Analysis on the progress of the war in Ukraine: tactical-strategic scenarios and general considerations (first part)

(To Andrea Gaspardo)
29/04/22

After having talked extensively in the latest analysis of the operations air, naval e land occurred so far in the Russo-Ukrainian War, we close our series concerning this update on the war in progress more than two months after its beginning by talking about some tactical-strategic considerations, also trying to formulate scenarios relating to how the situation could evolve in the future for the two contenders.

In light of the events and observations made on the ground since the beginning of the war until now, we can say that the original plan of Putin, and at least part of his establishment, was to achieve an easy and quick victory. The operational directives consequently transmitted to the Russian Armed Forces for the planning of the invasion presented optimistic scenarios which turned out to be absolutely incorrect.

Overall, the Russian strategy in the first phase of the war (roughly the first 11 days of conflict) that I had arbitrarily baptized "Swarm of Fire"Provided a sort of even greater-style reissue of the" Shock and Awe "campaign (translatable as" Strike and Terrify ") with which the United States crushed Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 2003.

The result of this first phase of the conflict was decidedly in chiaroscuro. If, on the one hand, Russia has achieved total domination on the naval front (net of the loss of the BDK-65 amphibious landing ship Saratov and the cruiser Moscow which, net of the image and operational damage, in any case do not change the balance of power achieved in the Black Sea) and the complete air superiority, on the other hand the armored and mechanized columns of its ground forces have not managed to have the better on the Ukrainian defenders who, on most fronts, managed to contain the Russians by intelligently applying the dictates of the Soviet military doctrine called "the shield and the sword" which envisages engaging the enemy in arrest battles (possibly channeling the offensive thrust towards already prepared defensive positions) accompanied by quick counterattacks by the maneuvering units positioned in reserve in order to inflict the greatest possible damage on the attackers.

While the notion that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are applying warfare tactics taken from the manuals inherited from the Soviet Union may seem strange at first glance, it should not be forgotten that over 90% of Ukraine's arsenals are in fact inherited from the Soviet period. almost all the officers serving in the Armed Forces began their careers during the aforementioned Soviet period or in the first 22 years of the country's independent life, when Soviet and Russian military doctrines were the only ones to be taught and assimilated.

What differentiates the Ukrainian Armed Forces of 2022 from those of 2014 (which demonstrated a very modest operational yield) is therefore neither the war material nor the military doctrines used, but the recovery of discipline, body spirit and training ( in a nutshell: "the foundations" on which any military institution is founded!), all elements that in the period between 1991 and 2014 had been literally left to perish.

It is not clear whether this process of "transformation", or rather of "recovery of the fundamental bases", has gone unnoticed in the eyes of Russian intelligence. It certainly was in the eyes of the intelligence agencies and armed forces of Western countries which continued to produce very critical reports on the state of Kiev's military facility. The tenor of some of these was justified, but others were decidedly ungenerous.

On the other side of the fence, the precision with which Russia conducted its air and especially missile campaign, in particular by landing a series of deadly blows against Ukrainian installations which, at the time of being hit, were full of soldiers or of foreign volunteers, denotes an excellent presence in the field of assets of the various Russian espionage agencies (SVR, FSB, GRU / GU) which have continued to constantly supply the Headquarters with a "river" of useful information to continue the air attacks and missiles in a sustained manner.

This massive presence of Russian intelligence agencies on Ukrainian soil clashes loudly with the notion that the "apparatuses" were not informed and did not have the pulse of the real situation existing within the country. That is why the author of this analysis believes (but it is a personal opinion at the moment not supported by any "strong" evidence) that the serious errors committed by the Ground Forces in the planning and conduct of the initial operations are primarily attributable to a failure. in the analytical capacity of the political leadership (Putin and his circle of closest collaborators) than in the negligence of the other "apparatuses". The fact is that, starting from March 1, and while the "Fire Swarm" phase of the war was still in progress, the Russian Armed Forces had already begun the long and painful process of turning towards the second and third phases of the conflict. .

The second phase of the Russo-Ukrainian War, which we will here call "Operation Python", which began roughly the day after the first week of March, and is actually still in progress, was and is characterized by a progressive and growing work of " strangulation ”and destruction of the capacity of the Ukrainian state both to resist at a military level and to continue functioning at an economic-social level.

The extent of the damage caused and the decision by the political and military leadership to continue the campaign in a protracted manner lead the author of this analysis to affirm that the initial objective of Putin's campaign, essentially to subdue the the whole of Ukraine, has not actually changed and the decision to withdraw troops from some areas to concentrate the offensive action in the Donbass and southern Ukraine is only of a "tactical and temporary" nature but is by no means revealing of a change in the basic strategic orientations on the part of Moscow.

At this point, after more than sixty days of war it is necessary to ask ourselves exactly: what is left of Ukraine? Because it is precisely starting from the answer to this question that we can then understand what possible possibilities of resistance have remained in the blue-yellow country beyond the success of the defensive strategy carried out up to now and which, in the humble opinion of the writer, at this rate does not it is sustainable in the long run.

According to official data released almost three weeks ago by the Minister of Finance of the Republic of Ukraine, Sergey Mikhailovich Marchenko, and communicated to me by my colleague Paolo Silvagni:

- the Ukrainian state deficit for the month of March was 2,7 billion dollars;

- the estimated deficit for the months of April and May should be between 5 and 7 billion dollars;

- 30% of Ukrainian companies have completely ceased all activities;

- the damages ascertained up to now to the civil and military infrastructures amount to 270 billion dollars;

- the total ascertained losses suffered by the Ukrainian economy since the beginning of the conflict amount to 600 billion dollars (a figure higher than the value of the GDP at purchasing power parity of Ukraine for the year 2021 as I reported in my passed "Analysis of the very delicate economic and social situation of Ukraine"!);

- the damage to the building stock now travels towards 1 trillion dollars;

- up to now 27% of the entire road system of the country has been destroyed (roads, motorways, railways);

- since the beginning of the conflict, imports have fallen by 2/3 while exports have halved;

- the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Union have approved exceptional loans of 5,6 billion dollars, sufficient only to prolong the agony.

These chilling economic data must be read in conjunction with the socio-demographic data provided by both the Ukrainian government and major international organizations such as UNICEF:

- so far the war has displaced more than 13 million people both inside and outside the country;

- almost 5,5 million Ukrainians (almost all women and children under the age of 18) are already refugees abroad and the number is constantly growing by 100.000 every single day;

- about 4,8 million Ukrainian children (2/3 of the total) are displaced from their homes and 1,8 million have already had to flee the country;

- according to the most realistic projections, by the beginning of June the number of Ukrainian refugees abroad is likely to reach 10 million;

- some projections for the moment that can be defined as "catastrophic", but by no means to be underestimated, speak of the possibility that, if the conflict continues for another 6/7 months, it could cause the death of up to 3 million Ukrainians (for the overwhelmingly men) and the escape of another 20 million or more.

These data, as chilling as the economic ones, must be evaluated in relation to the population of Ukraine which (with the exclusion of Crimea and Donbass, but without considering the data of the diaspora) on the eve of the hostilities was estimated at 37,5 millions of inhabitants. It is therefore clear that, even in the hypothesis (in my remote view) of a "military victory", there is a real danger that Ukraine will in any case become a "not viable state", that is, an "unsustainable state" (or rather: a state unable to sustain itself).

These economic-financial and socio-demographic data must be kept in mind by the leadership of Kiev, and by President Zelensky in particular as commander in chief, when it comes to making fundamental decisions for the future and survival, not only "political" but even the “physics” of the Ukrainian people and state. After presenting these stark data that photograph, so to speak, the "thermometer" of the plunging situation in the country, let us now try to assess Ukraine's resilience. As previously described in other analyzes, on the eve of the outbreak of the conflict, the mobilization capacities of all the military and paramilitary forces of Ukraine were about 1.610.000 men divided as follows:

- Armed Forces: 250.000 soldiers plus 900.000 reservists;

- National Guard: 50.000 men;

- Border Guard: 50.000 men;

- State Emergency Service: 60.000 men;

- paramilitary forces of the Security Service of Ukraine, SBU: 30.000 men;

- National Police: 130.000 policemen;

- Territorial Defense Forces: 10.000 men on active duty plus 130.000 volunteers.

Despite this apparently mammoth figure, it seems that the Ukrainians have already exceeded (through the mouth of President Zelensky himself and the Minister of Defense Reznikov) the mobilization threshold indicated above, and that this is precisely the reason why, according to the regulations of the “Directive on general mobilization and martial law”, all men between the ages of 18 and 60 (with some limited exceptions) are currently prohibited from leaving the country. But we have to understand one thing; even if Ukraine manages to mobilize additional human resources in addition to those mentioned above, this does not mean that they can have a real impact on the situation at the tactical level, while retaining a certain value at the strategic level.

What does this thought mean? Quite simply that, beyond the numbers on paper, a country's ability to make the best use of its human and material reserves in the course of a conflict depends on whether or not they have been organized into coherent units already in peacetime, so that these units can then be promptly activated in wartime to make their presence felt immediately from the first "conventional exchanges" on the ground.

In the Ukrainian case, the set of forces listed above represents the total of both front-line and reserve troops organized in such a way that they can be deployed immediately or in a reasonably short time on the front line. However, in order to mobilize any further brackets of reserves beyond those already mentioned, Ukraine would be in difficulty because it would have to first organize the new fighters into functional units for the type of operations to which they are intended. Secondly, these units should then undergo a satisfactory training and familiarization process with the new weapon systems and operating procedures. Only after passing this process (which can take weeks or even months) can the new military units be deployed on the front line. Unfortunately for the Ukrainians, this time horizon literally represents "a luxury" that they cannot afford, and the sad thing is that the opposite is not an option given that, as history teaches, to send them to the front in a hurry. botched-for-purpose units (even when well-equipped!) without consistent training and organization literally means using one's human resources as fodder.

Observing the modus operandi of the Ukrainian Armed Forces from the beginning of the war up to now, paying particular attention to the rotations to which the brigades (41 in total) that constitute the real maneuvering elements of the Kiev Ground Forces are subjected, it is understood that the Ukrainians have adopted the tactic of keeping these units on the front line for as long as possible in order to obtain the greatest possible operational yield, otherwise the inevitable wear and tear and increase in losses can be achieved. When the wear and tear of these units reaches the threshold of 70%, to the point of becoming tactically useless, they are withdrawn from the battlefield and the backbone formed by the veterans of the previous battles is replenished by the "additional reservists" who are very quickly trained and "acclimatized" to their new mission by the surviving veterans who thus prepare them. When this process is deemed complete (and in today's Ukraine this literally means in a matter of days!) The units are sent back to the front, and the joust continues. Hence, the men belonging to the large additional reserves not grouped into pre-organized units end up simply acting as a recruiting tank for the already existing units guaranteeing them to continue fighting indefinitely (or at least, as long as there are reserves to throw away. in battle!), but this sacrifices the possibility that all these reservists can create new units from scratch. Thus, on paper, the vast reserves of men which Kiev has at its disposal have a strategic rather than a tactical value.

The same can be said for armaments, in particular supplies from Western countries. Despite Western propaganda that we could at times define as "pounding" (to put it mildly), Ukraine has so far fought the war and achieved results on the ground largely thanks to its "own means". The arsenals available to Kiev are essentially divided into 3 types:

- those inherited from the Soviet period (90%);

- those purchased abroad or produced by national industries in the last 8 years of crisis (9%);

- the new supplies obtained above all from the West immediately before and during the present conflict (1%).

Although the Russians immediately bombed the Ukrainian military bases and storage sites heavily with ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and their Air Forces, the Ukrainians were still able to save part of their arsenals and set up a very effective defensive campaign (net of the macroscopic mistakes made by their enemies). However, the stocks of weapons are not infinite and already today we are in possession of ample photographic material that testifies how the Kievan authorities are also distributing large quantities of material dating back to the Second World War to reservists, especially in the field of small arms for infantry.

The question of heavy vehicles, such as tanks, is also particularly delicate. Officially the Ukrainian Armed Forces started the conflict with about 4000 tanks at their disposal, but the actual numbers in service were much lower enough to make most analysts say that they were around 1000.

Since the air bombing campaign by Moscow's aircraft began to take on the shape of a real "war of annihilation", the Ukrainians have gradually seen their defense industries demolished one after the other and this (combined with the destruction of fuel depots, on which Russian attention has focused in recent weeks) is already having serious effects on the maintenance and repair capabilities of damaged vehicles as well as on the mobility in general of the main Ukrainian maneuvering units.

The Ukrainians have shown stubbornness and naivety and, driven by contingency, have taken the problem head on by wisely deciding to put back into service as many vehicles as possible among those captured from the Russians, but as it is easy to understand, this is a good palliative for the short term (and in any case the Russians and the Donbassians are doing the exact same thing!).

Not long ago, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany, Annalena Baerbock, announced that Germany was ready to provide Kiev with the equivalent of $ 500 million in aid. Well, a careful analysis of the situation on the ground shows that 500 million dollars is the total that Kiev has to spend every day just to meet the needs related to ammunition.

It has been calculated that in order to achieve decisive results on the ground, Ukraine would have to receive over $ 100 billion in weapons, especially heavy ones, on the spot to be able to inflict debilitated losses on the Russians, but it is easy to understand that this aid program is simply unsustainable.

The choice by the United States and many of its Western allies to supply Ukrainians with significant numbers of weapons belonging to particular categories such as the FGM-148 anti-tank missiles Javelin and NLAW and the FIM-92 backed anti-aircraft missiles Stinger e Lightning, plus other weapons generally intended for infantry, it would make sense if we were in a ten-year low-intensity conflict situation such as the Soviet War in Afghanistan, but the case in question is completely different since the Russo-Ukrainian War is in reality a large conventional conflict between countries like World War II and any comparison with the conflicts that took place from 1945 to today makes little or no sense.

In this scenario, what needs to be done is to evaluate the overall firepower, the abilities of the contenders to regenerate both tactical and strategic reserves of men and materials, the resilience of the economic-financial systems, the determination of the opposing populations and leadership to fight until fund to achieve their essential goals.

As far as Ukraine is concerned, the political leadership of the country, represented by President Zelensky, seems to have decidedly oriented itself towards the military solution of the conflict and in this it is supported by practically the entire political spectrum and by a large section of the population. amount this percentage, it is not possible to know with absolute precision since there are conflicting signals coming from inside Ukraine as well as from diaspora communities). However, the nationalist fervor shown by the Ukrainians up to now risks turning against the Ukrainians themselves if they drag Russia into a war of attrition which they have no chance of winning while sacrificing the possibility of negotiating a peace, or at least. an armistice, which would allow him to keep some levers that can be spent for the future.

As the data presented above unequivocally recount, under Russian armed pressure, Ukraine is rapidly undergoing a process of violent deconstruction of both the economy and society as a whole. The Armed Forces and the various other institutions responsible for the defense of the country that I have mentioned above may also decide to fight to the bitter end but, at some point, their resistance will become unsustainable if the country in its complexity is no longer able to bear the costs of the war).

Even in times of war the economy must be able to continue to operate (albeit at a "narrow gauge") but if this becomes materially impossible then at some point all that will be left for the Ukrainian civilian population to do is to do whatever it is. possible to feed. That will be precisely the moment when Ukraine will see its ability to resist seriously compromised.

Probably in Washington they have noticed all this, and that is why President Biden is now putting pressure on Congress to approve a plan of both military and economic aid to Ukraine amounting to 33,1 billion dollars. It is very likely that, finally, this plan will be approved, however even this apparent "wave of life" will not be able to change the trend that, with each passing day, makes us glimpse gloomy scenarios for the future of Ukraine on the horizon.

Analysis on the progress of the war in Ukraine: tactical-strategic scenarios and general considerations (second part)

Photo: Russian Federation MoD