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Interview: Why Russia’s ‘Underperforming’ Military Is Still Making Gains in Ukraine

Reid Standish

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 9, 2022

“…it’s actually unclear to me if the Russians will even be able to capture all of Luhansk Oblast.”

Ukrainian forces are finding it hard to stave off Russian attacks in the center of the key battleground of Syevyerodonetsk, but Moscow still does not control the eastern city, regional officials say.

Syevyerodonetsk and its twin city Lysychansk, which lies across the Siverskiy Donets River, are strategically important in the Kremlin’s bid to capture Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and the unfolding fight, which has already seen Russian troops take control of large portions of Syevyerodonetsk, could have an outsized influence on the next phase of the war.

Meanwhile, the flow of Western weapons to Kyiv continues, but Ukrainian officials have warned that greater and sustained quantities of equipment and aid are needed if they are to wield an advantage over Russian forces.

The United States and Britain recently announced plans to provide Kyiv with multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS), which can hit targets up to 80 kilometers away. Washington is also sending four M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and London has agreed to send an unspecified number of M270 launch systems.

The weapon shipments have been welcomed by Kyiv, but Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, says that greater quantities are required, especially of rocket launchers, if his country’s forces will be able to repel the advancing Russian troops

To find out more, RFE/RL spoke with George Barros, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank.

File:
(Sergey Lavrov) 2019 Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty Article XIV Conference (48832045357) (cropped).jpg – Wikimedia Commons

RFE/RL: The main battle between Ukrainian and Russian forces under way appears to be in Syevyerodonetsk. How do you see the battle shaping up and what should people know about this fight?

George Barros: The Kremlin has decided at this point in time to deprioritize other areas of the Ukrainian front line in order to prioritize the fight for Syevyerodonetsk.

This is actually quite interesting as, up to this current phase of the war, the Kremlin has had to scale back its objectives time after time. On February 24, Putin’s initial objective was to capture Kyiv and other large cities and to conduct regime change within a very short time period. That, of course, failed.

Then, in April, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov formally redefined the goals of Russia’s so-called special military operation to just capturing the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Why that’s interesting is because if you look at how the front lines have changed over the past month and a half or so, the Russians have made very few gains in the Donetsk Oblast, they’ve almost exclusively focused on the Luhansk front line, which has led to what’s likely going to be a culminating point for the Russians in Syevyerodonetsk. Although they’ve not been able to make a lot of gains in that area.

So even with these scaled-back objectives, these small Russian gains over portions of a city or portions of a village that have been spread out over several days and weeks shows that the Russians are still underperforming quite badly.

[The Institute for the Study of War’s] current assessment is that if the Russians manage to finish capturing Syevyerodonetsk and then move to capturing all of Luhansk Oblast, the Russian campaign will likely culminate and that will necessitate the Russians having to take an operational pause to regroup their forces and reinforce what they control. At that point, Putin will likely try to make a play for a cease-fire.

However, it’s actually unclear to me if the Russians will even be able to capture all of Luhansk Oblast. Syevyerodonetsk is the last significant Ukrainian held position in Luhansk Oblast, which sits on the left bank of the Siverskiy Donets River. If the Russians capture it, that would then mean that the Russian forces would have to cross the river in order to get to the town of Lysychansk, where the Ukrainians also have prepared defensive positions.

Lysychansk is an elevated area, so it’ll be difficult geographically for the Russians to attack that territory and it will require them to do the sort of things that have been difficult for the Russians throughout this war, such as river crossings and urban combat.

RFE/RL: You said that the Russian military is underperforming, yet are making some breakthroughs and gaining some ground now that they’re concentrating their forces. Do you see evidence that they’re able to hold these gains that they’re making?

Barros: Moving forward, a major question is whether the Ukrainians will be capable of actually conducting counteroffensives to liberate the territory that the Russians have taken since the beginning of the war.

I would say that we’ve not seen a Ukrainian capability to actually retake territory that the Russians are serious about defending. The territory that the Ukrainians recaptured in and around Kyiv and Kharkiv in the north is largely because the Russians withdrew. It was reported in many instances as Ukrainian forces liberating these territories, but it was actually due in large part to the Russians simply just withdrawing and the Ukrainians moving in.

There’s evidence right now of intense fighting on some territory where the Russians are actually trying to maintain a foothold, such as north of Kharkiv or also on the southern front near Mykolayiv and Kherson, where there is a big back and forth with the Ukrainians pushing in and then the Russian counterattacking and retaking those areas. So, the kind of Ukrainian gains there have been small and the Russian defense seems to be pretty good.

I think the key takeaway is that for the Russians it’s a lot easier to hold territory that they’ve controlled than to capture new territory. Also, conversely for the Ukrainians, it’s easier for them to defend territory from Russian attacks than to recapture and liberate Russian-held territory.

In the south, we see the Russians also setting conditions to actually hold those southern territories for a long time and there are Ukrainian government reports about the Russians creating fortifications, which indicates that they intend to hold those territories for a long while.

RFE/RL: Are you saying then that Russia is actually capable of maintaining some of these gains?

Barros: I don’t want to imply that there’s any sense of finality to it, but what I do want to say is that, in order to contest those Russian gains, the Ukrainians would have to demonstrate new battlefield capabilities that we’ve not seen from them.

RFE/RL: Where does that leave us? You’re describing something close to a stalemate or at least a very slow-moving war of attrition. What’s important to watch in the coming weeks?

Barros: I think the decisive factor moving forward is the extent that Western governments provide Ukraine with the weaponry that meets the requirement and needs for Ukrainian counteroffensives.

We see trickles of different types of aid and equipment and that’s great. However, because of the way that the Russians have pushed the front lines out so far in some areas and the way that the Russian supply lines work, the Ukrainians need better weapons with longer effective ranges in order to hit those Russian logistics convoys and to hit those Russian ammunition depots further back.

So, I do see the Western military aid as being a decisive factor in ensuring that Putin is not able to actually secure a preferable stalemate or any other type of situation where it essentially locks in all these gains that the Russians have made.

Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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