Holding the line will become a struggle for Putin’s Army
In theory, it was the greatest mismatch of the century. The world’s second most powerful army housing 146 million inhabitants on the world’s largest landmass, facing up against a much smaller enemy. Russia had the army, the population and the money.
Nobody had any reason to support Ukraine. And yet, the war will soon begin its second year.
Three factors played a major role in denying Russia a path to victory. Putin assumed the sight of thousands of tanks on the highway and screaming aircrafts will force Ukraine into submission. Ukraine simply refused to roll over and die.
As the war erupted in February last year, one by one, nations around the world coalesced behind Ukraine. There isn’t a single global leader of repute who expressed support for Russia’s invasion. Ukraine has allies. Russia is backed up by international pariahs.
The quality of western weapons supplied to Ukraine exposed the Russian military and its defense industry for what it is: Inept and corrupt. The west did not give Ukraine enough weapons. It only gave weapons in the last minute, at minimal quantity and sometimes the weapons were either the second best or even the third best.
Nothing explains the indecisive nature of western support better than the Multiple rocket launchers(MRLS), the precision guided artillery weapons system, the west supplied to Ukraine. It was the one weapon that helped Ukraine regain the initiative after losing several towns to Russia in July last year.
Russia resorted to crude artillery bombardment to raze Ukrainian villages before encircling them. Ukrainians, after receiving the multiple rocket launchers decimated the Russian supply lines running to the frontline making it impossible for Russians to advance.
It is unfortunate that the west didn’t even provide enough MRLS systems to Ukraine, even after they realized the impact on the battlefield.
According to official records, Ukraine has 38 MRLS units.
United States: 20 HIMARS
United Kingdom: 6 M270
Norway: 6 M270
Germany: 5 MARS II
France: 2 LRU
A measly 40 units to combat the Russian occupation chain spanning a frontline of more than 900 kilometers. Ukrainians were not only given a limited number of these systems, but also ammunition that was limited in range. The MRLS systems were capable of hitting targets 300 km away. Ukraine received ammunition that could only reach 70 kms.
Despite giving Ukraine the best car in the world, the west refused to allow them to fill the whole fuel tank out of concern that Ukraine would drive it to its logical conclusion.
But Ukraine made full use of the limited supply-limited range MRLS systems given by the west. They smartly kept moving those units around, while systematically targeting enemy warehouses, logistical nodes, transportation hubs and important military installations. They did not waste it to attack the Russian frontlines.
Ukraine used it to choke the flow of Russian weapons, food and fuel to the frontlines.
After losing multiple towns in June and July, Ukraine regained strength and liberated thousands of square kilometers in October and November. It would be an understatement to say that multiple rocket launchers provided by the west changed the war.
Western media has been raving about the decision to supply heavy weapons to Ukraine. I agree that it is a good decision. One that is essential. But when viewed in isolation, the supply of tanks and armored vehicles is not the magic bullet that will push Ukraine towards victory.
To mount a successful offensive maneuver, Ukraine has to systematically degrade the strength of the enemy. They will have to wait until the offensive formations they have built is strong enough to slice through the layered defense Russia would have erected behind the frontlines. Ukraine has to relentlessly attack the Russian supply — food, fuel and weapons.
If the Russian army isn’t forced to struggle far away from the frontlines and supply lines moving goods to the front aren’t frequently cut off, then Ukraine will struggle to liberate territory. You penetrate the frontline when you know the enemy has no way, means, or strength to stop you.
It wasn’t until last week that the Biden administration changed the equation by making a single decision to clean up all the Russian warehouses on Ukrainian soil.
“The Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb (GLSDB), will allow Ukraine’s military to hit targets at twice the distance reachable by the rockets it now fires from the U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS).
If included as expected in an upcoming weapons-aid package first reported by Reuters, the 151 km (94 mile) GLSDB will put all of Russia’s supply lines in the east of the country within reach, as well as part of Russian-occupied Crimea.”
Image created by author using a licensed Ukraine map
From the map above, you can see that Russia cannot keep its ammunition depots inside Ukraine and feel safe about them. A real target of this move is the defensive structures Russia has erected in order to stop Ukrainian advances. Russian fuel depots and warehouses need to be relocated. Preferably inside Russia.
Ukrainian soldier in a trench during the Battle of Bakhmut at the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine: Credit: Viktor Borinets (CC by 4.0)
Russia is building trenches to defend the Ukrainian territory it is occupying. Trenches need soldiers. Soldiers need weapons and food. A warehouse located 100 kilometers away from the frontline is not going to make life hard in the trenches, it will tell the soldiers that it is better to give up than stay up.
You cannot fight when you are hungry all the time.
It is my assumption that the Biden administration will expedite the supply of the extended range ammunition for HIMARS immediately. Western tanks are not expected to arrive until summer.
Between now and then, Ukraine can use multiple rocket launchers to attack Russian supply routes and force them to move those warehouses deep into the occupied territory. Most probably the Russians will move the big ones inside Russia and pivot to keeping small warehouses all over the place in the occupied territory.
Ukraine has to keep attacking them over and over. Winter is the best time to keep your enemy sweating.
A Russian Offensive is Imminent
As commander-in-chief of an army that lost nearly half of the territory it occupied in March 2022, Putin has lost confidence in his army. His only aim is to force the west to negotiate with him.
In order to move forward, he has to move the Russian warehouses behind. The only option left to him is to deplete Ukraine and deplete them as soon as possible. He knows protecting occupied territory for another six months is not going to work against the latest tranche of weapons. He will go overboard with his recruitment drive and push thousands of Russians to death every day.
He will deploy Stalin’s tactics and push as many Russians into the war as possible.
The war cannot be won by Putin. He is completely dependent on two western leaders to give him a strategic lift-off to safety. These two leaders are not strategic bystanders. They are a little bit more than that. Consequently, the United States will have the most impact on this conflict.
“We have neither encouraged nor enabled the Ukrainians to strike inside of Russia,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month.
The United States has revised its strategic doctrine in the Russia-Ukraine war. No U.S. combat forces are in Ukraine. The risk for America is weapons and dollars, while the full brunt of the war has fallen on Ukrainians. So far, the bill of Ukraine war is zero American lives and $110 billion dollars.
This will be cheapest war ever won by America. That’s a lot less than the $8 trillion America spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whether the objectives of America’s twin overseas wars were met or not can be debated for a very long time.
Russia has already lost its position as a strategic enemy of the United States. Putin had the plan, and the patience to destroy the liberal order built by America. Had he won, it would have completely upended global trade. Every war is about flow of goods. Russia’s war against Ukraine is no different.
As long as the Biden administration’s weapons supply to Ukraine is too restrictive, it will be at a loss to compete with Russia. It was Biden’s mistake to not trust Ukraine. He could have easily told Zelenskyy that he does not want Ukraine to take the war beyond the borders, and given Ukraine the weapons it needed to attack every inch of territory occupied by Russia.
Recently, you can see Biden taking steps that may have even surprised Ukrainian President Zelenskyy. By providing Ukraine with GLSDB ammunition, he has set the war towards its logical end. It is still a small step. But a good step in the right direction.
Ukraine does not need a wonder weapon to win the war against Russia. It only needs the weapons that are already there in the western stockpile.