On day 38 of the war the Russians finished their retreat from Kiev making Donbass their sole offensive focus. That was 67 days ago.
During these 67 days the Russians advanced just 25 km and even that only on some sectors of the Donbass front. (Izyum, Popasna, Lyman.)
When the Russians withdrew from the north and telegraphed the start of renewed and refocused Donbass offensive I laid out a range of possibilities of what could happen next and what each would mean.
I told Mike Whitney that given the forces involved that if the Russians managed to cut off and capture large numbers of the enemy in Donbass (which was then the expectation of all the Russia-leaning pundits) that this would constitute Russian success.
But that if the Ukrainians could only be pushed out of Donbass gradually in protracted trench warfare that this would count as a success for the Ukrainians.
Setting parameters like this in advance is a good way of keeping yourself honest and prevents you from shifting goalposts later.
Ukrainians are the weaker force and were always going to be losing ground. Everybody but the most delusional Ukraine supporter understood that. The most the Ukrainians could hope for was to successfully trade space for time.
So far they have traded 25 kilometers for 67 additional days in which to mobilize and train more forces before the war moves outside Donbass. They are “losing” in the sense of being on the backfoot, but they are successful in the parameters of what was possible for them to accomplish.
If the Ukrainian objective was to concede as little ground as possible while buying itself time in which to generate new forces and grow stronger — the Russian objective was the opposite. Not merely to take ground, but to win the kind of victory that leaves the foe with a weaker fighting force.
That means inflicting lopsided losses, taking out more (and better) forces than the foe is generating. As a rule that is accomplished by encirclements that net large numbers of POWs.
Indeed that was the expectation of Russia sympathizers at the time. That the Russian side would cut off the Ukrainian salient in a deep encirclement where pincers from Izyum in the north and Ugledar in the south met somewhere around Pokrovsk (some other possibilities were also mentioned, including more ambitious ones like a southern pincer from Gulyapole to Pavlograd). (Strelkov who correctly predicted that Russia would only be capable of a shallow encirclement, if at all, was derided by them on a daily basis as a “doomer” “defeatist” “annoying” and what not…)
In 67 days no such encirclements have materialized. Indeed the Russian attempt to develop a deep encirclement from Izyum has been abandoned. Now only a much shallower encirclement of only the tip of the salient is being attempted, and even that one is proceeding at a snail’s pace with most days resulting in no gains at all.
This could be cause for worry.
Maybe for some, but not for the Anglophone “pro-Russian” media. The Russia-favoring alt-media has shifted the goalpost once again. Now, albeit “Kiev was a feint” and “Donbass was the real goal all along,” the glacial pace of advance in Donbass that falls far short of their expectations 67 days ago is not a problem whatsoever because “attrition”.
That’s the new buzzword. Supposedly the lack of encirclements or even just territorial gains is not a problem because Russia is nonetheless able to inflict incredibly heavy and lopsided losses on Ukraine. (But why these incredibly lopsided and heavy losses aren’t resulting in ground gained is a mystery.)
That Russian MoD hasn’t updated its death tally since March 25 allows many people the space to imagine that Russian losses are now low to the point of non-existence. Ukrainian losses meanwhile are commonly imagined as running into several hundred dead per day. For some the imagine total Ukrainian military dead now exceeds 60,000 or 18,000 dead every month.
What is the evidence for this extraordinary claim? Well there is no evidence.
And it is an extraordinary claim indeed.
What is the number of Ukrainians in theater? Together with the Donbas Republics the Russians have under 200,000 men in the theater from Kherson to Kharkov. Ukrainian numbers are similar (they’re outnumbered in Donbass, but have the numeric advantage at Kherson and Kharkov).
18,000 dead per month would mean that without replacements the entire Ukrainian force in the theater would be 100% dead in under a year.
The Germans started 1942 with 2.8 million men on the Eastern Front and lost 550,000 dead. That is 20 percent. They started 1943 with 3.1 million in the east and lost 800,000 dead. That is 26 percent. They started 1944 with 2.6 million in the East and lost 1.5 million dead. That’s 58 percent.
18,000 monthly Ukrainian deaths require us to buy that Ukrainians are losing men at twice the rate of the Germans in the disastrous year of 1944 (or higher) — but without Russian territorial gains to show for it. How does that work?
It’s actually more incredible than that. According to some the Russians are inflicting these disastrous, unsustainable losses while barely being scratched themselves. At the extreme, you find people who profess that the Russians are suffering under 30 dead per day while inflicting 600.
So then the Russians have then stumbled into this incredible form of warfare where they are able to 1.) preserve their force almost entirely, 2) inflict massive, unsustainable losses, but unfortunately 3) aren’t able to progress territorially at all.
And what does this revolutionary form of warfare consist of? In the imagination of the proponents of these numbers it consists of the Russians standing around, firing shells at the enemy all day long. Throughout history best warfare has always consisted of using a combination of pressures. A one-dimensional pressure can be adapted to and mitigated. Facing a combination of threats is different. Artillery is at its most devastating when the enemy is forced by other means to do something that makes it vulnerable to slow heavy guns (such as concentrate). Conversely, artillery is best at forcing the enemy to take steps that make it vulnerable to other (, close-quarter,) threats.
Well apparently, all that can all be dispensed with now. No need for combined arms anymore. Just leave it to the artillery to kill everyone on the other side and win the war on its own.
But the reality is that the Russian military isn’t artillery-heavy because artillery can win wars on its own, but because Russian military thinking has always known that artillery can do no such thing. The Soviets swore by artillery and built record numbers of it, but their shell expenditure was often lower than that of the Germans. Why is that so?
Because the Soviets studied WW1 and determined that extended multi-day barrages were far less useful than assumed. Artillery was useful for suppression and for inflicting casualties in the initial stage of the bombardment. But once the enemy took cover casualties would be low. As a result, the Soviets sought to deliver devastating initial bombardments, for which purpose they built numerous tubes and heavily centralized their artillery. The idea was to deliver the maximum number of shells in the first 30 to 120 minutes of bombardment, but after which their interest in further bombardment of same positions quickly vaned.
So we’re literally in a situation where discredited WW1 practices are now being hailed as cutting-edge.
Admittedly drone cameras have made artillery far deadlier. They have moved engagement distances out but artillery just by itself remains a one-dimensional threat and a good zigzag trench still requires a direct hit.
Moreover, if the Ukrainians aren’t being pressured on the ground then they can afford to lightly man their forward positions presenting few targets for enemy artillery to start with. Inflicting 600 dead and the corresponding wounded every day isn’t a very easy feat when the enemy is entrenched, spread out, and happy to keep its head down.
Moreover, if artillery is the decisive weapon now, why should losses be so lopsided? Sure the Russians have more tubes, but the Ukrainian ones operate in a more target-rich environment. It is the Russians who are on the offensive who have to leave their trenches.
Indeed one thing that stands out about the Ukrainian way of war so far is how conservative and cautious it has been. In 1941 the Soviets ran the Red Army into the ground with unrealistic orders. They ordered counter-attacks when defense would have been difficult enough. They ordered defense when the situation really called for a withdrawal. They ordered breakthroughs from pockets causing their speedy collapse and elimination.
The Ukrainians have done very little of this. They’ve had a few failed counter-attacks but these were actions that didn’t last longer than a day or two. Nothing that would produce casualties in the thousands.
It is difficult to inflict hugely lopsided losses against a near-peer enemy that is conservative and does not take risks.
Unless we’re talking technological disparity where you’re mowing down the Fuzzy-Wuzzy with a Maxim then greatly lopsided losses require the enemy to commit (or be lured into) a mistake.
In 1992 the Bosnian Serbs, who had inherited the entire arsenal and structure of the Yugoslav army on the territory of Bosnia, fought a foe that was entirely without heavy weapons. They were so materially dominant that they forced the Bosnian Muslims and Croats into an alliance despite their many unresolved issues. Even so, in just the first nine months of the war, the Bosnian Serbs took control over every area where they were a majority, significant minority, or that was of strategic importance to them (“the Corridor”), and also encircled the enemy capital for good measure. They were so successful in the first year of the war that having taken everything they wanted they were henceforth contented to sit back and watch the Muslim-Croat war that inevitably sprang up when the two no longer had a reason to cooperate against (ultimately unstoppable) Serb offensives. Well, in these 9 months of triumphant artillery and tank warfare against a foe that only had small arms what was their loss ratio?
They suffered 8900 military deaths themselves and inflicted 14400. A mere 1:1.6 ratio. Surely the Russian military is more professional than the Bosnian Serb army, but I repeat the latter were fighting a foe that did not have any artillery or tanks.
There is no way to prove that Russians have not inflicted 60,000 dead on the enemy so far. Or that they are not inflicting 20X or 5X or even 3X greater losses than they are sustaining. You can not prove a negative. I have no such proof. Maybe they are. But it is a very incredible and unlikely claim. One that would require firm proof. And one — that I suspect — many will look very, very stupid for echoing.
If all you knew about a conflict between Yinians and Xanians was that in the last 67 days there has been a territorial standstill but for a few sectors where the Xanians advanced 25 km, how likely is it that you would conclude from this that Xanians were surely inflicting hugely lopsided and heavy, unsustainable losses on the Yinians?
Given that the Russians are advancing without numerical superiority it follows that they are tactically and materially dominant and inflicting higher losses than they are taking. This is also evident from the much greater number of combat refusals and soldiers’ protests on the Ukrainian side. They are clearly under greater strain than the other side. However, the slow pace of Russian advance also points to them being able to create the overmatch necessary for advances only with great difficulty. That does not at all point to them being able to kill anything like 18,000 on the other side (10%) a month.
My prediction is that ultimately Ukrainian losses will turn out to be closer to Zelensky’s figure of 60-100 dead per day, than the 400 or 600 posited by cheerleaders. Just as I believe that the Russian official number of 1351 dead by March 25 will turn out to be much closer to the truth than anything the Ukrainian side has to say about the Russian dead. No matter how much a side lies about its own losses it will always lie about the other side’s losses even more. Learning about one side’s losses from their enemies is silly.
Moreover, I would caution against interpreting even heavy Ukrainian losses as “unsustainable” or favoring the Russian side. What exactly is “unsustainable”? Who shall be the judge of that? 4 million Bosnia could “sustain” 60,000 military dead in the 90s. And those were light losses by WW2 standards. How many can a 40-million Ukraine sustain? 200,000?? 400,000?? Even if Russia is able to inflict such losses, is it even willing to? These aren’t Martians we’re talking about.
And also keep in mind that Ukraine is continuously mobilizing, but Russia won’t even use serving conscripts. If Russia persists in waging this as a “special operation” it is not at all clear that war of attrition favors Russia.
Russia has the larger population on paper but can only generate volunteer replacements. Ukraine can simply conscript them. In those circumstances, Russia could inflict twice the losses it sustains but still find itself facing a growing Ukrainian numerical superiority on the battlefield.
I do still recall that the US with a bigger population than Russia’s ran intro a recruitment crisis during an Iraq war that was far less bloody than the one in Ukraine. But perhaps the Russians will prove more willing to die for Odessa than the Americans were for Ramadi? Perhaps. But it is one thing to participate in a national mobilization where all take part and the risk is spread among many, and another thing to volunteer to be one of the few to go to war while the Moscow hipsters stay behind finishing their studies, keeping their limbs, and hitting on your increasingly lonely gf.
Perhaps that is the reason volunteers in Tula are advertised the salary of 397 thousand rubles (an absolute fortune) and benefits on top. However, the admission criteria are also very “stringent” — one must be under 50 years of age, pass a medical, and have 9 years of education.
Russia can win the war in Ukraine or lose it. I have said that is entirely up to Russia alone. But I will also say:
1) That evidence that Russia is on pace to win *through attrition* is slim to non-existent.
2) That Russia can win through attrition without conscripts and partial mobilization is doubtful.
3) That winning through “attrition” when you are fighting against your own people isn’t much of a “win”. It is the least desirable way to win, equal to a national tragedy.
4) That a responsible leadership that chose to escalate a fraternal war must do everything possible to forestal a war of attrition and attain goals in some other way. (Such as giving the military enough mass to unlock a war of movement.) Anything else borders on the criminal.
It’s not just that “attrition” is almost certainly a cope. It’s that it shouldn’t even be a cope to anyone but a psychopath. What kind of a deranged personality thinks the war will be resolved by “attrition” and decides to feel good about that? In a war literally between the Rus-ski and the Rus-ini?
Until 1900 or so the rural folk in Ukraine would refer to themselves as “Rusyn”, or “Rusyni” for the plural — pronounced as “Rusin” or “Rusini”. This is a word that includes the root Rus and the suffix -in which creates a noun.
Ethnic Russians meanwhile refer to themselves as Russkiy — pronounced Russki — which combines the root Rus with the suffix -ski which creates an adjective.
So it’s the very same meaning, the difference is merely that one is a noun and the other an adjective, same as the difference between Briton and British.
It’s literally a slaughter between Briton (Rus-in) and British (Rus-ski) and “attrition” is supposed to make us happy, or else you don’t love the Rus(ski) enough. Interesting times. Also, are you insane?
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