Enough with the “Russian offensive” hype. Whatever the Kremlin manages to stitch together in the coming weeks and months, there is no reason to suspect it will be anything different from what Russian operations have been for the more than ten months since the end of March, the last time Russia saw any major successes on the battlefield: that is, ineffective and incompetent
(Russian/Русский перевод; Если вы состоите в российской армии и хотите сдаться Украине, звоните по этим номерам: +38 066 580 34 98 или +38 093 119 29 84; инструкции по сдаче здесь)
By Brian E. Frydenborg (Twitter @bfry1981, LinkedIn, Facebook) February 16, 2023; updated March 7, 2023, with an updated Bakhmut campaign map; adapted/updated version published by Small Wars Journal on February 20 titled The 8 Reasons Why Russia’s Much-Hyped Coming Offensive Will Fail Miserably, which was featured by Real Clear Defense on February 21; because of YOU, Real Context News surpassed one million content views on January 1, 2023, but I still need your help, please keep sharing my work and consider also donating! Real Context News produces commissioned content for clients upon request.
SILVER SPRING—As the phase of the war in Ukraine marked by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s February 24, 2022 incredible escalation of the war beyond long-contested parts of the Donbas and Crimea is closing in on hitting its twelfth month, or one-year-mark, there is much hullaballoo about some sort of coming large-scale Russian offensive, presumably in the coming weeks or months. But when considering this potential Russian offensive, there are a number of obvious and clear factors that mean whatever may be Russia’s offensive will not succeed, but, instead, will fail spectacularly. Here they are…
1.) “What Have You Done for Me Lately?”
I think a sports analogy works pretty well here. If you are big sports better and a team starts its season with 5 wins, and then goes onto lose every game or match for months straight after that, you would not want to bet on that team given the more recent trends in its performance. It’s the same thing with investing: if a company’s performance has been poor for many quarters in a row, a few quarters of very strong performance before that long, consistent period of poor performance will not be a major factor in the minds of investors, who would avoid investing in a company that had not been performing well lately.
As far as Ukraine, it should be noted that out of nearly twelve months since Russia’s major February 24, 2022, escalation of its 2014-launched war of imperialist, colonialist, and genocidal war of national annihilation against Ukraine, Russia has had roughly just five weeks of major winning, all in the beginning from the end of February until late March; the rest of this period of escalation, Russia has been almost entirely losing. That’s right, that’s little more than five weeks out of over fifty weeks of Russia winning with over ten straight months of Russia losing, its miniscule gains coming at such terribly Pyrrhic costs that considering them “victories” is a stretch. So when trying to ascertain how Russia will perform in the coming months, as with many things, recent history is the best indicator especially when compared to more distant history and the recent history tells us not to expect much from Russia’s military as far as winning.
2.) A Tale of Maps
In a directly related point, for more than ten months straight, Russia has experienced a massive net loss of territory that it occupies in Ukraine: nearly all of its gains were made in the first five weeks of Putin’s “special operation,” as he dubs the February 24 escalation of this war, and since then, since the end of March and beginning of April, Russia has lost far, far more territory than the tiny amount of Pyrrhic territorial gains it has made. If Russia has been unable to make significant gains of territory for more than ten months, why should we expect that to change anytime soon?
3.) Russia’s Insanely High Casualties
From early in March through the present, I’ve noted repeatedly how ridiculously high casualties on the Russian side are, and why I essentially trust Ukraine’s casualty estimates for Russia. That estimate passed 100,000 killed on December 22 and is now over 140,000 killed, and that may not even include non-combat deaths, which are considerable in any major conflict and are going to be worse for Russia than other nations because Russia is… Russia (former U.S. Department of Defense civilian logistics expert Trent Telenko puts forth a serious effort to calculate these additional losses and comes up with a rough-yet-plausible 1.33 multiplier of an additional third of combat deaths to be added to the total combat deaths to account for noncombat deaths). Beyond the massive personnel human losses, there are nearly 3,300 tanks, over 2,300 artillery systems, over 6,500 armored personnel carriers, nearly 300 planes, nearly 300 helicopters, and thousands of other vehicles lost by Russia. Mainstream analyst estimates of total Russian casualties—killed, wounded, and missing—range from 200,000 to 270,000. The more Russia attacks, the more it loses, and in nearly every case since the beginning of April, those losses have come with zero territorial gains, with only a few exceptions yielding pitifully small gains over long periods of time. Any military that takes casualties like this even over years, let alone months, is going to have serious problems with its performance, and there is no reasonable analysis that expects Russia’s military to perform better—let alone not worse—as a result compared with when it was intact before February 24. Even if Ukraine’s estimate is significantly exaggerated, Russia’s losses are still obviously catastrophic—unprecedented for decades for any major military over such a short period of time—and far, far worse than Ukraine’s. Russia’s manpower issues are, therefore, endemic and here to stay, and absurd, desperate measures like recruiting prisoners form within Russia have not and will not bring Russia success.
4.) Russia Already Tried Offensives with a Much Better Military and Still Lost
This next point is deeply related to the last point: Russia‘s military at the beginning of the war and in other early months was in a far better state than it is now: it used many of its best troops and equipment in the initial assaults and in the months after, and, as I have previously discussed, most of its best troops have been killed or wounded or shattered, sometimes their entire units destroyed, leaders and equipment no more. There is no replacement for experienced troops and leaders. Even normally-trained recruits would not be replacements for more experienced troops, but Russia is even rushing that training now or is barely even training new recruits, who are often barely equipped (or even have to pay for their own equipment), some even given tsarist-era rifles and tanks taken out of long-term storage that are a 1961 model (T-62) upgrade of a 1958 tank (T-55) or a 1983 upgrade of that 1961 model (T-62M). That is because, as this war has dragged on, much of Russia’s best equipment has been wiped out, including most of its military truck fleet and at least a very large portion—perhaps most—of its best tanks, among thousands of other pieces of equipment, vehicles, and weapons system, with far, far more Russian equipment confirmed destroyed than Ukrainian. Russia even lost its best ship in its Black Sea Fleet: the flagship Mosvka (the sinking of which I predicted a few days before it happened). And as I have noted, Russia is so afraid of Ukraine’s anti-ship missiles and air defenses that both its navy and air force have been cowed largely into irrelevance save for lobbing cruise missiles from a distance. Russia is even running low on such missiles and (non-expired) artillery rounds. It is also important to note the examples discussed in this paragraph are not just recent trends but trends that have been ongoing for many months.
Basically, Russia’s military is currently in shambles, and its effort we saw early in the war is by far the best Russia is going to be able to offer in this war (and even that was not very good); it will not be able to attack with better troops and better weapons and better leaders than it had in the early months of the war as those men are dead and that equipment destroyed. In fact, as time goes on, Russia’s capabilities will only continue to decrease in most significant areas (even when it has increased them in the case of receiving Iranian drones, those drones along with Russia’s cruise missiles are rather impotently not effective against military targets and are instead being used—increasingly ineffectively—to target civilian and civilian infrastructure). Time is simply not on Russia’s side, despite some thinking to the contrary.
5.) Ukraine’s Military Keeps Getting Better as Russia’s Keeps Getting Worse
Conversely, Ukraine’s military keeps getting better and better—better trained and better equipped, increasingly nimble and adaptable—so that now, just about any Ukrainian military unit lined up against its Russian equivalent will be qualitatively superior. One major example of this is the newer Western air defenses being sent to Ukraine dramatically reducing the effectiveness of Russian cruise missile and drone attacks. Another is the very-near-future arrival of advanced Western tanks, with Ukrainians currently training in them. There is also the case the Ukraine is more and more nearing parity with Russia on the number of artillery shots fired when earlier in the war Russia enjoyed an overwhelming advantage. Those are just a few of many examples on top of numerous earlier ones that have already had a huge impact on this war, and there will be more and more such capability increases for Ukraine with its allies standing by it steadfastly throughout the war. And, unlike Russia, Ukraine actually values the lives of its troops and tries to take care of them, planning its battles so as to avoid and its minimize casualties, while the Russians do not take even basic steps to care for their troops and waste so many of their men’s lives needlessly, even cruelly.
6.) Logistics, Logistics, LOGISTICS
As noted, much of Russia’s military truck fleet has been all but destroyed in a longstanding excellent and constantly-improving campaign of precise targeting by the Ukrainian military, with everything from drones to HIMARS. This campaign been so effective that just by visually-confirmed destroyed equipment, Ukraine is successfully taking out Russian logistics targets by a margin of some ten for every one Ukrainian logistics target hit by Russia. It is so bad that Russia is throwing in civilian trucks ill-suited to a military environment.
When a military does not have good mechanized truck support for its front-line troops, all manner of crippling issues arise: wounded troops cannot get a casevac (casualty evacuation) in time to save them or keep their wounds from staying minor, resulting in far more dead and incapacitated soldiers; vehicles cannot be fueled promptly in order to keep them useful as opposed to making them stranded easy targets; food and water, let alone ammunition, cannot get to troops quickly; all this means even with many, many troops, it is incredibly difficult if not impossible to advance more than one or few dozen miles with any sense of speed, crushing the ability to even launch any large-scale offensives that actually take large pieces of territory and hold them over time while also crushing the ability to fend off counterattacks, denying the military the ability to quickly move reinforcements to a collapsing part of the line and evacuate men and equipment. And the trucks and drivers are not being properly cared for, compounding all these issues and adding others (for this discussion on trucks, I have relied heavily on Trent Telenko, the essential person to follow on Twitter regarding logistics in this Ukraine war, as I have noted before.)
But it’s not just the trucks: Russia has been unable to protect vital bridges, rail lines, ammunition depots, communications channels, command centers, and even bases deep inside Russia. Ukraine’s attacks on Russia’s already poor logistical system have been so effective that tactics for Russia resemble Pyrrhic World War I-era, even nineteenth-century-style human-wave attacks, so degraded are their technical capabilities (although Russia’s tactics in general are often an era behind, so in the Russian context the difference may not feel as pronounced).
With a logistical situation like the Russians have, you get results that have a half-year of attacks resulting in single-digit mile gains at tremendous costs (e.g., the Bakhmut area) or practically no gains (just about everywhere else). It means when defeats come, they come as rapid entire-front collapses as has happened to Russia outside Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy, then Kharkiv, Izyum, Kupiansk, Lyman, and lastly Kherson throughout the course of this war. This will be repeated, it’s just a matter of where and when, as I have explained before.
All of this adds up to a situation with miserable morale: it doesn’t take much time for any soldier serving in Ukraine to know that Putin is, to use the technical term, completely full of shit on everything from the reasons why Russia is fighting this war to the performance of Russia’s military in the war; they know people at home are being gaslit as they have been, the gaslighting knowing no bounds. They literally record videos asking the Russian government to give them proper equipment so they have a fighting chance not to be slaughtered or even just asking to go home, with some specialized units publicly begging to be deployed to do their specialty instead of being used as cannon fodder while other troops are forced into roles for which they have not been properly trained.
There are intercepted calls between Russian troops and their families in which the truth is laid bare, that everything is horrible and hopeless. Expecting men under such conditions to fight and fight well in a war not in defense or the Motherland but to commit physical, cultural, and national genocide against Ukraine—its people, children, even the very concept of Ukrainian statehood—is a losing bet and Russian history has shown what can happen when leaders mistreat their troops in imperialist wars of aggression while callously treating their men as disposable nothings: I am now reading Antony Beevor’s excellent new account about the massive collapse on the Eastern Front during World War I of the Russian Army in 1917 amidst multiple revolutions back in Russia, when common Russian soldiers turned on their abusive officers killing many of them, surrendered en masse, abandoned their positions, switched sides, and/or became revolutionaries who turned on their political leaders and helped overthrow them, bringing down Russia’s centuries-long Tsardom and eventually getting behind the Bolsheviks to create the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, or Soviet Union). We are already seeing a real hate on the part of Russian fighting men for their commanders, some even murdering (“fragging”) their officers. And there is even a whole unit of Russians—the Russian Legion—in the Ukrainian Army led by Ukrainian officers and composed of Russians who have turned on their government and are fighting for Ukraine against Russian forces in some of the most intense fighting of the war.
Such incidents are examples of the beginning of revolution or at least a revolutionary spirit, and a revolutionary spirit can break out and spread quickly over large masses of men and move them to actual rebellion and revolution: such things can be more contagious than COVID, as history shows us all too well, and Russian’s history of peasant rebellions and revolutions mean that Putin should be watching over his shoulder. In fact, too few analysts are really considering the possibility of a coup inside Russia, something I have predicted—unless Putin dies (or “dies”)—since early March, for which I have been criticized and even mocked, and yet, the assumption that Russians are some superhumans or such sheep that they will indefinitely allow themselves to be treated as cannon fodder and practically slaves in a losing war of imperial conquest is what strikes me as absurd.
And those Russians will face a Ukrainian foe possessing excellent morale, to boot.
8.) Leadership (or Lack Thereof)
Stalin could make huge mistakes in war, but he showed an ability to adapt, if not quickly, in important enough ways that he could snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. In the Soviet-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940—a conflict bearing much resemblance both militarily and thematically to the current Russia-Ukraine war, as I have argued in great detail—it took some two awful months for Stalin to course correct in Finland and quickly bring about a moderate victory after two months of humiliating and costly defeats. Today, Putin has failed to course correct sufficiently still nearly a year into this war. Between Putin, his defense minister Sergei Shoigu, Yevgeniy Prigozhin as the leader of the mercenary Wagner Group that is a de facto extension of the Russian military, and the rest of the Russian leadership clown-show in their failing generals and officers—who are taking incredible casualties even among their own ranks—incompetence has been the modus operandi of the Russian military from February 24 through the present, and casualties are actually increasing again and increasing significantly, meaning not only is Russia’s performance not improving, it is actually getting worse.
Specifically, it took almost exactly ten months of war for Russia to hit 100,000 dead Russians since February 24 by Ukraine’s estimates, but with the Pyrrhic Bakhmut campaign peaking in terms of Russia’s primitive assaults, 40,000 additional dead have been added to the total in about seven-and-a-half weeks: this is more than twice the rate of Russians getting killed as the previous ten months of the war, and this can be attributed to terrible leadership from the top—Putin is micromanaging this war in deeply counterproductive ways—down to the bottom in the Russian military, not just Ukraine’s increasing capabilities and skills. There is far more finger-pointing than problem-solving going on within the Russian high command, and rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic with multiple replacements at the top are having few to no positive effects for Russia. It is even likely that that number of Russians killed since December 22, when the 100,000 mark was hit, will hit 50,000 just a few weeks from now or less, which would mean it will have taken little over two months to reach half of the deaths that Russia accumulated over the preceding 10 months.
That is the state of the Russian military right now. This is not a military led by people who know how to win in a major war, this is an army that simply cannot win led by people who simply cannot win.
I don’t blame Ukraine for hyping up this threat: it needs as much Western help as it can get to save as many Ukrainian lives as possible and defeat Russia as soon as possible, and much of Ukraine’s success does come from the historic level of support the West has provided it in such a short time under a coalition led by American President Joe Biden. The Ukrainians need to keep Western publics and governments engaged and they are doing this masterfully; indeed, many in the West don’t need any encouragement in wanting to support Ukraine. Thus, it is not realistic that Western support will disappear or lessen anytime soon, and, indeed, we know it will increase, but this is in part to Ukraine’s desperate pleas for help even though Ukraine is clearly not in a desperate situation (though it costs and sacrifices can be tremendously high even if not approaching anywhere near the losses suffered by the Russians). It’s not much of a sell to say “Hey, this Russian offensive has no chance but we still need a lot of stuff,” so they are making the right pitch, and that supports is absolutely necessary, but as things are going, that support is coming and coming and coming and Ukraine is winning and winning and winning. If anything, the speculative “Russian offensive” that is now receiving so much airtime and ink is going to far more be a great selling point for Ukraine to receive more aid than it will actually be an offensive that can ever succeed.
Again, that is not to minimize the death and destruction that will result, the lives of brave Ukrainian soldiers and innocent civilians and Russians treated like Mordor orcs that will pay the ultimate price in Ukraine’s righteous war of self-preservation, but as far as any chance Russia has of taking and holding any large parts of Ukrainian territory beyond what it holds now—not that it can even hold that over the long run—this apparently-coming Russian offensive is essentially not any kind of serious threat for the clear, obvious reasons laid out herein.
Brian’s Ukraine analysis has been praised by: Mykhailo Podolyak, a top advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky; the Ukraine Territorial Defense Forces; Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, U.S. Army (Ret.), former commanding general, U.S. Army Europe; Scott Shane, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist formerly of The New York Times & Baltimore Sun (and featured in HBO’s The Wire, playing himself); Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), one of the only Republicans to stand up to Trump and member of the January 6th Committee; and Orwell Prize-winning journalist Jenni Russell, among others.
© 2023 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome
Also see Brian’s eBook, A Song of Gas and Politics: How Ukraine Is at the Center of Trump-Russia, or, Ukrainegate: A “New” Phase in the Trump-Russia Saga Made from Recycled Materials, available for Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook (preview here).
If you appreciate Brian’s unique content, you can support him and his work by donating here; because of YOU, Real Context News surpassed one million content views on January 1, 2023. Real Context News produces commissioned content for clients upon request.
Feel free to share and repost this article on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. If you think your site or another would be a good place for this or would like to have Brian generate content for you, your site, or your organization, please do not hesitate to reach out to him!