Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked, criminal, and mistaken invasion of Ukraine on 24 February surprised me. The most important things to know about it are that so far Ukrainian forces are holding out and that people in neighbouring countries are helping refugees while the world begins to punish the Russian government. Refugees Welcome Polska, https://berlin-hilft.com/ukraine/, and the Kyiv Independent seem like three worthwhile projects; a replica armourer in Ukraine shared the Telegram channel by a former co-worker https://t.me/s/saveukrainestoprussia; the index of demonstrations against this war at https://www.stopputin.net/ is at least more useful than being angry on social media. If you don’t mind American spooks and think tanks, the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, DC has daily situation reports at https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/ukraine-conflict-updates Because this attack was so surprising, and because I am so ignorant about the region, I decided to write this post about all the things I know I do not know, and then expand the jargon in one of the reports I have seen. But my ignorance is not at all important compared to the people who are fighting or fleeing for their lives!
I do not know what Putin imagined he could gain from a war which would terrify the Atlantic world and the eastern members of NATO. Ukraine is a large, populous country and its hard for anyone to take a government seriously if it was sworn in under the muzzles of foreign soldiers. So even if he took Kyiv and killed or captured the government, the most likely outcome would be a long conventional war or a long insurgency, while foreign sanctions ruin the Russian economy and NATO buys more weapons and holds more exercises in Poland and the Baltic states. Putin saw how invading Iraq with a small army weakened and humiliated the US and UK, so why is he starting his own war of choice with a small army on a flimsy pretext?
I do not know why the destruction in the first four days of the war was relatively light. Russia has weapons which can destroy whole blocks, but the photos I see show damage to individual buildings (photos of Ukrainian military bases might be harrowing). It was not until the fourth day of the war when Ukranians started to share photos of destroyed apartment buildings alongside the damage to individual shops, schoolrooms, and apartments. If the Russian army try to storm defended cities, those cities will be destroyed like Grozny, like Mosul, and like Aleppo. The Ukrainian government claims to have suffered only 137 dead on the first day of the war (24 February, I think this includes soldiers and civilians).
I do not have any direct knowledge of the Russian or Ukrainian militaries. Russia has been fighting in Syria and the Don Basin for years so presumably has many veteran soldiers. Their assault does not feel like I would expect an invasion by well-equipped veteran troops to feel. The Ukrainian military is said to have expanded and improved in skill since the 2013-2015 war on the Don. Russia has an expensive airforce and satellite network. Many commentators assume that their readers have recent military experience so throw around jargon which they never explain.
I do not understand why the numbers of invaders who crossed into Ukraine seem far smaller than the 150,000 or 190,000 who supposedly gathered in Russia and Belarus. I have seen one estimate of 30,000 to 60,000 soldiers by 25 February.
I do not understand the nature of the offensive from Belarus towards Kyiv which seems to be the only one which has penetrated deep into Ukrainian territory. It opened with an airborne assault on Hostomel airport near Kyiv (which artillery in Kyiv could presumably shell if it fell, modern howitzers and Grad rocket launchers can reach 20-40 km – so just what did the Russians think they could do with it?) and what seemed like a diffuse ground assault on the 25th. Meanwhile the ground forces which approached from near Chernobyl seem to be arriving more slowly. Kyiv is a city of 3 million people, and taking a city like that with even a few thousand defenders would be a slow, bloody, and destructive task.
I do not know anyone who I trust and who is competent to comment on a war in a Slavic country. I know a few Estonians, Poles, and Russians and one or two Ukrainians on the fediverse. Edit: I also know some Ukrainian and Crimean armourers, like Armstreet who are building steel barricades in Kyiv.
I am not sure that I know anyone who I trust and who is competent to point me to someone competent to comment on a war in a Slavic country. My gentle readers might not know that Canadian journalists are so hopeless at overseas news that their reports on the wars in Syria and post-2011 Iraq were regurgitated press releases. They just do not have people on staff who speak Slavic languages, understand military matters, and can ask blunt questions, and they don’t know how to find those people. US and UK intelligence agencies have as much credibility on Russia, China, or Iran as Bernie Madoff has on investment opportunities. Most think tanks and institutes are linked to Russian or NATO intelligence agencies and militaries. I could ask one of my old professors and one of the Estonians.
I chose to find and rely upon a few sources (mostly Ukrainian), but people who like corporate social media sometimes browse it and look for things which feel truthy. Wayne E. Lee, a military historian in the United States, shared the following essay by a ‘Stanimir Dobrev’ on birdsite (Nitter https://nitter.net/delfoo/status/1497498201527521281#m). Because it is written for people with recent military or intelligence experience, I have expanded or glossed the acronyms and linked to some Wikipedia pages. I have also fixed some typos and standardized punctuation.
I am going to try to explain the irrational Russian Armed Forces behavior towards strategy, common thought, or even the chances repatriated SSO (special operations force) that are now prisoners of war try to murder a bunch of men with stars.
Here’s where I will start from. The Russian armed forces have never attempted anything like this. This isn’t about what kind of war they’re fighting it’s about what they’re capable of mustering.
Secondly it seems the decision making structures have low opinion in general of Ukraine and their fighting abilities and sort of an ideal that there’s a willing subservience in Ukrainians if they get to be part of Russia. Pure racism informing their decision making process.
Thirdly battalion tactical groups (combined-armed forces of infantry, armour, and artillery about 600 to 800 soldiers strong which post-Soviet Russia frequently uses) are terrible units to support operations. They have overload the commander, lack support, and might not properly integrate with air or do adequate scouting as signals and recon are missing along with liaisons with them.
Fourthly without standing down even if parts of the Ukrainian Nat Guard, Police, Border Guard, Territorials and Army are defeated, UA regional commands can be autonomous for days and are vast structures, short of ordering their demobilization their removal is way too costly for RuMoD.
And there’s a lot of hidden corruption and misreporting that gets baked in into calculations but the higher you go up the chain as in a corporation, the more dismissive management is that it will be an issue. AKA Putin doesn’t even remotely grasp how bad it is.
Based on those 5 (points) let me try to explain the situation now. Russian units aren’t stopping fire or limiting use of their kalibrs (a type of cruise missile) and stand off strikes. This is all they could muster south. Kalibrs are limited by launch tubes, a bit over a hundred is what they had ready. We saw constant trains and movement over time moving Russian equipment and lots of aircraft being moved over to mustering points and at the end people. By then the supply was at its limit just keeping them warm and fed. They found out the hard way that this was their logistical limit. What people saw wasn’t that troops packed spare tanks for long drives. They were carrying their fuel reserves on them. The few organic refueling trucks were not enough to make up an actual reserve or depot (ie. a fuel dump). They had one full compliment, some spares in one truck, that’s it. This didn’t seem that crazy in the Kremlin because the prevailing thought in the higher echelons and Putin’s inner circle and the FSB (a Russian intelligence agency) was one highly dismissive of Ukraine highly hyped up by Russian army propaganda reporting. They missed that they were buying their own bullshit.
The release of the information (about Putin’s plans to create a pretext to invade Ukraine) paralyzed them in terms of decision making. But the inherent bias remained and Ukraine delayed mobilising so it didn’t dissuade them. For 7 days they ate away supplies rather than actively trying to build them further, they were waiting for a go order. The limited supply meant it had to be a mad dash. BTGs (battalion tactical groups) were split into smaller sub units traveling on multiple roads to avoid congestion. When they met something they’d wait to coalesce or get into a fight. If the Ukraine was suprised it would work.
Were the Russian troops quality ones they’d do better with just surprise on their side. But they were mostly poorly trained as full units were never called up before. Usually a brigade would send only a company and could hand pick. Now it’s either confess the lies about readiness or be creative. Because the corruption had created such a rot, brigade commanders chose “creative” (criminal). Conscripts were added to the build up (the Russian army is a mix of conscripts and volunteer “contract soldiers”). Ghost soldiers on the roster were hidden. That meant BTGs were far greener. When these hit a city or made contact they’d deploy in unideal formations of platoon to company size. Not their fault all that much, this is what they knew. Then if a Ukrainian unit knew in advance where they were and was careful, it would annihilate the BTG splinter formation.
Because the timetable had to be kept, supplies were already short with the delay Russian troops would go a step further. They’d keep one sub unit to block and redirect subsequent units, the rest would continue on parallel roads. Again timetable meant usually more major roads. After a couple of road blocks, BTG’d be diluted, lost a bunch of units and fighting to standstill. You’d expect that there would be air or artillerys support. But BTGs aren’t suited for that, when they move in chunks in parallel the artillery spotters could be in another group. As we said also there was a problem stocking supplies but still CAS (close air support) should probably not be as limited? Yes but Russian SSO (special operations force) more used to directing it had other tasks and Russia doesn’t have a platform like the US surveillance planes and drones that can operate in contested air. And the air was contested because of the limited early strikes due to the small build up + limited recon of where Ukrainian air force & air defense were prior to this. Satelites take pics at known times, moving equipment often can dissuede strikes as it’s uncertain anything will be in place. What then was struck were major stationary objects, depots in main areas, radars, major command and control but again limited by number of reloads.
So then Russian MoD (Ministry of Defense) started rolling the columns with heavy support of helicopters and planes ahead. This works on day 1 when you know where your guys start & can track where they are easily and you know beyond that point it’s all enemy. Once you land and refuel, it’s less easy especially because as we mentioned, a BTG splitinter lacks a signals unit, just has a few officers.
Then comes the air assault (airborne assault on Hostomel Airport). Because you have to be quick you also have to do risky stuff. The problem of course is that because your helicopters are parked in fields, ready for one load with some trucks and one set of ammo, you can do it once a day with each group. That’s why you wait till the end of the assault attempt to see if it works. If you have to refuel and prep for a second go, your trucks have to go to a depot and reload and then come back. And only then try again. You still have to try to take the airport fast and get guys in because if the operation takes too long and you haven’t kept them (the Ukrainians) on the back foot your green troops are still moving piecemeal on roads, don’t have much with them, any small village could be their end.
So the air assault fails, part of the pincer moves fail, you can’t budge most of the Ukrainian troops what do you do? You go for broke, hope you win the race between entrenchment in Kyiv and you just throwing all you have and hope if you decapitate Ukraine, regional commands lose faith. Otherwise because what remains of your force is split in small groups moving on main roads Ukraine can mobilize move via back roads and just recapture most of the towns as you have few troops for actual 24/7 duties and to even spot them moving back into the town.
Can it work? I don’t know. Is it a good plan. Hell no. Could they execute anything else, without the entire structure confessing the army has corruption, which yes the boss expected, but it’s such a rot it might cost him his throne, yeah not when he’s in this mood. So the spineless bunch decided to throw away 18-19 year old conscripts and veterans and pray they get lucky. Also that Putin hasn’t noticed how nuts this is shows that he’s either delusional or is completely inept when it comes to military affairs.
A lot of the commentary prior missed the readiness of the Russian forces and the poor state of affairs. Overreliance on official statements and major military pages missed tons of low level testimonials and regional investigative pieces on how big the rot was. Aggregation of Zvezda (a miniatures wargame company and the Russian military TV channel) and VK (VKontakte) mil (military) informing pages and MAKS (a military miniatures company?) show sales pitches should be tempered by what we can find on the ground and regional and smaller outlets, forums and blogs where servicemembers (who) were pissed were abundant to the point they shouldn’t have been dismissed.
PPPS. We saw lots of evidence for that and even then a part of the community of analysts dismissed it assuming once it’s about having a war footing RU structures will take it serious. But that’s not how bad habits work.
PPPPS. And in the minds of the Kremlin they have been continuously on a war footing. So if during that time they left arms companies bankrupt sometimes even more than once, the habit was not going to break most likely. To quote Nemtsov (perhaps Boris Nemtsov, a Russian dissident who was murdered in Moscow in 2015) here: <<Он ёбнутый… чтоб вы поняли?>> (He is green … so that you understand?)Stanimir Dobrev @delfoo https://nitter.net/delfoo
(scheduled 26 February 2022)
Edit 2022-03-02: Added reference to Armstreet. A ‘Nathan Ruser’ on birdsite has been making maps of Russian advances as columns and not territorial control which is more realistic since Russia lacks the troops to garrison them and the officials to impose a new administration (Nitter https://nitter.net/Nrg8000/status/1499041856772276230#m)
Edit 2022-03-04: See also Stijn Mitzer (ed.), “Attack On Europe: Documenting Equipment Losses During The 2022 Russian Invasion Of Ukraine.” Oryx https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2022/02/attack-on-europe-documenting-equipment.html
Alex Vershinin, “Feeding the Bear: A Closer Look at Russian Army Logistics and the Fait Accompli,” War on the Rocks, 23 November 2021 https://warontherocks.com/2021/11/feeding-the-bear-a-closer-look-at-russian-army-logistics/
Edit 2022-03-05: a ‘Trent Telenko’ on birdsite has not seen any sign that the Russians have stockpiled or are stockpiling gravel, concrete, asphalt, culvert sections, and the other things they would need to keep the roads in northern Ukraine functional during mechanized warfare and under airstrikes and burning tanks https://nitter.net/TrentTelenko/status/1500157600863817728#m Ukraine has opened the floodgates of the Kyiv Reservoir north of the city. The Royal United Services Journal (UK) is now publishing mini-articles such as Justin Bronk, “Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?” RUSI Defence Systems, Volume 24 (4 March 2022) (link)
Edit 2022-03-07: For an example of what Russian intellectuals in the security/defense world outside of Russia are writing in English, see Kamil Galeev “Let’s discuss what’s happening in Russia. To put it simply, it’s going full fascist.” 6 March 2022 https://nitter.net/kamilkazani/status/1500495309595725831#m (but remember that exiled political advocates and writers have a certain perspective and network and reasons to say what they think will spark foreign intervention! Jeremy Morris, “Spooks and the Haunting of Russian Area Studies,” had a few warnings about this before the war) Many of the Anglo military / foreign policy commentators who see Russia as dangerous and aggressive are invested in seeing the Russian military, or any modern European style military, as powerful and effective so have trouble accepting the evidence that the Russian military is not capable of fighting this war. See also Anders Åslund, “Retired Russian Generals Criticize Putin Over Ukraine, Renew Call for His Resignation,” Just Security, 9 February 2022 https://www.justsecurity.org/80149/retired-russian-generals-criticize-putin-over-ukraine-renew-call-for-his-resignation/
Edit 2022-03-10: See also Sam Cranny-Evans and Thomas Withington, “Russian Comms in Ukraine: A World of Hertz,” RUSI Commentary, 9 March 2022 https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/commentary/russian-comms-ukraine-world-hertz/ and the interview with Putin’s biographer in Steve Burgess, “Vlad Instincts,” TheTyee.ca 7 Mar 2022 https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2022/03/07/Vlad-Instincts/
Edit 2022-03-14: For the supposed “translated letter from a FSB agent” published by Bellingcat, see https://www.emptywheel.net/2022/03/14/another-report-from-an-unidentified-russian-operative/ In the year 2022 we still have to work with possibly apocyphical letters like an Alexander historian!
Edit 2022-03-15: And the Azov Battalion have allegedly scrounged up a postwar copy of a MG-42, because of course they have https://nitter.net/Freedom_Slips/status/1503762000379273224#m or https://nitter.eu/arisroussinos/status/1503732063396114438 (this photo is mostly being shared in public by people playing up the Neo-Nazi elements in Ukraine, not sure of its ultimate source)
Edit 2022-03-18: added link to Zvedza the TV channel
Edit 2022-03-24: I am also seeing claims that Russian troops are stripped of their military IDs and dog tags before they are sent into battle, and buried in unmarked pits if they are killed. Feasts for the dogs and birds … Kyiv Independent and random volunteer in Ukraine on social media
Edit 2022-04-01: apparently there was a school of Anglo analysts who thought Russia would not invade but could easily win
Phillips Payson O’Brien, “How the West Got Russia’s Military So, So Wrong,” The Atlantic 31 March 2022 https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/03/russia-ukraine-invasion-military-predictions/629418/ or Wayback Machine (if you want to avoid their scripts and nagging popups)
But see eg. Gwynne Dyer before 24 February or https://news.postimees.ee/7455996/russia-has-not-enough-forces-to-occupy-ukraine-estonian-intelligence-says “a full-scale invasion nevertheless would not be a walk to the Ukrainian capital. It has to be reminded that Ukraine has been at war in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions for eight years already and its military have combat experience. Ukraine possesses considerable ground, air and missile forces.”