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Both the Ukrainian authorities and U.S. experts state: the advance of Russian troops on Ukrainian territory has recently stopped. Russia has practically exhausted its resources in missiles and trained military, has no clear strategy and is completely disorganized, and therefore suffers enormous losses. And since no outcome of negotiations acceptable to the Kremlin can be expected under these conditions, and Russia is not ready for a protracted war, Moscow may in the near future launch a final decisive assault with all available forces.

  • Record losses and staffing problems

  • Out of rockets

  • Remotely controlled from the Frunze Embankment

  • Options for a second Russian offensive

Record losses and staffing problems

Even with a cautious approach to the published Russian casualty numbers, it is clear that either Russian or Soviet armed forces have not faced such casualties, between 7,000 and 14,700, within such a short period of time in decades. This is evidenced by the deaths of several Russian generals. And although the invading force still have reserves that are ready to fight, the situation has already raised the problem of morale and fresh reinforcements. It is fully confirmed by the attempts to send troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to use Syrian mercenaries and to draw the army of Belarus into the war.

This price has been paid for approaching and shelling Kharkiv, Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy, for approaching Nikolayev, starting a brutal siege of Mariupol, seizing Kherson, two nuclear power plants (the active one in Zaporizhzhya and the inactive on in Chernobyl) and a number of small settlements. This does not mean that Russia will no longer make serious offensive attempts. On the contrary, analysts predict that as time works against it Russia's military leadership may be forced to throw all available forces into an offensive. In addition, the Kremlin might try to inspire its military with the idea of a «charge for imminent victory,» especially those units that have not yet suffered serious losses.

As April and the spring draft are approaching, although most of the conscripts will be drafted in May and June, the distribution of draft cards, medical examinations, and the selection of young men will begin almost immediately. In recent years, 130,000-135,000 people were drafted every year (although the authorities may now try to increase this number). Of these, some of them, those with secondary special or higher education, were usually able to opt for contract service right away (the initial contract term is 2 years), and some were transferred to contract service after 6 months of service. Thus, there was often double counting: conscripts (260,000-265,000) and contract servicemen (400,000-405,000), two overlapping sets. Of course, out of the mass of draftees several thousand were regularly sent to Rosgvardia, not to the armed forces, but in the context of the current war, where the army is operating jointly with the National Guard Service and other uniformed agencies, this peculiarity can be neglected.

Thus, by May-June, the majority of nearly 135,000 people who were drafted in spring 2021 and did not sign contracts will have completed their one-year service. In addition, the contracts of those who signed them in the spring of 2020 during the pandemic, when in view of overall economic uncertainty the number of those who wanted to stay in the army was slightly higher, are about to expire. Of course, strong efforts are being made to recruit contract servicemen from among those who have completed their twelve months of service, as well as from among the fall 2021 conscripts. Especially among those who have not yet participated in combat operations.

However, the information, or at least rumors, about losses and the understanding that the war is not going according to plan has been reaching privates, sergeants and warrant officers regardless of their place of service, and this does not contribute to their desire to stay in the army. The approaching spring draft threatens to become a tacit referendum of trust in the army, the Kremlin and the war, that will bring together would-be servicemen aged 18-27, their parents, girlfriends, wives and members of their closest social circle. That is why the Russian leadership will at least once again try to make serious progress on the battlefield before May, which will allow them to partly compensate for the growing public concern.

The approaching spring draft threatens to become a tacit referendum of trust in the army

Out of rockets

The idea of a charge is also based on the munitions consumption rate. Russia has already spent over 1,000 cruise and ballistic missiles. The missile strikes on targets in western Ukraine over the past week are the result of Russian aviation switching to X-555 cruise missiles, fired from Tu-95 strategic bombers. These missiles are non-nuclear modifications of the Kh-55 missile produced in the late Soviet era in Kharkov and received by Russia in the 1990s. The missile stock measured in hundreds, even taking into account the fact that not all of them were modified, and some were written off as their warranty periods expired and/or dismantled for parts, because, for example, their engines could be utilized for the early series of the Kalibr NK long-range cruise missile. And this resource stock is non-renewable.

Russia has also begun to use Tochka-U operational-tactical missiles, which had previously been officially withdrawn from service due to the transition to the more advanced and long-range Iskander complexes and had been put into storage instead of being immediately destroyed. As a consequence, Russia's ability to launch strikes across the Ukrainian territory is limited. There is still a possibility of strikes with Onyx anti-ship missiles, fired from ships, and Bastion coastal missile systems, but it is also very limited. As a result, Russia is not ready for a months-long high-intensity war, but it cannot give Ukraine a long respite either - regular Ukrainian troops, ready to fight and much less sensitive to casualties, will soon be able to intensify guerrilla warfare and subversive actions on Russian-held territories as the trees and grass turn green.

Remotely controlled from the Frunze Embankment

The deaths of several Russian generals suggest another problem: command and control: the generals are probably forced to manually command units on the front lines. There are no surprises here.

Firstly, the Russian government, in its efforts to modernize the army, was very concerned about how to maintain control over the rearmed army and to prevent the military generals from gaining political influence. That is why the National Defense Command and Control Center was created, from where the unnamed leadership (we still don't know the name of the commander of the Russian troops) controls the armed forces.

Interestingly, Colonel General Mizintsev, the head of the NDC himself, seems to be remotely in command of the siege of Mariupol. For the first time such type of command was tested for Syria, but then there was a commander on the ground, who had certain autonomy in his decision-making. The method was brought to the point of absurdity during the peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, when the loading of paratroopers into planes at airfields hundreds of kilometers away was remotely controlled from the Frunze Embankment in Moscow.

The fear of the military also contributed to the fact that following the Syrian campaign the land forces general Surovikin (now an army general) was put in command of the air and space forces in 2017. So, a person who came from a different milieu, with no institutional roots or special authority among airmen commanded the key type of troops for that war. In the end, the war in Ukraine is commanded via computer monitors from Moscow, while the generals on the battlefield have been deprived of any initiative or independence in decision-making and are simply forced to carry out orders.

The war in Ukraine is commanded via computer monitors from Moscow.

Secondly, despite all the rearmament programs, Russia still has not introduced the concept of «network-centric warfare» into its command strategy, when the necessary information about what is happening on the battlefield is available in real time to commanders at all levels. In order to do that, it was necessary to change the quality of the military education system, which the Kremlin refused to do back in the early 2010s, and to rely on the initiative and flexibility of thinking of junior commanders - and this is impossible to achieve when the initiative is taken away even from the generals at the National Defense Center.

As a result, the aforementioned Surovikin stated shortly before his appointment to the air force that the main problem of military command is the «profound mismatch between the organizational and technical aspects» of combat missions. Simply put, the rigid vertical chain of command, locking all flows and decisions into a single center and serving the purpose of maintaining the system of power, prevents the Russian military from fighting on the battlefield and turns them into bureaucrats who are cynical and incapable of independent thinking.

The vertical chain of command turns the military into cynical bureaucrats, incapable of independent thinking.

Moreover, even the Russian President acknowledged this problem two months before the war: «... during operational and combat training it is necessary to train ... commanders who are versatile in all respects. They should join the cadre of commanders, they should be looked after, they should be given the opportunity for further career development.» It also means that the activities of the Russian army at most levels are conducted in the manner of an «Italian strike», by the book and according to orders, without anyone's responsibility for the results.

Thirdly, the organizational drawbacks combined with the problems of Russia's electronics production and the control and communications systems that use these electronic components. So, at the grassroots level there is an obvious shortage of such components. A commander can receive an order from Moscow via a satellite link, but manual control is still required for such order to be delivered to the troops and carried out. All of it exacerbates fatal errors in war planning and leads to additional casualties, violations of the military law, and demoralization of the troops.

Fourthly, when the Russian armed forces were deploying a system of battlefield tactical groups (BTGs) a few years ago, the plan was to create 125 units by the end of 2018. Given the size of each BTG, 700-900 men, this meant 100,000-110,000 combat-ready troops, not including auxiliary forces. As early as the summer of 2021, 168 BTGs were reported, which meant a total of 135-140 thousand troops, of which 120 BTGs (about 100,000 troops) are already involved in the war, while the total number of all Russian invasion forces is about 190,000. They include not only the military, but also the Rosgvardia, its Chechen units and those of the other security agencies. The problem became obvious when the quantity not only failed to turn into quality, but made such a transformation simply impossible.

The fact is that modern warfare, starting from Operation Desert Storm in 1991, proves that in the conflict zone itself during the active phase it is difficult to command a diverse group of troops exceeding 130,000-150,000 people. For example, in 2003 in Iraq, 82,000 U.S. troops, supported by the coalition forces, fought directly on the ground and from the sea (a few tens of thousands more). Of course, after the defeat of Hussein's troops the size of the occupation forces reached its peak in 2008 and amounted to just shy of 160,000 people, but it was not a permanently fighting army.

In general, the effective number of troops on the battlefield is limited by the capacity of communication and information processing channels, as well as by the supply system. However, experts agree that the Russian capabilities in this area can in no way be compared with what the U.S. armed forces and their allies had 20 years ago. That is, for the Russian army, the effective number of troops on the battlefield is much lower. Perhaps the initial plans for 125 BTGs by the end of 2018 somehow took this number into account, for was not assumed that all these forces would be fighting at the same time. Thus, the Russian army, which views the sheer number of its troops as compensation for the poor quality, is hindering itself, and additional hindrances are created by the other agencies (which in the first days of the war went so far as to unleash a «socialist competition» for who would enter the Ukrainian capital first), mercenaries and others. But it is the remaining number of troops that creates the inertia and persuades the Russian authorities to take a breather, to line up again in battle order, and to attempt another offensive overwhelming the enemy by sheer numbers.

Thus, the Russian army, which views the sheer number of its troops as compensation for the poor quality, is hindering itself.

This decision is also supported by the fact that the counterattack by the AFU announced last week has not had much effect on the overall situation on the battlefield, and, on the whole, the Ukrainians are still using the tactics of exhaustion on the Russian troops with great success, while spending forces on counterattacks is of little use in the current situation.

Options for a second Russian offensive

Given that Russia's main goal for the war is the dismantling of Ukrainian statehood, Moscow will continue to push for Kiev's capitulation in the near future. Even if the Russian army is able to take Mariupol and establish a so-called «land corridor» to Crimea (which in itself makes little sense, given the existence of the bridge and the degree of devastation caused by Russia along this «corridor»), this will be a questionable outcome for the Kremlin. And not just (or probably not so much) because of the ambitions of the Russian leader or his fear of his entourage.

The point here is that a lot of interagency work will be needed, a lot of officials will have to be changed and a civilian government will have to be reinstated. This means that ending the war now may lead to intensification of political infighting under the circumstances when the damage for the Russian authorities caused by the war is largely irreparable. That is, Moscow is now hardly able to stop the war for a while with a cease-fire or truce, and then gather strength and resume the destruction of Ukraine.

Numerous military analysts predict that Moscow will try to attack in all directions at once rather than choosing one at a time, expecting that even if it's unable to take new cities or the capital, it will attempt to inflict the maximum damage forcing Ukraine to beg for peace before it can summon ample forces to push the Russian army back from its cities.

In addition, Russia, apart from using tactical nuclear weapons, a threat that various experts have been recently writing about a lot, has another option for escalating the conflict. We are talking about sporadic strikes on the territories of NATO countries under the pretext of accidental firing and/or in an attempt to shift the blame for the incidents on the Ukrainians. Shortly before the war with Georgia in 2008, Russia used a similar technique when bombs from unidentified aircraft fell on the Georgian territory. It was a test of the country's readiness to defend itself, an attempt to expand the boundaries of what was possible. We can see something similar in relation to Poland and Romania to avoid talks with Kiev (and so far Russia hasn't demonstrated a constructive approach to such talks) and to scale up the conflict to secure the West's involvement. The Kremlin may believe that despite the West's unanimous support of Ukraine, the West may not be so willing to respond harshly to «minor» incidents.

As a result, the Kremlin still appears ready to fight, despite the depletion of its missile inventory and the approaching time crunch. However, Russia is not capable of fighting with the same intensity for months, so it will try to break the Ukrainian resistance before the army is exhausted.

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