The Ukraine War may be entering a new phase as Moscow leans into what the Russian Army has always done best: massive attacks by large numbers of disposable infantrymen.
The New York Times reported today that “a surge in Russian artillery barrages and a buildup of troops” in the hotly contested Donbas region might indicate the beginning of a new Russian offensive.
“Russia really wants some kind of big revanche,” Ukraine President Volododmyr Zelenskyy said. “I think it has started.” Ukrainian sources claim that Russia now has more than 320,000 soldiers in Ukraine, far more than the initial invasion force, estimated last year at between 150,000-190,000 troops.
That initial force consisted of the majority of Russia’s best-trained and best-equipped troops, representing an estimated 70-80% of the military’s combat power.
“Combat power” is the phrase to remember as we try to figure out what’s going on here.
“Western officials and military analysts,” reports the NYT, “have said that Moscow also has 150,000 to 250,000 soldiers in reserve, either training or being positioned inside Russia to join the fight at any time.”
It’s safe to assume that Kyiv is exaggerating at least a bit about the number of Russians on their territory. But even after applying a fudge factor to the official numbers, actions on the ground indicate that Russia has, indeed, increased fighting troop levels in the months following partial mobilization last autumn.
Military analyst Konrad Muzyka noted that “the Russians are withdrawing a lot of equipment from storage areas.” But according to the Times, he concurred with other analysts who say that it will be difficult for Russia to equip such large numbers of newly minted soldiers with heavy equipment like tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.
Roughly speaking, combat power is the number of troops plus the “weight” of their weapons multiplied by training, experience, and unit cohesion.
When a country doesn’t have the time or resources to provide heavy weapons and training, they also throw things like generating unit cohesion out the window. Instead, a desperate military just gives each soldier a rifle (usually), marches him toward the enemy, and hopes the enemy runs out of bullets or men first.
It’s wasteful as hell of human lives, but history shows that it can sometimes work.
When one country — like Russia — enjoys nearly triple the population of the country it’s invaded, trading a lot of flesh for a little land can prove almost irresistible if the war bogs down.
Russian numbers are starting to make themselves felt at the long-running battle for Bakhmut. ISW reported late Tuesday that “The introduction of Russian conventional forces to the Bakhmut frontline has offset the culmination of the Wagner Group’s offensive and retained the initiative for Russian operations around the city.”
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The new Russian forces at Bakhmut are reportedly well-regarded troops from Russia’s air assault (VDV) units, but they took heavy losses in 2022 and will likely be replaced by even larger numbers of regular troops as soon as they’ve achieved their objectives — or if they take too much of a pounding and require a rest.
Either way, it likely comes down to a numbers game as Russia continues cranking up its first major offensive since stalling out last summer.
This is where Western weapons and training come in, or at least they should.
Back in the Bad Old Days of the Cold War, NATO had some real problems defending West Germany. The country had very little strategic depth, the Germans weren’t willing to trade their land for NATO’s time in the event of war, and the Soviets enjoyed huge advantages in heavy forces and in sheer numbers.
It was widely assumed that if the balloon went up, NATO would be forced to use tactical nuclear weapons very early on — and risk a global thermonuclear war that would kill basically everybody everywhere.
What’s a defensive alliance to do?
By the mid-’70s, it was obvious that NATO’s technological advantages over the Soviet Union and the other Warsaw Pact countries were growing — and that the “tech gap” was actually widening at an accelerating rate.
American planners devised a new fighting doctrine to go with our forces’ increased lethality. It was called AirLand Battle, and its precepts (I won’t bore you with the details!), while developed for use against the Russians, were used with devastating effect against Iraq in 1991.
The point is that AirLand Battle was devised for using better technology — plus proper training and doctrine — to defeat a numerically superior enemy.
American troops were trained not to think of themselves as being outnumbered or surrounded but instead as fighting in a “target-rich environment.”
Man, I love that phrase. It’s basically the smart-ass version of “Hooah!”
Except for some very nice HIMARS systems (about to get upgraded with longer-ranged missiles) and a few other goodies, Ukraine has been fighting largely with older and less-advanced gear than Russian forces enjoy.
If ever there were a time to get serious about providing Ukraine with better weapons, it’s right now, before the Russian wave comes crashing down.