Ukraine is winning the battle on Twitter, but in the real world Kiev is losing the fight for the Donbass
Western media coverage of the Ukraine conflict has been so hysterically one-sided, and divorced from reality, that it's probably only a matter of time before Iraq's erstwhile 'Comical Ali' is brought out of retirement to insist that there are no Russians advancing towards the Ukrainian army's front lines. Meanwhile, the actual fighting continues to result in a string of defeats for Kiev's battered forces, who have already lost control of two major cities, despite unprecedented support from the US and its allies.
As American officials work with the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to craft a perception of Kiev's victory against the Russian military, Moscow is preparing to counter with a harsh dose of reality.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on the heels of a dramatic visit to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev where, together with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, he met with Zelensky, testified before Congress that the goal of the Ukrainians in fighting their two-month-old conflict with Russia “would be to push the Russians out of the territory that they’re trying to occupy in eastern Ukraine.”
Blinken added that the administration of US President Joe Biden was providing “full support” to Kiev to achieve this goal. The Secretary of State added that Zelensky’s objective was to degrade the Russian military so that it would not be able to attack Ukraine in the “next month, next year or in five years,” echoing similar sentiments expressed by Lloyd Austin, who had declared that the goal of the US was to “see Russia weakened” so that it cannot “do the kinds of things that it has done [in Ukraine].”
The shared optimism of Blinken, Austin, and Zelensky comes from the joint embrace of a narrative of the Russian military operation against Ukraine which holds that the Russians are in the process of suffering a strategic defeat in Ukraine. But in a sign that this narrative may represent little more than wishful thinking on the part of these three leaders, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, had a more nuanced take, noting that if Russia were to get away with what he termed its “aggression” against Ukraine “cost-free,” then “the global international security order” that has been in place since the end of the Second World War would be put at risk.
Far from projecting a sense of optimism as to the outcome of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Milley’s statements reflected a sense of urgency that comes with the recognition that the war in Ukraine has reached a critical juncture.
The gap between perception and reality when it comes to assessing the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is a direct result of the confusing nature of the conflict itself, where a well-oiled propaganda campaign waged by Ukraine and its Western partners, both government and media alike, contrasts with a Russian public relations effort which is reticent to delve deeply into Russian strategic goals and objectives, let alone the day-to-day details of the fighting on the ground. The result is an information war where two competing narratives wage an unequal conflict, and perception is ultimately trumped by reality.
Some harsh truths
As the military operation in Ukraine enters its third month, some harsh truths have emerged which are altering how both the Russian armed forces and modern warfare will be assessed going forward. Few analysts — including this author — expected serious resistance to last more than a month. Indeed, General Milley had briefed Congress during closed-door briefings in early February that a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine could result in the fall of Kiev within 72 hours.
There were several reasons for such an assessment. First and foremost was the extensive preparation that had been conducted by Russia in advance of the military incursion. The movement of hundreds of thousands of troops along with their equipment and the logistical means to sustain both men and material in combat is not a trivial exercise, and Russia had been engaged in military drills which stretched out over the course of several months, perfecting such logistics. The Russian military is led by officers who excel in staff work and preparation, and to assume that they had planned for every possibility that could be encountered on the battlefield is not an outlandish proposition.
Doctrinally, the Russian military was configured for the kind of warfare it had prepared for, where its overwhelming advantages in mass and firepower were optimized to produce the very battlefield results anticipated by most observers — the destruction of enemy defenses in depth with massed fire, followed by an aggressive armored assault that penetrated deep into the enemy rear areas, sowing confusion and disruption leading to the rapid loss of combat effectiveness on the part of those being attacked.
A Russian-Ukrainian war was always going to be primarily a ground war; neither the Ukrainian Air Force nor its Navy was expected to put up a sustained, viable resistance to their Russian counterparts. While the Ukrainian Army had been trained and equipped as a virtual NATO proxy force since 2015, the reality was that it had undergone a rapid expansion from 2014, when it could field some 6,000 combat-ready troops, to its pre-military operation composition of some 150,000 soldiers organized into 24 brigades. The expectation that Ukraine would be able to perfect anything more than basic battalion-sized combined arms operations (i.e., the coordinated employment of maneuver forces with artillery and air support) was wishful thinking.
While Ukraine had placed a great deal of effort in transitioning from an all-conscript military in 2014 to one where some 60% of its combat personnel were professional contract soldiers led by seasoned non-commissioned officers, one cannot create such a force in so short of time. Small unit leadership of the sort that represents the glue that holds a military force together under the strain and duress of sustained combat simply had not had enough time to take hold and mature in the Ukrainian army, leading many to assess that it would fold when placed under the stress of Russian doctrinal warfare.
The following analysis is sourced from publicly-available reporting by journalists embedded with the Russian military and the forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic, as well as Russian Ministry of Defense briefings and statements made by the Ukrainian side.
Within the first week of the Russian operation getting underway, it was clear to most that many of the assumptions that had been made were flawed and/or misplaced. First and foremost, Moscow had opted not to employ its forces according to standard doctrine, opting instead to take a light approach, which appeared to be born from a concerted effort to minimize civilian casualties and harm to civilian infrastructure that itself was derived from a fundamental misunderstanding of the reality of the situation on the ground in Ukraine.
The reported purging of 150 officers from the 5th Department of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), responsible for operations in the so-called 'near abroad' (which includes Ukraine), along with the arrest of Sergei Beseda, the former head of the department, suggests that Russia had suffered a failure of intelligence the likes of which has not been seen since the Israeli failure to predict the Egyptian crossing of the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War of October 1973.
While the Russian government has remained characteristically tight-lipped about any possible shortcomings regarding the work of the 5th Department prior to the start of the military operation, the statements by Russian leadership suggesting that the Ukrainian military might remain in its barracks and that civilian leadership would not interfere with Russia military operations suggest that these assumptions were made using intelligence provided by the 5th Department. That such assumptions, if indeed they were made, proved to be so fundamentally off target, when combined with the preparedness of the Ukrainian military to engage the initial columns of Russian forces, suggests that the work of the 5th Department had been disrupted by Ukrainian security services, who took control of Russian human networks and fed false reports back to the Russian leadership.
The fact is that columns of Russian troops, advancing boldly into Ukraine without the kind of attention to route security and flank protection that would normally accompany offensive operations, found themselves cut off and annihilated by well-prepared Ukrainian ambushes. Moreover, instead of folding under pressure, the Ukrainian Army — both regular and those from the territorial forces — stood their ground and fought, using hand-held anti-tank weapons— US-made Javelins and British-made NLAWs— to great effect. It was, to use an American colloquialism, a Turkey shoot, and the Ukrainian government made effective use of combat footage obtained from such encounters to great effect in shaping global public opinion about the effectiveness of Ukraine’s defenses.
However, the limitations of the Ukrainian armed forces did not allow it to turn its impressive tactical victories into positive operational and strategic outcomes. Despite costly initial setbacks, the Russian Army pressed home its attack, achieving impressive gains in the south, where Russian forces operating out of Crimea secured the strategic city of Kherson and advanced on the equally important city of Mariupol. There, they joined with Russian and allied forces from the Donetsk Republic to surround the Ukrainian forces defending Mariupol, eventually trapping the survivors, numbering several thousand strong, in the reinforced concrete underworld of the Azovstal steel factory. Further north, Russian forces, together with the forces of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics, advanced westward to drive Ukrainian forces from their prepared defenses to gain control of the totality of the territory encompassing the Donbass region.
The “Battle for Kiev”
While securing the territorial integrity of the Donbass region was one of the primary objectives of the Russian special military operation, to accomplish this Russia carried out extensive supporting operations, which included a diversionary advance toward Kiev designed to fix Ukrainian forces in place and divert reinforcements away from the eastern front, as well as an amphibious feint off the coast of Odessa for the same purpose. For a diversionary attack and/or feint to be operationally viable, it must be believable, which means the forces carrying out the mission must be aggressive in the execution of the diversion, even under unfavorable conditions.
The Russian advance on Kiev was done by a force of some 40,000 men operating on two axes, one heading south, the other pushing southwest from the direction of Chernihiv. The ground advances were preceded by several air assaults targeting airfields in the vicinity of Kiev. Whether or not Russian intelligence had indicated that Kiev was ripe for a coup de main, or the Russian paratroopers and special forces conducting the assaults were too aggressive in selling the attack, or a combination of both, the reality was that Kiev was well defended by a mix of regular army and territorial forces who were not inclined to give up the Ukrainian capital without a fight. For over a month, the Russian forces advanced on Kiev, launching probing attacks that penetrated the northern suburbs and threatened to surround the city from both the east and west.
The fact of the matter remains, however, that a force of 40,000 men, no matter how aggressively employed, cannot take, and hold, a city of some three million inhabitants defended by a mix of 60,000 regular, reserve, and territorial soldiers. But this was never their task. “These actions [i.e., the advance on Kiev],” Colonel General Sergey Rudskoy, the first deputy chief of Russia’s General Staff, announced during a briefing on March 26, “are carried out with the aim of causing such damage to military infrastructure, equipment, personnel of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the results of which allow us not only to tie down their forces and prevent them from strengthening their grouping in the Donbass, but also will not allow them to do this until the Russian army completely liberates the territories of the [Donetsk People’s Republic] and [Lugansk People’s Republic].”
In an indication of both the intensity of the combat involved in the Kiev feint, and the importance of the assigned mission, Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded the honorific title of ‘Guard’ to the 64th Detached Motor Rifle Brigade for its “astute and bold actions” during the Kiev fighting. “The unit’s staff became a role model in fulfilling its military duty, valor, dedication and professionalism,” Putin noted in the accompanying citation (the Ukrainian government has accused the 64th Brigade of committing war crimes in the town of Bucha, north of Kiev, a charge the Russian government vehemently denies.)
The so-called “Battle for Kiev” is a clear-cut example of the difference between perception and reality. The Ukrainian position is that its forces decisively defeated the Russian military on the approaches to Kiev, forcing not only a retreat, but also a complete re-design of the strategic objectives of the special military operation. This point of view has been echoed unquestioningly by a compliant Western media, and embraced by political and military leaders in Europe, Canada, and the US.
One of the major outcomes of this Ukrainian “victory” was the ability of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to leverage this perception into a fundamental shift of thinking on the part of his supporters in the West, resulting in an increase in both the amount of money allocated to supplying Ukraine with weapons, as well as the quality of the weapons themselves, as the West shifted away from an emphasis on light anti-tank weapons to more conventional armor and artillery.
Left unspoken was the need for this dramatic change in weapons priority, especially given the fact that Ukraine had, according to its own narrative, decisively defeated Russia using these very same light anti-tank weapons. The reality, however, was that the Russian Phase One operations had inflicted near-fatal damage to the Ukrainian military, killing and wounding tens of thousands of soldiers while destroying the vast bulk of Ukraine’s heavy weaponry — the artillery, tanks, and armored fighting vehicles critical to waging modern combined arms warfare. The reason Ukraine requested more tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery from its Western suppliers is that it had depleted its available stocks.
But equipment was the least of Ukraine’s worries. A military is only as good as its ability to logistically sustain its forces while in combat, and one of the primary objectives of the Russian Phase One campaign was to destroy Ukraine’s fuel and ammunition storage facilities and degrade Ukrainian command and control. The result is that while Ukraine held onto Kiev, it did so at an enormous cost in overall combat effectiveness. And while Russia was able to withdraw from the Kiev front and undergo a period of rest, rearmament, and reorientation (a normal action for military units that had been engaged in virtually non-stop combat operations for a month), the Ukrainian military remained under pressure from incessant Russian aerial attack and bombardment from precision-guided cruise missiles and Russian artillery.
Perception, when subjected to the harsh light of reality, is exposed as little more than wishful thinking. This is very much the case regarding the so-called “Battle for Kiev,” where the Ukrainian military was left holding territory which no longer served any useful purpose for the Russians. Russia was able to redeploy its forces to better support its prime objective, the seizure of Donbass, leaving the Ukrainian forces in Kiev frozen in place.
Mariupol and the battle for Donbass
The battle for Mariupol is another example where perception management clashed with ground-truth reality. The narrative surrounding the present fate of Mariupol is very much a tale of two cities. From the Ukrainian perspective, the city continues to be held by a heroic cadre of fighters who are tying down tens of thousands of Russian forces who otherwise could be redeployed elsewhere, supporting the Russian main effort against Donbass. So long as these defenders hold out, the Ukrainians contend, the vital land bridge connecting Crimea and the Russian Federation will be at risk. Likewise, their continued resistance serves a major propaganda purpose, denying Russia the ability to declare victory prior to the Victory Day celebration of May 9.
Russia, however, has already declared victory in Mariupol. While conceding that a few thousand defenders remain dug into the Cold War-era bunkers underneath the Azovstal steel factory, Russia says that these forces serve no meaningful military value. Indeed, rather than sacrifice Russian troops to dig the Ukrainian forces from their underground lairs, President Putin directed the military to seal off the Azov facility and wait the defenders out.
There is no doubt that the presence of Ukrainians in the Azovstal factory represents a propaganda victory for Ukraine. But the reality is that the city of Mariupol has fallen to Russia; while the Ukrainian defenders, possibly accompanied by thousands of civilians, waste away as their food supplies diminish, the rest of Mariupol is beginning the task of rebuilding a shattered city where an estimated 90% of the buildings have been damaged or destroyed in brutal street-to-street fighting. The Russian land bridge is intact, and the Russian offensive against Donbass is proceeding without delay.
The statements in Kiev by Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin are a byproduct of the perception of Ukrainian victory shaped by the twin Ukrainian “victories” in Kiev and Mariupol. The reality, however, is that Kiev was a masterful Russian deception that shaped the overall strategic situation in Ukraine in favor of Russia, and the Mariupol battle is likewise finished in terms of any strategic impact on the overall campaign. What is left is the harsh truth of simple “military math” which, when projected onto a map, provides the kind of unyielding fact-based evidence that Ukraine is losing its war with Russia.
The fact of the matter is that the military aid being provided to Ukraine by the West will not have any discernable impact on a battlefield where Russia is asserting its dominance more and more each day. Not only is there not enough equipment being provided. Hundreds of armored vehicles cannot replace the more than 2,580 that have been lost by Ukraine to date, nor can dozens of artillery pieces offset the more that 1,410 artillery tubes and rocket launchers destroyed by the Russian military.
When two military forces of equal size and capability face off against one another, they seek to acquire an operational advantage through the attrition of their opponent’s capabilities which, in combination with effective maneuvering of their own forces, puts the opponent in an untenable situation. The transition from a battle of equals to decisive military victory is often rapid, representing as it does the culmination of acquired supremacy in the form of firepower and maneuver which is brought together in synchronistic fashion, creating a series of tactical and operational dilemmas for which the opponent has no viable solution.
This is the current situation with the Ukrainian military facing off against the Russians in Donbass today. The Ukrainians, lacking any meaningful artillery support of their own, are at the mercy of the Russian artillery and rocket launchers that pound their positions day in and day out, without respite. The Russian troops have taken a very deliberate approach to engaging with their Ukrainian opponents. Gone are the rapid advances by unprotected columns and convoys; now, the Russians isolate the Ukrainian defenders, pound them with artillery, and then carefully close in and destroy what remains with infantry supported by tanks and armored fighting vehicles. The casualty ratio in this fighting is unforgiving for Ukraine, with hundreds of soldiers lost each day in terms of killed, wounded and surrendered, while Russian casualties are measured in scores.
Not only can Russia maneuver virtually at will along the front as it closes with and destroys the Ukrainian defenders, but Russian troops also operate with absolute freedom in depth, meaning that they can pull back to refit, rearm, and rest without fear of Ukrainian artillery fire or counterattacking forces. The Ukrainians, meanwhile, remain pinned down, unable to move without fear of being detected and destroyed by Russian air power, and as such doomed to be isolated and destroyed by Russian troops in due course.
There is virtually no hope of reinforcement or relief for the Ukrainian forces operating on the front lines; Russia has interdicted the rail lines that had served as the conduit for resupply, and the likelihood of any Ukrainian forces which have received heavy weapons provided by the West reaching the frontlines in any discernable strength is virtually zero. The Battle for Donbass is reaching its culminating point, where the Ukrainian military rapidly transitions from a force capable of providing the semblance of resistance to one that has lost all meaningful combat capability.
This is the state of play entering the third month of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine. While the termination of any conflict is always a political question, one thing is for certain — if the operation extends into a fourth month, the battlefield will look vastly different from the one that the world currently sees. The battle for Donbass and eastern Ukraine is all but over. That is the hard reality, and no amount of wishful thinking or perception management by either Zelensky or his American partners can change that.