What have we learned about Ukraine?

About two weeks ago, I wrote a post asking “What is up in Ukraine?” in which I tried to figure out how the war in Ukraine was going to go. It was a purely an intellectual exercise in trying to see how much truth I could gather through the fog of censorship and competing ideological blind spots. It seemed like a good place to try to exercise those skills before they became relevant in some issue closer to home. My tentative bet was that Ukraine had the advantage because Russia was holding the line in Kherson with airborne units that should have been in reserves. My logic was that if Ukraine managed to break through anywhere, it would be really bad for the Russians because they would have nothing to contain the break out with.

Needles to say, a lot has changed since then. The Ukrainians did force a massive break out and the Russians had nothing to stop them with in a timely manner. I can’t claim too much credit as I never would have guessed that Ukraine had the forces to pressure Russia in two locations. I was envisioning a grinding war attrition followed by a collapse of Russian forces in the Kherson region. I envisioned Russia holding Kherson itself due the defensible nature of the large urban area as well as their ability to support it with artillery safely a crossed the river.

So what have we learned and what can we see about the future? Granting all the same caveats in the first post, these are my thoughts on what we have learned that is beyond an honest person’s ability to dispute…..

1. The pro-Ukraine sources are a better guide to reality then the pro-Russian sources. If you listened solely to pro-Ukraine sources, you would have been less surprised by the last two weeks then if you listened to pro-Russia sources. At least, the pro-Russian sources that speak English. Supposedly there were some Russian military bloggers who warned of the possibility of a Ukrainian breakout but they were not talked about in the English pro-Russian sources until they were proved right. In general, I think this has been true for the entire thrust of this war. A lot of pro-Ukrainian sources have been overly optimistic and often put forward feel good stories that turned out not to be true. But the general thrust of events has gone in ways consistent with what the better pro-Ukrainian sources would have you believe.

2. It is now beyond dispute that Russia is very short of qualified infantry. I don’t think even the pro-Russian sources dispute this. Granted, there are some delusional pro-Russian sources who are still going on about how this was all planned to generate forces to enabled Russia to finish taking the Dobass region. But if you are in a position where you have to give up territory to generate enough force to operate elsewhere, you are by definition short on forces.

3. Even most pro-Russian sources now believe that Ukraine still has enough combat power to continue attacks elsewhere while still pressuring the Kherson region. One of the main explanations for the attacks on the electric plants and the dams is to prevent Ukraine from moving forces around. This is not something you are worried about it you don’t think Ukraine has the forces for further attacks.

Those are things that I think are beyond dispute but there are other facts that I think are pretty well supported even if it is possible that an honest person could argue against them.

1. I think in Perun makes a good case in the below video that the 4th Guards Tank Division was present at Izium and that it suffered serious losses in terms of material. Assuming this is true; it means that Russians are greatly constrained in their ability to launch any significant counterattack.

2. It seems from the same video from Perun that Ukraine took the time to retrofit and train new units even while its lines in the Donbas were being pounded by the Russian offensive. This shows that manpower in Ukraine is not in the desperate shape that a lot of pro-Russians sources were (and in some cases still are) claiming. The below is from a different part of the same video above link above (the entire thing is worth watching but like all of Perun’s stuff it is very long.

3. Germany’s recent seizing of Russian’s refineries indicates that they believe they can outlast the pain that Russia can inflict. Given that this seizure did not happen until after Ukraine’s breakout, you have to wonder if those victories convinced the German government that Russia was going to lose. Regardless of the reason, the recent German action indicates to me that EU and American support for Ukraine will stay strong over the course of the winter at least on the political level if the not popular support level. These kinds of actions are not what you would do if you thought you were going to try to get back on Russia’s good side.

4. Ukraine economy is absolutely gutted and it is going to get worse. This is not something pro-Ukraine sites dwell on and it is hard to be sure how much the pro-Russian’s oversell this. We know that in many Ukrainian cities they still have power and light and commerce still goes on. But I think it is fair to say that Ukraine is completely dependent on the west to maintain a functioning society. Russia seems determined to work even harder towards wrecking Ukraine’s civil society so this dependence is going to get worse.

Unlike last time, I don’t have a pro-Ukraine and a pro-Russian view point to contrast. The pro-Ukrainians are elated and have all kinds of speculation about the victories that might come next but they clearly have no clear idea yet because things are still unsettled. The pro-Russians are in the same camp and are basically left to talk about how much their long range missiles are going to destroy Ukraine on a strategic level. So the real question we are faced with in terms of the near term is how much use are the Ukrainians going to get out of their current good fortune?

The obvious risk for Ukraine is that Ukrainians will get to greedy, overstretch, and lose everything. This is the story of Russia’s victories over Napoleon and the Nazis and well as a lesser known victory against the Ottomans. The obvious risk for Russia is that through their own legendary incompetence they lose a war they should have won. This is the story of World War I and their first war against Japan.

As much as it feels wrong to go along with the prevailing narrative, I am going to have to go along with the idea that they are on the same track as World War I and the war against Japan. Last time I hung my hat on the fact that Russia was using paratroopers to hold the line in Kherson. This time I am going to hang my hat on the fact that Russia is recruiting convicts on 6 month contracts.

Take a look at the below video which first appeared in pro-Russian sources as evidence of a good thing!!!

Now, I am willing to entertain the idea that you might get some kind of useful military troops out of convicts if you had harsh enough training and good enough leadership. But the above video is evidence that Russian high command is getting their ideas of effective military strategy from movies. The whole thing sounds and looks like someone who watched too much “Dirty Dozen” as a kid and now gets to play army with real lives.

It is clear that they don’t intend to put much effort into training these guys from the very fact they are claiming that they will only have to serve for 6 months. Granted, the convicts would be fools if they think they will really be let go at the end of six months, but you know they are not even going to get the six months of training and acclimation to army life that the poorly trained US conscripts sent to the Vietnam war typically had. Task and Purpose has more context in the video below….

Task and Purpose goes out of their way to be evenhanded so I think they vastly understate how insane the Russian recruiting has been. They have been recruiting groups outside the normal army structure composed solely of national minorities. The Chechens are the most famous of these groups but there are many others from the various non-Russian (and poorer) populations of Russia. What these groups have in common with convicts is a very low rate of training and being outside the normal Russian military structure but in terms of Russia’s long term future I think forming ethnically based units is even worse then recruiting convicts. Such actions threaten the long term unity of the state.

Even in the one area that Russia is trying to form something like a normal military force with normal military equipment such as the Third Army Corps, they only talk about giving the forces one month of the training. It seems like they will be getting better equipment then ad-hoc forces being recruited from the convicts and minorities, but how much use will they be able to make of that equipment with one months training?

Contrast that with what the Ukraine’s has been doing. We know that in the first panic after the invasion they were handing out guns to anyone who wanted them and sending off people with no training to fight. It made for good TV but how much actual good it did the Ukrainians will have to wait for after the war to find out. What we do know is that after the panic wore off and the situation stabilized, the Ukrainians set out to rebuild and regroup units capable of waging modern warfare. We know this because those are the units we saw wage the counter offensive that recently took place. We also know that Ukraine has tens of thousands of troops being trained in the west. I don’t know what all their various training programs look like, but in the UK the training is going to last for 120 days. That is not a lot by the standards of a modern professional army, but it is 3 times what the Russians are claiming for their own troops.

To understand the shear insanity of the Russian approach, just imagine a 100 Russian convicts armed with rifles and a month of training going up against 10 Ukrainians with 3 months of training and rifles plus modern night vision. What are the Russians going to do at night when those 10 Ukrainians attack? Which side is going to have an easier time feeding and supplying their troops? Which side is going to have an easier time moving their troops in response to an enemy breakthrough? History has shown time and time again that a smaller army with better moral and better equipment can do horrible things to large massive force that is lacking in both of those departments.

There is an old dictum that when it comes to war “amateurs study tactics, professional study logistics.” Having masses of untrained people with rifles can help if you are waging partisan warfare. It can also help if you are trying to hold an urban strong point (such as Kiev or Stalingrad) but only if you have mobile professional units who are coming to the rescue (as the Russians did outside of Stalingrad who hit the German army on the flanks as it was tied up fighting in the city). But right now, it seems that Russia lack the professional fighting power and trying to make up for that by coming up with bodies in anyway that will not bother the average middle class white Russian. However, trying to recreate combat capabilities with a large number of untrained men role playing as the dirty dozen is only going put strain on Russian logistics without any benefit to their war effort.

The bottom line is that I don’t see any evidence that Russian have learned anything from their past disasters in this war. They keep doubling down on what does not work. What they should do is pull their professional troops in the Kherson region behind the Dnieper River. If they did this it would be relativity easy to defend the Dnieper River so they could free up a lot of combat power and enable the Russians to constitute a true reserves. This in turn would enable the Russians to stabilize the situation for long enough to build up properly trained (or at least semi-trained) forces over the winter.

Time should be the on the Russia side. Up until the recent Ukrainian victories, there was growing calls in the EU for Ukraine to start talking to the Russians. The Russian economy may be hurting, but it is doing far better than the Ukrainian economy. All Russia has to do to hold on to most of what they have is to give up a small portion of their territory and sit back and make Ukraine bleed. But they don’t seem to be willing to do that.

For this reason, my effort to peer through the fog of war leads me to believe that Ukraine is going to keep on taking land from the Russians until the rain puts a stop to it. I expect them to take land both near Kherson and elsewhere before the end of the year. I don’t think the land they take will be equal to what they have taken so far, but it will be significant nonetheless. In particular, I still expect the Russians to lose most of their holding on Kherson City side of the Dnieper River if not the city itself.

My main change from last time is that I now think that Ukraine can make significant gains in more than one location. It seems that the Russians are sitting static and waiting for Ukraine to make the moves. It also does not seem that they have a good grounding in reality because their actions so far do not seem to be that of an army that has learned any lessons.

Their tactic of blowing dams could have bought them time to move their troops out of the Kherson region (or take it back the ground they lost if they were silly enough to stay). But they did neither and now they can’t use that trick anymore. They plunged a lot of Ukraine into darkness, but from what I understand the power is back on in most of the areas that went dark. And yet the Pro-Russians sources are trying to spin all this and the recruiting of some convicts as the sign of some kind of accomplishment.

They are also giddy with excitement about the upcoming referendums in the occupied areas because they think that “the gloves will come off” and Russia will mobilize. But if Russia does not smarten up, they will lose so much equipment and so much occupied land that they will be faced with re-invading Ukraine with a more poorly equipped and trained army then the one they started out with.

The scary thing to me is that if this trend of doubling down on failure continues, pretty soon Russia will be using Nukes. They have said they will not do this (at least in Ukraine) but they said that not mobilizing “because they had plenty of troops” as well. If that happens, I can’t even imagine how it will play out at this current time. Maybe I am overacting to what has been coming out from the Pro-Russian side. Maybe they don’t really believe what they are saying. But if they do reflect the prevailing views of the Russian leadership then their own words and video’s show that the Russian leadership is more incompetent and crazy then I would have thought possible.

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