As Russia’s wider war in Ukraine nears its second month, the Kremlin still hasn’t solved its fundamental military problems.
The Russian army didn’t have enough infantry and supply trucks to win a three-front war in Ukraine’s south, east and north. Now it’s fighting on only two fronts—the south and east. But it’s got even fewer infantry and trucks than before.
So while the Russians’ artillery might punch a hole in the outermost Ukrainian defenses, allowing a few tank battalions to roll through, there aren’t enough foot soldiers to both protect the tanks and guard the flanks of the advance. To say nothing of securing fragile supply lines as they stretch out over scores or hundreds of miles from the nearest railheads.
Logistical failures doomed Russia’s attempt to encircle Kyiv in the first month of the war. Those same logistical failures, exacerbated by a worsening infantry shortage, could doom Russia’s offensive in the east, too.
After losing thousands of tanks and other vehicles and potentially tens of thousands of troops, the Kremlin starting in late March yanked its battered battalion tactical groups from the Kyiv suburbs.
Those BTGs that still could fight began the long train journey southeast around Ukraine to separatist-controlled Donbas, where they joined a fresh Russian offensive striking south from the northern edge of Donbas, across the vast open terrain of eastern Ukraine, toward the ruins of besieged Mariupol on the Sea of Azov coast.
The idea is to get behind and cut off the Ukrainian forces—many tens of thousands of troops in a dozen or so brigades—along the line of control in western Donbas. But the Russians have made very little progress since that offensive began on Tuesday.
“I said, ‘pushing from the north Donbas to the south,’” an unnamed Pentagon official told reporters on Wednesday. “That’s kind of what we’re seeing right now but the Ukrainians are putting up a fight, they’re scrapping, they’re not—you know, they’re not just laying down and letting the Russians, you know, move.”
Paradoxically, breaking through the Ukrainians’ defensive line might actually set the conditions for the Russians’ ultimate defeat, Igor Girkin, a former colonel in Russia’s FSB intelligence agency and a prominent Russian ultranationalist, explained on the Telegram social-media platform.
“Can they quickly unite in the deep rear of the Ukrainian grouping, creating … two encirclement rings?” Girkin asked. “With a guarantee that the enemy will not immediately break through them and create their own ‘cauldrons’ for the attackers?”
In other words, can the roughly 75 intact Russian BTGs—down from 100 at the start of the war—surge enough troops and tanks through a potential hole in Ukraine’s lines to create a solid wall of troops across the roughly 100 miles from northern Donbas to Russian-controlled territory outside Mariupol?
Only a stiff western line would complete the encirclement of the Ukrainian brigades in the east—and only if Russia’s eastern line also held.
If the Russian force attempting the flanking maneuver falters, it risks itself getting flanked and cut off from its supply depots. If that happens, a repeat of the northern campaign could follow. That is, Russian battalions stalling out and running out of food, fuel and ammunition. At which point Ukrainian forces would pick them apart piecemeal until the Kremlin declares “victory” and orders a retreat.
“I express doubt,” Girkin wrote of the Russians’ chances of success. “Why? I answer: because this requires a lot of units and formations, designed not only to break through, but also to firmly secure the territory. As well as a large number of supply units.”
But there were too few infantry and logisticians in the pre-war Russian army—shortfalls that became obvious in March as Russian tanks advanced without protection … until they ran out of gas and their crews abandoned them. The shortfall is even greater today, after front-line BTGs and their supporting supply brigades suffered thousands of casualties in the first 50-plus days of fighting.
“If the enemy had few forces, the protection of communications could be partially ignored,” Girkin explained. “But the armed forces of Ukraine, thanks to mobilizations, already have enough forces—comparable to the number of our troops in the theater.”
Plus there’s Russia’s geography problem. As the defender, Kyiv’s army has the advantage of interior lines. Basically, it’s fighting along the inside of an arc. Russian is fighting along the outside the same arc, which is longer.
When an army has interior lines, its supply lines are shorter. And if a force on the inside comes under strain, it can always retreat a few miles and further shorten its lines, trading space for time and forcing the attacker to extend even farther.
An attacker with an overwhelming advantage in troops and a robust logistical system might overcome the disadvantage of exterior lines. But Russia actually has roughly as many battalions as Ukraine does in the war zone and, according to a U.S. official, fewer tanks. And Russian logistics are no better than they were a month ago, and probably worse.
Girkin for one appreciates this reality, even if Russian president Vladimir Putin doesn’t. “I assume that the general lack of forces will not allow the Russian command to carry out deep coverage in the area of the Dnieper [River],” which bisects Ukraine from north to south.
Russia went to war with an army that was too small and under-supplied. Barring an immediate Ukrainian collapse—which of course didn’t happen—that likely doomed the Russian campaign from day one.