Russian military culminates into new ‘phase’ in Ukraine
By Bill Connor
One of many pitfalls of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the world’s reassessment of the Russian military and the resulting loss of prestige. Though the Russian economy is only around an eighth that of the United States, Russia had poured an excessive 4.3 percent of its GDP into defense spending. This totaled more than $60 billion and put Russia at the highest defense spending (by GDP) among the world’s major industrial powers. In comparison, Germany spends only 1.4 percent and China spends only 1.7 percent. Additionally, the Russian military was seemingly experienced, as it had deployed operationally during the last two decades in various locations outside Russia, like Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, the Donbas and Syria.
However, Russian performance in Ukraine has drastically underperformed what most intelligence assessments of Russian conventional military capability had assumed. Despite the fog of war, the facts on the ground show that Russia led the invasion with their most capable forces and equipment but still failed. That, and a Russian shift in war aims shows a likely culmination of Russian forces. It remains to be seen whether this means stalemate or nearing the end. Let me explain.
First, early Russian failures included most of the battlefield operating systems, particularly logistics and maneuver. Putin had made clear that the invasion of Ukraine, or “special operations” as he called it, was for the complete seizure of the country to install a puppet government when he said, “For this we will strive for the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.” To the Ukrainian military, Putin said: “I urge you to immediately lay down your weapons and go home. All servicemen of the Ukrainian army who fulfil this demand will be able to freely leave the combat zone.” Putin’s invasion came on multiple fronts and included a massing of forces to seize the capital, Kyiv. However, this invasion quickly sputtered out on multiple fronts, in particular the advance from Belarus to Kyiv. Many Russian armored vehicles ran out of fuel, got stuck in the mud or were destroyed by Ukrainian infantry and drones. The only seeming successes were near Crimea and Donbas, where the Russian logistical lines were quite short, but those are now involving primarily killing of civilians.
A culmination comes when a military force has “spent” itself in resources and casualties to the point it cannot continue its mission. Some have theorized that Russia deployed less capable forces early in the invasion and has held back its main effort and so has not culminated, but that claim makes little sense from what we know. To achieve success in any offensive operation, surprise and speed in maneuver are the critical components. The attacking force needs to move combat power quickly to the decisive point before the enemy can develop defenses to stop the advance. Success is predicated upon speed with the most capable combat power possible. In other words, you need your best troops leading off any invasion for success, and that is what we have seen. More than 800 Russian vehicles were destroyed in the first few weeks of the invasion (versus around a quarter of that number of Ukrainian vehicles). The destroyed Russian tanks and infantry carriers in Ukraine are the latest (best) model of vehicle compared to their percentage in the overall Russian inventory. The units involved are top Russian units with a lower number of conscripts than most units. This is what we would have expected.
By the known data, the numerically smaller Ukrainian “David” has been demolishing the behemoth Russian “Goliath” since the start of the invasion. To take a prime example: As Russia has lost a conservatively estimated 274 tanks, the Ukrainians have actually gained in number of tanks due to capture of Russian tanks. According to Forbes: “Ukraine has lost at least 74 tanks … but Ukraine has captured at least 117 Russian tanks.” Despite the early 40-mile convoy of vehicles backed up outside Kyiv, Ukrainians are now on the offensive against Russia and have retaken ground both east and west of Kyiv. As I write this, approximately 10,000 Russian soldiers sent to complete the encirclement of Kyiv are now likely encircled by Ukrainians. Because of these reverses, Russian troops around Kyiv are digging defensive positions.
Also due to the reverses, Russia has had to “reframe” its stated aims. According to Sergei Rudskoi, head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Operational Directorate: “The combat potential of the Armed Forces of Ukraine has been considerably reduced, which ... makes it possible to focus our core efforts on achieving the main goal, the liberation of Donbas.” “Demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine is now “liberation of Donbas.” This shows an operational culmination of the originally stated aims involving all Ukraine.
Based on Russia’s history in Chechnya and Aleppo, a danger is that this “special operation” could continue past a Russian offensive, with Russia pounding civilians with artillery in frustration. However, different from those prior operations the international sanctions will cause great pain to Russia. That and the continued depletion of the best of the Russian military may make the difference in leading Putin to leave now.
Proverbs 29:6 tells us: “The evil fall into their own traps.” It appears Putin has culminated in his invasion of Ukraine and may have fallen into the trap he set. Let’s pray wisdom prevails with his next decision.
Bill Connor is a 1990 Citadel graduate, 30-year Army infantry colonel (ret.) and combat veteran. He is a writer and attorney and lives in the Charleston area.