Russia in New Approach to War but the Clock Is Ticking

Finally fighting a more strategic war against supply lines just as US signals its material transfer is only just starting

The Russians have started hitting oil storage facilities in Ukraine and its refineries to complement their naval blockade.

Assuming that Russia has also stopped pumping oil into the Russia-Ukraine pipelines this could serve to over time create a fuel crunch as it leaves Ukraine dependent on imports by rail. (If that is indeed the intention and not merely to create flashy visuals.)

Mind you, so far diesel remains available even for civilians, but there is some rationing as well as shortage for agriculture in the south.

The Russian campaign against rail is perhaps more promising, particularly in the immediate. The Russians have hit several railway marshaling yards in cities directly behind Donbass through which Ukrainian reinforcements and supplies are transported.

Through the fog of war, it is difficult to say what effect that may have had. Did it cut the rail completely, or merely created a headache for a day or two until the damaged cars were cleared?

One question that certainly arises is why did Russia wait until 40 days into the war to comprehensively target these links?

Ideally, the Russians want to capture rail intact because of how reliant they are on it themselves. But if you’re not going to capture it quickly then denying it to the enemy sounds somewhat important.

Also, it’s not as if rail is impossible to repair especially when we are talking about Russia which has nearly 30,000 Railway Troops that do nothing but run and rebuild railroads.

Another question might be why has Russia failed to target railway bridges across the Dnieper? There are only around half a dozen railway crossings across the great river. (Admittedly two of these are across dams that aren’t easily disrupted.) With these gone or disrupted Ukraine would be sliced in two for rail purposes.

Is it simply optics, or does the Russian military still harbor the hope it might capture them whole? That’s quite unlikely, and even if it does that won’t be any time soon.

Russian forces that were withdrawn from the Kiev theater continue to arrive to the southeast but so far there is no mega offensive just the continuation of the previous Izyum push with the forces that were already there. This could be a sign that Russians intend to amass the new arrivals and throw them in all at once — rather than piecemeal — which is theoretically exactly how you want to conduct an ambitious offensive. Ideally, you would also give the transferred forces a little bit of rest and ample resupply.

That said, there are other circumstances that dictate urgency and speed. Every week gives the Ukrainians more time to train and raise the cohesion of new and reserve units, and the US is escalating arms shipments. The first $800 million package has been delivered and another $300 million package is on the way. That will still leave another $2.4 billion to be supplied of the $3.5 billion Congress allocated for arms transfers in March. Doubtlessly when that has been distributed, if Ukraine is still standing, even more will be voted in.

For comparison, Ukraine spent about $900 million on military procurement annually before the war. Now it will receive nearly 4X as much from the US alone, and another €1.5 billion from the EU.

The US has so far supplied 50 million rounds of ammunition, 45 thousand armored vests, and 5 thousand rifles, as well as 12 thousand anti-tank missiles. Not game-changing but already significant and this is just the beginning.

The Senate has actually voted in a bill that would allow Biden to funnel arms to Ukraine as Lend-Lease, without having to seek special authorization from legislators. (Lend-Lease pretends to be a sale with deferred payment rather than a giveaway so falls under less Congressional scrutiny.) They’re even talking about ramping up Javelin and Stinger production capacity just to serve as Ukraine’s military-industrial complex.

“The Ukrainians are running out of 152mm ammunition. Where are they going to get it?” asked Chris Donnelly, an adviser to four former NATO secretaries-general on the Soviet and Russian military. “No one in the west uses it or makes it apart from the Serbs — and they’re on Russia’s side.”

Meanwhile, information has been placed that Ukrainians are running out of 152mm artillery ammo that in Europe only the Serbs are still manufacturing. How I read that is that the public is being prepared for eventual transfers of big-item hardware of Western make to Ukraine, starting with 155mm artillery for which ammo exists in Western storage aplenty.

Let’s say 60 days from now, if the war is still going on and the Ukrainians are still giving a good account of themselves I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see them start getting Western artillery pieces. (At which point the question of whether the Ukrainians still have railway junctions and bridges will become even more acute.) Operating a howitzer isn’t far different from operating any piece of heavy and precise machinery. Like a lathe operator switching to a new lathe, a person who is already an artilleryman can retrain to a new tube inside a week.

Incidentally, drone-guided artillery has been the premier killer in this war and that goes for both sides. Armed drones are getting outsized publicity, but are present only in low numbers on either side (48 TB2 for Ukraine now gone, 32 Inokhodets for Russia) don’t come close in big-picture impact. In fact, this dominance of artillery (and the relatively low number of men involved overall) has made it into a kind of contactless war where there isn’t a traditional frontline with the two sides staring at each other from static positions half a kilometer apart. Instead, much of the fighting is resolved at long range, with advances or defensive lines broken up from tens of kilometers away.

This is just as what was anticipated, but what wasn’t necessarily predicted is that Ukrainian artillery would still be in the fight. The Russians are in a position to fire from more tubes and for longer (before relocation to avoid a counter-barrage), but the Ukrainian artillery continues to exact a deadly toll as well. Likely part of that is due to US intelligence support, namely US satellite imagery and analysis. If you have the coordinates of an enemy camp (eg via the Americans) you only need to know your own coordinates and you can fire at the enemy relatively precisely using a simple range card. (Though having a drone for adjustments due to atmospheric conditions is even better.)

In this drone-artillery war, the Russians also have the advantage in that they can employ camera drones with near impunity since the Ukrainians have few surviving air defense systems with radar units. (Ukrainians are dependent on visual detection.) There is a caveat, however. At the low attitudes these small drones fly they can’t be detected by radar from very far, so in practice the Russian anti-drone coverage is patchy.

It’s an unusual war in that, thanks to US involvement, the weaker side has certain hardware advantages. Firstly the Ukrainians probably have access to somewhat better satellite imagery. Secondly, they have better night vision devices for the elite infantry. Not necessarily more devices, but more advanced — 3rd generation instead of 2nd. Thirdly they are absolutely saturated with anti-tank missiles (over 15,000) and increasingly with anti-aircraft MANPADs.

The popular Russian military-oriented site Voennoe Obozrenie (Military Review) expects Russia to prevail by autumn, but not sooner:

So far, the main thing is not visible: a clear and thoughtful plan. It is clear that the military part of the special operation will sooner or later (I am sure that later, by autumn, not earlier) will come to its logical conclusion. The armed forces of Ukraine will run out of fuel, shells and tanks, and peace will come. More precisely, hostilities will cease.

Moreover, its prediction is for a win through simple attrition.

I am not so certain that attrition presents a clear path to victory.

I find the suggestion by some that Ukraine had 600,000 men under arms when the war started laughable, but by fall the figure could become reality, depending on how feverishly the Ukrainians are mobilizing and training up. (4-million Bosnia fielded over 250,000 across all sides of its civil war. 35-million Ukraine could raise far more.)

If these hypothetical 600,000 take positions in Ukraine’s cities — which has been Kiev’s strategy so far — then Russian victory without horrendous costs for everyone involved becomes very difficult.

Doubly so if America becomes Ukraine’s military-industrial complex and opens up a Lend-Lease air bridge supplying Kiev with a stream of artillery tubes, shells, and small reconnaissance and suicide drones.

Yes, it is true that Russia has decent strike capabilities and could potentially threaten to intercept these supplies, but what Russia doesn’t have is around-the-clock surveillance. There is no way for Russia to monitor every truck or train entering the country, and so far it has been unwilling to take the Dnieper bridges or most railway junctions out of commission.

The storming of Mariupol is taking 6 weeks and immense destruction, and it’s an ethnic Russian city where Ukrainian forces have little support which won’t always be the case. How does Russia tackle much larger cities like Kharkov and Dnipro and at what cost?

This is from the Western media so take it with a grain of salt, but reportedly the Russians have (only now) named an overall commander of their campaign. It is Alexander Dvornikov the commander of the Southern Military District. The Southern District has so far had more success and has performed better than the others. Moreover, this is Southern District’s turf. It is the Russian Military District across from Donbass. For my part, I can say that in the northern Kiev operation I failed to detect much cooperation between the Eastern District advancing south from Belarus and the Central District advancing west from Russia. I find the news plausible and think the Russians will benefit from a more unified effort.

Russia has publicized 1351 confirmed dead and 3825 wounded for a total of over 5000. This was after a month of war, 17 days ago. This does not include Rosgvardia losses that fall under the Interior Ministry, and does not include captured and missing. For the Russian military you aren’t a confirmed dead until they have your body in their possession and matched to your name. As long as you remain unidentified or lie behind enemy lines you aren’t dead.

Since the Kiev retreat temporarily fewer men have been involved in fighting, but even so up to 8000 total casualties seems realistic by now, just by taking the Russian MoD at face value. This speaks to how very bloody this war is. If the figure seems low it is only because there is relatively few men involved compared to what would have been the case historically. (For example, the 6 million fielded by the Red Army.) Russia is pursuing this war with perhaps 160,000 Russian soldiers in the theater with perhaps 80,000 of them in maneuver elements (BTGs) that take the bulk of the casualties. 6000 wounded and 2000 dead may seem “low” for a country of 140 million. But 7000 casualties (mainly wounded) sustained by 80,000 men in the span of 7 weeks is anything but low. As I have said repeatedly, a lot is being asked of the Russian active-duty soldier in this one.

  1. SteveK9 says

    The only reason I see for Russia not cutting off all fuel to Europe, is that they fear an all-out war with NATO will begin.

    1. ken says

      Other than shooting at each other, it already has started. And one can be assured that the US has paid mercs fighting… I have also read the Russian’s have captured a US General trying to hightail it out of Mariupol….

      1. Oscar Peterson says

        The “NATO officers in Mariupol” story is one I won’t believe until there is some evidence. That a US general could be in the city is even less plausible.

    2. Oscar Peterson says

      Well, there is the revenue too.

      And perhaps still some thought of fostering US-EU tensions over time.

    3. XSFRGR says

      Russia is already in an all out war with U$/NATO, and if Russia is defeated the world will be engulfed in evil forever. Russia must be victorious by any means necessary, and that includes tactical nukes.

  2. Oscar Peterson says

    Why is it that Russia is unable to interdict the weapons and ammunition being brought in from Poland?

    I just don’t understand that.

    Would that not be a top priority? The bridges over the Dneipr are part of that, but what about just inside the Ukrainian border in the West?

    And how about disrupting Ukrainian C4I so that their artillery and missile cannot inflict further damage?

    It’s a real mystery for me.

    1. Oscar Peterson says

      OK, I see this point was addressed in the article:

      “Yes, it is true that Russia has decent strike capabilities and could potentially threaten to intercept these supplies, but what Russia doesn’t have is around-the-clock surveillance. There is no way for Russia to monitor every truck or train entering the country, and so far it has been unwilling to take the Dnieper bridges or most railway junctions out of commission.”

      But why not just target (and re-target) the rail lines in the far West? And simply say that the highways are “closed” and subject to targeting at all times? Are the optics of that too bad?

      1. Field Empty says

        You should ask the Kremlin. I have found their conduct of the war perplexing from day one. Albeit it has gotten less perplexing over time as they have made gradual adjustments.

        While you’re asking them that also ask them why they aren’t mobilizing, I am desperate to know that one.

  3. SteveK9 says

    Marko, you should read and (I think) enjoy these articles:

    The Great Russian Restoration, IX. The Military Establishment Factor

    Rolo Slavskiy’s great series of articles on Russia

    Any genuine Russian restoration will have to involve the restoration of the prestige of the military — its reintegration into political life and it’s re-elevation within civil society. Much depends on the success of the Russian offensive in the Donbass.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.