Now it wails like a wildest beast, now it lies like a petulant child

How Russia wants to occupy Donbas and why the authorities will continue to disregard military losses (but will still cover them up). Military expert explains

Now it wails like a wildest beast, now it lies like a petulant child

April 19 marked the official start of the new phase of the war in Ukraine, dubbed by the media as “the battle for Donbas”. Failing to take control of major Ukrainian cities, Russia concentrated its armed forces across the Eastern Ukrainian front. It appears that the main goal of the Russian army is now to occupy the entire territory of Donetsk and Luhansk — though the Russian military leadership is less certain of their success as they were on February 24, the first day of the war. The Russian army’s fighting spirit is, evidently, a cause for concern, while the Ukrainian army is ready to fight as long as it takes, especially since they have many more allies than the Russian Ministry of Defense would have hoped for. So how is this war organized, how will it end and why do the Russian authorities have a moral carte-blanche to send more and more new soldiers — supplies of which are nevertheless dwindling — to their death? Military expert Yuri Fedorov answers these questions for “Novaya Gazeta. Europe”.

Troops for a “decisive battle for Donbas” have been slapped together like mishmash

— We are having this conversation at a time when the “fight for Donbas” in Eastern Ukraine has begun. Am I correct to say that this direction is Russia's priority right now?

— Yes, definitely. The intensity of military operations at the battlefront, especially that of arllery raids, has increased dramatically. The Southern flank of the Russian army that is pressing forward in Zaporizhia Oblast is now moving towards Huliaipole. Russia is leading the offense in Donbas on three directions: from Izium region to the South, from Melitopol region to the northern part of Zaporizhia, and at the battlelines in Luhansk, around Rubizhne, Severodonetsk and Lisichansk, where the Russian army is currently trying to break through the Armed Forces of Ukraine’s defenses. I’m not going to add anything new if I repeat the idea that in order to strengthen his position during talks of a possible peace agreement, Putin needs to achieve any military successes by May 9 (May 9 is the Victory Day in Russia, celebrated with a large military parade on the Red Square in Moscow, translator’s note) — though what is he going to call “victory” is a whole other question.

— Will the Russian army have enough strength to launch an offense in three directions at once?

— That’s a key question. In general, we can say this: Russia has enough military supplies and equipment, including what was in possession of regular military units prior to the start of the war. If we believe the information from the Armed Forces of Ukraine’s headquarters, approximately 25-30% of armored vehicles from those units were seized or destroyed.

That said, the main problem is the lack of trained skilled military personnel — first and foremost, the common soldiers, sergeants and junior officers.

I’m going to try to demonstrate it with numbers.

There are two types of military forces engaged in combat — the ground forces and the air forces. Both of them play important roles. It’s impossible to win the war with bombs alone, you need to make territorial gains, occupy cities, take control of communications — and you can only do that from the ground.

When the war began, the Russian ground forces included approximately 320 thousand people, the air forces — close to 43 thousand. These estimates come from the reputable International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, but similar numbers were also mentioned in Russian sources as well. At the start of the war in Ukraine, approximately 190-200 thousand people were stationed close to the border — or approximately two thirds of the Russian ground forces. The capacity to draw additional reserves to compensate for military losses in Ukraine from the remaining third is very limited. The Russian Ministry of Defense headquarters can’t afford to lay bare the Western Military District and the armed forces that remain stationed there are needed to confront NATO. Many units of the Central Military District are already fighting in Ukraine and those that remain need to be able to react to possible threats from Central Asia. Considering the proximity of Afghanistan, anything could happen there.

And additional reserves of human power are needed. According to the information from Ukraine, approximately 20 thousand Russian soldiers were killed (reliability of these numbers is a topic for another discussion, but they seem plausible). We should also consider those soldiers who were wounded and unable to fight. Data shows that for each person who was killed, there are two of three wounded. In other words, by most conservative estimates, Russian losses constitute approximately 60 thousand people. That’s a considerably high number.

How do you replenish those? A portion of the troops has been and continues to be moved from the Far East: it’s possible to do that safely because the war with China isn’t in the cards. But a significant number of military troops that were transferred are understaffed. Some units are being moved from the Western Military District. For example, there is information that the military division number 106 was transferred to Donbas from Tula. In addition, units that have already fought and suffered some losses in Kiyv and Chernihiv’s districts are being directed there as well.

As a result, troops for a “decisive battle for Donbas” have been slapped together into a mishmash of units that need to be prepared for combat, and a cohesive, effective system of command has to be created — which is difficult to do from the organizational point of view. It’s very difficult to say how much Russia has succeeded — we will see that during the fighting.

— And what is the mood among senior military officers? There are a lot of reports of heroic deaths of colonels and even generals.

— Talking about “heroic”, we need to choose our words carefully. At this time, seven generals were killed — and those weren’t just some people wearing general’s epaulets. With one exception, those were people who either led the troops or were commanders’ deputies — meaning that those people belonged to the highest military ranks. Instead of commanding the forces from Rostov or Voronezh as they ought to have, they had to go to the frontlines, to lead the troops into the fight. The reason was that the mid- and junior-ranked commanders were often either unable to do that or did not want to lead the army on the ground. When, like during World War II, the commander is leading people into combat swearing and throwing fists — that is evidence of an extremely low quality of military commandment. As soon as they were within the eyesight of the Ukrainian intelligence, their fates were set.

— It is strange that the propaganda doesn't present these deaths to revoke Commissar Klochkov (heroic Soviet military figure who allegedly led a group of soldiers to stop the German attack on Moscow in 1941, translator’s note), who led his soldiers in fight during the Great Patriotic War.

Evidently, Russian military headquarters have enough sense to not demotivate senior officers as well. Officers understand everything very clearly: if the commander ends up at the frontlines — things are going badly.

Photo: National Police of Ukraine

Photo: National Police of Ukraine

— Even considering that the Russian army in Donbas is a “mishmash” of troops, the amount of human resources concentrated there is astounding. And it is very difficult to imagine that Russia will limit itself to Donbas (if it manages to occupy it). Those who side with “the party of war”, Ramzan Kadyrov, for instance, say that Russia will restart its offense of Kyiv. Is that possible?

— Kadyrov can say whatever he wants. Certainly, his words at least partially reflect the mood in the leadership circles but I wouldn’t call him an authority-carrying member of the “party of war” — there are more influential politicians by Russian standards such as Volodin or Medvedev. But Kadyrov is not the problem. Let’s take a look at numbers again. According to Ukrainian intelligence, 87 Russian battalions and tactical groups of approximately 800 people each are currently present on Ukrainian territory. So that’s approximately 70 thousand people directly participating in combat. Approximately the same number of people are in support troops — logistics supply, radio communications, intelligence, et cetera. If Kadrylov says that those forces will start an offensive on Kyiv or Kharkiv, he doesn’t understand anything about military strategy. Storming a city that is ready for a siege is one of the most difficult, hardest and deadliest military operations. To put that into perspective, when Berlin was stormed in April 1945, it was defended by 100 thousand German soldiers. Soviet forces consisted of approximately 460 thousand people and had close to 12 thousand artillery machines — a whole lot of tanks. The storming lasted two weeks, during which time the Soviet army lost 70 thousand people, approximately 20% of troops. That’s a lot. There were 2.5-3 million people living in Berlin in the Spring of 1945, so about the same as there are in Kyiv right now.

In other words, storming Kyiv, Kharkiv or any other city where every large building (not the panel-type housing but massive Stalinist structures) becomes a key defense point is an extremely difficult undertaking. 

The siege of Mariupol has been going on for almost a month, even though the majority of western observers predicted that it would surrender in just a few days. Overall, you can imagine how the situation in Donbas will develop. The Russians won’t surround the Ukrainian forces with an uninterrupted line of trenches or anything like that. There is no point in doing that. Russia would probably try to establish control over communications and over Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, the key transportation hubs. If that control is established, the surrounded Ukrainian troops will be cut off from receiving supplies, and it would be extremely difficult to deliver them around the blocked roads. But storming the cities, as we’ve already discussed, requires a lot of time and is fraught with extraordinary losses on the offensive side. It’s also necessary to consider slush and rain. Artillery can’t move across the agricultural fields in conditions like these, as Ukrainian soil is mostly soft. That means that the troops will move in columns on hard-surfaced roads. And columns of artillery, trucks and fuel tanks are very vulnerable to air and artillery strikes.

At the same time, we hear from trustworthy experts in Ukraine that Ukrainian forces started active fighting. There are reports that several towns and villages North of Izium have been liberated. That means that a portion of the Russian military forces in that region could be under threat of being surrounded. In other words, it is impossible to predict how the fight for Donbas will end.

The strikes hit the first and the last car, and then the rest are shot

— Zelensky says that Ukraine is ready to fight Russia for ten years. What does he mean by that? Is Ukraine technologically equipped to sustain fighting for that long?

— Of course not! Neither Ukraine nor Russia are ready to fight for 10 years in the way they have been over the past two months. The active phase of war cannot go on for long, because the personnel are losing their combat effectiveness, and the weapons reserves are getting depleted. In Russia, replenishment is possible only in the event of mobilization — but in this case, one must admit that the "special operation" has failed, and say that this is a real war, and a very difficult war, but that is impossible. In addition, mobilization cannot be complete: putting 2-3 million people under arms will simply create military chaos. It is necessary to call on reserve servicemen, with already acquired military specialties and skills that can simply be “refreshed” over a few weeks, and then throw these people into battle. The only problem is that these are people who are 23 to 30 years old, and many already have families and plans of their own — and those plans clearly have nothing to do with war. It is one thing to see the war on TV, and quite another to participate in that hell in real life.

Vladimir Zelensky. Photo: social media

Vladimir Zelensky. Photo: social media

As to the state of the military forces of Ukraine, it is pretty difficult to comment on. One can estimate that their state is not as bad as the Russian propaganda makes it seem. The mobilization potential of Ukraine is approximately one million highly motivated people. The weapons are being supplied. It’s possible to restore the number of military service people if need be. The problem is that Ukraine is in dire need of heavy weaponry, especially artillery — it’s impossible to win the war without it. Russia has more of that weaponry, but it’s flowing into Ukraine as well: I’m talking about tanks, artillery, the most modern man-portable air-defense systems that can shoot down Russian planes at high altitudes, up to 3-4 kilometers. But again, it’s not enough, there are no supplies of fighter jets, far-ranging anti-ballistic missile systemы and other weaponry. But still the active phase of war cannot last for longer than a few months. After that, if the peace agreement is not reached, it will transform into a low-intensity conflict.

— How do military losses compare on both sides? Not the absolute numbers, at least as a ratio comparison. Is it 1:1, 2:1...?

— The numbers that are being reported from both sides need an additional analysis. Usually the losses on the defending side — in this case, Ukraine, are 2-2.5 times less than on the offensive side. In addition, one can confidently say that Russia suffered half of its losses during the first 2 weeks of war. If we believe the Ukrainian estimates, those losses could reach 1000 people a day — horrifying losses.

— Does that mean that Russia started an offense expecting a blitzkrieg and wasn’t ready to confront strong defense?

— Exactly. It’s important to remember that this war is fought along the transport communication lines. Meaning that during the first two weeks of war, military columns stretched over 6-12 kilometers were moving without lateral cover, without intelligence. In those settings, Ukrainian forces were destroying them left and right. Ukraine had several sets of Javelin missiles, and columns were destroyed very easily. The missile targets the first and the last car, and then those stuck in between were shot from other available weapons. That’s a classic scheme that was used in Afghanistan (in Soviet times) and then in Chechnya. The first colossal losses happened because of that. Then the Russian military started to fight ‘by the book’ and losses went down.

— You have repeatedly mentioned the intelligence from the Ukrainian Armed Forces headquarters. Are the Russian Military headquarters also trustworthy?

— We should refer to the numbers once again. For example, one year prior to the war, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Ukraine was in possession of 63 attack helicopters. But, according to Russian Defense Ministry’s data, there were 149 of those helicopters, 105 of which were destroyed by April 17. The situation with fighter jets is the exact same: the IISS quotes 125 fighter jets and the Russian Ministry of Defense cites 143 planes destroyed.

Now, the Russian army says that 95% of Ukrainian tanks and armored vehicles and 66% of artillery machinery has been destroyed. But an army without armored vehicles can’t fight: it has to dissolve. That’s why I am skeptical and wary of these estimates from the Russian Defense Ministry.

Several days ago, the Russian Ministry of Defense said that the Ukrainian army lost 23367 people. But how is it possible to count the opponent’s losses with such accuracy?

During war any methods of counting losses are approximate. The Ukrainian side says that the Russian armed forces lost more than 20 thousand people in combat, so about 10%, which is reasonable. And the attempt to count losses down to one person looks extremely improbable. It looks like a desire to impress an audience.

— How long do you think Russia can hide its own losses?

— Russian society is very tolerant of losses. Besides, the enlisted soldiers often are recruited from the provinces. Some district center receives a message that two, three or even ten people were killed, and the locals just shake their heads: “Well, it’s war”. When numbers are presented like that, those losses get diluted and don’t make a strong impression. If one thousand people from a single center died at once — that would’ve been impactful and would have affected the locals’ perception of war. But because that is not the case, it’s possible to cover up losses for a pretty long time.

Sure, we lost a warship — whatever

— It feels like Russia is avoiding working with data about losses. Even when there is talk about losses of some military machinery, a story about a fire is made up, or about sinkage during towing, like with the warship Moskva, anything but the rocket strikes. I think that’s something psychological.

— There are several important moments here. Speaking of losing the warship, Russian military leaders think about how to report it to higher ranked officials first, and about how to save people second. If you incorrectly report about what happened to the higher-ups, you can lose your military insignia. And if you say that the culprit was fire of an unknown origin (which is impossible to prove since the warship sunk) then the responsibility falls on industrial enterprises that conducted the repairs on this warship two years ago. Thus arises the chance to report to the president: How did the fire start? Well, when the warship was being serviced, something was installed incorrectly. Now the guilt is not on the captain but on the lead engineer.

Secondly, to military sailors the loss of Moskva is a hard psychological blow, but to avoid damaging the public opinion, there is an attempt to underplay the significance of what has happened. Sure, we lost a warship — whatever.

Warship Moskva. Photo: Russian Ministry of Defense

Warship Moskva. Photo: Russian Ministry of Defense

— Will the loss of Moskva affect Russia’s strategy on the Black Sea?

— The loss of Moskva disorganized the operations of the Black Sea fleet, since Moskva housed a major strategy group that controlled all other ships. Besides, the warship had a powerful anti-aircraft missile systems which created an umbrella of sorts over all other ships in the fleet across the North Western part of the Black Sea and the entire region where they could be relatively confident that they would not be targeted from the air.

— Was it the only “umbrella” in the Black Sea?

— Basically, yes. Moskva was equipped with a nautical version of the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system, which provided that protection.

— Is the destruction of the warship first and foremost a military success of Ukraine or a result of Russia’s negligence?

It’s both. In theory, a warship as big as Moskva has a reliable protection against missiles — and that system didn’t work because the radars installed on Moskva didn’t detect those missiles. Why? That’s the big question. There is a theory that the radar’s antenna was damaged by a Bayraktar TB2 combat drone. Perhaps that was the case but it’s going to take a long time to find out for sure.

— That made me think that while the Ukrainian forces seem heroic, the Russian forces seem unorganized. Is that a false impression?

— No, it is pretty reasonable. I have to say that the majority of Russian successes in this war happened during the first two weeks of offense, along with colossal losses at the same time. After that, the war became positional, with more localized missions such as taking control over specific intersections. But it’s important to note that during the first couple of weeks the offensive side always experiences a sort of “high”, and even Ukrainian soldiers admitted seeing that in their opponents. And then the chaos started — the privates realized that something was wrong.

The war losses are enormous and the conditions are very difficult. And then the fighting spirit dwindles and psychological issues begin.

There will be punishment, but it will most likely be delayed

— Is it justified to say that after the airstrikes over Russian territories started, the war officially moved over to Russian lands?

— I wouldn’t say so. There are no official reports of that, and moreover the patriotic Telegram channels are critiquing the leadership of the border-adjacent territories and saying that they aren’t ready to protect their citizens and don't understand the tenseness of the situation. The leadership tries to be careful with statements on that topic. If you remember, a massive air strike destroyed an oil depot in Belgorod. At first, the Russian Ministry of Defense reported that the plant was hit by Ukrainian helicopters, but then they realized that to reach the plant, those helicopters flew almost 80 kilometers over the territory controlled by Russian forces and back with no consequences. High-ranked generals could have lost their military insignia for that. So they tried to minimize what happened and say that a more detailed investigation should determine what really happened.

— How would these particularly significant mishaps affect Shoigu (Russian Minister of Defense, translator's note)?

— Generally speaking, when all this ends, Putin will need scapegoats. Of course, the positions of some generals — including the minister of defense and the leader of the military headquarters — are already shaky. Everyone can see that they are not very qualified to lead the war. I think that is obvious to Putin as well. But I think Putin will be afraid to jail or remove from office several dozens of high-ranked military officials now or immediately after the war ends — it can lead to a military revolt. There will be punishment, but it will most likely be delayed.

— Is it obvious to Putin that the lowest-ranking soldiers are behaving terribly in Ukraine? I’m talking about raping of civilians, lootings and killings.

— You need to be a psychiatrist to start untangling what Putin thinks. The answer that he gave to the Chancellor of Austria is that all reports are fake and that photos have been staged. I think that Putin is not ready to accept the truth. Besides, people are afraid to report to him what really happened and what continues to happen, and try to convince him that it’s all because of the conniving West, the British intelligence and Ukraine. Psychologically, Putin likes those versions better than accepting the truth, which, even for him, would’ve been shocking.

— What do generals think? They are much closer to everything that is going on, so they must be psychologically uncomfortable.

— I don’t know, I’m not sure about that. What happened is Bucha fits the pattern of the Russian army’s usual behavior. Similar things happened in Afghanistan, though maybe not to the same extent. If you read the memoirs of the Afghan war veterans, some scenes depicted there are absolutely horrible. And remember what happened is Eastern Prussia in 1944 and in Germany in 1945! Up to 2 million German women were raped and many were murdered!

— Can this behavior be attributed to Russian soldiers specifically or is it a general disease of war, when people become angrier and commit actions that are unthinkable during peaceful times?

— That was widespread in antiquity. But in developed countries, with the exception of the Soviet army, after World War II the violence against civilians is not tolerated, especially now. The rules of war are changing and even though war crimes still happen there are fewer of them.

— Did this war show whose weaponry is more powerful, Western or Russian?

— Russia is mostly using Soviet-era weapons in Ukraine. “Kalibr” cruise missile was developed in Soviet times. “Iskander'' is a modernized “Oka” missile which was destroyed after the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed, but recreated in the 1990s.

As to the western weaponry — Javelins, the latest generation Stingers, British anti-air defense complex Starstreak are more modern, high-tech weapons superior to what the Russian army has.

— So the only advantage of Russian weapons is that there is simply more of them?

— Yes, exactly.

— Will the active phase of war end by May 9?

— I can’t answer that question. We have to consider that Ukraine is not ready for territorial concessions. Because of that, Ukraine is ready to continue the active phase of war either until the territories that were occupied after February 24 will be liberated or until Kyiv will be forced to admit that a portion of the country’s territories will be under Russian occupation for a period of time.

What would Putin offer to the Russian society as an image of victory is another question. At a minimum it will require reaching the administrative borders of Donetsk and Luhanks People’s Republics and Ukraine’s agreement not to join NATO. You can sell that to the public and elites as a big success. But I’m not sure that in the next 2-3 weeks Russia will be able to reach those borders. So it’s not improbable that the war will continue beyond May 9.

— On February 24, when the war started, the main emotion that people felt was horror after realizing that it really happened, even though many didn’t believe this scenario until the last minute. Now, two months later, is this horror here to stay or is the public getting used to it?

— In the morning on February 24 I wrote that I have two feelings — shame and hatred. These feelings are still here and are even getting stronger.

As told to Vyacheslav Polovinko, exclusively for “Novaya Gazeta. Europe”

Translated by Anastasia Gorelova

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