure on the capital, and now let’s talk about it,” he said.
After a call between Macron and Putin last week, a senior French official said his country’s assessment was that Putin wanted to take control of the whole country.
But Trinquand said he wasn’t sure that was the Russians’ goal.
“They now have about 200,000 troops to occupy a country as big as France,” he said. “They don’t have the forces.”
Nor do they, apparently, have the dominion in heaven that had been widely anticipated.
Malcolm Chalmers, deputy chief executive of RUSI, a London-based think tank, said he was surprised at the “very poor performance” of the Russian air force, which has yet to destroy all air assets and all Ukrainian defenses – so he had thought. would take a few days.
The Russian Air Force, although old, consists of several hundred high-end fixed-wing aircraft that are roughly equivalent to their Western counterparts. But the Russians, he said, “don’t seem to be able to coordinate their use, confuse them and make sure they don’t shoot each other.”
Still, he cautioned against underestimating Russia’s strength. It may not have taken to the skies or advanced rapidly on the ground, but Russia has the firepower to cause immense damage to Ukraine.
“After painting Russians as 10 feet tall compared to Ukrainians, now some people are painting them 2 feet tall,” Chalmers said. “It’s somewhere in between. They are still a formidable opponent.
Adam reported from London and Noack from Paris.