How US Military Analysts Assess
Russia’s Latest Offensive
On Thursday, Russian President Putin declared that the Ukrainian city of Mariupol had been “liberated,” even though about 1,000 Ukrainian troops continued to resist the Russians and still held the Azovstal steelworks. The Russians intend to hold a Victory Day parade in Mariupol to celebrate the victory over Nazi Germany in 1945 and the liberation of Mariupol.
In addition to declaring the battle of Mariupol over, Putin also ordered troops to seal off the Azovstal steel works so tightly that even “a fly cannot pass through.”
So much for moving the troops from Mariupol to the front. Historically sieges are hard to maintain, and they require more soldiers than the defense. Since the steel plant is bordered by the Kalmius river and the Sea of Azov, it shouldn’t be hard for soldiers and civilians to escape from the plant if they wish to.
Of course, from Putin’s point of view, his forces control the roads in the Mariupol area, so he does have the coveted land bridge from Russia to Crimea.
There are reports coming out about a partisan resistance between the Crimea and Mariupol. Information is scant about this force, but it reportedly operates in an area larger than Mariupol and is closer to Ukrainian lines so supplies can reach them.
Russian commanders may have another front to worry about after refitting their Mariupol units.
Meanwhile, the battle for control of the Donbas continues. The US Army has told reporters in press briefings that the Russians have made probing attacks but have not made any major breakthroughs.
The Russian strategy appears to be to cut off the eastern part of Ukraine by driving north from Donetsk, which is north of Mariupol, and south from Izyum. If successful they will capture an important coal mining region. If the Ukraine army continues to fight along the current battlefront, they will be surrounded.
Of course, if the Ukrainians retreat from Donetsk, they will be surrendering a large part of the country.
According to US analysts one major problem for the Russians is that the jumping off point for the northern part of the Russian pincher is Izyum. Russian supplies run on a road that goes from Belgorod, Russia, skirts the Ukrainian held city of Kharkov, and ends up at Izyum.
This road has become a target for Ukrainian attention, including destroying Russian rail bridges and attacks on Russian villages near the border.
As we have noted in the past, modern conventional warfare requires a continuous supply of parts, fuel, food, and other things necessary for modern warfare. It doesn’t help that the modern Russian Battalion Tactical Group (BTG) is very reliant on logistics, even though it is considered superior to the American Brigade Combat Team.
Ironically, the Russian BTG was created by the Russian Army to move away from the Cold War military structures of divisions and armies.
After the Cold War, NATO’s interventions in the Balkan nations, Iraq, and Afghanistan caused their armies to evolve into smaller, more mobile units for fighting insurgencies. In the case of the US, they developed the Brigade Combat Team, which became the basic unit of maneuver for the US Army. There are three types of teams: infantry, Stryker, and armored. They are light enough to be deployed anywhere in the world by air transport and operate on their own. They were ideal for insurgencies like those in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.
In 2008, Russia moved away from its conventional organization of divisions and transitioned into the BTG. These units were lighter, easier to deploy around the world, and self-contained – including everything from tanks to mobile air defense. They were considered superior to the American Brigade Combat Tea, (BCT). They proved their worth in Syria.
Ironically, their problem was manpower. Relatively untrained conscripts were 25% – 50% of the Russian BTG manpower. They were usually kept in non-combat roles like maintenance and logistics.
However, thanks to the large number of heavy weapons attached to the BTG, much of the professional soldier strength was dedicated to operating and protecting the weapons systems.
After subtracting the conscripts and the professional soldiers attached to their heavy weapons that left about 400 to 500 infantries. After further subtraction of patrol and security, about only 250 soldiers were available for infantry assault tasks. Given the 3 to 1 ratio of an attacker to defender, that means that a company of about 80 soldiers could possibly hold off a BCT infantry attack.
Another weakness of the Russian infantry is their reliance on fighting inside an armored infantry vehicle. Unlike their American counterparts, they are not trained in dismounting and carrying out aggressive infantry attacks.
In nations like Syria, the Russians were able to supplement their lack of infantry by using Syrian infantry units. That’s one reason why the Russians are trying to sign Syrians and others from the Middle East.
The BTG also suffers from the fact that it is designed for insurgencies in remote areas. It isn’t designed for a large conventional war in Europe, which it is required to fight today in Ukraine. Large conventional wars require staff of officers to handle the complex problems of conventional warfare.
Although staff have been considered an unnecessary bureaucracy in the military, in warfare on a grand scale, they can solve problems of transportation, logistics, and supplies. This leaves the generals to develop strategy and the junior and field grade officers to direct the fighting.
Without the staff, the senior officers must frequently visit the front to handle what staff officers once did. This is one possible reason that the Russians have suffered so many losses in their flag officer ranks.
Although the Russian BGTs are capable, they have been designed to fight in places like Syria, instead of Ukraine – especially Ukraine with some of the most modern weapons available. They also need large amounts of supplies like fuel, ammunition, repair parts, and food. Without the constant stream of supplies, the BGTs are limited in what they can do. Traditional Russian military doctrine of massive artillery bombardments before pushing through enemy lines seems quite difficult.
At this point, the battle of Donbas is in the balance. Russia’s BGTs lack enough trained manpower. Their units require a secure logistics system. They lack the aggressive infantry manpower and tactics that are necessary to support their armored units. And, if they do advance, there is no guarantee that their supplies will keep up with them.
Pentagon officials like to highlight what they claimed to be a weakness of the Russian Navy, which has lost a cruiser – the biggest Russian navy loss since World War Two.
NATO nations are aware that the key to victory is keeping up the supply of ammunition and man portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. To keep Ukraine in the field will mean hundreds of millions of dollars per week of munitions.
It also appears that NATO is willing to step up its contributions. The US military has admitted that modern military aircraft have been shipped to Ukraine, along with tanks and armored vehicles. NATO nations have also ordered their civilian weapons providers to gear up to wartime status.
This leaves Russia in a tight position. Critical parts for their weapons systems are produced in the West and are now unavailable. And, although they have a war industry to supply consumables like ammunition, they can’t hope to keep up with NATO’s resupply of Ukraine. They can try to stop supply convoys from reaching eastern Ukraine, but that will require using its overstretched air force and rapidly disappearing smart munitions. They can’t use the guerilla tactics the Ukrainians used to attack the Russian convoys in the north of Ukraine.
Again, US and NATO are aiming for a long war of attrition, where Ukraine will continue to resist thanks to the logistics support of NATO.