Yurii Butusov, Chief Editor for Censor.NET, wrote in his article for Dzerkalo Tyzhnia.
Trump is trying to reconsider more pragmatically the role of the U.S. in the global policy, conducting audit of possibilities and risks. The situation in Ukraine is one of the key points. The need for military aid is not disputed in Washington, D.C., and this is apparent achievement of Ukraine’s friends in the U.S., including the Republican Party itself.
However, Washington experts want to hear answers to three questions:
1. Is it vital to supply Ukraine with lethal weapons in order to deter the Russian army?
2. If the U.S. military aid program is expanded, will it lead to escalation of hostilities and further advance of Russia?
3. What should be the strategy and structure of the military aid for Ukraine?
To answer these three questions, they need to have fair view of what in fact is going at the war.
So, the Russian-Ukrainian frontline in the Donbas is 426 km long. It sees local fighting for control over a thin chain of strongpoints and commanding hills. None of the sides has built a tight defense perimeter, the defense is of cellular nature; the spaces between the positions are secured by fire control and minefields. Given large distances between positions and small frontline forces, the only way to secure safety of one’s troops is regular shelling. Civil patrols of OSCE operate only at daylight and avoid visiting areas of intensive fighting for safety reasons.
The war is conducted by the infantry with regular use of heavy artillery, tanks, modern reconnaissance and target detection means, the most advanced electronic warfare systems. Heavy weapons use is limited, ammunition consumption is low, but the accuracy of the weapon use is constantly growing. The major operational load is on the infantry armament. Neither of the sides conduct deep offensive operations, the war is waged with limited forces of detachment-platoon level; intact companies and battalions are involved quite rarely. At the same time, despite this limited format, the war does not stop.
However, there are no prerequisites to stop the fighting. Russia continues to wage this war; the Donbas has turned into a firing range for Russian regular army combat training. Its units are redeployed in this area on rotation basis. The entire system of command, reconnaissance, artillery, radio electronic warfare, logistics — everything is taken care of by the Russia military. The 1st and the 2nd army corps of the occupation troops at the levels from battalion headquarters to corps commanders are staffed with Russian officers titled “counselors,” who in fact act as real commanders. Russia also regularly sends motorized rifle and tank units to the Donbas for combat training and direct participation in combat activities. Nominally appointed commanders from among local separatists only act as disciples of the “counselors,” or “talking heads” for propaganda purposes. All combat units are formed around Russian mercenaries. The total number of Russian military in the Donbas is about 5,000-6,000 people, all the time.
The 1st and the 2nd army corps of Russian mercenaries are a part of the structure of the 8th combined arms army of the Southern Military District of the Russian Federation that was created in 2016 and has redeployed on the border with Ukraine and in the Donbas. The nearest operational reserve of the Russian occupation corps is the 150th motorized rifle division, newly created in 2017 and redeployed in an hour drive from the border with the Donbas. Thanks to constant presence of Russian armored tank units, the occupation troops are not afraid of Ukrainian offensives and can concentrate their forces at the first line without thinking about the reserves.
Thanks to large-scale employment of the latest kinds of weapons in the Donbas, Russia has secured itself leadership in some types of combat employment of heavy artillery, in reconnaissance and target detecting means, in the use of drones for hitting Ukrainian military targets far from the frontline. This allows the Russian command to retain balance in combat, despite huge problems of the Russian occupation troops.
Putin’s main problem in this war is the lack of human resources and sufficient personnel shortage in the occupation troops that is hard to eliminate even despite significant fund allocations by Moscow. At the moment, Ukrainian troops have certain numerical advantage at the frontline; its fighters are better trained and more highly motivated. It should be noted that the war is unpopular in Russia, and the number of Russian mercenaries that form the basis of combat units of the enemy is sharply decreasing. However, the Russian army possesses more developed technical means. One of the important factors is lack of motivation among the personnel, as long as the purposes of the war are not clear, the idea of Donbas’s association with the Russian Federation has been publicly rejected by the Russian leadership, and many popular field commanders of Russian mercenaries have been killed in interpersonal conflicts for spheres of influence with involvement of the Russian secret services. All of this is proven by the fact that in 2015-2017, the Ukrainian army has been holding the initiative and succeeded in seizing control over several dozen of square kilometers in the ‘gray area’ — the non-controlled territory between the enemy’s strong points that were abandoned over the Russian offensive in 2014-2015 and have been assigned to Ukraine by the Minsk agreements. The Russian command, despite a number of attacks and offensives on the Ukrainian positions, had failed in trying to stop Ukrainians from taking control over the ‘gray areas.’ After the Ukrainian troops seized tactically dominating positions, their defense capacity and self-assurance have increased. But this was done under conditions of technical superiority of the Russian army, mostly thanks to motivation and valor of the infantry.
However, simply enhancing Ukraine’s defenses will not completely eliminate attacks by small groups of Russian infantry and fire assaults of heavy artillery and tanks. The losses of both parties stabilized in 2017. Combat losses of Ukraine are 15-25 fighters each month. Non-combat losses are 10-15 people per month. This is a heavy and visible toll for the country, but these losses do not lower the morale of the army.
So we see that Russia is ready to curb the scale of the war and minimize losses, but Putin is not going to stop the war. Russia uses its leverage as a persisting chance to explode the situation and put pressure upon Ukraine by means of military invasion or limited combat activities.
Russia invests huge resources to enhance combat capability of occupation corps with thousands of Russian ‘volunteers’ and ‘servicemen on leave’ from the regular army. This is done to lower involvement of regular troops in direct combat activities and for immediate readiness to repulse possible attacks of Ukrainian troops with their own forces.
All of this shows inefficiency of purely diplomatic instruments for stopping the war. Russia is not going to do that simply over sanctions and talks.
Pure military solution, similar to Operation Storm in Croatia in 1995, could be the only quick way out of this problem. However, Ukraine is not ready, in terms of organization, to conduct a quick and resolute operation with minimum casualties.
At the same time, it is obvious that if pressure on diplomatic frontline is not linked to pressure at the war frontline, Moscow will be able to continue local combat activities for a long time, for many years.
There is one obvious problem of Putin — acute shortage of personnel for occupation troops caused by sharp decline of the war’s popularity with the Russian society.
Given all of the above, the following answers can be offered to the questions posed by the U.S. experts:
1. Deliveries of all kinds of weapons should be part of the strategy of the U.S. involvement in providing security for Ukraine, and should be aimed at correcting balance with the weapon systems used by the Russian army in the Donbas. Goals must be understood. Ukraine needs lethal weapons not as a political signal at first place. It needs it to deprive Russia of its superiority, which helps Putin to inflict losses to Ukrainian troops, towns, and infrastructure facilities. Obama’s administration was supplying certain key types of weapons which have helped to shorten the difference in technologies for the Ukrainian army, but they haven’t provided for balance with the Russian occupation troops. It does not allow for balancing the sides’ forces and reveals the weakness of the Western aid to Ukraine, as well as allows the Russian army to inflict significant losses to Ukrainian forces.
Ukraine needs lethal weapons that are able to quickly defeat Russia’s mobile heavy artillery stationed some 10-20 km from the frontline and committing regular unpunished shelling of Ukrainian forces, as well as high accuracy weapon systems against radio electronic surveillance and target detection. Under the limitations of the Minsk agreements, and significant superiority of Russia in ammunition, accuracy is of vital importance. Ukraine’s lagging behind in other types of heavy weapons is not that crucial as in this segment. To solve these tasks, Ukraine needs guided missiles, air- or ground-launched, or long-range gun systems with guided ammunition, together with target acquisition systems, communications systems, and fire control systems. Such aid will allow change the nature of the fighting real soon, and the threat of quick retaliation will decrease efficiency of Russian artillery in shelling Ukrainian positions and towns.
2. Direct involvement of the Russian army in large-scale battles aimed at breaking through Ukraine’s defenses is currently unlikely. The Russian command understands that head-on crash and maneuver warfare will inflict significant losses. This is dangerous for Putin as it will scary Russian society and lead to the repeat of the ‘Afghan’ and ‘Chechen’ syndromes, when unpopular wars led to discredit of then-ruling regimes. In summer 2014, the Russian army saw numerous refusals to participate in the war against Ukraine. In addition, the shrinking of the Russian economy over Western sanctions might continue in case of invasion. Sanctions harm Russia, and the threat of their extension makes the large-scale invasion scenario hardly probable.
Russia’s retaliation outside the Minsk agreements might be caused only under the Georgia war of 2008 scenario, i.e. if the Ukrainian army commits a deep offensive in slow pace, which will allow the Russian command the time to analyze the situation, prepare invasion, and draft information campaign in support of the war. Under other circumstances, Putin will not risk his army. Is arms race possible in the Donbas? No, because Russia has been participating in this arms race since the beginning, and has been long using the latest conventional weapons at the frontline. By the way, it turned out that the possibilities of the Russian army are quite limited, and only limited amounts of modern combat hardware are delivered to the troops. Technical superiority of certain types of weapons of the Russian army can be seen only at certain frontline areas.
3. The strategy of the military aid to Ukraine under the Minsk agreements and the ban to use weapons of more than 100 mm caliber should be based not on supplies of certain kinds of weapons but on complex increase of combat capability of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the National Guard, so that Ukraine could solve security problems at its Donbas frontline on its own. Ukraine has superiority in quality and numbers of infantry, and imposing modern infantry war on the enemy could become a key factor of strengthening Ukraine’s combat capability. For that, complex deliveries of non-lethal infantry weapons are needed. The priorities are as follows: 1) tactical and operational-technical communications for equipping entire detachments and units; 2) command systems for troops and weapon of destruction; 3) means for reconnaissance and target detection, artillery reconnaissance means, passive radio electronic surveillance means, radio electronic warfare means; 4) bulk deliveries of night activity means for infantry; night vision systems, thermals sights, laser rangers, optoelectronic surveillance means. Even regular Russian army is not capable of supplying and preparing its infantry for night operations within entire battalions. Such deliveries would allow Ukraine focusing its money on procurement of locally-made anti-tank missile systems and high accuracy weapons for the purposes of the army. The weakest spot of the enemy along entire 426-kilometer frontline is the quality and the number of the infantry.
Ukraine’s victory in the war might come not as a deep offensive but as dramatic decrease in combat activities and cutting the strength of the occupation troops. The occupation army will succumb to losses of 200-300 mercenaries monthly. The desire to make a quick dollar will fade; recruitment of reinforcement will fail. As soon as the Kremlin realizes that its military instruments are not effective under current circumstances, Russia will be forced to become more flexible in the talks. If the United States helps Ukraine prove the Russians that their military superiority in this conflict is a myth, and it creates more problems and losses than political opportunities, Russia will make another attempt to return to political format of the talks, and the war will be directed into the peaceful settlement corridor. The situation in Syria had been in a deadlock for a while until recently, when the U.S. army on Trump’s decision started to assault positions of Assad’s Russian ally, and the security zone was created, closed to Assad’s army and Russian troops, where violations are punished by NATO bomb attacks. Russia only understands the language of strength. Only efficient and systemic military aid from the West will allow creating conditions for a real peaceful settlement and withdrawal of occupation troops. According to information we have, many in the U.S. Congress, the Security Council, and the Defense Ministry realize that. The draft decisions have been prepared. But the final one is made by the president, who finds Russia toxic in terms of internal policy but likes it anyway. It is for Donald Trump to decide.
Yurii Butusov, for Dzerkalo Tyzhnia