- Jonathan Bell
- BBC defense correspondent
4 hours ago
Russia’s war in Ukraine has become an increasingly bloody and grinding affair, with each side wanting to exhaust the other. Both claim to have made gains recently. But they also suffer from setbacks.
In general, Russia is still the dominant power and has great military power, but it has not been able to achieve a quick victory as it had planned. Here, we take a closer look at some of the things that could decide the outcome for either side.
gains and losses
In the north, a Ukrainian counterattack succeeded in driving Russian forces out of Kharkiv.
In the south, Russia has eliminated the last pockets of resistance in the port city of Mariupol. Both have been costly in terms of military and civilian casualties, but neither is likely to be decisive.
What happened in Mariupol and Kharkiv highlights the ebb and flow of this conflict. This pattern of costly gains and losses is now being repeated in the east of the country.
Russia is making small but steady progress in the Donbass, an area on which attacks are constantly focused. But it also suffers setbacks, most notably the destruction of dozens of Russian armored vehicles earlier this month as they attempted to cross the Seversky Donets River.
Artillery – an advantage of Russia
In the east, each side exchanged heavy and crushing blows using artillery. This will continue in the Donbass, says Ben Barry, a former brigadier in the British Army now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
It is expected that artillery will be the main cause of casualties on both sides for the coming weeks and months. Western officials highlighted the significant Russian losses, but were less willing to provide estimates of Ukrainian casualties.
Ukraine now receives heavy weapons from the West, including the American M777 howitzers. It also acquired anti-artillery radar systems to help find and target Russian artillery lines. But Russia is still superior.
Russia is using its artillery and rocket launchers to break through Ukrainian forces entrenched along well-prepared defensive lines. Russia was pressing from two main directions, from Izyum in the north and from the west around the city of Severedonetsk. It has made limited progress in both directions.
Brigadier General Barry says that it appears that Russia is “trying to completely drain Ukraine” by forcing it to concentrate its forces at key points, so that Russian artillery can target those forces later. Military analysts believe that Ukraine is likely to have incurred significant losses as a result.
However, Barry adds that Ukraine will still be able to exploit urban areas in Donbass to slow Russia’s progress. Fighting in cities and towns, as it appeared during this war, favored the defender rather than the attacker.
Once again, as in Mariupol, Russia will likely attempt to eliminate the resistance, through the now-familiar pattern of using sweeping artillery strikes until there is little defense left. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has already said that Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region has been “completely destroyed” and described life there as “hell”. It will only get worse.
Russia’s Frankenstein Forces
Although military experts still believe that Russia does not possess the sufficient number of forces needed to make a significant advance in the east, the redeployment of forces from the Kharkiv and Mariupol fronts is unlikely to make much difference in the equation.
Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute says Russia still suffers from a shortage of manpower, particularly in the infantry. Russia has attempted to rebuild and integrate some of its already destroyed units, dubbed “Frankenstein’s Troops”.
But the unit’s cohesion is likely to be weak, and the tired and exhausted units may suffer from low morale.
A recent intelligence assessment by the British Ministry of Defense revealed that Russian leaders are under pressure to deliver quick results, and as a result are likely to redeploy forces without adequate preparation.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense said this threatened “further attrition”. It currently claimed that Russia had already lost about a third of its original force in the invasion, and this estimate includes dead and wounded soldiers as well as equipment that was destroyed or damaged.
Watling says Russia is trying to address this shortfall, including by mobilizing reservists over the age of 40 and offering short-term contracts to those who want to serve in the Russian army. But training and rebuilding the army takes time.
Russia’s vulnerability to Ukrainian attacks on Russian supply lines was also exposed. However, Ukraine’s ability to threaten Russian lines is limited, as the bulk of its forces are confined to defensive positions.
No one believes that this war will end quickly, nor has it reached a dead end yet. Russia is making progress, but very slowly. But the outcome of this war is unlikely to depend on military power alone.
Watling says Russia is also seeking to use economic and political tools to inflict maximum damage on Ukraine. As Russia’s economy takes a hit from Western sanctions, Ukraine’s economy is likely to suffer even more.
Russia’s GDP is expected to shrink by 12 percent over the next year, but Ukraine’s GDP could lose about 50 percent. The Russian blockade of the Black Sea is also causing severe damage.
Watling adds that continued economic support, as well as Western military support, may be crucial. The question: Is public interest in the war waning as it continues, just as it did after 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and Russian-backed separatists seized parts of Donbass for the first time?
Western governments now also have to worry about their countries’ domestic challenges, including rising inflation, gas and oil prices, and a cost-of-living crisis, caused in part by the war.
When winter approaches, it will be difficult for armies to fight. It may also be difficult for the world to weather an economic storm.