The win had to be quick. Instead, the invasion started badly. The Russians grossly underestimated the resistance and were soon attacked behind their positions and supply lines by an elusive adversary.

But finally, after months of protracted warfare, Russia won the 1940 “winter war” against Finland — a campaign of attrition that analysts warned could be a template for how the war in Ukraine ends.

The outcome is far from certain more than three weeks after Russia launched its campaign, a growing number of Western defense officials said. While Ukraine’s successes have brought Russia’s advance to a halt, US and British military leaders have been largely silent about Kiev’s military problems.

It’s a big question that overturns assessments of the battle for Ukraine, given the lack of information on Ukraine’s own course.

In addition, while the Russian military has performed poorly, its forces are regrouping and there is little sign of President Vladimir Putin scaling back his strategic objectives.

“The winter war is a very interesting analogy. The Russians did poorly, but they delivered a very favorable peace through their ability to counter-escalate and sustain war of attrition,” said Sidharth Kaushal, a military analyst at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in the UK.

He added: “We must not forget that there are some quite significant challenges that the Ukrainians face.”

As Thierry Burkhard, France’s chief of defense staff, warned in an interview in Le Monde this month, Russian troops could still “steamroll” the Ukrainian resistance.

Kiev says it has lost 1,300 troops, compared to an estimated 7,000 killed, wounded or captured for Russia, according to US estimates. But Western officials and analysts said Ukrainian losses were likely much higher: Most agreed a similar loss rate for Russia was plausible, equivalent to about 10 percent of Ukrainian troops.

Hundreds of Ukrainian tanks and vehicles have also been destroyed, a NATO official said. “I can tell you that Western arms supplies to Ukraine are absolutely crucial right now,” he said. “Without them, I think we would be in a very different place, despite the incredible heroism of the Ukrainians.”

Even the current supply may be insufficient.

“Senior [Ukrainian] Officials have told me that supplies of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons have fallen to a trickle and that supplies are running low,” said Paul Grod, head of the Ukrainian World Congress, a non-governmental organization. “This must be addressed as soon as possible. – otherwise Ukrainian fighters will confront Russian tanks with only machine guns.”

Recent air strikes have hit the Antonov aircraft factory and the Artem weapons factory near Kiev and an aircraft repair plant near Lviv, signaling that Russia plans to cripple Ukraine’s munitions production capacity.

Damaged buildings and burning fuel storage tanks after an attack on Antonov Airport in Hostomel, northwest of Kiev © Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Tech/AFP

Ukraine’s information dominance has masked its losses: Thousands of open-source photos of exploded Russian armor were taken by Ukrainian citizens, who are unlikely to post comparable photos of their own losses. This has led to a natural bias in online content that many analysts scrutinize.

Russian forces, meanwhile, have had their mobile phones seized by commanders – a lesson from the secret invasion of Crimea in 2014, and intended to give Russia greater control over information. Instead, it left a vacuum that was filled by Ukrainian content.

Moscow is also paralyzed by its domestic need to maintain the fiction that the war is a limited “special operation,” meaning it can’t pump images of Ukrainian losses onto television that might indicate otherwise.

The Kremlin has nevertheless repeatedly maintained that its operations are proceeding according to plan. “I have seen no evidence that general intentions have changed,” said a Western defense official.

A destroyed Ukrainian army tank in Gnutovo near Mariupol A destroyed Ukrainian army tank in Gnutovo near Mariupol © Russian Ministry of Defense/AFP/Getty Images

In the south, Russia has had some success. Heavy Ukrainian losses were suffered when Russian forces captured positions defending the land bridge from Crimea. On flat, open terrain, Russian battle groups could also deploy and advance more easily. At least one brigade of Ukrainian marines – the 36th Naval Infantry Brigade – is stuck defending the besieged city of Mariupol.

For Russian forces in the east and north — where logistical problems have been most acute, as supplies from depots in Belarus come via narrow, fragile roads, not rail — there are signs of regrouping.

This has been helped by the increased use of drones in the past week, according to a Western military official. Dozens fly over Ukraine and become used to hit targets and provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to Russian battlegroups.

Also, there are no signs that Russia is scaling back its plans, despite supply problems.

“They have not stipulated that they should go to a defensive position, which is the first thing they would if they are really concerned about supplies,” said Kusti Salm, permanent secretary of the Estonian Ministry of Defense. “Until that happens, the Russian meat grinder will keep grinding.”

Moscow is also trying to replenish its troops with troops from eastern Russia and foreign fighters. On April 1, the current draft of conscripts will end their service and may come under pressure to sign up as regulars, which would allow for their continued deployment.

“In mid-April, we could see the resumption of large-scale Russian military operations,” said Gustav Gressel, a Russian military analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank. “Of course Putin needs to think carefully about domestic opinion, but in theory this is a 100,000 or so power he can draw on.”

Perhaps Ukraine’s greatest tactical vulnerability is the Joint Forces Operation (JFO), where the bulk of Ukraine’s military assets are deployed just west of Donetsk and Luhansk. Russia is trying to encircle Ukrainian forces, Western officials said, by cutting them off from Kiev and engaging them in open combat with combined weapons, boosting the superiority of its battlegroups.

Smashing Ukraine’s armed forces in such a way would be as much a victory as conquering Kiev, some analysts said, citing Carl von Clausewitz, the military theorist who advocated destroying armies rather than conquering them. of cities as the quickest way to victory.

Anyway, few believe that the battle in Ukraine will soon end.

“Even at the best, this will be a war with many operational pauses,” Rusi’s Kaushal said. “A war of fits and starts that will probably drag on for a long time to come.”


This post Military briefing: Russian losses mask Ukraine’s vulnerabilities was original published at “https://www.ft.com/content/0be1bc1a-6a9e-4ae0-b7d2-1d31018f14ca”

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