The Fifth Month of the War in Ukraine

July 19, 2022

Hi Friends. It has been over a month since the last blog entry, but this was not because I stopped writing — all my posts (multiple per day sometimes) went to Facebook — but because the developments were so incremental, they would not have been of general interest. We have now accumulated enough changes/news to warrant a summary post at the very least.

The second phase of the war ended in early July with Russia conquering practically all of Luhansk Oblast (the territory of the so-called LNR). The main target there was the city of Severodonetsk and its sister Lysychansk. The VSU was not expected to be able to hold the first but to force the RFA to commit major forces to its conquest, to bleed them white, and then withdraw to the more defensible Lysychansk, and then repeat the same. The first part went mostly according to VSU’s plan: the Russians did send major reinforcements for their offensive — which allowed the VSU to make incremental gains in the south toward Kherson — and they suffered significant losses (over 3,000 killed and wounded). The problem was that the massive advantage in artillery of the RFA took a very heavy toll on the VSU, which seems to have suffered roughly 2,500 casualties of their own there. However, the Ukrainians managed to repel all Russian attempts to create an encirclement, and withdrew to Lysychansk in good order.

This is where things went awry for the VSU. The Russians managed to achieve a small breakthrough in the south of the town, which made its envelopment just a matter of time. The VSU’s plan to engage in street fighting (which is very costly for the attacker) also did not work because after their initial attempt to storm the city was repelled, the Russians just focused on creating a cauldron around it. And so, on one hand, the Ukrainian forces had good defenses and would be tough to beat without serious casualties, but on the other hand, they could be cut off from supplies and the possibility of a break-out. The two sides apparently tried to work out a mutually beneficial deal that would allow the VSU to evacuate the town and the RFA to occupy it without a fight. The deal failed when the Russian high command got wind of it and ordered the city stormed and the enemy forces — destroyed. This resulted in additional fighting with no real changes on the ground. The local commanders again made arrangements and this time it worked. How do we know that there was a deal? Well, besides the Russian sources claiming so, the VSU high command confirmed that its forces had evacuated the town without casualties. Now, I have all respect for the Ukrainian military, but nobody evacuates a town that’s nearly encircled without losses if the besieging forces are actively shooting at it.

In the end, the loss of Lysychansk without the grand stand-off, Severodonetsk-style, is a tactical victory for Russia but not a strategic loss to Ukraine — keeping one’s forces intact is very important given the manpower advantage of the enemy. Still, I wonder what will befall the local commanders once the Russian generals get over their anger — after all, the goal in a war of attrition is, well, to destroy the opponent’s forces and the ability to wage war. Letting the VSU out of a nearly fully formed cauldron was a strategic mistake.

After taking Luhansk, the Russians were supposed to enter an operational pause in order to regroup and replenish their forces before continuing the grind for Donetsk (the so-called DNR, of which only about 1/2 has been conquered). Instead, they immediately pressed on to the Slovyansk/Kramatorsk/Bakhmut agglomeration. After some small initial gains, however, their efforts stalled again, this time due to the entry of 9 HIMARS into Ukrainian service. The US-made multiple rocket launch systems had been coveted by the VSU for a while, and it was soon clear why: the Ukrainians destroyed dozens of ammo depots, command centers, and infrastructure points in the rear of the enemy in just a few days. The RFA lost over 1,000 men, including command staff, but — perhaps more importantly — the ability to be profligate with artillery. For the first time in this war, the Russians have to count their shells and rockets (the Ukrainians, on the other hand, have suffered in near perpetual shortage, even completely running out of ammo on several occasions). This has caused a noticeable slowdown in the tempo of operations on the front, which the Russians have tried to offset with more massive missile strikes on civilian and strategic infrastructure across all Ukraine.

The impact of the HIMARS (and more are on their way) is great but cannot solve the strategic problem of the VSU by itself. Yes, the Russians have moved all their depots outside the 80-100km range of the current HIMARS missiles. This doubles the transit time to the front, which halves the loads they can supply (assuming they were already operating at full capacity before). Moreover, if the US supplies Ukraine with the missiles that can range up to 300km, then no RFA depot on Ukrainian soil would be safe. Give the RFA’s weakness in logistics with trucks and its reliance on the railways, this could pose a serious problem for its war effort. The army travels on its stomach and the Russian ways of war in Ukraine (and always, actually) has been quite dependent on massive supplies. If these are interdicted, the VSU would have a significant advantage. Hence, the calls of many specialists for Washington to give Ukraine dozens more HIMARS and the longer-range missiles for them.

The second active front is in the south. The RFA was supposed to launch an offensive to capture Zaporizhzhie, but this is where they took most forces to support the operations in Luhansk, and so this part of the frontline has been static for weeks, with both sides exchanging artillery fire. On the other hand, the VSU has been slowly pressing toward Kherson — not in a general offensive but in local operations creating various bridgeheads that would be used for the main counter-attack, if they launch one. That the VSU must launch a counter-attack goes without saying — one cannot win a war by defending and slowly retreating. They have to start liberating captured territories and pushing the RFA toward the state borders. Since the RFA so far has not managed to mount a major offensive in the north (despite stockpiling weapons and men there), there is a change that the Ukrainians would seize the strategic initiative and attack in the south. They have certainly been piling up forces there, and experts believe that the attack will come in late July/early August. If Ukraine recovers Kherson, it would be a tremendous boost to VSU’s morale (somewhat battered by the slow but relentless losses) and a huge blow to the Russians — Kherson is the only regional center they have conquered so far.

The city of Odesa is safe for now because there is no way for Russia to land forces to take it. The RFA evacuated Snake Island after they finally realized that the VSU could just pound them into dust. They have also moved the fleet from Sevastopol — where the VSU’s newly acquired missiles can reach — to Novorossiysk. This has quieted Transnistria somewhat as well, although the VSU is keeping forces there in case the Russians stir up trouble.

In the north, Belarus continues to be a problem for Ukraine. Putin met with Lukashenko in person, which resulted in a flurry of activity across the border but in the end not much else. Belarus conducted some mobilization exercises, which ended with rotating troops along the border with Ukraine and the firing of the general conducting them. They have also given a lot of their ammo to the Russians (which further shows their supply problems), and it’s unclear just how much appetite for a direct intervention on Putin’s side there is in Minsk. On the other hand, FSB and Wagner mercenaries are in Belarus, reminding Lukashenko that there’s probably a limit on how much he can wiggle before having to do something for real. All of this has caused Kyiv to keep forces along the border to counter any such invasion. Meanwhile, more and more Russian equipment and men are arriving in Belarus as well, creating a threat of a second attack on Kyiv itself.

To summarize, the second phase ended basically as expected, with Russians in control of Luhansk but failing to advance anywhere else. Moreover, this victory has been costly and, frankly, not particularly useful for the war effort. Still, Russia can now claim an entire Oblast (or an “independent republic”), which in turn has allowed the “government” there to start the process on a referendum to join the Russian Federation.

The war of attrition has been grievously costly to both sides. Irretrievable losses (killed, missing, and captured) by early July were:

  • Russia: 38,500 to 44,000, with another 72,000 to 83,000, wounded, of whom 40% are expected to recover and return to service;
  • Ukraine: 28,500 to 30,700, with another 40,000 to 45,000 wounded, of whom over 50% are expected to recover and return to service (the Ukrainians have better medical care, and can “recover” about 20% of heavily wounded solders as well)

The Ukrainians have mobilized about 1 million people, but this includes the army, the national guard, the police, and the security services. In addition, their forces are spread across the active fronts with the RFA but also in the north and the south, to guard against possible incursions there. As a result, the RFA has managed to create local advantages, which has allowed it to make these incremental gains.

Both sides can mobilize more people (the Russians still without an open call — more on that later), but the bottleneck isn’t manpower but supplies. And this is where the Russian advantage on paper has evaporated in practice. It is true that initially, the RFA seems to have been commanded by donkeys — it’s hard to imagine a more ineptly organized invasion that apparently did not have a backup plan. Nearly 2/3 of the Russian losses are from the first several weeks of the war. But those who don’t learn in war don’t last long, and the RFA has markedly improved since (which is when VSU’s losses started to climb). They stopped the suicidal attacks in all directions, they began to rely on their massive artillery advantage more, and they gave up trying to take cities by storm, preferring to bypass them, threaten the defenders with encirclement, and force them to withdraw. Yes, the resulting pace is very slow. Yes, they cannot hope to conquer the rest of the country like that (much to the chagrin of various imperialists). But it could conceivably serve their goal to conquer about half of Ukraine, freeze the conflict, and get the West to force Kyiv to accept the result.

And here’s where things get dicey. Russia wants to project the image of an unstoppable force that can grind its way to victory despite enormous costs, and that is willing to inflict destruction and pain on a massive scale. The idea is to discourage support for the war in the West: the traditional idea that democracies cannot fight long wars because their publics — weakened by consumerism and hedonistic culture — cannot bear even the smallest deprivations. For maximum effect, the Kremlin is trying to threaten Europe with a cold winter (no gas) and high prices (no oil), and has activated all its assets there, destabilizing governments in several countries. Moscow is also trying to terrorize Ukrainians with genocidal tactics. Not all missiles that hit civilian targets intend to do so (the Russians really do have terrible aim and sometimes misleading intelligence), but it’s clear that the people shooting these shells, mortars, rockets, and missiles do not much care if they kill civilians, which indicates at least tacit approval by the superior officers. (And, of course, atrocities on the ground like in Bucha are altogether a different story because they were intentional.)

I do not know why RFA’s command believes that targeting civilians would help Russia. All research on this (from “strategic bombing” of civilians in WW2 through Vietnam and today) shows rather unambiguously that it cannot break morale, at least not to a degree that could influence the government’s war decisions. Infact, it could have quite the opposite effect. There is no sign that the Ukrainians would react any differently than the Londoners did during the Blitz or the Germans during Dresden or the Vietnamese during Rolling Thunder. These sorts of attacks just increase the support for the war effort to defeat the enemy responsible for them.

The strategy to undermine support for the war in the West, on the other hand, has better chances of success, but not because democracies are weak or squeamish (that’s palpable nonsense), and not really because of effective fifth columnists and useful idiots there (of whom there are plenty). The reason is as simple as it is ironic given how Russia views the war: the US interests in Ukraine are, at best, secondary, and so Washington might not be willing to do what is necessary to enable Kyiv to succeed in defeating Russia (more on what that means, below).

Russia is telling everyone that the West (read: the United States) caused the war because it drove NATO expansion until it encircled Russia, it has dominated the world and excluded Russia from its rightful place in world politics, it subverted Ukraine to turn it into a puppet regime, and so on and so forth. Since 1991, the United States has been the reason for every evil that has befallen Russian society, its economy, and failed potential. It was the US that destroyed the Soviet Union, and deprived Russia of territories that rightfully belong to it (Ukraine is just one of them). It’s the US that has been promoting “democracy” but in reality trying to overthrow all sorts of regimes it did not like. And the list goes on.

The problem with all of that is that the United States is only marginally interested in this part of the world. From Washington, Russia looks like a pathetic backwater, a country ruled by a patchwork of clans only interested in personal enrichment, who are willing to sell anything and everything just so that they could buy properties in the West they profess to despise, send their families there, and enjoy a lifestyle that mimics that of rich Westerners. If it hadn’t been for the nukes, the West would have preferred to just forget about Russia. There is absolutely nothing there that anybody needs aside from the resources they are willing to sell anyway.

It’s actually quite sad that this should be so: Russia is, after all, one of the richest (in terms of resources) countries on the planet. It has a well-educated citizenry. There is no reason why it should be puttering along for 30 years only to end up with an economy the size of Belgium’s, as dependent on Western imports as a drug addict on heroin. No reason, that is, apart from its criminal government.

At any rate, as far as the West was concerned, it was getting everything it could have wanted from Russia, at decent prices. For the United States, Russia was not a threat, not a competitor, not even a rival. And if the European Union would get its act together, the US would not even much care about security in Europe either. China was, is, and will be the main focus of US foreign policy, and this remains so despite the war.

And that, in a sense, is the problem. It pains me to write this. As a Bulgarian, I know what it means to live under the Russian heel (the communist one). I understand why Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Poles are so committed to defending Ukraine — I understand it at a visceral level. I also wish that all those “geostrategists” that spend their time gazing at maps, talking about “spheres of influence”, and professing willingness to trade Ukrainian lands for peace would admit publicly that they are just advocating abandoning millions of people to merciless criminal Russian rule. I wish the Western governments cared if there were democracy in Ukraine for more than strategic reasons. But wishing won’t make it so, and thus cold calculations of interest would have to suffice.

What is the US interest in Ukraine? It can be summarized in the negative: not to allow Putin to achieve anything that can be described as a victory. (This suits the Ukrainians, who tend to describe victory as forcing the Russians out of the 1991 borders.) The problem is that nobody knows if Putin would stop if he achieves success in Ukraine. The real problem isn’t that there’s going to be a mighty Russian Empire that we’d have to deal with (the regime could not even make Russia great, let alone an empire populated with resentful subjects), but that the next target might well be a NATO member, and then the US would have the unpalatable choice between keeping the alliance and going to war over, say, Lithuania, or abandoning the entire security framework for Europe, and still risking a war if the Europeans decide otherwise. These are bad choices, and it’s much better if the process that could test the reality of NATO’s Article V were stopped cold in Ukraine.

And that’s it. The extent of our interest in Ukraine. People who think in terms of the confrontation with the USSR would disagree. They would argue that there’s great benefit to pushing Russia out of Europe (by denying it Ukraine). Now that Putin has revealed the blood-thirsty desire to conquer land, this might be so, but it certainly was not so before the war. And even with the war, if Putin’s appetites ended short of gobbling up NATO members, would the USA care? I’d say not — in fact, I would assert (with no way of proving it) that had Putin limited the invasion to Donbas, we would have settled with him by now (with some new sanctions, of course). Before the war, it was a plausible strategy to try prying Russia from China’s embrace (much like we tried prying China from the Soviet embrace back in the 1970s), which also would have been another reason to accommodate Putin a bit.

Of course, it’s also possible that Washington was worried about Putin setting a precedent of declaring a country illegitimate and then invading it to restore it to “rightful ownership,” but I very much doubt that China would care if there is a precedent or not if President Xi decides to take Taiwan by force.

And so, our support for Ukraine is a bit wobbly simply because our interest there is not really of the first order. The irony in that is that the Russians seem to think the US is their arch-enemy, lurking behind every corner, the hidden participant in every dirty deed that hinders Russia in some way.

This is why Putin’s strategy of undermining support for the war in the West has a chance — without a clear vital interest in Ukraine and with such an interest in China, the US needs to keep an eye on its real problem, which limits the amount of help it would be willing to give Kyiv. I think that this is the reason Biden has not spent a single dollar under Lend/Lease, which he signed on May 9th, rather than the funny one they gave yesterday (that if the Ukrainians got support from current sources they would not have to repay it — we can just as easily forgive / postpone Lend/Lease debt).

This is one thing that I would love to have been wrong about. I believe that even a ceasefire now is a terrible idea, and that the VSU have to start a counter-attack soon. Both sides are hurting, but Russia has one huge disadvantage: morale. The Ukrainians know what they are fighting for: their land, their homes, they way of life. If they are not going to war with beating drums and blaring trumpets (although many do), they will fight with grim determination knowing that the stakes are impossibly high.

And what are the Russians fighting for? I am sure some believe the Kremlin propaganda that they are fighting Nazis. I am sure some do not care and are there because they have orders and in the army you execute orders. But most are there for money. They are on contracts, and they are not exactly ready to lay down their lives for some story concocted in Moscow. Part of the bad military performance of the RFA is due to very low morale, which is also the reason the Kremlin is having trouble with its hidden mobilization.

The situation reminds me a bit of the summer of 1941, when the Soviet armies — several times larger than the German ones, with five times more tanks, artillery, and planes, with more modern and better equipment — simply disintegrated under the German onslaught, suffering absolutely unimaginable losses in manpower (mostly to desertion and surrender) and materiel (mostly abandoned). Soviet historiography has obfuscated this astonishing episode with fairy tales about Stalin being duped and unprepared, about Soviet tanks and planes being vastly inferior to their German counterparts, about miraculous feats of accuracy and destruction by the German air force, and stupid Soviet commanders leading their troops into impassable terrain (which, however, was passable to the Germans).

The facts, however, are very different. Then, as now, many things that existed on paper did not exist in practice (e.g., severe lack of trucks and tractors despite no shortages nationwide). Then, as now, there was bad communication between various army groups, divisions, battalions, and so terrible coordination. Then, as now, entire divisions got stranded or maneuvered endlessly without coming into contact with the enemy or being defeated in parts. Then, as now, many soldiers refused to fight despite being primed by propaganda for years. Then, as now, local commanders outright lied to their superiors to conceal bad performance, cowardice, and incompetence. And the result was millions of Soviet soldiers surrendering, untold numbers deserting, thousands of tanks — with the vastly superior to anything German T-34 and KV among them — abandoned with no damage (the Germans had almost no weapons that could destroy them). No wonder Stalin had entire command staffs arrested and shot.

This war isn’t the first one where the Russians started as a bunch of total nincompoops, who then had to heroically recover at great cost. (That’s how they had also fought the with Finland just before that.)

While the Russian supply chain is failing now just as it did back then (this time, because of massive peacetime theft and neglect, as well as draconian wartime sanctions), unlike WW2, the “arsenal of democracy” has entered on the opposing side. And just to remind readers what the US gave the Soviet Union during WW2 to fix its failing supplies:

  • 18,000 warplanes with 1,170,000 tons fuel
  • 13,000 tanks
  • 7,000 APCs
  • 375,000 trucks
  • 50,000 automobiles
  • 35,000 motorcycles
  • 8,000 artillery pieces with 21 million shells
  • 903,000 detonators
  • 603 million bullets
  • 520 ships
  • 2,000 locomotives with 11,000 carriages
  • 620,000 tons railroad tracks
  • 76,000 radio transmitters of various kinds
  • 619,000 telephones and 2 million kilometers of wires
  • 45,000 metal cutting machines
  • tens of thousands of tons of other materials

And more. As Stalin, Zhukov, and Khrushchev all admitted, it’s likely that the Soviet Union would have lost the war without this massive American help. Of course, most Russians are totally unaware of any of this, and imagine that the USSR somehow managed to survive (miraculously?) the totally unexpected assault of the Nazis, and then basically single-handedly defeated them, saving Europe, and the world from fascism. Thing is, without this help (and a series of totally stupid mistakes by Hitler), there would have been no recovery from the disaster of 1941.

With Western aid now going to Ukraine (albeit not in numbers one would like to see), with sanctions strangling the Russian economy, with morale low, and public sentiment in Russia slowly turning against the “special operation” (recent surveys show a 14% drop in support since March and, even more to the point, 80% of Russians unwilling to spend their own money on supporting the troops), there is good reason to believe that the RFA will not be able to stage a heroic return.

The West must stay the course.

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