Leadership: Russia’s Expensive War in Ukraine


February 26, 2024: American analysts estimate that Russia has already spent over $210 billion in direct costs to sustain its invasion of Ukraine. In addition, the economic sanctions have caused Russia to lose $10 billion because of customers canceling orders for weapons. Russian personnel losses in Ukraine are currently over 400,000 men killed and permanently disabled. Over half a million Russian soldiers have been wounded and recovered sufficiently to return to duty.

Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine are not popular with most Russians because Russia is the invader, and the Russian government has been unable to make a convincing case for sending Russian soldiers into Ukraine. Vladimir Putin has again reshuffled Russia’s senior leadership controlling operations in Ukraine, but the new generals put in charge does not seem to work. Such leadership changes have not improved troop training or tactics. The only known exceptions were the private armies like the Wagner Group and Chechen volunteers who were recruited, trained, and led by Chechen leaders that Putin trusts. Wagner has had some success because they are allowed to recruit from prisons. Putin quietly allowed Wagner to give pardons to such volunteers, which meant they were free if they survived six months of combat. Most don’t, but over 30,000 volunteered anyway. Wagner and the Chechens were also allowed to recruit Russian veterans, especially those with combat experience, and pay them more than Russian troops receive. That helped a bit.

These two mercenary forces report to Putin, who must personally approve what operations they take part in. Russian generals in charge of the forces in Ukraine must accept this and make the most of it. Despite all this, the two mercenary forces have not achieved any notable victories but have made progress in areas where they are involved. Most other Russian troops in Ukraine are on the defensive and taking heavy casualties doing that. Putin has finally allowed his generals to create a new force of Russian troops who are adequately trained and equipped, rather than insisting that they be wasted in constant suicidal attacks. This takes time, and it wasn’t until late 2023 that some of these new forces were ready and sent into combat. Ukrainian intelligence regularly reports on the progress of Russian forces in action or in training. Such reports can be independently verified with commercial satellite photos. The Ukrainians supply details to explain why things are happening and use a network of informants in Russian controlled territory to help with that. NATO supplied the Ukrainians with the results of more detailed air and satellite photos as well as radio intercepts. Ukraine continues to obtain useful information by monitoring Russian troops using their cell phones freely. Officially, Russia bans such use of cell phones, but the Russian officers are unwilling to actively crack down on cell phone use.

Few in Russia or the rest of the world believed that Russia would invade Ukraine in February 2022. Some Ukrainian intel and staff officers thought it was a possibility. Russia did invade and suddenly the world had its first near-peer war since World War II. Near-peer is a war between nations armed with similar weapons. This did not go well for Russia and by the end of 2022 Russia faced an ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive that was pushing Russian forces out of Ukraine. Russia responded by threatening to use nuclear weapons if Ukraine continued its counteroffensive. Russia wants to keep some of the Ukrainian territory it has seized since 2014. Russia blames NATO for supporting Ukraine, a non-member, whose efforts to join NATO are one of the reasons Russia invaded in 2022. That resulted in crippling economic sanctions by NATO nations.

To Russia, the sanctions and aid to Ukraine justified the nuclear threat. Ukraine and NATO refused to back down and Russia’s remaining major trading partners China and India, advised Russia to drop the nuclear threat. Most other nations did the same. The implication was that if Russia went ahead and used nuclear weapons, they would become an international outlaw and much worse off. The Russian invasion was unjustified and violated an agreement Russia signed in the 1990s to get Soviet-era nuclear weapons removed from Ukraine in return for Russian assurances that they would never try to seize Ukrainian territory. Russian leader Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion despite advice from his military, diplomatic and economic advisors that it was a bad idea. The advisors were right, and before the end of 2022 that advice was made public and a growing number of Russians, who initially believed state-controlled media justifying the war, no longer support Putin’s war.

No nuclear weapons have been used since 1945 when two American nukes dropped on Japanese cities finally got Japan to surrender after starting the war and losing. Until the nukes were used, Japan was ready to resist a land invasion while a naval blockade was causing hunger and starvation in Japan. Since then, there has been an understanding among the growing number of countries with nuclear weapons that no one would be the first to use nukes and then only to defend their own territory or in response to a nuclear attack. Russian leader Putin threatens to violate that understanding and it remains to be seen if Putin will actually break this 77-year-old nuclear understanding.

Putin and his generals also missed what happened when NATO personnel served in Ukraine between 2014 and 2021 when they taught Ukrainian officers how to become a NATO-compatible force. This turned out to be a major advantage because the Russians were still using their rigid Soviet-era command and troops control procedures. By 2021 the Ukrainians had adopted more flexible Western methods where junior commanders were trained to improvise when necessary. The only Russian troops who did any of that were the Spetsnaz special operations forces. Most Russian troops follow detailed orders and, when they encounter something not covered in their orders, they halt and wait for further instructions. Ukrainian forces regularly exploited this. After nearly a year of fighting the Russians have not changed, even though the more flexible Ukrainians constantly win battles because of their initiative.

Ukrainians appreciated this training effort, and it made a difference on the battlefield. This was especially true because Russia was sending more troops to Ukraine with little or no training. That means the Russians suffered higher casualties and the Ukrainians lost far fewer men. After a few months of fighting in 2022, Russia had lost many of its veteran soldiers and officers. Since then, most of the new Russian troops have little training or advanced tech and suffer from low morale and poor leadership. That sort of thing makes a big difference in combat but is often discounted during peacetime.

Another endemic problem Russia suffers from is their inability to develop and produce weapons and equipment that match or surpass what the West has. From 2015 to early 2022 Russian defense production has been crippled by detailed and regularly updated sanctions based on continuing searches for smuggled Western parts. An example of this was Orlan-10 UAV, whose production should have been shut down by 2016 sanctions but wasn’t. Oran-10s required several Western electronic boards and chips that were not manufactured in Russia and had to be imported. By 2017 it was clear that Russia was not simply using existing stockpiles of now banned components to build new Oran-10s. This was a major problem because Orlan-10 was a key observation asset as it could spot targets for Russian artillery or rocket fire. Oran-10 can operate high enough to be safe from rifle or machine-gun fire and it is difficult for a lightweight anti-aircraft missile like Stinger to hit. At night it is even less vulnerable to ground fire.

In Ukraine some Orlan-10s continued to be shot down or crashed because of equipment failure. Their wreckage was examined for the presence of banned components and these items were still there. The banned items were common, not custom-manufactured for Orlan-10s. There were dozens of distributors you could order from. Government efforts to sort out which distributors were selling the Oran parts to a firm with a link to Russia had come up empty.

After the Cold War ended in 1991 Russia was a democracy briefly, until Putin showed up in 1999, and was able to import Western components as well as weapons. This was intended to provide Russian manufacturers help in improving their development management capabilities. That ended in 2014 when Putin decided to absorb parts of Ukraine, like Crimean, and then expanded their conquest list to all of Ukraine in 2022. The sanctions were a major problem for Russian weapons manufacturers. Many in the Russian defense industries understood this but Putin had outlawed open discussion about it. Putin believed Russia had an obligation to rebuild its empire but that could not happen if Russia remained a democracy with a free press. In contrast, Ukrainians kept their democracy and free press, and it made a difference in combat which Putin still refuses to accept. Meanwhile Ukraine declares that it is an unofficial NATO member, and that membership will be formalized once the war is over.

Lost access to Western components is not the only problem Russian defense manufacturers are having. Russia’s enormous pre-war artillery munitions stocks are now depleted, while its production facilities are unable to expand. Before 1991 a lot of Soviet era 122mm and 152mm ammunition was produced outside post-1991 Russia. That includes Ukraine, Belarus, and other former Soviet republics which likewise halted artillery munitions production and dismantled production facilities. Russia did not expect a long war in Ukraine and did not have the artillery munitions available to fire all the shells their forces in Ukraine wanted in the past year. On the front lines Ukrainian troops have noted far fewer Russian shells fired at them recently, estimated as down to 5,000 rounds daily from highs of 75,000. Ukrainian artillery, a combination of old Soviet 152mm and new NATO 155mm guns, were initially adequately supplied with shells and used more effective tactics than the Russians. By late 2023 Ukrainian forces too found themselves short of artillery ammunition. Ukraine’s NATO weapons suppliers are scrambling to increase production of artillery ammunition, but the results of that effort won’t show up until later in 2024 and then show major improvement in 2025.




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