- Isaac Bly
Twilight in Ukraine
This is the second part of a two-part series of articles examining several developments in the Ukraine War and considering possible conclusions.
AP Photo - Felipe Dana
The Soviet Material Legacy
A moment should be taken to recognize a significant loss. Something that should be remembered is where Russia is sourcing much of its material reserves. Russia does not have the industrial capacity to support its consumption of shells and armoured vehicles at the current rate. While they are unlikely ever to run dry of shells entirely or motor vehicles with their respectable industrial base, their high consumption of this material has been supported by Soviet stockpiles. That reserve had always factored into the calculus of long-term conflict resulting from decades of massive military production. It was always a finite resource from a dead state. That legacy is being depleted.
Understanding the sheer amount of Russian material consumption compared to production is essential when considering the impact of and reduction of the Soviet stockpiles. Chief of the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate, Kyrylo Budanov, is on record stating that Russia is only capable of a monthly production of 40 cruise missiles. Considering that the large March 9th missile attack comprised more than 80 missiles, this number is insufficient for their current or past consumption in the long term. In terms of tank production, there is some information to indicate that Russia could be capable of producing some 200-250 tanks per year (as well as modernizing 600 older tanks), an impressive number, certainly with shortcuts taken that is still not yet capable of making up for the more than 1,819 tanks visually confirmed to be destroyed according to the open-source intelligence organization Oryx.* Taking the paper strength from Military Balance 2021, Russia had an estimated 10,200 tanks in reserve. Unfortunately for Russia, the usefulness of these, in reality, is not as extensive. Some rather basic but thorough open-source investigating indicates that in early April that Russia is likely only capable of delivering some 3,000 of these reserves into service, likely of varying quality and condition. While these numbers aren’t exact, they paint a less-than-ideal picture for the Soviet stockpiles.
It can already be seen how this is forcing Russia’s habits to change, forcing them to ration artillery shells along less active areas of the front—such as in the north—to a painful degree. As well as the steady decline across the board of shell consumption since the onset of the war.** This is something that goes beyond decreasing consumption after the failure to end the war quickly; the nature of this new conflict and Russian employment of artillery has been extremely high, but when we consider how the Russian military will ration and pace their shell usage, it is important to understand how skewed their past consumption has been by their hollowing out much of their military inheritance. Certainly, Russia does not have decades to build up a new stockpile, nor does it have the same industrial capacity, economical, or political control as the Soviet Union did (even before considering the massive economic and demographic strain they are experiencing presently). From cannibalization, poor storage, and disastrous employment, these stockpiles are neither as large as they seem nor as usable as discussed earlier.***
* Novaya Gazeta's made this estimate in November of 2022. Russia has since then advanced its request for tank production. However, considering the limitations facing the Russian economy, it is unlikely to increase drastically and unlikely to meet the Kremlin’s ambitions of 800 per year. Although it is not improbable that Russia could produce more than expected through cost-saving means, it is indeed a solid historical precedent. Two, Russian losses are certainly higher than losses visually confirmed by Oryx, and the number provided only counts those destroyed, not those put out of action, perhaps for significant repair. Three, we see signs that Russia is digging deeper into their Soviet stockpiles to modernize the older T-62 for combat (likely hoping to fill gaps in production as a short-term solution).
** For reference, Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Chief Kyrylo Budanov estimated that Russia was consuming 20,000 shells per day in late December 2022, only 30% of the amount used daily in the early days of the war.
*** Much of the data used in this section should be considered less reliable, though still valid for analysis, particularly in regard to the open-source investigations on Russian tank reserves.
Defeat in the more public sense that we see now from Russia was never inevitable. Beyond the interventions of Western intelligence or the development of the Ukrainian military. It’s possible Russia’s goals were vague enough and their control of the media tight enough. In the early days, their military power was still significant enough that they could have pulled out of the conflict. However, it was a series of decisions made by Russia that truly entrenched them in this conflict, the mobilization of the population, the continuation of high-intensity fighting, their hostile responses to Western aid, and most importantly, the annexations of southern Ukraine. Those annexations are, in hindsight, a fateful decision as they quantified Russia’s goals and promised something in physical space. Then Ukraine took it back. This moment is vital to understand because Russia staked a new territorial claim and lost it. They lost territory in Ukraine, territory that was to be Russian forever. At this point, both countries could definitely lose something, and Russia lost it. It is important to understand however much Putin rattles the atomic saber, he cannot do so to his own population, and losing a war has traditionally been profoundly destabilizing in Russian history.*
Russia has experienced a disaster in Ukraine, and that disaster has continued. Looking beyond the military and economic implications, the transformation of European politics has not been favourable to Putin’s regime. Russia’s invasion has served to validate and unite NATO, not only pushing countries like Sweden or Finland towards the alliance but changing people's perspectives on NATO. If Russia intended to weaken NATO, this is the opposite of that. Moreover, this war has pushed Russia away from the rest of the international community. They have not only become a pariah of sorts but are seen increasingly as a declining aggressive power, one that is considered an active threat to other states. As mentioned, Russia appears to be a power on the decline, struggling against a minor power, Ukraine. Russia’s influence has declined in the post-Soviet sphere, with increasingly independent action in Central Asia as one example.
* Certainly, the Kremlin has other methods to control the population, but so have most regimes in Russia before them.
Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs
The Disaster Continues
While Russia’s economy has been holding up better than many predicted, the conflict has certainly been harmful beyond the titanic sanctions. In the long term, this invasion has only made Russia’s demographics bleaker, isolated it from much of international financing, cost it its primary gas buyer, and forced countless compromises in production and consumption. As for the military implications, these are dire, as discussed above, with the increasing loss of Soviet stockpiles. As mentioned earlier, Oryx has observed and verified that Russia has lost 1,819 tanks, enough to furnish more than 40 battalions of their pre-war Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs), which in themselves were sacrificed, and recently substituted for the previously mentioned ‘assault detachments.’ With CISI estimating 60,000-70,000 Russian combat fatalities as of February of 2023. Russia’s more sophisticated systems have also suffered, such as aircraft and missiles, with more than 4,500 spent of the latter by last October.
Even with all of this, we have not discussed the thorough humiliations Russia has faced on the battlefield or the harm it has caused in the Donbas, nor the eruption of Ukrainian nationalism spurred by the invasion, but that in itself says something. It says that Russia is facing bleak results on all sides. If Russia does take Bakhmut at a terrible cost, it is not something that many correspondents believe could be a turning point after all the losses suffered in Ukraine. All of this is to say that something has broken.
The Pieces that Remain
It is incredibly improbable that Russia can rout the Ukrainian military, occupy the counter, and subdue almost certain resistance movements. Not after their extensive military losses, economic sanctions, the development of more advanced Ukrainian capacities in the face of Western support, and their own poor planning and organization. That fight is over (if it ever was Russia’s goal). When it ended precisely is not yet clear, but it is done. This in itself does not mean the end of the conflict because the fate of Ukraine still remains in the air; does Ukraine reclaim Crimea? Does Russia maintain its satellites in the Donbas? More abstractly, can Russia salvage its reputation as a great power? Will both countries' populations be content with the results if the war ended?
Konstantin & Vlada Liberov
What Could Be Peace?
Peace in Ukraine will not be a simple resolution. It has always been difficult to predict the results of peace, especially before the process has begun. It is important to clarify that the strategic failure on the part of Russia does not mean victory for Ukraine. There is still a wide array of possibilities. It is perhaps possible that the combat between Russia and Ukraine comes to an end, that Ukraine restores its 2014 borders, that it is able to join NATO, eventually, the EU as it rebuilds itself, and that Russia and Ukraine ultimately secure its sovereignty. This optimistic view indeed seems to be the consensus in Ukraine.*
There are, of course, many other outcomes, such as the Ukrainian’s reclaiming the Donbas but not Crimea and with low-intensity combat along national borders similar to the war in Donbas, where Ukraine is still unable to join NATO, where the Ukrainians continue to be frustrated by their entanglement with Russia. Even more grim is a Ukraine that does not manage—perhaps by lack of will or combat capacity or even outside intervention—to liberate the Donbas or Crimea and remains badly scarred by the conflict with NATO uneasy about aligning with a vulnerable Ukraine, facing popular anger in the face of a conflict that failed to meet the promises set forth by their government.
Another factor hard to account for is the influence of other countries on proceedings. For example, it is difficult to assess how much power Chinese relations will have on Russian negotiating or even how much Ukraine might be influenced by the EU they hope to align with. Another prominent factor is the future war developments, such as the extent of Western support, the sustainment of Ukrainian enthusiasm for their stated goals, or the supply of Russian ammunition. While it is too early to make serious predictions about the end of this conflict with all these unaccounted factors, there is an important distinction to be made, a distinction of what is being fought for.
* The primary officially stated goal of the Ukrainian government is the restoration of Ukraine’s pre-2014 borders with Crimea and the Donbas, as well as any of their other occupied territories. While some amendments have been added or changed, this has generally remained a constant.
The Fight for the Future
The War in Ukraine is a fight for the future, a fight for what Ukraine will become after this war as well as Russia’s exit from their disaster. While much of the consequences for Russia are built into their decision, Ukraine’s fate is far less clear. Clearly, the Ukrainians' willingness to continue their struggle and their Western allies to support them will shape their future, not just their survival, a future not only of lines and maps but also of people and institutions. A future that will likely shape all of Europe, and as many have argued, the world.