www.landforces.com.auAll available indications are that after a month of bitter fighting in Ukraine, the Russian invasion has run out of steam.  In some areas counterattacks from Ukrainian forces are regaining territory – though the conflict shows no sign of ending in the near term.  Given the punishing losses that the Russians have suffered – which are not sustainable – President Putin might start to look for a face-saving formula where he can declare some small territorial gains to be a case of Mission Accomplished and call for a ceasefire.

Working out precise casualty figures through the fog of war is often difficult but claims of 15,000 Russian dead with double that number of wounded, missing and captured seem realistic – even on the conservative side.  This is a terrible price to have paid for an invasion that is unnecessary, unprovoked and completely unjustified.  Ukrainian military casualties are probably a tenth of those – though the suffering of the civilian population with many bodies buried under the rubble and the immense destruction of housing and infrastructure is currently beyond calculation.

Russian loses in materiel are also significant.  Credible sources indicate that Russia has lost 15 modern combat aircraft compared with 12 for Ukraine – and the helicopter equation is far more lopsided with a ratio of 35 to 1 destroyed.  Russian Main Battle Tank losses are approaching 300 with more than 1,000 other armoured vehicles and trucks turned into twisted and burnt metal.  This has meant that the early Russian advance has been halted, to be replaced by the grim siege warfare of cities such as Mariupol, conducted by troops low and moral.

The big question is for how long can Russia keep up this insanity?  Many commentators argue that because of Putin’s near control of the domestic media – which is slavishly lying and reporting on a string of non-existent Russian victories – he can keep going forever.  However, this completely overlooks human factors in the equation because even though the Russian state controls radio, television, newspapers and social media, it cannot completely control word of mouth.

Each wounded soldier can speak while convalescing or after being discharged; rear echelon forces can describe their experiences when on leave; and funeral services cannot be disguised as anything else.  Stories from the front will start to get through – and the longer the conflict drags on the greater the amount of information about the true situation will start to spread.  Unlike a near-instantaneous Twitter storm, it will take longer for most people to know the truth of what is happening, but it will gradually get out.

This spread of information is likely to be assisted by the extent of sanctions, which are already damaging the Russian economy and with a lot more to come.  Even the most stoic supporters of President Putin – and as far as we can tell he is still popular with the majority of Russian – will start to wonder why their standard of living is suffering so greatly.  Because of sanctions – and rumours of a further domestic crackdown on dissent, possibly with a declaration of martial law – tens of thousands of people are leaving the country while they still can.  This growing overseas diaspora will be sending information from the outside back to their friends, relatives and assorted contacts – all of which will hopefully add to the truth of the situation coming out.

The supply of western weapons to Ukraine has so far been extremely effective, with Javelin and NLAW anti-tank missiles credited with causing the majority of vehicle losses.  Similar weapons are either on the way or have started arriving from Sweden, Germany and a number of smaller countries.  These need to keep turning up in large quantities – and given that Russia has neither been able to gain control of the air or close Ukraine’s eastern border with Poland in particular – the supply convoys will keep arriving.  It is likely that Ukraine will be resupplied at a faster rate than Russia can support their own forces – and sometimes with weapons that are more effective.

So far, Ukraine has received missiles that are short range – effective to distances in the low kilometres against ground and air targets.  This has meant that while Russian armoured vehicles have taken a huge battering, conventional artillery and multiple launch rocket systems that shoot at ranges of 10 kilometres and beyond have largely been able to keep firing indiscriminately with impunity.  If the west can transfer technology that allows them to also be targeted, President Putin might suddenly become very eager to suggest a cease fire.

Mention has been made of the delivery of loitering UAS such as Switchblade, which have the range to target artillery positions – but officially the US has only agreed to send 100, which is not nearly enough.  They are extremely accurate but are small and have an explosive charge of a few kilograms – so one of them could only destroy a single artillery piece or single rocket launcher.  Thousands of them will be needed to make an appreciable difference.

In theory, one of the best countries to resupply Ukraine with loitering munitions – actually, guided weapons of all types – would be Israel, but that country is steering clear of direct involvement in the conflict.  Russia has several allies in the Middle East – most notably Syria and Iran – and their ability to cause mischief, either directly or through proxies such as Hezbollah, is considerable.  Perhaps something like the Spike anti-tank missile – especially the non-line of sight and extended range versions – will find their way into the right hands via a number of existing NATO customers to further tilt the balance away from Moscow.

Having completely failed in quick and painless invasion, President Putin will be under increasing pressure to find a way out of a catastrophe entirely of his own making.  However, the problem with other dictators and war criminals such as Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic is that they become very good at cutting themselves off from reality, preferring instead to believe that they are military geniuses until conclusively proven wrong and are forcibly removed from power.  What makes this situation far more fraught is that neither Hussein nor Milosevic had 6,000 nuclear warheads under their direct control.

APDR Newsletter

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Kym Bergmann is the editor for Asia Pacific Defence Reporter (APDR) and Defence Review Asia (DRA). He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism and the defence industry. After graduating with honours from the Australian National University, he joined Capital 7 television, holding several positions including foreign news editor and chief political correspondent. During that time he also wrote for Business Review Weekly, undertaking analysis of various defence matters.After two years on the staff of a federal minister, he moved to the defence industry and held senior positions in several companies, including Blohm+Voss, Thales, Celsius and Saab. In 1997 he was one of two Australians selected for the Thomson CSF 'Preparation for Senior Management' MBA course. He has also worked as a consultant for a number of companies including Raytheon, Tenix and others. He has served on the boards of Thomson Sintra Pacific and Saab Pacific.


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