I was intrigued to see Eugyppius’ recent piece on the war in Ukraine, in which he comments on an article in Die Welt which has the headline ‘Why it is almost impossible that Ukraine will still win’ (auto translation). Eugyppius takes this as a rare moment of candour from Die Welt – an admission of truth, hitherto concealed. I wouldn’t be so sure… but since the author of the piece is Christoph B. Schiltz, a doctor of political science, perhaps we should take this seriously. I was reminded of the unfortunate demise of poor Bunbury:
Algernon: The doctors found out that Bunbury could not live, that is what I mean – so Bunbury died.
Lady Bracknell: He seems to have had great confidence in the opinion of his physicians. I am glad, however, that he made up his mind at the last to some definite course of action, and acted under proper medical advice.
However, the problems with Dr Schiltz’s diagnosis are manifold. He starts with false (or at best disputed) claims and makes a military assessment based on flawed assumptions. His very first sentence contains four distinct errors. He writes:
Kiev’s army is running out of men and matériel, the enemy is adapting better and has massive supplies. [Auto translation.]
Let’s start with the claim that Ukraine is running out of men (and his claims about Russia’s large manpower resources). The fact is that Ukraine has more men than it can put into the field because of a lack of equipment for them to use (tanks, planes, etc.). In fact, the same applies to any nation – including Russia – practically no matter the size of the population. Beginning at least as early as the 14th Century, and definitely from that dreadful day in 1453, offensive equipment such as cannons (and its descendents) have increasingly become crucial to warfare and – beyond an essential minimum – manpower has relatively little bearing on the matter, with the fundamental limitation being the equipment itself, and only secondarily the manning of that equipment and its supporting troops and logistics. The Gulf War was fought against a numerically comparable number of Iraqi soldiers, but nobody thinks it was an even contest, or a contest of manpower at all.
But even leaving equipment aside, there is simply a limit to how many men you can stuff into a trench or use in an effective attack; indeed, there is an optimum, beyond which an increase in troops (with all their logistical demands) effectively degrades overall effectiveness, while an increase in troop concentrations is likely to lead to higher casualty rates. It’s simply not a matter of two armies getting as many men as they can to stand on either side of a field shooting at each other with small arms until one side runs out of men (unlike, say, Bunker Hill). In fact, this war is largely an artillery duel, where soldiers on either side hide behind their equipment many miles apart and barely ever see each other, with the key targets being the weapons systems. However, for what it’s worth, Ukraine has roughly 700,000 active military personnel out of a total pool of at least 11 million potential recruits. It has enough.
Later in the article, Schiltz makes the following rather odd statement in support:
Depending on how one looks at it, [Ukraine is] already in at least the eighth wave of mobilisation, meanwhile men over 60 years of age are being sent to the front. [Auto translation.]
I simply don’t know where that comes from, and I think it’s misleading and possibly outright false. The original mobilisation order for 90 days has been extended three times, but there are none over the age of 60 being forced to enlist, and it’s mainly reservists who’ve been recalled, in addition to largely willing volunteers. It’d be nice if Schiltz could cite his sources.
As to the situation vis-à-vis matériel, Schiltz doesn’t specify what he thinks Ukraine is “running out of”. When it comes to artillery ammunition, Ukraine did have some problems with the supply of 155mm shells last year, and has had ongoing difficulties with supplies of Soviet-standard 152mm ammo (and the overall amount of artillery pieces). But Western countries have been providing more and more systems, and the U.S. and U.K. are ramping up production of 155m shells, while Rheinmetall stands ready to do so too, and production continues in Czechia and elsewhere in Europe. With 152mm ammunition, again there are strong efforts underway to meet the demand. Total current expenditure of artillery rounds is about 4–7,000 a day, and doesn’t appear to be dropping – but Ukraine would like to increase it. In terms of small arms ammunition, there is more than enough of the Soviet ammo types, and vast quantities of NATO-calibre ammunition is available around the world – such that it’s routine to see Ukrainian soldiers suppressing the enemy by mag-dumping their rifles with gleeful abandon.
As for the rockets fired by the M142 HIMARS and M270 systems, the numbers available in Ukraine are unclear, but Lockheed Martin (in partnership with Northrop Grumman) is looking to ramp up production of new GMLRS rockets to 14,000 per year, while some production may also be licensed to European manufacturers, which would be sensible given the number of new HIMARS systems being ordered by European nations. Thus, Ukraine may not be running out of GMLRS, as far as we know, but they are (and have always been) limited in what they can use. One key area that has been a huge concern is Ukraine’s stocks of air defence missiles (particularly for the S-300), however the latest tranches of Western weapons supplies and new orders (NASAMS, Iris-T, Patriot, Thales) have been aimed at rectifying this.
I won’t go through the whole list of supplies needed (everything from clothing to fuel, to mortar rounds, IFVs, etc.), but for instance when it comes to ATGMs there are many times as many of them as there are Russian tanks for them to destroy (I lost count at about 20,000), and I can’t remember the last time I saw a Ukrainian soldier in combat without decent body armour. Nevertheless, when it comes to the heavier and more sophisticated Western weapons systems like tanks, planes, longer-range rocket artillery and air defence systems, Ukraine could use as much as can be supplied. That could be crucial to making the difference between sustaining a long, drawn-out conflict and achieving a swift victory.
Coming to the second half of Schiltz’s first sentence, I have not heard a single military expert state that the Russian army has been “adapting better”. The only operations the Russian army has managed to carry out in a relatively orderly manner have been the retreats from Kyiv and Kherson. The recent ongoing battle for Bakhmut has seen wave after wave of raw Russian convicts/recruits being thrown before Ukrainian positions, to be mowed down with the sole aim of allowing the more experienced Russian soldiers in the rear to spot those Ukrainian positions in order to direct artillery fires (a tactic known as “reconnaissance by fire”). If that is what Schiltz calls “adapting better”, then I can only assume his analogy is drawn from lemmings.
Furthermore, Bakhmut itself has no strategic significance, and it seems as though the real goal of these costly attacks has not been to win the war, but to improve the standing of Yevgheny Prigozhin and his Wagner PMC inside the Kremlin, as he jockeys for position with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, while Putin (reminiscent of Hitler) sits atop this pile of squabbling generals. The fact that Russian forces don’t have unified command at the top means they have huge planning and operational problems, and the fact that the different groups (e.g., DPR, LPR, Wagner, Kadyrovite Chechens and Russian regulars) have on many occasions been said to have got into heated arguments which have sometimes ended in them fragging each other with small arms or artillery, exemplifies the state of affairs at the bottom end. This is in stark contrast to the Ukrainian army, which not only has the respect of the population, but has a unified command structure with the right level of support and trust from civilian politicians, and has adapted very successfully to the modern “mission command” doctrine that gives valuable semi-autonomy to commanders on the ground – besides having access to the combined knowledge and experience of Western military leaders and defence experts. That’s not to say that some Ukrainian commanders and troops aren’t idiots, or that mistakes can’t be made. But that’s always the case in any army.
On Schiltz’s unsupported claim about Russia having “massive supplies” of matériel, evidence of rates of expenditure of 152mm artillery shells (declining from a peak of about 60,000 per day to about 20,000 per day) suggests scarcity. But Russia doesn’t have nearly as many friends as Ukraine, so outsourcing supplies is very difficult (with some shells having been purchased from North Korea), leading some to suggest that Russia will run out of shells and rocket artillery ammunition “early in 2023” – though I am rather more cautious, and would say that Russia (with a possible production capacity of perhaps 2–3m shells per year, when ramped up) will likely have to reduce its usage to less than 10,000 per day before long. However, given the significantly greater accuracy (and therefore effectiveness) of NATO 155mm artillery compared to Soviet-era 152mm artillery, and assuming Western supplies are ramped up sufficiently, this could give Ukraine the long-sought artillery advantage for the first time.
When it comes to Russian ballistic and cruise missiles, based on the scale and frequency of recent attacks (and a reliance on cheap Iranian drones) it seems that Russia is already severely rationing their use (down from over 50 per day last April) and has already effectively expended its pre-war stocks, forcing it to rely on its very limited production capacity (perhaps 8 Kh-101s per month, for instance), much of which further relies on Western electronics that are now subject to sanctions. Given that militaries always use the oldest stocks first, it’s revealing that rockets recovered of late have shown markings indicating very recent manufacture.
In other areas, anecdotal evidence from Russian conscripts suggests stocks of rifles and small-arms ammunition could be quite low, although it is possible that their commanders might be nervous about giving them too many guns, or that – as cannon fodder – they perhaps don’t really need more than a token amount of ammo. Supplies of tanks are hard to determine, but from a pre-war total of about 2,900 and with documented losses of over 1,600 (with over 500 captured by Ukraine), Russia has had to bring out tanks from storage, including ancient T-62s. Pre-war numbers of tanks in storage (T-72, T-80 and T-90) were estimated by IISS at 10,200, but with the levels of corruption in the Russian army and the poor storage facilities (many of them open to the elements), it’s been a slow process of scavenging old tanks from what remains – and (despite Schiltz’s later claims) no decisively large numbers of these are likely to appear. Nevertheless, it has to be said that the numbers of Western tanks now being provided to Ukraine are not decisive, and even though they are better tanks in most respects, they’re still very vulnerable to ATGMs.
Schiltz’s second sentence reads as follows:
No wonder Western diplomats are now talking more and more about a cease-fire.
…it has finally become clear that the USA, Germany and other NATO allies are more afraid of the war spreading into NATO territory than of the threat to Western security from Russian territorial conquests in Ukraine. [Auto translation.]
I wonder who these “Western diplomats” are, exactly? He doesn’t say, but I can only assume he’s talking about German diplomats, since it’s been accepted by pretty much everyone else (apart from Hungary, Austria, Italy and Turkey) that a cease-fire would only be used by Russia as a means to better train its newly-mobilised men, refurbish older tanks and manufacture more missiles, artillery pieces and shells, etc. Nobody is seriously trying to pressure Ukraine into talks (and Ukraine won’t be pressured like that anyway), since the core of NATO understands that negotiations would be completely futile, given that Russia simply will not yield on its territorial claims, merely wishing to cement its 2022 gains in some quasi-legal fashion, while re-arming for another go in a few years’ time – just as it did in 2015. To think otherwise is hopelessly naïve: to Putin and his circle, the conquest of Ukraine is a quasi-religious and almost categorical imperative, a psychological hangover of the worship of the state under communism, and comparable to the equally implacable and religiously-motivated hostility of Iran towards Israel. Even President Macron, who long held open the door for negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, has changed course and is now not ruling out supplies of French combat aircraft to Ukraine. (And bravo to Sweden for their willingness to supply Gripen fighter jets.)
As for Schiltz’s claim that the U.S. is afraid of the war somehow spreading into “NATO territory” (NATO has no territory as such), that has never been a serious concern, because NATO’s Article V is an absolute deterrent that would obviously be suicidal for Putin to cross. The concern – quite wrongly, in my view – has been over the possibility of nuclear escalation, hence the rather regrettable agreement between the U.S. and China not to supply U.S. combat aircraft, in return for China using diplomatic pressure to stop Putin getting nuclear-trigger happy – but this agreement is under considerable internal US pressure. And if the U.S. is so concerned about escalation, why has it used every lever possible to pressure Germany into “freeing the Leopards”, while not objecting to other countries sending their own jets, such as F-16s?
So I disagree with more-or-less everything Schiltz says (in fact, I think he’s 180° wrong), although he does make a point about the rather severe degradation of the Ukrainian energy-generating infrastructure which I’m inclined to take more seriously (although he exaggerates). However, so far this hasn’t affected military operations to any serious degree, and I think time will tell if it’ll have a major impact on the war: better air defences, the depleted Russian strike capacity and the coming of warmer spring weather may mean that things will begin to improve.
That said, things are not easy for Ukraine, and we shouldn’t underestimate the scale of the challenge before them. There may be some kind of Russian offensive in a few weeks’ time, and then (assuming that lemming train is crushed, which seems very likely) a Ukrainian offensive seems set to begin in late March or early April and possibly continuing into, or resuming in, summer. The outcome of that Ukrainian offensive is likely to be decisive, either bringing significant gains and paving the way for a Ukrainian victory this year or next, or (in the other event) leading to a stalemate, and further years of ongoing conflict. As Justin Bronk put it, contra much of what Schiltz said:
The Russians are in this nadir at the moment. They’ve got really quite limited trained manpower. They’ve got this additional roughly 150,000 Russian mobilisees that they’ve yet to commit, who have been training – not for very long, but they have been training. They are being equipped as units, but they don’t really have any other reserves at the moment. And so the Ukrainians have a significant personnel advantage at the moment, and they even have an ammunition advantage in terms of the weights of fire, because Russian production just hasn’t kept pace. They didn’t put their industry on a war footing until really quite recently, because they’d hoped for a short war and it just took time for it to filter through. But that kind of advantage for Ukraine to really make serious territorial gains in the spring and the summer isn’t going to last forever, because as incompetent and almost bafflingly useless as the Russian training pipeline and industrial ramp-up has been so far, there is a huge amount of pressure being exerted by the leadership in Moscow now, there is a huge coercive state apparatus to back it up […] and so as we get towards the autumn and towards the winter of this year, we have to at least plan on the assumption that Russian industrial production [is] now really ramping up […], so that if we get to that autumn and the winter and Ukraine hasn’t made pretty decisive territorial gains, then they may not get a chance again to really take back large swathes of territory. It’s not that they’re going to suddenly lose, but at that point we’re probably looking at going towards much more of a stalemate.
My money’s still very much on Ukraine and its indomitable people, and on President Zelenskyy and General Zaluzhnyi. Слава Україні!
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