August 12, 2023: When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 they, and many foreign observers, believed Ukraine would be quickly defeated. That did not happen because Russia and many foreign experts ignored the most common cause of wars throughout modern history. Countries often overestimate their ability to win if they invade. Russia has made this mistake several times in the last few centuries but it’s a lesson that is rarely accepted and instead ignored.
The Russians have lost about 350,000 troops, of whom 100,000 are dead, missing, prisoners or deserters, and Ukrainians casualties are about 200,000 of whom 50,000 are killed, missing and captured.
In the case of Ukraine, Russia believed their larger population (140 million versus 40 million Ukrainians) and larger armed forces would guarantee a quick victory. As is customary, that didn’t happen. At that point Russia decided to pursue a long-war victory where their larger population and manufacturing capability would be decisive. This was another miscalculation. So far both Russia and Ukraine have lost about the same number of troops. To the Russians this means they can grind down the Ukrainians who will run out of troops before Russia does. This was another miscalculation.
After the first year of fighting Ukraine changed its tactic to limit Ukrainian casualties as much as possible. This is particularly the case with the current Ukrainian counteroffensive. Westerners expected progress to be rapid. That means more losses to the attackers. Instead, it uses its superiority in weapons, training and leadership so the Ukrainians are defeating the Russians in many smaller battles, where the Ukrainians make sure they have the advantage before attacking. This takes advantage of the poor morale, leadership and training most Russian troops have. There are some better quality airborne and special operations troops available but these must be used sparingly and carefully. While Russia can conscript or mobilize civilians into the military and send them into combat quickly with minimal training, these troops take heavy casualties. The elite units are volunteers who take a lot longer to train and losses are not easy to replace because it takes up to a year of training. During the first year of fighting Russia used the elite troops recklessly and lost a lot of them. Commanders of these elite units complained that this reckless approach was wasteful and counterproductive in the long run. It took a while for the senior political leaders and the generals who advised them to realize that misuse of elite units would hurt the Russian war effort in the long run.
The Ukrainian leadership was more aware of this situation and realized that losses in population were more serious than combat losses. So far about a quarter of the population has left voluntarily, most of them settling down in Poland and making themselves economically useful. Most of these refugees’ plan to return to Ukraine once it is safe, physically and economically, to do so. The Russians have kidnapped between two and four million Ukrainian civilians, many of them children, and moved them deep into Russia as part of Russia’s traditional ethnic cleansing policy towards troublesome minorities. About a third of the 44 million Ukrainians in 2021 have left or been kidnapped since the war began.
Millions of Russians too have fled Russia since the war began, mostly of military age, and most of those went to nearby Central Asian nations (the “Stans”) and made themselves economically useful. The “Stans” were initially unsure if all these Russian political refugees were a good thing, but changed their minds when they saw that the Russians were causing unexpected economic growth.
Russia eventually outlawed military age men from leaving the country. Russia needed more troops, and junior officers as well. The problem was that the need for more troops in Ukraine meant too many were being sent into combat with little training and led by equally inexperienced officers. Russia had a long-range plan to overcome that and the Ukrainians had their own plan to make life more difficult for the Russian military.
Who is winning is mainly about money and access to lots of modern weapons. The Ukrainians have a big edge here, having received nearly a hundred billion dollars in aid from NATO countries so far. The Ukrainians are resourceful and have developed weapons and military equipment that makes the NATO weapons even more effective. Russia has far less cash for new weapons and cannot match the resourcefulness of the Ukrainians. That’s why Ukraine is able to design and build long range robotic weapons to attack Russian commercial vessels and warships in the Black Sea as well as Russian cities and military targets the Russians thought were too far away to reach. The growing number of attacks on Moscow and Russian military bases far from the Ukrainian border is not good for Russian military or civilian morale.