Russia-Ukraine War Settles into Predictable Alternating Phases, But Russia’s Losing Remains Constant

I have not weighed in with a major piece in a while because I did not feel enough has changed since my last major analysis, but that so much is explained by old analysis is itself telling and worthy of discussion

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By Brian E. Frydenborg (Twitter @bfry1981LinkedInFacebook) December 26, 2022; adapted and updated excerpts of this article were published by Small Wars Journal on January 16, 2023, titled The Depth and Breadth of Russia’s Losing, on January 10, 2023, titled Russia’s Shrinking and Deteriorating Arsenal Meets Ukraine’s Growing and Improving Air Defenses, on February 1, 2023, titled Russia’s Losing a Constant as Its Ukraine War Settles into Predictable Alternating Phases, and on February 9, 2023, titled Putin’s War of Self-Destruction, Zelensky’s (and Biden’s) War of Exceeding Expectations; 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.

Damage to a Russian bomber and its base from a Ukrainian long-distance drone strike on December 5 against the Dyagilevo Airbase only some 100 miles from Moscow, demonstrating Ukraine’s long reach and Russia’s vulnerability-Rob Lee/RALee85/@ImageSatIntl/Twitter

SILVER SPRING—As the barbaric exponential escalation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s years-long imperialist and colonialist war against Ukraine enters its eleventh month—people keep forgetting this war was really started by Russia in 2014 and has been fought by Russia and its separatist Donbas allies ever since—now is a good time to take stock of where we were, where we have been, and where we are going when it comes to this conflict.

Putin’s War of Mistakes, Zelensky’s (and Biden’s) War of Exceeding Expectations

Let’s be clear about one thing: Ukraine’s resilient President Volodymyr Zelensky, by the odds and by Russian design, should now be in exile, in prison, or in the ground.  That he is not is a testament, first and foremost, to himself and his team, his people and his country, and then to his and Ukraine’s friends and allies around the world, first and foremost among them the United States and its President Joe Biden.  And on December 21, the two wartime leaders finally met for the first time since Putin’s massive escalation beginning February 24, and met here in Washington at the White House before Zelensky’s historic address to a special joint-session of Congress.

Russia, on paper the second most powerful military power in the world, should have taken Kyiv and much of the rest of Ukraine rather quickly; by the odds and by the takes of most pundits at the time, Ukraine should have lost the war months ago, Ukraine’s military and leadership crushed (and clearly Russia hubristically expected and planned on this, too, and Putin certainly did not expect the unified and robust support of a West and NATO led by Biden).  At best, it was thought Ukraine might to be able to offer some level of heroic and persistent nationalist guerilla insurgency against Russian occupiers much like the case when Ukrainian anti-Soviet partisans kept fighting from the mid-1940s into the mid-1950s in the wake of World War II and the Soviet Union’s reimposition of unwanted Soviet rule over Ukraine after Hitler’s German Army’s temporary occupation and misrule. 

Even today, the official Russian “history” is that there were no genuine Ukrainian nationalists with good reasons to want to overthrow Soviet rule: there were only Nazi-aligned “Banderites” (the complicated fascist rebel Stepan Bandera was the most prominent of Ukrainian resistance leaders, hence the term).  Putin, as I have noted previously, has very much doubled down on this false narrative and extended it laughably to the conflict today, in which he is constantly calling for “denazification” against the “banderites” and “(neo-)Nazis,” Putin’s term for (Jewish!) Zelensky and his government and for all Ukrainians (the vast majority) who stand against Russia and support Zelensky and the war for national liberation from Russian occupation and influence.  As I have also previously discussed, much like Stalinist delusions about Finland during the Soviet Union’s disastrous yet ultimately somewhat victorious war against Finland in 1939-1940, the blind assumptions about “fascists” in Ukraine today were deeply enmeshed in Russian war planning and are a major factor in Russia’s disastrous, losing performance in Russia’s current war.

Before Putin’s escalation, he and Russia were viewed as strong.  Zelensky, meanwhile, had seen his initially very high popularity falter and seemed hapless to achieve any breakthroughs in the stalemate in Ukraine’s east with Russia and Ukrainian separatist backed by Russia.  And Biden seemed headed for a “red wave” midterm loss and at least appeared weak on the international stage in the wake of an optically disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal (I have earlier argued that the reality of that withdrawal was more impressive that the most salient visuals, but few saw or see it that way).

Yet, in part because of the aforementioned and many other ridiculous mistakes on the part of Russia and at least as much in part because of the leadership of Zelensky and Biden, instead of Russia’s military crushing Ukraine, Ukraine has crushed Russia’s military.  Zelensky was well-known—and sometimes dismissed—as a (literal) comedian before becoming president, but it is now Putin who is viewed accurately as a belittled clown while Zelensky has become a titan of a folk hero both in Ukraine and internationally, already cementing his place in history as a far greater man than Putin.  Now, it is Biden who is seen as strong on the international stage (and having helped staved off a midterms disaster domestically) and Putin who is greatly diminished, the latter losing sway among traditional Central Asian allies (former vassals), even taking disrespect to his face at international forums with their leaders.

Illustration by Neil Jamieson for TIME; Source Images: Getty Images (12); Ivanchuk: Lena Mucha—The New York Times/Redux; Kondratova: Kristina Pashkina—UNICEF; Kutkov: Courtesy Oleg Kutkov; Nott: Annabel Moeller—David Nott Foundation; Payevska: Evgeniy Maloletka—AP

Just this past Wednesday, Zelensky gave the most important address by a foreign leader to a joint-session of Congress since Winston Churchill came to address a joint U.S. Congress late in December, 1941, after Imperial Japan’s attack against the U.S. fleet in Pearl Harbor and against other U.S. bases in the Pacific.  Like Churchill (and leaving aside his blatant, gross, racist imperialism, charges of any similar nature being inapplicable to the Ukrainian president), Zelensky has come to rally U.S. public and lawmaker opinion against a looming fascist threat that targets not just nations but democracy and freedom itself.

What Has Been Going on Since My Last Major Ukraine Piece?  Pretty Much What I Wrote Then, But the New Context Matters and Deserves Elaboration

It has been some time since I have put out a major analysis on the Ukraine-Russia war because there is not a whole lot of new stuff to chew on: yes, Winter is Coming (and I did put together shorter analysis noting winter will hurt the Russian military far more than the Ukrainian military, giving Ukraine another distinct advantage in the winter months), but overall, we are seeing two main phases being repeated, exhibiting dynamics that I have discussed in great detail before and that are overlapping at times to various degrees.

The inputs can be adjusted—a wave of ill-trained, ill-led, and ill-equipped (and thus oft-doomed) recently-mobilized Russian troops here, additional HIMARS units or some new weapon for Ukraine (and occasionally for Russia when it comes to drones from Iran, drones that have apparently been somewhat defective) there, but the dynamics in their main essence remain unchanged.  And those dynamics nearly all operate—almost mathematically—in a significant net favor for Ukraine, and keep moving along the track of Russia losing more strength, capability, and territory while Ukraine gains more strength, capability, and territory.  We can see some milestones here and there that stand out or portend certain things, but the mechanics are fairly set.

Since Russia’s rapid collapses on three fronts outside Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy from the end of March through the first week of April, there has been a lot of repetition, but the general pattern is clear:

Phase A:

  • After massive, rapid victories by Ukraine, Ukraine takes time to rest, refit, redeploy, and figure out where and when and how to strike next
  • As this is happening, Ukraine is simultaneously using advanced Western-supplied weapons and daring raids to target Russian positions on the front lines and deep behind them to soften up the Russian positions and inflict serious casualties, which also helps to limit its own casualties as Ukraine carefully advances until an opportunity for a breakthrough presents itself (as I termed it, “Ukrainian prudence meets Russian limitations”)
  • Concurrent to all this, Russia keeps up ineffective, essentially suicidal assaults that make little to no progress (and often little to no sense, hello Bakhmut!) until, lo and behold…

Phase B: The next big breakthrough(s) for Ukraine come(s) and the cycle resets.

The major changes that occur here are that Russia significantly increases it losses in men, territory, and matériel (depleting Russian manpower, logistics bases, ammunition stocks, and Russia’s best weapons systems) while Ukraine gains that same territory Russia loses while receiving more advanced—and new and increasingly superior—weapons systems from its Western allies, significantly increasing its capabilities over time and its overall comparative, qualitative advantages over Russia.

Specifically, the way this has played out has been for Russia to lose catastrophically on multiple fronts, first outside Kharkiv; then in Izyum, Kupiansk, and Lyman; then in Kherson.  Before, during, and after these successful counterattacks, Ukraine has been able to sink the Russian Navy Black Sea Fleet’s flagship, the Moskva (which I seem to have been the only person to predict in an article that Ukraine would sink, just days before it happened) and conduct other attacks on the Russian Navy without even really having a navy of its own.  Ukraine has even shown that it can strike major Russian bases and logistics hubs in Crimea (including the Crimean/Kerch Strait Bridge in October, which I predicted would happen all the way back in April) and other parts of Russian-occupied Ukraine.

But Ukraine has also demonstrated it can attack several major bases far into Russia, including, rather spectacularly, the Dyagilevo base in Ryazanjust some 100 miles from Moscow—on December 5 and another base deep inside Russia, the Engels Air Base, the same day; another Ukrainian strike the following day was against Russian fuel tankers near an air field in Kursk, Russia; and the Engels base was just hit by Ukraine again yesterday even as I was writing this!  All these strikes in Russian territory were carried out not with Western-supplied weapons but with some of Ukraine’s own Soviet-era drones that it had repurposed and upgraded: Ukraine continues to surprise and impress (there is also not unreasonable speculation that Ukraine may be behind some dramatic accidents throughout Russia, especially those concerning key utilities).

Conversely, Russia only continues to be predictable and unimpressive.  It has been able to reinforce itself, yes, but primarily with the pathetic newly mobilized Russians, sometimes-defective Iranian-made drones—those drones terrorizing Ukrainian civilians but having little effect on the battlefield—and, increasingly, mercenaries from Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s private Wagner Group (a de facto extension of the Russian military), which is increasingly recruiting desperate men from Russian (and even Central African Republic) prisons; in its military efforts—now particularly focused on Bakhmut—Wagner is thus far failing miserably, even with rockets and missiles it has purchased recently (and embarrassingly) from North Korea.

Russia’s Shrinking and Deteriorating Arsenal Meets Ukraine’s Growing and Improving Air Defenses

Which brings us to another major point: Russia may very well be running out of both its modern long-range missilesespecially its Kalibr cruise missiles and Iskander missilesand artillery rounds, forcing Russia to use degraded munitions from half-a-century ago and well-past their expiration date.  In its desperation, it seems Russia is also getting artillery ammunition from pariah North Korea and is trying, thus far unsuccessfully, to get missiles from Iran (to add to Russia’s current humiliation, not that long ago, Iran and North Korea were under Moscow’s sphere of influence as a partial vassal and a supplicant client state, respectively, an indication of how low Putin has dragged Russia).

To focus more on the issue of these missiles and drones, in the face of being unable to generate any serious lasting major advances for nine months even while Ukraine has undertaken multiple major wildly successful counterattacks on multiple fronts, Russia has resorted in recent months to devoting much of its offensive operations to using these long-range missiles and drones to target civilians in major cities along with their vital power and water infrastructure in the midst of the harsh Ukrainian winter (“offensive” being doubly appropriate here as these attacks are clearly war crimes).  Unable to properly target the Ukrainian military or defeat it on the battlefield, the inferior Russian military instead does what it can do best: target often defenseless civilians and civilian infrastructure.

Except Ukrainian cities and facilities are increasingly not defenseless.  The supposedly mighty Russian Air Force has been cowed and is largely absent and not in a terribly dissimilar way to how I correctly predicted the Russian Navy would be cowed and largely absent, just with air defenses instead of anti-ship missiles, so for longer-range strikes, that is currently leaving Russia with the options of long-range attack drones (it does not have much of its own technology here, so it is getting many of them from Iran, as noted) and missiles.

But over time, the effectiveness of these Russian missile and drone attacks has been drastically decreasing: Ukraine’s frantic calls for more, and better, air defenses have been answered system by system, round by round, contributing country by contributing country, most recently with a pledge by the U.S. to transfer one of its premier missile defense systems, the longer-range Patriot missile system, to Ukraine and to train Ukrainians to use it (this is on top of an earlier delivery in early November of the very same missile defense systems the U.S. uses to protect Washington, DC: the highly-effective NASAMS, part of the reason for the dramatic increase in the effectiveness of Ukraine’s air defenses).  Yet even before this recent announced addition to Ukraine’s air defenses, the decline in effectiveness of long-range Russian attacks has been pretty stark (a sampling below):

  • The October 10 first major missile and/or drone attack in these new rounds of long-range attacks involved 84 Russian cruise missiles, of which 43 were intercepted by Ukrainian air defenses (over 51%), and 24 drones, of which 13 were shot down (over 54%)
  • Let’s jump ahead to Russian strikes on November 15, after the delivery of the U.S. NASAMS to Kyiv: of 96 Russian missiles fired, 77 were shot down (over 80%)
  • On December 5, 60 out of 70 Russian missiles were intercepted (almost 86%)…
  • …and 60 out of 76 on December 16 (almost 79%, lower than several previous averages, but including 37 out of 40 in the Kyiv area, or 92.5% there)…
  • …and 30 of 35 Iranian Shahed drones on December 19 (almost 86%)

Keep in mind: both the drones and the missiles are from finite, dwindling stockpiles, and Ukrainian air defenses are only growing in quantity and quality, with a U.S. Patriot missile battery on the way and likely more soon after, along with more air defenses from other nations.  That will likely put the intercept rate for Ukraine against Russian long-range air attacks at well over 90%, making such attacks by Russia expensive and wasteful at the same time.

As I have noted before, in a military sense, the main accomplishment of Russian missile and drone strikes of the past few months has been to expose the impotence of Putin and Russia for all to see.

The Depth and Breadth of Russia’s Losing

That’s not very good or (cost-)effective for Russia, not at all, and also remember that this is one of the few cards Russia has left up its sleeve, with its best troops and equipment mostly destroyed and its navy and air force mostly sidelined.  Masses of brand new and badly outfitted troops led by the same callous and careless fools who led better forces to disaster and destruction (or sometimes now led by their successors who are faring little if at all better) will not change these stark facts.  These troops will be supported by and will operate inferior equipment and will have little air or naval support because of Ukrainian anti-ship and anti-air defenses.  And Russia is expending its quantities of these missiles and drones against non-military targets in such a way they there will be little left to support Russian forces in Ukraine when fighting intensifies later.

So, no matter how you look at it, things are going to just keep getting worse for Russia and it will continue to sustain massive casualties and equipment losses while gaining nothing Ukraine won’t be able to take back relatively quickly with improving forces and equipment.

Some fools have opined that the U.S. and Europe are “fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian.”  In reality, Ukraine is fighting Russia to the last Russian with U.S. and European help.

And, very tellingly, there have been no major Russian advances since March, the first full month of the war.  That kind of tells you everything you need to know: one month of major Russian advances, and nine months of Ukraine pounding Russian positions or pounding Russian positions while pushing them far back.  The main reason why?  Because Russia CAN’T: it simply does not have the capability to carry out large offensives that succeed, let alone then hold any new significant amounts of territory successfully from counterattacks; throughout the war, Russia has not even been able to hold much of the territory it gained since February 24.  And even where Russia has held and is holding territory, there have been and are effective resistance and guerrilla movements.  Between partisans, Ukrainian intelligence, and Ukraine’s long-range precision weapons, there is nowhere safe in Ukraine for the Russian occupiers.

Ukraine war maps ISW

All this just means Russia cannot win.  And will lose (as I have argued since early March and throughout the ensuing months).  Sure, it is theoretically possible Western support could be greatly diminished if, say, Trump ejects Joe Biden from the White House Grover Cleveland-style, but I doubt strongly that this will actually happen.  And for the most part, Europe has not wavered even in the face of a historic energy crisis, despite Putin’s efforts (and Biden’s leadership in holding Europe together cannot be understated here).  Far more likely is that Western support will keep coming (indeed, Biden just had Congress pass an amazing nearly $45 billion in aid for Ukraine, bringing the total U.S. aid given to Ukraine since February 24 to a historic $110 billion) and Ukraine will be able to eject Russia fully from its territory (unless Russians tire of this nonsense and losing and eject the loser Putin from the Kremlin first).  And it is entirely possible, I would argue even likely, that Ukraine can accomplish this before the end of 2023 (I have earlier laid out how a total Ukrainian victory would likely unfold, if you want to delve more into that topic…).

The Economist/KAL

Obviously, these are not even exchanges in terms of what each side is gaining and losing: Iranian drones with high rates of being faulty do not equal the latest new toy from the U.S. for Ukraine in the form of a Patriot missile air defense battery.  And while Ukraine’s losses are not insignificant even if they are not known publicly with specificity, Russia’s losses are mind-blowing and unprecedented for any major power over any comparable period of time in the history of modern warfare over the past half-century and then some: by Ukraine’s estimate (which I have noted should be treated as quite credible), over 102,000 killed so far (passing the 100,000-dead milestone as of December 22), with nearly 18,000—or close to one-fifth of all Russian war dead—dying in those furious first five weeks of the war through late February and all of March and much of the assault on the gates to Kyiv, and well over 80,000—some four-fifths—of these dying in the nearly nine-months since the beginning of April.

The losses also include:

  • Over 3,000 tanks
  • Over 6,000 armored personnel-carriers
  • Nearly 2,000 artillery pieces
  • 550 planes and helicopters
  • Collectively thousands of other vehicles, drones, ships, and other pieces of equipment

What was essentially the Russian military prior to February 24 has, in large part, been destroyed: for the near and even medium-term future, these are not recoverable losses in men and equipment, in experience and training: raw recruits cannot be thought of as replacements for elite soldiers and their units, nor decades-old tanks as replacements for Russia’s newest tanks.  Even if Ukraine’s estimates end up being off, the losses for Russia are still obviously incredible.

The Current State of the War (that Russia Is Losing and Will Lose)

As my existing work already well explains the aforementioned dynamics and phases in detail, and that the current Ukrainian advances in the south and the east, though paused, will quite likely be the ones to eject Russia out of Ukraine, I have not felt a great need for some time to produce a major new analytical piece on the current situation in Ukraine.  But that very absence of the need for any new sweeping analysis is telling in and of itself and merits some discussion, so that has inspired the piece you are reading now along with the requests of many a faithful reader.

Right now, we are in one of those phases in which Ukraine is poking and testing Russia while defending stalwartly against costly but ineffective Russian attacks.  Even though this is the less intense of the two major phases, Russia is still taking huge losses in equipment and men—both from its unproductive assaults and from precision Ukrainian strikes—if not territory, but those territorial losses will be added into the mix as the other losses intensify when the next of the alternating phases opens with whatever will be the next major Ukrainian offensive or offensives.

And if Russia is stupid enough to try to reopen a front near Kyiv, there is no chance it will fare much better now than in the opening days of the war, when Russia threw its best troops and equipment at Kyiv against far-less-well-equipped and far-less-experienced Ukrainian troops.  Indeed, any Kyiv assault from Russia would either be a horribly reckless and wasteful feint or an even more horribly reckless and wasteful genuine assault.

As to the question of Belarus joining in such madness, if Belarus’s hapless, buffoonish President Alexander Lukashenko is dumb enough to do anything other than bluff and host Russian forces but tries to actually invade Ukraine with Belarusian troops, he will likely see the implosion of his regime.  After all, Lukashenko has had a precarious grip on power since a profound and massive protest movement erupted against him in Belarus in 2020-2021 when he stole an election from the opposition and persecuted his opposition.  Unlike Putin, he is deeply unpopular in his own country and was so even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which is also deeply unpopular with Belarusians, some even sabotaging at great personal risk Russian efforts to supply its military in Ukraine from Belarus, other Belarusians—hundreds—even going farther and volunteering to fight in Ukraine against Russia, which has used Belarus as a staging area for its invasion.  Large swathes of both the Belarusian people and military would likely refuse to fight or rise up at the same time rather than stand by quietly or face a clearly well-trained-and-equipped and highly motivated Ukrainian military, respectively.  Belarusian forces would also be facing off against far more experiences Ukrainian forces and have been able to see how badly Russian forces have fared, with thousands of wounded Russians filling Belarusian hospitals and dead Russian bodies moving into and through Belarus.

And it would be fairly easy for Ukraine to arm Belarusian rebels if Belarus invades (as noted, Ukraine is already arming some to fight with it against Russia), which would only be fair game at that point.  And while it would be problematic for Western nations to directly arm Belarusian rebels, they can sidestep that issue if they give extra weapons to Ukraine and then Ukraine arms them.  

Lukashenko knows all this, which is why even Putin’s pseudo-BFF he has staunchly resisted actually sending any of his troops into Ukraine: he knows that would likely be the death knell for his regime and possibly even his own death, and Russian forces based in Belarus could likely be easily ejected by rebel or defecting Belarusian units.  All of which is very unlikely as it is, again, very unlikely Lukashenko will have his small army invade Ukraine with Russia.

Thus, a heavily-sanctioned Russia stands pretty much alone and losing ground, with only rogue and pariah regimes offering tepid support, and Ukraine advances backed by many of the most powerful countries in the world.  Against this backdrop, the dynamics on the ground in this war have been lopsided for most of the war so far against Russia, this trend only increasing over time.  It is Ukraine setting the pace and tone of the combat, and Ukraine that will choose when and where to successfully strike.  Even now, it is prepping and inflicting massive casualties on the front line in places like Bakhmut, behind the front lines with HIMARS, M777s, and other precision distance weapons, and even striking deep inside Russia repeatedly just this month.  Ukraine’s battlefield achievements grow more impressive as Russia’s behaviors grow more pathetic and desperate, and the writing is on the wall.  Freedom-loving people around the world can be sure there will be more massive breakthroughs coming for Ukraine and Ukraine will do plenty of damage to Russia in the run-up phase, which we are seeing now.  And there are no indications to seriously think that Russia will win or Ukraine will lose. In fact, Ukraine is as good at winning as Russia is good at losing, which is very, very good, indeed.

2023 is going to really, really suck for Putin and Russians.

See all Brian’s Ukraine coverage here

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.

© 2022 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).

eBook cover

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