In mainstream Western reporting on the war in Ukraine, minor Ukrainian progress, involving relatively few troops in an unimportant area, will be featured over news of a significant Russian advance in heavy fighting near a strategically vital city. After a successful Russian offensive, a week of regroupment and resupply becomes a “stalemate”.
However discomfiting to media ideologues, the truth is that the Russians are winning. Russian units punched repeatedly through Ukrainian fortifications next to Donetsk, capital of the Donetsk People’s Republic, in early August, entering Bakhmut, the southern pole of the Ukrainians’ Bakhmut-Siversk defensive line. During the same period, the Ukrainian authorities ordered all civilians to leave the areas of Donetsk Province still under central government control.
Trying to predict in close detail how a war will develop is to step into a minefield. Broadly, however, only some truly extraordinary shift — such as the direct entry of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces into the combat — now seems capable of saving the Ukrainian side from defeat.
Balance of forces
Considering the overall relationship of forces in this conflict, Russia has around three-and-a-half times the population of Ukraine, and in 2020 had an economy close to eight times as large. Russia has about a million active military personnel, with a further two million reserves. In 2021 Ukraine’s armed forces numbered about 200,000.
Since the early stages of the war, Ukraine has introduced a drastic conscription program to boost the numbers of its serving personnel. By contrast, the Russian side has reportedly avoided using conscript troops, relying on its professional soldiers. The numbers of soldiers involved in combat on the two sides appear to be fairly evenly matched.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainians benefit from large-scale Western aid. They also receive detailed real-time military intelligence supplied by the United States from satellite information and radio intercepts.
These factors go a certain way toward evening up the military balance. In late February and early March, it seemed briefly to exultant Western observers that the Ukrainian armed forces were about to triumph over their adversaries. This was when the Russians sought to achieve a quick victory through rapid armoured thrusts around the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.
The result for the Russians was a costly setback, as they encountered a new battlefield reality. Small, highly mobile modern weapons systems made fixed-wing aircraft, attack helicopters and tanks unexpectedly vulnerable. The lightning “war of manoeuvre”, near-standard military doctrine since the days of Hitler’s blitzkrieg, was now difficult or impossible to wage.
Drawing the necessary lessons, the Russians switched to “positional warfare”. An odd throwback to the days of World War I, positional warfare relies on seizing advantageous terrain, constructing defensible trench lines, and making use of massed artillery. Fortunately for the Russians, their military doctrine has always stressed artillery to a degree unusual in the West. On the battlefields of Ukraine, and especially in the Donbass region in the east, the Russian preponderance in artillery is cited as at least ten to one.
Intensive Russian bombardment of the Ukrainian lines is combined with rocket attacks on weapons systems, supply facilities, command posts and strategic infrastructure in the Ukrainian rear. Drone technology and satellite data provide pinpoint accuracy, with Russian artillery units “hunting” Ukrainian troop concentrations and equipment. The ability of the Ukrainians to respond is restricted by the small number of their artillery pieces, and at times, inadequate supplies of shells.
Once Ukrainian positions have been smashed, Russian infantry make limited advances, keeping their casualty rates low. The slow rate of progress belies an important strategic principle for winning a war: capturing territory can often be less vital than destroying the enemy’s fighting capacity. Since March, the Ukrainian side has suffered horrific casualties.
Varied sources claim 2000 Ukrainian dead per week, with several times that number wounded. An unverified leak reported on August 8 claims 191,000 Ukrainian troops killed, or seriously injured. A further 95,000 were said to have deserted, been captured or simply to have disappeared. On the battlefields, well-trained, experienced soldiers are being replaced by conscripts who may have received only a few weeks of basic instruction. The quality of leadership is suffering as small-unit officers, and especially, the sergeants and corporals who are the backbone of any army, are put out of action.
Ukraine is also suffering heavy equipment losses. The only specific numbers that could be found are from the Russian Ministry of Defence, hardly an impartial source. But, for what it is worth, as of August 1 losses stand at: 98% of [fixed-wing] aircraft; 88% of helicopters; 95% of artillery pieces/mortars; 98% of multiple rocket launchers; 75% of armoured vehicles including tanks; and 65% of anti-aircraft systems.
Ukraine has had a well-developed arms industry. The country’s manufacturing industries, however, are now severely degraded. In past decades the centre of Ukraine’s heavy manufacturing was the Donbass, now almost all in the hands of the Russians and their allies in the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics. Another such centre was Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, now also a war zone.
The Ukrainian armed forces will increasingly be dependent on foreign sources for weapons and munitions. Various countries of Eastern Europe have been transferring Soviet-era military stocks to Ukraine. But these stocks are finite, and being destroyed by the Russians when they reach the battlefield, and before.
Much more prized by Ukrainian commanders are modern Western weapons systems. Western media outlets have touted the US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) as a likely game-changer. But while the HIMARS missiles can strike targets with extreme accuracy, they show no sign of changing the course of the war. Russian air defence systems are intercepting and shooting down HIMARS missiles and aggressively hunting the launch vehicles. As of August 1, Russia claims to have destroyed six HIMARS systems out of 16 said to have been supplied to Ukraine.
For Ukraine’s military effort not to collapse, Western supplies of weapons and munitions will have to be dramatically stepped up. That may not be easy. Western arms industries are highly elaborate, and consume vast sums of public money, but they are not equipped to provide the huge quantities of armaments required by a lengthy positional war.
Russia is known to retain thousands of Soviet-era artillery pieces — obsolete, but still potent — and enough shells to continue pounding Ukrainian trenches for years if needed. Further, Russia has maintained the ability of its arms industry to keep supplying its armed forces through a prolonged conflict.
Western media outlets carry virtually no reporting from behind the lines of the Russians and their Donbass allies, but coverage by Indian journalists indicates that Russian morale is at least satisfactory. The troops appear adequately supplied, and are periodically rotated to rest in rear areas. Importantly, they know their side is gaining ground.
Western spin can no longer conceal the fact that conditions in the Ukrainian lines are becoming critical. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently acknowledged that conditions for the soldiers, subject to incessant shelling, were “hellish”. As Russian missile attacks intercept supply lines, Ukrainian units suffer intermittent shortages of ammunition. Troop rotations are often long delayed. Russian military analyses claim a rise in desertions by Ukrainian soldiers, units refusing to go into battle, and unauthorised retreats.
With Ukrainian fighting capacity degraded, Russian advances are now tending to accelerate. The problems for the Ukrainians have been compounded by a serious strategic blunder in late July, when artillery pieces and fighting vehicles were moved from opposite Donetsk to take part in a promised offensive on the south-western front near the Russian-held city of Kherson. The offensive never materialised, as the assembling units were battered by Russian shelling and missile attacks. But around Donetsk, the lack of Ukrainian artillery allowed forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic to break through the elaborate fortifications built by the Ukrainian side over some eight years.
Arguably, Ukraine’s more clear-headed backers among US and European Union strategists never seriously expected the Ukrainian armed forces to perform well in battle against their Russian adversaries, let alone to prevail. Their main hopes likely rested on the potential of stringent anti-Russian sanctions, imposed using the pretext of the war, to realise a long-held ambition of the NATO powers: to crush the Russian economy, bring about the fall of President Vladimir Putin’s administration, and allow the thorough subjugation of Russia to world capital. Within this schema, the deaths and suffering in Ukraine are mere collateral damage.
If this was indeed the ploy, it shows little sign of working. Buoyed by high oil and grain prices, the Russian economy has proven remarkably resilient. The International Monetary Fund expects Russian gross domestic product in 2022 to contract by about 6% — painful, but bearable. The ruble is strong, and Russian inflation this year, at a predicted 14.5%, is likely to be manageable.
By contrast, Ukraine’s economy is being shattered. According to the country’s central bank, economic output in the second quarter of 2022 was down by about 40% year-on-year. Inflation for 2022 is forecast to be more than 30%.
Ukraine’s ethno-linguistically diverse population ought to enjoy self-determination. The practical political question, however, is how to secure the survival of an independent Ukrainian state. If this is achievable, it will only be managed through delicate international negotiations.
The longer that pressures for a negotiated settlement are not mounted, the more bleak Ukraine’s chances become.
[Renfrey Clarke was Green Left’s correspondent in Moscow from 1990‒99 and is the author of The Catastrophe of Ukrainian Capitalism: How Privatisation Dispossessed and Impoverished the Ukrainian People, recently published by Resistance Books.]